A Thousand Words per Page: the Wordless Novel

Close Cousins or Distant Family?

In the Afterword to George Walker’s Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri, Laurence Hyde (Firefly Books, 2007), Seth suggests that although the wordless novels which began to gain notoriety at the beginning of the 20th century are now being hailed as close cousins to the graphic novel, there are important fundamental differences between the two forms.

Seth maintains that the wordless novel pays homage more to silent film than to the comic strip. In spite of their widespread popularity, many readers would have considered comic strips of the day simplistic—as is still the case today. Silent film, however, was in its heyday as an emerging and sophisticated art form. If the artists creating wordless novels had felt that comic strips were an elevated art form, why would they not have included speech balloons and more than one image per page in their works?

In the Introduction to Graphic Witness, George Walker suggests that wordless novels actually influenced the use of storyboarding for film pre-production. In 1932, Frans Masereel and Berthold Bartosch began collaborating on transforming Masereel’s wordless novel, The Idea into a silent animated film. Masereel’s preoccupation with other projects prevented him from continuing to work with Bartosch, but Bartosch nonetheless completed the work. Both artists’ work was targeted by the Nazis to be destroyed, but the film survived the war and is now freely available on the Internet.

Graphic novels hold in common with wordless novels the goal of producing serious commercial artworks geared towards an adult audience. Nearly without exception, the inspiration for creating wordless novels involved communicating a message of social import to a wider audience. The artists of these works were committed to the promotion of social justice, and saw their art as a means to instigate positive change in society. Through juxtaposing the graphic novel to wordless novels, we can see how much and how little the world has changed, and the degree to which today’s progressive-minded graphic novelists continue to pay tribute to the medium’s historical roots.

Birth of the Woodcut

The earliest techniques used in printmaking date back to eighth century China. Devotional charms were printed on paper, and designs were later decorated on fabric.

Woodcuts were printed in Europe as early as the 15th century. They became popular quickly, with some artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) prospering from the sale of their work (Walker, 15).

The Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) is attributed with inventing the term manga. Although now the word is often translated into English as “comics,” an alternative interpretation is “whimsical pictures.” Although Hokusai’s prints are not an example of sequential narrative, they nonetheless served as the basis for modern manga in Japan (Walker, 12).

In Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (Abrams, 2008) David Beronä explains that the woodcut revival at the end of the 19th century was in part a reaction to the emergence of industrialization and a technocratic vision of the future. Beronä attributes three contributing factors to the popularity of the wordless novel:

  • the rediscovery of the woodcut by the German Expressionists;
  • the creation of silent film; and
  • the introduction of the cartoon in journals and newspapers.

Like the wordless novel, cartoons served as a vehicle through which artists were able to publicly critique and satirize the values of industrial society. It comes as no surprise then, that cartoon historians, theorists and practitioners such as Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Eric Drooker and Scott McCloud have all acknowledged their debt to wordless novelists. Wordless novels demonstrated that through careful posturing and facial expression, artists could convey a breadth of emotions using the woodcut—with the term ‘woodcut’ also extending to linocuts and leadcuts. Combined with the notion of sustaining an extended narrative from one panel to the next, the basis for modern graphic storytelling was born.

Among the earliest pioneers of the wordless novel were Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. Whereas Masereel’s preference was the woodcut, Ward chose wood engraving. In the former, blocks or wood are cut with the grain in a horizontal direction; with wood engravings, blocks are cut against the grain.


Walker explains,

An artist needs to cut many blocks to tell even simplest of stories. It is also important to remember that a slip of the tool across the surface of the block will render an image useless for printing. Erasing a line is not an option once it is incised in the surface. It takes a careful and sure hand to create a block ready for printing. When you see the images in this book, look for those stray white lines that appear like scratches across the black areas. These are the marks where the tool has slipped (16).


An especially valuable inclusion in the introduction to Graphic Witness is the series of illustrations and descriptions of various tools used in engraving, with detail from images that demonstrate the effect that these tools have on the work. The hand tools mentioned include the gouge (18), the linocut tool (20), the lining tool (22), the engraver’s chisel (24), the parting tool (26), and the “spitsticker,” or elliptic tint tool (28). To anyone interested in how the various effects produced in the wordless novels are produced, these pages are an indispensible reference.

Most of the brief biographies that follow are based on information from Walker and Beronä’s volumes. In addition to the creators and their works listed below, other notable contributors to the medium include:

  • Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908-2001); Mitsou: Forty Images (1921)
  • Carl Meffert (1903-1988); Youth Without Means (Erwerbslose Jugend, 1928)
  • James Reid (dates TBD); The Life of Christ in Woodcuts (1930)
  • István Szegedi Szüts (1892-1939); My War (1931) 
  • Werner Gothein (1890-1968); Tightrope Walker and the Clown (Die Seiltänzerin und ihr Clown, 1949)

Frans Masereel (1889-1972)

Frans Masereel was born in 1889 in Belgium, and died in 1972. He witnessed the invasion of Belgium by German troops in 1914, and fled to Paris. Masereel later moved to Geneva, where he witnessed the slaughter of locals; these events prompted him to join the International Pacifist Movement. Masereel produced a huge number of antiwar drawings and woodcut engravings from 1917-1918.

In 1923, Masereel moved to Germany, where he befriended George Grosz, who was also creating antiwar art.

Masereel also met Romain Rolland, the winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize for literature. Rolland exposed Masereel to philosophies of the east, and the notion of leading a life of simplicity inspired by Mahatma Ghandi. In 1925-1927, during the period that Masereel lived in Germany, he produced over 800 wood engravings.

Kurt Wolff was Masereel’s publisher in the 1920s, and published five woodcut novels in total. Wolff came up with the idea of including introductions to Masereel’s wordless novels written by the Nobel Prize winners Thomas Mann (in 1929) and Herman Hesse (in 1946). Upon being asked which movie had made the most significant impression on Thomas Mann, he responded, “Passionate Journey”—even though this is a wordless novel by Masereel, and not a film at all. Herman Hesse wrote the introduction to l’idée (The Idea).

In 1940, Masereel left Paris with the German invasion and lived in Avignon. Masereel eventually settled in Saarbrücken, Belgium and taught at the city’s Arts Center. Masereel began exhibiting internationally in Mexico, New York and Paris.

Lynd Ward (1905-1985)

In 1926 at the age of 21, newlywed Lynd Ward left for Germany with his wife May McNeer. There, he studied engraving with Hans Mueller at the National Academy for Graphic Arts in Leipzig. During his studies, Ward discovered The Sun by Frans Masereel, and was inspired to create wordless novels of his own. Whereas Masereel’s preference was the woodcut, Ward chose wood engraving. In the former, blocks of wood are cut with the grain in a horizontal direction; with wood engravings, blocks are cut against the grain.

Ward returned to the U.S. after his studies and published Gods’ Man in 1929. There had been little exposure to the wordless novel in North America. Ward’s first book was well received; in four years, it sold more than 20 000 volumes.

Ward is credited with paying special attention to the sequencing of his engravings from one page to the next; just enough information was provided to understand the relationship between each image, without telling the whole story. The reader was left to piece together those elements that are absent from the narrative; this led to tremendous engagement on the part of the reader.

Rhythm and pacing were integral to Ward’s work, as the following passage from Storytelling Without Words: The Wood Engravings of Lynd Ward demonstrates:

The first visual units immediately establish character and setting. Each succeeding unit must relate to what has been established and, by focusing on a slightly later point in the developing action, move the story that much further along. The difficulty, of course, lies in determining how much of an interval between units will be effective. If it is too great, you lose the reader because he cannot make that leap with the information you have given him. On the other hand, if the interval is too slight, the new unit will seem repetitious and the reader’s interest will flag (quoted from Beronä, 42).

Ward’s sensitivity to the relationship between darkness and light in his engravings, as well as his acute sense of composition are recognized as strengths of his visual storytelling. The size of the prints included in Ward’s wordless novels vary, providing a diversity to his books that is lacking in the work of other wordless authors such as Masereel. Ward is also recognized with introducing segments of words in Vertigo (1937).

Wood engraver Michael McCurdy once received a letter from Ward, who “…advised me in drawing to interpret what I saw but then add a little of what I don’t see” (quoted in Beronä, 44).

McCurdy introduced poet Allen Ginsberg and artist Eric Drooker to one another. Ginsberg had been pulling down street art posted by Drooker in the Lower East Side of New York prior to their meeting; the two artists already had an affinity for the other’s work. Drooker collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems; he is also the highly acclaimed author of two wordless novels in his own right, Flood! and Blood Song.

Most recently, Drooker coordinated the animation of sequences for the motion picture Howl starring James Franco. Illustrations from the film have been included in a “graphic novel” version of the poem.

Ginsberg has attributed Lynd Ward’s sombre black and white imagery as one of the principal inspirations for Howl. The two artists were brought together to create a limited print, “Moloch,” the central theme found in part two of Ginsberg’s contemporary classic. Below is a link to Ginsberg’s reading of Part II.


According to Ginsberg, Part II “…names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb.”

Part II is about the state of industrial civilization, characterized in the poem as “Moloch”. Ginsberg was inspired to write Part II during a period of peyote-induced visionary consciousness in which he saw a hotel façade as a monstrous and horrible visage which he identified with that of Moloch, the Biblical idol in Leviticus to whom the Canaanites sacrificed children (Wikipedia: “Howl”).




Ward is attributed with advancing the development of the “pictorial narrative,’ his preferred term for sequential art. Additionally, Ward experimented with the use of more than one colour when printing his engravings, contributing to the evolution of colour printing by artists of children’s books and comics in the years to come.

Lynd Ward’s stories are firmly committed to representing the downtrodden, working class masses of the 1930s. His message is just as understandable with the economic hardships of today as when his work was first created.

Ward’s wordless books have recently been reproduced in a two volume boxed set entitled Six Novels in Woodcuts, edited by Art Spiegelman and published by the Library of America.

Otto Nückel (1855-1955)


Otto Nückel is acknowledged as the first wordless novelist to use leadcuts instead of woodcuts; he did so since wood was not readily available during the war years in Germany. The leadcuts permitted Nückel to design prints with a finer line than Masereel. Beronä (93) quotes Lynd Ward as commenting that Nückel “…surpassed Masereel both in complexity of plot development and in subtle psychological interplay between characters.” Similarly, Will Eisner is quoted as maintaining that compared with Masereel, Nückel’s work “…was more sophisticated and the graphic narrative more complex” (Beronä, 93).

Like Lynd Ward, Nückel is known for the dramatic tension that he creates using darkness and light in his prints, very much akin to the atmosphere found in German silent films of the time. Critic H. Lehmann-Haupt commented on the subtle differences between the two mediums with the release of Nückel’s Destiny: A Story in Pictures (1930):

…The pleasure is more subtle, for we are alone in this theatre and audience and operator are one person. We can make the story run quickly, we can even skip, but we can also stop altogether. Then suddenly it is not so much a piece out of a story that counts, but an individual picture with its own particular qualities. This is where the superiority of the picture novel comes in (Beronä, 97).

Destiny ends with the tragic suicide of the story’s female protagonist, testament to Nückel’s sympathies for those against whom social injustices have been committed.

Giacomo Patri (1898-1978)

Giacomo Patri arrived in San Francisco from Italy in 1916. There, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts, finding work afterwards as a commercial artist and illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle, among other newspapers. Patri was ideologically aligned with the burgeoning trade movement; consequently, he began to illustrate materials being distributed by labour union activists in the 1930s.

In 1940, Patri’s White Collar: a Novel in Linocuts was published. The esteemed painter and engraver Rockwell Kent penned the introduction to the book, commenting:

A million novels could be founded on that crash, all different in plot and characters yet all alike in common tragic theme of sudden poverty, disrupted homes, of broken lives, of final and irrevocable hopelessness. A thousand lifetimes would be spent in reading them. One story might epitomize them all: this story does (quoted in Beronä, 195).

Kent also remarked, “Into the darkness of depression it throws lights; the tragic dissonance it resolves; and to the dead hope it brings resurrection” (quoted in Walker, 27).

Thematically, White Collar expresses the lack of immunity to which even individuals of elite social standing may suffer, resulting from economic downturn. Beronä describes the story thus:

In this socialistic call to arms endorsed by the American Labor Movement, Patri tells the story of a white-collar worker from an advertising agency as he innocently assumes he can climb the ladder of success by determination alone. The worker enjoys a traditional family life with a wife, two children, and even a picket fence. As he loses job after job, his economic condition becomes bleak. His family suffers the loss of materials and is unable to afford the simplest of services like gas and water. They move from home to apartment to shelter, until they finally are forced into homelessness. At this time the worker accepts the full disillusionment of the system. His belief in capitalism is shattered, and in the last page, he accepts the goals and fellowship of the labor union (195).

Patri printed pages in White Collar using two different tones, to differentiate between dream sequences (depicted using an orange hue) with waking life rendered in black and white. This is a technique that was pioneered by Lynd Ward in Wild Pilgrimage: A Novel in Woodcuts (1932). Though the circumstances depicted in White Collar did not occur to Patri personally, he did know people to whom such tragic events did take place.

Patri’s protagonist openly questions the Christian faith through the course of his hardships, and must grapple with his wife’s undergoing an abortion. Joblessness and homelessness feature prominently in the work, and Patri overtly critiques the prohibitive cost of health care for the poor.

Following World War Two, Patri began to teach at the California Labor School. In the 1950s, McCarthy’s anti-leftist agenda forced the school to close. From 1948 to 1966, Patri taught through his own art school based in San Francisco.

Helena Bochoráková-Dittrichová (1894-1980)

Helena Bochoráková-Dittrichová was born in Vyskov, Czechoslovakia. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, she received a bursary to study in Paris. While there, Bochoráková-Dittrichová was influenced by the work of Frans Masereel. Bochoráková-Dittrichová is acknowledged as the first woman to have published a woodcut novel, entitled Childhood (1931). This series of woodcut prints is based largely on Bochoráková-Dittrichová’s own memories growing up in the country in Hana (in what is now the Czech Republic), leading a relatively simple and contented middle-class life. Though the narrative arc to the prints is not particularly developed, these works nonetheless cohere as a collection of snapshots all based within the same setting.

Milt Gross

In 1930, Yinglish cartoonist Milt Gross presented a satiric version of the wordless novel in the form of He Done Her Wrong, with the full title of He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too. Silent films of the day were ordinarily accompanied by music, to which Gross is referring in his title.


He Done Her Wrong pokes fun at the high symbolism and drama of Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man:

Gross’s bumpkin is anything but handsome and paddles on a log into New York Harbor. With an expression of self-assurance, he faces the city, where he hopes to find his true love. His confidence dissolves quickly in a series of gags: a painter drops a bucket on his head; a vehicles strikes the bumpkin as he crosses the street and spins him around like a top; a horse steps on his foot; and a mechanical hand-signal on a truck slams down on the top of his head. Ironically, the sign on the side of the vehicle reads “Safety Truck” (Beronä, 2008, 157).



Myron Waldman (1908-2006)

Myron Waldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the Pratt Institute and then worked first as a fill-in artist, then an inker and finally as an animator for Fleischer Studios in Hollywood, California.

Waldman is acknowledged for his first animated work, By the Light of the Siverly Moon (1931), one of the early “follow the bouncing ball” songs that projected the lyrics to songs onto the screen in order that audience participants could sing along. Later, Waldman worked on Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman and Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons, among others.

In 1943, Waldman created Eve, his only wordless book. David Beronä describes Eve as:

…the story of a frumpy young woman who works as a secretary and spends her evenings fantasizing about marrying a handsome movie star (opposite).She passes a travel agency and takes a vacation to Miami, where she falls in love with a plain-looking young man who shares all her interest. She writes postcards to her friends and family about falling in love, but when she returns home, she discovers that the man she has fallen in love with in Miami is the mailman in her office. She feels brokenhearted, and her dream of marriage seems to dissolve until the mailman rushes to her side and announces his undying love for her (Beronä, 2008, p. 170).

Rather than use word balloons in Eve, Waldman utilizes picture balloons. Waldman’s use of facial expression reveals his years of experience as an animator.



William Gropper (1897-1977)

William Gropper worked as a book illustrator, painter, and cartoonist. Gropper worked as a cartoonist as a young man, contributing to The New York Herald Tribune. Gropper identified strongly with the working class, as was evident in his cartoons.

In August 1935, Gropper caricatured Emperor Hirohito of Japan in Vanity Fair, which led to the Japanese government suing the publication. Gropper refused to apologize for the cartoon. Also in 1935, the Senate House Un-American Activities Committee called on Gropper to testify, and he refused to attend the hearing.

Gropper created a series of fifty lithographs from 1953-56, collectively entitled The Cappricios. In addition to other works, this series expressed Gropper’s outrage with social injustices; The Cappricios is a reaction to McCarthyism and the birth of the Cold War.

Si Lewen  (1918-present)

Si Lewen was born in Lublin, Poland in 1918. His family moved to Berlin in 1920 to avoid anti-Semitic persecution. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Lewen fled to France with his older brother, against his parents’ wishes. Lewen’s family received a visa to travel to the US, especially unusual for Polish Jews. Lewen initially began studying art in Berlin and Grenoble, France. In 1935, Lewen trained at the National Academy of Design and Art in New York City.

In 1942, Lewen volunteered for the war and received special training at Camp Ritchie, as part of the reknowned Ritchie Boys. Lewen was sent to the front lines on a special mission: armed with a loudspeaker, his job was to try and convince Germans behind enemy lines to surrender. Lewen was challenged both mentally and physically by these events, and eventually suffered from a complete breakdown at the end of the war.


Lewen returned to the US in 1945 and resumed his art career. In 1985, he resolved to never sell another painting. Thanks to the efforts of his grandson, David Friedman, many of Lewen’s works are now freely available for viewing on the Web at Lewen’s website.

In 1957, Si Lewen created The Parade, a graphic narrative exposing the horrors of war, based on the artist’s own experiences as an American soldier witnessing the atrocities inflicted upon survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp, two days after its liberation. Albert Einstein wrote the introduction to The Parade. He commented on the ability of art to “counteract the tendencies towards war,” and suggested, nothing “can equal the psychological effect of real art—neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussions (10).”

Lewen also produced A Journey:

…This series documents the visitor’s horror at what he sees, but goes further, as the visitor is asked to join the leaders of the camp in a macabre “dinner of death.” When he refuses, he suffers the same fate as the camp’s many residents, and the series ends with a kind of resurrection as his spirit flies up to the heavens (Michener Art Museum).

Lewen was greatly influenced by Frans Masereel and George Grosz.

Laurence Hyde (1914-1987)


Laurence Hyde moved to Canada from England in 1926, eventually setting in Toronto in 1928. Hyde corresponded with Rockwell Kent and Lynd Ward, and was also influenced by British artists Paul Nash and Eric Gill. Hyde was employed as an illustrator for numerous publications, working in pen-and-ink, as well as creating scratchboard drawings for advertisers toward the end of the 1930s. Hyde’s only wordless book is Southern Cross (1951), recently reissued by Drawn & Quarterly.

The print blocks for Southern Cross took Hyde three years to produce. The book consists of 118 wood engravings. Hyde’s story recounts the testing of atomic bombs in the South Pacific following the end of the World War Two; the evacuation by American sailors of indigenous peoples living on a Polynesian island in the region, and the consequent destruction of their way of life.


The story is based on Hyde’s indignation with the aftermath of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in August 1945, as well as bomb testing that took place in the Bikini Atoll in 1946, once the war was ended.

In his introduction to the book, Rockwell Kent states,

“The bomb, that steel-clad dove of peace, is lowered to the ocean floor. The zero hour nears. A finger presses on the key. And to the island that was Eden, to every living creature but one child of man, to the birds of the air, to the fish of the sea, comes on blinding flash the everlasting peace of death” (31).

Interestingly, Hyde dedicated Southern Cross to the “International Red Cross Societies and to the Society of Friends (Quakers)” without any knowledge that Frans Masereel was both a pacifist and a Quaker—an insight attributed to scholar Martin S. Cohen (Beronä, 216).

In 1942, Hyde began working for the National Film Board of Canada in Ottawa, where he remained employed up until his retirement in 1972.






Contemporary Wordless Novels

Wordless novels have far from disappeared. Many cartoonists and comic artists have tried their hand at the wordless book, and some work uniquely in this medium. Wordless books are no longer rendered exclusively from printed blocks, but are now also produced using state of the art illustration and printing techniques, and Web publishing technologies. The list of artists and their work is exhaustive; among the notable are The System by Peter Kuper, Flood! and Blood Song by Eric Drooker; The Frank Book and Weathercraft by Jim Woodring; Nuphonia Must Fall by Kid Koala; and Nat Turner by Kyle Baker.

Several extensive lists of wordless books are available on the Web: Paul’s Comics Without Words Page and Stories Without Words: A Bibliography with Annotations.

Thematic elements found in the earliest examples of wordless books remain equally relevant in today’s world . Frans Masereel’s sentiments resonate just as profoundly now as they did in the past:

“…there are no ‘factions’ in my work. There is, I believe, great sincerity. It is a direct enough matter, consequently, which is not at all political. On the contrary, it is humanist…(Walker, 13).


3 Responses to “A Thousand Words per Page: the Wordless Novel”

  1. 1 urbanculturalstudies August 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Reblogged this on urbanculturalstudies and commented:
    Read down for discussion of Frans Masereel’s “The City”, which is a 1925 ‘novel in woodcuts’, fascinating…

  2. 2 Suzanna and Writing: One word at a time June 23, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Suzanna and Writing and commented:
    This is an amazing discussion of the wordless novel. I’ve checked out Lynda Ward’s work. I’m going to work on making my own wordless novels.

  1. 1 Prelude to a Million Years by Lynd Ward | Suzanna and Writing Trackback on June 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

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