Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels edited by George A. Walker

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Graphic Witness (Firefly Books, 423 pages). As soon as you hold it, you know you have here an impossibly important book. It seems at once seminal and historic, a graphic witness, as the title indicates, of the very roots of the graphic novel.

Here we have four important stories told in woodcut and without words, collected for us by George A. Walker, himself an award-winning engraver, book designer as well as an author, teacher and illustrator. In his introduction to Graphic Witness he explains his passion eloquently:
As a woodcut artist, I’ve always been attracted to black-and-white art. I think it has something to do with the rich contrasts. I love a deep rich black that you can stare into, forever. The effect is like our colorful world torn down to its base so that we can read the underlying message.
Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1899-1972) has been considered the father of the wordless graphic novel. Here we see the first publication of his classic work, The Passion of a Man, since its original publication in Munich in 1918. From American artist Lynn Ward (1905-1985) we have Wild Pilgrimage, first published in the United States in 1932. Giacomo Patri (1898-1978) was Italian-born, though he worked and lived primarily in the United States. From Patri we have 1929’s White Collar, a work that was used as a promotional piece by the labor movement. Finally Canadian Laurence Hyde (1914-1987) in Southern Cross criticizes American bomb testing in the South Pacific.

The messages of the four artists and storytellers represented here are sometimes uneasy. “Wordless novels,” writes Walker, “have often treated controversial themes and been associated with protest movements.” And, as he points out, though the challenges they address were specific to their times, the broader issues are “sadly, still relevant to our contemporary eyes.”

Sadly and yet, it’s difficult to feel anything but triumph to see them collected so carefully, presented so beautifully. Where else could one see the birth of a medium in such a perfectly wordless fashion?

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