Southern Cross (wordless novel)
A nuclear test obliterates a Polynesian island.
|Pages||118 (recto only)|
Southern Cross is the sole wordless novel by Canadian artist Laurence Hyde (1914–1987). Its 118 wood-engraved images tell of atomic testing by the US military and its effects on Polynesian island inhabitants. Hyde made the book to express his anger at the US military's nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946.
The wordless novel genre had flourished primarily during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1940s even the most prolific practitioners had moved on to other kinds of work. Hyde was familiar with some of the wordless novels of Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, and the form's pioneer Frans Masereel. The high-contrast artwork of Southern Cross artwork displays dynamic curving lines uncommon in wood engraving, and combines abstract imagery with realistic details. Illustrator Rockwell Kent provided the introduction to the first edition, and Hyde dedicated the book to the Red Cross Societies and the Society of Friends.
The story tells of the American military evacuating villagers from a Polynesian island before testing nuclear weapons. A drunken soldier attempts to rape a fisherman's wife during the evacuation, and the fisherman kills him. To avoid capture, the couple run to the forests with their child and hide. The child witnesses the death of its parents and destruction of its environment resulting from the ensuing atomic tests.
Born in Kingston upon Thames in England in 1914, Laurence Hyde moved with his family to Canada in 1926. They settled in Toronto in 1928, where Hyde studied art at Central Technical School. He did commercial pen-and-ink and scratchboard illustrations, and ran a business providing advertising illustrations; he also did wood engravings and linocuts for books. Hyde worked in Ottawa for the National Film Board of Canada from 1942 until his 1972 retirement.
The wordless novel had enjoyed popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, but had become rare by the 1940s. Such books tended to be melodramatic works about social injustice. Hyde was familiar with some of the American Lynd Ward's books and German Otto Nückel's Destiny (1926). The only work he knew of Flemish artist Frans Masereel, the form's first and most prolific practitioner, was Passionate Journey (1919), which he had read in a 1949 American edition. Like his forebears in the genre, Hyde had a left-wing agenda that he expressed in his art. When Southern Cross appeared, the genre had been out of the public eye for so long that Hyde included a historical essay with the book to orient the reader. Hyde had asked Ward to proofread this history, but the book was published without Ward's corrections—errors remained, such as Masereel's forename given as "Hans", and a listing of only four of Ward's six wordless novels.
Before beginning Southern Cross, Hyde had made unfinished attempts at two earlier series of prints. Hyde made the book to express his anger at American nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946 following the atomic bombings in Japan.
Creation and publication
"Words are capable of expressing very complicated and very subtle notions ... But for directness and universal interpretation, pictures, under certain conditions, are unrivalled. It really depends on what you want to say."—Laurence Hyde, Hyde's afterword to Southern Cross
Hyde worked on the book from 1948 to 1951. Each image is 4 by 3 inches (10.2 cm × 7.6 cm), centred at the top third of the page and with broad margins. The one exception is of the bomb detonating, a 7 in × 6 in (18 cm × 15 cm) full-page image that bleeds off the page. Hyde carved dynamic curving lines uncommon in wood engraving. Blacks overwhelms the figures they surround, and abstract images contrast with realistic detail in the flora and fauna.
It was published in a limited edition by Ward Ritchie Press in 1951, printed on Japanese paper with the images on the recto and the verso left blank. Illustrator Rockwell Kent provided the introduction. Hyde dedicated the book to the Red Cross Societies and the Society of Friends. Hyde was not present at the book's pressing, so that he was not able to correct some of the blocks which had not been carved deeply enough to produce satisfactory prints.
The book was republished twice in 2007: Drawn and Quarterly published a deluxe facsimile edition with additional essays by Hyde and an introduction by wordless novel historian David Beronä; and George Walker included Southern Cross in his anthology of wordless novels Graphic Witness.
Reception and legacy
"Man ... can tie himself up in words to the point of persuading himself that dropping atom bombs on people he's never seen is a kind of shrewd move in an exciting chess game. He needs something simpler, like pictures, to remind him of what dropping bombs on innocent people is really like."
In talk with the CBC in 1952, literary critic Northrop Frye praised Hyde's visual skills, but said, "There's no point in getting the book for your library unless you like the engravings themselves as separate works of art." He said the book was a quick read in contrast the amount of time it took to make it, and called its "continuity" a weak point. Frye considered the visualization of the bomb's destruction of living things the strongest justification for the work.
Comics critic Sean Rogers praised the work, particularly the pacing and action sequences, but wrote that it does not have as much impact as such earlier works as Masereel's Passionate Journey (1919) or Ward's Vertigo (1937). To Rogers the anti-atomic message of the book is less effective than that of later works in comics such as Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen or Gary Panter's Jimbo. Comics scholar Roger Sabin found the book unconvincing, "a well-meaning but facile piece of agit-prop". Reviewer Erik Hinton praised the artwork while denigrating the story as "the progeny of historical lip-service and the hot-button anxiety of the destructivity of modern warfare", and considered Ward and others of Hyde's predecessors more proficient at the medium.
Southern Cross has come to be seen as a precursor of the graphic novel in Canada, though it had no direct influence on Canadian comics—it was marketed to book connoisseurs, a world far removed from that of the cheap entertainment that comics served in the 1950s. Copies of Southern Cross were purchased for the collections of the National Gallery of Canada in 1952 and the Burnaby Art Gallery in 1987. The book received an Honorable Mention for Best Book at the 2008 Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning, accepted by Hyde's son Anthony.
- Beronä 2008, p. 213.
- Beronä 2008, pp. 214–215.
- Hyde & Beronä 2007.
- Walker 2007, p. 31.
- Rogers 2008b.
- Cohen 1977, p. 195.
- Bell 2006, p. 103.
- A.V. Club staff 2007.
- Beronä 2008, p. 214.
- Beauman 2007.
- Beronä 2008, p. 215.
- Hinton 2008.
- National Gallery of Canada staff.
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- Cohen 1977, p. 195; Beronä 2008, p. 216.
- Frye 2002, p. 314.
- Sabin 2007.
- Spurgeon 2010.
- Rogers 2008a.
- A.V. Club staff (2007-12-14). "Comics Panel: December 14, 2007". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2013-04-04.
- Beauman, Ned (2007-12-05). "Plenty to say for wordless stories". The Guardian.
- Bell, John (2006). Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe. Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-1-55002-659-7.
- Beronä, David A. (2008). Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels. Abrams Books. ISBN 978-0-8109-9469-0.
- Cohen, Martin S. (April 1977). "The Novel in Woodcuts: A Handbook". Journal of Modern Literature (Indiana University Press) 6 (2): 171–195. JSTOR 3831165.
- Frye, Northrop (2002). Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936-1989: Unpublished Papers. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-3602-5.
- Hinton, Erik (2008-02-07). "Southern Cross". PopMatters. Retrieved 2014-03-17.
- Hyde, Laurence; Beronä, David (2007). "Introduction". Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas. Drawn and Quarterly. (pages unnumbered). ISBN 978-1-897299-10-4.
- National Gallery of Canada staff. "Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas, c. 1948–1951". National Gallery of Canada website. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
- Pantaleo, Sylvia (2008-02-08). "Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas". CM Magazine. Retrieved 2013-04-04.
- Rogers, Sean (2008-08-14). "The Doug Wright Awards 2008". The Walrus. Retrieved 2014-03-18.
- Rogers, Sean (2008-08-28). "Southern Cross, and The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam". The Walrus. Retrieved 2013-04-04.
- Sabin, Roger (2007-11-25). "The mating call of a Wessex girl ...". The Observer. Retrieved 2014-03-18.
- Spurgeon, Tom (2010-04-18). "Some PR Person On Colin Upton Speaking On Laurence Hyde April 18 (PR)". The Comics Reporter. Retrieved 2014-03-21.
- Walker, George, ed. (2007). Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels. Firefly Books. ISBN 978-1-55407-270-5.