Friday, July 29, 2011

THE ART OF WORDLESS BOOKS

This week after Tuesday Morning Prayer and Eucharist, Sister Elizabeth handed me a copy of a new addition to St. Mary’s Convent library. She passed the book along because she thought I might be interested in the unique trilogy of books by graphic artist Lynd Ward: God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, and Wild Pilgrimage. As narratives depicted in woodcuts, the images in the volume are taken from original woodblocks or “first generation electrotypes” rendered by Ward. Son of a Methodist minister and a political organizer, Ward also worked in watercolor, lithography, and mezzo tint. The closest pictorial narratives to Ward's work that I’ve read have been cartoons, and this book of wood engravings fascinated me – mostly because it’s wordless.

God’s Man, told in art deco and expressionist style, is an allegorical story about a young artist struggling to remain true to his art while facing the temptations of commercialism. He ultimately delivers his soul to a dark stranger in exchange for a paintbrush that will help him create great works of art. The narrative becomes familiar to serious readers as a contemporary version of Faust.

Madman’s Drum really baffled me, but after looking for expositions of the story, I discovered that it’s a depiction of a family with a history of violence, taken through several generations.

Wild Pilgrimage presents the story of a young factory worker trying to escape from the societal problems of the 1930’s. Burdened with the close space of urban life, the worker flees to the wilderness in search of a refuge.

The three graphic novels constitute one volume and are enhanced by several essays explaining the stories written by Ward himself. Ward relates that pictorial narratives range in time from the period of Egyptian wall decorations to contemporary comic strips, and the work begins with “an almost obsessive concentration on some aspect of the human condition that keeps nudging the imagination until …a single figure emerges…and soon there is movement and things begin to happen…”

Comic books have always intrigued me, and the dark non-verbal stories (no word balloons, folks!) by Ward captured my interest as they present a unique form of plot development through wood engravings.

On a lighter note, my appreciation of graphic novels, or the comics, was nurtured by my father who read them aloud on Sundays. For your amusement, this poem entitled “Reading the Sunday ‘Funny Papers’” taken from my only book of rhyming poetry, Grandma’s Good War, published several years ago:

“Reading the Sunday Funny Papers”

He could press 4,000 pounds and sometimes 36 tons
and enlisted in “the mighty Navy” in 1941,
muscled arms riddled with tattoos, arch enemies he’d foil
in “arful” battles designed to impress his Olive Oyl.

Each Sunday at the oak dining table my father read aloud
the adventures of Popeye the sailor man whom he avowed
could handle any enemy who dared to invade the States,
a spinach-eating hero to all his admiring shipmates,
father shouting at the end of each strip, “zap, pow and bam,”
quoting Popeye’s “I yam what I yam, that’s all I yam,”
affirmation of father’s individuality, a message belying the cartoon,
with Popeye, he was ready to battle Sea Hag, Bluto, and Alice the Goon.

His somber voice deepened, describing the cold cruel war he knew
as that of Little Orphan Annie, another comic icon of W.W.II.
who formed Jr. Commandos and blew up a German U-boat,
enlisted us to collect scrap metal to keep the U.S. Navy afloat.
On her arm, Lil Annie wore a band with “JC” inscribed upon it,
called herself “Colonel Annie” and demanded we do our bit.
“Gee Whiskers,” my father’s voice would sometime resound,
“She’s left Daddy Warbucks! Poor girl’s on shaky ground.”

Alley Oop in the Kingdom of Moo who traveled to the moon,
Prince Valiant, the Nordic Prince who fought the hated Huns,
Dagwood, Blondie, Lil Abner… the Golden Age of comic strips
where our father took us on astonishing Sunday morning trips,
life served up in weekly installments of strange cartoons,
accented by his voice ascending on floating word balloons.”

Grandma’s Good War is available on www.amazon.com or at http://borderpressbooks.com.
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