My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gods’ Man is the generally-acknowledged masterpiece both of Ward and of the American wing of the entire early-20th-century wordless woodcut-novel vogue (described by Sarah Boxer in this informative piece on Ward). As such, it is often cited as a precursor to the graphic novel, even as a masterpiece of comics (per McCloud’s expansive “sequential art” definition) in its own right.
The 139-image sequence, in which a storm-tossed painter comes to the City (i.e., Babylon, the corrupting city of the pastoral imagination), strikes a Faustian bargain with a magic-brush-bearing masked man, and finds worldly success as a consequence of the contract he signed. Alas, material rewards prove to be spiritual deficits when he learns that his new lover/model/muse is branded with sign of the dollar and is sleeping around behind his back with men from all walks of life and social institutions. The allegory is clear: money is a prostitute who can be had by anyone, as opposed to those genuinely rare and authentic non-commodities, namely, genius and love. (The sexism of this figure hardly needs remarking—except to say that the socialism of fools comes in many forms, so many that one begins, really, to wonder about socialism.) Our hero leaves Babylon and finds a wife among the mountains, with whom he has a son, also destined for the artistic life; the whole family revels amid the sublime heights in images that will inevitably call to mind fascist kitsch. We seem to have ended happily, except that the artist-hero did sign a contract, and the masked man eventually arrives to collect what was promised: the artist’s life.
I had no desire to summarize Gods’ Man in the tone of the above, the hip and knowing jadedness of the seen-it-all Internet addict. I dislike the prevalence of that tone in our cultural commentary. Gods’ Man, when transformed from image to word, does begin to show its faults, which range from disturbing ideological implications to risible earnestness. When encountered as a set of stark images, though, the book possesses a primordial power that cannot be mocked away. And the images can ironize their own apparent design on the reader just as well as words can: I for one find the alienating city as Ward presents it rather glamorous, even as I share his frustration at the total absorption of art by money that modernity seems to require.
In fact, in this time of omnipresent ideology-critique, we should think carefully about a book like this. Surely, it has a quality of naivete, of outsider art, that renders it fit largely for ironic appreciation (hence its inclusion in Sontag’s catalogue of camp). But I find it far more powerful and memorable, far more rich in texture and implication, than such a contemporary work of perfect tastefulness and impeccable ideology as Richard McGuire’s epic of virtuoso banality, Here. What is it about these images, their incised black-and-white edges perfectly miming their binary moralism and their cutting sincerity and fury, that impresses itself on the mind? Wood engraving (which is the more precise name for Ward’s method than “woodcut”) is a negative art: the artist cuts into the block a negative space in order to depict a positive substance on paper. As such, it is a reverse or backward art, and perhaps all such backward artists are, to quote another engraver, of the devil’s party whether they know it or not. Ward’s work overruns its own moralism to expand the mind with an energy and vigor unknown to artists whose aspirations remain confined to the homely and the secular. Something seems to demand that truly great art skirt the edge of tastelessness, and that it be complex only incidentally, as a side-effect of trying to be absolutely simple. What is the difference between tastelessness—that quality shared between trash and high art—and banality—signature of the middlebrow? It may have something to do with extremism, with an insistence on putting gods and devils onstage alongside mere man…
To bring this disorderly rumination to an end: in spite of everything I know, I love this book. I would have to write a whole treatise on aesthetics to say why.