Madman's Drum Review

By | Wednesday, May 22, 2024 Leave a Comment
It occurred to me that I haven't really looked at any Lynd Ward material in about a decade now. I haven't reviewed any here on the site since 2011 and that was Ward's first graphic novel, Gods' Man. The book was novel in literally every sense of the word and it was relatively popular back in the day. So how did Ward do with his second book, Madman's Drum?

Ward apparently set himself up with a bigger challenge in this book. Not only is it a more complex -- with more characters over multiple generations -- and not reliant on a basic story trope, but it's also is 15% shorter, using only 118 woodcuts compared to Gods' Man's 139. The question, then, is: did he succeed? To which I would answer: mostly, I guess?

The story is about a slave trader who takes a tribal drum from one of the tribes he raids. The man becomes financially successful, but dies on a subsequent trip a few years later. His son grows up to become an astronomer but his rejection of religion literally kills his mother. He throws his energy into his work exclusively, and subsequently loses his wife and their two daughters. Surrounded with so much death and grief, he slips into madness, picking up his father's drum and joining a crazed-looking piper who's been seen leering at all of the funerals.

Firstly, the actual illustrations are excellent. Very richly detailed and evocative. An incredible step up in Ward's already exceptional illustration abilities. He seems to also have spent more time organizing the compositions and layouts. A lot more working with foregrounds and backgrounds to relay multiple ideas in a single image. Indeed, David A. Beronä's Introduction in my copy notes that Ward would sometimes spend hours on a single woodcut, only to discard it entirely because he didn't like the figure positioning or the layout.

Of course, that's not to say the book is without critcism. While most of the page-to-page transitions (or panel-to-panel transitions, if you prefer; with only one panel per page, they're interchangeable here) were smooth and flowed well, I did have a bit of trouble following along every time the story switched focus to another member of the the family. Going from the father to the son wasn't too bad, but it took a couple of readings for me to register when we switched to the son's first daughter and especially when we switched from the first to the second daughter. I see how Ward tried setting that up, but I think that could've been made more clear. To be fair, some of early the indicators for that may have been more obvious when it was first published, and I'm simply a century removed from some cultural signifiers that may have been commonly known in 1930.

I also think the overall message of the story lacks any real weight to it. It seems to be trying to say "slavery is bad and it will bring ruin upon you." Except it doesn't really. In the first place, the focus on the drum suggets that it's not really slavery that's all that bad, and it was really stealing from the people you're enslaving that was a step too far. And in the second place, even that isn't really all that consequential. The slave trader was successful for years after stealing the drum, and his son also became very successful and well-respected. And the deaths that seemingly followed him around really just seemed like deaths that would've naturally happened around the time they did anyway. His mother dies well after he becomes and adult, and his children also grow well into adulthood before anything unseemly happens to them. When the son has finally been driven mad with grief, he's an old man with a full life behind him. The apparent curse took a solid generation and a half to play out. So the actual message being conveyed is "slavery is not great but not all that bad really, and the worst you'll get is that your son might get dementia as an old man several decades from now."

I mean, I get that it's supposed to be more of a generational curse and the drum is just a symbol of the slave trading that can last over that entire time, but I feel like the metaphors here are a little strained. There's literally zero connection between slavery and the drum, and whatever fate befalls anyone beyond the slave trader himself. Whatever ill fortunes occur, those could all be easily seen as just part of the random crapshoot that is life. Anyone can trip, fall down the stairs, and die; you don't need to have been the wife of a slave trader for that to happen. Heck, even the son doesn't seem to see any connections there until the penultimate page, after he's gone crazy.

Don't get me wrong. I quite enjoyed the book, and I plan on checking out some of the works by other artists that Madman's Drum evidently inspired. Otto Nückel, István Szegedi Szüts, and Bob Blaisdell are next on my list. ("Inspired" probably isn't the right word. Maybe "encouraged by its commercial success.") My copy of the book was published by Dover in 2005. It doesn't appear to formally still be in print, but it doesn't seem to be too hard to find a copy either. If you can't get the Dover edition, Art Spiegleman edited a collection of Ward's work in 2010 that includes the story. And, heck, there's an original 1930 edition (without the dust jacket) available on ebay right now for only $35 US. Absolutely worth checking out, particularly considering how few people -- even comics fans -- are familiar with Ward's work.
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