If the above cover for Vertigo by Lynd Ward reminds you of an Eisner splash page from The Spirit, there’s a very good reason for that.
In his introduction to A Contract with God in 1978, Eisner said of Lynd Ward, “I consider my efforts in this area attempts at expansion or extention of Ward’s original premise.” The “area” Eisner speaks of, Ward called “pictorial narrative”, his publishers called it “Novel in Woodcuts”. These days we would use the term “Graphic Novel”.
In 1996’s Graphic Storytelling, Eisner devotes several pages to Vertigo. This was the 6th and most ambitious of Ward’s novels. It follows the lives of 3 main characters – “The Girl”, “The Boy”, and “An Elderly Gentleman” – over the period 1929 to 1935, the period, of course, of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. Ward’s book first appeared in 1937, by which time the USA was largely recovering from those terrible years, but Ward’s optimism had not improved and the book does not end on a happy note.
The girl wants to be a violinist, the boy wants to be a builder, and the elderly gentleman is a successful businessman who makes such changes to his business over 10 months that he brings it back into profit again. All 3 lives intertwine, but I do not wish to give away any spoilers.
The single best study of these woodcut novels is David A. Beronä’s Wordless Books. Vertigo, however, is not actually wordless; there are signs on buildings (“The Eagle Corporation of America”), ironic advertising hoardings (“You furnish the girl, We’ll furnish the home”), and protest signs (“Don’t Scab”), but there are no word balloons and no captions. This can make Vertigo a difficult read, even for the modern fan who devours graphic novels. Eisner admits, “The amount of action that transpires between these scenes takes considerable input from the reader to comprehend it”. To catch all the connections between the interlocked stories does require looking back at previous episodes. But I assure you the effort is well worthwhile.
Vertigo is a very moving and rewarding read. Unjustly out of print for decades, Dover have reasonable priced paperbacks available of Ward’s novels. Everyone interested in the history of the graphic novel should experience the work of the person Eisner called “perhaps the most provocative graphic storyteller of this [20th] century”.