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America’s First Graphic Novelist

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Hooray for The Library of America. What an inspired idea to reprint all of Lynd Ward’s novels in woodcuts with an illuminating introduction by Art Spiegelman. I still remember purchasing my first Ward novel, sometime around 1950, in a used bookstore. That title, Madman’s Drum (1930), pretty much scared the daylights out of me because of its haunting depiction of slavery as a curse that cannot be escaped. I’d started with comic books, including the Classics Illustrated before 1950–$1.00 for a yearly subscription of twelve issues–and subsequently got hooked on books at a near-by junk shop that had thousands of used books for prices mostly in the ten cent range. Since Madman’s Drum looked like a comic book in hard covers, that was an easy move.

Some years later—somewhere else—I bought a copy of Gods’ Man, Ward’s first novel (1929) and by then realized the genius I had stumbled upon quite by accident. It’s a classic story of the artist who sells his soul to the devil, but as with the other novel I had already acquired, there was the chill of recognition that I had stumbled across the work of an extraordinary artist whose images have remained seared into my memory all these years—half a century—later. So what could be better than The Library of America’s decision to reprint all six of Ward’s titles in an elegant boxed set, on quality paper right for illustrations, rather than the usual India paper for the other titles in the series? Moreover, on one side of the paper only, so there’s no bleed from side to side.

So who was Lynd Ward (1905-1985)? Spiegelman places him in his social context almost immediately in his introduction: “He was born into a devout Methodist family in Chicago, in 1905. His father, Harry Frederick Ward, a progressive minister, imbued him with the social conscience and activism, as well as the pronounced Protestant work ethic, that informed his work and life. (In 1920 his father became the first chairman of the ACLU, and in the 1950’s he was blacklisted for his prominence in the Popular Front.)” By the time Ward began creating novels, the stock market was about to collapse, and the Depression was ravaging in the country during the time he published his last four works: Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), Song without Words (1936), and Vertigo (1937). America’s economic collapse and the struggle of millions to survive is central to these four novels, hauntingly depicted in picture after picture of exploited workers, labor disputes, riots, and physical displacement. Perhaps it’s no surprise that after the Depression, people not only wanted to forget about their troubled lives but also about Lynd Ward’s novels.

Two illustrations taken randomly from the last four novels provide the necessary contextualization for Ward’s work. The first is from Wild Pilgrimage, my favorite narrative, the troubled story of a young man overwhelmed by his attempts to find a job and, thus, survive during the Depression. Initially, Ward shows him as a human automaton, crushed by his work in a factory in a city. This novel—unlike the five others—uses two colors for the illustrations: black for the beginning narrative but then burnt-orange for the plates that depict the man’s inner thoughts, his emotions. The first page printed in orange shows the protagonist dwarfed at the bottom of the illustration, with his arms reaching upwards in dismay, as he looks up, up, up at the factory’s massive belching chimneys, polluting the environment with smoke. The vertical lines of the illustration create a kind of vertigo, and we have no doubt that the protagonist has had enough, working on an assembly line.

German expressionism comes to mind, plus the illustrations by Rockwell Kent, as the protagonist decides to abandon the city for the country, presumably for a better job and an environment where the air is not contaminated. Or so we think. But the country is no better. It isn’t long before he observes the lynching of a black man, in the agrarian simplicity of the country, though he also encounters a woman whom he believes he loves. But he’s chased out of that environment, presumably by her family, and his eventual return to the city places him back into the world of police violence against rioting workers. The ending is violent and bleak, heralding continual exploitation for the common man, searching for nothing more than a decent job and economic security.

After the two shorter narratives at the beginning of the second volume, the final Lynd Ward novel, Vertigo, provided the artist with a much broader canvas, both historically and artistically because of its scope and length. The early parts depict the beginnings of American history before the subsequent narrative devoted to “The Girl,” “An Elderly Gentleman,” and “The Boy,” that is, the optimism of youth and the wisdom and cynicism of old age. Visually, Vertigo is also the most inspired of Ward’s six narratives. The illustrations in the earlier novels were largely drawn within the confines of rectangular or square boxes, with a delicate edge at their margins; but Vertigo breaks these barriers throughout: different shapes, no longer the closed boxes, drastically different sizes, giving the impression of something much bigger than space—beyond the confines of the troubling narrative.

That narrative is once again the depressed conditions of workers, economic exploitation and narrowing options during times of stress. Details in the background also provide a bitter commentary on the situation of the characters in the foreground, such as the advertisement in front of a movie marquee, announcing the title of the current film: “Love on a Dime.” The final plate—the last image in the book—shows a man and a woman (presumably the girl and the boy) huddled together on a roller coaster that is whizzing along, a painful symbol of the volatility of their lives.

Lynd Ward’s six brilliant novels in woodcuts are sui generis, unforgettable in their artistry but also in their depiction of the down and out during America’s depression. Looking at them today—thinking about America’s current economic state and the depressing statistics that keep appearing almost daily (the income of one-tenth of one percent of wealthy Americans is equal to the income of 120 million Americans at the bottom) makes it obvious that Ward’s major theme after his first two novels was economic inequality, the Capitalist gift that just keeps giving.

Six Novels in Woodcuts
By Lynd Ward
The Library of America, 1584 pp., $70 boxed set.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

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