Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde – A Review

Southern Cross
Laurence Hyde
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, pg 255
Original Publish Date Ward Richie Press, 1951

Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross is a wordless novel made from wood cuts. Much as Lynd Ward, Frans Massreel, and Otto Nuckel before him, Hyde wrote his novel with images, relying on his skills as an artist to create a visual language. It is a difficult art, as he points out in his survey of the art included with the book. One that takes careful planning. A rewrite means he has to recarve one or more of his blocks. The results, though, can be evocative.

Southern Cross is fiction, but it tells the story of the American atomic bomb tests at the bikini atoll during the 40s. He tells the story from the perspective of the native islanders and sees the tests as not only an invasion, but a literal rape of a peaceful people. Hyde contrasts idelic drawings of the islands and its sea life with the arrival of the Americans. While the Americans seem peaceful, not only do they want to take the people from their homes, an American rapes one of the native women. Nothing will stop the bomb. The woman’s husband kills the American and they hide on the island. When the bomb is detonated they die.

l-hyde-southern-cross-image-1
A shark

Hyde is none too subtle in his criticism. While his story of an ideal people destroyed by the modern world at its most destructive is well tread, for its time, 1951, it is a brave statement. The rape seems a little over the top, as if the crime of stealing someones home for atomic tests wasn’t bad enough. Is rape really the only crime that make Americans look bad? The escaped to a doomed freedom is the much more compelling aspect of the book and on its own might have been enough.

3726596336_71c65e3368_b
Firing the bomb

The plot aside, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ferocity of the bomb is the most striking aspect. It is also the easiest to render visually and in pure symbolism holds up the best. Hyde sees such destruction as an obscenity and in rendering the natural world so carefully he seeks to reconstruct and lament what was lost.

Southern Cross is a fine example of the art of the wordless novel. Perhaps a little one sided; still, an important addition to any collection of these works. Drawn & Quarterly should be commended for their high-fidelity reprint. Not only is it printed on high quality paper, it preserves every detail of Hyde’s original addition, including his overview of the wordless novel up to that point.

Frans Masereel – The City, The Idea, The Sun, Story Without Words – A Review


The City: A Vision in Woodcuts (Dover Books on Art, Art History)
Dover, 112pg


The Sun, The Idea & Story Without Words: Three Graphic Novels
Dover, 224pg

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.

 

 

 

Marta Chudolinska’s Wordless (graphic) Novel ‘Back + Forth’

I just saw this note at Book Patrol about Marta Chudolinska’s Wordless Novel Back + Forth. In the same vain as the works of early wordless novel writer Frans Masereel, she uses wood cuts without any dialog to tell the story. It looks like an interesting bit of work. You can see all the panels in one large photo here.

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.