Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Six Novels In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

Lynd Ward's wordless novels take the stage just before the final post of the year, which will be Friday morning when I offer up my opinions about what I believe was the landmark literary event of 2010. I know... You simply can't wait.

The piece I've written for the final and best work of 2010 will be delivered without introduction. I will probably take January off to get a good start on the exciting projects I'm working on for MHP, so Friday's post may have to ride for a while. I will of course welcome conversation and discussion in the comments section. Hopefully the piece will foster some. Personally I've been extremely upset (no really, I'm actually kind of mad) at the total lack of attention surrounding its publication. So we can all get fired up together in the comments section and talk all January long.


Basically this is the last of my smarmy introductions for 2010. Please take a second to try and savor it. Good? Good. Now let's talk about graphic novels.

Six Novels In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward. Edited with an Introduction by Art Spiegel. Graphic Novels. Two-Volume Hardcover in slipcase. Library Of America. 1526 pps. ISBN: 9781598530827. $70.

I always try to open with a quote from the work I'm going to talk about. Not to exclude the graphic arts from this proud (if inconsistent) tradition I will include an opening quote from Ward's first novel:

Lynd Ward is the father of the American graphic novel and one a handful of illustrating pioneers that forever changed the perception of the form. As if that was not enough, the six individual wordless books that comprise Six Novels In Woodcuts have had a lasting effect on the American literary and cultural landscapes. That's right. I said literary.

All one need do is identify the austere, alienated man in Lynd's artwork to realize this. Aesthetics as diverse as Disney's and Allen Ginsberg's took note and borrowed from Lynd's iconic imagery. It is largely due to Ward that we associate darkly colored deco illustration with the alienation of man and the jeopardy of his "soul" in the modern world. The city is a terrifying place for the innocent or naively pious. Yet beyond it's concrete enclosure lies a wilderness capable of either suckling man at its teat or preying upon his frailty. It is an indiscriminate process and one at least worthy of respect, if not fear.

That is not to say that Ward is some overly sober realist. The illustrations shown throughout this post are taken from God's Man, the first of Ward's wordless novels. It is a Faustian tale of a starving artist who struggles to find even small success, let alone basic human needs. The arrival of a magic paintbrush lifts his career and spirits, albeit temporarily. After looking over these images I can't help but wonder if they might not have proven somewhat influential to Thomas Wolfe when he crafted his own darkly stirring essay on "God's Lonely Man."

Yes, as in Travis Bickle's soliloquy in Taxi Driver.

Think of any illustration you've seen accompanying the writings of Franz Kafka. Now look to those of Ward and you'll have to admit the comparisons. One of the books Ward is most famous for illustrating is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (to the left) and really, deco and Gothic are nearly perfect interchangable aesthetics, at least when it comes to book illustration. This is evidenced in the illustration set below this paragraph, which was made by Fritz Eichenberg for Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Ward's influence on the likes of Eichenberg is obvious. So too is it obvious in the likes of Alan Moore, whose writing for graphic novels often echoes the tragic world rendered in Ward's stark illustrations.

The format for the Six Novels is a big part of their success. By placing a single image per page Ward forces the reader to spend quality time with each. This is reinforced by the large scale of his images. Not to mention the evocative plot unfolding.

This contemplative style is something that can be lost in the more common graphic novel format of the comic strip. Even other wordless gems like Andy Runton's Owly series still utilizes the strip format (most of the time at least). By placing a single image, large and evocative, upon a page Ward nearly shoves the reader into a contemplative state. We behold the image and scan it at least twice, regardless of how little detail there might be at times. With Ward, like any great storyteller, it is often as much about what is not being shown as what is.

Inconsistently in print and never available together at once, the Library Of America has done culture a great service by bringing these treasures back, together and in a wonderful format. Don't let the seventy bucks intimidate you. You want this in your brain and on your shelf. And in any case, how else would you package an American pioneer of the graphic arts?

I thought so too.

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