Amazon Significant Seven, August 2007: With none of the bashful, "comics aren't just for kids any more!" throat-clearing that accompanies most mainstream writing on comics, Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean leaps straight into smart, conversational talk about perhaps the liveliest medium going. His enthusiasms and criticisms are infectious and often surprising, and, most refreshingly, he treats the two often warring (or at least mutually ignorant) sides of comics--the superhero tradition and the art comics that have gained highbrow attention lately--without ignoring the differences between them. Reading Comics is an appealingly idiosyncratic tour of many of his favorite artists that doesn't hesitate to criticize some of the most revered names in the business (like Chris Ware and Will Eisner) or investigate some of its most forgotten genre byways (like the '70s series Tomb of Dracula) with serious enthusiasm. --Tom Nissley
Questions for Douglas Wolk
Amazon.com:What do comics--the writing and the pictures and the narrative combined--give us that other art forms don't?
Wolk: The most important thing comics give us, I think, is drawing that makes a story. What you're seeing when you look at a page of comics, you're not just looking at a bunch of images that represent a plot, you're looking at something that came from somebody's hand--a deliberately distorted world, changing over time, built by a particular artist, line by line.
Amazon.com: There is a great perceived divide in comics, between the superhero tradition and what you call art comics. One of the pleasures of your book is the way you happily work both sides of that divide without fuss. Do you think the divide is valid, or does it melt away the more attention you pay to individual artists?
Wolk: There's definitely a useful distinction to make--art comics are primarily about particular cartoonists' self-expression, and superhero comics are primarily about the characters and their shared fictional history. One's an ethos, the other's a genre. But I don't think individual artists have to stay in one camp or the other, and in any case an ethos and a genre can overlap. You can say that Mark Bagley and Hope Larson belong to totally different schools, but then somebody like Bill Sienkiewicz turns up and makes the idea of a binary opposition look ridiculous. In fact, the best genre comics almost always have a really strong sense of expressive style about them.
Amazon.com: One way you, by necessity, limit the range of your discussion is to leave out the newspaper-strip side of comics history. As someone who came to comics from that side of things, it was a little disconcerting to read a book on American comics that only made a single passing reference to Charles Schulz. What influence do you think newspaper strips have had on the development of art comics especially?
Wolk: One of the biggest breakthroughs I had in writing Reading Comics was realizing that not only did I not have to make it comprehensive, it'd be more interesting and useful if it didn't even pretend to be comprehensive! I didn't mention newspaper strips much because they mostly seem to me to be playing a slightly different game from narrative comics--at least, there hasn't been a lot of extended narrative in newspaper strips in a long time. (By their nature, they have to get in and get out in a few lines, and now that they're all postage-stamp-sized, there's really no way they can move a story forward.) What newspaper strips did contribute to art comics was the development of distinctive visual style--the idea that an artist's handiwork was at least as important as a strip's characters--but these days they're so tightly limited by their size and populism and every-third-panel punchlines that they sometimes seem like an arcane kind of microminiature. Everybody loves "Peanuts," but I don't know that there's even room for a new stylist as fresh as Schulz (or George Herriman or Milton Caniff or Winsor McCay) on the newspaper page now. On the other hand, "Calvin & Hobbes" wasn't so long ago.
Amazon.com: And for a reader like me who has pretty much bypassed the superhero tradition and become a Dan Clowes/Charles Burns/Chris Ware fan via Peanuts and literary fiction, where would you recommend I start reading on the superhero side of the divide, which, as you say, has become so self-referential that it can be hard to crack the code?
Wolk: I was talking with some friends recently about the common mistake of recommending Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, as great as it is, as a starting point for superhero comics--as one of them put it, that's like recommending The Seventh Seal as someone's first movie! For pure, unencumbered superhero joycore, I love Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman--if you've heard of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, you know everything you need to know to enjoy it, and it deepens with repeated reading. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's cruelly witty Alias, about a self-loathing ex-superheroine-turned-P.I., has lots of Easter eggs for the continuity-obsessed, but it probably works even better as a stand-alone story. And if you're at all into Victorian literature and/or want to sample Moore's work, the two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (drawn by Kevin O'Neill) are hugely fun on their own, and also illustrate by analogy the way a lot of the best superhero comics and other pulp art work: providing metaphors to illuminate the central concerns of their moment.
Amazon.com: You're as prolific a writer about music as you are about comics. How do you compare writing about the two?
Wolk: They're hard to compare--it feels like different parts of my brain deal with music and comics. I suppose both of them present the risk of paying too much attention to the words and missing the really important stuff. There's also much more of a tradition of music criticism with a strong, personal voice, and a richer shared vocabulary for talking about what's happening in music. ("Musical," for instance, is a perfectly normal word; there's no word that means "comics-ish"...) Right now, people writing about comics (in English, anyway) are still making it up as we go along, which is risky but exciting.
Amazon.com: I'm a big fan of your little book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo, my favorite so far in that wonderful 33 1/3 series, and one thing that struck me, having read your two books now, is that one, the James Brown book, is super-tight (fitting its subject I guess), aphoristic and efficient, while the other, Reading Comics, seems purposefully loose, willing to take a stroll and maybe not come back. Is that a difference you thought about while writing the two books?
Wolk: It was! I thought of Live at the Apollo as one long essay, a way of diagramming how the 35 minutes of that album exploded outwards in time, and I stole a lot of its tone and technique from George W.S. Trow's tiny fireball of a book In the Context of No Context. I wanted Reading Comics to be more conversational--the idea was to open up as many arguments as I could, to try to broaden the way people talk about comics instead of codifying it.
From Publishers Weekly
As the graphic novel flourishes and gains legitimacy as an art form, serious comics criticism is an inevitable byproduct, and PW contributing editor Wolk's analytical discourse is a welcome starting point. The volume contains two sections: Theory and History, an explanation of comics as a medium and an overview of its evolution, and Reviews and Commentary, a diverse examination of creators and works. This section spans Will Eisner's pioneering efforts as well as the groundbreaking modern comics by the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel. Since there are decades worth of books already focusing on the superhero genre, the raw clay from which the comics industry was built, the relatively short shrift given to the spandex oeuvre's insular mythologies is a wise choice that allows the nonfan a glimpse into the wider range that comics commands. Wolk's insightful observations offer much to ponder, perhaps more than can be fully addressed in one volume, but the thoughtful criticism and knowledgeable historical overview give much-needed context for the emerging medium. B&w illus. (July)
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