Aeonite writes "Let there be no doubt — Douglas Wolk loves comics, and his is a tough love, the sort of love that leaves comics out in the rain pounding on the door because they snuck out after curfew again and wrecked the car. I've never dived deep enough into the industry to form a strong opinion of it one way or the other, but Wolk is both a fan and a critic of comic books, and his insights make Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean an interesting, engaging read, both because of and in spite of his enthusiasm." Read below for the rest of Michael's review.
Reading Comics is billed by its publisher as "the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism by the leading critic in the field." At the very least this is somewhat pretentious and misleading, insofar as it would seem to imply that all previous attempts at comics theory were apparently written by clowns; Will Eisner and Scott McCloud would no doubt take some minor umbrage at that assertion. This is not to say that Wolk's credentials are in question; he's written extensively for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Salon.com and other publications on the subject of comics. To see Wolk's thoughts coalesced into book form is a welcome sight, because this is how I tend to enjoy media: in large chunks rather than in installments, be it a graphic novel collection of Transmetropolitan, or an entire season of Buffy on DVD.
Reading Comics is broken into two-parts, with the first third of the book given over to an exploration of comic book history and theory, and the remainder consisting of a series of essays about specific comic book authors, artists and titles. The title of the book is accurate enough, since it does serve not only as a general guide to how to read comics, but as a chronicle of how Douglas Wolk reads them. The subtitle, however, is at best misleading; the book doesn't really offer a definitive answer to the questions posed, nor can it. Rather, this is a book about how Douglas Wolk thinks graphic novels work, and what specific examples of graphic novels mean to him.
All of this might seem to go without saying, but it's important to recognize that Wolk's voice is quite omnipresent throughout the book. This is especially true in the second part, where Wolk's essays deconstruct and interpret a series of comics through his eyes, but is also a factor in the book's earlier pages as Wolk offers his blunt and honest opinion of the state of the industry. This first part of the book — divided into five chapters — is devoted to "Comic Book Theory and History". Herein, Wolk attempts to first define comic books, and then to lay out a theory for how one might interpret and critique them using what Wolk dubs "harsh criticism."
Chapter 1, "What Comics Are and What They Aren't", briefly explores the progression of comics from their original golden age, through the silver age and the origin of the Comics Code, and into the current modern era of comic books spawned, it seems, in 1986 with the publication of titles such as The Dark Knight Returns, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, and Watchmen. Wolk declares this current age the real golden age — aesthetically, financially and commercially — and spends the remainder of the chapter more or less trying to support that assertion by definition, comparison to other media, and an extensive straw man argument that includes a few slapshots toward Scott McCloud's side of the ice.
Wolk doesn't pull punches in Chapter 2 either, where he discusses "Auteurs, the History of Art Comics, and How to Look at Ugly Drawings". In discussing style, content, expressiveness and plot he (perhaps deservedly) lambastes Liefeld ("a god-awful hack with no tonal range at all, and his flailing attempts at storytelling are inevitably derailed by his inability to think beyond the next dramatic full-page shot") and even takes aim at Jack Kirby, whose "final years were an embarrassing mess" according to Wolk.
"What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics" is the subject of Chapter 3, which sees Wolk first trying to sort out differences between comics, comic books, periodicals and graphic novels by comparing the argument to the difference between movies, films and cinema; this is to say, it's mostly semantics. Wolk also explores the culture of comics and the problems associated with it (bandwagoneers, nostalgia, sexism), and comes to the conclusion that he loves comics "because comic books are awesome," providing seven pages of personal "favorite" moments from the history of comics. Enlightening, but only as a window into Wolk's closet, rather than a vision of any universal truth.
Chapter 4, "Superheroes and Superreaders", attempts to answer the question of why Superhero comics have formed the baseline from which all other comic books seem to stem, but while it touches on the underlying themes and allegories involved I was left thinking that better (or at least more interesting) explanations and explorations have been provided elsewhere, as in Shyamalan's Unbreakable and Chaban's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
The final chapter of part 1, "Pictures, Words and the Space Between Them", explores the notion of what cartooning is and how it works, the difference between drawing and cartooning (static images vs implied action), and the importance of white space and gutters in conveying time. And what conclusions, if any, can be drawn at the end of part 1? Says Wolk: "McCloud likes to make categories; I like to make generalizations and excuses."
It is on that note that we enter the second part of the book, "Reviews and Commentary", a collection of 18 mini-reviews and essays about selected titles and authors, chosen for no reason other than that Wolk thought they were interesting to discuss. They are not presented as a recommended reading list, nor are they intended to be representative or comprehensive, nor are they presented in any logical order, such as alphabetically by title or last name. At first I thought that they were progressing in order of complexity (that is, complexity of the comic titles being discussed), but even this apparent structure falls apart towards the end, especially when one realizes that ranking comic titles by complexity is entirely subjective.
Books and artists covered in these essays include both well-known authors (Will Eisner and Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) and titles (Sin City, Daredevil, Watchmen, Maus) as well as more obscure names, including David B (Epileptic), Chester Brown (The Little Man) and Carla Speed McNeil (The Finder).
Each one of the essays (several of which are reprinted from Salon.com) lays out Wolk's feelings about the works and the authors discussed, including both praise and criticism — ofttimes in the same paragraph. Most of the essays are accompanied by ample art that is relevant to the topic being discussed, but there are some cases where an essay is a bit art-light, which is annoying and somewhat maddening in a book about comic books — in particular, the essay on David B. doesn't have any artwork at all, and the essay on Chris Ware could benefit from a little more Jimmy Corigan or Final Report. Also somewhat questionable is the grouping of some subjects within or between essays; Will Eisner and Frank Miller are relegated to one chapter, while two successive chapters are given to Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame. I'm sure Wolk had his reasons of course, but as a reader the structure seems a bit random.
The book's Afterward gives some brief mention of online comic strips (including Diesel Sweeties and Little Dee), as well as newer anthologies and artists, and then concludes with Wolk's assertion that while there's not much further for comics to go as a medium, that's ultimately a good thing since it represents maturity. Assertions like this are hard to argue with, which is both a blessing and a curse for Reading Comics. So much of what's within is phrased as opinion and generalization that ultimately the book reads something like a memoir, more of a peek into Wolk's basement than into the history of comics.
To Wolk, comics appear to be a sort of ugly girlfriend. He seems to appreciate the cheerleader superhero types, but he's much more into the chicks with tattoos, the Suicide Girls and American Apparel ads of the comic book industry, the ones that stem from "a conscious choice to incorporate a lot of distortion and avoid conventional prettiness in style." He loves them for what's inside, for their intelligence and depth, and acknowledges their surface flaws, never hesitating to refer to them as ugly. It makes one wonder; if a graphic novel asks you if they look fat, do you say yes?
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