Considered the greatest twentieth-century master of the woodcut, and by many as the grandfather of the graphic novel, Franz Masereel (1889-1972) was born in Belgium and lived throughout Europe in the years before WWI (that’s his self-portrait on the right). Honing his craft as a graphic artist in various journals, Masereel perfected an expressionist style influenced by contemporaries such as Delaunay, Braque, and Marc. Additionally, his literary influences can be seen in the numerous illustrations he did for authors such as Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and Emile Zola. Masereel emerged as a pacifist in WWI with strong Communist sympathies—ideals embodied in his most ambitious works, his so-called “novels” in woodcuts. These works tell visual narratives about capitalism, man’s isolation in his modern metropolis, the decadence of the bourgeois, and the rising might of the proletariat. His most famous works are A Passionate Journey (1919), an allegorical narrative of modern man’s existence, and The City, a “vision in woodcuts,” which documents the decline and eventual fall of a Berlin-like metropolis. Though he sided with no one political movement, his works were warmly championed by Socialists and banned by the rising Nazi movement (forcing him to flee Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation). However, his humanity and sheer artistic appeal make it impossible to read his works as propaganda. The pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract With God) cited him as a seminal influence on his work, and one of the first true visionaries of the comic book form—though he never viewed his work in this medium. His influence has been further cited by notable comic book critic, Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and undoubtedly influenced Marjane Satrapi’s woodcut-style drawings in Persepolis I & II.
Perhaps his most universally appealing work is the compact, but sprawling narrative of The City, which takes the reader through a bustling European metropolis in the years after World War I. The work is prefaced by a quote from Walt Whitman: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,/Whatever interests the rest interests me.” Fittingly, the first panel shows a man sitting down amidst flowers, contemplating the dread abyss of smokestacks and skyscrapers that swallows the horizon. Though the “vision in woodcuts” has no story per se, it does flit us from one souring image of modern life to another, creating a loose narrative of oppression, isolation, and bourgeois decadence. Every aspect of the city interests Masereel as an artist, from the small apartment of a struggling family to the posh bordellos of the rich and famous. Yet the most prominent feature of The City is the artwork itself, starkly black and white images which deftly portray caricature, terror, sublimity, and beauty. Click here to find the entire series.
In one of the opening images (above left), we see the sprawling cityscape—building climbing atop building, blotting out land and sky. Yet Masereel is alive to the human presence of this towering terrors, the peep-hole windows allowing us to see the citizens at their daily routine. A young woman works at her sewing while the man beneath her broods. Other windows reveal a woman dressing—bare bottom displayed to all lookers—a young couple amidst a passionate embrace, and other faces, expressionless, peering back at us. This image of the city stands out as one of Masereel’s most iconic of the modern city—a voyeuristic display of exhibition and isolation.
In another representative image (at right), we see demonstrators being forcibly driven off by soldiers, a scene that echoes the events of pre-Communist Russia, particularly the peaceful protest of 1905, when soldiers opened fire and killed hundreds of civilians. Masereel documented the protests, speeches, and common humanity of people trying to rise above the metropolis, many of them in quasi-journalistic style. Here we see terror of the government, depicted simply as a cloud of gunfire confronting the terrified and dispersing crowd. Only one man stands defiantly to greet them, taking aim at the amorphous mass—a willing martyr for the cause. Like Marx, Masereel seems to have felt that “Modern bourgeois society…is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (Oxford UP, 8). The decline of “the city” was inevitable in his mind, as the people would soon wrest the power from its greedy, smoke-like tentacles.