Emotion Picture Projector
Graphic-novel pioneer Lynd Ward sought to reinvent how stories are read.
William T. Vollmann
IF THAT SWEETMEAT of American Revolution agitprop called Johnny Tremain was ever a part of your childhood, then you probably encountered the illustrations of Lynd Ward. In one of them, we see Johnny slouching sadly by a wall, eavesdropping on Boston's commercial life. A man in a cocked hat carries two long planks on his shoulder; a Puritan type strains backward, pulling a reluctant horse; somebody staggers under the symmetrical weight of two buckets. Johnny was a gifted (and arrogant) silversmith's apprentice. Now his hand is crippled. His master has no more use for him. He must find a new place in this cruel world. Ward's illustration, competent and even lively but all the same undistinguished, could never express this on its own. It is appropriate but dispensable.
A rather different revolution was exemplified in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which, so the poet allegedly claimed, derived much of its fire from the graphic novels of Ward. These novels (1929–37) approach and sometimes attain genius. Unlike the illustrations for 1943's Johnny, they stand alone without any text, a single woodcut on each right-hand page to tell their stories. All six of them have now been resurrected in an exquisite two-volume set by the Library of America, one of the very few publishers that still seems to care about the book as object. "I find it terribly difficult and even ridiculous to play the connoisseur and pontifically direct the attention of my readers to linear charms and God knows what other aesthetic 'values.' In this world it is no longer a question of such 'values': it is a question of