Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lynd Ward: Novels without Words

Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was an artist and illustrator best known for his Depression-era novels told entirely in woodcuts. I first discovered him in the '70s, when I found a second edition of Madman's Drum at a yard sale. The noirish mood of the book instantly appealed to my drama-teen sensibilities, but unlike many of my youthful enthusiasms (Black Sabbath anyone?) my respect for Ward's work has not only held up but grown. I'm enthralled by the Art Deco lettering, by the thick yellow pages, and by the vivid, often disturbing woodcuts, which at times slash and gash across the page like a visual scream.

As a writer who lacks the ability to draw even a convincing stick figure, I am fascinated by the concept of narration without words.
To truly read a Ward novel, to read it well and close, requires no less skill and attention than does reading a masterpiece of the written word.

Ward was America's first graphic novelist, a medium that often doesn't get the respect it deserves. Commenting on Ward's first novel in woodcuts, Gods' Man (1929), one writer notes that "its artistic innovations were unprecedented; its visual structure and pacing owed as much to silent film and mass-circulation comic pages as they did to artistic predecessors like Kollwitz or HonorĂ© Daumier. Wordless novels were political interventions, too, meant to take advantage of what Ward called the 'great asset of the book’s thousandfold duplication of contact with people.' Ward wanted to get art out of stuffy museums and snooty galleries and into the hands of an international community of readers who shared the language of images. From "Silent Beauty," by Christopher Cappozola.

Gods' Man tells the story of the seduction and redemption of a young artist and is said to have inspired Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I found a copy, along with a first edition of Vertigo (1937), when I was in college. And last year, my darling Frink gave me a lovely gift, a framed Ward print. Along with Eric Drooker's Flood! (1992), a graphic novel inspired by his work, that sums up my modest Lynd Ward collection.

Ward wrote six novels in woodcuts in all (10 if you count his wordless picture books for c
hildren): Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), and Song Without Words (1936). I'm still looking for these, though not with great vigor--I lack the acquisitive obsession of the truly avid collector. He also illustrated children's books, as well as editions of Beowulf and Frankenstein, which I will certainly pick up if I ever come across them. And one of these years, when I can spare the $100-300, I'd like a copy of Storyteller Without Words, a 1972 book that features all of his graphic novels, accompanied by the artist's comments on his work.

If you're as intrigued by his work as I am, here are some links you might find interesting:

This fascinating blog has some excellent reproductions of Ward's woodcuts.
Georgetown University has an exhibit catalogue with illustrations.
A mini-biography of Ward can be found here.
The Graphic Novel, a pre-history features many pages from Ward's books.

This site has Ward prints for sale (but it costs nothing to look at them!)


  1. Thanks for your comment. You're making me regret having cut up my first novel. Ah well, I might have a shot at rewriting it sometime.

  2. No regrets! The things you learned from writing that novel are part of you and everything you write.

  3. I started a yahoo group on Lynd Ward, but never get any hits. He is one of my art Idols and his work is still timely.

    I have read all his graphic novels for each one wrote a paper describing each picture and possible meanings. Would be interested having other people comment on my papers.

  4. Hi Anonymous. I'd love to see your paper on Ward. Could you post a link?