The wordless novel is a unique type of narrative that uses sequences of caption-less pictures (no words) to tell a story. Artists have often made such books using woodcut and other relief printing techniques, the terms ‘woodcut novel’ or novel in woodcuts are also used. The wordless novel has its origin in the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century. The genre flourished primarily in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, and was adapted by artists in the UK and USA. One might think of wordless novels as an early version of art that influenced the graphic novel.
The storytelling tends to be melodramatic, and the stories tend to focus on struggles against social oppression and Capitalism in which characters are silenced by economic, political, and other social forces. The characters are clearly delineated as good or evil—the good drawn sympathetically and the evil with the contempt of the artist’s moral indignation.
Typically, the artists used relief printing techniques such as woodcuts, wood engraving or linocuts to portray the action. A key to the wordless story was that a reader could easily follow the storyline, through the action as well as the expressions on the characters.
Three important artists from different eras of the wordless novel are: Frans Masereel (Belgium 1889-1972); Lynd Ward (USA 1905-1985) and Shaun Tan (Australia b.1973).
Frans Masereel was a Flemish painter and graphic artist who worked mainly in France. He is recognized as a pioneer artist for his woodcuts, which focused on political and social issues, such as war and capitalism. He completed over 40 wordless novels in his career, and among these, his greatest is generally said to be Passionate Journey, composed of 167 caption-less prints. His wordless novels, many created between 1918-25, influenced later artists who also worked in that genre.
Lynd Ward was an American artist, illustrator and novelist, known for his series of wordless novels using wood engraving, and his illustrations for juvenile and adult books. Influenced by the works of Frans Masereel, Ward’s wordless novels have influenced the development of the graphic novel.
His best-known wordless novels are Gods’ Man (1929), Madman’s Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), and Prelude to a Million Years (1933). Ward said that in creating a wordless novel, he first had to visualize it in his head as a silent film.
Although strongly associated with his wood engravings, he also worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint. He illustrated over a hundred children’s books, one of which resulted in the Caldecott-winning children’s story, The Biggest Bear (1953).
Shaun Tan is an Australian artist, writer and film maker. He won an Academy Award for The Lost Thing, a 2011 animated film adaptation of a 2000 picture book he wrote and illustrated. In 2006, his wordless graphic novel The Arrival won the Australian Picture Book of the Year award.
The Arrival is composed of small, medium, and large panels, and often features pages of full artwork. Without the use of dialogue or text, Shaun Tan portrays the experience of an immigrant father emigrating to an imaginary new land, where he struggles to understand the different language, navigate the unknown city and to find a secure job. The Arrival conveys messages of solitude, alienation, and hope in a foreign land for immigrants.