Call me crazy. Flipping through the first wordless novel published in America, Gods' Man by Lynd Ward, which came out the week of the Great Crash of 1929, I kept thinking about Moby-Dick, one of the wordiest novels ever, illustrated the next year by Rockwell Kent. Yes, Gods' Man is Moby-Dick without the text, the subtleties, or the whaling, if you can picture that—a silent moral tale of a man warring with his soul.
Told in 139 wood engravings, Gods' Man opens with a small, tempest-tossed skiff. The waves seem to talk or at least gesticulate. There's a calm after the storm. The solo sailor salutes sun and clouds, then draws the scene. (His paper stayed dry!) The boat's cleat behind him looks like a whale's tail on the horizon. Soon mast and rigging form a small Brooklyn Bridge pointing to a metropolis. (Yo, Hart Crane!) The Artistic Man walks ashore, portfolio in hand. A Dark Man in a top hat gives him a quick art history tour—Egyptian tomb artists to Van Gogh—to prove to him that every great artist had a magic pen/brush/gouge like the one he's offering. (Free, when you send us your soul.) Artistic Man trades soul for magic tool. Briefly finds fame and fortune. Learns women are whores. Retreats to the mountains and finds a Good Wife, who bears him an Artistic Child. Dark Man returns to collect. Artistic Man is torn from his Happy Home. Salutes Good Wife and Artistic Child. Sky darkens. Dark Man takes off top hat and mask. Is Death.
That plot summary's no joke. I actually did narrate it to myself, silently giving each page a caption and each character a nametag. I was probably moving my lips. It wasn't just the lack of words that made me do it; it was the heavy weather. Such Sturm und Drang moralism isn't at all unusual for wordless novels from the first half of the 20th century. Think of Frans Masereel's The Sun, a retelling of the Icarus tale; or Laurence Hyde's Southern Cross, an anti-nuke plea; or Otto Nückel's Destiny, the story of a woman's tragic life, birth to suicide. Moral fables all.
Now that the Library of America has just republished six Ward novels, repulling them from the original woodblocks and packaging them in a gorgeous deluxe edition, along with Ward's essays and an excellent introduction by Art Spiegelman (who met Ward in 1970), we can ask the question: Why are wordless stories, especially the ones carved in wood, so unrelievedly moralistic and bleak?
The moralism, if you think about it, is almost comically overdetermined by the medium—part and parcel of working wood with gouges. Most woodcuts are printed with black ink on white paper, and therefore the woodworking artist must think in black-and-white terms. Plus woodcutting is a dogged act, the very antithesis of play. As Ward himself points out in "The Way of Wood Engraving," one of his essays in the new edition, "Working with a woodblock takes on the aspects of a struggle between antagonists. … The wood is reluctant, the artist determined." The woodblock artist seems to have an almost totemistic relationship with trees: He loves them, depends on them (both paper and the block come from trees), tortures them with gouges and groovers, and then resurrects them in his art.
And then there is the issue of light, creation, and revelation. When the artist finally does prevail over his materials, conquering his blank woodblock (the carved part comes out white, the uncarved part black), his creation is a wonder, akin to Creation: He has brought "light to a darkened world," as Ward put it. To make matters worse, or better, depending on your outlook, it just so happens that sunbeams, waves, cliffs, abysses, forests, and crosses—the very furniture of allegory—all look swell in black and white.
In wood, it's almost impossible (or so it seems) to make intriguing plots and characters that aren't, well, a touch wooden. Case in point: After the great success of Gods' Man,which sold 20,000 copies in four years—the Depression notwithstanding—Ward vowed to make his plots and characters more complex. The result was Madman's Drum, which Spiegelman calls Ward's "sophomore slump." The storytelling, he notes, "begins to drown in its own avowed desire to flesh out the stock character types." It's too complicated and detailed to make out. You can't tell a mother from her two daughters (and apparently it matters). Figuring out the darn plot becomes, as Spiegelman put it, a "high-stakes game of charades." Even lip-moving doesn't help. So much for complexity!
Does this mean that the woodcut novel can aim for nothing higher than the simple moral fable or what Thomas Mann called the "pious 'block-book' "? Well, there are always undercurrents. After his unfortunate flirtation with fancy plots, Ward returned, at least ostensibly, to simplicity with Wild Pilgrimage, a proletarian tale told in 108 black-and-white and (for the fantasy sequences) sanguine-and-white woodcuts. Spiegelman praises that work for overcoming the black-and-white limits of the form by embracing them, creating "a cascade of binaries … the Subjective vs. the Objective, the Tree Trunk vs. the Smokestack, Angles vs. Curves."
Maybe Wild Pilgrimage is a cascade of binaries, but it is also, most memorably, a gusher of homoerotic imagery. The hero of this story, whom Ward loves to depict from the back, with pants tight over buns, often looks like he is schtupping the trees. Phallic objects abound: saws, carrots, jail bars, the very limbs of the characters, and possibly even a hanged man. I was so distracted that, I confess, I couldn't really follow the plot. I can see why Ward was on Susan Sontag's list of camp authors. I can see why Milt Gross chose him to parody in his wordless novel, He Done Her Wrong. I can see why Allen Ginsberg was into him. And I can see why Spiegelman, for all his admiration, places Ward's figures and landscapes "somewhere between Thomas Hart Benton," the macho WPA muralist, "and Tom of Finland," the artist of pumped gay porn.
How did Ward become such an artist? The son of a devout Methodist preacher in Chicago who also happened to be the ACLU's first chairman, Ward (1905-1985) was not allowed to see the Sunday funnies as a kid. (Too racy.) The closest he got were Gustave Dore's Bible stories. When he studied art in college, he remembers, graphic storytelling was all but verboten; his art teacher scorned any discussion of subject matter or "pictorial narrative" and told him that any art of any worth had nothing to do with communicating ideas or stories.