The Comics Patrimonialisation of Woodcut Novels

17 May

The Paratextual Apparatus of Patrimonialisation – Part 2/3[1]

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. 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).



The patrimonialisation of woodcut novels as comics heritage is based on a double movement: a temporal shift—from the present to the past—and a contextual one—from one field of cultural production (comics) to another (fine arts) [see part I]. The first operator of this patrimonialising process is the reprints of the woodcut works. Reprinting these woodcut novels, and distributing them in bookshops and comic shops, is a first bridging of the temporal and sectoral gaps but the paratext (Genette) of these reprints is also an essential aspect of this process. The paratext helps establish the double continuity between past woodcut novels and contemporary comics, creating a double “suture” (Davallon 114), between periods and between fields. As we’ll see, it also makes the suture seamless, thus naturalizing the result of the process.


A Double Suture

According to Jean Davallon, what stitches the past and the present together is not only the patrimonial object itself (which is the material presence of the past in the present), but also the historical discourse on this object (114). This discourse, produced in the present, authenticates the origins of the object and details its original context. The Martin de Halleux edition of Masereel’s woodcut works offer such historiographical paratexts. Each book includes a historical presentation of the work reprinted as well as a general chronological biography of its creator. When possible, historical documents such as related illustrations or photographs of the original woodblocks are included as appendices. These peritextual elements are written by an art historian, Samuel Dégardin, a specialist of Masereel’s body of work. Dégardin also contributed to the monograph released by this publisher in 2018, which constitutes another (epitextual) part of this historical accompaniment of the republished woodcut works.[2] In Monsieur Toussaint Louverture’s Ward box set, a postface by Art Spiegelman, both as an influential creator and as an active historian of the form, similarly provides historical elements.

For Masereel’s works, the temporal suture also takes another form. The publisher further asserts the contemporary presence of these works by giving them new developments through a parallel imprint dedicated to original works by current creators. The 25 images collection was launched in 2020. According to its own definition (reproduced in the endpaper of the books), “Il s’agit pour les auteurs de créer un format court en 25 images—une par page, en noir et blanc, sans textes— tel qu’il a été défini en 1918 par Frans Masereel pour son livre 25 images de la passion d’un homme” [the aim for the authors is to create a short work in 25 images—one per page, in black and white, without text—following the format defined by Frans Masereel in 1918 for his book 25 images de la passion d’un homme, the first modern wordless novel]. The past creation is reactivated by its present continuators. The relation between the past and the present is thus both historiographical and creative.

The second suture operated by the paratext unites Masereel’s fine arts field and today’s comics field. The paratextual tools used by the publisher, Martin de Halleux, organize both a dialogue and an indistinction between these fields. The 25 images collection contributes to this second operation. Indeed, the two books in this imprint are works made by creators active in (but not restricted to) comics: Thomas Ott, well known for his scratchboard drawing style; and Joe Pinelli, recognised for his expressive style of comics. Furthermore, all of Masereel’s woodcut novels (as well as the monograph dedicated to him) come with an original preface. Except for Idée, prefaced by the writer Lola Lafon, all these texts are written by creators strongly associated with comics: Charles Berberian, Eric Drooker, Loustal, Tardi, Blexbolex and the aforementioned Thomas Ott. Modern comics creators enter a dialogue there with Masereel’s narrative techniques, style and themes. The relation between the fields is made even more fluid by the versatile (Méon)—or “polymorphic” (Menu 149)—careers of these creators, who combine comics with illustration, serigraphy or painting. The Ward box set published by Monsieur Toussaint Louverture similarly uses this cross-referencing: the postface to Ward’s novels is written by Art Spiegelman, the wrap-around band of the box set features a quote by Will Eisner and the promotional material cites Alan Moore.

The materiality of the Martin de Halleux books reinforces this suturing fluidity. They all share a similar format: hardcover, more or less A4-sized, similar materials for covers and pages, and a minimalist colour scheme (black and white with one added colour). This homogeneity creates a strong visual identity for the publisher’s production; it also establishes a form of indistinction between fields, creators and works within that collection. Masereel’s woodcut novels, Ott’s and Pinelli’s graphic novellas, Youssef Daoudi’s graphic novel (on Thelonius Monk), Loustal’s illustrations for Henry Levet’s poems, José Guadalupe Posada’s calaveras and Félix Vallotton’s engravings all blend into one indistinct ensemble of figurative and narrative black and white drawings.[3] Reversing the process Bart Beaty described regarding Crumb’s exhibitions in art museums, which primarily situate the cartoonist’s works in a satirical and fine art tradition (204-206), Masereel and comics (as well as Posada and Vallotton) are (re)framed within different contexts.[4] Masereel’s work can be seen as comics, while comics can belong to a larger graphic tradition.


The Convenient “Graphic Novel” Category: Naturalising Patrimonialisation

Peritext is a common place for generic definitions of a work (Genette 98-106) and the woodcut novels reprints indeed use labels stating the nature of these works. The reference to the “graphic novel” is central here as the open and fluid nature of this label allows for variations and adjustments in its definition. It makes it possible to consider together works created in different times and different artistic contexts. The limits or the ambiguities of the comics patrimonialisation of woodcut novels are thus attenuated and the results of the process (woodcut novels as comics heritage) is naturalised.

The “roman graphique” [graphic novel] label has sometimes been slapped on woodcut novels quite squarely. The French editions of George Walker’s anthology (2010 [2007]) and David Beronä’s historical book (2009 [2008]) both kept the reference to “graphic novels” in their titles.[5] The 2015 edition of Masereel’s Le Soleil, by the small publisher Éditions du Ravin Bleu, presented it directly as a “graphic novel” on its cover, also using the term in a Stefan Zweig quote on one of the cover flaps.[6] But the more recent woodcut reprints referred to this label with more nuances, or precautions. The direct and indirect paratextual qualifications of Masereel’s and Ward’s books are characterised by an important terminological indecision, also resulting in different presentations of the nature of the link between woodcut books and contemporary “graphic novels”.

For example, looking at the peritext of Martin de Halleux’s edition of 25 images de la passion d’un homme, four different formulations can be found: “roman sans paroles” [wordless novel], “roman en images sans parole” [wordless novel in pictures], “roman sans paroles moderne” [modern wordless novel], “roman graphique sans paroles moderne” [modern wordless graphic novel]. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture’s Ward box set uses the general label of “récits gravés” [engraved narratives] but also sports a Will Eisner quote mentioning “roman graphique” [graphic novel]. The publisher also used “récits en gravure sur bois” [woodcut narratives] and “romans sans paroles” [wordless novels]. All these variations bear the traces of different historical contexts, they echo how these works have been qualified through the decades and what they’ve been compared to, including the contemporary “graphic novel” label.

These variations highlight different constitutive features of these works. Are they defined by their engraved style? Or by their “graphic” nature and their visual form of narration? By their non-use of words? Or by their “modern” approach of older forms? All of these criteria can be considered of course, but highlighting one instead of another puts the works in different perspectives and different ensembles. Graphic novels are one of these ensembles, but the exact articulation between woodcut books and graphic novels is also subject to variations when considering the paratextual presentations of these works and their creators. Three forms of articulation can be identified. Woodcut books appear as ancestors and prefigurations of the contemporary graphic novels: Ward as the “précurseur du roman graphique” [forerunner of the graphic novel] (Eisner quoted by the L’Éclaireur box set) or as its “éclaireur” [pathfinder] (title of the box set). They also are presented as the direct originators of the new form: Masereel as “inventeur du roman graphique sans paroles moderne” [inventor of the modern wordless graphic novel] (inventeur), 25 images de la passion d’un homme as the “premier roman sans paroles moderne” [first modern wordless novel]. Finally, they’re seen as a “chaînon jusque-là manquant du neuvième art” [previously missing link in the ninth art history] (Ward’s books according to Monsieur Toussaint Louverture in its promotional leaflet), uniting different art forms of different periods.

The “circular circulation” of paratextual qualifications partly resolves these unstable or contradictory statements.[7] On its website, the publisher Martin de Halleux displays excerpts of press reviews of the Masereel books. On the 25 images de la passion d’un homme page, one of the quoted reviews comes from a French magazine dedicated to comics and visual arts, Les Arts dessinés, stating that this book is “considéré comme le premier roman graphique moderne” [considered as one the first modern graphic novels] (“25 images”). What was presented as a “wordless novel” or a “(modern) wordless graphic novel” in the peritext is requalified as a “modern graphic novel” in its media reception and then can be presented as such in the promotional editorial epitext: the paratextual qualification process comes full circle and the nuanced or ambiguous original qualifiers are replaced with the more conventional label of “graphic novel”. The symbolic annexation of woodcut books by comics and graphic novels, brought about through the patrimonialisation process, is thus naturalised.[8]

This annexation process has to be understood in relation to the specific situation of the comics field. The third part of this article will discuss how it contributes to distinction and legitimisation efforts, both within and without the field.



[1] This is the second part of a three-part essay. The first part can be found here:

[2] For Genette (11), the paratext of a work includes the peritext, which is directly present within the material edition of this work, and the epitext, which encompasses all the contents related to the work but located outside of its material support. Thus, here, I include in the paratext those works whose co-presence within the publisher’s catalogue qualifies them as epitextual elements. At the very least, these productions contribute to the publisher’s identity, which frames the perception of the considered Masereel works. More directly, in the discussed example, they explicitly relate to Masereel’s woodcut novels, such as the Masereel monograph.

[3] In a similar move, a book covering Posada’s career and works was also published the same year (2019) by the French comics publishing house, L’Association (Bianchi).

[4] The homogenising effects of juxtaposition can be observed in other recent examples. Masereel’s drawings were recently featured next to contemporary comics and illustration works in the Big City Life exhibition, presented by the Cartoonmuseum of Basel. In 2019, the Blow Book imprint published a woodcut narrative (Carl Meffert’s Nuit sur l’Allemagne, 1937-1938) next to a 1942 Detective Comics (Maz’s Dick Bos) and two new creations (Dimitri Piot’s Salaryman and Manuel’s “Au Travail”), all in the same small format, creating formal echoes between these diverse works. More generally, the Angoulême “heritage award” (Prix du patrimoine) similarly embeds in comics’ past works produced out of comics tradition (such as Gustave Doré’s books, for example, in 2019).

[5] The French edition of Beronä’s book is a good illustration of how, here, translation increases the terminological ambiguities in qualifying the woodcut novels. Its default translation of “woodcut novel” or “wordless novel” as “roman graphique” [graphic novel] blurs the distinction between these expressions and often makes the nuances in Beronä’s historical point disappear. This argumentative simplification is present in the translation of the title itself: Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels becomes Le Roman graphique, des origines aux années 1950 [The Graphic Novel – From its Origins to the Fifties]. Similarly, George Walker’s Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels became Gravures rebelles : 4 romans graphiques [Rebel engravings: 4 graphic novels].

[6] In the original German version, Stefan Zweig used “bildnerischen Romanen” to describe the woodcut books, a direct translation of Masereel’s choice of “roman in beldeen” [novel in pictures].

[7] We borrow the expression (“circulation circulaire”) that Pierre Bourdieu (22) used to describe how media that quote each other homogenise the news.

[8] This circular process could be similarly seen in the case of Monsieur Toussaint Louverture’s Ward box set, for which the 2021 Angoulême heritage award even more strongly validates the transition from one field to another.


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