The Comics Patrimonialisation of Woodcut Novels

10 May

Patrimonialisation as Retcon? – Part 1/3

by Jean-Matthieu Méon

Woodcut novels form a genre of graphic narratives that emerged in Europe at the end of the 1910s with the works of the Belgian Frans Masereel. It was later explored and expanded by several European and Northern American artists, among whom the American Lynd Ward was one of the most influential (Beronä). If the genre waned in the 1950s, its influence has been claimed by diverse artists, especially in the comics field. In recent years, key works of the genre were reprinted in France and they are considered important elements of comics’ heritage.

The three parts of this article analyse this current comics valorisation of decades-old woodcut novels.[1] The theoretical model of patrimonialisation (Davallon) helps to shed light on this process, which relies on a specific relationship with the past, made of both rediscovery and reinvention (part I). The editorial paratext of the current reprints plays here a central role. It’s a means to equate “woodcut novels” and “graphic novels” and to bring together distinct fields of artistic creations (part II). The symbolic stakes of this patrimonialising process are important: for comics and for their publishers, it’s part of a quest for legitimacy and for an artistic autonomy that Masereel and Ward could embody (part III).

Wordless woodcut novels created in the Twenties and the Thirties are enjoying a renewed editorial and critical interest in France. Six “novels in pictures” by Frans Masereel have been reprinted by Martin de Halleux since 2018 and L’Éclaireur, one exhaustive slipcase set of all six of Lynd Ward’s “novels in woodcuts”, was published by Monsieur Toussaint Louverture in 2020 (see list of works cited). But for one exception (in Walker’s anthology), this is the first French edition of Ward’s woodcut novels and only a few of Masereel’s books had been reprinted as individual books in the preceding years by small literary publishers. On the occasion of these reprints, both bodies of works have been praised as forerunners of the modern graphic novels—if not as graphic novels in their own right. Both of them were also selected for the Angoulême festival award dedicated to comics’ heritage: Masereel’s Idée was nominated in 2019 and Ward’s L’Éclaireur won the award in 2021. The place of these works in the history of comics thus seems formally established, as one more milestone in the form’s past. Jean Davallon’s communication approach to heritage (patrimonialisation) offers a heuristic model to describe this process of (re)insertion of woodcut novels in comics history. It also helps to understand its internal logic as well as its specificity: the retrospective look at the past here is as much one of rediscovery as one of reinvention.

In Le Don du patrimoine, Jean Davallon describes the symbolic and social processes that give an object from the past its modern status as a piece of heritage. Several moments or “gestes” [gestures] form this process (119-126). After a fall into oblivion (a break between the past world of the object and our present world), the object reappears through a “trouvaille” [finding]. This starts a series of backward operations, from the present to the past: the certification of the object’s origins and the confirmation of its original context. Based on historical knowledge, this retrospective process rebuilds the lost continuity between the past (the object’s original context of creation) and the present and creates new obligations for the present owners or custodians of the object, such as preserving it, presenting it to the public and transmitting it to future generations. Considering the temporal direction of this process, Davallon compares it to the “filiation inversée” [reverse filiation] described by the anthropologist Jean Pouillon (1975 quoted in Davallon 97): patrimonialisation is the way present agents acknowledge the past and define how and what they inherited from it.

The current recognition of eighty- to a hundred-year-old woodcut novels seems to fit this model perfectly. Brought back to light by critics and publishers, these works saw their historical significance recalled and discussed, they were presented in relation to contemporary graphic novels on the basis of a formal analysis of their features and they were reprinted to be introduced to new contemporary readerships.[2] But the process in this case needs to be further specified. Indeed, here, the movement of patrimonialisation is not only temporal (from the present to the past, as for every patrimonialising process) but also contextual: not only are these works from the past considered from the perspective of the present, but in addition these works produced in the context of fine arts and artist books are now considered in a comics context. In that sense, the “continuité reconstruite” [reconstructed continuity] (Davallon 114) that the patrimonialisation process produces between woodcut novels and contemporary graphic novels is, partly at least, an artefact, an artificial linearity that results from the process itself.

The link that can be established today between the works of Masereel or Ward and comics didn’t exist when those works were produced—even though comics were then an already established and widely distributed form. As Art Spiegelman aptly notes about Ward, “[his] roots were not in comics”—which “he hadn’t been allowed to read as a child”—(“Reading Pictures” xxiii) and “denied a comic-strip vocabulary, [he] would grow to help define a whole other syntax for visual storytelling” (“Reading Pictures” x). The woodcut novels were therefore produced and distributed outside the realm of comics and in their times, these works elicited comparisons with cinema and silent movies more so than with comics.[3] Thus, for Ward as for Masereel, there was no historical fall into oblivion, no break in the continuity between the past and the present. Both these creators had long careers in fine arts and literary illustration, with recognition (even if of varying intensity) in their fields. Instead of oblivion, there have been reciprocal forms of indifference—or incomprehension—between different spaces of cultural production: “few in the comics community of the day could get the message [sent by Ward and Masereel], their definition of comics, then as now, was simply too narrow to include such work” (McCloud 19). Thus, it’s more a matter of symbolic distance than one of oblivion that separated these woodcut novels from comics history.

This symbolic and sectoral gap was only bridged when some creators deliberately and strategically tried to redefine comics by shifting their referential framework, looking outside the comics tradition.[4] That’s what Will Eisner did, for example, when, in his introduction to his first “graphic novel” A Contract with God, he claimed to be influenced by Lynd Ward and that his work was an attempt “at expansion or extension of Ward’s original premise”.[5] This is indeed what Pouillon means when he talks about “reverse filiation”: “Nous choisissons ce par quoi nous nous déclarons déterminés, nous nous présentons comme les continuateurs de ceux dont nous avons fait nos prédécesseurs” [we choose what we declare ourselves determined by, we present ourselves as the continuators of those we made our predecessors] (quoted in Davallon 97). The patrimonialisation of the “forgotten” woodcut creators as pioneer graphic novelists is thus based on an indistinction between chosen references or inspirations and direct and historical continuity. The chosen artistic (non-linear) referential framework is transformed into a (linear) historical narrative that tells of an evolution towards the modern graphic novel.[6] The “missing link” metaphor, used by Scott McCloud (19) as well as Monsieur Toussaint Louverture (in its promotional material for the Ward box set), is a direct expression of this linear reconstruction.

This retrospective rewriting of comics history can be likened to the retconning process, common in long-term superhero narratives. Through retcon (retroactive continuity), new elements are added to an already-told narrative, tweaking inconsequential details or more largely changing its general (past and/or future) perspective. In that sense, the new “finding” of woodcut novels and their reinsertion into the past of comics indeed modifies the graphic novel lineage. In his discussion of retroactive continuity, Andrew J. Friedenthal highlights the proximity between retcon and the historical method. He argues that “history is not a body of facts but rather the ongoing recreation of a contextualized narrative”, “the past [being] constantly rewritten through new information and interpretations” (Friedenthal 6). Like in Davallon’s model, the past is (re)defined by the present and scientific (historical) knowledge is central in the validation of this redefinition. Historical “findings” change history. In fiction, however, retcon is not so much a matter of historical correction as it is one of invention, due to poetic licence and/or commercial incentives. In the case of the patrimonialisation of woodcut novels as comics, the line between historical adjustments or corrections and reinvention appears very thin. If the historical existence of the woodcut novels and their later role in comics history are documented, their retrospective qualification as “missing links” or as “graphic novels” is more rooted in contemporary representations and stakes.[7]

What are the rationales for a retcon in comics? It’s often an easy way of giving (at least a semblance of) density and depth to a new story development by relating it to the longer storyline. Retcon can also be, of course, a creative means of reinvigorating the narrative and to allow for new directions that the former continuity forbade. Both of these rationales (symbolic and creative) can be found in the retconning patrimonialisation of woodcut novels. On a symbolic level, the reference to woodcut novels offers several distinction benefits to their promoters and to comics in general. These are prestigious forerunners or ancestors that help to justify the artistic legitimacy comics claim for themselves. Within the comics field, these references similarly help their re-publishers to distinguish themselves from more commercial and/or more traditional productions. Referring to this alternative past for comics can be seen as a position-taking (or position-making) strategy. This may be particularly useful for relative newcomers such as the two publishing houses involved in the reprinting of works by Masereel and Ward, that only recently started their comics publishing activities (Monsieur Toussaint Louverture is a small publishing house created in 2004, the catalogue of which mixes novels and comics; Éditions Martin de Halleux is an even more recent publishing house, created in 2018, that publishes only a few books a year, specializing in books dedicated to images and narration). On a creative level, woodcut novels offer another model of graphic narrative that can fit into an enlarged definition of the contemporary graphic novel as well as form the basis for different formal experiments. The creation by Martin de Halleux of a specific series dedicated to such experiments is a direct illustration of the creative effects of this retconning patrimonialisation. In the 25 images series started in 2020, contemporary comics creators (Thomas Ott and Joe Pinelli being the first two) follow Masereel’s 25 images de la passion d’un homme example to create new ambitious black and white, wordless narratives in the restricted format of 25 full-page images.

The “annexion symbolique” [symbolic annexation] (Davallon 84) of woodcut novels by comics thus produces effects on the present state of the comics field. This directly echoes another remark made by Pouillon about “reverse filiation”: “ce sont les fils qui engendrent leurs pères pour justifier les changements réels qu’ils apportent au système existant” [it is the sons who beget their fathers to justify the actual changes that they bring to the existing system] (“Plus” 208). The way the present looks at the past is determined by present issues. This strategy requires specific mediations. Reprints constitute, in themselves, such a mediation but, as will be discussed in the second part of this article, their paratextual apparatus is central in establishing and manifesting the link between the woodcut novel past and the graphic novel present.

[1] Our analysis only deals with the present interest in France in woodcut novels in relation to comics. This current phenomenon of course takes place in a larger context, with several moments of rediscovery of woodcut novels by comics creators, critics and historians, in France as well as in other countries. We can only briefly present this context here. In the United States, there are at least two key periods when comics looked at woodcut novels. In the Seventies, reprints of such works were made in conjunction with comics. Dover Publications, for example, reprinted at about the same time works by Masereel alongside those of Wilhelm Busch, Milt Gross and classic comic strips such as Buster Brown or The Katzenjammer Kids. Will Eisner mentioned Lynd Ward as an influence in his 1978 A Contract with God. The magazine World War 3 Illustrated, whose aesthetic and agenda often overlap with those of woodcut novels, was launched in 1980. A second key period started in the Nineties. Eric Drooker published his first woodcut-inspired silent graphic novel, Flood! A Novel in Pictures, in 1992. Articles (for example in The Comics Journal 208, November 1998) and books by David Beronä (2008) and George Walker (2007) on woodcut novels were accompanied by reprints, again by Dover. The Library of America published Ward’s novels in 2010 in a boxset edited by Art Spiegelman. In France, the rediscovery of woodcut novels seems to follow closely these American efforts. Beronä’s and Walker’s books were translated in 2009 and 2010.

[2] Martin de Halleux published a detailed monograph on Masereel (2018) at the same time it published his woodcut novels.

[3] This comparison was made, among others, by Thomas Mann (Beronä 10; Van Parys 606). Milt Gross’s drawn satire of the woodcut novels, He Done Her Wrong (1930), also playfully draws such comparisons between wordless novels and silent melodramatic movies.

[4] This strategic and creative consideration of outside-of-comics works can be observed on numerous occasions. On this topic, see the upcoming ACME symposium “Comics on the outside / Bandes dessinées hors-champs”.

[5] In this introduction, Eisner mentions only one title by Ward, Frankenstein (1934), which is not one of his novels in woodcuts but an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel. This adds another circumvolution to the path that links woodcut novels and graphic novels. Ward’s Frankenstein illustrations had recently been reprinted in the self-selected monograph Storyteller Without Words: The Wood Engravings of Lynd Ward (Harry N. Abrams) in 1974, accompanied by a New York exhibition. This book also featured other selected illustrations, next to his six wordless novels. Only two of these had been reprinted—separately—previously, in 1966 (Gods’ Man) and 1967 (Wild Pilgrimage), by World Publishing.

[6] Such a perspective is consistent with the pervasive “coming of age” narrative for comics history, discussed by Christopher Pizzino (21-45).

[7] Thierry Smolderen (passim) points out the methodological risks of reversing the arrow of time when studying comics’ past. Anachronisms and present-informed retrospective requalifications bias our understanding of complex historical evolutions.

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Posted by on 2021/05/10 in Guest Writers


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