Emanata: Novels in Woodcuts, Comics in Words

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I’ve been wrestling with Lynd Ward’s comics lately–staring at them, flipping through them, doubling back on them, trying to get a grasp on what’s happening on their surface and beneath it. Part of the wrestling comes from the fact that he didn’t quite think of them as comics, and they only really got gerrymandered into the comics family tree after the fact. Between 1929 and 1937, Ward published four “novels in woodcuts”: Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage and Vertigo, and two shorter narrative books of wood engravings, Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words. They’re all nearly wordless, symbolically loaded stories, with a single woodcut image on each right-hand page (facing a blank left-hand page); there’s a new two-volume edition of Ward published by the Library of America that contains all six.

Ward’s books weren’t “graphic novels” as such–although they look like them from our perspective–and he didn’t invent the form he used: he was inspired by Frans Masereel’s earlier “novels in pictures” and Otto Nückel’s similar engraved project Schicksal. But the key word here is “novel.” These aren’t short stories (although they can be read in minutes); Ward described these wordless works with a word that has a specifically literary connotation.

As the poet Randal Jarrell once wrote, “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” The same holds for graphic novels, or for novels with only a few words of prose. Ward’s novels-in-woodcuts are all extraordinary, and all oddly flawed in one way or another. Susan Sontag named Gods’ Man as an example of camp (in fact, she referred to it as “Lynn Ward’s novel in woodcuts, God’s Man,” sic), and Art Spiegelman observes in his illuminating introduction to the new Ward collection that “some of Ward’s images are unintentionally risible (the depiction of Our Hero idyllically skipping through the glen with the Wife and their child makes me snicker).”

Ward does indeed make a lot of his plot points in very broad strokes; he’s forced to, because sometimes the exchange rate of words to pictures is a lot lower than a thousand to one. But Ward worked in individual images first (and last; after Vertigo, he returned to wood engraving for “individual works that exist entirely for their own sake”). He came to narrative, and his “novels,” through an interest in making his images mean more than they could on their own by putting them together. Any single Ward woodcut, taken on its own, is almost overwhelmingly potent: a formally grand composition, isolated on the page, gorged with style, every mark on it a reminder that it was made by slicing into a slab of something.

They’re not even meant to be comics, and they’re better comics than most things that are. Seen in 2011, they’re beautiful on their own, and also a corrective to most of the unsatisfying comics of the moment: writer-driven work whose artwork is only there to show what’s literally called for. So let’s say this: a fruitful way to consider comics as narratives made from putting drawings together. It follows that if there happens to be text in a comics story, its task is to lift some weight off the images–to enable them to communicate more and better.

That’s a theory, and the theory falls apart as soon as it hits the outermost surface of the other comic I keep returning to this week. Matt Seneca’s “Flash Roughs/In a Hole: Jul-Aug 2010” is an incredible… thing, a piece assembled in a sketchbook by marking over ruins. “THIS COMIC IS A FAILURE,” it announces straight off; “THIS COMIC IS ABOUT A FAILURE.” The failure it’s about is a failure to pull itself into a story–a superhero story, riffing on work by the artists Carmine Infantino and Guido Crepax (here’s a page about them). It’s become, instead, a beaten-bloody piece about artistic process and the ways in which that process hits the wall of impossibility.

The drawings in “Flash Roughs” are almost incidentally representational–just barely images of things. There’s a story, overwritten (sometimes literally) on top of the ruins of what the story was originally supposed to be. Its text conveys most of the significant stuff (although the lettering itself almost always acts as a dramatic visual element too); the red and yellow colors of the Flash’s costume bleed all over the page. In practice, it couldn’t be much less like Ward’s woodcut-novels, with their assured, measured, isolated images on otherwise mute expanses of paper, marching grandly to their destination (although there’s a certain woman-as-muse idea going on in both). But there’s a feeling I get from both artists that’s very similar, if not quite the same–a sense that a line or a ragged blotch of ink might be so potent and concentrated that it could pounce off the page and shout what no words ever could.

More on TIME.com:

Emanata: The Future of the Comic Book Store

Emanata: Life Drawings

The Comic Book Club: DCU Online Legends and Scenes from an Impending Marriage

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