On Saturday, June 28, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel on wordless books, particularly woodcut novels and pantomime comics, at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA. This was my first proper introduction to the ALA and its Conference, both of which are huge. I and my wife Michele had a wonderful, breathless, dizzying time. What follows is my report on the event...
The panel, titled Reading Pictures: The Language of Wordless Books, included:
- scholar Perry Willett, author of "The Cutting Edge of German Expressionism: The Woodcut Novel of Frans Masereel and Its Influences" and Head of the Digital Library Production Service of the University of Michigan Libraries;
- scholar David A. Beronä, author/compiler/editor of the excellent new Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels and director of the Lamson Library & Learning Commons at Plymouth State University, NH;
- artist Eric Drooker, illuminator of Allen Ginsberg's Illuminated Poems and author of the wordless comics Flood! and Blood Song, among others;
- and chair Juliet Kerico, subject librarian at the Lovejoy Library of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
I was the last of the speakers, my brief being to talk about my use of wordless comics in the classroom (I teach in the Dept. of English at CSU Northridge) as well as the larger issue of teaching comics under the heading of literature.
I should explain right away that the panel was put on for the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The ACRL is one of eleven membership divisions in the ALA, which also includes many committees, discussion groups, and round tables. (As I said, it's huge.) The panel was assembled by the ACRL's Literatures in English Section (LES), in particular its Program Planning Committee, and it was co-sponsored by LES and the Arts Section (which are but two of the seventeen sections that comprise ACRL).
LES, as their website explains, serves librarians "involved in the acquisition, organization, and use of information sources related to the study and teaching of literature written in English from around the world." Wordless books would seem to be a bit of a departure for LES, since such books are not an "English" genre per se: for example, the pioneer of the woodcut novel, Frans Masereel, came from Flanders and lived in France and Switzerland, typically publishing his books first in French or German. Also, obviously, "wordless" books are not so much "written" as graphically composed: drawn, cut, etched, with very little (sometimes truly no) text. Yet our panel seemed to magnetize the interest of the librarians who attended (maybe, what?, 100 people in the room?). The feedback, both during the Q&A and afterwards, was unstintingly positive. I'd say that curiosity was definitely piqued! Me, I enjoyed the gig tremendously and would have liked the Q&A/conversation to have lasted another hour.
Here's some more detail about the content of the panel:
Once Juliet Kerico introduced the panel, each of us four speakers had about 15 minutes to present:
PERRY WILLETT led off, with a talk/PPT slideshow titled "My Obsession: Collecting 'Woodcut Novels' and the Lessons I've Learned." He recalled how, years ago, he was introduced to wordless books when he discovered a copy of Lynd Ward's classic God's Man (first published in 1929) in a spinner rack in a used bookstore. He was, he said, "mesmerized." Years later, while in Germany, he encountered Masereel's work, via Die Idee [The Idea] (1920), like God's Man a self-reflexive fable about art and the artist. Then came Masereel's My Book of Hours [Passionate Journey] (1919), whose puzzling, disturbing conclusion inspired him to dig further into the genre, in order to know more.
Perry noted the lack of scholarship, and lack of library collections, in this genre at the time he started collecting and studying it. This was another puzzle: since the genre was popular in the inter-war years (1920s-30s), with numerous books and more than a handful of artists working in it, why was so little being said about it, in historical hindsight? And, another question, how did World War 2 impact the production of the genre? The heyday of woodcut novels was certainly pre-WW2. Seeking to answer questions like these, Perry (as he recounted) ended up making unexpected connections through bookdealers, who opened up to him a small world of avid collectors of the genre. (Eventually, Perry would curate The Silent Shout: Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward and the Novel in Woodcuts, a groundbreaking exhibit at Indiana University, Bloomington , and would also go on to write an essay on Masereel and his influence for A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism .)
Perry ended with a series of general conclusions based on his experience as a collector of woodcut novels. These conclusions have implications for librarianship as well as the study of wordless books; indeed they were aimed specially at librarians:
1. "Not everything worth studying has been studied."
2. "Bookdealers are an undervalued resource in this academic ecosystem."
3. Libraries, though central to research, can also "hinder research," because librarians' vision may be limited by the "blinders" of contemporary "prejudice." Librarians, he urged, should question the prevailing biases of the moment.
4. "Culture moves on," not only neglecting but in a sense "actively erasing traces of what came before." The job of librarians, he argued, is to preserve those traces.
Perry concluded by stating, "We [librarians] need to constantly question our assumptions about collection building." This struck me as apropos not only of the woodcut novel but also of comics and sequential art in general. I was impressed by the way his talk addressed not only the foundations of the woodcut novel but also larger professional and institutional questions about what librarians do, and should do.
DAVID BERONÄ was next to speak. I've known David since 1998, when we met at the Graphic Novel conference at UMass Amherst, but this was only the second time we've been together in person. David began his talk/PPT by relating how he discovered Lynd Ward's Storyteller without Words (1974), which hit him like a thunderbolt, showing him the possibilities for "adult" picture books with realistic themes. Later he was encouraged to pursue research in this area by one of his professors at Simmons College, and so began twenty-plus years of concerted work, years that took him hither and yon, introducing him to scholars and artists and to the resources of Special Collections at Georgetown University, Columbia, and elsewhere. David's brand-new Wordless Books (Abrams, 2008), both a critical companion to and an anthology of excerpts from the genre, is a remarkable testament to about a quarter century's worth of work digging up, contextualizing, historicizing, and interpreting texts in this field.
David spent the balance of his talk presenting a capsule history of the "woodcut" novel and its influences in the genre of wordless comics. Taking off from Perry's introduction to Masereel, David picked up the historical thread with Ward, who, inspired by Masereel, created six wordless books, what he called "pictorial narratives," between 1929 and 1937. God's Man is probably the best-known of these, though the later Vertigo (1937) is, David believes, Ward's masterpiece.
After delving into Ward, David more quickly surveyed other classic wordless storytellers, including Willy Fries, Otto Nückel, Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, István Szüts, William Gropper, Werner Gothein, Giacomo Patri, Laurence Hyde, and Felix Gluck. In addition, he discussed certain contemporary artists who have done pictorial narratives, such as Si Lewen (Poland-America), Palle Nielsen (Denmark), and Ken Currie (Scotland).
Besides placing each artist in context and showing excerpts from her/his work, David sprinkled interesting observations throughout, for example his comments on: the treatment of gender in Fries' Gottlose (1932) and Nückel's admittedly "melodramatic" Destiny (1930); the use of color to distinguish between the protagonist's "inner and outer worlds" in both Ward's Wild Pilgrimage (1932) and Patri's White Collar (1940); the genre's use as political protest and its abiding focus on the economic and social ills of the Depression; and the range of the genre, shown by, for example, the contrast between Masereel's and Nückel's dark pessimism and the more optimistically sunlit world of Bochořáková-Dittrichová, whose Childhood (1931) lovingly recalls her own middle-class childhood.
David then delved into contemporary creators of wordless comics, starting with Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper (The System, etc.), then moving on to Erez Yakin, Thomas Ott, Peter Kalberkamp, Anna Sommer, Olivier Deprez, Hendrik Dorgathen, Jason, and a couple of artists we've written about here at TB, Sara Varon and Shaun Tan. David concluded by noting, gratefully, how research into wordless comics has enriched his life socially and intellectually. (It seems that David has a second book in the works covering many of these wordless storytellers. Keep your antennae out...)
ERIC DROOKER was next to speak, which I took as a gift, since I've been in awe of Eric's work for a long time. He began by telling how, when he was eleven or twelve, his grandfather gave him some work by Masereel, which Eric, a self-described "slow reader," delighted in. This ignited in him an interest in wordless storytelling. Mystified by the lack of wordless books for adults, he began to work in this area, leading eventually to his first wordless novel, Flood! (originally published in 1992).
In keeping with the idea of wordlessness, the balance of Eric's presentation consisted of, not a lecture, but an extended slideshow (not a PPT, but an honest slideshow, i.e., one with transparencies) of the final sequence in of Flood!, presented to prerecorded sound accompaniment but timed by hand, by Eric. For, what?, at least ten minutes, we witnessed a graphic/narrative tour de force: a remarkably complex, fluid, and evocative story, semi-autobiographical yet also fantastical (it shuttles between different levels of "reality"), self-reflexive in the manner of Masereel and Ward, and stunningly rendered in scratchboard.
I have lots of notes about this slideshow, but most are vain attempts to describe how the sound effects (rain, thunder) and the music (excerpted from John Morris' score to David Lynch et al.'s Elephant Man) accompanied the shifts in imagery. I have to say the music was exceptionally well-chosen, with Bernard Herrman-esque passages of menace (e.g., an ostinato harp figure underlying thrumming strings) alternating with comic/grotesque carnival music, calliope-like, in waltz time (oomp-pa-pah, oomp-pa-pah), a perfect accompaniment to the story's hallucinatory "Coney Island" sequence (click the thumbnail to get a better view):
Like the music, Eric's images pair dreamlike beauty and escalating violence; there's a sense of being caught up in the irresistible rhythm of events. I'm guessing that much of the audience was unfamiliar with Flood!, and, frankly, I bet they were awed. I was.
(Eric said that he sometimes presents slideshows to live musical accompaniment, e.g., on the banjo. Huh! I'd like to witness that.)
I was last to speak. I concentrated on my in-class use of wordless comics, in particular my use of Zou's six-pager "Champion," from the massive wordless comics anthology Comix 2000 (published by L'Association in 1999).
I've often used "Champion" as part of a first-day icebreaker in my comics course. It's an ingenious, observant, funny comic about courtship,
sex, class, and materialism. (Besides PPT images, I provided a lot of copies of the story so that the audience might read along.) In a nutshell, "Champion" pokes fun at how people use their
belongings or tastes, represented here by corporate logos, to
underwrite their own sense of identity. (Stuart Ewen, in All Consuming Images,
discusses this tendency to treat our preferred consumer goods as an
"identity kit," a concept that, I've found, most of my students glom
onto right away.) The story unfolds sans text in the conventional
sense, but with plenty of dialogue, all in the form of logotypes.
Students seem to find the story very accessible in both theme and form (again, click for a better view):
I'll pull here from my presentation, with minor editorial changes:
What I ask my students to do with "Champion" is, first, verbalize their understanding of the story, and then, second, step back and analyze the various visual means used in the comic to help shape their understanding. More precisely, I break students into teams and ask each team to concentrate on a single page of the story (this usually takes a class of twenty or more). The team is to narrate what is happening on their page, then talk about exactly how they know what’s happening, what visual devices are used to get the story across, and which points in the story, if any, elicit confusion or disagreement within their team. Part of the point of this exercise is to help students recognize just how much prior knowledge of the codes and conventions of comics they already carry with them, and to help them activate that knowledge so that they can go on to read other comics and visual texts more productively.
Once these breakout groups get back together as a whole class, I ask a few general questions so that the students have an opportunity to thematize, make some general statements about the story, and vent their gut reactions. Then we go through each group, that is, each page of the story, focusing first on the larger arc of the plot, then on specific details (in some cases students are able to infer very specific dialogue from Zou's images). Along the way we talk over the cruxes, or debatable points, of interpretation, then focus on the visual devices that have guided their reading: for example, emanata, body language, symbols such as musical notes or word balloons, and page layout, including panel shape and split panels.
It’s at this point that I can begin to gloss (or in many cases my students will gloss) terms such as “panel” and “balloon.” Sometimes I can get as far as glossing more specialized terms such as “split panels,” “bullseye panels,” and “emanata.”
Using wordless comics like these early in the semester (remember, I usually do this on the first day of class) allows students to identify and give names to various graphic devices that comics can use, and also to see that they already have some knowledge of the comics form and, as it were, comics theory. Of course, "Champion" also enables me to introduce some new and specialized terms in the context of concrete examples, so that students can see, first of all, that there ARE such terms to analyze the workings of comics, and, second, that such terms arise readily enough from talking about the comics themselves, not from a determination to impose theory in the abstract, which many students initially resist. In short, “Champion” helps students recognize that they already have a knowledge base when it comes to reading comics, and helps me get across the idea that what we'll be doing in class is building on and disciplining that knowledge.
When the four of us were done presenting, we got interested and enthusiastic feedback from the audience: enough Q&A to fill the remainder of our time and then some. (Special thanks to Karen Green of the Columbia University Libraries and Comixology's Comic Adventures in Academia column for asking a question that steered me to The Stanford Graphic Novel Project! Go check it out.) In sum, the whole event seemed to go off seamlessly, and I felt fortunate to be part of it. I learned from it and I met some kind people, which are always the main things.
My thanks to my co-presenters and the LES Program Planning Committee, including Juliet, David, and Jen Stevens (of the George Mason University Libraries), for making room for me.
Overall, as I said, Mich and I had a dizzying, head-turning, one-day blast at the ALA Annual. One day is far too little time to spend at such a huge event. (Consider: there are many panels and presentations devoted simply to orienting first-time visitors to the conference!) We enjoyed the whole thing, from the comically outsized hotel suite we inadvertently ended up in (more fitting for a committee of ten than a couple: we kept checking to see if our voices would echo) to the bustle of the exhibit floor to the opportunity to meet some people and put some names and faces together (a shout-out here to Gina Gagliano of First Second and Derik Badman of MadInkBeard and "Things Change" -- nice to meet you both!).
We particularly want to thank the LES Program Planning Committee and David, Perry, and Eric for a wonderful dinner the night before the panel. Also, thank you to Sophie Lesinska (of USC's Leavey Library), Chair of LES, for her warm hospitality during both our Friday and Saturday night dinners. Thanks to Sophie, we didn't feel so lost and we got introduced to a number of other LES members.
Let me close by hyping once more David Beronä's splendid Wordless Books. Go to David's blog for his (much timelier) coverage of this event, from which I've shamelessly pilfered some pictures. Thanks David!