The Jewish Chronicle
A book with no words
WHAT IS it about comics that leads us to believe that they are shallow and childish, not capable of complicated and sophisticated plots? We take political cartoons seriously — only recently the New York Times cancelled its cartoons in their international edition for fear of controversy. And we remember the stinks caused by depicting Mohammed — but comics are presumed to be lightweight entertainment.
Well, they did start funny, and then drama followed. The first newspaper comic strip in 1897 was the quirky Yellow Kid. Many strips quickly followed and by the 1920s, they were even called “the funnies”, and were the hot medium of the day. In that decade adventure stories came out, then science fiction and then detective strips like Dick Tracy. These were melodramas, mostly about strong men rescuing helpless women and saving the day against a villain.
But it’s hard to imagine any of them the length of a book. And even harder to imagine that book without words.
Step up Alay Oop, one of the first graphic novels, written in 1930 by Jewish artist and political cartoonist William Gropper, happily republished recently. And very unlike the butch melodrama of the newspaper comics, it tells the story of a love triangle between three circus performers: two trapeze artists and a singer. Except for a few chapter headings, there are no words at all, just large black and white line drawings.
Gropper had a few inspirations. In 1918, Flemish artist Frans Masereel, did a book of woodcuts called The Sun, a modern retelling of the mythical story of Icarus. An American artist, Lynd Ward, is wellknown for his 1929 wordless book of woodcuts called God’s Man,a Faustian tale about an artist who sold his soul to the devil for a magic paintbrush.
Taking a break from his political cartoons and social realist painting, Gropper produced a novel with a delicate touch. Unlike the thunderous sturm and drang of God’s Man, Alay-Oop tells a very human story of three people whose dreams are frustrated not by a vengeful god or an arch-villain, but simply by the practicalities of life. Their fantasies hit reality with a thump, and their frailties and courage are at once funny and endearing.
While naturally the book doesn’t take long to read, it does take the reader through quite a few twists and turns. It starts with the trapeze artists, a burly mustachioed man and a svelte, strong woman, swooping dangerously over a gasping audience. They seem to be a happy couple, but in the wings lurks the circus singer who has a crush on the woman.
After the show, the three get dressed up and go out into the busy press of New York’s theatre
district. In a few lines, Gropper shows its tourists, thugs, beggars, newsboys, neon signs and glittering restaurants. The three sit down to eat and while Trapeze Man orders, the other two stare longingly into each other’s eyes.
That night she has an intense, surreal dream where she appears with huge snakes and flying horses, falling, always falling, losing her head and embracing a beautiful spirit, who looks a little like the singer. She wakes up, wide-eyed.
The singer is waiting outside her building, looking up at her window past the fire escapes and hanging laundry. Carrying flowers, he goes in, blags his way past the landlady and knocks on the woman’s door. She happily receives the flowers and invites him in, where he weaves a tale of seduction, telling her of his glittering future. She is impressed and then shocked as he The woman swoops over the head of the crowd produces a ring and proposes.
Meanwhile, Trapeze Man waits for her at the theatre. She’s late. It’s time to go on. The stage manager is furious. Then the new couple appear and she comes over to Trapeze Man andshows him their new marriage license. On the spot, the three quit their jobs, leaving the stage manager gnashing his teeth.
In the next chapter, “Years Later”, the woman slaves alone — as Gropper’s mother did— to take care of her children, who grow as she laboriously cooks, cleans and mends. The twin girls are delighted when Trapeze Man comes to visit, and before long they are climbing on his back and hanging from his arms like a mini circus act. The singer comes home and they all have dinner. He spins more fantasies about making millions. After dinner there are more acrobatic tricks by Trapeze Man and the girls while the singer reads the paper. He gets more and more peeved as the girls swing, jump and hang off Trapeze Man.
Then the woman confronts him with her empty pocketbook. Despite all his promises, they’re flat broke. He storms out in a rage and the woman slumps in a chair, despondent. Trapeze Man proposes that she go back into the circus with him, only this time with the girls too. All of them like this idea and the woman even starts to do some acrobatics with Trapeze Man.
The singer walks back in, sees them together and loses it completely. He kicks out Trapeze Man and proceeds to work himself up into a hurricane of fury. The woman quickly packs and takes her girls away and then the singer packs too and tiptoes past the landlady’s door so she won’t nab him for the overdue rent. The landlady comes out, views their flat with all its broken furniture and screams in despair. Night falls on the city.
Then come three epilogues, showing how they all end up. The first is called “The Great Singer”: the singer is singing — but not from a stage. He’s singing from the street where he’s selling fruit from a cart. The second is “The Swinger”: Trapeze Man has a new job as a skyscraper construction worker, swinging high in on huge steel girders. The last is “Alay-Oop”: the now-teenage daughters are in the circus, standing on each other’s shoulders riding a horse while the woman guides them with a ringmaster’s whip. The end.
Gropper draws this book as if he’s in a hurry to get somewhere else. But the loose lines belie the cleverness of his craft, honed by training and experience. He grew up on New York’s famous Lower East Side, which at the time became one of the most densely populated places on earth with so many refugees from Europe. He helped his seamstress mother work but at 13 managed to get himself to an art school, Ferrers. It was modernist and radical, and he absorbed its left-wing philosophies as well as its craft. The next year his aunt was killed in the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 mostly Jewish women workers died because management had sealed the exits. This confirmed his determination to stand up for the exploited workers.
He became a cartoonist, with such strong opinions that he was fired from his first employer, the New York Tribune. He became a staff cartoonist at the Yiddish newspaper Morning Freiheit, and contributed to The Rebel Worker, the Liberator, Revolutionary Age, and co-founded the Communist New Masses magazine. He portrayed rich bankers and bosses as fat, ugly and greedy, but refreshingly free of the antisemitism of some similar cartoons of the time.
He even went to Russia in 1927 during the tenth anniversary of the revolution. In 1937, he designed and painted a huge mural in the Department of the Interior building in Washington DC that depicted workers building the Grand Coulee Dam. In 1953 he was blacklisted for Communist activity by Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. He responded with a scathing lithograph series about corrupt and arrogant politicians. He died in 1977.
Gropper was a serious artist with a lot of serious things to say. He would probably not appreciate being best known for a lighthearted tale that did not strive to right any of society’s wrongs (well, except gently pointing out that men are useless and women are left carrying the bag).
It’s a bit like a fierce dragon slayer being remembered for petting a kitten.
But Alay-Oop is nonetheless a tour de force, where a master cartoonist overcomes the challenge of a wordless narrative and creates a story that flies over our heads like the trapeze artists and comes back to earth, chastened but safe.
Alay Oop is published by New York Review Comics