Bruce's Reviews > Reading Comics

Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
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's review
May 01, 2009

really liked it
Recommended for: fans of literary criticism and/or comics
Read in April, 2009

(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.

Reading Comics is presented in two parts. The first third takes on the power and history of comics without struggling to define the boundaries of the media the way Scott McCloud does in Understanding Comics (a comic which Wolk explicitly considers). As Wolk puts it on p. 17, "if you have picked up this book and have not been spending the last century trapped inside a magic lantern, you already pretty much know what (comics) are, and 'pretty much' is good enough." This isn't a cop-out (well it is, a little) because Wolk is less interested in breaking down the visual grammar unique to comics as a medium or chronicling its maturation (McCloud's agenda) than lionizing their new-found sophistication and sources of inspiration. Basically, Wolk wants to talk about the comics he loves and what he loves about them without seeking to justify or pigeonholing the medium itself.
Comics are not prose. Comics are not movies. They are not a text-driven medium with added pictures; they're nopt the visual equivalent of a prose narrative or a static version of a film. They are their own thing: a medium with its own devices, its own innovators, its own cliches, its own genres and traps and liberties. The first step toward attentively reading and fully appreciating comics is acknowledging that. (p. 14)

This approach makes reading Wolk complementary rather than redundant to McCloud. However, the real meat of this book is contained in the richer second part, in which Wolk selects the works of some 20 comics creators for analysis, devoting a whole chapter to each. The parade of comics creators ranges from Alan Moore to Alison Bechdel from Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Libraries to the respective Love and Rockets of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, but Wolk makes no claim to authoritativeness (excellence, say, or representative selection) beyond personal bias. His essays "are just about comics and cartoonists I think are interesting to discuss." (p. 137)

That said, Wolk can't avoid coming across as a comics authority, if only because it seems he's read practically everything that's ever been published as a comic in the last 100 years. (I find that kind of devotion mind-boggling. I mean, I'm a cinephile, but I don't go out of my way to see everything; I stick to the genres and directors I like.) As many creators as Wolk chooses to discuss, it's clear there are plenty more he's happy to namecheck. In fact, that's his claim for comics' mainstream emergence. Citing six recent books I've yet to even encounter on a library shelf, Wolk makes the point that where 20 years ago they would have been seen as "shocking leap(s) forward for the comics medium" and even 10 years ago still be way ahead of their contemporaries, now they just read as "really good" and "(t)hree cheers for that." (p. 371) Wolk's whole point is to view any individual comic wholly on the basis of its own merits rather than on its arbitrary place in history. (And on those merits, Maus is still entitled to raves.)

How should one write about comics? For most of Reading Comics, the author adopts a dispassionate tone. A typical passage from p. 142: "In Epileptic, everything is simultaneously its real-world self and its distorted fantasy self, charged with mystic significance. When people and things are seen in their usual physical forms, (David) B. draws them in a gently mannered style…; unreal things and imaginary entities are creatures of almost pure design… (whose d)istances and shapes are determined by psychology, not compasses and rulers." But occasionally, Wolk's gushing fanboy emerges, as when he sums up a Grant Morrison story: "It's smart and complicated, and sometimes rushed and baffling, but mostly it's awesome, and where The Invisibles occasionally kicks back to indulge its metaphysical side, Seven Soldiers starts hammering the FUN!!! button on its first page and never really stops." (p. 278) In every case, just when you start wondering what the heck Wolk's describing looks like on the page, he shows you with the relevant series of panels under consideration.

Wolk's not just here to flog his faves, as a good critic he comes right to the fore with the problematic aspects of his selected work, and always in an engaging manner. He's in good company with respect aplenty for Dave Sim's 27-years-in-the-making, 6,000 page (alas, ultimately misogynist) achievement Cerebus, but contextualizes his praise just as breathlessly, "pages of the story alternate with an exceedingly tiresome roman a clef about the comics industry, which becomes a screed about how men are actually the capital-L Light and women, who, incidentally, can read minds, are the capital-V Void, and if you're guessing that this is where Cerebus starts to go seriously awry, gold star." (p. 299) Ultimately, this book is a GoodReader's joy, witty and opinionated, literate and thoughtful, informative, interesting, and chock-full of illustrated examples that give me new appreciation of familiar works and curiousity about those which I haven't yet encountered. If Douglas Wolk was on GoodReads, I'd be following everything he reviewed.

Perhaps it's just as well books of literary criticism are still published. Otherwise, we'd be left grappling with reviews of reviews of books reviewing comics. Now that's what I call metadata.

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