Gods' Man Review

By | Saturday, September 24, 2011 Leave a Comment
Gods' Man by Lynd Ward is one of what might be considered the first graphic novels as I noted yesterday. It's a wordless story, told entirely in pictures, not unlike William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress and A Harlot's Progress a couple of centuries earlier. Unlike Hogarth, though, who created a short series of works meant to be examined on a wall, Ward produced a book-length story that was designed to be printed and read as a book.

The story is about a young artist, who's goal is to make a name for himself in the city. On his way into town, though, a stranger offers to buy all the works he's carrying in order that he can pay for his meal. The stranger also gives him a brush that he claims has been used for centuries; he just asks the artist sign a paper of some sort. The artist then becomes quite famous in the city, almost overnight, being "discovered" by an agent while painting a street corner. The artist lives life well, until he finds out the woman he's been seeing is a prostitute hired by the agent. Despite attempts to forget her, he sees her face everywhere and eventually cracks, attacking a police officer he thinks she's with. He's thrown in prison, but manages to escape to the country where he meets a beautiful woman. They have a child, and he teaches it how to paint. The stranger he initially met returns to remind the artist of his contract. He happily agrees to paint the stranger's portrait on a mountaintop. Once the artist has set up his easel, he looks up to see the stranger before recoiling in shock and falling off the edge of a cliff. The stranger watches him fall, then picks up the antique brush, revealing himself to be Death.

First off, woodcuts... damn! Ward had some talent. I've tried my hand at more than a few sets of art materials and the two I thought were the most difficult to not suck at were water colors and woodcuts. My copy of the book was $8.95 and it was totally worth just to see the individual panels of art here. Really impressive stuff.

Next, the sequencing is, to me, surprisingly excellent. Keep in mind that this was about five years before comic books existed and it was Ward's first attempt at sequential narratives. Not only had he figured out a number of impressive storytelling techniques, he did it with little to no reference to see how things might or might not work. That he went on to churn out another five books over the next 7-8 years -- all done in time-consuming woodcuts -- is really astounding to me. There was exactly one panel I had any difficulty in deciphering, and it's entirely possible that was from a printing flaw in this particular edition/copy.

The story is perhaps not the most original. The shadowy figure with some obscure contract early on? I don't know how common that story was in the 1920s, but I know I've seen the contract with Death motif a hundred times in various forms. Ward isn't terribly subtle on that although, to be fair, he's telling the story without words so conveying that would be difficult under any circumstances. And given how expert he is at telling the story, I'm not going to hold this against him.

For many years, Ward's work was largely held to the province of high-priced collector's editions. Dover's version is a simple and easily accessible paperback and, as I noted above, well worth the price. Especially if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of the medium. I know I'll definitely be tracking down Ward's other works to see how he improved as he progressed in the then-new medium.
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