Lynd Ward is widely viewed as a pioneer of the graphic novel. He also worked as an illustrator for works by other writers, but it’s his series six of novels-without-words from the 1930s which defines his career. The narratives are rendered in dark, powerful woodcuts, clearly influenced by German Expressionist art and cinema, thanks to his exposure to the technique during a stretch in Weimar Germany. Ward’s work is irresistible, dark and intense, epic in its reach and emotional tenor. The Library of America has collected those six novels, along with an excellent introductory essay from Art Siegelman and a selection of short writings by Ward, in a two volume box set, Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts.
The graphic novel has always left me cold. No doubt I’m looking at the wrong examples of the genre, or not taking the ones I do look at seriously enough. Somehow Ward breaks through that resistance, I suspect in large part because he eschews the verbal component altogether. Content aside – and the content here is glorious – these two volumes are a wonderful argument for the singular pleasure afforded by the paper-and-ink book. Spiegelman speaks to the appropriateness of this in his essay “Reading Pictures”, observing that,
Lynd Ward made books. He had an abiding reverence for the book as an object. He understood its anatomy, respected every aspect of its production, intimately knew its history, and loved its potential to engage with its audience. This is one of the reasons he commands our attention now, when the book as an object seems under siege.
The Library of America’s commitment here extends to featuring artwork on only the right-hand (recto) page of every two, a choice Spiegelman calls “the ideal form for this work.” The first volume collects Ward’s three early efforts, Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum and Wild Pilgrimage. Ward’s drawings have been, fairly, referred to as melodramatic, but in a sense this is a technical feature rather than an instance of heavy handedness. Ward essentially confronts the same limitations silent-film directors faced: the imperative of conveying narrative information by image alone. Ward goes a step further and eschews anything resembling the inter-titles used for exposition or dialogue in silent films. The heightened expressiveness of his drawings carries the narrative forward – indeed, without that very expressiveness, a narrative thread would be considerably more difficult to isolate. Spiegelman speaks to this issue in his remarks on Gods’ Man, noting “my struggle to decipher his narrative,” which “clarifies for me the secret locked in all wordless novels: the process of flipping pages back and forth, hunting for salient details and labeling them, shakes the words loose to yield meaning.”
from God’s Man
Gods’ Man was Ward’s inauspiciously-timed debut: the book was released in the same week the stock market crashed, heralding the start of the Great Depression. It seems likely that the crash limited sales, but Gods’ Man still sold twenty-thousand copies in its first four years. Subtlety isn’t the order of the day in Ward’s first book, but Gods’ Man is all the more thrilling for it. The pact between the artist and the mysterious stranger who provides him with a magical brush is bluntly Faustian, and the images stark and dense with black. Spiegelman notes Ward’s missteps in Gods’ Man, his still-developing command of pictorial composition in particular, but the sheer force of the climactic moments here is enough to warrant repeat viewings.
Madman’s Drum is a swirling, sometimes puzzling follow-up, 118 plates dedicated to the ambition of not only carrying a sustained narrative through, but providing rich and nuanced backgrounds for a number of characters. The relative success of this venture will vary from viewer to viewer. Even Spiegelman professes some difficulty in decoding Ward’s implications on occasion. This is less troubling than it might seem. The compensations Ward offers in lieu of absolute narrative clarity are unavailable in the traditional novel. Somehow a finely wrought sentence in the service of a murky or underwritten narrative doesn’t offer the same jolt as a rich, puzzling visual.
from Madman’s Drum
And, as we follow Ward’s evolution as a visual novelist, these issues of clarity grow less pressing. By the time of Vertigo, he has settled on a lighter, more open style, one which seems not to suggest the nearness of the world’s end. Spiegelman calls it “as emblematic as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as ambitiously experimental as Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, as apocalyptic as Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust.” Ward himself notes that, “During the thirties there were very few people, whether artists or not, who could remain uninvolved, either on a direct personal level or indirectly as human beings of conscience. Vertigo is Ward’s response to the weight of that era’s events. The title, Ward writes, “was meant to suggest that the illogic of what we saw happening all around us in the thirties was enough to set the mind spinning through space and the emotions hurtling from great hope to the depths of despair. Vertigo follows three characters – The Girl, The Elderly Gentleman, and The Boy – through the first six years of the Depression. Their separate stories naturally intertwine (it’s worth spending time with the images to see how, so I won’t give that away), but the book is plaintive and searching and deeply human.
Interest in Ward has understandably grown with the continued rise of the graphic novel. There’s a documentary from 217 Films, O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward. Those particularly drawn to Ward might be interested to learn that Rutgers University owns a complete set of woodblocks used in the making of Ward’s masterwork Vertigo. But whether you’re inclined to push further or not, his Six Novels in Woodcuts are a worthy addition to any library, one which, even opened idly, midstream, offers genuinely arresting moments each and every time.