Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage (v. 1) by Lynd Ward
(Library of America, 2010, 812 pages)
Each novel in this collection consists of a single woodcut per page without any text. These “wordless novels” were early forerunners to today’s graphic novels. Lynd Ward’s visual stories deal with themes like the role of the artist in society, the consequences of industrialization, the plight of the worker, the failures of capitalism. In Gods’ Man a young artist arrives in the corrupt city and makes a Faustian deal with a mysterious stranger that results in his rise to the top of the art world. He eventually flees the city and finds love in the country, but the deal he struck ends in tragedy. In Madman’s Drum, a murderous slave trader returns home with a demon-faced drum, bringing with it a curse that sets the man’s family on a disastrous trajectory. Wild Pilgrimage follows a factory worker as he leaves behind the dirty and violent environment of the factory for the unsullied countryside. However, he finds hatred and violence even in this rural setting, and he returns to the factory to lead a worker’s rebellion.
The woodcuts that make up these novels are beautifully executed and remarkably detailed. In Gods’ Man, the ominous shadows cast by looming skyscrapers communicate the corrupting influence of the city on the idealistic artist. The faces of the characters in Madman’s Drum are remarkably expressive. In Wild Pilgrimage, Lynd alternates black and white woodcuts with red “dream sequences” to communicate the reality versus the ideal of a socialist agenda. God’s Man has a strongly allegorical feel. It is the simplest of the stories, and it flows smoothly. The images in Madman’s Drum are more complicated. The story is more complex and it is not easy to follow at every point.
The collection includes an introductory essay by Art Spiegelman which helps to contextualize Ward artistically and socially. In the back, there are three essays written by Ward that correspond to each novel. These are very helpful, both for making sense of some of the more difficult parts of the stories and for appreciating the artistic techniques that Ward employs.