Frans Masereel came from a well-to-do family. He attended an art academy, and became interested in anarchism and pacifism. At the outbreak of the First World War he fled to Geneva in neutral Switzerland. There he met many left-wing artists and writers, such as Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig, who became his friends for life. Masereel started illustrating the pacifist magazines Les Tablettes and La Feuille. They established his international reputation.
For La Feuille, Masereel did not use the woodcut style for which he became famous. Instead, he brushed his pictures directly on the zinc plate that was later mounted to the printing press. The drawings are very spontaneous and rough; the expression of anger and horror are more important than beauty of form. In three years Masereel created some 1,000 illustrations for La Feuille, reading press releases and newspapers every night to select a subject and working late to finish the cartoon for the morning paper. He developed themes and figures that became characteristic for his work: the world driven crazy, the indifferent authorities, and the little man who always has to pay the bill, as worker or as soldier.
In the 1920s and 1930s Masereel appealed to a large and international audience, especially with his 'novels in woodcuts'. He contributed to countless left-wing newspapers, magazines, and publications, although he never joined a political party.