Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Paperback – Sep 14 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In his afterword to this jaw-dropping collection of early, little-known wordless graphic novels, cartoonist Seth asserts that rather than being seen only as a link between early comic strips and today's graphic novels, these stories stand powerfully on their own. The proof is in the stark appearance produced by wood cuts and lino-engraving and the themes in these once-controversial works: social unrest, the plight of the downtrodden worker and the oppression of the weak by the strong. Masereel's The Passion of a Man (1918) tells a modernist Christ story in 25 dark pictures, while Hyde's Southern Cross (1951) is a pastoral tragedy about Pacific islanders caught up in the U.S. Navy's A-bomb testing. Ward's Wild Pilgrimage (1932) is a passionate aria to the human spirit, threatened with crushing death by the specter of soulless factory work and cruel bosses. Patri's White Collar (1939) is the real standout; on the surface it's a simple story about a commercial artist fighting to keep his family going, but ending as a stunning validation of the dignity of man. Handsomely printed and bound and smartly edited, this book sets the standard for how to present anew the important but lesser-known classics of graphic fiction's past. (Sept.)
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There you have your classic wordless graphic novel -- a high-minded, serious art form that transcends the barriers of language while still telling a story, a visual treat that doesn't get too arty, a political message that packs a punch. No wonder interest in the form is on the rise. (Philip Marchand The Toronto Star 2007-08-19)
Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words must have had Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Novels, edited by George A. Walker in mind. These wordless novels by four of the world's greatest woodcut artists are powerfully compelling -- both in their sheer visual impact and in the universal resonance of the stories they tell. They tell of injustice, oppression, and despair, but also of defiant endurance and the dream of a better world. Their striking black and white images are full of meaning and emotion, making this one of the most elegantly engrossing books of recent months. Rush out and buy it, for it is not to be missed! (John Arkelian Artsforum 2008-09-30)
Walker makes the point that these artists were figures of suspicion to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and other arms of the US government in the first half of the twentieth century. Nothing could speak better of them. (George Fetherling Seven Oaks 2007-12-19)
This book is a treasure trove for the knowledgeable artist and the historian. (Carol Ohlin Quebec Home and School News)
Provides a rare glimpse into the beginnings of the art form. (Goethe-Institut 2007-09-18)
For the person who loves books and novelty and contemplation. (Lois Cooper Muskoka Today)
Themes of social justice predominate, but it is the passion and craft of the artwork that makes the greatest impact. Anyone who is interested in today's graphic novels will find it particularly worth a look, though the appeal of such work is universal. (Alex Good The Guelph Mercury 2007-10-13)
[A] treasure trove ... In collecting these rare and seminal works, Walker and Firefly Press [sic] have done an invaluable service exposing newer readers to the form in its infancy. In a market glutted with pituitary cases in spandex, the reintroduction of real life concerns is a necessary tonic. (www.latereviews.blogspot.com)
While the stories are all tragic, the art is spectacular. (Annie Boulanger The Recofd (New Westminster BC) 2007-12-15)
[starred review] [A] jaw-dropping collection ... Handsomely printed and bound and smartly edited, this book sets the standard for how to present anew the important but lesser-known classics of graphic fiction's past. (Publishers Weekly)
Beautiful and large-format collection ... Themes of social justice predominate, but it is the passion and craft of the artwork that makes the greatest impact. Anyone who is interested in today's graphic novels will find it particularly worth a look, though the appeal of such work is universal. (Alex Good The Record 2007-10-13)
[This] collection will have many awestruck and amazed at works few people even know about... The majesty of this book lies in the four stories themselves.... the magnificence of these stories is in their medium. The amount of information communicated in each panel is amazing. (Lance Eaton Curled Up With a Good Book (www.curledup.com) 2007-11-19)
Graphic Witness is a collection of novels ... that say eloquently in pictures what words often struggle to convey. (Ken Simmons The Telegram (St. Johns, NF) 2007-09-30)
Regardless of place or time, these artists speak in a silent way through pure imagery against the oppression of the weak by the strong, and offer some hope for a brighter future ... ambiguities and gaps that beg the reader to fill in the details comprise just one of the great pleasures of these graphic novels, which paradoxically carry a greater power for not using words.... Himself a woodcut artist, Walker clearly and illuminatingly explains many of the intricacies of the art... Walker's insider knowledge of the craft as well as his clear affinity for the spirit of these works makes him the perfect presenter of their art. (Bob artblogbybob.blogspot.com 2008-01-08)
Deeply political, these beautiful, quasi-expressionist woodcut narratives remind us how stark and chilling suffering seemed. (Georgia Straight 2007-10-18)
If you're at all interested in the craft of relief carving, then you really owe it to yourself to get this book. The engravings are simply beautiful, and thankfully the plates are shown large enough that you can see a lot of finer detail. You'll also find that the stories the four artists tell us are timeless. (Canadian Woodworking 2007-12-31)
Walker's introduction gives intriguing technical and sociopolitical insights... All fascinating stuff and, overall, a feast for the eyes. (Anne Desmet Printmaker vol 27 no 1)
A dazzling compendium... In addition to the novels themselves, editor George A. Walker provides a terrific Preface and Introduction....Perhaps the only way this book could be better is if it were the first of a series, for these four works surely just scratch the surface (so to speak) of th e vast number of wordless novels worthy of reprint. (Eric Lorberer Rain Taxi Review)
These four texts represent some of the most important wordless novels of the first half of the twentieth century and their reprinting makes them readily available for the first time in an affordable edition. Those interested in sequential art, printmaking, book art, and the convergence of these forms with social-justice issues should take note of this collection. [It is] indispensable for anyone engaged in the study of comics and graphic novels.... Each of these texts is an excellent example of the wordless novel and its potential to provoke critical thought in its audiences.... In bringing these texts together in a beautifully presented and affordable volume, Graphic Witness has not only done a great service to anyone interested in sequential art, print-making, and book art, but to anyone interested in ways to approach social-justice issues and cultural critique. (Dale Jacobs, University of Windsor Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, V)
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Masereel's story is the most ambiguous. His imagery has least in the way of explicit continuity and the most in dramatic contrasts. Masereel makes it clear, however, that the urban world has dozens of ways to chew people up and spit them out. Ward's "Wild Pilgrimage" tries to escape an urban hell, but finds rural America is no better. It includes a lynching early on, an ugly blot from the country's not-so-distant past. Patri's "White Collar" conveys the hopeless of The Depression, a world where no amount of hard work can be enough to make ends meet. Finally, Hyde's "Souther Cross" brings us up to the atomic age, examining one of the human costs of 50s-era nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Walker's collection reminds us that the graphic novel, as we know it today, drew from many sources. On one hand, comic strip culture evolved upwards through generations of comics towards today's graphic novels, and now presents very mature works by contemporary writers. In the other direction, fine art printing found itself too constrained by the single image. It needed plots, not just snapshots. As a result, it's easy for today's reader to appreciate these moving graphic series - and maybe easier, when that reader learns about the persecutions and McCarthy-eras black-balling of some of these artists and their works.
Each of these books (four books for the price of one!) takes a slice of the artist's contemporary life and then explores the timeless conditions of humankind. Masereel was profounding affected by World War I and the European chaos between the wars, so his art addresses social conditions, including the urbanization of society, during those years. Ward and Patri were also affected by their times -- so the hardship and civil unrest brought on by the Great Depression and the trade union movement is the background for their stories here. Ward also presciently treats the rise of nazism in his other woodcut novels.
Patri's "White Collar" in particular is a real find, because this story is not readily available in any other form, as far as I know. Finally, Hyde's story was printed in 1951, and he addresses the first man-made weapon of mass destruction, the A-bomb, and its effect on the environment of the South Seas.
This book also gives a good sampling of the art of the woodcut novel, over time. The earliest is Masereel's work of 1918, and his figures have the least detail, and thus lack an ability to communicate nuance in the characters. Ward's work, is highly detailed, in a distinctive art deco style (akin to the work of Rockwell Kent) and I find more enjoyable.
To fully appreciate all these works, you need to spend some time with them on a second and third "read." It takes only a few minutes to go through each story, which is all it takes to get a general understanding of the story. However, upon rereading, and studying the figures, you will probably come to a different understanding of the story. Without words, there is a lack of precision, so your life experience and imagination will fill in the blanks.
Congratulations to the publisher (Firefly Books) for preserving this important art form, and making it accessible at a very reasonable price. Kudos!
Frans Masereel is the European pioneer of the genre. His art exhibits the jagged simplicity of German Expressionism, and his storytelling is correspondingly disjointed and ambiguous. Lynd Ward is the American master, embodying the true apex of the art form. (The Library of America recently published an edition of his complete works.) His prints are beautifully detailed with intricate line work, and his narrative likewise displays complexity and depth. Canadian artist Laurence Hyde provides the most beautiful art in the book, combining the stark gravity of Masereel with the nuance of line and tone found in Ward's work. Italian-American artist Giacomo Patri supplies the weakest piece in the collection. His art, in both its conception and execution, is really not in the same league as the other three, but his story provides a valuable glimpse into life during the Great Depression. If there's a common thread among the four works, it is a stand against social injustice. No less than three of the works feature workers rising up against their oppressors, with mixed results.
The only reason I'm not giving this book five stars is because I was disappointed by the thirty-odd pages of text that accompany the art. The preface and introduction by Walker, and the afterword by Seth provide only a couple paragraphs of biographical information on each artist, with some very general comments on how these novels expressed the political realities of their time and how woodcut novels were the precursors to today's graphic novels. To this I say, "Duh." I would have preferred more detailed biographies and more on the history of woodcut novels in general.
I thought the storyline of Laurence Hyde's Southern Cross was simplistic and uninteresting, but the individual engravings were fascinating. My favorite wordless graphic novel author is Lynd Ward, and his Wild Pilgrimage is included. I have this as part of the Library of America Lynd set, but I was happy to have it included in this much larger format with considerably better paper. The other two novels included are Frans Masereel's The Passion of a Man and Giacomo Patri's White Collar. Patri was the only artist whose work I was unfamiliar with, and the storyline of his book is by far the strongest of the four. A haunting reminder that the gap between middle class and homelessness is often only as wide as one bout of bad luck.
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