Spanning some forty years of art history, Graphic Witness provides four different “wordless graphic novels” combined together in this one collection that will have many awestruck and amazed at works few people even know about.
In the early half of the twentieth century when woodcut pictures were popular, few had the patience or ability to use woodcuts to craft an entire story. Woodcuts are a form of art in which the artist engraves pictures onto wooden panels. These panels can stand alone as art or they can be put to ink and create pictures on paper, such as many of the early pictures in newspapers before the camera picture was made popular. However, several artists did specialize in narrative story through woodcut. Though they might not be known today, some have staked out their influence in the medium of comics.
Within the glossy pages of this thick book, readers will find stories by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde, all popular woodcut artists of their time and all with distinctive styles that show different influences. The book does include some words in the way of a decent-sized introduction that explores the practice of woodcutting, its artistic history, and the background of each of the artists and their work. Herein, editor George A. Walker also includes an examination of some of the tools need in the creation of woodcuts. The wordless graphic novels are followed with an afterword by comic artist Seth, as well as a bibliography and acknowledgements.
But of course, the majesty of this book lies in the four stories themselves. They are compelling because, though each appears to have a particular story to tell, readers can also decide or inject their own interpretation as to how that story plays or what that story truly means. What is also interesting is that the art is very distinct from one piece to the next. In “The Passion of a Man,” Masereel uses minimal lines and cuts to produce stark contrast of black and white—work that seems interestingly akin in some ways to Marjane Satrapi. Lynd Ward introduces many more cuts into the work, thereby creating at times an almost gray effect in “Wild Pilgrimage.” It’s the use of straight lines with curves that contrast and stress within the work, particularly when employed on the face, thereby making faces look particularly haunting. In “White Collar,” Giacomo Patri almost seems to blend Ward and Masereel’s style, fluctuating from woodcut to woodcut depending on what the mood calls for. While Hyde’s “Southern Cross” follows in the tradition of Ward, Hyde incorporates curve and circular cuts into his work much more extensively, as well as providing layers within his work.
While the actual stories are not discussed here, it makes a certain amount of sense not to divulge too much of the story and leave readers to interpret their way through these pieces. Regardless of whether the stories have merit or interest to the readers, the plots of the stories and magnificence of these stories is in their medium. The amount of information communicate in each panel is amazing.