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20Jan/150

The Silent and the Sequential: Wordless Comics

As part of an upcoming review of Love: The Tiger, my mind turned to one of my favourite topics - the silent or wordless comic. Silent comics are, for whatever reasons, not often covered despite their unique accessibility and pure artistic focus.

I first encountered the idea of silent comics during my MLitt in Comic Studies - a module on International Comics featured 3" (2011) by Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Arzach (1975) by Moebius - and I was immediately transfixed.

Both comics utilised the concept of complete silence and yet they could not be more different, with 3" spanning a whole 3 seconds in moment to moment transitions that bounced between perspectives like a manic pinball in contrast to the sweeping epic of the fantastical and phallical Arzach.

Arzach by Moebius

Arzach by Moebius

My interest in the wordless was further piqued when I came across Hendrik Dorgathen's SpaceDog (1993) in my hunt for further examples, and this highly underrated little book showed me that the silent was not only the realm of the quiet, but could even be used to tell an exuberant pop-jazz tale.

The silent then is not the silent, it is simply the removal of an immutable voice. The writer's voice is still present in the storytelling itself, but it is passed on to the reader by the artist alone. Dialogue is absent but narration, as we shall see, is not.

The lack of words on the page does mean that the reader has to piece together the story, and even then, much is subjective and open to interpretation. My love of silent strips has only grown, and many of my favourite moments in conventional comics are those where no words pass between characters. A picture is capable of saying more than a whole panel of words can ever do, and if an artist is skilled enough, a whole story told in pictures alone is an incredibly deep and satisfying experience – every read will reveal something new or suggest a new possibility, and never are there words to narrow the focus down to one particular meaning.

3" by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

3" by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

The comics medium itself is built on the gaps between, the absence of movement, direction, or action, and the resulting teamwork between creator and reader. For every panel there is a resulting gap with the following panel providing us further clues to the missing section. It is the reader that fills in these linking moments that can range from a missing millisecond to an unknown quantity of time. The passage of the reader and creator from one panel to another is known as a transition, and it is what makes comics such an interactive experience.

Unlike film or television where we simply receive the visual and audio communication, or even a book where we supplement what we are given with what we imagine, a comic actively requires us to move the characters, backgrounds, action or inaction, between what we are shown. In a wordless comic further clues are removed, making the read even more of a subjective and personal experience.

Spacedog by Hendrik Dorgathen

SpaceDog by Hendrik Dorgathen

You may have noticed that the comics I mention, and Love: The Tiger itself, are all European comic books. In recent years I have always been on the lookout for wordless comic books, and while there are British and US examples (most famously of course Raymond Briggs' The Snowman [1978]), wordless comics remain far more common on the continent today. Perhaps this is partly due to the history of the wordless novel, a predecessor of sorts to the modern graphic novel, that is grounded heavily within the German Expressionist movement.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Following the deeply political woodcut art of socialist artists including Max Klinger, this burst of movement is best known through the work of Frans Masereel (Mon Livre d'Heures/Passionate Journey (1919), The City/La Ville (1925)), Otto Nückel (Destiny: A Story in Pictures/Schicksal: Eine Geschicte in Bildern (1930)) and Lynd Ward (Gods' Man (1929), Wild Pilgrimage (1932)), an American artist who inspired both Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman amongst others. There is also the greatly overlooked Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová's Z mého dětství/From My Childhood (1929), and a personal favourite of mine, Max Ernst's cut-up Une Semaine De Bonté/A Surrealistic Novel in Collage (1934).

The City by Frans Masereel

The City by Frans Masereel

The wordless novel as a concept nearly stuttered out after a mere decade with Masereel and Ernst's work labelled "degenerate art" (or the far more delectable "Entartete Kunst" in the original tongue) by the Nazi regime, and Ward's works suppressed in the post-war US due to their socialist content.

Earlier comics and cartoons of course often shared this same socialist bent - the mass mechanical reproduction of images scaring the bajeezus out of the affluent classes who had previously held the keys to all art and political knowledge. As wordless novels were suffocated from our pro-censorship culture, comic strips mutated into a different kind of beast; beholden to syndicate set politics and squeezed from the front pages.

Destiny by Otto Nückel

Destiny by Otto Nückel

In societies with increasing literacy rates, the cartoon was perhaps not the great communicator it had once been, and more modern studies have shown that the impact of a political cartoon is overstated in the face of entrenched biases (still, what cartoons can do when they find a willing press or are published online is to communicate to a willing audience nonetheless). Comics on the other hand continue to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of their newspapers, and have diversified in a new direction - to the shelves those wordless novels once occupied.

What then differentiates a wordless comic (or graphic novel) from a wordless novel? Sequentiality of course! Although equally some wordless novels also feature sequential images, leading to endless debates about whether Masereel's The City was the first graphic novel.

From My Childhood by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

From My Childhood by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

When we go with Scott McCloud's definition of what makes a comic - "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" - we see that words are not required, though the distinction between "pictorial" and "other images" does imply a perceived hierarchy. Eisner requires only that a comic is "sequential art", acknowledging that a comic without words is possible but cautioning that "sophistication" on the part of the reader is required. In general comic theorists tend to dwell on the relationship between words and imagery, text and pictures, while wordless comics are relegated to the position of being an exception to the rules.

It's true of course that wordless comics are far less common than their more verbose counterparts, but I think it also comes down to the relative rarity of wordless comics in English-speaking languages compared to elsewhere. While critics are never shy of tackling the wordless (or otherwise) comics of the genius that is Jason, the Frank comics of Jim Woodring, the work of Shaun Tan, or the horrors of Thomas Ott, there is a definite awkwardness surrounding the silence. Those who generally write about narrative and not art are somewhat stumped, with one person telling me that 3" was completely overpriced given that it contained no words.

Une Semaine De Bonté by Max Ernst

Une Semaine De Bonté by Max Ernst

Words it seems have a specific value. In my previous life as a bookseller I remember a customer reacting in outrage that the price of Animal Farm was the same as 1984 despite being of different lengths. I can only assume such logic would evaporate had he wished to purchase War and Peace. Rarely though do people quibble over the pricing of children's pictures books, even those with no words.

There are yet more endless debates on the similarities and differences between comics and picture books, and a great many of them centre on the discomfort with the low culture status of the comic (a topic we shall return to another day!); it's no coincidence that as a children's bookseller I had no problem selling picture books, our most popular children's books, to parents yet had to work hard to convince them of the merits of comic books. And I had no problems selling wordless picture books by Shaun Tan... unless they were in the comics section.

Bearing in mind that I am always asked for recommended children's titles: a favourite picture book of mine is The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez, a very amusing wordless tale of a misunderstood Fox and his feathery amour. The sequels Fox and Hen Together and Rooster's Revenge are equally lovely, and all are available in a number of languages - translation is fairly easy when it's just the title! I often recommended this book for pre-reading age children and for storytelling play, as the lack of prescribed words allows the reader to tell the story in their own voice. Much like a wordless comic.

The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez

The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez

Other wordless picture books I recommend are Tuesday and Flotsam by David Wiesner, The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney, and the Bow-Wow series by Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague (and for slightly older readers, Robot Dreams by Sara Varon). Comics, picture books and wordless variants of either are all of crucial importance to young readers and those too young to read. Younger readers instinctively know just how a comic or picture book should be read, and the stimulation that the wordless provides is almost unique.

The fact that comics are often more enticing for those learning to read is often used as a signifier of comics being only for children. It's a silly and long-lasting misconception, but children's picture books and comics do indeed share a great deal of history and the particular accessibility of wordless books and comics applies to adults as well - with no language barriers and no translation costs, wordless equals universal. There may of course be some cultural dissonance, as is true of any translated work, but I do think that wordless comics are one of the most inclusive forms of artistic communication.

Flotsam

Flotsam by David Wiesner

Reading Love: The Tiger I realised there was a literal elephant in the room, literal on the page at least: animal comics. Animals have a rich history within the comics medium, not least in their "funny" guise where they are anthropomorphised to some degree. The term "funny animals" has dropped in usage over the decades as humour isn't really required - while Felix and Mickey certainly fit the bill, Blacksad and Maus certainly do not (of course the older characters, influenced by blackface performers, maybe weren't that funny).

Comics featuring regular non-anthropomorphised animals though are a lot rarer, particularly if we aren't looking for dinosaurs.  Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles is beautiful, Steve Bisette's Tyrant is brutal, and Masashi Tanaka's Gon is just lovely (albeit a teeny bit anthropomorphic) but actual wildlife comics are really, really hard to find. I adore the work of Gill Hatcher and Rosemary Mosco who create both non-speaking wildlife comics and ones that are primarily educational so use the "voices" of the animals to provide more information.

Gon

Gon by Masashi Tanaka

Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli features a great deal of non-anthropomorphised wild animals, and although centred around a human narrative, more and more panels give way to wonderful wildlife sequences as the comic progresses. (Puma Blues is due for a long awaited reprint this September from Dover Publications - excite!)

Frederic Brremaud and Federico Bertolucci alone seem to be working in the field of silent wildlife comics with both their Love and Les Petites Histoires series, the latter combining wildlife illustrations with comic strips featuring two cartoon animal pals, a dog and a squirrel. With three albums of Love thus far published (Love: The Fox is published in the US in autumn 2015, Love: The Lion in winter 2015), the fourth has been announced as featuring... wait for it... dinosaurs!

Love: The Dinosaur(?) by Federico Bertolucci

Love: The Dinosaur(?) by Federico Bertolucci

I find it interesting to note just how few wildlife comics are out there especially considering the popularity of wildlife documentaries and photography books. Wordless comics are an ideal medium to tell these stories of wordless, but not mindless, animals. It's a really natural fit, and has made me ponder the rarity and benefits of the wordless comic today.

That perhaps is why Love: The Tiger struck such a strong emotional chord for me, being unusual not only in subject but in my favourite format as well.