A couple years ago my friend Stan was selling off a bunch of stuff from the back of his gallery. I bought some jazz records, a beautiful Polish film poster, and a few books. My favorite was a nice old copy of Frans Masereel’s wordless Passionate Journey.
Masereel tells his hero’s tale in 165 woodcuts without using a single word. He works in the simplified Expressionist style which was common in 1919 when the book came out but there’s a buoyancy from panel to panel which moves the eye along.
It’s remarkable how much motion and color he gets out of black-and-white. And even in the scenes when the hero is at his lowest something about Masereel’s staccato cut marks keeps the thing from sinking into a self-pitying mire.
I enjoyed my copy of the book for a few months, then gave it to a woman as a present. I never saw her or the book again.
Masereel inspired others to try their hand at telling a story in pictures. The best known now is probably Lynd Ward. God’s Man, the first of several wordless novels came out in 1929. Though using similar techniques to Masereel, Ward’s work couldn’t be more different. There’s not even a hint of a chuckle in his hero’s journey. This is deathly serious business.
Ward’s isn’t a light touch but I like his book anyway. There’s no questioning his faith in the artist’s mission in the world. Ward’s work is often cited as paving the way for the contemporary graphic novel. Just as it’s a mark of one’s impact to be parodied on SNL or latenight talk shows now, in Ward’s time a cartoonist published an entire wordless novel lampooning his self-seriousness. If they mock you it means you matter.
William Gropper’s Alay-Oop, which was recently reissued, might be my favorite book with no words. Because Gropper didn’t box himself into the restrictions imposed by the woodcut his pictures have a jazz flow which even Masereel couldn’t match.
The story, as with Ward and Masereel, is pretty rudimentary. It’s difficult to nail down complex intellectual notions without words. Art lends itself to
endless personal and emotional interpretation but if you want to direct your reader to specific idea words are the best ticket.
I’m wrestling with this stuff a lot lately while working on collages. There’s no hero’s journey in the two collage books I’ve made but I flip through God’s Man and Alay-Oop all the time to see how those guys jumped from one page to the next, from one moment or era to another. I even ordered a copy of Passionate Journey online.
Because even though the girl is gone the story remains.