A couple years ago, I got around to really looking at Lynd Ward's work. He was an American artist who created several graphic novels in the 1920s and '30s. (Yes, starting before the creation of actual comic books!) Ward was very clear, though, that his graphic novel work was inspired by the Flemish artist Frans Masereel. Masereel started his graphic novels over a decade before Ward. These works caught the eye of Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief, who published portions of them in the United States. These are likely where Ward would have first seen them.
The Sun, The Idea & Story Without Words: Three Graphic Novels. HOL! E! COW!
"The Sun" is basically a more modern version of the story of Icarus. "The Idea" follows the life and virality of an idea. And "Story Without Words" is a fairly straightforward love story. Each is abotu 60-80 pages long, and are all devoid of any text, relying exclusively on the illustrations to convey the tales. And that's what I'm super-impressed with.
I don't particularly care much for Masereel's actual illustration style here. Nothing wrong with it, certainly, but just not a personal preference. Although I am always impressed that people can work ANY level of detail into woodcuts, so that's worth looking at. But what I'm really struck by here is Masereel's storytelling ability. He does a phenomenal job conveying the action, one panel to the next. Not only the physical actions of people's movements or what-have-you, but the metaphorical actions as well. In none of the stories was I ever at a loss for exactly what Masereel was trying to convey at either the functional or symbolic levels.
And it's not like Masereel had much in the way of prior examples. His work predates Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Gasoline Alley and any number of other comics. He wasn't entirely working in vacuum, of course, but I doubt many American comic strips got translated and shipped overseas and approximate contemporaries like Hergé would still be another decade or so before their work started getting published. So Masereel had to create a lot of the ideas himself.
Even more interesting, I found "The Idea" in particular still quite relevant and poignant. It clearly still has hallmarks of the early 20th century, most notably in the specific instances of media outlets (snail mail, old school printing presses, etc.) but the work is a bit heavier on symbolism anyway. In fact, the Idea noted in the title is actually depicted as a (usually) nude woman, so that a man photographs her with a daguerreotype camera instead of an iPhone is rather immaterial. The Idea character is only an avatar for an abstract concept anyway, so it's not a leap to assume the actual envelope the artist originally puts her in is a physical manifestation of the email icon on your desktop.
I linked to the edition I picked up, but I'm sure any version you might come across would be worthwhile. Definitely a fascinating aspect of comic history that deserves wider recognition.