Lynd Ward, woodcut from Vertigo. Courtesy of the Library of America.
Will Eisner, who coined the term “graphic novel” in 1978, credits Lynd Ward and his woodcut novels as direct influences. Yet, outside the world of graphic artists, Ward’s work has been largely forgotten. The Library of America, doing what it does best, offers six of Ward’s woodcut novels from the 1930s—Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage, Prelude to a Million Years, Song Without Words, and Vertigo—in a beautifully printed two-volume set.
In his admiring introduction to this new collection, Art Spiegelman writes that silent film is a “direct catalyst for the wordless book.” Indeed, encountering Ward’s woodcuts for the first time, it is striking how much imagery they share with films by German expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. However, Ward’s novels, by their nature, lack a score or intertitles, leaving one in the truly silent world of the woodcut novel. While the plot point is immediately clear on many pages, other pages reveal a figure and its import only upon closer study.
It might seem odd to call woodcuts ambiguous, given their intensely sharp contrasts. The appearance of gray can only be achieved by crosshatching—both black and white being present side by side, as negative and positive. Ward’s themes, which are rooted in the disparities of the Depression era in which he lived and worked, are mirrored in the stark contrasts inherent to his chosen form. Ward deftly exploits the unexpected ambiguity on the concluding page of Vertigo: at first glance, it appears to be an image of a solitary man, stooped with age, on a roller coaster, implying an unstoppable track toward death, but with careful parsing the image of a couple emerges, reunited at the site where their romance began. The old man’s beard is revealed to be the young woman’s hair as she buries her face in the young man’s breast. And yet, the image retains the impact of its first impressions—the young man seems aged beyond his years and the couple is on that same relentless ride. By this last page, Ward has his readers questioning their initial perceptions, allowing a cohesive story to emerge, even as the afterimage indelibly marks the novel’s conclusion. Such nuance could only come from the skilled hand and mind of a master.