Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde
Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde
Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde

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Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: selected and introduced by George A. Walker
Audience: Trade
Specs: more than 300 black and white illustrations, bibliography, index
Pages: 424
Trim Size: 7" x 10" x 1 3/8"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20070914
Copyright Year: 2007
Price: Select Below


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Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde

Four classic 20th century graphic novels, done by master woodcut artists, in a single volume. An introductory essay puts each in context and examines their continuing influence in contemporary culture.

"If you care about graphic novels, you need this book."
- New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman

Graphic Witness features rare wordless novels by four great 20th-century woodcut artists European and North American. The stories they tell reflect the political and social issues of their times as well as the broader issues that are still relevant today.

Frans Masereel (1899-1972) was born in Belgium and is considered the father of the wordless graphic novel. Graphic Witness includes the first reprint of his classic work, The Passion of a Man, since its 1918 publication in Munich. American Lynd Ward (1905-85), author of the provocative Wild Pilgrimage, is considered among the most important of wordless novelists. Giacomo Patri (1898-1978) was born in Italy and lived in the United States. His White Collar featured an introduction by Rockwell Kent and was used a promotional piece by the labor movement. Southern Cross by Canadian Laurence Hyde (1914-87) was controversial for its criticism of U.S. H-bomb testing in the South Pacific.

An introduction by George A. Walker places each wordless novel in its context and examines the influence of these works on contemporary culture, including film, comic books and contemporary graphic novels.

Graphic Witness will appeal to readers interested in social issues, printmaking, art history and contemporary culture.


George A. Walker is an award-winning wood engraver, book artist and illustrator. He is an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and the author of The Woodcut Artist's Handbook.



Imagine the advantage of writing a book that can be read anywhere in the world without translation. Free of the confines of words, books written in the universal language of pictures are understandable anywhere in the global village. A drawing of a stick figure needs no translation. Pictorial narratives are not new; the earliest known cave paintings told tales of hunting, the Egyptians used sequential images and all written languages evolved from pictures, our universal system of expression and communication.

My fascination with the wordless novel began in the 1980s, after attending an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring the work of Frans Masereel, who is regarded as the first master of the wordless novel. After the exhibition I began an obsessive pursuit to find books illustrated with woodcuts, wood engravings and linocuts, and to learn everything I could about fine art printmaking and the art of wood engraving.

Living in a rough part of the city, being desperately poor and struggling to balance college expenses with low-paying part-time work, I often felt like a character in a Masereel novel. The building that I lived in housed a vegetable soup of characters, ranging from prostitutes to con men. I once had to disarm a kid, not much older than 10, who pulled a knife on me and demanded my bike. At the time words didn't seem able to communicate my feelings -- pictures seemed more poignant and accessible to illustrate this world. It was exhilarating to plaster my woodcuts in the neighborhood, criticizing the landlord and poking fun at the politics and injustices of the day, and today I can identify with Masereel's words: "Since the time of my youth, I have protested against the society in which I am living. The social injustice seemed odious to me, and I believe that this early rebellion became the source of many of my works."

Wordless novels have often treated controversial themes and been associated with protest movements. The early part of the 20th century saw the technological advances of the industrial revolution, yet life was becoming increasingly difficult for the average worker. A literate and socially conscious middle class was growing, with expectations of a better life for everyone. These expectations were interrupted by a war, an economic depression, another war, the cold war and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation.

The works in this book, products of these difficult times, were created in Europe, the United States and Canada between 1918 and 1951. The political and social issues they address are specific to their times, but the broader issues are, sadly, still relevant to our contemporary eyes.

Masereel created his first wordless novel, The Passion of a Man, in 1918, using only 25 woodcuts. That little book influenced three generations of artists, writers, musicians, animators and filmmakers, yet his work has remained largely unknown in North America. Only now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is Masereel being rediscovered as one of the most important graphic artists of the 20th century and the grandfather of the modern graphic novel.

This book includes the work of four of the greatest wordless novelists who used relief-printmaking techniques: Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde. These men were artistic and literary masters of the form.

There are, of course, other artists of this period who also expressed their ideas in wordless books. The horrors of war and social injustice seem particularly fit subjects for this art. In 1957, Si Lewen, who was influenced by Frans Masereel and George Grosz, created an antiwar visual narrative, The Parade, a story in 55 drawings that showed the ugly realities of battle and death that lay behind the pomp and ceremony of military parades. In his introduction to the book, Albert Einstein wrote about the power of art to "counteract the tendencies towards war," and said that nothing "can equal the psychological effect of real art -- neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussions." This statement rings true for all the wordless novels that appear in the pages that follow.

As well as a medium of social protest, the wordless novel has also had an important influence on popular culture. There is an undeniable relationship between the making of film storyboards and the sequential art of the wordless novel. Frans Masereel was interested in cinema, and in 1932 Berthold Bartosch turned Masereel's wordless novel The Idea into an animated film. Masereel had intended to work on the film with Bartosch, but the task was too time-consuming and Masereel left Bartosch with creative license to interpret his book. The result is a true art film. Bartosch translated the characters into his own painterly style of layers and cutouts, giving a nod to Masereel and his woodcuts and drawings. We are lucky to be able to see any of Bartosch's work today -- and particularly a film made from a book by Masereel -- since the Nazis tried to destroy everything by both artists.

In many respects the wordless novel is the simplest form of reading. It has an undeniable relation to the modern comic strip, but wordless novels are not books for children -- or "comic books," as we might define them today. They are sequential art for adults; "picture novels," "wordless novels" or "graphic narratives" are how their creators defined them. They have inspired a generation of artists and are important works illustrating how social change and political strife are as much an inspiration to the artist as they are a provocateur to oppression.

It is important to note that artists working in the comic book style were aware of the power of the wordless novels of Masereel and others. Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong (1930) is a wordless story about love and misunderstanding. It is actually a parody of the wordless novel that was being made famous in the United States by Lynd Ward. Myron Waldman's Eve, another comic wordless story in pictures, was published in 1943. Waldman is famous for his work at the Max Fleischer animation studios, where he worked on cartoons such as Betty Boop, Superman and Popeye. His book, too, is in the comic book style of sequential images, with drawings splashed across the page spreads in a playful manner.

An earlier example is Mitsou, created by the French painter Balthus and published in 1921, which tells the story of the author's cat, Mitsou. Balthus ' pen-and-ink drawings follow a style not unlike Masereel's earlier wood engravings. Balthus made the images when he was only 13, lending charm and naïveté to the work. It featured an introduction by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century -- a highly respectable endorsement for a story without words.

Much later, Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1978) and Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prizewinning Maus (1986) were published to critical and popular acclaim. Although neither is a comic book -- and the themes of both are closer to tragedy than comedy -- Eisner and Spiegelman are considered by some to be comic book artists. Eisner's Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1996) is in effect a how-to guide on the use of the graphic narrative, as is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993).

Works by Eisner and his contemporaries led the way for the emergence of the modern graphic novel that incorporates both text and image. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Joe Sacco, Harvey Pekar, Frank Miller and Chris Ware are just a few of the stars of this evolving art form. In 2001, controversy surrounded the Guardian First Book Award presented to Chris Ware for his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. The jury wasn't unanimous that the award should go to a graphic novel, and there is much debate about the graphic novel abandoning its comic book roots for a more adult audience. The popularity of the graphic novel demonstrates that it has come into the mainstream for readers young and old alike.

Another popular form of the modern graphic novel is seen in the Manga books from Japan, which have evolved from the Japanese woodcut tradition. The great Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) coined the term Manga, which roughly translates as whimsical pictures. His works were not graphic narratives, but stylized woodcuts depicting Japanese culture.

Modern Manga novels are illustrated with exaggerated characters drawn with large eyes and cartoon features. They gradually began to address adult topics in their stories, and their popularity gained accordingly. Like comic books in the West, Manga began as serial stories in magazines. In the 1950s the artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi started a new type of adult graphic novel called "Gekiga," or "dramatic picture books." These books were not for children; the artwork was more refined and detailed, and dealt with more serious subject matters than the Manga artwork. The "Gekiga" has evolved into the Nouvelle Manga, an artistic movement combining French, Belgian and Japanese comic book styles. It is fitting that the adult graphic novel tradition begun by the Belgian Frans Masereel has circled the globe and arrived back where it started, albeit changed by its long journey.

Even though the wordless novels of Frans Masereel and his followers have become rare collectors' items, they have found new life in the hands of antiquarian booksellers. Sought after by graphic novel collectors for their influence on comic book artists and coveted by print collectors, these books are enjoying a new attraction for younger generations.


As a woodcut artist, I've always been attracted to black-and-white art. I think it has something to do with the rich contrasts. I love a deep rich black that you can stare into, forever. The effect is like our colorful world torn down to its base so that we can read the underlying message. The truth is always easier to take in black and white. Typography is always more legible in black and white, so why would we be surprised to find the readability of artworks enhanced by those contrasts? Remove the grays and hues, reduce the image to lines and solid blacks, and open up the whites. You have a thing of beauty and simplicity

Another way to understand our attraction to black and white is through the science of how we see. The human eye consists of rods and cones that process the reflected light of our world. These signals are then translated into color and form for processing by our brain. The rods, which are sensitive only to black and white, are the first components activated in a baby's eyes. That's why infants readily respond to high-contrast black-and-white images. We are hardwired to appreciate black-and-white artwork.

Let's not resist its temptation. I know I can't.

- George A. Walker




Frans Masereel The Passion of a Man

Lynd Ward Wild Pilgrimage

Giacomo Patri White Collar

Laurence Hyde Southern Cross

Afterword by Seth


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