Monday, January 14, 2008

We Are All Witnesses

Graphic Witness, Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde, Firefly Books, 2007

Cartoonist Seth, who provides an afterword to this volume, makes a very good point about the creators of wordless novels included herein: considering themselves “serious artists” and eschewing their more gag-related humorist cousins in the comic strip business, early graphic novelists have a great deal in common with the makers of silent cinema. This itself was earlier remarked upon in regards to Masereel’s work by no less another author than Thomas Mann.

Nevertheless, graphic novelists (among others) are intent on securing the place of the wordless novel in the history of the genre even if most remain massively unaware of the importance of these early works.

While the nascent film industry had motion and could tell a story with action (and with limited dialogue or verbal exposition on title cards), the genius of much of the cinema of the time lies in the framing of striking composition through still imagery. The stark black and white visuals of both media are another point in their similarity, but to my mind a smaller one. In this volume, too, it is belied by the use of orange coloring for some of the more dramatic images in Lynd Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage.

To a degree, this is merely a matter of style and choice, but a great bulk of what we think of as wordless novels or woodcut novels are also operating on a generalized socialized art scheme. That is to say, artists at that time frequently wrote such works “for the masses,” be those masses American, Lithuanian, Cuban, or what have you. Their wordlessness and simple to interpret stories are designed with mass appeal, not in the slapstick sense of the funnies, but in the didactic sense of imparting stories with ideology to the proletariat wherever they were. Ward’s socialist views were no secret, even landing him his own FBI investigation.

This thick 423-page treasure trove features the first reproduction of Masereel’s debut The Passion of Man since its 1918 German printing. Widely named the father of the graphic novel, Masereel’s simple, highly contrasting style can be seen as a precursor to Marjane Satrapi’s beautiful work in Persepolis with its stark palette. In only 25 pages (Masereel’s work is rarely very long) takes us from the birth of the protagonist in poverty to his laborious career, his time in jail, his temptations, and his glorious end as leader of the oppressed workers. While Masereel’s work was banned in many capitalist nations and freely distributed in Communist ones, the artist remained committed to no one system, but rather to the individual in the face of oppression (even if said individuals acted collectively). One can see his preoccupation with this oppression in many panels, authority figures almost universally larger than life grotesques menacing everyone on the page. Using rather unsubtle bursts of white to indicate enlightenment, Masereel’s world is a harsh black and white examination of good and evil.

(For more of Masereel’s art, be sure to enjoy this lovely MySpace gallery of his work.)

Collectors of the work of Lynd Ward can sometimes find individual volumes for sale in a variety of places, but the editor of this particular book, George A. Walker selected the long out-of-print (though not for long) Wild Pilgrimage, an anti-lynching tale first published in 1932. Typical for Ward’s style and content, the woodcut novel tells of repeated instances where his protagonist tries to make a go of working in the world, only to find his dreams stifled by cruel bosses and soul crushing manual labor in urban factories. Retreating frequently to the purity of nature, Ward’s protagonist finds there is no rural paradise. The evil of man has infected even there, the strange fruit spawned by racism populating more and more trees with the corpses of black men. Ward’s shifting to color signifies in general, a movement to mental fantasy, though at times it seems difficult to separate the nightmarish cruelty of the real world from the fevered dreams inflicting themselves on his hero with such brute force. Predominantly a tragedian, Ward is unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel in this pilgrimage either.

Unlike his two predecessors here, Giacomo Patri’s work White Collar doesn’t rely on woodcutting, but is instead an example of linocutting. With each image cut into linoleum, Patri’s work was originally hand-bound before being reprinted professionally and distributed by the labor movement. It tells how an advertising artist, struggling in the Depression-era economy, fights to make a living for himself and a home for his family. While many of the wordless novels of the era feature predominantly blue collar struggles, Patri’s book was important in demonstrating that it wasn’t only manual laborers who were at the mercy of tycoons and business syndicates. Visually, the imagery rests somewhere between Masereel’s primitivism and Ward’s detailed textures, though many larger pictures rival even the master for their depth and their layered content. The story’s end has a whiff of Tom Joad realized, the marching out-of-work transformed through sequential panels from individuals into an army of the dispossessed.

The only post World War Two contribution to the bunch, Canadian Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross recounts the clash of civilizations in the Bikini Atoll shortly before and during the hydrogen bomb detonations there. A work that registers the artist’s intense rage toward the atomic tests of the U.S. government, we meet a Polynesian family who, shortly after the wife’s attempted rape by an American soldier, hide out in the islands to avoid capture. Hyde’s novel is painfully touching in the family’s suffering both before and after the catastrophe, the final panels lingering in the mind long after the book is closed.

Taken together as a whole, these four works are indeed a graphic witness. They bear testimony both to past movements of solidarity and social justice, as well as document the development of the graphic novel. In collecting these seminal and rare works, Walker and Firefly Press have done an invaluable service exposing newer readers to the form in its infancy. In a market glutted with pituitary cases in spandex, the reintroduction of real life concerns is a necessary tonic.

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