Graphic Novel Granddaddy: Lynd Ward’s Woodcuts
By Maria Popova
For many, last year’s mega-hit Watchmen validated the notion of the graphic novel as a formidable creative genre. But perhaps the most compelling, aesthetically and conceptually innovative work in that genre was done more than seven decades ago.
In the 1930’s, American illustrator and storyteller Lynd Ward “invented” the genre when he created a series of wordless graphic novels in woodcuts, using dramatic wood engravings to create a style that was part Art Deco, part Expressionism, part something else entirely.
At the dawn of the stock market crash in 1929, he released his first novel, God’s Man — a masterfully illustrated, articulate, and thought-provoking semi-autobiographical story about struggles of self and life.
Ambiguous and abstract, these visual narratives lend themselves to the reader’s own interpretation, which makes them all the more engaging and powerful.
The woodblock, whether cut with a knife or engraved, develops its image by bringing details out of darkness into the light. This seems to give it an advantage over ways of working that start with an empty white area. In a sense, what is happening is already there in the darkness, and cutting the block involves letting only enough light into the field of vision to reveal what is going on.
These last two are so rare and precious they are only available as collectors’ editions, with astounding pricetags upwards of $500 — a hard-fact indication of just how iconic Ward’s work is.
It has always been a matter of some surprise to me that this process can go on for a considerable period and all take place silently. I hear no sound; there is never a word spoken.
His last graphic novel, Vertigo (1937), was an absolute masterpiece, a pinnacle of this unique art of contrast, of light and darkness, both literally and metaphorically.
Brimming with powerful Depression-era images, it is also ironically relevant today, illustrating this same urgency unrest in the context of our contemporary economic downturn.
Get yourself a copy (while it’s still priced at the measly $11.53) and indulge in the real heritage and art of the graphic novel.
Published September 7, 2009