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.

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.

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.

Lynd Ward – Six Novels in Wood Cuts, Vol I – A Review

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America, Nos. 210 & 211)
Vol I: God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage
Lynd Ward
Library of America
2010, 839pg

I have written about Lynd Ward several times (Vertigo review, Wordless Books review) and will be doing again when I read volume II, and every time I read his works I am impressed by his graphic style. For me it is such a wonderful example of art deco and illustrative technique. I don’t get tired of thumbing through the pages. His stories, too, can be interesting even if they can push the city versus pastoral theme a little too much. Library of America has just released a two volume set the collects his six woodcut novels in a two beautiful editions which should insure they find a wider audience.

God’s Man, the first novel in the collection, is a faustian story of a painter who accepts a magical paint brush. The brush has helped the great painters of history from the Egyptians to the moderns. The painter takes it and begins to the live the life of a famous artist, only to find it is an empty life and he flees, as many of his characters do, to the country side where he finds peace, a wife, and happiness only to be summoned by the owner of the brush. It is a typical faustian story, and as with all versions of faust, it isn’t the selling of the soul that matters so much, but what the writer does with implications of the sale. For Ward, it is a mixed result. The art is certainly powerful, but the story seems a little simplistic. As he latter said in an essay at the back of the book, it was a kind of a coming of age novel for him and he realized he over emphasized the role of art. Moreover, for an artist the work seems to suggest art is the work of the devil. I don’t know if he meant it, but having the famous artists use the same brush gives the impression that art is horrible, even though he latter shows the artist happily painting in the country side. As a fable it lacks some of nuance of other faust stories, but the art work makes up for any deficiencies in story telling, and his scenes of the isolation in the great cities captures the feeling so well.

Madman’s Drum is a more ambitious work but also a somewhat confusing one. It tells a multigenerational story about a rich family as it dissipates through the generations in tragedies and injustices. All of these injustices stem from the sins of the father who was a slave trader. Over the years as members gain their dreams only to find them destroyed. At the same time there is an argument between a modern, scientific way of looking at the world and a more primitive and free way of seeing the world. The main character is shown throughout dedicating himself to books and science while all around him tragedy strikes. In one scene he throws away a crucifix only to have his mother trip on it and fall to her death. The primitive side is represented by the drum that the slaver brought back from Africa. It is always in the background ready for the family to use and as he suggests, save themselves. You can see Ward developing further the theme he first developed in God’s Man: the over reliance on the scientific and materialistic that leads to a soulless existence. Only returning away from it can one be free. Whether or not is a simplistic story, the notion that somehow African primitives had some secret to life turns African culture into a little more than a freak show. It is a book from a different era so his presentation of the idea while insensitive, doesn’t sink the book since it is such a small part. However, it is indicative of his like of oppositional stories.

Wild Pilgrimage is his first story to really take on the Depression. God’s Man was published the week of the 1929 crash, and Madman’s Drum 1930, before the full effects of the Great Depression could be felt. But Wild Pilgrimage was published in 1932 during the darkest moments of the depression, and you can see his attention to current events with scenes of strike breakers, communist organization, lynchings  and homeless camps. Wild Pilgrimage is similar in that it sees the country side as a refuge, but unlike the other two books, it is not a paradise. It too has moments of darkness. The story follows a man as he leaves the city where factories are closing and labor is under attack. He passes through the country side and his senses are awakened by the country side. He finds work with a farmer and his wife, but when he hits on the wife he runs. He then comes upon a solitary man farming in the woods and he stays with him. Eventually though he commits himself to the injustices in the city and leaves the farm. I won’t say what happens, but it shows how the Great Depression had influenced his work that the end of the story takes place in the city. Wild Pilgrimage is also different in that it is a much more sexual story. Using dream sequences printed in a reddish tint you can see not only the terror that is industrial life, but his sexual desires as he looks at the farmer’s wife. Ward also explores a homo erotic element when the man stays with the solitary farmer, using suggestive imagery to depict the relationship. The figures are also eroticized, a mix of Tom of Finland and Ward’s Art Deco. The story isn’t as rich as Vertigo, but it is his most complex story to that point in his career and shows his development as a story teller. Although ultimately his character must become engaged in the events of the time, it is the emotional life he experiences before he returns to the city that makes the work the best of the volume. Avoiding the committed nature of many works from the era helps the book be more than a legacy of the depression.

In volume I you can see Ward’s steady maturity as a story teller, which served him well in Vertigo. However, one should not think these works cannot stand by themselves as beautiful illustrations and a legacy of the art of the 1930s.

Lynd Ward’s Wood Cuts Collected by Library of America

Library of America is releasing a two volume set of Lynd Ward’s wood cuts. I’m looking forward to them as they are some fascinating early to mid 20th century art. I’ve read Vertigo which is called his best work and it has left me wanting more. The NPR review was unimpressive, but it will give you a sense of his work, both its excellence and its flaws. You can see some of the drawings here.

As Spiegelman notes in his introduction (“Reading Pictures: A Few Thousand Words on Six Books Without Any”), Ward’s work doesn’t involve the familiar visual syntax we have come to associate with comics, with their motion lines and word balloons. Neither is he interested in guiding our eye across a succession of images arranged on a page, nor of controlling, by virtue of the placement and size of those images, the pace at which we read them. Instead, Ward’s one-image-per-page narrative places strict demands on his storytelling: Each image must stand alone and declare its message simply and unmistakably even as it builds on the images that preceded it.

The LOA edition’s layout — one woodcut per right-hand page, surrounded by generous margins — may be the one that Ward preferred, and it certainly allows readers to appreciate the unfussy force of his lines, figures and composition more easily than ever. But it does drive up the page count: Book One, including the Faustian fable Gods’ Man, the multigenerational gothic yarnMadman’s Drum and the imagistic folk tale Wild Pilgrimage, weighs in at over 830 pages. The nearly 700 pages of Book Two include Prelude to a Million Years, which explores the art vs. society theme Ward so adored, Song Without Words, a grimly terrifying and hallucinatory anti-war screed, and Vertigo, an ambitious and sprawling tale of class struggle told from multiple perspectives.


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.

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.