Review of Flood! A Novel in Pictures

By Art Spiegelman

The New York Times Book Review
December 1992

Seen any good novels lately? Eric Drooker's Flood! is worth a look. It's a complex, dream-charged vision of alienation in the wet, mean streets of New York City, where primal natural urges are suppressed in the lonely isolation of crowds. It's a picture of a soulless civilization headed toward the apocalypse. It's a poetic and lyrical novel—told virtually without words.

The novel in pictures, a form originally inspired by silent movies, is challenging and demanding. Since images are usually open to broader interpretation than prose, each drawing in the sequence must work not only as a self-contained composition but also as a kind of hieroglyphic picture-writing. The page acts as a curtain to be raised, each page offering new visual surprises.

The inventor of the form, and arguably its greatest practitioner, was Frans Masereel (1889-1972), the politically engaged Belgian Expressionist. Passionate Journey, the first of his 12 woodcut novels created over a 50-year span, appeared shorty after World War I.

During the Great Depression, the genre flourished with such printmakers as Lynd Ward, Otto Nuckel and Giacomo Patri all creating exquisite novels in pictures. In 1930, Milt Gross, the cartoonist who drew Count Screwloose and Dave's Delicatessen, even produced a brilliant book-length parody of the form, titled He Done Her Wrong, subtitled The Great American Novel, and Not a Work in It—No Music Too.

The idiom seems to have been favored by socially and politically impassioned artists, and Mr. Drooker, whose politically impassioned posters have long graced East Village lampposts and whose cartoons have been published in the Village Voice, The Nation and World War 3 Illustrated, is firmly in that tradition. While he is not up to the level of the Depression-era masters, Mr. Drooker offers up a number of picture-story pleasures, in a minor key suitable for the Reagan-Bush recession.

The New York in Flood! is peopled by the penniless, the homeless, the down and out. Demonstrators carrying placards inscribed with musical notes are overpowered by Blue Meanie police with tanks, in scenes inspired by the 1988 Tompkins Square riots. One especially striking sequence has the protagonist staring at a man in a grotesque carnival sideshow, whose tattoos conjure up a convincing recap of Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, an account of America as seen through the eyes of the oppressed.

Unlike most picture novels, Flood! oscillates between full-page images and multiple-panel comic book pages. The artist has clearly been strongly influenced by such comic book greats as Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit, and Bernard Krigstein, the relatively unknown creator of Master Race, Murder Dream and other stories for the 1950's EC Comics. Flood! in fact, abounds in nods toward many of Mr. Drooker's influences, from cave painting to the Flintstones.

Flood! is divided into three chapters, Home, L and Flood, presented in the order in which they were drawn, over a period of at least seven years. The artist gains authority as he explores the form. The two early sections probably should have been excised from the final book as necessary learning exercises, but the longest section, Flood, is powerful and assured. Like his forebears, Mr. Drooker has discovered the magic of pulling light and life out of an inky sea of darkness. If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, this is one heck of a hefty novel.