Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward. Library of America. 1,408pp. $70.00.
Between Man and Superman
Doomed to controversy and misunderstanding from its very inception, the term “graphic novel” was in fact first used to describe a story collection. Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and already the grand duke of American comics for nearly forty years, tacked the label on to the cover of the second printing of his 1978 book A Contract with God in order to distinguish the work from his historically more kid-friendly output. Contract tells four harrowing stories about the workaday struggles of residents in a fictional Bronx tenement during the Depression, and Eisner’s neologism was “a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher,” as he put it in 2004, in the introduction to The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue. The trilogy collects the title book and its two sequels—A Life Force (1983) and Dropsie Avenue (1995)—works which are both, narratively speaking, actual novels.
Writing with twenty-six years’ hindsight, Eisner reclassified his trilogy as a work of “literary comics,” and claimed among his forebears Lynd Ward, the illustrator, printing press impresario, and woodcutter whose own Depression-era work has been recently compiled in two volumes by the Library of America and deemed Six Novels in Woodcuts. The Library’s collection, described on its packaging as “The Collected Works of America’s First Graphic Novelist,” has been edited and introduced by Maus author Art Spiegelman, and accolades from other contemporary comics legends, including Eisner, adorn the books’ gorgeous Art-Deco dust jackets.
I mention these varied descriptions not to dwell on semantics but to point out the odd historical nature of the work bound between these four orange covers. Ward published the last of his “novels,” Vertigo, in November 1937, only a month before the premiere of Disney Productions’ first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and three years before The Spirit‘s Sunday-paper debut. So despite the utter bleakness of Ward’s woodcut novels and his frequently terrifying imagery (not to mention his mostly impressive sales), visual storytelling in American culture soon became synonymous with kids’ stuff: cartoons, serials, comics. (Ward himself would attain even greater fame as an illustrator of children’s and young adult literature.) So while it’s only natural that later generations of literarily ambitious panel-artists would claim his novels in woodcuts as an inspiration, it’s an odd fate that Ward’s primary legacy is now as the progenitor of “literary comics.”
If nothing else, such a reputation skirts over the matter of work, which was essential not only to Ward’s creative process but also to his thematic concerns. I’m reminded of a typically illuminating scene from Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 film Crumb, where the artist, calmly answering his interviewer’s questions with a smile, pops the cap off a thin-point felt pen and proceeds to sketch a flawless, tactilely detailed portrait of himself under a camera’s fearsome gaze, all in about a minute or so. We get a decidedly different picture of “The Artist At Work” from Ward’s essay “The Way of Wood Engraving,” included in the Library’s collection:
[W]orking with a woodblock takes on the aspects of a struggle between antagonists. The wood is reluctant, the artist determined, and it is reasonable to suggest that that battle of wills brings about a result quite different from those media in which the hand of the artist moves brush or pencil or crayon freely. . . . [E]very movement of the tool involves overcoming resistance and demands the use of a certain amount of sheer physical force. Every block and every subject is a new challenge. The result is an emotional involvement between man and material that, enduring over the years, somehow takes on the character of an addiction, or a love affair, or something similarly irrational.
One reason why Ward’s novels are so uniquely powerful and engrossing is that their plots and messages are in perfect alignment with the obvious “battle of wills” that it took to make them. Particularly from Wild Pilgrimage, his third novel, onward, you can nearly see the artist’s triceps tensing to carve the stunning cross-hatch patterns that grant his wordless panels such physical and emotional depth. You can perceive the immense, sustained concentration that it took to imagine entire narratives and a motionless means of animating them, as well as the sweat-inducing balance of physical pressure and painterly delicateness necessary to displace little spools of wood shavings in search of a precise facial expression or shoulder slump.
Ward’s efforts aren’t always transcendent—some of his sexual imagery in particular borders on camp, and was in fact cited as such by Susan Sontag—but then neither are his characters’. These are grim, shadowy tales of mythic-seeming men and women crushed by what Ward, in an essay about Vertigo, called “impersonal social forces”; these books are visceral, wrenching depictions of the Great Depression’s spiritual toll on artists, families, and workers. A Contract with God and its sequels confront similar themes, and Eisner’s brusque, protean ink lines bring the Depression—and quite a few other epochs—to invigorating life. But Ward’s work seems to howl and cry. Studying his best illustrations, you can feel the dark fingers of capitalism tightening around your throat.
The art in these Six Novels—the others are Gods’ Man (1929), Madman’s Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), and Song Without Words (1936)—is fairly famous, though it will likely seem iconic even if you’ve never seen these particular pictures. With only a chisel, hammer, and logs, Ward managed to synthesize the gothic shadowscapes of German expressionist film, European Art Deco’s smooth muscular textures (his nude women evoke Tamara de Lempicka’s), Soviet poster art, and the industrial-mythical style of his contemporaries who painted murals and portraits for the Works Progress Administration. For his own part, Ward consciously modeled his novels after those of Hans Masereel and Otto Nückel, two Mitteleuropean woodcut artists who pioneered what Ward called “pictorial narrative.” (More semantics!)
The work begs for such comparisons, but it’s undeniably Ward’s own, not only in the details of individual pictures and lines but even more so in the way that he structures narrative. The characters in his woodcuts, whether reclining or working, always seem frozen in time; the stories’ considerable sense of movement comes through in the physical surroundings—great shafts of sunlight blaring between skyscrapers, or his imposing, monolithic smokestacks—and Ward’s audacious sequencing. Light and height are the defining characteristics of Ward’s style. In the first five panels of Gods’ Man, the protagonist is pummeled by waves and lightning while sailing on the ocean. He cries out to the sun, and is then delivered safely to land, where he begins an ascent to a city on a hill. Every one of the novels’ heroes is similarly depicted, striving and gazing upwards, wandering through massive buildings and forests, or more often, falling into chasms both literal and figurative.
There are three masterpieces in this collection. Madman’s Drum, as Spiegelman notes in his introduction, is the most narratively obtuse of Ward’s novels, while Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words are both artistically stunning but relatively short; they don’t have the rhythmic intensity that the major work does, though they contain some of Ward’s most horrifying and wrenching images. That leaves Gods’ Man, the greatest commercial success of the set; Wild Pilgrimage, where Ward’s style and narrative sense fully matured; and Vertigo, his most ambitious, sprawling work.
Gods’ Man, published a week before the great crash, functions as a worthy Lynd Ward 101 course. It’s a Faust story, of an artist who receives a magical brush from a clearly Satanic stranger, then suffers his inevitable fall from grace before retreating to a mountainous, sunswept countryside with his wife and child. All of Ward’s cardinal themes are here, albeit in slightly more rigid lines: the artist as tragic hero, the dialectic between a steely metropolis and a glowing natural scene, an omnipresent evil preying on people’s desperation. And Ward’s gift for conveying motion through still images is also something to behold, even in this early stage. As the shadowy figure presents the magical brush to the Hero, Ward cuts to a series of six portraits—an ancient Egyptian, a Roman, a monk, painters in the medieval ages and the Renaissance—all holding the same implement. Ward’s individual woodcuts, particularly in Gods’ Man, can be overly determined, but just as often he sends his reader careening through time with only the flip of a page. (These moments justify the Library of America’s decision to only print one woodcut per recto page throughout the collection.)
Gods’ Man is, in many ways, a template for everything that came after it, though the subtlety and compassion of Wild Pilgrimage and Vertigo are what ultimately make them superior works. Ward never lost his sense of worker’s outrage (or his penchant for scenes of police mobs beating protesters to near-death), but his moral universe became more nuanced as his books progressed, to the point where he devotes one of Vertigo‘s three sections to an aged company owner who orders the layoffs that echo through the book’s other two narratives. The man is a villain, but he’s also a human being. The image of him standing naked and forlorn before a mirror is one of Ward’s greatest triumphs in this set; very often he depicted the human form as merely statuesque or hideously malformed, but here he achieves something less judgmental, and it moves the work beyond polemical righteousness.
Not that you’d ever be confused about Ward’s sympathies. Vertigo, its very name a summation of the decade’s effect on American have-nots, ends on an impressionistic note, with its tragic young couple embracing each other on an otherwise empty rollercoaster. Similarly, the doomed protagonist of Wild Pilgrimage meets his inevitable violent death in the novel’s final frame, but only after swerving throughout the book between his daily worker’s drudgery and his more heroic dreams—the latter depicted in striking burnt-orange ink. Wild Pilgrimage is a surrealist, white man’s Native Son, the story of a hulking brute who’s been systematically denied the ability to express himself except by force. Indeed, Ward explicitly compares 20th-century labor exploitation to black slavery and lynching, one of the only times that race comes into play in these novels.
Ward’s woodcut novels all approach didacticism but never quite succumb to it, largely thanks to his startling imagery, which casts everything in epic, historically nondescript terms. The occasional proletarian mob scene springs up organically from a larger pool of Christian, gothic, and Modernist images. Ward’s workers fight fat cats and police, but they also literally battle the devil, giant grinning skulls, and the elemental world.
Ward survived into the 1980s, and became a wealthy and celebrated popular artist besides; might we forgive him for losing the revolutionary zeal that made his woodcut work so searing? In The Biggest Bear, his Caldecott-winning children’s book from 1952, a young boy is forced to take his rambunctious pet into the woods and execute him, but the bear runs away and gets caught by employees of the nearby zoo before the tragedy can take place. This ending is presented as the best of both worlds—the bear gets to live, and the boy gets to visit and feed him maple sugar through the bars of his cage. My daughter seemed perfectly pleased by this outcome when we read the book together, but I’d been recently radicalized by the indignant, blood-curdling Library of America box. It made me queasy to watch Lynd Ward, of all people, effectively tell the country’s children, “Don’t worry, the state will take care of this.” But it also makes the woodcut novels more affecting to know that they were carved in response to societal injustice, not merely as the product of a naturally radical mind. They are epics of despair, from a time when the despairing were in poignant need of epics. If we’re to accept them as proto-comics, that’s only because the country’s appetite for indignation eventually tapered off, and Ward left behind a new graphic language that one need not be starving to appreciate.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
images © Lynd Ward, courtesy of The Library of America
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