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Lynd Ward's 'Woodcuts' Tell Novels Without Words

Over the years, lovers of comics have struggled valiantly against those who would, with the wave of a hand, dismiss the entire medium as unserious or juvenile. The oft cited mainstream success of projects like Maus, Fun Home and Persepolis offers encouraging signs that the tide of that particular battle has turned. And although you can still find examples of the "Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!" feature article that causes comics fans to fumble for the antacids, that kind of tin-eared media coverage is no longer as thick on the ground as it was even a decade ago.

Yet many readers continue to view comics not as their own medium but as merely a mishmash of others. And although comics possess an internally consistent set of rules and methods distinct from those of prose, visual art or animation, a "neither fish nor fowl "attitude toward the form has proved remarkably stubborn. This may have something to do with the fact that whenever advocates attempt to clarify the things the comics form can do that other media cannot, they tend to get bogged down in issues of nomenclature ("graphic novels?"  "pictorial narratives?" "sequential art?") that leave outsiders bemused.

The whole discussion would most likely mystify engraver and printmaker Lynd Ward, who matter-of-factly subtitled Gods' Man, his 1929 book, "A Novel in Woodcuts." As far as he was concerned, the fact that a succession of images could communicate meaning on a deep, pre-verbal  level -- and do so in a manner that was unique to the format -- was self-evident. And now that Gods' Man, along with five other books Ward produced over the course of the following eight years, has been edited by Art Spiegelman into a two-volume edition for the Library of America, readers can see for themselves that the guy had a point.

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 yarn Madman'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.

Ward's metaphors are simple, even stark, and he eagerly and unself-consciously commits to them; his most striking images possess an expansive -- and occasionally swoony -- operatic vigor. Which is why these novels attain the primal, Manichaean impact they do. Collectively, they exist on the line separating the dramatic from the melodramatic, sentiment from sentimentality.

This heedless (and occasionally over-the-top) expressionist zeal has led some -- including no less an authority than Susan Sontag -- to apply the word "camp" to his work. (Even Spiegelman admits that Gods' Man's "depiction of Our Hero idyllically skipping through the glen with The Wife and their child makes [him] snicker.") That may not be the reaction Ward hoped for, but it's a perfectly valid response to a work that demands so much of the reader. Indeed, some of Ward's longer works stumble when his cast of characters grows too large for the clean narrative logic that otherwise connects his images to carry us along with them.

Was Lynd Ward "America's first great graphic novelist," as the publishers contend? Can Ward's 1936 Song Without Words, for example, even be considered a graphic novel when it's surely more of a pictorial tone-poem?  Those are questions for scholars and fans. But while the debates continue, this collection makes one thing clear: Lynd Ward wrote Comics, and did so with a skillful and profound understanding of their emblematic and unique narrative power.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.