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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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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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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: #2,108,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Blake Petit VINE VOICE 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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