Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wordless Books the Original Graphic Novels by David Berona

Wordless Books the Original Graphic Novels by David Berona

This book is a survey of the different wordless books printed between 1918 and 1951. The book gives a short description of an artist then includes several pages from their books. The book is written in chronological order and is very easy to follow. There are a large number of artists in the book. I am going to choose to focus on a few of them.

Woodcut novels are designed to deliver a message without words. The images are for the most part black and white with very heavy lines. The only exception to this are some of Lynd Ward's dream images from the book Wild Pilgrimage (1932) which are an odd orange color. Sequencing is done by moving the characters in the panels to different locations and changing their actions. There is one panel per page. There are occassionally words, but these usually indicate a simple descriptor like gas or marriage certificate.

The books opens with Frans Masereel who is an artist that worked with the International Red Cross and the International Pacifist Movement. There is often a strong political element in many of the artists work in this book. Frans Masereel's drawings are of common scenes. They include depictions of everyday life activities in the raw. In the book, Passionate Journey (1919), we see the protagonist piss on people below him from the top of a skyscraper, fart at some industrialists, dance, and make love. This is a link to the complete set of wordless woodcuts for The City one of his novels.

The simplicity and the focus on delivering an artistic medium to the middle class and working class made these books populist in nature. I would call most of the artists in this work to be progressives. Lynd Ward's father, Harry was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lynd Ward was heavily involved in social movements. His art depicts cities as industrial hells, brutal strikes, the harshness of slavery, equates industrialism with spiritual malaise, and suggests a return to pastoralism.

Not all of the books are about a social message. Some are light humor about family, love, and marriage. Milt Gross, a popular cartoonist wrote the wordless book, He Done Her Wrong, a satire about a country bumpkin falling in love with a girl in the city. Fantagraphics reissued this book in 2006.

Not all of the artists work in wood. Otto Nuckel used black and white lead cut prints. This allowed much finer lines to appear in the prints on the page.

Some of the later woodcut novels strike much closer to home. Many of the social issues in the 1930s which were decried have not gone away at all. Southern Cross done in 1951 is about the forced removal of native polynesians so the United States can test and atomic bomb. White Collar (1940) is the story of the downward spiral of a white collar worker. First he loses his home, then he has an unwanted child because he can't afford an abortion, then he loses his job and becomes homeless with his family, finally he turns to labor radicalism as a homeless man. This really hits home on what could happen if the mortgage crisis goes wrong in the United States.

I am not an artist, so I can't tell you too much about the styles of art. I can tell you that there are a variety of different artistic styles being expressed throughout the book. Lynd Ward was supposed to have been influenced by German Expressionism and Art Deco. Myron Waldman's Eve is the work of a cartoonist who drew Popeye, Superman, and Betty Boop. There are quite a few artists I didn't cover. I think they are all interesting.

The book itself is beautifully designed. It is on high bond glossy paper. You can see the stitches in the binding. The cover has very heavy boards. This enhances the artistic images in the book itself. There is an index, pictures of many of the covers of the books, copyright credits, and a bibliography of wordless novels. We have one of the more contemporary novels listed, Flood! A Novel In Pictures by Eric Drooker at our library.

This is a book that I can recommend without hesitation. I really enjoyed reading it. But, it also fit well with my political views. Get it, read it, enjoy it.


dberona said...

Thanks for the review of my book. One correction in your post is that Lynd Ward's father, Harry Ward, was the first board chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union...not Lynd.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like something I would love.I'm glad I stumbled here today and checked out your review :)

Book Calendar said...

Thanks for coming by jupitersinclair.

dberona, I fixed the mistake.