The Tradition of the Woodcut Novel


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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Lynd Ward

One of the great things about the Library of America series is that it encourages renewed attention to unfashionable books. Journalism is very present-orientated; magazines and newspapers need the hook of a new book as an excuse for revisiting a classic. Thanks to the LOA, we’ve had major critical essays in places like  The New Yorker and Harper’s on John Dos Passos and Manny Farber.

Lynd Ward is the latest beneficiary. The Library of America has issued a two volume set reprinting six of his wood cut novels, expertly introduced by Art Spiegelman. This set has already elicited a thoughtful review essay by Sarah Boxer in Slate (see here).

Boxer’s essay is jam-packed with ideas and very much worth reading. There’s only one passage I had issues with, which I want to take up here.

Near the end of her piece Boxer writes:

[Lynd Ward is] the crucial missing link between the graphic novelists of today, Spiegelman included, and the narrative artists of the past, going back to Frans Masereel, Albrecht Dürer, and the muralists who painted Bible stories on church walls in case people couldn’t read.

Today, few graphic novelists choose woodcutting (or any kind of relief printing) as their medium. And few choose to work without words. (Eric Drooker, the author of Flood, does it.) Yet the legacy’s there. Many graphic novelists, with their earnest populism and workmanlike prose, have a lot more in common with Hogarth and Dürer and Ward than they do with Herriman and Feiffer and Schulz, cartoonists who love to play with line and word.

My objections?

1. I distrust the teleological tendency to make the woodcut novel the precursor to the graphic novel. I think the woodcut novels are a kissing cousin of comics but not directly related. The woodcut novel has its own tradition and lineage. The woodcut novel is to the graphic novel as the bicycle is to the motorcycle or the whale is to the dolphin: there are certain family resemblances but still these are different things, different species.

2. Over the last few years there has been a significant revival of the woodcut novel, thanks in large part to the work of George Walker, a teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Walker and his students have done great woodcut and engraving work in a variety of mediums. Anyone interested in the woodcut novel as a living tradition should check out the work of Walker, Stefan Berg, Marta Chudolinska, Megan Speers. (They’ve all had books published by the excellent Canadian press The Porcupine’s Quill, which can be found here).

3. In my experience, contemporary cartoonists tend to revere Herriman and Schulz (and also have a high regard for Feiffer) but not to be overly familiar with the work of Lynd Ward. To be sure, Ward is remembered in comics circles as an interesting curiosity in the history of visual storytelling, but he’s rarely seen as a direct precursor to work that is being done today. In fact, I’d hazard to say that many more contemporary cartoonists are influenced by Milt Gross’ parody of Lynd Ward (a parody that was done in the idiom of comics rather than the woodcut tradition) than are influenced by Ward himself. There are exceptions, of course. I do think Eisner was, as he frequently said, influenced by woodcut novels: that would explain some of Eisner’s propensity for melodrama and histrionic acting. And Eric Drooker, although he doesn’t do woodcuts proper, has shown that there is a living idiom for contemporary artists to use. And of course, the artists mentioned above (Walker, etc.). But really, this is a tradition that overlaps slightly with comics but also has its own history, language, and lineage. It is hardly an accident that Fantagraphics, which publishes so many contemporary cartoonists is also the main publisher keeping the works of Herriman, Schulz, and Feiffer in print.  

4. I’m having a hard time thinking of any contemporary cartoonist or woodcut novelist who can be described by the terms “earnest populist” and “workmanlike prose”. Maybe Harvey Pekar in some of his weaker works? But really, who else? It seems to me that the bulk of the good comic that are being now not only respect language but also even aspire to the intensity of distilled experience found in lyrical poetry: I’m thinking here of Ware, Katchor, Clowes, Tyler, Porcellino, Huizenga, Barry, Panter. None of these can be described as being indifferent to language, and in fact achieve their most powerful effects by the apt fusion of words in imagery in a way that deserves to be called poetic. Even those woodcut novelists who don’t use words (or use a minimum of words) are still making images that aim for a poetic rather than a prosaic effect.   

Lynd Ward deserves to be appreciated on his own terms, and not as part of a fanciful family tree that runs from Gods’ Man to, say, Kevin Huizenga.

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7 Responses to “The Tradition of the Woodcut Novel”
  1. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    You wrote:

    > In fact, I’d hazard to say that many more contemporary cartoonists are influenced by Milt
    > Gross’ parody of Lynd Ward (a parody that was done in the idiom of comics rather than the > woodcut tradition) than are influenced by Ward himself.

    Just out of curiosity, has it ever been established for certain that Milton Gross was parodying Lynd Ward? It seems plausible and I’ve heard this claim repeated as fact for years, but I’ve never seen any source for it.

  2. I’d add Peter Kuper and a number of the World War III artists to those for whom Ward, et. al. are a looming influence.

    I’m with you on just about every point except for No. 1. Woodcut novels seem to intrinsically be comics to me and I’m not sure you could convince me otherwise.

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    @ Daniel C. Parmenter. Well, Ward’s book came out in 1929 and was a huge hit and Gross’ book came out in 1930. So I think, just on the face of it, its highly likely that Gross had Ward in mind (along with other things like the silent movies and the Victorian novel).

    @ Chris Mautner. I think my earlier post on the proto-graphic novel explains why the woodcut novel is related to comics but not quite comics:
    http://comicscomicsmag.com/2009/10/proto-graphic-novel-notes-on-form.html

  4. Robert Boyd says:

    Whether or not woodcut novels are comics or not strikes me as a pretty uninteresting question, similar to asking whether a particular Frank Stella artwork is a painting or a sculpture.

    The WWIII Illustrated artists were interested in the history of committed graphics, which includes woodcut novels. I think we can reasonably conclude that Kuper, Tobocman and Drooker were influenced by them. Given that these WW III artists were also influenced by Robert Crumb and Spain and other comics artsists, that creates a linkage between Ward’s work and comics. Borges wrote “The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant.” I would add that the medium that the men worked in is unimportant, too.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Robert Boyd. Yeah, it’s true that thanks to Kuper, Drooker, Tobocman etc. the woodcut tradition has been absorbed into comics and perhaps it’s too much a matter of semantics to ask whether the original woodcut novels were comics or not. But still, the small sliver of a point I want to make is that these books have their own lineage which is distinct from that of most comics, and this tradition needs to be looked at in its own terms.Or to put it another way, we shouldn’t regret the fact that these books read differently than Herriman, Schulz, etc. We need to look at them in their own terms.

  6. Robert Boyd says:

    Jeet–I agree. It doesn’t increase our understanding of them to try to shoehorn them into the history of comics, even if, because of Drooker and Tobocman, they are now part of that history, after a fashion.

  7. On the other hand, Will Eisner specifically cited Ward as an influence on him from his earliest days, as showing him the potential of comics. That’s how I first learned about Ward.