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Deep Time: A Wordless Novel in Progress

For the past four years I've spent most of my creative energies on a project I call Deep Time. It's the story of a recently-discovered bird-like dinosaur from Jurassic China named Caihong juji.

It began as a simple story about a day in the life of an extremely obscure extinct creature. I planned it to be a picture book for children. This did not work--primarily because the story I felt increasingly compelled to tell was not the sort deemed suitable for children. That is, it was a story about nature without sentimentality. Nature resplendent with effervescent beauty, mindless cruelty, and utter indifference toward the individual. In other words, nature as it actually is. So I changed course with these paintings and created the images that I'd been repressing.

I plan to make Deep Time a wordless novel like the works of Lynd Ward. During the Depression, Ward created a number of these wordless novels, which consisted of expressionistic woodcuts telling a story with a series of single images. While many comics fans and scholars aver that these works of Ward were precursors of the graphic novels of today, I don't think of them as comics. I think of them as picture books for adults. One of my favorites is Song Without Words (1936), where a young mother-to-be confronts the world in all its evil and corruption, defying it by bringing life and hope into its darkness.

Ward was not the only artist who created picture books for adults, or even the first. Frans Masereel, a printmaker from Belgium, more or less created the wordless novel to protest the horrors of World War I. His Passionate Journey (1919) is a masterpiece of the form, illustrating in 165 woodcuts the existential vacuum and spiritual quest for meaning that consumed many survivors of the War.

A generation or so later, Canadian Laurence Hyde protested a new kind of war--atomic war--with Southern Cross (1951), which tells the story of Operation Crossroads and its impact on the people of the Bikini Atoll.

Other artists from many countries used wordless novels to address social and political issues throughout the first half of the twentieth century. During the Cold War the medium disappeared thanks to the culture industry's repression of left-leaning themes. Lynd Ward spent his days illustrating children's books about Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and (sadly) Robert E. Lee. Comics filled the vacuum with titles like "Captain America: Commie Smasher" and "This Godless Communism." In the end, after a very long era of pre-pubescence, the comics medium emerged into its 21st century maturity and diversity, completely dominating the field of illustrated books for those above the age of eight years old.

But there's something about wordless novels that gave me the form I needed to express something that--as W. Somerset Maugham would put it--"burdened my soul." When I began my creative journey, I wanted to do comics. I had been taught how to draw by an esteemed comics creator. I had spent a lifetime reading (and occasionally making) comics. When I found my way back to art after a decades-long hiatus, I tried mightily to create my own comics again (a few examples are in The Ancient Gallery on this site). But I felt no joy in doing page layouts, composing action within panels, or pondering the best spot to plop a word balloon. I think it was the incessant temporality of it--the headlong and relentless propulsion through the narrative--that turned me off. As I get older I find myself longing to--as Walt Whitman put it--"lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass." I find myself increasingly drawn to solitary images which slow time down for a while, that draw me in and keep me there, enchanted by a mysterious silence. It seems I can only truly find myself in a place where words are unintelligible and the only language comprises shape, color, light. Here in this right-brain world I lean and loafe and get some deep time for things I cannot express any other way.


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