Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, wrote about their copy of “Gods’ Man” in an internal memo recently. This is an expanded version of that piece.
We arrive on the doorstep of winter with a gift from the dark, shadowy recesses of the Library: A beautiful, eerily unsettling work of great American significance that, as the artwork above suggests, may leave you with images you cannot easily dismiss.
This is “Gods’ Man,” a 1929 black-and-white wordless novel that tells a Faustian tale of ambition, love, greed and death. It’s by the illustrator and woodcut artist Lynd Ward. It is widely regarded as the first American book of the form and the urtext of the graphic novel. The story is told through 139 uncaptioned woodblock prints, rendered in a dark, foreboding style that mixes Art Deco beauty with the stern lines of German expressionism. It can leave you breathless with its craftsmanship, vision and narrative detail.
But “Gods’ Man” and Ward’s five subsequent wordless novels were not regarded as a bold new stroke for literature in their day. They were just Depression-era quirks. They sold moderately well and drew good-but-not-great reviews, and Ward moved on to more profitable lines of work. It was only decades later, after comics had matured from the funny pages into sophisticated, standalone stories called graphic novels, that his influence was fully realized.
“[Ward was] the father of pure ultimate visual,” the late Will Eisner once said, a remarkable testament considering that Eisner is one of the most influential comic artists in the second half of the 20th century and the namesake for the Eisner Awards, the comics equivalent of the Academy Awards. “I’ve tried to reach that same mountaintop and have never been able to do it.”
“Way ahead of his time, a visionary in understanding the importance of the book as an object, as a container of a kind of content,” said Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Maus,” the 1986 graphic novel about the Holocaust that has itself become an iconic narrative of the form.
The Library’s first-edition copy of “Gods’ Man” is part of our collection of hundreds of pieces of Ward’s work, from original prints and woodblocks to the woodworking tools he used in his craft. The collection is housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and the Prints and Photographs Division. Ward died at 80 at his home in Reston, Virginia, in 1985. His collection was given to the Library in 2003 by Robin Ward Savage, his daughter. (Georgetown University has the most significant holdings of his work.)
Ward was born in 1905 in Chicago, survived a bout of tuberculosis and quickly developed a talent for drawing. He was raised in a progressive, forward-thinking family that soon moved to the East Coast. His father, Harry K. Ward, was a British-born minister with a strong social reform streak, and Ward would hew to socialist ideals all his life.
He earned a fine arts degree from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York and married fellow student May McNeer, who obtained her degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. The pair would work together, often collaborating on books, for the rest of their lives.
They honeymooned in Europe and stayed a year in Leipzig, Germany, where Ward studied illustration. There, his encounter with German expressionism in general, and with the Flemish artist Frans Masereel’s “The Sun” in particular, greatly influenced his thinking. “The Sun” was a wordless novel, a form then unknown in the United States.
The young couple returned to the U.S. in 1927. Ward put together “Gods’ Man” in 1929, when he was just 24 years old. (The plural “Gods” in the title was intentional, invoking a world of many gods, not just one.)
In the story, a naïve artist signs a contract with a masked stranger in exchange for a brush. The brush propels him into fame and he soon finds himself in a bloated life of wealth and excess. Disillusioned and enraged, he strikes back, only to awaken to find himself in jail. He escapes, chased by a vengeful mob, who drive him over a cliff. Badly injured, he is discovered by a simple woman who lives in the woods. They marry and have a child.
But as fate would have it, the stranger returns and asks him to paint a portrait. When the stranger removes his mask, the visage is so terrifying that the artist flees and falls to his death at the cliff – the stranger with the skull-like head has exacted his contracted price for the brush.
The images were striking and, over the next decade while working as an illustrator, Ward created five more wordless books, each concerned with major issues such as fascism, the slave trade, the Depression, the plight of workers and so on. There was “Mad Man’s Drum,” “Wild Pilgrimage,” “Prelude to a Million Years,” “Song Without Words” and, finally, his masterpiece of the form, “Vertigo,” in 1937.
There was no real market for the books, though, and Ward continued his work as a high-profile artist, illustrator, painter and author. He contributed artwork to more than 200 books for children, juveniles and adults. He did the artwork for a book of poetry by William Faulkner and a hugely influential illustration of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” The first children’s book he both wrote and illustrated, “The Biggest Bear,” won the Caldecott Medal in 1953. He illustrated classic works for the Limited Editions Club.
Over time, artists in other fields found his work and were dazzled. Allen Ginsberg used a section of “Wild Pilgrimage” as the inspiration for a section of his poem, “Howl.”
And Guillermo del Toro, the Academy Award-winning director of such films as “The Shape of Water” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” lists Ward as one of his key influences. In a 2015 tweet, the Mexican director summed up Ward’s worldwide influence in a nutshell: “LYND WARD: American, his ‘wordless novels’ combine a modern graphic approach with Old Testament damnation. Fearsome.”
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