Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

This book could have ended after the first sentence: “It’s no longer news that comics have grown up.” By ending there, author Douglas Wolk would have created the definitive statement on comics this century. This simple, direct statement, changes the rules for the BIF! POW! headline writers that occasionally shed their journalistic lights on the comic world; or for when a comic-based film — even those sans superheroes — gets reviewed; or for when comics fans try to talk to non-comics fans. Finally, comics are beginning to move past the onomatopoeia, 40 years removed from TV’s Batman, and the general public doesn’t necessarily think of Adam West every time they hear the term “comic book.” Douglas Wolk, however, has known better all along.

Wolk’s book is divided into halves, the first dealing with the history and theory of comics. Section one begins with a brief history lesson and moves quickly from the time when “desperate, underpaid kids and sleazy entrepreneurs” made “crudely powerful imagination bombs” into the present day. This quick lesson, despite its apparent lack of depth, is made all the more compelling because, Wolk argues, despite all the changes over the past 70 years or so, many comics, particularly those of the mainstream, have changed little. What were once rules enforced by publishers eager to cash in on comics — panel layouts, characterization and even plots — have since become conventions of the medium which storytellers can bend or break at will. By continually mining the past for origin retellings and (often reader-demanded) nostalgia, Wolk writes, most mainstream comics have been stifled both creatively and from gaining widespread acceptance as an art form.

But Wolk doesn’t spend his pages complaining about superheroes’ inability to grow or “art” comics pretensions — he sees hope. Wolk views the cultural capital comics have gained in the last 10 years, driven in part by Hollywood’s reliance on them for source material, not to mention the amount of quality in the marketplace, with downright glee. He even goes so far as to reject the 1938-1952 period of history as comics Golden Age, asserting instead that the Golden Age is now. The medium — because it’s a medium, not a genre, he insists — is at its creative peak, in all styles, from the hard boiled noir of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil to the autobiographical work of Alison Bechdel. The expanding acceptance of comics in mainstream culture allows for a number of good artists to make a living doing what they love, with the medium reaping the benefits. This analysis seems simple, but one look at the shelves of your local bookstore or comics shop might change your mind.

Like Scott McCloud’s highly regarded Understanding Comics, Wolk analyzes comics components — pictures, words, negative space — and how a readers’ mind transforms that information into a story. Complex ideas, such as how comics suggest motion, how sound and sense are all present but never explicit, are discussed and dissected with the seriousness which they deserve, making Wolk something of a cultural pioneer. Wolk’s arguments are bolstered by more than 100 illustrations from the span of medium, allowing the reader to see the concepts of time and space as they’re actually represented on the comics page. By using specific examples, ideas that might at first seem daunting, especially given the relative ease with which most comics are read, begin to make sense.

But it’s exactly because comics are generally easy to read that they deserve to be studied, and Wolk knows this. With this study, a question often asked by non-comics readers — “Do I read the words first or look at the pictures?” — becomes easier to answer.

Wolk also tackles the comics culture; a closed off, mostly male world that often rejects outsiders. It’s here the tone of the book changes from scholarly to snide. It’s justified, for the most part — the greedy, value-obsessed collectors and variant cover-shilling hacks who have dominated the industry on and off for nearly 20 years are the focus of much of Wolk’s ire, as are the fans who greedily gobble all the junk they’re fed.

Still, Wolk’s dismissal of the continued purchase of monthly comics, particularly by those who seem determined to capture the feelings comics gave them as kids, goes beyond simple criticism. “To keep buying stories about characters you adored as a child, out of something like team loyalty … is desperate and kind of pathetic.” While it’s easy to agree that trying to remain a kid forever is sad, even Wolk agrees that some comics, like every other popular art form, are just for fun. And if fun for you is riding a bike, reading Proust, or buying every last issue of Archie, then so be it.

Wolk seems to just be talking down to comics fans — most likely those that won’t be reading his book — and it’s ugly, crass, and completely out of character with the rest of the book. It’s a simple judgment rather than a nuanced (or even harsh) criticism and it’s an attitude Wolk thankfully avoids the rest of the book.

The book’s second half is devoted to Wolk’s criticism in action. He is quick to point out, in a brief disclaimer, that he’s merely created a list of comics he considers interesting and worth discussing: he is not creating a canon, or even a list that represents all that’s right with comics.

In fact, he claims his list is deliberately non-comprehensive, avoiding canon-candidates like Robert Crumb, Jack Kirby, and Herge. Still, there’s Frank Miller, Will Eisner, and Alan Moore and their great works represented, but there’s also Jim Starlin’s peculiar run on Marvel’s Warlock and the psychedelic meta-narrative of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles.

Wolk discusses each selection with a fan’s enthusiasm and a critic’s eye for detail. His praise and criticism is doled out in equal measure for legends like Will Eisner (his stories suffer because he too often tries to moralize rather than entertain, Wolk says) and relative newcomers like Hope Larson (“a master cartographer of the psyche”).

Criticism of any kind is always at a distance from its source subject. Saying something meaningful about music, which is composed entirely of sounds, with just words is as challenging as it is describing the visual world of cinema. Criticism of comics is another thing entirely. Not only is the language of comics criticism “young and scrawny,” it attempts to describe an artists’ attempt to create movement, sound, and life into the narrow space between two dimensional panels. It’s a form of magic that presents a number of unique challenges, and now, after reading Wolk, readers are better prepared to face them — and are more excited than ever.

RATING 7 / 10