In keeping with its mission to preserve "America's best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes, featuring authoritative texts," the Library of America will reach another milestone in October when they release a two volume box set of the work of graphic artist Lynd Ward. This will mark their first excursion into the world of graphic storytelling. The collection, entitled Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, is edited by Pulitzer Prize winning comic artist Art Spiegleman. Each volume contains three of Ward's novels without words, several essays by the artist which had appeared as prefaces to previous editions, notes on the texts and some explanatory notes on the essays. Both volumes, because they can be purchased separately, include an introductory essay called "Reading Pictures" by Spiegleman and a chronology of the life of Ward.
Born in 1905, Ward became interested in print making during a visit to Germany where he chanced upon the woodcuts of Frans Masereel, a Flemish artist Spiegleman credits with the invention of the woodcut novel. Moreover it was also in Germany that the style of Ward's woodcuts was formed under the influence of the German Expressionists, not to mention some of the early German dark cinematic masterpieces like Nosferatu. He returned to the States in 1927, did some illustrating work, and in 1929, after coming across Schicksal, a complex wordless novel by Otto Nuckel, a German engraver, he started on a work of his own.
In the preface he later wrote for that first novel without word, he talks about the nature of what he calls "pictorial narrative." It is not merely the addition of a picture or two to a verbal narrative. That is illustration. "The measuring stick, if anyone is making a list of what is or is not pictorial narrative, is whether the communication of what is and what is happening is accomplished entirely or predominantly in visual terms." There may be words, as in comic books, but pictorial narrative requires that meaning cannot depend on the words. It is from the picture that understanding must come.
Gods' Man, the first of Ward's novels in woodcuts, is a modernized version of the Faust story in which an Impoverished artist signs away his soul to a mysterious dark stranger in return for a brush that will enable him to create great art. It is a familiar story and very easy to follow despite the absence of words. The second of his novels, Madman's Dream, on the other hand, perhaps because he is trying to create a dreamlike quality, is quite disjointed and the narrative is difficult to follow. It is the story of several generations of a family haunted by a history of violence.