As collectors, we need to understand what we are collecting. Let’s take a look at one of the first seeds that spawned our hobby.
In addition to writing up my thoughts on upcoming key issues, I’d like to explore a little bit of the American history of the medium we trade in. And I’d like to start at the beginning.
Most of you have never heard of Frans Masereel. He isn’t a household name. He isn’t even well known in academic or art circles. But he’s a huge reason comic and graphic novels are taken seriously. (They were children’s playthings for a long time.) He laid the foundation for Eisner, Lee, Moore, and everyone else. He’s why we are able to do what we do with buying and selling comic books. And without a singular occurrence in history, we might be speculating in Baseball cards or stamps or something else entirely.
In 1926, a young artist by the name of Lynd Ward (more on him next week) moved to Europe to train in bookmaking and printmaking at the National Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig, Germany. Browsing in a bookstore, Ward came across a wordless novel titled Passionate Journey (Mon Livre d’Heures) by the Belgian engraver Frans Masereel. Fortunately for Ward, he came across a masterpiece. (Passionate Journey is regarded as the best of Masereel’s more than 20 wordless novels.)
The novel is unlike anything you’ve read before. It’s composed of woodcuts, and it has no words. I repeat, Passionate Journey is a novel without words. (It was one of the first, but let’s not get bogged down in the first artist to do that. It’s not a productive argument.) Through a series of 167 woodcut images, Passionate Journey depicts a tragedy of the 20th-century= everyman. The everyman undergoes a Christ-like transformation after being imprisoned, only to suffer death in the end. Sound vaguely similar to superhero origin stories?
If Masereel’s masterpiece didn’t catch Lynd Ward’s eye, if it had fallen from the shelf, or if it had been sold the day before, comic books as we know them today might not have existed. Masereel’s Passionate Journey not only seeded the narrative arc of American comic books decades later, but it was the first step towards comics being taken seriously as a medium.
Comic strips in newspapers existed well before Frans Masereel. You could even argue some etchings and lithographs could be considered forms of comics. (Not to mention cave paintings being the first comics.) I’m getting sidetracked. Masereel’s composition showed that stories could be told without textual narrative. It (literally) illustrated the possibilities of the medium by taking it to its logical extreme. Wordless novels aren’t that popular today, but we often read wordless pages in comic books.
Interestingly, those silent panels are often taken more seriously and given more attention than those with thought bubbles and speech bubbles. There’s a weight added when we can’t textually understand something. We have to dig deeper into the images themselves.
For that, you can thank Frans Masereel as the gardener planting what would become our hobby. If comics never pushed into the realm of High Art (pretentious, I know), collectors might find a lot less value in them. Next week, I’ll write a little bit about Lynd Ward and how Masereel’s seed flourished into something different, and American. In the meantime, this would be a good place to start if you’re curious about beautiful wordless novels.