Tuesday 9 October 2007

Graphic Witness

This is an important book and should be on your shelf. There is not enough information available on the woodcut novel, let alone buyable copies of the books. Masereel and Ward are represented, as well as the lesser known Patri and Hyde. There was always a political edge to the works of this idiom. It was the vehicle for raising an anguished voice for the world's ordinary people minding their own business, whether the villain of the piece is capitalism (Patri), or the police state or racism and its lynch mob (Ward), or the military machine and its atom bomb (Hyde's Southern Cross: A novel of the South Seas). Masereel's The passion of a man is an eloquent little modern Christ-analogue in only 25 cuts. In appearance it is almost fluid by comparison with the other works here (bottom right on the cover). Hyde's is the most graphically intricate, remarkably finding ways of using pattern to depict at its climax an atom bomb explosion. Patri works through the injustices of the system following the 1929 Wall Street crash. The book is beautifully put together, with big wide margins, and a number of pages at intervals printed in that bold red-orange you see on the small lettering on the cover.

One should not spend a large number of words describing these wordless masterpieces. So I find myself scrutinizing the stuff going on around the important material, watching the presenters get themselves in wormy knots of words, unable to get out. While I can see the purpose in connecting it all to the rise of the 'graphic novel', that there is an audience and theoretically if you whistle they'll all come over for a look, it does spoil things a little to see a perfectly sensible subject get tangled up in the kind of blather that blights everything that comes within spitting distance of our weary subject. For instance, editor George A. Walker writes in his foreword:

'Much later, Will Eisner's Contract With God (1978) and Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer prize-winning Maus (1986) were published to critical and popular acclaim. Although neither is a comic book- and the themes of both are closer to tragedy than to comedy- Eisner and Spiegelman are considered by some to be comic book artists.
Thus does Walker line up behind the first definition (of four mutually exclusive) of 'the graphic novel' (that it is an art separate from comic books) to such a high-thinking extent that he even imagines, bless him, that the word 'comic' still means 'funny'. After that he temporarily loses the plot. He is good in his introduction proper in telling us the names of the artists, the history of the form and its techniques and tools, so I get the impression his editor told him he had to embrace the world of 'comics' in a foreword even though his stomach turned at the very thought having to investigate what that was all about. He should have stuck to his guns and left it out. These intrusions spoil an otherwise wonderful book. The other intrusion, the afterword, is by Seth:
"In my personal evolutionary chart that moves from single panel gag-cartoons to the fully realized comics novel, wordless novels sit in there as an important stepping stone... "
"...but this isn't really true. If you look over these wordless novels carefully you'll see that they have almost nothing to do with today's graphic novels..."
"...Sadly, there is no real evolutionary comics chart. Looking back on the various narrative picture-novel attempts before 1975, you quickly realize that a sustained story in picture form is simply a natural idea..."
"...Whatever their origins and influences, they've still been adopted by modern cartoonists hungry for ancestors. And perhaps, it is the world of today which gets to create its past rather than the other way around."
Seth (whose work I love and would never dare to speak ill of) tells us there about his neat orderly version of history, then gets halfway toward accepting that this kind of 'history' is bogus, but finally backs away from the brink. He flobbers through a few more paragraphs, blathering down the thing he blathered up in the first place. He is too much a person of his time to raise his head above the muddle for long. He imagines he needs a historical context in which to place himself, and if we have to make one up well let's go cheerfully about it. I'm reminded of the quote I used in How to be an Artist:
The truth is that literary history is a modern invention and so is the automatic sense which a modern writer must have of his location in the flow of literary time..." (Pat Rogers, Oxford Illustrated History Of English literature, intro)

Now! The point.

DO you think that Masereel and Ward and the other great artists who summoned up the power to create all those vital suffer-no-nonsense images in stand-fast-never-back-down hard-edged black and white, and who in many cases found their books being banned and removed from libraries for their anti-establishment stances, do you think they would have any patience with all this neurotic namby pamby dithering?




Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Lol! That's a silly introduction, but one that's born more out of ignorance than a dislike for comics, maybe? It does sound rather elitist, though, doesn't it?

I guess "graphic novel" is a term used by insecure adults who want to let others know that the comics they read aren't as childish as some might assume.

It's annoying that people let what others (might) think about them affect them to such an extent, but at least they're still reading what they want to read.

9 October 2007 at 18:34:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Kimota94 aka Matt aka AgileMan said...

Eddie, man, I can't help but think that the following's a sure bet to show up on your tombstone on that (God willing) far distant day:

"Eddie Campbell : 1955 - 20~~
Loving husband
Adored father
Reluctant Graphic Novelist."

9 October 2007 at 20:39:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

actually, that has already been decided.
there's an old laurel and Hardy movie where the guys have to deliver a bequest to a young lady. her father has died. When asked what he died of, stan replies "he died of a tuesday".
This has become such a catchphrase in our house that i have been told on many occasions that it's going on the tombstone.

Eddie Campbell
he died of a tuesday.

9 October 2007 at 20:44:00 GMT-5  
Blogger James Robert Smith said...

Must catch up on posts! Just got back from a trip to West Virginia to find that my copy of THE BLACK DIAMON DETECTIVE AGENCY had arrived! Huzzah!

Also, I'm planning a trip to that mysterious ghost town of Bacchus in the deep mountains of NC. Will take photos if I can locate the place and drink a toast to the God himself and to Eddie Campbell. (What kind of wine would you suggest?)

9 October 2007 at 21:58:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Bacchus and I just finished a bottle of Greek Retsina, but that's not to everybody's taste.

Do let me know how it goes.!

9 October 2007 at 22:01:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Loris Z. said...

"Behold! Four wordless Graphic Novels!"

It's pretty neurotic indeed... I mean, I keep using the word just to refer to a project that has certain size. I tend to do short stories: 4, 8, 16 pages, so the term "novel" comes automatically when I talk about a 300 page story.

But... "Four Wordless Graphic Novels"? Ach. It feels disrespectful towards the authors...

A friend keeps asking me about a replacement for that term. I just saw the verification code for posting this. I believe I'm gonna start using it:

"So, what's your next project?"

"A Rlokkdeb".


9 October 2007 at 23:14:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

yes, but the most important thing we need to do is to stop arguing about words.
If I'm finding fault with the above writings, it's for spreading confusion and for not thinking clearly.
The book calls a 25 page work of woodcuts a 'novel' and I really have no problem with that. The instances i underlined are where the writers are busy contradicting either themselves or historical fact (ie Eisner not a 'comic book artist') or just being muddle-headed. The problem with all of the terms is not that they are meaningless (which i can live with), but that they hold several contradictory meanings simultaneously. If you proclaim that one or other meaning is better you are just adding to the noise and not helping. The term 'graphic novel' is already worthless, as is the term 'comics'. Just live with it and accept them when you see them, noting which way the word is used as i do so that we know what is meant. Think clearly and demand that others do so too.

that's my opinion.

9 October 2007 at 23:31:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Loris Z. said...

I was just writing a follow up to clarify a little on my previous comment when you beat me to it...

Good, precise points. I totally agree with them.

I've also been looking around to find some work by these artist, since the only one I knew (very little) about was Masereel. Wonderful works...

Now I'm going to start searching for these works...

9 October 2007 at 23:40:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

the book above is an excellent buy at...

funny, i never looked at the price, not even when i ordered it from Amazon...

thirty bucks

and amazon would have had it reduced. I guess I just assume everybody can look these things up quickly if they're interested.

9 October 2007 at 23:44:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said!
Woodcuts are a lovely medium, this looks like a great book.
lee paul

10 October 2007 at 02:42:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Think clearly and demand that others do so too." Funniest thing you've ever written.


10 October 2007 at 04:08:00 GMT-5  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

They'd probably thought it was completely beside the point.

I never realised Tuesdays were such a nefarious thing...

10 October 2007 at 06:55:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What did Christopher Columbus do?"

"He died."

Laurel and Hardy rule.

do you think they would have any patience with all this neurotic namby pamby 'graphic novel' dithering?

No because these taxonomies are largely a function of marketing, aren't they? And American marketing, at that, which abhors the hybrid and the heterogeneous.

Reducing everything to commodities means art of any description has to be categorised, so we're not allowed the kind of situation Bill Laswell once suggested where all music stores dispense with categories and simply list everything from A-Z.

10 October 2007 at 11:51:00 GMT-5  
Blogger James Langdell said...

Dover Publications has quietly beefed up the number of its reprints of woodcut novels. A quick look at Dover's online catalog shows "The City" by Masereel, "Destiny" by Otto Nuckel, and both "Gods' Man" and "Mad Man's Drum" by Lynd Ward.

10 October 2007 at 12:39:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...


"do you think they would have any patience with all this neurotic namby pamby 'graphic novel' dithering?"
I went back and removed the words 'GN' from there so as to throw the emphasis where I meant it, upon 'dithering'.

10 October 2007 at 17:24:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Neil Gaiman said...

"Way Out West". One of the best movies in the whole world.

10 October 2007 at 21:42:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

... in which the boys sing
In the blue Ridged mountains of Virginia

seen here in a colorized version:


10 October 2007 at 21:49:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Neil Gaiman said...

You know, I like the colourised version of the film. It's oddly dirtier -- you realise how very little the women are wearing, for a start...
http://youtube.com/watch?v=Ly09C-Pksgc is a fuller version (again colourised).

11 October 2007 at 20:50:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Nick said...

Right, I spotted this in our campus bookshop window as I walked past the other day, and lord knows what they were doing with it in the first place (they occasionally have Maus and Watchmen on the shelves, but that's as far as they're prepared to take things) but it was nice to see.

As it's payday today I decided I'd go and buy it and experience the warm feeling of buying a book from a bookshop for a change, albeit around a fiver more expensive after my staff discount.

So there I was waiting in line with my warm glow of self-satisfaction at not using Amazon and helping out the kind of people who would put Graphic Witness in the window display even though they've no reason to do so, and the guy in front of me starts to lead the owner on a merry dance.

He's after a particular book, but he's not sure of the details. She looks up various options, coaxes nuggets of information out of him, and gradually hones in on the target. Eventually they arrive at a single title. Yes, we have that book.

Oh, I don't want to buy it, he says. I already bought it from Amazon, I just need to make sure I've got the right edition.

I realised that the best I could hope to achieve was a temporary balance. Still, a beautiful book and well worth the full amount.

25 October 2007 at 09:05:00 GMT-5  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home