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book review

Conrad Black is both famous and notorious for being a man of many words. He is the author of half a dozen massive tomes, books heavy enough to flatten your feet if dropped the wrong way. In these hefty volumes and in his frequent newspaper columns, Black gives free vent to his sesquipedalian diction, orotund rhetoric and irrepressible volubility. His heedless and heady love affair with the written word is also evident in his life-long vocation as a press baron.

Given the ceaseless flow of verbiage that surrounds Black like a moat, the artist George Walker made a bold decision in doing a book about the businessman's life told entirely in stark drawings, with scarcely a word in sight. The title of Walker's new book, The Life and Times of Conrad Black, makes it sound like a conventional biography, but in fact it is a quirky volume growing out of an oddball genre, the woodcut novel (sometimes also called the wordless novel).

Long before the graphic novel earned a place on bookstore shelves, the woodcut novel was one of the lonely pioneers in long-form visual storytelling. It was born in the political cauldron of early-20th-century Europe, with artists like the Belgian Frans Masereel and the German Otto Nückel turning to visual storytelling as a way of reaching across class lines and national borders. In books like Masereel's Passionate Journey (1919) or Nückel's Destiny (1930), social critique was fused with bold, expressionistic images that told stories about economic despair, urban alienation and the impact of war.

Although woodcut novels were once bestsellers and championed by distinguished writers like Thomas Mann, the genre fell into abeyance in recent decades, often being dismissed as an antiquarian curiosity. But in our new century, the woodcut novel has enjoyed an unexpected revival, thanks almost entirely to the Canadian printmaker George Walker, who has emerged as not only as a master of the form but also an influential mentor of a new generation of woodcut novelists.

The Life and Times of Conrad Black emerged from a series of counterintuitive decisions that went against the grain of the woodcut tradition. Rooted in socialism, the woodcut novel frequently deals with workers, but Black is unapologetically a capitalist.

The woodcut novel is often allegorical, but Black's life has a peculiarity that resists easy generalization. As a visual form, the woodcut novel has characters who act out their emotions, but Black is a stolidly dignified man whose main activities have been sedentary.

Precisely because Black's story might seem like such recalcitrant material for a woodcut novel, the fact that Walker was able to turn it into an emotionally affecting book is a startling achievement. Walker traces the story that will be familiar to any Canadian who has followed the news: Black's oft-told journey from wayward student at Upper Canada College to his prominent and controversial role as press lord to felony conviction and jailing to his final release.

Black's years at Upper Canada College and the canings figure prominently early in the book and establish the key to the man's life. Black, we are made to understand, is both an insider and an outsider, a child of the establishment who sometimes breaks the rules, a stoic who knows how to take punishment and achieves a kind of dignity through suffering.

This is an unexpectedly respectful book. Walker makes no cheap shots at Black and resists any easy irony. The greatest favour Walker does for Black is to silence him. In real life, Black tends to embarrass himself whenever he opens his mouth, as he did in his recent fawning and disgraceful interview with Toronto mayor Rob Ford. But in Walker's rendition, we're made to forget Black's blustery self-importance and see the narrative of his life as a human drama.

Woodcut engraving is a demanding form, one that reduces images to a rudimentary boldness where everything depends on the contrast between black and white. Yet in Walker's sure hands, these bluntly hewn images convey the full mystery of Conrad Black: his intelligence and his foolishness, his love of the glamorous spotlight and his reserve, his crudeness and his decorum. Whatever else you want to say about Conrad Black, he's a complicated character. In this suite of drawings, Walker has done justice to Black's complexity. Without using a word, Walker's images give voice to the inner Black.

Jeet Heer's new book, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, was published this fall.

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