History of Southern Cross

Newsarama    |    Michael C Lorah    |    June 18, 2007

In August 1945, the United States of America ended the Pacific-rim portion of World War II by dropping atomic warheads on the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Nearly 160,000 people were killed instantly by the two attacks, and countless hundreds of thousands more died and suffered in the bombs’ aftermath.

In the years following the holocaust, spurred by the Cold War with the USSR, the United States continued to develop atomic weapons, frequently testing the explosive power of the weapons on miniscule southern Pacific islands. 1963’s Partial Test Ban Treaty finally limited atomic testing to underground trials.

Laurence Hyde is well known in Canada and throughout the world for his woodcut illustrations, his work with the National Film Board of Canada and designing many of Canada’s postage stamps in the middle part of the 20th century. Hyde, furious with the death toll in Japan and the continued proliferation of atomic weapons, crafted 108 woodcut illustrations to show the quality of life enjoyed by the civilizations who lived innocently in the south seas of the Pacific region.

That was 1951. Fifty-six years later, two decades after its author’s passing, Hyde’s political and social work is being brought back to the public, with a new facsimile edition from Drawn & Quarterly.

We asked Chris Oliveros, Drawn & Quarterly’s publisher, about it.

NRAMA: Chris, how did you discover Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas?

Chris Oliveros: Peter Birkemoe, owner of the great Toronto comic store The Beguiling, heard that we were interested in publishing facsimile editions of early 20th century woodcut novels. He happened to have a copy of the original 1951 edition of Southern Cross, and he sent a copy to me. The book, of course, is beautiful, and I immediately started to inquire about the rights to reprint it.

NRAMA: And how did D+Q obtain the rights to reprint it?

CO: We discovered that the material itself is now public domain, however we still sought out contact with the artist’s family. David Beronä (the woodcut novel historian and author of the introduction to our edition) tracked down Laurence Hyde’s son, who is living today in Ottawa, Canada.

NRAMA: I saw that Southern Cross is also going to be a part of Firefly Books’ edition of Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels, coming in September. Is there a potential conflict there?

CO: No, I contacted the editor of that book and we came to an agreement. It sounds like their treatment of the book will be somewhat different and to a degree both of our companies have different markets. But it is a pretty funny coincidence that after 56 years two publishers decided to publish it within a month of each other.

NRAMA: The odds are unlikely to say the least! Laurence Hyde had a very full life as an illustrator – with woodcut books, his nearly three-decade association with the National Film Board of Canada, and apparently even designing postage stamps for the Canadian Postal System. He passed away in 1987, but there are two essays that he wrote in this edition, correct? Were they part of the original book?

CO: Yes, the original book is presented here in its entirety, including those two essays.

NRAMA: Hyde was very critical of the United States’ decision to continue atomic bomb testing in the south pacific. Does the book tackle this dissatisfaction from a political angle, a humanistic one, or some other manner? And it’s obviously an important historical work, a commentary on the society and politics of the time, and that alone gives it plenty of value, but do you feel that Southern Cross has relevance to today’s readers?

CO: The book is a very powerful political statement, and it remains as relevant and timely today as it was when it was first published over a half century ago. Artistically it is an important work because it precedes literary graphic novels by about three decades. In both its content and approach, it is as current and timeless as the best work being produced today.

NRAMA: There is also a description of the woodcut process included in this edition. Woodcut is a relatively unusual illustrative style, and only a few comics artists use it. Can you give a short preview of how challenging the working process is?

CO: Each woodcut image is very labor-intensive, so one of the reasons why the woodcut novel never became very viable is that each book would likely have taken years to produce. If readers want to find a good example of a contemporary artist working with woodcut, wordless novels I would highly recommend Eric Drooker, whose books Blood Song and Flood! are excellent examples of this approach.

NRAMA: I’d second those recommendations. Did you have any problems finding useable artwork for the creation of this volume?

CO: According to Hyde’s son, the artwork no longer exists so we had to scan directly from the book. However, we are getting near-perfect results and I’m confident it will look almost as good as the original.

NRAMA: It’s described as a facsimile of the original printing, but it also has a new introduction by David A. Beronä. How close is it to Hyde’s original book? How does it compare in cover, dimensions, printing quality?

CO: With the exception of Beronä’s added introduction and a flap around the cover (which can be removed), everything else is the same.

NRAMA: This is yet another early graphic novel from the middle part of the 20th century. How exciting is it for you to be a part of preserving this part of comics’ legacy?

CO: D+Q is very proud to be re-introducing some of the very best comics and graphic work from this period. Other comic strip collections and facsimile artbooks we have published in recent years include Frank King’s Walt & Skeezix, Clare Briggs’ Oh Skin-nay!, and Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip.

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