My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book, edited by George A. Walker, collects four wordless novels or picture novels of the early twentieth century. The picture novel is a form that flourished largely between the two world wars and was then forgotten except for a few devotees, most of them comics creators who saw in these visual narratives the forerunners of the modern graphic novel. And, as the graphic novel has risen to prominence, so the picture novels have been recovered.
As the title of Graphic Witness implies, the authors of these picture novels conceived of themselves as moral chroniclers, depicting in vivid and iconic imagery the evils and passions of their time. Walker’s superb introduction charts a global movement that begins in Europe around the Great War, arrives in America in time for the Depression, and finds its way to Japan after World War II before working its way back to the West. The creators of this new form were, broadly, men of the left, protesting the brutalization of the worker under capitalism, the inhumane conditions of the modern metropolis, and the state/capital war-machine that set the workers of the nations at each other’s throats. (The political ambiguities of this interwar working-man’s leftism, with its idealization of blood and soil and its fear/adulation of the feminine, is discussed in my review of Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man.) On top of that, Walker’s introduction also includes a set of informative sidebars on the technique of wood, linoleum, or lead engraving as employed by the creators of the picture novels.
A brief afterword by the Canadian cartoonist Seth reflects on the relation of these picture novels to comics and, later, the graphic novel. His conclusion is a complex one: the picture-novelists themselves, he says, were obviously influenced by silent film and at pains to distance their work from the vulgar comic strip; yet their abortive ambition to create adult narratives using sequential art has been realized today in the form of the graphic novel—which is, aesthetically, in continuity with the comics tradition going back to the Yellow Kid that the picture novelists eschewed. This nuanced and somewhat counterintuitive interpretation seems right to me.
To the books themselves:
Frans Masereel, The Passion of a Man: The Belgian artist Masereel, later a friend of George Grosz and praised by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, is considered the first major figure in the picture novel tradition. This brief narrative, which goes from a man’s birth in poverty to his execution as a revolutionary, is an allegory for the suffering of the individual in the modern world. Its title and its title page evoke the Passion of Christ as an analogue for man caught in the industrial machinery, though, as one image in the narrative makes clear by showing a cross hanging behind the court that sentences the hero to death, official Christianity is on the side of the oppressors. Masereel’s images are blocky and primitive, almost medieval, as befits his point of view on the subject matter; though broadly Expressionist, there is none of the modernist stylishness that will characterize later artists’ styles in their own woodcut novels. The hero is at several points refreshed by women—from his mother, who breastfeeds him behind a fence in her urban outcast state, to a lover who oedipally propositions him by displaying her own breast—and by nature and study—he decides to lead a revolt against the capitalists after brooding in the forest and then reading a book (never named—The Communist Manifesto? Bernie Sanders’s platform?). The narrative’s brevity and simplicity are at once its strength and weakness: it tells the moral truth without subtlety or pretension, yes, but are Masereel’s nobly suffering poor women, broodingly thoughtful working heroes, and bloodthirsty capitalist fatcats an adequate representation of the modern? The point is not to chide Masereel for lacking political nuance—which is not a legitimate aesthetic criterion—but to note the loss of interest that comes from his retailing of cliches. His ideas of good and evil are so utterly received, rather than imagined, that the book fails to live up to its passionate title.
Lynd Ward, Wild Pilgrimage: This is a more surreal version of the story one finds in Masereel (and in Ward’s earlier Gods’ Man, irritatingly mis-titled God’s Man throughout Walker’s introduction). In this version of the “oppressed worker escapes/revolts” narrative, the worker’s fantasy sequences are printed in red, in distinction to the black ink that predominates. Ward’s woodcut technique is polished, owing as much to Art Deco as to Expressionism, with fine lines and iconic figures. Such artifice pleasingly contrasts with the novel’s “wild” depiction of nature as a free but threatening space—including the sexual nature of men. Ward’s superiority over Masereel and the other artists in Graphic Witness is indicated by Wild Pilgrimage’s final red-printed dream sequence, in which the worker-hero attacks the fatcat capitalist and decapitates him, only to find that he is holding up his own head. Which is to say: what if the external enemy posited by socialism and fascism alike is not external at all, but is rather the resentful projection onto others of our own appetites? (And how many sociopolitical movements of today would have to grind to a halt if their partisans seriously asked themselves that difficult question?) It is this psychological insight that sets Ward above the other merely political practitioners of the picture novel collected in this volume. He is less a witness than a prophet.
Giacomo Patri, White Collar: This, a kind of pamphlet sponsored by organized labor, hammers home a fairly simple allegory about the economic fragility of the middle class, and the consequent benefits to that class of allying with the workers’ movement. (One imagines an organizer distributing it today to graduate students in the humanities.) Patri’s linocut art is as clear as it needs to be, if sometimes far too literal (as when a chain store helpfully called “Chain Store” drives the protagonist’s small shop out of business). The message remains relevant—if not necessarily unimpeachable—but this is propaganda, not art.
Laurence Hyde, Southern Cross: This book, the only post-WWII text collected here, protests the testing of nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll, and the consequent despoiling of that island’s environment and disruption of its inhabitants’ lives. But Hyde’s beautiful art—especially in his depiction of marine life—is in service to a sentimental allegory about “noble savages” that undermines rather than reinforces the book’s political message: would it somehow be better to nuke the Atoll if its inhabitants were a population of office workers or, dare I say, leftist woodcut novelists? Lovely art, though.
In conclusion, this is a valuable historical compilation, but its contents, with the exception of Wild Pilgrimage, mostly belong to the history of propaganda rather than to the history of art—a timely warning to today’s politics-besotted generation of the dangers of political art, even as it also reminds us of lost possibilities for visual narrative. A blurb by Neil Gaiman on the back cover speaks of “the genius of Ward, Masereel, Patri and Hyde,“ but on the evidence of these four books, only Ward seems to merit such praise.