Interview With George A. Walker
As I grew increasingly interested in comics, I also became aware of a whole other form of visual storytelling: woodcut novels. I found the works of Frans Masereel, Lynn Ward, and others to be beautifully steeped with powerful storytelling through images (highly influenced by German Expressionism) and impressively deep with what they communicated. George Walker helped me gain a further appreciation of this particular form in publishing Graphic Witness, which not only had 4 great works of these assembled but also had a fantastic essay that further elaborated on the history and craft of woodcut novels. Herein is an interview with George Walker about his work on Graphic Witness as well as the recently crafted and published, The Book of Hours, his own woodcut novel.
George Walker: The inspiration for the woodcut novel was the Belgian artist, Frans Masereel. I first came across his work at an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the 1980s. I started collecting his work shortly after that. Surprisingly his books (with wood engravings printed directly from his blocks) were very reasonably priced. The publisher Kurt Wolff made a wonderful series of his wordless novels in the 1920s with introductions by such eminent figures such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann.
Eaton: About how many woodcut novels were published in the 20th century?
Walker: I would defer this question to my colleague David Berona who speaks to this in his book, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels. The problem is of course definition of the term woodcut novels. For example the book Destiny by Otto Nuckel was engraved on lead because of a shortage of wood but the technique he uses stems from his experience as a wood engraver. I would want to include him in this number but some would argue otherwise.
Eaton: What generated the creation of Graphic Witness?
Walker: Based on my personal collection of wordless novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri, Laurence Hyde and others I contacted a number of publishers about reprinting these works and providing a contemporary context for their influence on comics, printmaking and film. Firefly Books was very receptive to the idea. Most of the rights holders were very enthusiastic about seeing their relatives’ work in print again. My wife and I made the journey to Ottawa to meet with famous spy novelist Anthony Hyde to request permission to reprint his father’s work Southern Cross. Over tea Mr. Hyde showed us his father’s engraving tools and original sketches and prints as we sat in awe at the marvelous collection preserved with such care and love. Mr. Hyde granted us permission to reprint his father’s book and we are grateful to him for his generosity. We were happy to connect David Berona (who has become a friend of ours) with Mr. Hyde for permission to reprint Southern Cross for his very fine Drawn and Quarterly edition.
Eaton: What was the decision process for the particular selections in Graphic Witness?
Walker: All the books in Graphic Witness are from my own library. As far as choosing, it really came down to which books I could secure a letter from the family (or the rights holder) to grant permission to reproduce the whole book as the artist published it. The other factor is that all these wordless narratives are relief printed from wood or linoleum blocks. David Berona had already negotiated reprints with Dover for some of the Masereel work and the Redstone Press had done a reprint of Passionate Journey in the 1980s, so I wanted to select work that was no longer in print. Masereel’s work Die Passion appeared in 1918 and I felt that it marked the beginning of this form of narrative story. Hyde is Canadian like I am but also his work speaks to a contemporary issue that is still potent: destructive power of the nuclear bomb. All the books have in common relief printing as the process of making the images, and thematically, concern for social issues and the struggle for control of our own lives.
Eaton: Do you distinguish between woodcut novels and comics? What would that be?
Walker: Yes, they are different narrative formats of sequential art! The woodcut novel is a direct descendant of the block books and the religious woodcut narratives of the 15th century. Jacobus di Theramos’ work The Early History of Man (1484) is a good example of this block narrative style. I suppose comics could hold this same lineage and that the cave paintings found in France are a type of pre-history wordless narrative too. Comics however are a popular mass media format that has a separate history and narrative problem. The woodcut novel has closer relationship to art history evolving from German Expressionism and its interest with an emotive response to human suffering and the sociological concerns of culture. Graphic novels and woodcut narratives share a kinship with each other through the province of visual culture, but they are separate media both in process and presentation.
Eaton: Why did you decide to do your own woodcut novel?
Walker: I have been planning to do one for years but was struggling with other projects that kept interrupting my focus. The events of 9-11 changed all that for me when I realized that the cultural paradigm had shifted and that I had to document the event. Writing about it was not sufficient for me to explain the complexities and symbolic shifts in our cultural climate. Words have many limitations that images do not have, especially when it comes to capturing the subtle all-encompassing shift in the grand narrative of western culture.
Eaton: What challenges did you face in pitching the idea to publishers?
Walker: The popularity of graphic novels and the sales figures for that market segment helped to convince the publisher that the book would have a chance of fair sales return for the investment.
Eaton: Technically, what challenges did you find with The Book of Hours?
Walker: During the technical making and preparation of the blocks (over 100 of them) each block had to be exactly .918” high to work on my Vandercook SP15 proof press (as in all letterpress projects). The next challenge was preparing each block’s surface on which to draw the reversed image. This required a careful sanding and then a series of fine polishing on a dead flat stone surface. I then engrave using the tools of the silversmith on the endgrain of Canadian maple. (for more detail see my book, The Woodcut Artists’ Handbook) Of course if I made a mistake in the engraving process I could not easily correct it. Everything all along had to be checked in a mirror, as the drawing on the block would be reversed again once it was printed. The press can be a tricky machine and I would spend hours tweaking the paper, ink and impression to pull the best possible proof. It’s not at all like making a comic, although both start with sketching the printmaking involved in the woodcut novel takes the artist on a tactile journey through the process of reversals and presswork to finished image. The wood engraved narrative is more an assembly of visual signifiers arranged one block at a time without the problems, limitations and cultural baggage sometimes precipitated by words.
Eaton: Conceptually, what challenges did you find with The Book of Hours?
Walker: Constructing a narrative that flowed through a sequence of people and places yet told a larger story of place and time was difficult. I had to play with the sequencing and pace relating to the events that led up to 9-11. One of the things that helped me was to follow the detailed weather reports from New York City for the day before and the day of September 11th.
Eaton: Unlike the selections in Graphic Witness, The Book of Hours is a decentered narrative, focused around an event with characters moving in and out; why did you choose that route?
Walker: It is a deliberate narrative of the everyday. It is the mundane routines of our everyday lives that are centered on the immediate concerns of sleep, food, work and travel that consume us. Those World Trade Center employees and visitors are the people I wanted to honour. The media provides us with a bias news and entertainment that leaves us narcotized to the devastation that lurks behind our cultural façade. I chose this route to point to the end of the post modernist narrative and the dawn of a new historical period that questions our understanding of the words ‘everyday’,‘security’ and ‘terrorist’.
Eaton: How do you feel that your woodcut novel manages to convey this?
Walker: This is a good question and I am not sure that my piece conveys it fully. But I believe that our sense of security, the idea of ‘the terrorist’ in society and our notion of ‘everyday’ — meaning the comings and goings and what we expect to find in our everyday movements and engagement with those around us, has changed fundamentally in our society. After 9-11 we no longer think we are safe from terror and our feeling of trust in the world has changed. The ‘other’ in our community who is not like us —is suspicious to our constructs and notion of safe and acceptable. Our idea of borders and community has changed and our privacy and belief in government systems, news media and truth has changed. The question as to why the USA attacked Iraq when the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia has never been fully answered. If the answer is greed, oil and corporate values over government agency, then we are certainly moving into a different world order in my opinion.
Eaton: There are several pages where the character seems to be looking at the reader; can you speak to your goal with this? (In particular and probably the most intense reading experience in the book is Pg 99, after the previous 2 pages had the same person looking downward and then on Pg 99; directly at the reader).
Walker: The goal is to engage the reader in the silent dialogue including them in the story as if they were present at the event. The device of having the subject look out at the reader derives from concepts in art theory and the writings of many existentialists and phenomenologists who have explored the concept of the "Gaze". Foucault and Derrida explored this idea in power relations and its context to creating meaning beyond the frame of the picture (in this case the book is the frame). It is a strong signifier that draws the reader into the story as the viewer is more engaged when the subject (the wood engraving) addresses them directly. The reader then must interpret the ‘look’ they are receiving and attempt to decode its meaning. We will never know if we the readers are being scrutinized, analyzed or just observed by the signifier which offers only their symbolic facial expression as a sign of what may be the dialogue between the invisible viewer (you) and the image.
Eaton: Was 99 Panels a deliberate choice or coincidental?
Walker: I have played with numerology throughout my book. 99 engravings was intentional and so are the time signatures. If you add the numbers together in the time displays they add to 9 or 11. It’s an intentional symbolic tome with deliberate hidden meanings.
Eaton: And new projects on the horizon?
Walker: I am working on a wordless narrative now titled, The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.
For more information about George Walker & The Book Of Hours, check out his website.
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