Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Art & Culture: Six Novels in Woodcut by Lynd Ward

Lynd Ward was an esteemed graphic artist, illustrator and storyteller. Though he worked in a variety of mediums and styles, and illustrated over 200 books for adults and children, he is perhaps best known as one of the significant fathers of the graphic novel in America.

In the middle of a significant and important body of work, Ward produced half a dozen wordless novels in woodcut, beginning with God’s Man in 1929 and ending with Vertigo in 1937. These six novels have been newly reprinted by The Library of America in a handsome two-box set, collectively known as Six Novels in Woodcut, edited by Art Spiegelman, whose monumental work of illustrated non-fiction won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. “Ward’s skill at miming expression and body language was impressive,” Spiegelman writes in his introduction to the box-set, “but it was Ward’s audacity and confidence in wrestling with a new narrative language that won my serious admiration as a a young cartoonist.”

The artwork is breathtaking, graphic and often moving. Viewed in sequence, as can be done here, the six books betray a natural arc. Ward was pushing the boundaries of his medium and had, by the time he came to Vertigo, reached maestro status at an art he was more or less creating as he went along.

Viewed alone, each image seems complete in itself. Viewed in sequence as they are meant to be seen, it’s like watching a skillful silent movie, where the narrative makes itself apparent and sweeps you along to the inevitable crescendo.

Spiegelman’s opening to his essay, “Reading Pictures: A Few Thousand Words on Six Books Without Any,” seems like a poem to both the man and his art: “Lynd Ward made books. He had an abiding reverence for the book as an object .... This is one of the reasons he commands our attention now, when the book as an object seems under siege.” ◊

David Middleton is a graphic designer and photographer and the art and culture editor of January Magazine.

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