The Comics Patrimonialisation of Woodcut Novels

24 May

Turning an Entre-deux Situation into a Third Position – Part 3/3[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 terminological instability in designing Masereel’s and Ward’s books in their current paratext—and the ambivalences it produces— [see part II] can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, this instability reflects the processual nature of this patrimonialisation, consisting in the collective production of an equivalence between woodcut books, and graphic novels and comics. The equivalence is initiated by the publishers, reinforced by its critical reception and then re-appropriated by the publishers. On the other hand, the instability also reflects the symbolic tensions that the editorial paratext tries to manage and to overcome. According to these paratextual indications, the woodcut books are to be seen as comics without being comics, as graphic novels without being ordinary graphic novels, as “wordless novels” but not only, as past works but “modern” and, as such, still relevant. What is at stake here is distinction—within or without the comics field.


Distinctive Definitions

Patrimonialisation is a process that redefines the past, requalifying it from a present perspective, but it also has effects on present representations (“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] wrote Jean Pouillon (“Plus” 208) (see part I). The use of the “graphic novel” label in reference to woodcut novels affects its definition. It marks a partial departure from or a broadening of the definition of the “graphic novel” as it has evolved over the past decades, which associates a genre and a format, and forms “a specific, and independent, kind of comics” (Baetens et al. 8-9). This play on definitions offers the publishers distinction from their competitors in the field and on the market; it creates a new position they can occupy.

Physically, Monsieur Toussaint Louverture’s Ward books stick to the dominant model of the literary graphic novel: these small dust-jacketed volumes blend in with the rest of the literary production of the publisher. Martin de Halleux’s books partly diverge from the standard book format: Masereel’s titles are hardcover volumes a little larger than the most common format, with a page count that varies from long-length narratives (224 pages for Mon livre d’heures) to much shorter ones (64 pages for 25 images de la passion d’un homme). The Masereel-inspired books published in the 25 images collection drift a little further. These larger hardcover volumes, with only 32 pages, reintroduce something very akin to the classic album format that the graphic novel tried to distance itself from. Formally, the differences with the graphic novel model are stronger. The wordless nature of these works prevents the presence of “freer and more sophisticated” words and writing (Baetens et al. 10).[2] The one-image-per-page narration breaks with the dominant layout of panels (or moments) juxtaposition. It also gives a strong primacy to the graphic dimension of these (nevertheless narrative) works, that thus partly resist the “strong gravitational pull” exerted by “the literary current” on graphic novels (Baetens et al. 11).

These are indeed black and white graphic narratives for adult readers but slightly at odds with what has become the graphic novel genre. In this context, the “graphic novel” appears in a more open manner, as a space of graphic expression. It’s such an approach that Monsieur Toussaint Louverture explicitly puts forward in the promotional epitext of the L’Éclaireur box set: “Que le roman graphique soit une trouvaille marketing ou une volonté artistique, ce terme définit souvent un territoire d’œuvres uniques, ni bandes dessinées, ni romans, et tout cela à la fois. Il souligne le geste créatif désirant s’affranchir des genres, des normes et des frontières” [Whether the graphic novel is a marketing ploy or the expression of an artistic will, this term often defines a territory of original works, neither comics, nor experimentations nor novels, but all of this at once. This expression emphasises the creative gesture, eager to liberate itself from genres, norms and borders].


Emancipation and Autonomy

As any field, the comics field is a space of struggles, where competing regimes of value are promoted by different actors trying to impose their own definitions of the field’s central issue (comics, in this case) and thus trying to reinforce their own position within the field; some of these strategies borrow references and criteria from other more established and prestigious social spaces, such as the art and the literary fields, thus paradoxically founding the comics field’s autonomy on heteronomous regimes of value (Beaty and Woo 138-139).[3] This paradox is apparent in the current comics patrimonialisation of woodcut novels.

The editorial efforts of the publishing houses that recently reprinted Ward’s and Masereel’s works indeed take place in this paradoxical field context. The symbolic benefits for these actors directly come from the way their actions combine the legitimising values from different fields. As we already established, their reprinting of Ward and Masereel is in relation with comics as much as it is with art history (Vallotton or Posada published by Martin de Halleux) or literature (the literary catalogue of Monsieur Toussaint Louverture). For these publishers, multipositionality brings symbolic capital. For comics in general, these efforts increase cultural legitimacy.

But in this legitimising process, woodcut novels also offer an opportunity to claim symbolic and artistic autonomy for comics—or more precisely “graphic novels”, as redefined in the paratext of these reprints. The prefaces in Martin de Halleux’s Masereel books illustrate what this autonomy affirming strategy can be. As already mentioned these prefaces are, but for one exception, written by creators involved in comics (Charles Berberian, Loustal, Thomas Ott, Blexbolex, Tardi).[4] Yet, they make no explicit references to comics. They instead deal with larger artistic issues: composition and style (Ott draws the attention to the absence of superfluous lines; Loustal notes how, for Masereel, light precedes line; Blexbolex observes the importance of graphic contrasts) or the experience of artistic creation (Blexbolex). The wordless nature of these works brings forth references to cinema and silent movies, contemporary to Masereel’s works (Blexbolex, Tardi). But narration, and especially narration through images, is probably the central theme (Ott, Loustal, Tardi): Masereel uses “la réduction des effets, à la fois dans la conduit du récit, mais aussi dans son style tranché” [the reduction of effects, at once in the construction of the narrative and in his clear-cut style] (Ott 6) and tells “toute une vie de géant en soixante dessins” [the entire life of a giant in sixty drawings] (Loustal 5), “les images “distribuées avec précision dans une rigoureuse succession narrative […] se suffisent à elles-mêmes” [the images, distributed in a rigorous narrative succession, […], are self-sufficient] (Tardi 5). Issues common to different art forms are put forward and the specific contributions of woodcut novels—and implicitly comics—are highlighted. These prefaces show how comics and comics creators can engage in a dialogue between equals with other art forms and creators.

The equivalence between woodcut novels and comics redefined as “graphic novels” allows for a double emancipation. It’s an emancipation from the literary tropism that characterises “graphic novels”: the absence of words in the woodcut novels shifts definitional issues towards a form of graphic narration distinct from literary concerns. It’s also an emancipation from the institutional and practical framework of fine arts: questions of graphic style and composition are taken out of museum rooms and walls and explored in books. Like Töpffers without words, artists having chosen books to express their visual art, Masereel and Ward can be presented as embodiments of the artistic autonomy that comics or “graphic novels” claim for themselves.[5] “Looking for clues as to where [his] “Low” Art and the High Arts intersected”, Art Spiegelman found Masereel’s stories and was amazed at how “Masereel’s books seem to have found a loophole, allowing them to escape Lessing’s law”—and its disqualifying effects for comics (“A Sigh” 5).[6] He stated that “each single pregnant image, untainted by words and formally complete in itself, just happens to give rise to another moment that happens to lie overleaf and forms… a narrative!” (“A Sigh” 5). Seized upon by patrimonialisation and all its paratextual tools Masereel’s and Ward’s works can thus function as real philosophers’ stones, turning an entre-deux situation with limited recognition into an autonomous third position, with greater potential for cultural legitimacy. In that sense, the current comics patrimonialisation of woodcut novels is not only a matter of rediscovering a forgotten past. “Enrôl[ant] le passé et l’efficacité symbolique de l’objet pour justifier des représentations présentes” [Enlist[ing] the past and the symbolic efficacy of the [patrimonial] object to justify present representations] (Davallon 199), it is a reconstruction of genealogy that offers a basis for new legitimacy claims in the present.



Jean-Matthieu Méon has a PhD in political science and is senior lecturer in media and communication studies at the University of Lorraine. He is a member of the Centre de Recherche sur les Médiations (Crem). He has published extensively on censorship, musical amateur practices and popular culture (comic books, pornography). His work on comics explores, in particular, the institutional, professional and artistic dimensions of their legitimisation. For a selection of publications, please see:*/authFullName_s/Jean-Matthieu+M%C3%A9on



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

[2] It should not be inferred from our remark that graphic novels have to include text—contemporary examples of long-length wordless narratives are numerous in the genre (Postema). Yet contemporary graphic novels often do use text, echoing the literary tropism that marks the genre (Baetens et al. 10), and a total absence of text is the exception.

[3] Beaty and Woo’s analysis is about the US comic book field. I consider that their idea of a paradoxical autonomy that relies on heteronomous values and criteria can be applied to the French comics field—even though Beaty and Woo rightly note that some autonomous critical apparatuses have developed for this national field since the Seventies. Indeed, the reliance on external institutions (national non-comics museums, literary publishers, the Ministry of Culture) is important for the French field, for its organisation, for the production of its cultural legitimacy. This produces similar heteronomous effects for the field.

[4] Idée is prefaced by the writer Lola Lafon. The monograph about Masereel (de Halleux) features an introduction by Eric Drooker, known for his illustrations and his silent graphic novels.

[5] Ward considered “the book [as] a unique form of expression… For the artist, the turning of the page is the thing he has that no other worker in the visual arts has: the power to control a succession of images in time” (quoted in Spiegelman “Reading Pictures” 667). Spiegelman sums up this point of view: “Lynd Ward made books. He had an abiding reverence for the book as an object. He understood its anatomy, respected every aspect of its production, intimately knew its history, and loved its potential to engage with an audience” (“Reading Pictures” ix).

[6]Spiegelman refers to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Paintings and Poetry (1766) and the separation it establishes between painting, concerned with arranging colours and forms in space, and poetry, arranging words in time and narrative.



Works Cited

“25 images de la passion d’un homme.” Martin de Halleux, Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

Baetens, Jan, et al., editors. The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Baetens, Jan, et al. Introduction. Baetens et al., pp. 1-18.

Beaty, Bart. Comics versus Art. University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Beaty, Bart, and Benjamin Woo. The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Beronä, David. Le Roman graphique, des origines aux années 1950. Translated by Denis-Armand Canal, La Martinière, 2009.

Bianchi, Laetitia. Posada, génie de la gravure. L’Association, 2019.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Sur la télévision. Raisons d’agir, 1996.

Davallon, Jean. Le Don du patrimoine. Lavoisier, 2006.

De Halleux, Martin, editor. Frans Masereel, l’empreinte du monde. Les éditions Martin de Halleux, 2018.

Eisner, Will. A Contract with God. Baronet, 1978.

Friedenthal, Andrew J. Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Genette, Gérard. Seuils. Seuil, 1987.

Gross, Milt. He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in ItNo Music, Too. Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1930.

Loustal. Penser la lumière avant le trait. L’œuvre, by Frans Masereel pp. 5-7.

Masereel, Frans. Idée, sa naissance, sa vie, sa mort. 1920. Martin de Halleux, 2018.

—. 25 images de la passion d’un homme. 1918. Martin de Halleux, 2019.

—. Mon livre d’heures. 1919. Martin de Halleux, 2019.

—. L’Œuvre. 1928. Martin de Halleux, 2019.

—. Le Soleil. 1919. Martin de Halleux, 2020.

—. La Ville. 1925. Martin de Halleux, 2019.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. William Morrow, 1993.

Menu, Jean-Christophe. La Bande dessinée et son Double. L’Association, 2011.

Méon, Jean-Matthieu. “L’Auteur comme artiste polyvalent : La Légitimité culturelle et ses figures imposées.” Le Statut culturel de la bande dessinée : Ambiguïtés et Évolutions, edited by Maaheen Ahmed et al., Academia, 2017, pp. 85-204.

Ott, Thomas. Une explosion de noir et blanc. 25 images de la passion d’un homme, by Frans Masereel, pp. 5-6.

Pizzino, Christopher. Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Pouillon, Jean. Fétiches sans fétichisme. Maspero, 1975.

—. “Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change.” Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, no. XV, 1977, pp. 203-212.

Postema, Barbara. “Long-Length Wordless Books: Frans Masereel, Milt Gross, Lynd Ward and Beyond.” Baetens et al., pp. 59-74.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus with engravings on wood by Lynd Ward. Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934.

Smolderen, Thierry. “A Chapter on Methodology.” SIGNs, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-23.

Spiegelman, Art. Reading Pictures: A Few Thousand Words on Six Books Without Any. Prelude to a Million Years – Song Without Words – Vertigo, Lynd Ward collection edited by Spiegelman, The Library of America, 2010, pp. ix-xxv.

—. A Sigh and a Salute for Si Lewen and His Parade. Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist Odyssey, edited by Art Spiegelman, Abrams Comicarts, 2016, pp. 3-26.

Tardi. L’Histoire assourdissante, frémissante, émouvante et lumineuse de la vie. Mon livre d’heures, by Frans Masereel, pp. 5-6.

Van Parys, Joris. “Frans Masereel (1889-1972).” Frans Masereel, l’empreinte du monde, edited by Martin de Halleux, Les éditions Martin de Halleux, 2018, pp. 605-607.

Walker, George, editor. Gravures rebelles : 4 romans graphiques. Translated by Alex Freiszmuth, L’Echappée, 2010.

Ward, Lynd. “Gods’ Man.” 1929. L’Éclaireur. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

—. “Madman’s Drum.” 1930. L’Éclaireur. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

—. “Prelude to a Million Years.” 1933. L’Éclaireur. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

—. “Song Without Words.” 1936. L’Éclaireur. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

—. “Vertigo.” 1937. L’Éclaireur. Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

—. Wild Pilgrimage. 1932. L’Éclaireur, Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2020.

Zweig, Stefan. “Frans Masereel: Der Mann und Bildner.” Frans Masereel, edited by Arthur Holitscher and Stefan Zweig. Axel Juncker Verlag, 1923. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 2021/05/24 in Guest Writers


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: