Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A review of Douglas Wolk's 'Reading Comics'

Way back in this post I maligned the title of Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk, without having read it. Actually, I was critical of the subtitle - 'How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.' It's overly pretentious. Who was this guy to tell me what how to read comics? My pal Ted Haycraft responded to the post by getting me a copy of the book. I finally got around to putting some thoughts together.

Wolk's book is divided into two parts: 'Theory and History' followed by 'Reviews and Commentary'. I haven't read the second part, as it's mostly 10-30 pages reviews of things I haven't read, or have read and forgotten. I'm sure I'll pick at it later, like a salad bar, but for now the first part is what holds my interest.

Comics have grown up, Wolk tells us, but had an "awkward childhood and difficult adolescence." I'm not sure of his meaning here, unless "awkward" means a fast-growing mass media that was enjoyed by millions, which is what comics were in the 1930s and '40s (nostalgically referred to as comics' 'Golden Age'), and "difficult" refers to an resurgence of creativity in the 1960s (the 'Silver Age'). I also thinks he overstates the importance of DC Comics' 'Showcase' #4, considered the first comic book of the Silver Age. I really think it was Marvel Comics that brought the industry back to life in the 1960s, along with the popularity of the DC characters in their 1960s incarnations had fans working backwards to find the starting point of this new era. At the same time he maligns 'Showcase' #4 by saying "[t]he cover's text and art reveal fumbling confusion over what exactly it is advertising." Fumbling confusion from artist Carmine Infantino and logo pioneer Ira Schnapp? Hardly. Fumbling confusion from the reader, then? Only if you never saw a comic rack or were unfamiliar with a medium that had been around twenty years by then.

These quibbles aside, my main issue is with the crux of the book, which is based Wolk's assertion that "the big, awkward question hanging in the air is how to read and discuss comics now that they're very different from what they used to be." In this era of comic book news websites, message boards and blogs, comics are being discussed more now than they ever were. There is no question of how to do it, unless you think from a purely academic perspective that people are doing it wrong. Anyone can read a comic, then go on the web and become immersed, to the point of obsession, in the world of that comic, sometimes including interaction with the creators of that comic.

Ironically, Wolk himself criticizes the snobbery of the literati who deign to come down from on high to review comic books, but feel they must give them lofty titles, like "graphic narrative" so as not to sully their mindset as to what represents art and what doesn't. He's dead-on in this assessment, rightly assailing those who don't recognize that 'comics' or 'comic books' are a medium to tell any kind of story, like movies or novels. It's not a great name for acceptance by the New York Times Book Review, but we're kind of stuck with it and should embrace it. It's like those who now refer to monthly comics, something they purport to love, with disdainful names like "floppies" or "pamphlets", as if to say they are lesser versions of a greater form.

Wold paints things with a broad brush. He derides comic adaptations of movies ("pointless cash-ins") and novels ("uniformly terrible"). While I agree with his opinion on movie tie-ins to some degree, some of this work is respected and beloved, such as the first 'Star Wars' trilogy adaptation, which is still in print. As for novel adaptations, such as the long-running 'Classics Illustrated', these were meant to introduce children to classic works, not supplant them. He also knocks CrossGen as "terrible" across the board, leading me to believe he didn't read any CrossGen, or missed excellent reads like 'Way of the Rat' and 'El Cazador'.

OK, now to the good stuff. Wold hits home when he criticizes comics' fans thrill and excitement when comics are mentioned in the mainstream press. I'm guilty of it; comic fans, blogs, news sites and message boards are guilty of it. 'Did you see that piece on R. Crumb in USA Today? We've been legitimized!', or as Wold aptly puts it, fans feel "they have to prove their favorite leisure activity worthy of respect-to show the world that they were right all along."

Most importantly, Wolk's book got me thinking about comics. It has challenged me to think about why I like comics. I don't think I ever really thought about it. I know I like comics as a medium. I know what I like and don't like. I just never thought why I like what I do like, beyond that I liked the art and the story. I'm still not sure I have well thought out answer. But as a supposed writer, being able to articulate my points and think more deeply about the subject of comics, now firmly embedded in my DNA, would be a valuable tool. So, on that basis I can recommend the book. However, on the basis of his description of some superhero comics fans as "pathetic" and "desperate", and his overall Groth-esque elitism, I cannot recommend it for the general comics reader. It turns out my instincts about the subtitle were correct.

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