The term "graphic novel" didn't exist when Lynd Ward started telling stories in pictures, back in the late 1920s, but to modern eyes, that's exactly what Ward's novels are. Now the Library of America has collected all six of Ward's wordless graphic novels in a two-volume boxed set, Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.
Ward, who was born in 1905, was the first American creator of wordless graphic novels. He worked in that medium for about ten years, producing six full-length works, before changing his focus to children's books and illustrations of other works; he was a prolific illustrator with over 300 works to his credit by the time he died in 1985.
Both the form and the content of Ward's novels sprang from his deepest convictions. "He grew up the son of a radical Methodist minister," said Library of America contributing editor Christopher Carduff. "It wasn't enough to have talent, your talent had to serve something. He wanted to serve not only his art but also the people in a practical way. So a lot of his artwork is stories in service of a certain kind of left wing, progressive politics and morality that was bred in his bone."
Part of Ward's philosophy was that art should be accessible to everyone, even people of modest means. He chose woodblock prints in part because the medium lends itself to multiple originals that can be reasonably priced. Most printmakers issue their works in limited editions and destroy the plates when the edition is complete, but Ward's attitude was the opposite. "He never limited his editions," said Carduff. "He had them available all his life, very inexpensively, to anyone who wanted one. They took orders at the gallery and he would print up new copies himself to fill the orders. He felt that beauty should be affordable to anyone who wanted it."
Two of Ward's books, Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words, were printed directly from the woodblocks themselves, Carduff said, so they initially existed only in limited editions of a few hundred copies. The other four were printed in commercial editions from electrotype plates, although Ward made limited editions of two other books, God's Man and Madman's Drum, from the original blocks as well. All the books have been available in recent years in inexpensive editions.
Ward studied art at Columbia Teachers' College (now part of Columbia University), and in the late 1920s he and his wife Mary traveled to Germany, where he studied printmaking and book design at the National Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig. There, he encountered the work of the Belgian artist Franz Masereel, who had produced a novel in woodcuts, and he was inspired to try the medium himself.
Ward's first graphic novel, God's Man, was released in October 1929, the week of the stock market crash. Nonetheless, Carduff said, the book got its share of attention. "It really caught the public's fancy," he said. "It was taken very seriously and was reviewed in the New York Times, in the New York Herald, all of those places, as a serious work. The book did appear at one of the worst times for the American economy, and yet over the course of six years it was reprinted six times, and 20,000 copies were sold in hardcover—quite amazing for that time."
Five more graphic novels followed. Vertigo, published in 1937, was Ward's last wordless graphic novel; after that, he devoted his career to illustration. "It was mainly an economic choice," said Carduff. "His family was growing, he was receiving commissions for work that had to be executed in other media, and rather than pursue the woodcut novels, he accepted commissions from the Folio Society and from commercial publishers. Wood engravings were still his medium of choice, but they were very time consuming, unlike the gouache work and the lithographs and the other things he did."
The Library of America edition brings Ward's six graphic novels together in a single edition published the way he intended, with images on the right-hand pages only. The book includes an introduction by Art Spiegelman (who cites Ward as an influence on his own work) and short essays by Ward on the technical and artistic choices he made for each book. Carduff describes it as "a labor of love." The art was reshot from the original woodcuts, when they were available, or from the first-generation electrotypes, and is printed at the same size as the originals. "We worked very closely with the estate of Lynd Ward and Lynd Ward's daughter, so we were able to shoot the books digitally from original prints and not from reproductions," Carduff said.
The new edition was designed by Jonathan Bennet, who worked with Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly to create a gently retro look for the Toon Books line. For the introduction and essays, Bennett chose a typeface called Bembo, which was created in 1929. "It was a modern font then and it's a classic font now," Carduff said. "It was created as a beautiful commercial typeface to raise the quality of commercial printing at that time, so it's very much in keeping with the Ward aesthetic."
"Lynd Ward's books have been reprinted several times since their editions in the 1920s and 1930s, but no one has ever honored his wishes to print them the way he had conceived them," Carduff said. "That was special to us at the Library of America—to re-present this material faithful to the artist's conception of it and to give this material back to American readers in the form in which it was intended to be read. We think this is a wonderful gift not only to fans of graphic novels but also to creators of graphic novels. It's their legacy, and it needed to be restored."