Monday, July 1, 2013

Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels by David A. Beronä

Oddly enough, could use more words and fewer pictures
In the early 20th century, a few innovative artists created visionary pictorial novels composed entirely of illustrations. The undisputed masters of the genre were the Belgian woodcut artist Frans Masereel and the American wood engraver Lynd Ward. These two artists, and a small group of followers inspired by their work, created wordless narratives of exceptional artistic and literary quality, which served as the precursors to the graphic novel as we know it today. In this 2008 study of the subject, David A. Beronä examines the work of eleven artists whose books were published from 1918 to 1951. In recent years, no other scholar has done as much to draw attention to and bring deserved respect to these influential works of art than Beronä. If anyone is qualified to write the definitive history of this art form, it’s him. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

This book contains less than 45 pages of text. Chapter one, entitled “Historical Background,” is only two and a half pages long. Each artist gets about two paragraphs of biographical information, with the exception of Masereel and Ward, who maybe get a page each. 90 percent of the text consists of Beronä summarizing the plots of the books, complete with spoilers. For each work, Beronä’s synopsis is supported by roughly ten percent of each book’s illustrations, from which he makes points about the artist’s technique and choice of imagery. There are a few cases where he makes some insightful comments in regard to historical context, but mostly he’s not telling you anything you wouldn’t figure out from looking at the original works themselves. If you are interested enough in this art form to purchase a book like this, wouldn’t you rather get the reprint editions of these wordless novels and “read” them yourself, rather than be told second-hand everything that takes place within their covers?

You can’t go wrong with a book full of these stunning and powerful images, and they are reproduced beautifully. But the question is, how much of an education on the subject does this book really provide? What enthusiasts of woodcut novels and wordless books could really use is an in-depth scholarly study of the subject, with more concrete information on the artist’s lives, the development of their techniques, the artists and writers that influenced them and who they in turn influenced, the creation and publication of their wordless books, and the historical context in which this art form was created. This should be supported by illustrations that show examples of the art, without giving you so many pictures, taken out of context, as to hinder your enjoyment of reading the actual works. If the purpose of Wordless Books is to inspire a readership of these works, how is this purposed served by telling us which characters live or die? The experience one gets from Beronä’s study is roughly equivalent to trying to learn about the history of American literature through a series of Reader’s Digest condensed books.

Beronä should be commended for his career of work on this subject, but all the promotional copy I’ve read on this book leads one to believe it is a definitive scholarly study of wordless books, which it is not. Instead, it’s like reading a collection of the two-page introductions to the Dover reprint editions of many of these works. So why not just collect the Dover reprints, or seek out the works of these great artists through your local university library?

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