Southern Cross (wordless novel)

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Southern Cross
A black-and-white illustration in an high-contrast, abstracted style of a mushroom cloud on a small island.
A nuclear test obliterates a Polynesian island.
Author Laurence Hyde
Country Canada
Genre Wordless novel
Publication date
Pages 118 (recto only)

Southern Cross is the sole wordless novel by Canadian artist Laurence Hyde (1914–1987).[1] In 118 wood engravings, it tells 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.

While working at the National Film Board of Canada, Hyde carved the blocks for Southern Cross from 1948 until 1951. The high-contrast artwork displays dynamic curving lines uncommon in wood engraving, and combines abstract imagery with realistic details. The wordless novel genre had flourished primarily during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1940s even the form's most prolific practitioners had moved on to other kinds of work. Hyde had been familiar with some of the books of Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, and the wordless novel's pioneer Frans Masereel. Illustrator Rockwell Kent provided the introduction to the first edition of Southern Cross, and Hyde dedicated it 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.[2]


Born in Kingston upon Thames[3] in England in 1914, Laurence Hyde moved with his family to Canada in 1926. They settled in Toronto in 1928, where Hyde studied art[4] at Central Technical School.[3] 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.[1]

Four high-contrast black-and-white images in sequence.  In the first, a man, facing left with his right arm aloft, marches with a crowd towards a group of gun-wielding figures.  In the second, uniformed figures are taking the man away amongst a crowd.  In the third, the man is seen from behind at the bottom, with a group seated behind a bench in the distance near the top in an apparent courtroom.  A crucifix hangs prominently above the bench, bathed in light in the darkened room.  In the fourth, the man has his back to a wall, hands bound behind him, with another figure lying apparently dead at his feet.  He faces right, apparently awaiting his execution by gunfire.
Frans Masereel's Passionate Journey (1919) was amongst the wordless novels that influenced Hyde.

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.[5] 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.[6] Like his forebears in the genre, Hyde had a left-wing agenda that he expressed in his art.[7] 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.[8] 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.[3]

Before beginning Southern Cross, Hyde had made unfinished attempts at two earlier series of prints.[1] Hyde made the book to express his anger at American nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946 following the atomic bombings in Japan.[9] 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.[3]


Each image is 4 by 3 inches (10.2 cm × 7.6 cm) with the exception of one of the bomb detonating, a 7 in × 6 in (18 cm × 15 cm) full-page image that bleeds off the page.[10] Hyde uses 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.[5]

Publication history[edit]

Balck-and-white photograph of a man in glasses resting his head on his hand and smiling a the camera.
Laurence Hyde in 1945.

Hyde worked on the book from 1948 to 1951. It was published in a limited edition by Ward Ritchie Press in 1951,[9] printed on Japanese paper[11] with the images on the recto and the verso left blank. Illustrator Rockwell Kent provided the introduction.[12] Hyde dedicated the book to the Red Cross Societies and the Society of Friends.[13]

The book was republished twice in 2007: Drawn and Quarterly published a facsimile edition with additional essays by Hyde and an introduction by wordless novel historian David Beronä;[12] and George Walker included Southern Cross in his collection of wordless novels Graphic Witness.[14]

Reception and legacy[edit]

In a 1952 interview with the CBC, 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.[15]

Critic Sean Rogers praised the work, particularly the pacing and action sequences, but wrote that it does not have as much of an impact of earlier works such as Masereel's Passionate Journey (1919) or Ward's Vertigo (1937). To Rogers the anti-atomic message of the book does not have the impact of later works in comics such as Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen or Gary Panter's Jimbo.[5] Comics scholar Roger Sabin found the book unconvincing, "a well-meaning but facile piece of agit-prop".[16]

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 comic books served in the 1950s.[7] Copies of Southern Cross have been purchased for the collections of the National Gallery of Canada[17] in 1952[11] and the Burnaby Art Gallery in 1987.[17] The book received an Honorable Mention for Best Book at the 2008 Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning. It was accepted by Hyde's son Anthony.[18]


Works cited[edit]