2/15/12

"Reading Comics" by Douglas Wolk

"There’s a problem with the way a lot of people talk about comics: it’s very hard to talk about them as comics," explains Douglas Wolk, in his book "Reading Comics."  He continues: "as cartoonists and their longtime admirers are getting a little tired of explaining, comics are not a genre; they’re a medium."

With that sentence Wolk neatly presents the crisis and salvation that comics face today.  In the past thirty years comics have established a foothold in American culture as an acceptable serious medium, yet they’re still mostly thought of as fantasy-fulfilling superhero stories.  Instead we should open our eyes to see them as a vein of the media, like film, art, music or literature, while the stories themselves will fall into genres, superhero or otherwise.  He then takes this thesis and explains how comics are a unique art form.

"Reading Comics" is split into two sections, with the first third comprising an essay called "Theory and History" that covers the aspects that make comic books a unique medium, and the remainder a survey of comic examples that Wolk feels push the edges of the form.  During the essay he puts up a straw man discussion, probably well-tempered from various flame wars on the Internet, of his basic tenets of the comic book medium.  These include his definition of comics (which boils down to "don’t we already know what comics are?"), a brief struggle with the existence of superheroes ("not a week goes by that I don’t read, with pleasure, some glossy corporate superhero comics"), and the gist of his thesis, which is that comics can be read on multiple levels, and hey, some auteurs are putting together comics that need to be read on multiple levels.

Although Wolk tends toward a vocabulary that reminds me of an art history class I once had, he does it lightly enough that the pace moves along.  I also appreciated his burst of things that he loves about comics which he presented without much context. I have a shared experience in many items on his list.  Paul Gambi, the "crime tailor" who made costumes for some of the DC villains in the 60’s, for example. The ones I didn’t recognize were presented in a way that made me want to seek them out.

The latter half of the book, where he reviews a range of the most influential artists and works of the past forty years in comics, is more casual, but still just as insightful.  He bounces from Chester Brown to Steve Ditko to the Hernandez Brothers.  Of course he can’t ignore the 300 pound gorilla in the comics world, and so 30 pages are devoted to Alan Moore and the Watchmen series. Unlike Grant Morrison’s chapter in his book on comics history, which turned out to be an autobiography, Wolk presents an organized dissection of the ideas in the Watchmen.  For example, he pulls out the thread of the "The Black Freighter" in the graphic novel, and looks at it from all sides, including a slice of EC Comics history.
"Just as ‘Black Freighter’ is a metaphorical representation of the world of Watchmen, that world is a metaphorical representation of our own, a simplified and caricatured mirror image. Our New York is theirs, without the pretty plug-in electric cars; the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 chillingly recalled the one in Watchmen; most of all, the "destroy it to save it" calculus of Watchmen is the same one it readers face in the atomic era."
Wolk has a way of finding and clarifying the defining characteristic in a work.  His essay on Craig Thompson, for example, put into words the feelings I had after reading Thompson’s "Blankets."
"Where Raina is concerned, though, Blankets is almost as starry-eyed and self-important as Thompson apparently was at the time. He never gives her anything like interiority or suggests that she might have had any significance other than being a perfect, stainless Celia for his work…none of this is as irritating on a first reading as it becomes with later reflection, though, because Thompson is so gifted at sweeping the reader along with him. His drawing has an incredible sense of flow."
When I first saw "Reading Comics" on the shelf at the book store, I thought it was just an imitation of the work already covered in Scott McCloud’s work "Understanding Comics."  Luckily, I overcame that preconception and found instead an insightful book whose goal is to rearrange the way you read comics.  I’ll have to admit, even as a lifelong comic-book reader, this "Reading Comics" opened up my brain to some new ways of seeing, and some new avenues to explore.

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