Scott McCloud tries to open up the world of comics in his book Understanding Comics, in order to make readers appreciate the art form. Comics are not simply what we view in the Sunday paper and McCloud distinguishes a number of aspects within them that are also seen in more “renowned” works such as Lynd Ward’s various woodcut novels. Many of the properties that McCloud discusses can be applied to Vertigo by Ward. In particular, his use of frame shape deserves some attention. While McCloud spends an entire chapter explaining the importance of frames, he only spends a few of them emphasizing the shape of these vital icons, claiming that “while differences of shape don’t affect the ‘meanings’ of those panels vis-à-vis time, they can affect the reading experience” (McCloud, pg. 99). After reading Vertigo, I’d have to disagree with this theory. Although Ward’s images comply with the rest of McCloud’s ideas of how the frames can control time and space within a story, I think Ward is also making a strong statement with their shape. Yes, they certainly affect the “reading experience”, but they also tie in to the themes of the novel. Ward is abandoning the typical rectangle shape that is so overused in order to emphasize his beliefs and give the image another level of significance.
One strong example of this is the first image in “The Elderly Gentleman,” which portrays the old man holding a rose, staring off into the distance at a pristine looking, developed city. When I first came across this page, the sloping sides, flat top and pointed bottom immediately brought the image of a shield to my mind. By placing the elderly man smack dab in the middle of the engraving, Ward has made him dependent on this shield that he has created. By interpreting the frame shape in this way, the image takes on a whole new meaning. It no longer is simply a lonely old man taking in the scenery, but Ward is able to get his ideas across more efficiently to the reader.
Throughout the novel, there is a consistent flow about the evils of capitalism in America. It is seen as the girl’s father tries to commit suicide, as union riots become violent, and as the boy is forced to sell his blood in order to survive. The heart of all this evil comes down to the elderly gentleman, who stands as a direct representation of capitalism. The way the old man is portrayed in this image allows Ward to emphasize his personal political standpoint. While the world seems to be crumbling around him, the old man is able to hide behind his corporate creation which shields him from the horrors he is fueling. The industrialized city sits at the top of the image, almost as if on a pedestal as the old man stares up at it. This is where his stability and strength lie and he is fully dependent on it. Ward is able to portray the old man as weak and heartless by incorporating the imagery of the shield. The old man is able to both turn a blind eye to what is happening around him and avoid the consequences of his actions.
To emphasize the old man’s and capitalism’s weakness, Ward uses bleeding to fade the image out at the bottom. McCloud discusses the technique of bleeding with the purpose of making an image appear timeless (McCloud, pg. 103), but here, Ward is using it in the opposite way to represent transience. By having the shield fade away, he brings to light the fact that capitalism does not have to define our country forever. Without his shield of corporate America, the old man becomes nothing, alone in the empty white space. He is detached from the surrounding image, implying that this is not a permanent shield and can be removed with enough force. Throughout the novel, Ward does an excellent job at expressing his political beliefs to the reader in the absence of words. The story itself clearly describes the horrors of capitalism, but Ward goes even farther to incorporate this theme, using every available resource he has. While McCloud doubts the effect that shape can have on the meaning of a frame, Ward rivals this idea by integrating imagery into the borders of his works.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009.
“The Library of America interviews Art Spiegelman about Lynd Ward.” The Library of America, 2010.