Review Essay: Story Without Words
Kuper, Peter. Sticks and Stones. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
With Sticks and Stones, Peter Kuper reveals why he
is a significant figure in the field of visual storytelling as he presents
narrative, a “picture story of epic proportions” (Kuper
jacket). This wordless book is part of a larger tradition of graphic
narratives that began when Frans Masereel “established an historical
precedent for modern graphic storytelling” when he published
his first novel without words in 1919 (Eisner Graphic Storytelling
1). Sticks and Stones, like the wordless texts of Masereel, Lynd Ward,
and Otto Nückel, deals with serious issues and substantial themes.
This book chronicles the rise of an empire and tackles issues of birth
and death, and war and peace while it presents a “cautionary
tale for our present-day world” (Kuper jacket).
Sticks and Stones opens with images of a volcano, which ultimately
generates the story’s main character. The reader sees this character
mature, and when he meets other people, they begin to construct a city.
With a little opposition, the main character assumes the role of leader
of this civilization. Then, these people discover the existence of
a rival civilization, which is shown in color instead of the muted
black and white stencil of the original civilization. This presentation
of color symbolizes the cultural differences of the two empires as
this empire is dominated by wood, or sticks, not stone, and has fire,
games, and music. Soon, however, the people of the stone world decide
to attack this empire. The only person to object to this declaration
of war is imprisoned for his disobedience.
The stone people descend upon the stick city and use stones and fire
to destroy the buildings. The people of this world are enslaved, but
remain defiant, which is evident when one of the conquered people refuses
to sing for his new master and is taken to prison. Subsequent images
reveal the stone ruler’s abuse of the land as well as his power.
Ultimately, his civilization is punished for this behavior as a deluge
of rain strikes the city. As his subjects perish in this flood, the
stone leader offers precious stones to the dark sky, but a flash of
lightning reveals he is not so easily forgiven, and eventually, he
too succumbs to the rising water. Only two people, the two who were
imprisoned, survive this flood. So, the story ends on a positive note
as the two people, one from each of the civilizations, embark on a
journey together, presumably to create a new empire.
Throughout Sticks and Stones, Kuper utilizes conventional comics techniques
to present a story that, while at times cinematic, goes beyond the
visual. Kuper succeeds in creating a powerful narrative that fits nicely
with Maurice Sendak’s idea of “quickening,” which “suggests
something musical, rhythmic and animated.” According to Sendak, “quickening” is “the
genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life” of the images,
a quality which Sendak considers essential in books that primarily
tell their stories through pictures (Sendak 3). Due to this “quickening,” it
is not surprising that there is a flash animation version of the story
as the book itself seems animated.
Wordless stories like Sticks and Stones are quite complex. As Will
Eisner states, “images without words, while they seem to represent
a more primitive form of graphic narrative, really require some sophistication
on the part of the reader” (Eisner Comics and Sequential Art
24). Therefore, although this text is composed only of images, it is
not, and should not be, a fast read. Readers must focus attention on
every detail to experience the full impact of the narrative. Kuper
acknowledges this when he says, a reader can sit and read a wordless
book, flip through it, but “it needs to have a return experience” because
with “a wordless book, there’s a read you get if you go
through it, and there are reads that are about seeing other details” (Spurgeon).
Kuper’s Sticks and Stones is certainly worth the time and effort
needed to see all its details.
Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tarmac, Fl: Poorhouse Press,
— . Graphic Storytelling. Tarmac, Fl: Poorhouse Press, 1996.
Kuper, Peter. Sticks and Stones (animated flash version). 2004. 28
Mar. 2005 <http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/kuper/>.
Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Spurgeon, Tom. “In Depth: The Peter Kuper Interview.” Graphic
Novel Review. 2004. 28 Mar. 2005. <http://www.graphicnovelreview.com/issue3/pkuper_interview.php>.
Trena Houp is a PhD student at the University of
Florida whose research focuses on visual rhetoric and children’s literature. Currently, she is working on an interdisciplinary project dealing with wordless texts, including picture books, comics, graphic novels, woodcut novels, and other forms of visual narratives.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (Spring 2005)
Copyright © 2005 by The University of Iowa