a prehistory










What is a Graphic Novel?

There is much fun to be had in the ensuing dust-up. Whole reputations and conferences rise and fall with these interchanges. Fans chant the verities like Holy Writ. Some participants however resent the aesthetic claims inherent in the word ‘novel’, seeing no reason to extend their trade beyond the ‘Comic Book’.  The word “Graphic” itself has no great lustre in that it evokes not just printmaking but also Graphic Design and the Curse of Mammon. Artist Opponents argue that the use of the prominent literary term ‘Novel’ with its pretensions to expression on a certain scale, to dimensions of characterisation and the interplay of ambiguities, is almost a surrender of identity before publication. Wordsmiths, as artists know, do not often have a reciprocal attuning to the role of the image. 

Many publishers and writers admit illustrations as a necessary marketing ruse, a decoration, a punctuation of the density of prose, but fear distraction from the words. Some academics compound our prejudices by insisting we talk in terms of ‘reading’ images. Examples from other cultures, Mexican Codices and Japanese manga before 1850, were long regarded in the popular mind as the fruits of savage or juvenile civilisations (1)

For the purposes of this exhibition the Graphic Novel entails a sequence of pictures bound together with little or no text that proposes narratives of some complexity (2)

In this introduction I would like to trace briefly the early years of the movement in the context of a gradual increase of confidence in the powers of the Visual Proposition. The absence of words was no surrender of an option but the seizing of another, testing the powers of the Viewer to interpret pictures.

In the heroic period of the Graphic Novel between 1919 (the first Masereel book) and the beginning of the Second World War, understanding of the phenomenon may be made clearer by asking who else was developing a visual language along these lines? There were the familiar cycles of paintings either in mural or other decorative form. Portfolios of prints were offered by a burgeoning industry of dealers and publishers. Particular mention should be made of the parallel developments in the Graphic Novel and the Film Industry, sharing a purpose to convey a narrative in pictures, an exploration of the visual possibilities of Montage. Diaries and letters from artists in Europe and America attest how much they were learning from going to the Pictures, not just in celebrating Cinema’s stars such as Chaplin and Mae West, but also its visual structures, even after the introduction of Sound. The director Ernst Lubitsch writes of the period after 1919  "In my silent period in Germany as well as in America I tried to use less and less subtitles. It was my aim to tell the story through pictorial nuances and the facial expressions on my actors. There were often very long scenes in which people were talking without being interrupted by subtitles. The lip movement was used as a kind of pantomime. Not that I wanted the audience to become lip readers, but I tried to time the speech in such a way that the audience could listen to their eyes."(3)

Yet it could not be guaranteed that visualization would play an automatically significant role in the Film Industry. In 1936 a young British film-maker complained that there is “not enough visualizing done in [film] studios, and instead far too much writing. People take a sheet of paper and scrawl down a load of dialogue and instructions, and call that a day’s work. It leads them nowhere. There is also a growing habit of reading a film script by the dialogue alone. I deplore this method, this lazy neglect of the action, this lack of reading action in a film story or, if you like it, this ability to visualize.” (4)

Visual Propositions

Let’s look to the broader scale now. There is a history to be written of the belief that pictures can not only tell stories, but could actually solve problems, perhaps in ways words could not; that propositions can be advanced by sequences of images alone. In Western Culture there has been “… a tradition in psychology and philosophy that dismisses mental images as epiphenomenal, i.e. that they do not causally participate in reasoning or problem solving.”(5) Giordano Bruno is an exception in that he made an unusual claim for the pictorial against the word-based in 1582, “To think is to speculate with images...”(6)

In Scientific Method, the role of pictures is seen as an identifiable contribution. “[August] Kekulé made his fundamental discovery in organic chemistry having had a dream image in which a snake was coiled in such a way as to represent the molecular structure of benzine. [Michael] Faraday claimed to have visualised lines of force that emanated from electric and magnetic sources, resulting in the modern conception of electromagnetic fields. [Nikola] Tesla reported that he could determine how well a machine would work by mentally ‘running’ it in his mind. [Richard] Feynman claimed to have used visual images in thinking about interactions among elementary particles, which led to the development of Feynman Diagrams...”(7)

During the twentieth century print and information designers contributed to an understanding of the informative capacity of pictures. Otto Neurath (1882-1945) founded the Social and Economic Museum in Vienna in 1925 to communicate detailed economic information without the possible distorting factors of language, prone to lose much in translation. [ILL Births and Deaths in 1938 (8)]  The film-maker Paul Rotha described Neurath’s International Picture Language as “using self-explanatory symbols, based on scientific reasoning and psychological experiment”(9). Neurath urged his audience to remember their own pictorial experiences as a child. In his unpublished autobiography, he remembered lying on the floor in his father’s library. “I soon realised the difference between pictures `made for children', and pictures with a more general appeal. I found that books describing inventions and crafts for children did so by using large pictures and `big' figures, but pictures intended for adults were smaller and not so colourful. The colourful pictures when the colours were clear attracted me much more than when they were vague and indeterminate. I have always remembered this."(10) Neurath’s influence from 1925 was immense in Europe and later, after his death, in America through the activities of his followers. 

Art directors in Europe and America from 1920 streamed their layout for visual flow – for example Stefan Lorant (1901-1997, Münchner Illustrierte Presse), Dr.Mehemet Agha (1896-1978, Vogue and Vanity Fair), Alexei Brodovich (1898-1971, Harper’s Bazaar) and Will Burtin (1908-1972, FORTUNE magazine). Burtin had also designed picture manuals during the Second World War for illiterate recruits. (11)

While not having the same prestige as the new information design, comic books and popular prints were a constant during this period and the relationship between Low and High Art was a dynamic one in Europe and America(12).

Pictures for Sale

The mechanisation of publishing during the nineteenth century fed an undoubted public hunger for images to preserve. Artists such as Gustave Courbet and Georges Seurat collected Images d’Epinal, the popular hand coloured woodcuts sold by the Imagerie Pellerins.  Before the flowering of the Comic Papers, there was a highly lucrative trade in bound volumes of engraved illustrations with introductory text. William Hogarth’s portfolios of prints (such as The Harlot’s Progress, and The Rake’s Progress) were hired out by the evening for viewing. Moritz Retzsch’s bound volumes of illustrations were commercially successful across Europe(13). The Art Union of London, established in 1836, sold bound volumes of prints on extended literary and historical themes to their thousands of subscribers.(14)

Against this background then we must see the rise of the Comic Paper and the approach to the Graphic Novel, a Wordless Book.  Each comic title such as Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and Nuggets in the UK might have featured recognisable characters with speech bubbles, surrounding texts or captions, but there was always a strong component of pictures in the comics with no captions or intervening text where the narrative unfolds purely by pictorial means. A highly influential pictorial concept was circulated in Caran D’Ache’s The Cow and the Train [ILL] where much is said about time passing, a bovine reaction and a return to the status quo ante with the minimum of graphic means.(15)  The pictorial language of the Comic and Graphic Novel was seamlessly absorbed into European Modernism in, say, Max Ernst’s collage novels(16), and Picasso’s own comic strip, The Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937.In 1920 the painter Balthus, when thirteen years old, produced his own Graphic Novel about his cat, MITSOU, with an introduction by Rainer Maria Rilke, indicative of the impact Masereel’s early books had made on their first audiences.  Perhaps there is even something of the contemporary interest in image sequences in El Lissitzky’s 1922 Suprematist book for children, Of Two Squares, Skify, Berlin, a story of interplanetary intervention and redemption on a cosmic scale.  


The Pioneers, Masereel and thereafter.

Many whimsical publications of the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries provided examples of image driven narratives. In the UK, E.V.Lucas’s and George Morrow’s What a Life of 1911(17) reallocated goods from trade catalogues in narrative ways that the young Max Ernst might have seen.  John Held Jr.(1889-1959) produced a range of wordless prints for The New Yorker that not only used the conventions of the cheap woodcut but also flirted outrageously with melodrama and sentiment (18). 

The audience for Masereel may well have more sympathetic than we think because of the general gatherings of their own image sequences at home, in the Scrap Book, and indeed, the Photo Album, wordless books with their own narratives.(19)  

It was at the end of the First World War that we see the emergence of recognisable Graphic Novels. The epicentre of the Movement was the Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972) whose works (20) published mainly in Germany set the formal and thematic pattern for the future.  His picture sequences in woodcut may very well have been intended to appeal to a culture familiar with cycles of imagery such as Holbein’s Dance of Death (1538) and Durer’s Little Passion (1511), part of a medievalising tendency observable in other aspects of post-war German visual culture.(21)

Working also as a political cartoonist, Masereel designed books that explored the predicament pf the progressive individual fighting the repressive forces of Law, Order and High Finance. His earnestness of purpose reflected the apocalyptic atmosphere of the times, reverberations of Revolution and Counter Revolution in a defeated nation. Die Passion Eines Menschen (1918) comprises only 25 images (22). Masereel describes the Hero’s life from his mother’s pregnancy to his death in front of a Firing Squad.  What seldom comes across in reproduction is the matte black inking of the prints, on the right hand page only and with wide margins of thick off-white squarish paper generously provided by his publisher Wolff, at a page size of 19 x 22cms.  Unlike many of his imitators he rarely varied the size and proportion of the picture format on succeeding pages, reinforcing the unfolding of the story on a sort of cinema screen. Masereel tells stories of the actualities of urban life. He explores states of unemployment and its consequences. A worker can reflect and study to empower himself.  But in Die Passion the Hero is crushed by the forces ranged against him. Masereel’s imagery veers from the gritty to the melodramatic (always a tightrope he was to walk). In The Idea he introduces a feminine symbolic presence sprung (comically, it must be said) as a sort of Tinkerbell from the head of the Hero. 

While he doesn’t ever really escape the tendency to pontificate clumsily or lapse into sentimental self-indulgence, Masereel explored delightful nuances of meaning within his sequences. In the first four images of Passionate Journey [ILL Masereel 1-4] a novel told in 165 woodcuts (1919), we see the Hero at the start of his journey to the City waving farewell to those who stay from the carriage window. The second picture shows his arrival on the platform, caught hesitating in the carriage doorway, a transition to a high point of view, somewhere in the station canopy, beginning the sense of his isolation.  In the third image, Masereel daringly breaks the expected rhythm by showing the naïve traveller bending down in amazement at the machinery of the engine that has brought him. The fourth image sets him against the crowd and the city, his figure seen from beneath, standing alone with no luggage among the bowler hatted throng. The presence of an embracing couple to the right reinforced his loneliness. The narrative proficiency he shows here and elsewhere is almost that of a storyboard, and his pacing and point of view in the books of the twenties are distinctly filmic. In 1932, Masereel's The Idea was actually turned into a thirty minute animation by Berthold Bartosch, with music by Arthur Honegger.

Another influential Graphic Novel, published in the magic year of 1930, was Destiny, by Otto Nückel (1888-1965)(23), described as “A Novel in Pictures”.  Its sheer number of images allows a leisurely approach to the story of the several events in the tragic life of a young woman, lingering slowly on the routine of her life and then jump-cutting to a crisis in her affairs. Instead of the severe, jagged high contrast of wood engraving, Nückel engraved on lead, allowing a greater flexibility of line, and a greasy, murky softness of light that corresponds with the seamy side of urban life he depicts.

European Graphic Novels held a particular resonance in America. In the exact week of the 1929 Great Crash, Lynd Ward (1905-1985) published God’s Man, as a direct response to the Masereel books he had first found in Leipzig where he was studying printmaking and book design. Ward’s books gave immediate pictorial expression to the forces in Society that were fermenting collapse. In 1930, when God’s Man was published in the UK, Ward published Madman’s Drum, a novel in Woodcuts, followed by Wild Pilgrimage (24) in 1932. In the ‘Sixties, the poet Allen Ginsberg was to find inspiration in Lynd Ward’s work but it was tellingly included in a list of High Camp aesthetic experiences along with Aubrey Beardsley and Swan Lake (25).

The cartoonist Milt Gross (1895-1953) was directly inspired by Lynd Ward to produce He Done Her Wrong in 1930. Gross realised that many of the narratives set out by the Graphic Novelists, such as Masereel and Ward, played happily with his favourite comic material in the interaction between the Heavy, the Tootsie and the Sap. Gross’s Heavy has a prominent and lively moustache, the Tootsie is permanently a focus of lust and the Sap is earnest but, having early on floored a Moose with his bare fist, is bound to suffer. He Done Her Wrong is formally unlike the Masereel/Ward format, and is more like a comic strip unrolled and stripped of speech bubbles in favour of a plethora of cartoons with printed signs. It nevertheless presents fascinating narrative devices. My favourite section is the double page spread when the FATE Billboard conspires to make sure the Sap and the Tootsie miss each other in the Big City [ILL].

British publishers seemed suspicious of such visual extravagances, reluctant to surrender the rich, literary traditions of the land. In the UK there was a tolerance of Comic Strips, by Ridgwell, Bateman and Heath Robinson for example, many of whose full page cartoons were deliberately stripped down to just grids of images with no captions or dialogue. In the 1930’s only the prolific but little-known commercial illustrator and Christian Socialist Arthur Wragg (1903-1976) brought a British perspective to the Graphic Novel. His Jesus Wept, published by Selwyn and Blount in 1935, has stark double page pictures sometimes combined in montage with press clippings, advertisements and captions [ILL Wragg, “There is a Green Hill Far Away” from Jesus Wept]. Although there is no sustained narrative flow, the images are powerful and unlike anything published in Britain at the time.(26) If not exactly a Graphic Novel, it was certainly a Graphic Polemic.



There are problems whenever the word ‘Novel’ is attached to a wordless book. The physical appearance of the characters can be sustained but their psychological motivation is more elusive. As the narrative puts more and more strain on the participants it is only with some visual ingenuity that they can avoid the stereotypical. The sheer jabbing attack of the wood engraving tool does not leave much space for finesse in gesture or expression, unless it be the bristling animation of the Heavy’s moustache.

In literary forms the conflicts and paradoxes of human interaction and individual motivations can be satisfyingly presented for the reader’s critical spirit.  In the Graphic Novel the Good get idealised, the Heavy becomes the Devil Incarnate (27), and the Tootsie suffers. Almost uniformly in this early period, women are largely passive, prey to every passing stranger, often pregnant, homeless, suicidal, homicidal, a mere vessel for misery in the future. In many ways the stock cast of characters was that of the Victorian Toy Theatre.

Masereel and his followers popularised what was a new vehicle of visual expression. In restricting illustration to the Visual Proposition, they advanced the repertoire of devices available to those illustrating for the mass audience, developing detail and structures where publishers had favoured slabs of prose and prompting captions.

The prevailing subject matter of the early Graphic Novels was, with, certain comic exceptions, the absence of Justice in a world which few individuals felt they could control. In the process, this group of artists created fantastic landscapes, and dramatic cities with telling contrasts between day and night. As a foil to the urban mundane, the artists would create Circuses, Low Joints and a rich Theatre of the Streets, with persuasive, garish force. The books appealed to a wide audience. The demands made by the artists in their sequences of pictures could be made of young people and old people, those with education and those without. The same graphic productions could with minor alterations appear in countries with different languages. Whereas the spectator was trapped in the flow of a film, the book allowed the narrative to proceed at the audience’s own pace, with the ability to cross-reference backwards and forwards.

Their success was even registered in sales. Masereel’s books were published cheaply by Wolff with introductions by respected writers such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and they sold in their thousands in several editions, surviving the book burning of the Nazis. Wragg’s Psalms for Modern Life itself went through several editions after 1933. Lynd Ward from 1929 onwards sold well in repeated editions in the US and the UK and his dangerous Leftist views were no barrier to a successful career in the American publishing industry.

Whenever complex issues such as War and Peace, Democracy and Totalitarianism, the role of the Individual in Society, mass unemployment and protest were debated in the Public Forum, the Graphic Novelists provided a direct equivalence in their imagery in ways that ordinary people could understand, powerful testimony of the power inherent in the Image.





• David Berona, Wordless Books, The Original Graphic Novels, Abrams, New York.
• Paul Gravett, Graphic Novels, Stories to Change your Life, Aurum, London, 2005.
• George A.Walker, Graphic Witness, Four Wordless Graphic Novels, Firefly, 2007.

Facsimiles of many of the works mentioned above are available, but I recommend the Masereel titles published by the Redstone Press and Fantagraphics reprint of He Done Her Wrong in 2005.




1. Look at Diaz and Rogers, The Codex Borgia, a full color Restoration of an Ancient Mexican Manuscript  Dover, 1993, and Jack Hillier’s The Art of Hokusai in Book Illustration, Sotheby’s, 1980, for alternative possibilities of pictorial structures in other cultures.

2 In Paul Grevett’s book Graphic Novels, Stories to Change your Life, 2005, the examples illustrated are peppered with speech bubbles and captions. My range of material is aligned to David Berona’s selections in Wordless Books, 2008.

3. HermanWeinberg, That Lubitsch Touch, 1968, quoting a letter to the author dated 10th July, 1947.

4. Sidney Gottlieb, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995. The original title of Hitchcock’s article was “Close Your Eyes and Visualize!” Hitch had himself designed title cards before being a cameraman and throughout his career drew, and emphasised the importance of, storyboards.

5. Glasgow, Narayanan and Chandrasekaran, Diagrammatic Reasoning: Cognitive and Computational Perspectives, AAAI Press/MIT Press, 1995. 

6. Giordano Bruno, De Umbris Idearum (The Shadow of Ideas), 1582.

7. Finke, Ward and Smith, Creative Cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

8. from L.S.Florence, Our Private Lives, Harrap London, 1944.

9. Future Books Vol III c1946, “The Crowded Scene, From Hieroglyphics to Isotypes”.

10. ibid,  p.92

11. Graphis Magazine no.22 Volume 4, 1948 L.P. Lessing and Will Burtin, Interrelations,

12. see Kurt Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, High and Low, Modern Art & Popular Culture, MOMA, New York, 1991.

13 e.g. The Song of the Bell, after Schiller, 1834.

14. e.g. Joseph Noel Paton’s illustrations to The Ancient Mariner, Art Union, 1863.

15. reproduced in several illustrated periodicals and most notably in Caran D’Ache the Supreme, Methuen London 1933.

16. e.g. 1922, Les Malheurs des immortels; 1929 La Femme des 100 Tetes; 1934 La Semaine de Bonté

17. What a Life, an autobiography by E.V.L. and G .M. illustrated by Whiteley’s, Methuen London, 1911.

18. see Marc Connelly (Foreword) and Carl Weinhard (Introduction), The Most of John Held Jr. The graphic style was also used in the 1920’s by S.J.Perelman (1904-1979) in his days as an illustrator and before his scripts for the Marx Brothers.

19. e.g. Christine’s Picture Book, Hans Christian Andersen and Grandfather Drewsen, Kingfisher, London 1984, an aggregation of pictorial family lore with Andersen’s paper cut-outs as radical as anything by the Dada collagists.

20. Such as Mein Stundenbuch, Kurt Wolff Verlag, Munich 1919, Passionate Journey in the UK, 1920; Die Idee, The Idea, Albert Kundig, Geneva; 1924 Geschichte ohne Worte, Stories without Words Kurt Wolff Munich.

21. Such as Lyonel Feininger’s print of the Cathedral  print in the Bauhaus manifesto (1919). See also the design work for The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920). There are certain similarities between the medieval house in the Big City in The Idea (1920), and the design for Rottwang’s house in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

22. My copy is the first popular edition of 1924, Die Passion Eines Menschen, 25 Holzschnitte v. Frans Masereel, Kurt Wolff, Muenchen, and is available in several other editions.

23. Nückel was a working illustrator with a much greater formal range than Masereel, and had worked for the prestigious German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus.

24. Reproduced in facsimile in George A.Walker’s Graphic Witness, Firefly Books 2007 which also has Laurence Hyde’s extraordinary Southern Cross of 1951 in its totality.

25. Susan Sontag Notes on Camp, 1964.

26. with the possible exception of David Low’s work in the second half of the ‘Thirties. Like Milt Gross, Low also contributed to the Left-leaning American Picture magazine KEN.

27. The Heavy is shown in the‘Thirties in various guises, e.g. the rascally landlord or a horny travelling salesman, a masked malevolent or a one-legged beggar.