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Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
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Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  1,019 Ratings  ·  72 Reviews
Suddenly, comics are everywhere: a newly matured art form, filling bookshelves with brilliant, innovative work and shaping the ideas and images of the rest of contemporary culture. In "Reading Comics," critic Douglas Wolk shows us why this is and how it came to be. Wolk illuminates the most dazzling creators of modern comics-from Alan Moore to Alison Bechdel to Dave Sim to ...more
ebook, 418 pages
Published May 14th 2014 by Da Capo Press (first published July 2nd 2007)
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Jan 18, 2009 Caroline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: comics, prose
This book has two parts. The first section talks about the current state of comics in general, and it's not especially satisfying. This is a shame because Wolk is a smart guy who obviously loves all kinds of comics, and he writes sharp, interesting prose. He also seems to have a mission to convince fans of art comics that there's a value to mainstream/superhero comics, and vice versa, which I find really commendable. Wolk has no patience for people who dismiss any work of art categorically, and ...more
Wolk is a critic and his book is one of criticism. It’s not what I was expecting – more history of comics and some analysis of the medium, perhaps – but I can’t blame him for my expectations. The first third of the book (“Theory and History”) trends closer to what I expected, but I found myself getting angry every now and then as I read it. Wolk early on makes a distinction between “art comics” and “mainstream” comics and then makes a point how art comics (usually auteurist work by a single crea ...more
Sep 02, 2008 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wolk’s book on comics attempts to establish comic theory, analogous to film theory or literary theory, as a starting point for discussing comics. Wolk himself seems to know how hapless a task this is, pointing to the example of how Scott McCloud tied himself in knots just trying to define “comics” in his book Understanding Comics, only to find his definition immediately denounced by some readers. There never has been a consistent, universally acknowledged approach to understanding and writing ab ...more
Feb 22, 2008 Austin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Comics Fans
Recommended to Austin by: Tristan Jean
There is no part of this book that wasn't fun to read, and I'm sure that for other comics fans similar to myself, that would be entirely true, too. Douglas Wolk is not just a fan, he is absolutely in love with the medium of comics, and as he guides people through some of the best-loved heavy-hitters of the medium, he offers insight into their work in a style that clearly spells out how much fun he's having while he does this kind of work.

One of Wolk's strongest assets is his ability to call out
Devin Bruce
Nov 07, 2007 Devin Bruce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Comics fans and the comics-curious.
Reading Comics would be a great book for people with a basic curiosity of the medium, but it’s also sidelined by the insularity of comics fans: it’s mostly going to be read by people who already have an interest in them. Which isn’t a bad thing, because although Douglas Wolk would hope to appeal to the “curious newcomer”, the topics covered inside should also help the “hardcore fan”. (Both terms are used on the inner lining of the dust jacket.)

Wolk is clever, sometimes self-awarely so, but prese
Nov 13, 2007 Emily rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-comix-design
This is the closest to my point of view on comics I've yet encountered in criticism. I admire Douglas's willingness to defend superhero comics even when it goes a step beyond my taste. The book is divided into two halves: theory and criticism. I can't wait to read some of the works he describes in the second half--it's a bit like my favorite documentary Visions of Light where you're so intrigued and swayed by the criticism that you need to follow every crumb back to the various artworks in quest ...more
Ricardo Baptista
I think the title says it all. The book is divided in two halfs: the first one has some comments and thoughts about comics, its idiosyncracies, the best and worst; the second half are reviews of works that the author deems noteworthy. It seems like a very personal book and is at times fascinating (the Grant Morrison article comes to mind) but doesn't really bring a whole lot to the comics studies field and it doesn't have to.
Dec 18, 2008 Bruce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of literary criticism and/or comics
(Caveat: Just read Caroline's review of 1/25/09 at This says all I have to say in just 3 paragraphs. Be forewarned.)

With all the literary criticism flying around and my own avid reading of the metacomics and comics commentaries of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Dylan Horrocks, et al, I hesitated in picking up this book. I hesitated, thinking that it would be a case of 'been there, read that.' I needn't have worried, the book's independently fascinating.

May 11, 2008 Erinc rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those who would further their knowledge on comics
Shelves: about-comics
From my blog: Reviewing Comics

Although the cover jacket proclaims Wolk's 2007 volume as "the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism", the very existence of this blog proves that Reading Comics is no such thing. But, apart from the rather pompous cover blurb, Wolk, as a veteran comics reader and critic, has succeeded in putting together a very interesting and comprehensive book nevertheless.
Reading Comics is organized in two parts, in the first pa
Ben Carlsen
There are parts of this book that are good, but they do not outnumber the parts that aren't. The second section of the book, which includes analysis of specific works, is good overall. I didn't read all of them, because I'm not interested in all of them. Each analysis chapter is self-contained, so there's no need to read all of them if, like me, you're tired of reading this book by the time you get to that section and would rather be reading something else. When talking about those works and wha ...more
Nov 03, 2013 P. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: comics, nonfic

Douglas Wolk has many opinions. Rightly so, he makes his living as a critic. And this is his examination/love letter to comics. Part of it is a kind of meta-history of comics histories and his explanation of why and how the form does what it does. And part of it is examinations of his favorite comics that are also flawed.

Personally, it got to be a little much Wolk for me. There's a lot of good stuff in here, and I like that Wolk includes superhero and auteur stuff, and in general I lik
Jan 27, 2008 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
So I finally finished reading this, maybe a year after I should have, and I think in the end I was a little disappointed.

I think in some ways it's a really good book for people who don't know much of anything about comics but are looking for a quick and easy way to get up to speed on some of the issues in the field. In that sense, this book, especially the first half, is kind of like a cliff-notes of sorts for the medium. But that's also an odd thing to want to write, a kind of primer for newspa
Jesse De Angelis
Ugh. This book doesn't actually explain how comics "work" or what they "mean." Instead, it's a bunch of self-indulgent rambling, all written like the blog of someone who is trying desperately trying to make you think they are funny.

After a much-abridged history of comics, he devotes a tiny and uninformative chapter to the actual theory of comics; most of this is him quoting more articulate people, and then saying that he agrees with their assertions.

After that, the majority of the book is him e
Jun 20, 2013 Bill rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This caught my eye because I've read several comics over the past couple of years, which I hadn't done since I was a kid and the "graphic novel" is in some ways so very different than the Richie Rich comics I read that they were hard to grasp. Is this literature, I wondered. Is it an art form "equal" to prose? It was clear that some of what I read was, indeed, the equal of a great novel (e.g., "Watchmen") while others seemed overblown and over-appreciated upon no real basis (no names here).

I was
Jan 30, 2009 Marcie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Since this book's subtitle is "How graphic novels work and what they mean," I had rather hoped Reading Comics would help me get more out of our book club selection, Fun Home, and maybe pique my interest for other graphic novels. I only ended up reading a few chapters out of the whole book though, for several reasons: A) It requires significant prior knowledge of the history of comics, which I did not have. Wolk constantly refers to various works & authors and only explains some of them; this ...more
Jul 12, 2008 Andrew rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Pitched as a primer on comics, but doesn't follow through.

Reading Comics suffers from the same insularity-of-subject that the author himself identifies as a problem in the comics world. While it offers a decent jumping-off point for a newbie who wants to know more about what's good to read, only about a third of the book is dedicated to the meaning and history of comics. The rest is a compilation of Wolk's essays on specific authors, series, and books, which means someone who expected a how-to o
I don't think much of an author who wants to distinguish what he sees as 'art' comics compared to 'mainstream' comics. Reminds me of that old line about some animals being more equal than others. Ultimately, it's supposed to be all art, right?

As a longtime comics reader, I survey the entire medium and I don't see it made up of different layers with the most desirable real estate on the top made up of people who only buy their trade paperbacks at hipster coffee shops and never walked into a comi
May 04, 2008 Rachel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
It's encouraging to see a serious, rather academic critical work about comics that's gotten good press and shown up in B&N and seems pretty popular. Something about the beginning turned me off, and I worried that I'd have to endure mediocre writing for the love of the subject, but I quuickly cottoned to Wolk's voice. He brought in Kant, Sontag, and others whose work I didn't expect to apply to comics, but in such a friendly and accessible way I didn't feel silly for not having read them. Thi ...more
Mar 06, 2008 Brad rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: comics
I think Reading Comics was purposely named so it would fall in line with Scott McCloud's books, all of which are titled "[Gerund-form verb] Comics" Douglas Wolk starts out with a few chapters on why comics matter (even superhero comics) then breaks down individual comic creators' bodies of work. The second section is lots better, though Wolk's main thesis--that comics are just now entering their golden age of creativity and critique--is encouraging. As another reviewer said, Wolk is quick to po ...more
Jul 06, 2007 Jamie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This book has been a long time coming. In the big question regarding how comics can start getting talked about more seriously, the simplest answer is for people to actually just talk about them seriously. Douglas Wolk gets that started. While the first 1/3 may have an air of "well, duh" to long-time comics readers and professionals, it's still great to read how Wolk contextualizes the fundamentals, and many of his ideas may challenge you to consider why you have the conceptions about this artfor ...more
Jul 06, 2011 Jeff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This opening third of this book is Wolk's attempted deconstruction of comics as a form of expression, a valiant effort and worth a read of anybody who is looking for a mostly scholarly look at the medium. The major problem I had with this book came in the second half, with Wolk's critical essays of comics works, particularly the Grant Morrison and Alan Moore chapters. For somebody who has never read The Invisibles or Promethea, for example, his descriptions of their panel layouts and other artis ...more
Aug 22, 2007 Amy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wolk gets points for snarkiness. Every once in a while, the gloves come off and he really gets a zinger in. So, as you may imagine, the general writing style is informal and engaging, even though he's not afraid of using Kant in his discussion. For me, though, the second section of the book, which is comprised of little essays on a variety of comic book artists/writers, dragged a little. This could be because I am unfamiliar with many of the creators that he discussed (for instance, I know Alan ...more

this will be "The" book of comics criticism for some time, i'd imagine. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and not simply because my sensibilities line up with Wolk's on several points (i gotta say i loved his commentary on how many of the best of the so-called art-comics are as crippled by the plague of nostalgia as the worst of superhero books), but also because he adamantly refuses canon and just plain revels in the rapturous beauty of good & trashy comics. Chapter 16 on Grant Morrison is probably
Kristen Northrup
Nov 26, 2007 Kristen Northrup rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, comics
I read the first 2/3 of this while traveling at Thanksgiving, and then misplaced it for a couple months. This works really well as Comics Crit 101, which is what I was looking for. Many people who already read a lot about comics were underwhelmed, but I needed a starting point and this was very accessible. I've been reading comics for years but never feel qualified to participate in the in-depth discussions that my friends have, and this will help. I've read about 2/3 of what he covers. For the ...more
Nov 21, 2007 Don rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Billed as the first book of comics criticism, which is such a bold statement that one has to wonder if it's actually true ... but that's entirely academic and entirely beside the point, which is this: The book is Amazing. A discussion on the basics of comics, how they work, why we read them, etc; followed by chapter-long reviews of specific authors and works, so compelling and well-reviewed that it makes you want to go out and read every one of them. (This book was responsible for kicking me in ...more
Apr 28, 2014 Andy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I plan to read this again after I've read more of the works Wolk mentions, especially those in the second half of the book. I thought Wolk made some generalizations about some of the works I was familiar with that weren't totally accurate and I'm wondering if this is the case for the ones I haven't yet read. The subtitle How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean is somewhat misleading in that the book is not geared for a beginner or a casual comics reader, but rather presupposes the reader come ...more
Feb 12, 2015 Heather rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up at a bookstore on a clearance shelf and I am glad that I didn't pay anymore than a couple dollars for it. This man obviously likes to hear the sound of his own voice as is seen by the unnecessarily high page count. The last few chapters are good introductions to several individual comic writers and comic artists and I did enjoy the recommendations to broaden my reading horizons, but overall this is not a book for the casual reader.

If you are looking for a long-winded history of
Aug 08, 2008 Ian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In the nascent field of comics critical theory, this totally belongs on the same shelf as McCloud's Understanding Comics and the better parts of Warren Ellis' Come In Alone. One of the things about comics criticism that's occasionally made it dry is that people who want comics to be taken seriously feel the need to go to an extreme level of academic detachment simply to prove they're above the mouth-breathing message-board rabble. Wolk uses plenty of twenty-dollar words, but he's also not above ...more
Ryan Scicluna
What an awesome book! This is one of the most interesting reads about graphic novels I read for a while. The fact that it has a whole section dedicated to discussing authors and their work make for a perfect "Suggested Reads" section. A good for all those who are looking for a mature serious analysis of some compelling graphic novels. Also the first section of the books discusses the merits of comics and graphic novels in all the right ways. I highly recommend this book especially to those with ...more
Oct 10, 2007 Beth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: paid_to_read
I copyedited this book! It was very well written, partially, I suspect, because most of it was previously published essays. But the author is a very good writer in general, and he has an accessible approach to the world of comic books and graphic novels, a mostly foreign world to me. He also won my heart because, with each chapter devoted to one author/artist and therefore quite a selective bunch, he devoted one chapter to my favorite comic artist, Alison Bechdel. Thanks, Douglas! (He was also v ...more
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“There's a certain kind of rain that falls only in comics, a thick, persistent drizzle, much heavier than normal water, that bounces off whatever it hits, dripping from fedoras, running slowly down windowpanes and reflecting the doom in bad men's hearts. It's called an "eisnershpritz," and it's named after the late Will Eisner, one of the preeminent stylists of twentieth-century comics, who never drew a foreboding scene that couldn't be made a little more foreboding with a nice big downpour.” 2 likes
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