There is quite a lot of debate surrounding the precise origins of the comic book and graphic novel genres, about who came up with these terms, and when exactly they first began to be used. It is often said that the genre is a twentieth-century innovation, though some argue that there were books similar to modern graphic novels as early as the 1840s. But the idea of telling a story primarily through images goes back much further than that, and, certainly, if you have been following this blog, you will already know that there are many (surprising?) medieval connections with the genre too.
The 1920s and 1930s are generally described as the early comic era, the most influential period for the development of visual storytelling. During this time graphic artists were experimenting with different styles and new ways of telling a story through highly expressive images, and many of the early works had a significant impact on readers who would themselves later become some of the best-known graphic novel authors.
What does this have to do with the medieval period? Well, it turns out that the early comic era saw a keen interest in medieval woodcuts, especially the kinds of images we find in books printed in the late fifteenth century. Because the Middle Ages is more often associated with manuscripts (texts written by hand) than printed books, we sometimes forget that printing – both the technique of cutting text and images into wooden blocks which leave an imprint on the page, and printing with a press that uses movable components – was already around in the late medieval period. Moreover, one medium did not suddenly replace the other – there was a long period when manuscripts and printed texts coexisted. This gradual change in medium brought about new techniques for how medieval texts were illustrated, and this is where the famous ‘wordless novels’ and ‘woodcut novels’ of the early twentieth century come in.
Famous graphic artists of this period – figures like Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward – were inspired by the thick black lines so typical of early woodcuts, as well as the striking contrast between black and white that you often find in such images. These artists used the same technique of carving an image into a woodblock (or sometimes metal), using broad, expressive lines. The trick is to make sure that the parts of the image that should be black are cut away, so that when ink is applied to the woodblock it only catches the raised areas. It is also important that there is not too much fiddly detail to the image, as fragile parts might break off during the process of printing. Solid, clear lines is the way to go. After being covered in ink, the woodblocks are pressed onto paper to leave an imprint, allowing these artists to create a narrative told only through pictures. Many early works have no accompanying textual descriptions, but gradually the graphic novel became a way of telling a story by adding text as an illustration to the images – rather than having images illustrate the text.
Here are some notable examples.
Lynd Ward published various works that he gave the subheading ‘A Novel in Woodcuts’, with images that use very thick lines and show a clear contrast between black and white. The novels rely heavily on symbolism and each image requires thoughtful consideration to be understood – visual details and their exact placement within the image are crucial.
Frans Masereel created various woodcut series. One of his most famous wordless novels is Mon livres d’heures (also knows as Passionate Journey), which was inspired by the medieval Book of Hours tradition. These medieval devotional books were often heavily illustrated and they have a strong allegorical tone, which Masereel mimics in the 167 images through which his story is told.
For comparison, here are some examples of medieval woodcuts, where we also see the emphasis on thick lines and the contrast between the raised (black) areas of an image and the parts that are cut away.
It is worth noting, though, that some early printed books were coloured in by hand after printing, which means that the images would not always have been solely in black and white. See, for instance, this image from a fifteenth-century block book from Germany (Cod Pal. Germ 34), illustrating a scene from the Apocalypse. (Note how fabulous the beast with seven heads looks here!)
Some graphic artists also experimented with colour. For instance, Lynd Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage uses colour to make a distinction between reality – illustrated in black – and the main character’s fantasies – rendered in bright orange. (There are some interesting links to medieval tales of pilgrimage here too, as well as with the symbolic journeys that knights undergo in medieval romance – lots of forests and hermits in this one!)
So, there we have it – the earliest foundations of what would later become the comic book genre show several links with medieval books and images. In many cases, these early comics were inspired not just by the look of medieval books but also by their contents – Masereel’s Mon livres d’heures and Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage are good examples of this. We may wonder, therefore, whether it is really so surprising that the medieval period and many of its most famous figures – King Arthur, Beowulf, Joan of Arc – continue to be a source of inspiration for the comic book world. Maybe this bringing together of medieval books and the comic/graphic novel world has always been fruitful, right from the start?