Even without words, Lynd Ward is able to effectively tell a story through his novel in woodcuts, Vertigo. Because of this drawback, however, Ward is forced to use out of the box methods in order to fully get his ideas across to the reader. By incorporating symbolism, he can emphasize the main themes in the novel in a way the reader can understand. One unique thing that Ward does in “The Elderly Gentleman” section of Vertigo is to actually use the panel shape as a symbol. As McCloud says in his book Understanding Comics, frame shape will often “affect the reading experience” (99), but Ward pushes this even farther to create a shape that is actually part of the story. The first image in “The Elderly Gentleman” has the outline of a shield, which when put in context with the rest of the image and the others in the book, helps Ward to make some strong political statements. By abandoning the typical rectangular shape that is so overused in traditional comics, he is able to emphasize his beliefs and give the image another level of significance.
Throughout Vertigo, 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 (Spiegelman). Being raised by a socially active, radical Christian, Ward has strong political views which are portrayed in his works. Although he was not exactly a communist, his work focused on a number of topics that were common among Marxist advocates, such as unemployment, poverty, and exploitation. He was constantly fighting for social change (Capozzola). The way in which the old man is portrayed in the first image in “The Elderly Gentleman” allows Ward to emphasize his personal political standpoint. By placing him smack dab in the middle of the engraving, Ward has made him, and consequently capitalism, dependent on this surrounding shield. 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 successfully to the reader.
While the world seems to be crumbling around the old man, he 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. Because of the capitalist system, the elderly man is in a safe position where he is able to turn a blind eye to what is happening around him. In “February,” he is seen vacationing on a beach, a stark contrast to the images seen in both the girl and boy’s stories. Because of decisions that the old man makes, he is causing both the destruction of the girl’s family life as her father attempts suicide, and her relationship with the boy, as he is forced to leave her in search of work. Capitalism is carving this destructive path. The old man is shielded from the consequences of the Great Depression, able to go about his wealthy life unaffected, even though he is the cause of the problem.
Though the frame shape of this woodcut can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, for example a tooth or funnel, 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. In today’s society, the idea of a shield is usually associated with the Middle Ages, and in particular, knighthood. Although some believe that “chivalry is dead”, the imagery of a knight in shining armor is still alive and well. Knighthood is referenced in history classes, art, and popular media such as childhood cartoons and film, making the image a common and recognizable one. While shields come in all shapes and sizes, the general form of the kite shield, which is rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom, was the one employed by men on horseback, and consequently knights, causing it to be the first image that comes to mind when one says “shield” (Dunbar, 256-265). Because of this universal imagery, Ward was able to incorporate it into his novel in a subtle way that could still be identified.
Additionally, triangular shields are seen as symbols in various powerful institutions, such as the police force (through their badges) and the health care provider Blue Cross Blue Shield. This helps to strengthen the interpretation of the frame shape as a shield because it allows Ward to make even more jabs at the political state of America at the time. Both the police and nationalized health care represent order, which Ward felt had negative impacts on the mass population. Numerous images throughout Vertigo emphasize the importance of acknowledging social unrest and acting upon it. Ward uses symbolism to indicate that the majority of this unrest arises from institutional power. He has already introduced these ideologies in the girl’s story by making the principal resemble a puppet, glorifying an obviously idealized version of America. Also, the tilted mailbox that is seen a few times in the first section of the book works to tie social unrest to dominant institutions. To push this theme even farther, Ward uses the shield symbol to connect the police force and health care to the elderly gentleman, a character with negative connotation.
When connected to capitalism, such establishments become corrupt. Typically one would think of protection when imagining a shield, a police officer, or health care. However, because of the influence capitalism has on these good ideas, Ward is arguing that they transform into something that will turn against the average person. The police become associated with violence in “The Elderly Man” as they attempt to calm union rioters. The officers are, like the principal, being turned into puppets by higher men in charge. While almost everyone around them are losing their jobs, they are not going to risk such a fate and are sucked into this manipulation by fear. When placed under the shield of capitalism, the police force is associated with negativity. Organized health care is another example of a good idea gone wrong. Blue Cross Blue Shield emerged during the Great Depression as one of the first nationalized health care providers (History). Although it sounds admirable to provide the mass population with such care, the capitalistic ties that lurk in the background generate much criticism. To someone like Ward, especially, another powerful institution provides a possible reason for social unrest.
The image discussed is the first introduction the reader gets of the elderly gentleman so it makes sense that Ward wants to make some sort of indication as to the type of man he is. While Ward could have easily gone to the extreme to make the reader spiteful towards the old man, he does it subtly and allows the character to develop slowly throughout the story. By using the shield imagery, Ward is able to make numerous statements against capitalism and the political state of America. The story itself clearly describes the horrors of capitalism, but Ward goes even farther to incorporate this theme, using every available resource he has.
Capozzola, Christopher. “Silent Beauty.” In These Times. Oct 14, 2005.
Dunbar, Helen Flanders. Symbolism in Medieval Thought. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.
"History of Blue Cross Blue Shield." Health Insurance from Blue Cross and Blue Shield Companies â BCBS.com. Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. 10 Oct. 2011.
Kelley, Rich. “The Library of America Interviews Art Spiegelman about Lynd Ward.” The Library of America e-Newsletter.
Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009.