Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
By Douglas Wolk
This book is separated into two main sections. The first, called ‘Theory and History’, proposes to be a serious study of the art form, and does indeed take itself quite seriously. Perhaps TOO seriously, as it struggles against the tide to find hidden truths and meanings where there probably are none. For instance, the cover of DC Comics’ Showcase #4–the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash–doesn’t just show the Flash running at great speeds and bursting right through the page. Instead, it “tells in miniature the early history of the understanding and misunderstanding of comics.” And on the cover of Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man #31, where it claims to be dedicated to the ‘Great New Breed of Marvel Readers’, it isn’t just Stan Lee doing his Stan Lee thing. It’s Lee “setting up the idiotic brand rivalry between Marvel and…DC.”
Idiotic. This is where it becomes evident that this isn’t the instructive textbook and primer that the title would suggest. It is a book of criticism and personal views, which is fine, if not for the fact that we had been mislead. Perhaps the author should have paid a bit more attention to his own cover, and a bit less attention to the covers of the Big Two. I do have to hand it to the guy, though. He made it through all of six pages before his true colors started to bleed through the black and white lines of his setup.
By the time that he has divided comics into two distinctive types–Mainstream Comics and Art Comics–you understand that this is all a bit pretentious. Wolk even performs a nine page interview with himself, as if this were one of Platos’ dialogs.
The second, longer section of the book is entitled ‘Reviews and Commentaries’, and you quite quickly get the impression that this was the book that he wanted to write all along. As to be expected, he spends more time on ‘Art Comics’ such as the work of Chester Brown, the Hernandez Brothers and Art Spiegelman, but he does indeed give time to Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Steve Ditko as well. There’s even a chapter dedicated to Marvel’s “classic” Tomb of Dracula series!
This is where the book really shines. Wolk is a gifted critic when he’s not trying to be something else, and his coverage has prompted me to search out some titles that I probably never would have otherwise. There’s still a fair bit of pretentiousness here, but to be fair, I don’t think one can be a Serious Critic without having their own pretensions.
All in all, Reading Comics was an entertaining (if not infuriating) read. I don’t agree with much of what the author was saying, but I don’t have to. That’s kind of the point. As Wolk himself says in reference to the work of the infamous Dave Sim: “It demands a response in the readers mind, and if you can see past ‘What a total dick’, you’re likely to come out of it with your own thoughts [on the subject]…clarified.”
Recommended for those who lean more toward the indie side of the bookshelf, or those looking to find something new that may interest them. If you are strictly a meat-and-potatoes, capes-and-tights kind of guy, you will probably want to just leave this one alone.
At least he gave proper props to my man, Fred Hembeck!
De Capo Press