Friday, September 30, 2011
Thursday, September 29, 2011
“Vertigo” by Lynd Ward can appear to be a very complicated and confusing book at first glance with its complete lack of dialogues and the presence of highly complicated drawings. But if one looks closer and long enough, they will realize that what appears to be a really complicated piece of “reading” has been simplified by the use of some common comics themes. One of which was ‘Amplification through simplification’. Amplification through simplification can be taken in many different ways. One of which is to amplify a meaning of an image by simplifying it to its bare minimum.1 Another way, and the way that I think that Ward utilized most, is to amplify the meaning of the images by simplifying said meaning by using universal symbols, notions and structures.
Throughout the various stories, Ward stuck with one constant theme, the use of the railway bridges. Chicago is a city commonly known for railway bridges. Using that common knowledge of the readers, Ward easily solves a complex problem of establishing the location of the story. For a reader to understand any story, the location of the story is a key point in their comprehension. This is the reason that almost all novels always describe the location first before jumping into the actual plot of the story. When dealing with woodcuts, describing or even naming the location is impossible. By using such universal images to simplify the complicated task is very clever of Ward to do.
Another reason for which we can argue that a seemingly complicated book is simple is because no matter where we go in the world, facial expressions remain the same. Anyone anywhere can recognize that a smile resembles happiness; a tear is sadness, and so on onto many feelings. The seeming complications of his sketches also get across to us another main key point into understanding any story. The feelings of the character portray across a lot on the mood and the situation of the story. Since words could not be used to describe the emotions of the characters, Ward was very careful as to draw much detail into the facial expressions of the characters; for example, in ‘The elderly gentleman’ story, the anguish of the old man, the cunning, slightly evil looks of the co-board members, the bored carelessness of the employer, and the outrage of the workers were clearly shown with detailed drawings on their faces and worked to set the mood of the story being read. By using the simple commonly known expressions, Ward amplified the reader’s accessibility to the story within.
One final way that Ward tried to integrate a concept that normal people can project themselves or relate with is by making tiny symbolic representations of principles we all know. The heroic statue in the old man’s story, the really bright star that keeps showing up everywhere, mirrors, and roses are just a few of the things that are put in there to detach us from the realistic world that is surrounding us in that story. The statue of the hero gives us the confidence that not everything is individualistic, that there are things that not just the characters but we as readers can recognize too. Ward also uses a very sly trick to pull in the readers by using the star. The time at which the book was first published 1937; consisted majorly of a Christian audience. By making the star appear constantly throughout the book, Ward installed a sense of peace and faith in people that what the book was to impart on them was somehow related to the God.
Overall, even though the book is complicated and hard to understand, Ward somehow squeezed in some simplicity that is meant to guide and help us on our quest for understanding the book.
The phenomenon of closure is essential to understanding what is going on in Vertigo. Since each “panel” is on a separate page, the gutter is wide causing there to be a lot of things that could be happening between the images, making closure critical. Specifically, Vertigo uses “scene-to-scene” transitions to keep the stories moving along. Closure is necessary to follow the passage of time, assume things to gather information in the unseen parts of each frame, and determine the relationship between characters and events.
Ward relies on closure by the reader to recognize characters in each separate image as the same character we saw in a previous image. One of the first examples of this occurs with the first two pictures of the section called “1929” in part one, “The Girl.” We must use our knowledge from the previous images to deduce that the grown woman by the mirror is the same girl who was much younger in the preceding images. We can recognize her father with his large frame and moustache as well as her dark, wavy hair. We can identify that the family is still just the girl and her father. She bears no nametag; there are no words telling us that she is the same girl. Just like we trust that the world is round (McCloud, 61) we must trust ourselves to determine that this is the same girl. Eventually, we can verify that it is the same girl since she is playing the violin. Without closure, these two images would seem totally unrelated. One would be a woman standing in what is most likely her bedroom, while the other is an entirely different girl holding a hat near a man who is sitting on a chair. If closure did not allow us to realize it was the same girl, this confusion would continue throughout the entire book. Every image could be representing a different girl, a different elderly man, and a different boy.
Each of Ward’s woodblock pictures can only focus on a small area of the large scene that is necessary for the story to make sense. Take the picture of the girl’s father sitting in the audience at her graduation as an example. We see a man sitting in a chair with his hands placed on his lap. If we treated this image the way an infant would (as described by McCloud on page 62), we would assume that he was sitting in a white room surrounded by a few people. If we could not see the people around him, the stage, the walls of the school… they did not exist. Closure allows us to realize this is not the case – in fact, he is part of a very large crowd, surrounded by all kinds of noise not represented in the image as well as a crowd that extends far beyond the frame. This kind of closure is necessary time and time again throughout the book. In the picture of the girl lying by her father’s hospital bed, closure lets us know there is sadness in the room. There are no words. There are no tears. We recognize the position of her body and the location as those often associated with grief. In “An Elderly Gentleman,” the picture of the rioting crowd raises emotions not depicted through facial expressions or captions, but those stored in our minds from prior knowledge of events such as that.
Vertigo is split into three different parts, each focusing on a different character. The girl’s section is divided into sections of years, which is told to us by the title pages. We only know the month during which the scenes in “An Elderly Gentleman” are occurring, and “The Boy” gives us no indication of time. Closure is used in determining the passage of time throughout the book as each section is read. “The Girl” gives us a starting point by telling the year. These dates let us know that her story is occurring during the Great Depression. Next, we read “An Elderly Gentleman.” Identifying the same mood and similar events as those that were present in “The Girl,” we can conclude that this section is also occurring during the Great Depression. And lastly, “A Boy” provides us with no months or years to go off of, yet we have built up the knowledge necessary to assume that his part also occurs during the Depression.
The time that has passed between images is not uniform. There are other things going on in the world, and specifically in each snapshot of a scene, that we cannot see. Without closure by the reader, Vertigo would be a compilation of random pictures of hundreds of different people in different places at different times. The use of closure to recognize reoccurring characters, to fill in scenes, and to determine time and the passing of it allows us to stack the scenes occurring simultaneously and mentally organize them in a linear way that makes sense.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud makes the claim that comics use visual cues to express emotions and the other five senses in a process called synaesthetics. There are many ways in which an artist can do this. Stylized lines and heavy mark making create patterns that give the viewer a sense of the mood, internal thoughts, and setting of the characters. Lynd Ward utilizes this concept of synaesthetics in Vertigo to portray the inner turmoil of the girl, boy and the elderly gentleman.
Vertigo is composed entirely of a sequence of images. There are hardly any words in these images and no written dialogue or narration is provided. So how is the reader able to pick up on what is going on in the story? According to McCloud, pictures have the ability to represent and address issues that are not so readily apparent. One way they do this is through setting. The way an environment is portrayed can provide the reader information about the character’s emotions. For example, the first image in the chapter titled “An Elderly Gentleman” is a depiction of the aged owner of a business. He stands in the center foreground looking up at a cityscape towering over him on a hill. A shining star hangs in the night sky above the clouds. Meanwhile the old man stands alone, staring up at all of this. Ward does not explicitly state in words that the man is contemplative, but the composition suggests heaviness on his mind. For one thing, everything is literally depicted on top of the man. The buildings have their physical weight bearing down on him. The vast night sky stretches away from him and the star is out of his reach. From this illustration Ward is able to suggest to the reader that the scenery is not just what it seems. It is symbolic as well as representational.
The story of the boy also demonstrates personal conflict. In the beginning of the boy’s story, we are shown that his father is abusive. As a child, the boy was unable to do anything to defend himself from being beaten. But once he grows up, he decides to change things. In one of the images, his father raises his arm up with his belt in a gesture preparing to strike. Instead of being passive, the boy grasps his father’s arm to stop him. His visible eye glows as it stares widely at his father. This moment is captured in time to dramatize the event. To further suggest this, Ward uses intense marks around his characters to describe the physical and emotional tension. These marks grow thicker and heavier the closer they get to where the father and son touch. It is as if a metaphysical energy built of rage and defiance converges, ready to erupt. Sure enough, on the next panel we see the outcome of such passion: the father lays crumpled on the ground defeated as his son prepares to walk out the door.
At the end of the girl’s section of the story, we get a curious illustration. While we are unable to see her actual face, the image uses visual cues to describe her emotional state. Thus far her father had just tried to attempt suicide, her boyfriend left, and her career hasn’t picked up. The fact that her face is seemingly emotionless seems to make her extremely emotional. Because we can’t determine what she is feeling it can be that she’s feeling a whole myriad of emotions all at once or nothing at all. The way the image is composed also denotes loneliness. The girl and the father are in the same room, but it seems as if they are in their own little worlds. The father, blinded, is literally alone in the dark. He sits huddled and facing away from the light. The girl stands away from him in the shadows playing her violin. In addition to all this, the marks that Ward incorporates around these figures also indicate emotions. The marks are all distinct in various sections, some cross-hatchings, some stipplings, and others vertical dashes. The combination of all these different marks can further indicate tension from conflicting emotions.
Scott McCloud described synaesthetics as a way to bring out what wasn’t readily visible. In Vertigo, Lynd Ward demonstrates this in the way that he portrays the three main characters. Bypassing verbal communication, Ward illustrates each figure’s personal issues through composition, lines and mark making.
In one section of his book, Scott McCloud discusses the importance of line and the background. He tells us that lines can stand for more then the obvious. Artists can use tricks to make lines depict the invisible. Artists can use lines to add meaning and emotion to the backgrounds. Lynn Ward uses both of these techniques in his novel. Ward, as a master of storytelling through the use of images, knew and applied these tools to his novel.
In his book, McCloud discusses how lines can become symbols and in turn can become a language. This language, according to McCloud, can be used to “represent the invisible [and] there is a chance that it will be picked up by other artists” (McCloud p.129). He uses examples of lines over garbage to depict the smell and hearts over a smiling girl to show love. Ward also uses this technique. There is an image in the boy’s section of the book where a car is swiftly driving down the road. This image is a close up of the car as it whizzes past the boy. Ward uses line show the speed with which the car is traveling. There are lines that begin at the tires, follow the streamlined curve of the car, and then flow off the back. Ward is depicting the air displacement of the car and emphasizing the speed. This is not something unique to Ward. As McCloud says, artists use each other’s inventions. I doubt this is something that Ward invented, but it is definitely a stand-by method of depicting speed.
McCloud also points out the use of lines in the background. He says that backgrounds can be used to depict “the world of emotions” and a “distorted or expressionistic background will usually affect our ‘reading’ of characters’ inner states” (McCloud p.132). He shows different examples of how backgrounds can illustrate warped, depressed, or terrified emotions. Once again we see this in Vertigo. There is an image in the very beginning of the boy’s story where he is with the girl. This moment is arguably one of the happiest moments in the book and in the story of the boy’s life. He has his arm around the girl and they are standing beneath a street lamp. The only background the viewer sees here is a bit of ground and the illumination of the lamp. The light is pulsing out from the bulb and engulfing the couple. The light wraps around the couple as the boy wraps his arm around the girl. The use of line here is used to depict a joyous and illuminated scene. There are lines spreading out from the center of the bulb and over the boy and girl. Ward used lines as a background to show the emotional state of the couple. Since the couple is turned away from the viewer, he uses the pulsing light and spreading lines to show the joy and bliss they are experiencing.
McCloud’s book details the various tricks and tools that comic artists use. Ward may not be categorized as a comic book artist but he is definitely a graphic novelist. He uses the same tricks and tools because he uses only images to tell the story. He uses lines as a way to depict the invisible and he uses lines in the background to show emotion in the scene. He uses line, as McCloud says, to show the “landscape of characters’ minds” (McCloud p.132). Ward uses the basic artistic techniques to present and enhance his story.
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.
A novel in woodcuts is not an easy task. Aside from the arduous, grueling work of creating the woodcuts themselves, there is the mission of developing a plot and the characters involved in it. This entire fiasco becomes quite more problematic when the author decides to use little to no language at all. Such is the case with Lynd Ward’s Vertigo.
According to McCloud in Understanding Comics, a sequential pictorial story, such as Vertigo, demands the use of closure to fill in the gaps between images and “construct a continuous, unified reality” (Page 67). The pursuit of closure becomes significantly more difficult when the majority of the work at hand employs what McCloud describes as “scene-to-scene transitions”, whereupon “deductive reasoning” is necessitated for the reader to understand the story (Page 71). With a minimal use of language, Lynd Ward employs symbols, concepts, and visuals which are universal in the world of his broad audience to ease this process of deductive reasoning for his readers and create an intelligible tale.
First off, Ward’s use of symbols in his images constructs a plethora of information for his audience to extract to learn more about his characters. In the story of The Girl, we see her being handed a scroll with a ribbon tied around it in front of an audience. We can infer this is a graduation as the scroll tied with a ribbon is a ubiquitous symbol for a diploma, albeit when it is handed in front of an audience. From this, we can be confident that the girl is around eighteen years old and is graduating from high school which, in addition, informs us she is intelligent and capable considering the year is 1929. The social status of The Girl can be inferred as well considering, as we discussed in class, poor families sent their kids to work during the Depression, and not to school.
When we first meet The Boy in The Girl’s story, he is talking to her in close proximity to her ear. Universally, we can deduce that he is whispering to her and due to the fact that her father is out of the main focus of the picture, we can assume The Boy does not want him to know what he is saying. Putting this all together, we can deduce that The Boy has an intimate interest in The Girl and that they probably have some backstory considering he is her classmate, as we can infer by his diploma. Everyone can understand the idea of a boy trying to keep a girl’s father unaware of his flirtatiousness. We can deduce The Boy’s intentions, his feelings about the girl, and about The Boy’s sexuality all from the illustration of this concept.
Finally, in The Elderly Gentleman’s story, there is an image of him entering the boardroom of The Eagle Corporation of America and all the people in it looking at him. The visual of him entering the boardroom tells us that The Elderly Gentleman has an important job at the corporation. Universally, we associate a boardroom with the zenith of responsibility and power at a company. If we further investigate the image, we see that all of these responsible and powerful individuals are standing and watching The Elderly Gentleman enter the room. Standing for someone upon their entry into a room is an action utilizing the concepts of etiquette and respect. From all of this, in addition to the fact that he’s older than most of the others in the room, we can deduce that The Elderly Gentleman is the most powerful man there, and therefore, the owner of the corporation.Ward, for various reasons, chose to leave language to a minimum in Vertigo. In order for his audience to maintain focus of the plot’s evolution and understand individual images better, he implements the use of “visual clichés, appealing to universality, while keeping his woodcuts from being hackneyed. He protects the novelty of his characters and story through his voice and style. To use McCloud’s language, Ward eases the difficulty of closure in a novel of woodcuts without words, but still appeals to the audience’s deductive reasoning abilities to figure the story out and, most importantly, interpret it for themselves.
Scott McCloud draws attention to an interesting aspect of the illustrations in Chapter 5 of Understanding Comics. It is not uncommon to notice that drawings evoke certain emotions through the shapes and shadows that are created, however McCloud enlightens readers to an even more basic source of emotion—the line. Before the lines even join together to resemble something, they discretely emit emotions to the viewer.
The twelfth picture of “The Boy” depicts an embrace between the girl and boy. Before analyzing the forms created by the lines in the image, the viewer can gain significant insight by simply looking at the style of each line. Almost every line is thin and delicate as to accentuate the romantic feeling evoked by this young love. Although the lines create contrast, there is no sense of harshness or sharpness within the boy and girl. The “friendly” feeling of the lines is drawing a parallel to the love and kindness shared between the two of them. Similarly, there are very few places where there is a bold line piercing the image. On the left side of the picture, individual lines frame the couple but because the lines are so thin and compacted together, they provide a soft shield rather than a harsh barrier.
Now upon further analysis, one can look at the actual shadows and shapes created by the lines. One of the strongest elements that softens the picture is the way in which Lynd Ward decides to create shadows. Rather than continuing the pattern of thin lines, Ward begins to use dots or splotches. In doing so, he is able to create depth while also producing a comfortable, supportive halo to surround the couple. This passion is mimicked in the way that the two bodies gently merge into one. Ward intentionally used this splotchy pattern close to the bodies so that there were no severe lines splitting the two of them. This can especially be seen where her arm is touching his right shoulder, and around their legs—her leg seems to become part of the shadows and wrinkles in his.
This feeling is starkly contrasted by the first image of “Monday” where the boy somberly stands amongst the advertisements. Again, the first source of emotion in this image is in the simple lines. The sheer quantity of individual lines creates an emotionally strong and powerful image in itself. Having so many distinct visuals create chaos and harshness for the viewer even if there were no other elements to the image. Although there were individual lines in the previous image discussed, there is a huge difference in the emotion that they evoke. In the previous image, all of the lines had a source that united them, almost like the lines were pouring into the picture. In the first illustration of “Monday”, the lines shooting up from behind the building are missing this unity. Because of that they appear as cold splinters forcing themselves into the subject matter.
Again, applying these small lines to the big picture, more emotion can be seen in the image. The shadows and wrinkles of his clothing reflect his disheartened mentality due to his unemployment. There is a sense of chaos and desperateness in his clothing alone. Another specific use of dark shading, is the shadows used around the boy’s face. They are not only extremely dark but have glimpses of the lines that compose them. Breaking the shading up like this and the darkness of his face are more elements that evoke this feeling of overwhelming pressure that the boy has as he learns the reality of his world. Then when looking at the shadows in general in this picture, the viewer is presented with a much more harsh and cold feeling than in the previous illustration discussed. Ward replaces his use of soft splotches with a sort of grid work. When looking closely enough, the viewer can see the individual lines that make up the gradients for each shadow. With so many lines intersecting and weaving through one another, the image becomes more hectic and severe. Just as the world around the boy is desperately attempting to survive in this tumultuous time, every aspect of the image surrounding the figure is buzzing around him as he tries to keep his head above water.
McCloud’s commentary on the simplicity of a line reveals more than an artistic style—it speaks volumes about the power of an image. By only looking at the shadows and lines of two pictures in a series of 230 woodcuts, the reader is able to gain so much insight. Imagine the plethora of emotion and information that is hidden amongst the lines of the other 228 illustrations.
Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, relates the size of the panels used within a comic to the temporal structure of the story. While Lynd Ward’s Vertigo may not be seen as a traditional comic in the eyes of many, I feel it employs this technique of using the size of the woodcuts to indicate the passage of time. While at times Ward uses the woodcut size to show an element of time within the story, at other times he also uses the inversely related amount of white space around the image to impress upon the reader the importance of the moment. It is this interesting dynamic that I wish to investigate here.
First, to see where Ward uses the frame size to indicate the amount of time contained within a page see the images related to the boy and the girl visiting a fortune teller in the chapter 1929. Here these three images are comparatively small, and when I read them I tend to look at both at once and feel as if this is a single moment in time. It is Ward’s use of the small frame size that makes one take the images in together as if they are occurring at a single moment. Next referring to the images toward the end of 1933, where the father is attempting to commit suicide, we again see small image size used when the gun goes off to indicate the instantaneity of the two pages. The timing is so quick that the daughter doesn’t even have to fully cross the room to stop her father. Finally I would like to point to the images of the board members in January of “An Elderly Gentleman”, here Ward is showing each person on the board on a separate page, but by using smaller sized frames the reader is clued into the fact that all of these woodcuts are within the same moment in time.
Now to investigate Wards other use of frame size. By necessity, the amount of whitespace around a woodcut is inversely related to the size of the woodcut itself. This implies that smaller woodcuts will have more whitespace associated with them. There are times in Vertigo where Ward uses these pages, with large amounts of whitespace, to emphasize the importance of what is occurring in the image. The large amount of white makes the image pop-out to the reader causing the mind to remember that image more easily than others. Take for example the fortuneteller images referred to before. I think Ward uses this whitespace technique here to make the reader remember these predictions throughout the novel, so that once we finish the book we can contrast the couple’s dream future with their actual future. Next to refer to the image on the first page of an elderly gentleman, again the whitespace makes the image jump out at the viewer, and this stark quality forces us to stop and take our time with dissecting this woodcut so that we can get a feel of the character of the man. Finally, the image where the gun goes off is another pivotal moment in the story that seals the fate of the girl. The small image among a sea of white stands out like the disbelief of the viewer as to the terrible event that it is depicting.
To be clear, not all instances in which Ward employs smaller frame sizes are cases where he is trying to maximize whitespace for emphasis. Take for example the board members. Here he is not impressing upon us an unforgettable moment of the plot but rather using the small frame size for its temporal meaning. This is also true of the woodcuts in “An Elderly Gentleman” in which the man is making phone calls, there also I feel Ward is just using the time aspect of this visual feature.
Yet while there are instances where Ward is just using the time aspect of frame size and others when he is just using the whitespace effect I don’t think that these are mutually conflicting objectives. In the places where he is using both woodcut size and amount of whitespace at the same time, he is highlighting a flashbulb moment of the story. These are, at the same time, key points to the plot as well as being very short moments of time. Ward uses many of these throughout Vertigo, and it is the combination of these two aspects, working as one, that make this visual technique so effective.