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Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Douglas Wolk. Da Capo, 2007. 406p, $22.95.

I hope the title of Douglas Wolk’s book was forced on him by the publisher, because not only is it a misnomer for what is contained within but it is kind of pretentious to boot. I am referring to the subtitle, not the main title. “Reading Comics” is a fine and concise name for a collection of comics reviews/criticism. That subtitle promises a lot that it doesn’t deliver.

Douglas Wolk is an excellent critic of comics. His reviews in Salon (where a number of the chapters in this book originally appeared) have always been a rare bright spot of critical reviews of comics in a non-comics publication. He writes about comics in a way that is accessible to non-comics readers but can still retain the interest of the comics aficionado. He has a tendency to focus on thematic concerns and metaphoric readings with less attention to the formal elements of the comics–not necessarily a weakness, just a stylistic method that probably works well for the general reader (slightly less so for someone like me who wants to hear about the formal stuff).

The good news is that about 270 of this book’s 400 pages are taken up by a section titled “Reviews and Commentary” that features Wolk’s writing on specific comics or creators: Moore, Morrison, Sim, Ware, C. Brown, McNeil, David B., Los Hernandez Bros, Larson, Huizenga, and more. This large portion of the book is an enjoyable read that will get you rereading comics or trying out new ones (Wolk actually gets me interested, on some level, in Tomb of Dracula). His chapter on Jaime Hernandez, originally two reviews of Locas and Ghost of Hoppers, really draws out what is so extraordinary about that series of works. Long chapters on Moore and Morrison are worth reading for those interested in the two British authors.

The bad news is the confused chapters that make up the first 130 pages of the book, called “Theory and History.” Wolk would have been better off sticking with the reviews. The history parts seem adequate enough in their brevity, though I’ve no real knowledge to compare them to. He broadly paints the history of the mainstream versus independent comics schism, the direct comics market, and the Comics Code. When discussing the subcultural elements of comics fandom, he hits the marks, but it all seems rather haphazard and directed at an ambiguous audience. If his audience is existing comics readers, then much of this will seem obvious, yet if the audience is beginners to comics, the idea of discussing all these very “in group” type things seems pointless and probably a real turn off.

His focus on the binary of “mainstream”/”art comics” is extremely problematic (including the confused overlap with mainstream/independent). On one level, I can’t imagine why the general reader would care about such things, and similarly why anyone would want to make them knowledgeable about such insider-y and useless distinctions. Just the term “mainstream” itself grates, for its illogic. But also, Wolk’s idea of “art comics” relies on his idea of style being “at least as important” as content and on the use of deliberately “ugly” art. His argument for art comics as style over content seems so indistinct. Couldn’t one easily say that the so-called “mainstream” superhero comics are an example of style over content? Wolk frequently returns to the idea of “ugly” art in comics, yet, despite his attempted forays into aesthetics (like Kant), he never makes any good claim for what “ugly” means. He says that “it’s a result of a conscious choice to incorporate a lot of distortion and avoid conventional prettiness in style.” The former quality is inherent to almost all comics from Fisher to Schulz to Kirby to Ware. And it becomes clear from Wolk’s text that he equates the latter quality with the generic superhero style.

In fact, this sense of superheroes as ground zero in comics (as in the basis for “conventional” and normal) infuses the first part of this book and makes for a dissatisfying read. Everything else becomes the other, discussed in how it differs from the convention. That Wolk, admittedly, avoids comic strips, manga, and (mostly, except for David B) bande dessinnee only heightens the problem. How different this book would be if comic strips were the norm or manga. This superhero/”mainstream” focus is all too prevalent in writing about comics not just from those in comics who hold on to the comics of their youth, often with a sad nostalgia, but also the mainstream (in the more normal sense of the word) press (think of all those “Biff Bam Boom: Comics have grown up” articles that still appear). In part, this accounts for my large disappointment with the first part of the book. I can picture a more general reader picking up this book and getting a distorted view of comics with all this baggage attached, when what the general reader needs is to see comics from the fresh perspective they can already have, free of the “Golden Age,” “poly-bagging,” “limited edition mini-series,” “giant crossover” subcultural quagmire. I don’t mean this to say there is no historical or aesthetic interest to much of this work, but Wolk hedges his bets on engaging this work. He spends one chapter directly discussing superheroes, but his reviews are almost all outside the “mainstream” and those which aren’t exist on the historical or contemporary margins (Tomb of Dracula, Warlock, Promethea, The Invisibles).

If this review is a bit scattershot, it is perhaps because the book itself is. The mixture of history, cultural analysis, attempts at theory, and the reviews do not blend well or provide a decent overarching coherence. If the book were just a collection of criticism/reviews that would be fine, but this book is marketed as something much different, something it just doesn’t reach.