Lynd Ward

Lynd Kendall Ward (26 June 1905 – 28 June 1985) was an American artist and storyteller, and son of Methodist minister and prominent political organizer Harry F. Ward. He illustrated some 200 juvenile and adult books. Ward was best known for his wood engraving and is considered one of the founders of the American graphic novel but he also worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint.[1]



Ward spent his childhood in Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. When he was in the first grade, Ward discovered that his last name spelled "draw" backwards, and decided that he wanted to be an artist. He studied fine arts at Columbia Teachers' College in New York. There he met his future wife, May McNeer, and they were married shortly after their graduation in 1926. The first year of their marriage was spent in Europe, where Ward studied printmaking and book design at the National Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig, Germany. While browsing in a bookstore in Leipzig, Ward came upon a book by the Belgian engraver Frans Masereel which told a story in woodcuts. This was the spark which inspired Ward to create his first graphic novel, Gods' Man, published in October 1929, the same week the stock market crashed. It was the first novel-length story told in wood engravings to be published in the United States. He went on to publish six graphic novels in total, of which Vertigo was the last and the most ambitious.

In addition to woodcuts, Ward also worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint. Ward illustrated over a hundred children's books, several of which were collaborations with his wife, May McNeer. Starting in 1938, Ward became a frequent illustrator of the Heritage Limited Editions Club's series of classic works. He was well known for the political themes of his artwork, often addressing labor and class issues. In 1932 he founded Equinox Cooperative Press. He was a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Society of American Graphic Arts, and the National Academy of Design. He won a number of awards, including a Library of Congress Award for wood engraving, the Caldecott Medal, and a Rutgers University award for Distinguished Contribution to Children's Literature. He illustrated six Newbery Honor Medal books and two Newbery Medal books. Ward retired to his home in Reston, Virginia, in 1979. He died on June 28, 1985 , two days after his birthday.

Novels in woodcuts

Ward is known for his wordless novels told entirely through dramatic wood engravings. Ward's first work, Gods' Man (1929), uses a blend of Art Deco and Expressionist styles to tell the story of an artist's struggle with his craft, his seduction and subsequent abuse by money and power, and his escape to innocence. Ward, in employing the concept of the wordless pictorial narrative, acknowledged as his predecessors the European artists Frans Masereel and Otto Nückel. Released the week of the 1929 stock market crash, Gods' Man would continue to exert influence well beyond the Depression era, becoming an important source of inspiration for Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.[2]

Ward produced six wood engraving novels over the next eight years, including:

  • Gods' Man (1929)
  • Madman's Drum (1930)
  • Wild Pilgrimage (1932)
  • Prelude to a Million Years (1933)
  • Song Without Words (1936)
  • Vertigo (1937)

Ward left one more wordless novel partially completed at the time of his death in 1985. The 26 completed wood engravings (out of a planned total of 44) were published in a limited edition in 2001, under the title Lynd Ward's Last, Unfinished, Wordless Novel.[3]

He also produced a wordless story for children, The Silver Pony, which is told entirely in black, white and shades of grey painted illustrations; it was published in 1973.

Gods' Man

Gods' Man is a novel in five parts, published in 1929.

  • Synopsis

(1) An Artist, after returning from a harrowing sea escapade with paintings of the waves and sun, gives his last coin to a one legged beggar by the roadside. He then stops for a bowl of soup at an inn and attempts to pay with one of the paintings, which provokes the wrath of the owner, until a mysterious Stranger, dressed entirely in black, takes the painting, paying an exorbitant amount to the owner. He then offers the Artist a Brush, an easily recognized long brush that was used by the great masters of the ages (shown in montage) and that makes any art made with it (presumably) a masterwork. The Artist is offered a contract, which he eagerly signs.

(2) In the city, the author begins painting with the brush in an empty square, drawing gradually a huge crowd. An auctioneer strikes a handshake deal with the artist, then bids it for an extremely high amount. The artist is given a fancy new tie, a mistress, and a large amount of cash.

(3) The artist falls in love with the mistress, whom he is using as a model, but she reveals wordlessly that she only wants him for his money. Distraught, he leaves and wanders the city canyonlands, seeing everybody he meets as the auctioneer and the Mistress. He attempts to strangle the hallucination in rage, but is beaten by a cop and impounded. The auctioneer takes the remainder of his work and money back. At the last minute, the Artist uses that spiffy tie to strangle a prison guard bringing him food and escape. He now runs from a mob into the hills far from the city, and collapses in a haystack.

(4) He is rescued by the Girl, who is herding goats when she finds him and nurses him back to health. They quickly fall in love and tour a series of natural wonders. After an unclear amount of time, he goes to her, and assists in the birth of his Child. He is exuberant and full of praise at this point.

(5) The Artist, the Girl, and the Child are happy, skipping gaily through fields of heather. At one idyllic family scene, with the gender-unspecified child learning to paint from his/her father, the Mysterious stranger somehow arrives and calls the artist to finish the contract, which was assumedly a portrait of him. The Artist gladly obliges, they go to the hilly crests for the best lighting. During the painting, the Stranger removes his black mask. The Artist has a nasty shock slash heart attack, and appears to fall into the black abyss between the hills. The camera moves onto the stranger, and he is Death, with a skull for a face, who has tricked the Artist into a Faustian Bargain.

Other works

In 1930 Ward's wood engravings were used to illustrate Alec Waugh's travel book Hot Countries; in 1936 an edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published with illustrations by Ward. His work on children's books included his 1953 Caldecott Medal winning book The Biggest Bear, and his work on Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain.

Ward illustrated the 1942 children's book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, with text by Hildegarde Swift.

Ward's work included an awareness of the racial injustice to be found in the United States. This is first apparent in the lynching scenes from Wild Pilgrimage and appears again in his drawings for North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro, by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift, published in 1947. Ward uses African American characters, as well as several different Native ones in his book The Silver Pony.

In 1972 Harry N. Abrams published Storyteller Without Words, a book that included Ward's six novels plus an assortment of his illustrations from other books. Ward himself broke his silence and wrote brief prologues to each of his works. In 2010, the Library of America published Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, with a new chronology of Ward's life and an introduction by Art Spiegelman.[4]


  1. "Lynd Ward." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 80. Gale, 2009. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  2. Allen Ginsberg, Illuminated Poems, illus, Eric Drooker (New York: Four Walls, 1996), xii
  4. Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (New York: Library of America, 2010) ISBN 978-1598530827