This column is about books and the stories they tell; it doesn’t just have to be with words! So let’s take a look, this time, at a couple of books that tell wondrous stories without the help of words, or with only a very minimal use of words.
First, a little background. Some of the best-known books to tell a story with only pictures were the woodcut novels of Frans Masserel. A woodcut is a printing technique where an illustration is carved into a block of wood, which is then inked and pressed onto paper to produce a reproduction. Masserel created a number of books in the 1920s which used woodcut illustrations to tell stories. A Passionate Journey is the story of a young man who has a variety of experiences which lead him to a spiritual awakening. Lynd Ward and Otto Nuckel are two other artists who created wordless woodcut novels.
But these productions were all fairly serious and aimed at a more grown-up audience. One of the best known comic strips for children to dispense with words was Henry, featuring a little boy who does not speak, but communicates through gestures. The stories of his funny, everyday experiences are generally conveyed without any words, although for a while some of the stories did feature dialogue. Long-running comic strips like The Peanuts and Garfield have sometimes featured episodes that do not have any dialogue at all. In such strips, it is the expressions of the characters and the details of their environment that work to convey a story to us. Creating a story like this needs a lot of skill; reading it can also take a little adjustment if, like me, you tend to focus on words rather than images!
I recently read a few volumes of two recent comic series that tell delightful tales without using words. Although they are both meant mainly for younger children, they can be enjoyed by readers of any age.
The first is Owly, a series created by Andy Runton. Owly is a kind-hearted owl who loves to make friends with other creatures in the woods where he lives. His best friend is a worm, called Wormy, and he loves gardening. These gentle, playful stories often contain serious messages about friendship, seeing beyond superficial appearances and accepting people for what they are.
While this may sound distressingly preachy, you’ll find that the adorable characters and the well-paced, appealing stories will draw you in and help you see life through Owly’s eyes. And maybe you’ll find that with a garden to tend and few good friends, your life can be as fun and rewarding as Owly’s. You can read some free online Owly comics at Runton’s site: http://www.andyrunton.com/owly/.
Another great series is the Korgi books by Christian Slade. A Korgi is a magical version of the corgi, a small outdoorsy dog. These stories are set in Korgi Hollow, a small town amidst the woods where they hang out with woodland people called Mollies. These books follow the adventures of a young Korgi named Sprout and his owner, Ivy. Although the characters are super-cute they wind up facing some pretty scary monsters. The comics don’t try to make their creepy villains too tame and the result is a brilliant mix of gentle whimsy and creepy terrors. Of course, everything works out well in the end. The world created in these books is fascinating, and in the third volume, A Hollow Beginning, Slade starts telling us the history of Korgi Hollow and there are some more nasty villains to discover in the process! Of course, these books are not completely without words — there is a bookish frog who gives us a quick introduction in the beginning — but the rest of the story is told without words.
This means the pictures really have to count, and the good part is, the art is so good you’ll feel like Korgi’s world is a place you’ve been to yourself. It is certainly a place worth lingering in, even if it isn’t just laughter and play.