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Here is an article I wrote last year for a local magazine.

What if it doesn’t have any words?
The wordless picture book
by Christopher Malapitan

THE wordless picture book format fundamentally rises above the boundaries of language and literacy. In the words of US Woodcut Historian, David Berona, it represents “not only our different cultures but also our shared humanity”. Without words we’re forced to look closely, concentrate and interpret the image.

In 2009, as part of their research into human trafficking for sexual exploitation, sociologists Yiouli Taki and David Officer contacted me and proposed a comic book that would tell the story of a trafficked woman. It was an innovative idea but faced a significant problem; there are three spoken languages in Cyprus – Greek, English and Turkish. Our budget was unable to cover a trilingual print run. Half-jokingly I suggested, “what if it doesn’t have any words?” Problem solved. My challenge as a visual artist was then to tell a story without words.

Like many other arts fields, such as music, pantomime, ballet and silent film, the wordless picture book has a close relationship with its audience. The absence of words forces a reader to focus on the images. Through pictures, the artist applies the use of icons, stereotypes, symbolism and metaphors to create a language entirely bereft of words. Believe it or not, this form of storytelling has been around as far back as the first cave paintings in 35,000BC.

Fig.1 - The tomb of Menna in Luxor, Egypt

Fig.1 – The tomb of Menna in Luxor, Egypt

The earliest use of the format is believed to be the work of an ancient Egyptian scribe 3,200 years ago on the tomb of Menna in Luxor. The imagery depicts farmers harvesting wheat to pay their taxes (Fig.1). Fast forward to Mexico in 1049AD you’ll find an 11-metre, accordion-folded deerskin filled with images depicting the story of great military and political hero, Lord Eight-Deer ‘Jaguar Claw’. Across the Atlantic in 1066AD, the French produced the grandiose Bayeux tapestry, a 70-metre masterpiece portraying the events of England’s conquest by the Normans.

Arguably the largest and best known wordless story was painted by created by Michelangelo in 1511 and can be found on the Sistine Chapel. In the same period in Europe, various religious and political stories were produced from woodcuts (an image carved into a block of wood, from which a print can be made). The woodcut is the earliest and simplest of the printmaking techniques. It has been in use for centuries as an artistic and commercial medium for spreading ideas to a wide audience.

At the turn of the 20th century in Europe, wordless picture books were pushed into prominence due in part to the Belgian artist Frans Masereel. Like many artists engaged in political and moral issues, Masereel’s woodcut novels depict the human condition and social upheaval of the time. Masereel produced over 50 wordless books in his lifetime but his most popular book is the 1919 Passionate Journey. It is the simple story of one man’s life, love and adventures. With the use of bold, black and white imagery Masereel captured a wide range of emotion and social comment which readers of today are still able to relate to. A novel told in 165 woodcuts, it is considered to be the first graphic novel of its kind and is still in print today.

A book I always return to for inspiration is Shaun Tan’s silent tale The Arrival (Fig.2).

Fig.2 - The Arrival, Sahun Tan, 2006

Fig.2 – The Arrival, Sahun Tan, 2006

It’s the story of a man who leaves his family to find work in a foreign land. The ingenuity of this migration story lies in the method with which the artist engages the reader — giving them the immediate “point-of-view”. The reader joins the protagonist as he tries to make sense of the surrealist world Tan has created. Tan’s beautifully penciled artwork and talent for facial expressions, body language and sense of rhythm creates a pictorial language that communicates various themes such as food, work, communication, loneliness, companionship and happiness. It was this silent masterpiece that influenced me while creating the wordless book I illustrated and co-authored with Yiouli Taki and David Officer The Tunnel (Fig.3).

The unique strength of the wordless picture book is its ability to slip across international boundaries, regardless of language, age and even reading ability. The absence of words liberates creative inhibitions and allows for a plethora of opportunities. The format lets pictures “talk” to an audience and perhaps creates a closer relationship between artist and reader. US psychologist, James J. Gibson, says the pictorial language “gives us a kind of grasp on the rich complexities of the natural environment that words could never do”.

Fig.3 – The Tunnel, Taki, Officer, Malapitan, 2010

Fig.3 – The Tunnel, Taki, Officer, Malapitan, 2010

Thanks to video and wireless technology, we’ve become cultured into becoming more visually thirsty and have acquired the capacity to translate a pictorial language where wordless picture books are to be discovered, not explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Malapitan lives and works in Cyprus. The Tunnel features his first illustrations in a wordless graphic novel. The book was published in 2010 by “INDEX: Research & Dialogue” a non-partisan, non-profit NGO based in Cyprus which conducts quality research and promotes public dialogue. 

For more information you can visit https://heruntoldstory.wordpress.com 

or e-mail Christopher Malapitan at cmalapitan@yahoo.com

The Tunnel is available for free from

ANT COMICS book store in Nicosia,

tel. 22-660384.

10 recommended wordless books

• Frans Masereel. Passionate Journey, 1919

• Lynard Ward. God’s Man, 1929

• Milt Gross. He Done Her Wrong, 1930

• Hendrik Dorgathen. Space Dog, 1993

• Eric Drooker. Ballad Song, 2002

• Thomas Ott. Dead End, 2002

• Peter Kuper. Sticks and Stones, 2004

• Andy Runton. Owly, (3 volumes) 2004-6

• Shaun Tan. The Arrival, 2006

• Jason. Sshhhh!, 2008

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Published in Politis Newspaper on 14 November 2010

 

 

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THE TUNNEL
Review by Chris Le Galle from Wicked Comics (Malta)

Graphic Novel (wordless)
Colour
Publisher: INDEX: Research and Dialogue
Text by Yiouli Taki and David Officer
Art by Christopher Malapitan
Colour by Anna Photiadou

This book is a first for me on a variety of levels. It’s the first graphic novel I’ve read that was created and published in Cyprus, it’s the first graphic novel I’ve read which does not have a single line of dialogue, it’s the first graphic novel I’ve read which is based on true stories and through it I’ve learned for the first time that Cyprus has a human trafficking problem.

At first I was a tad apprehensive reviewing a book without dialogue, but any misconceptions I might have had were dispelled as soon as I started reading. This is largely thanks to Christopher’s distinct and clear sense of panelling. The clever use of micro panels to indicate motion helps the story to flow, and despite the lack of dialogue everything that happens in the graphic novel is very easily understood which is more than one can say for a large number of comic books. In fact although I never pictured myself saying this before, I firmly believe that this book would not have worked so well had dialogue been included.

The excellent panels are further enhanced by the intelligent use of colouring employed by Anna Photiadou. Bright colours bring to life happy emotions while the constant use of black background and dark layouts signify the turmoil experienced by the protagonist. If this book is anything to go by than Christopher Malapitan is certainly a creator to watch out for in the future.

Published by INDEX: Research and Dialogue, The Tunnel seeks to raise awareness about the human traffic king problem inCyprus, although unfortunately such a problem rears it’s ugly head in other countries as well. The female protagonist in the book represents the trials and tribulations experienced by a number of victims who had the courage to share their experiences with the creators of the book. Rather than getting tangled in the complexities of this issue the creators opted to tell a simple story highlighting the salient facts of the problem, and as a result the book is both informative and entertaining to read.

On the rear pages of the book Malapitan’s fantastic artwork is nicely complimented by a series of text explaining both the process involved in the creation of this book as well as focusing on the seriousness of the problem. Taki’s and Officer’s writing is sharp, strong, flowing and concise and together with Malapitan’s artwork contribute to the effectiveness of the graphic novel.

Since the primary role of this graphic novel is raising awareness it is not being sold but freely distributed. So anyone who wishes to bag himself a copy is kindly requested to contact Christopher Malapitan on cmalapitan[at]yahoo.com or visit the blog: https://heruntoldstory.wordpress.com. I strongly recommend that you do because its not every day that a graphic novel of such a standard is available for free.

Christopher Malapitan will be attending the Malta Comic Con 2011, so if you want to learn more about the comics scene inCyprus, or simple obtain a copy of The Tunnel make sure to join him!

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