Comics

Friday Mini Book Review: Reading Comics

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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.

NEXT: Bah Bah Bah, Bomb Bomb Iran

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  1. For the Chicago-based among us, Wolk will be at Quimby’s on North Ave for a reading this Saturday.

  2. *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL* *RON PAUL*

  3. What are you trying to say, Warren?

  4. Is it as tedious as Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud? God those books are terrible.

  5. “Douglas Wolk’s new book does for comics what New Yorker critic Pauline Kael did for film.”

    Brian, you just lost a potential reader if you wanted to pitch the book.

  6. I thought Understanding Comics was fascinating. Never read his other ones though. Strange you managed to get through both, them being so tedious.

  7. A) Warren, thats MY joke.

    B) Steven = Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” is fucking great, IMHO. Great book for laypeople who think of comics are a bastard media. Whats your beef? does nothing currently satisfy your need for the perfect esthetic comic-book analysis? re: Nate’s point = you think McClouds stuff is terrible, but then read 2 of them?

    Eisners’ “Comics and Sequential Art” is also excellent stuff. I dont think dude’s book above is likely to go far beyond what is already out there.

  8. No, as I hope the description of what the book does makes clear, it’s nothing like McCloud’s detailed attempts to explain the grammar etc. of comics with artless cartooning. It’s mostly reviews essays of a bunch of different comics, and to my mind generally perspicacious and entertaining ones. See graf six of the blog entry.

    NP, I’m not saying you have to love Kael’s particular style or taste to enjoy Wolk—just that, given that no one has ever really written a book like Wolk’s about comics, you can analogize what he’s trying to do with comics to what she tried to do with film. However, convincing anyone to read the book is not my mission.

  9. I can only blame myself for an utter failure to communicate, but Gilmore, this book’s intent and approach is NOTHING like either McCloud or Eisner. It’s not an attempt to explain the panel-by-panel grammar of how comic art communicates. It’s critical essays about mostly particular cartoonists and works with some essays that try to say some larger things about the form in general and the fan culture surrounding it; conversational, chatty, not at all teacher-ly, especially not art teacherly. Unless I’ve forgetten my Kael—haven’t read her much since early college–she didn’t do much frame-by-frame “here’s how the language of cinema functions” stuff of the film school variety, which is why I namechecked her up front.

  10. Brian,

    Ha ha. I think you took my comment a little too seriously. I knew what you were trying to achieve, and you did it well. Feel free to opine as much as you’d like (though I’d like to see your reviews cover something other than the geek or underground stuff once in a while).

  11. NP–Since I’ve given myself a rule, which I think worth sticking with, to keep this to mostly books that have come out within the last year, it is extremely unreflective of my actual reading in toto, which is mostly politics, economics, history, and science.
    However, that reading is also about books that are anywhere from 2 to 200 years old, or books that I’m reviewing or writing about at greater length places other than the blog.
    So it’s the stuff about music and comics, my pleasure hobbies, that I tend to rush to read when they are just out, and thus they tend to be what the mini book reviews are about.

  12. Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud? God those books are terrible.
    Oh dear lord, yes. What fucking awful books. Especially Reinventing Comics…the penny-arcade people (and plenty others) deservily ripped him a new one.

  13. i’ll read it if it has some pictures of comics in it.. are there any pictures?

  14. Warlock is phenomenal. Jim Starlin should have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature for the second Warlock series in the 1970s. (The one with Magus, Thanos, etc., not the one with Man-Beast.)

  15. Stalin’s “Cosmic Battle at the Edge of the Universe” is the best title ever for a comic book. He might as well called it “Holy Fuck, Check Out this Crazy Shit Right Here” or “Gods Beating the Shit out of Other Gods With Their Dicks While Pussy Mortals Watch”

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