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Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean Hardcover – July 3, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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New York Times–bestselling author Box Brown untangles the complex history and role games play in art, culture, and commerce. Learn more
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Printing edition (July 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306815095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306815096
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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By Blake Petit on September 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is rather a difficult book to review. While I definitely appreciate the fact that comics are being treated seriously as a scholarly work, I'm not really sure that this book is, in fact, what it claims to be. The first third of the book is ostensibly dedicated to a discussion of the format of comics and he potential of the medium, but Wolk constantly peppers the book with condescending commentary on mainstream books even as he purports to love them, going so far at one point as to suggest that there's something developmentally wrong with an adult who still enjoys a character he enjoyed as a child. While there's certainly nothing wrong with the heavy bias towards independent comics this book displays, he often paints most superhero comics with the same brush (except, of course, for perennial exceptions Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and a few others). In other words, he does quite a bit to perpetuate the same primitive attitudes about comics that this book supposedly works to dispel.

The rest of the book is essentially a recommended reading list, with chapters devoted to different comic creators and their work. This section, honestly, is rather predictable. He gushes over the work of Alan Moore (even the total derailment of Promethea), pretentiously assures us that it's "okay" to read Dave Sim and Steve Ditko though they display (horrors!) conservative ideas in their work, and talks about the mastery of Maus. Not to say this section is all bad. Even in his predictability, he provides a very strong analysis of the Hernandez brothers' work, that of Chris Ware, of Chester Brown, and several other names that a mainstream reader may never have heard of.
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Format: Hardcover
There's a lot to recommend this book. No matter how versed you are in comics (I'm not), you're sure to find something new here about an amazingly complex medium.

But it's got some annoying flaws. Particularly in the first third of the book, it can be seriously geeky when it should be introductory and welcoming. You may find yourself stumbling on what seems like fan jargon or expert knowledge. I didn't(and still don't) understand the stylistic differences between Jack Kirby's early and late work. But that's the kind of thing Wolk more or less assumes at times.

At best, the book has some wonderful visual analyses of comic panels and styles. That's good, because most of the arguments require you to trust the visual descriptions. For a book about comics there aren't nearly enough illustrations, and none in color. How about a companion website where readers could look at more than a few low-quality black and white reproductions?

But Wolk's writing style gets annoying at this length. The book's trying to be academic and authoritative, but do it with a casual writing style. It doesn't work. Wolk often writes like a smart blogger; in other words, like someone who *really* needs an editor with a sharp red pencil. For example, he'll use annoying terms like "wave at" or "poke at" to mean "show" and "examine." He has a short "interview" between himself and Mr. Straw Man which feels like a clumsy way of avoiding constructing actual prose. Or he'll discover a new ten-dollar word (like "somatic") and use it two or three times in as many pages. He uses cliched writing (calling someone "a god-awful hack") constantly.

Worst, nearly every page has at least two or three parenthetical phrases, which makes following arguments clunky.
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Format: Hardcover
As a childhood comics fan returned to the medium as an adult in search of meaningful entertainment, I appreciated Wolk's book as timely for comics' present moment, perhaps even overdue. Few corners of American comics aren't discussed and none go unmentioned. Wolk's book provides adequately theoretical, satisfying discussions of both "mainstream" superhero comics and "art comics", mapping them in the constellation of American popular culture. It helps that Wolk is a music critic as well; Wolk writes accessibly, like a reviewer or critic, and is unapologetic about comics as pleasure-reading first, with enormous artistic potential behind them. He discusses a serious American comic fan's range of work in a thought-provoking manner (from Ware and Bechdel to Moore and Miller), but informs readers enough to avoid sounding like the snooty "you-haven't-read-that?" comics junkie expounding arcane comics references. Not perfect, but plenty good for a reader like me.
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Format: Paperback
Having read other books on comics, like "How to Read Superhero Comics and Why," I wanted to like Wolk's book more than those I've read before it. What I found most compelling about Wolk's book was his introduction where he talks about what makes comics different from other works of art is their unique deployment of metaphor. Yes, it's in that Straw Man argument (god, that is annoying, as other reviewers here suggest). What I found disappointing is that Wolk doesn't really deliver on giving us a coherent argument about that. Instead of giving us Comics, he gives us comics.

That being said, Wolk chooses some good, some bad, some interesting comics to talk about. I found his later chapters on individual authors interesting. Particularly on Starlin's Warlock, Ditko's Spider-Man and Mr. A, Sim's Cerebus, and finally Morrison's Invisibles.

You should look at the table of contents and see if Wolk writes about any comics (or creators) you have read and then pick up this book if there are enough of them. Note that Wolk will often spoil the endings of books so be careful.

Why I see Wolk failing to deliver on his promise to talk about metaphors in comics is that he spends way too much time telling us what the text in those comics mean (can't we figure a lot of this out for ourselves? -- exception: his take on Morrison's Invisibles is passionate and fairly coherent). I was hoping he'd be able to present a consistent view on the language of the comics medium (the art), and instead I got a lot of more of regurgitation of storylines (I already knew).
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