Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts
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.