Friday Mini Book Review: Reading Comics


Yes, the former Wednesday Mini Book Review is now on Friday. Who knows where we'll find it next? An archive of past Hit and Run mini book reviews.

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, by Douglas Wolk (Da Capo, 2007). Douglas Wolk's new book does for comics what New Yorker critic Pauline Kael did for film. That is, provide an extended defense of a sometimes derided pop art form and deliver detailed specific criticism of some of its more interesting works. To some, the attempt to reframe comics—often thought of as childish junk—as a respectable art will bring to mind a New Yorker cartoon that Wolk himself references: "Now I have to pretend to like graphic novels too?"

Even if your interest in comics arises from a weary desire to stay au courant, Wolk's book will prove painlessly entertaining. He's no highbrow aesthete who thinks only the likes of, say, Art Spiegelman's Maus, a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust (in which Jews are portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats) are worthy of attention.

He dedicates chapters to creators such as Spiegelman, Charles Burns (Black Hole), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Boy on Earth). All three of them are published by respectable literary New York trade houses. But he also writes chapters on such seemingly lowbrow subject matter as Steve Ditko (the artist who co-created Spider-Man), and Marvel Comics' cosmic '70s superhero Warlock. He loves not only comics that are clearly respectable and arty, but also those he admits are "cheap and vulgar and exciting."

In attempting to define what comics do and how they do it, he concludes that the art of cartooning is "a metaphor for the subjectivity of perception," but that's as hoity-toity as he gets. Readers will breathe a sigh of relief when Wolk tells us in the first sentence of chapter two that "the comics form has a long and distinguished history, and I would like to propose temporarily ignoring a lot of it."

Freed of any burden to trace comics history back to the Bayeux Tapestry, Wolk wittily and perceptively examines the modern comics scene's many sides, the peculiar fan culture surrounding it, and gives detailed analyses of a wide-ranging sample of specific comic works.

While he's a confirmed comics geek (one hilarious sequence recounts how he fooled and infuriated fellow geeks on a comics website by writing knowing reviews of some awful comics in the voice of a young woman supposedly new to the field), he's not afraid to step boldly off the fan reservation. He says of Will Eisner, venerated as the father of the graphic novel (the putting-on-airs term for extended, serious comic book narratives) that "his ironies are cheap and his attempts at profundity aren't very deep at all."

While those fresh to comics can enjoy the book, those already enmeshed in comics fandom will love it—even if only for the pleasurable arguments it will generate. This book has the wide-ranging virtues of its subject: it's fun and feisty, smart and subjective, able to guide readers into the most absurd cosmic hugger-mugger and into shadowy recesses of the human heart—remaining breezily entertaining all the while.