The Tradition of the Woodcut Novel
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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.
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.