Turning an Entre-deux Situation into a Third Position – Part 3/3
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).
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.
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