Vertigo – A Graphic Novel In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward – A Review

Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts
Lynd Ward
Dover, 320 pg

Lyn Ward’s Vertigo is a beautiful work of wood block artistry and wordless story telling, and is hailed by many as his master work not only because of its sheer size (over 200 wood block) but its ambition. Set during the Great Depression it tells the interlocking stories of three characters simply named the Girl, the Boy, and an Elderly Gentleman, each one feeling the affects of the turbulent and uncertain times. Although it may seem rooted in its time, the art work is compelling and expressive, capturing movement, isolation and the vastness of the urban world.

The book begins with the story of the Girl. She is an aspiring violinist with a boy friend who she hopes to marry. Lynd builds the early part of her story as a march towards progress where her boyfriend grabs the brass ring on the carousel. Yet two panels later a storm opens up on the people at the amusement park, signaling the coming Depression. From then on everything in her life turns dark: her boyfriend goes away to work and doesn’t write back; her father is laid off and in desperation attempts to shoot himself, but only manages to blind him; and she is left jobless. It is a bleak world and the light and hopeful drawings that showed the girl’s face full of energy and promise, now recedes to the shadows where the hopelessness intrudes. Lynd uses his drawings to show the changes in her fortunes through his ability to control negative space, the black sections of the drawings. He doesn’t just fill the drawing with light, but highlights the features of his characters to show these changes in mood.

In the second story Ward presents an Elderly Gentleman. He is a lonely and frail man, emphasized early on with a drawing of him standing naked in front of a mirror, the folds of his skin hanging loosely. As a physical being he is almost powerless, and as the story continues it is obvious he is dying. Yet despite the physical weakness, he is a powerful man, one who runs a large corporation and will stop at nothing to make it profitable, whether that is breaking up unions, cutting wages, or paying thugs to attach workers who won’t go along with him. In his desire for profits he lays off the Girl’s father, thus, setting off the spiral of misery in their lives. The Elderly Gentleman, though, is a proud contributor to society, paying for memorials to World War I, buying art, giving to the poor on Thanksgiving. Yet all of this for not and he lives a pitiful life. Ward emphasizes the solitariness with the faces of the character who surround the man. Each one is stark, angular, almost statue like, and always hovering over him as if they are waiting for his death. There is no emotion here, just mechanics of living.

In the final story of the Boy, Ward draws the story of a young man who is out of work during the height of the depression, traveling across the country looking for work. The boy goes from hopeful fiance to a man desperate enough to contemplate a mugging. Ward takes the opportunity with the Bo to leave the city, and here is art has a bit of the Thomas Heart Benton quality, with a liquid sense of movement. The Boy, although proud, is ultimately reduced to giving his blood to the Elderly Gentleman so he can take the Girl back the the amusement park. The last seen of the book is the two of them on the descent of a roller coaster, her face buried in his chest, his eyes wide with fear. The final image is a clear indication that the future is still uncertain and at best things may only get worse. While the book is without hope, it reflects its moment, 1937, when the Depression had already lasted for seven years.

Vertigo is a masterpiece of wood cut art, a true stylistic achievement. The story that within the book is also quite strong and his use of image to tell a dialog free story is impressive. He is able to capture a wide range of emotion and feeling in the story. His take on the depression is squarely amongst the disposed, and is similar in theme to other works from the time by writers such as Steinbeck, Odets, Di Donato, and to some degree Dos Pasos.  In some ways the book seems more interesting, in part because the emotions of the characters are physical, not mental states. One doesn’t have to read old metaphors, one can see the faces of the characters. Moreover, the images reflect the photos of the time, something that is frozen in time. The politics and motivations of the characters, though, can seem awkward at best in so of the works I mentioned, especially Di Donato who had characters as mono dimensional as Snidely Whiplash.

My only quibble with the book and Ward is I wish the images were larger. Some are no more than two inches square. He packs a wealth of detail in them, but I wanted more. (The book does come with a good introduction by David Beronä). Otherwise, Ward’s Vertigo is a Graphic Novel any fan of the genre should read. It is also a book anyone interested in  American in the 30’s should read.

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Wordless Books – A Review

Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels
David Beronä, Abrams 255 pg.

Wordless Books is a collection of excerpts from graphic novels that were drawn in the first half of the 20th century. Despite the range of styles and themes they all have one thing in common: they do not use dialog or narration to tell a story. Instead, the artists structured their stories as a progression of images, each hinting at the next and forming a narrative thread. It is a difficult task to do and one of the drawback of the book is that Beronä has to explain how the excerpts fit together so that the reader can see how the artists structured the narrative. Nevertheless, Wordless Books contains some fascinating work from the early 20th century.

Since much of the work was produced during the turbulent periods of World War I, the depression and World War II, anti-war and anti-capitalist themes link the artists. For the American artists such as Lynd Ward, fit amongst other socially committed artists like Stienbeck or Odets. Each, though, focuses on the struggles of the individual against larger forces, whether it be state power, especially the army, large corporations, or church.

Frans Masereel - The City

Of the artists covered in the book, the most interesting were the Belgian Frans Masereel, the American Lynd Ward, and the Italian-American Giacomo Patri. All three worked with bock printing using wood and black ink. Masereel’s work is blocky and less stylized than the other two and seems to draw more inspiration from late 19th century graphic arts. His saw the modern world as brutal, dark and unforgiving to the less powerful:

Masereel’s depiction of the Western industrial world is so complete that his friend, writer Stefan Zweig, wrote, “Should everything perish, all the books, the photographs and the documents, and we were left only with the woodcuts Masereel has created, through them alone we could reconstruct our contemporary world.”

Lynd Ward - from Song Without Words
Lynd Ward’s work, while following thematically Masreel’s work, is centered in a mix of industrial arts, almost a futurist vision, an American as seen in the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, possibly cinema like Fritz Lang, and one can even see some of the ideas of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orrozco. Using intricately carved wood blocks, he presents an America in the midst of turbulent economic times, filled with strikes, gaunt men in gaunt and defeated men, but also includes in a mid-century ethic that praised the industrial worker energetic, almost neo-Gothic images of men working amongst the dehumanizing machinery. His work is the perfect graphic aesthetic of the era, one that mixes criticism of capitalism with a celebration of industry and the worker who keeps it running.

Giacomo Patri’s work follows in the tradition of Lynd Ward, but begins to add text into scenes so that the reader has more ways of putting the story together. Again his drawings are a mix of the industrial and the energetic, but he focuses more on the individual in everyday life, not abstract beings caught in a modern drama. Moreover, his work is less ornate and leaves the characters as the center piece, not the energy or emotion of Ward.

The drawings in Wordless Books still have a power that resonates, perhaps at times it is a distant power caught in a history now quite distant, but the images of humans against machines is still salient. Perhaps one must substitute Masereel’s  draftsmen in the City for workers in cubical, but it is still the idea, although a contemporary artist might paint it in Starbucks green. While Wordless Books lacks the complete stories these authors tried to tell, it is a great introduction and should make anyone interested want to search for more of these works.