Frans Masereel was an early proponent of the graphic novel and the sub genre the wordless novel. Most of his famous wordless novels which use the wood cut printing technique date from 1919 to the 20’s, are beautiful documents of its time, at once impressionistic and documentary. Although his work was not overtly political, he was a critic of a society that valued wealth and power above all things and his stories usually reflect some element of that criticism. At all times he has a great fascination with the little details that make up every day life. It is in that juxtaposition of layers of little details that his works build their narrative, or as it often seems, makes his case, since some of these might be better called wordless essays.
The most complete and compelling of the the works listed here is The City: A Vision in Woodcuts. Vision is the correct term, because there isn’t a narrative but a series of impressions of what the city is. In one sense it is the day in the life of a city, with images of workers in factories, weddings, parties, brothels, military parades. But looking closer at the details he places throughout there is a definite hierarchy in the images and it is obvious that despite the trappings of prosperity and modernity the city is a rough place and only a few win. In an image of a rich couple leaving a fancy cafe, off to the corner is a beggar. In another, a man takes advantage of a maid. He progress into even darker scenes of rape, and violent suppression of protests. The sum of all these images is a sense of isolation and loneliness that is often the early 20th century embodiment of the city.
The Sun takes a more light hearted approach to looking at the city. Instead, of a series of unrelated images, Masereel uses a narrative. The story opens with a man at a desk day dreaming and looking at the sun. He falls asleep and from his head emerges a figure who tries to reach the sun. From there on the figure walks through town and country looking for the sun, never quite reaching it. It is a satirical piece because the sun takes many different forms, all of which are chimeras. He looks for it in books, a crucifix, drink, up a woman’s dress, a brothel, at the top of a factory smoke stack, in the coin a rich man throws him from a car. None of it helps and he continues to seek and never quite gets there despite going by boat to the horizon of a setting sun, or in an airplane. As the story ends the figure, now Icarus like, returns to the sleeping man who laughs. While it has the same social criticism as The City, he also shows an element of the surreal and an interest in the origins of art. And what ties the two elements of the story together are the panels where the figure is constantly set upon by the crowd, as if the seeking is something forbidden. In Masereel you always have the sense that upsetting the social order will only bring trouble.
The Idea continues many of the elements in The Sun. In it an author sits at his desk and struck by lightening he creates the figure of a naked woman. He puts her in an envelope and sends her out into the world where she is hated. Men try to clothe her, but she refuses; when she is loved, the men kill her husband; when she meets a young boy, his parents spank him. And in the most amusing, when her image is printed it has to be burned. Eventually, she has to flee and returns to the author, but he has created a new figure, so he places her on a crucifix and hangs her in a painting. The last scene is the author crying as his newest figure is sent into the world. Despite its fantastical nature, it shares with The Sun the idea that ideas are dangerous, in what ever form. The religious overtones of a creator sending out his children only to see them persecuted, adds to wildness of the story and makes for a bitting satire also of religion.
The final work Story Without Words, is probably the least interesting. The story is fairly simple: a man seeks a woman, and when he finally gives herself to him, he abandons her. Within the context of his other works, he does show a concern for women who are used carelessly by men. In many of his drawings there is the figure of a woman whose desires for freedom, self hood, love are repressed, or her physical being is threatened in someway. Given that context the story has more weight, but it is not his best work.
His art work is not as detailed and stylized as a Lynn Ward, but he captures, especially in The City, a richness of detail that make his work come alive. And it is that detail that makes Masereel’s work a fascinating vision of the enter war period.