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. 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.