Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Reading Pictures: The Language of Wordless Books, LES Panel Discussion ALA, 2008

Poster by Eric Drooker

As part of the Literature in English (LES) section, sponsored in part with the ARTS section of the Association of Colleges and Research Libraries, I was pleased to be part of a presentation and panel discussion that was organized by Juliet Kerico, from Southern Illinois University--Edwardsville and Chair of LES (Literature in English Section) Conference Planning Committee. The panelists were Dr. Charles Hatfield (UCalifornia-Northridge), Eric Drooker, Perry Willett (Michigan), and myself (Plymouth State University, New Hampshire). There were over 150 attendees at the panel discussion held at the American Libraries Association annual conference in Anaheim on June 28, 2008. This was an introduction to the history of adult wordless books from the early twentieth century to the contemporary wordless graphic novels. Elements of visual storytelling were examined as well as various controversial social issues associated with adult wordless books. Guidelines for using wordless books in Higher Education was also discussed.

Charles Hatfield, Eric Drooker, Perry Willett , myself, and Juliet Kerico.

Perry Willett began with his presentation and his own obsession with wordless books that started 30 years ago and his experiences in researching them in various libraries. He talked about Frans Masereel, the father of the woodcut novel, and discussed the importance of these wordless books and why they might matter to people in the audience even if they don’t care about graphic novels. Perry discussed how popular these books were in their time, and how quickly and ruthlessly culture moves on and obliterates what came before, and that librarians need to consider this as they make collection development decisions. He explained that his experience with these books and as the Managing Editor for the Victorian Women Writers Project taught him how our collection development decisions form the basis by which people will be able to re-evaluate contemporary art, literature and cultural expressions later on. This incredibly great beginning set the focus for the rest of the panel.

Next on the panel, I covered the artists from Lynd Ward to the present. These included many artists from my book, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels, like Ward, Otto Nuckel, Helen Bochorakov-Dittrichova, Szegedi Szuts, William Gropper, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde, as well as artists I cover in my next book, who inlcludes Werner Gothein, Si Lewen, Felix Gluck, Palle Nielsen, Ken Currie, Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper, Erez Yakin, Thomas Ott, Peter Kalberkamp, Anna Sommer, Olivier Deprez, Hendrik Dorgathen, Jason, Shaun Tan, and Sara Varon.

Eric Drooker presented a slide show from one of the chapters in his American Awarding winning wordless book, Flood! a Novel in Pictures. It was a stunning show with sounds of rain showers and music that brilliantly coincided with the images from his book that were projected on a large screen. The room was darken to provide a theater-like atmosphere. I heard later from some attendees that it brought tears to their eyes in some of the more emotional parts of his book. The similarities of silent films and wordless books became very evident in this demonstration. Eric is an artist with strong political views and a life-affirming suspicion of authority and technology and shares the ideas of the early wordless book artists like Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. His confidence in himself, both as an artist and a politically active human being, was clear in his presentation and during his participation in the audience questions.

Charles Hatfield used the wordless strip called "Champion," by the French artist, Zou, from the monumental survey of wordless comics called Comix 2000, in his presentation that provided an overview of how he teaches visual communication to his students. What was fascinating to me as well as the audience during the discussion period was how Charles described his students "reading" this comic and their various interpretations. Charles is so aware of comics as a means of communication, which he thoroughly covers in his book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, that his insights invited more questions about the importance of us, as individuals, in learning how to best interpret the icons, symbols, and visual images that we are daily confronted with in our contemporary culture.

What followed was a dynamic panel discussion with probing questions from the audience that prompted a lively discussion with the panelists. In many of the evaluations, the attendees commented that this was one of the best panel presentations they had ever attended at an ALA conference. The four of us had dinner the night before and were joined by Charles' wife; Michelle; Zofia Losinska, chair LES; Jen Stephens, LES planning committee member; and Juliet. This dinner and relaxed atmosphere brought us all closer together and certainly attributed to the personal mood on the panel. We covered ideas about the history of printing; the use of woodcuts; the reason for the focus on social injustices; reason for using older technologies like slide projectors; and even the best way to read a picture book. I couldn't help but relate the event that when I was a child, my father read to me and my brother before we were old enough to read. However, when we had a wordless picture book, my father always asked me to read him the book, allowing me to use my own imagination and to understand that there is something very personal about "reading" pictures. I also enjoyed discovering in an interview from one of Lynd Ward's daughters, Nanda Ward, that when she asked her father what one of his wordless books was about he always replied with the same answer to her question: "It means exactly what you want it to mean." Read Charles' blog on this event.


Brendan said...

Oh how I wish I could have travelled for this!

Book Calendar said...

This is quite interesting. I think we have one or two of them in our graphic novels section at the library.