on Reading Comics: 1

Prologue

I’ve been awaiting Douglas Wolk‘s new book Reading Comics — “the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics criticism by the leading critic in the field,” according to the publisher — with a breathless enthusiasm not seen since the last Scott Pilgrim book was released.

Thanks to my accidental subscription to Amazon Prime last December and the miracle of two-day shipping, it’s now in my hot little hands and I’ve been tearing through it eagerly.

I have, admittedly, a gigantic man-crush on Douglas Wolk. He’s smart and observant, he’s a talented writer and communicator, he likes the right things (i.e. almost everything), he’s forward-looking and intelligently backward-looking, he cares and writes about things besides comics (his article on Numa Numa was great; his definition of rockism is extremely relevant to comics), he’s done his homework and knows some actual aesthetic theory, and he’s got a genuine boyish love for everything he talks about that comes through in his writing. He is, in short, one of my role models. Here’s the list of “SEVEN STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT COMICS” that appears on the postcard advertising his book:

  1. The Golden Age of comics is right now.
  2. Comics are a medium, not a genre.
  3. Comics are not literature, in the same sense that they’re not film or sculpture or cooking.
  4. Comics are drawn: they’re not just representations of a story, but images made by an artist’s hand.
  5. In fact, they’re a specific kind of drawing: cartooning, which is based on visual metaphors — deliberate kinds of distortion and symbolic abstraction.
  6. That means that extended metaphors are what comics do best. Their style is their substance.
  7. Also, comics are awesome.

If you’ve known or read me for any length of time, some of these will sound familiar.

Actually, that’s one of the problems for me in reading Reading Comics: everything in here is so damn familiar. It’s delightful to see my own secret thoughts expressed by another and published in a mass-market book with a national distribution, but once the “finally! somebody said it!” feeling wears off, I fear that I won’t have anything to say in response.

Thankfully, Wolk and I are not in complete brain-sync, and although I’ve only just finished Part One of the book, I have a couple thoughts so far.

Observation One: It Needs Footnotes

Never has a book cried out more desperately for footnotes. Wolk’s critical worldview demands that he be all-encompassing, but I suspect it’s his personal tendencies that call him to write with humility — to cover his bases, qualify his statements, and admit the exceptions to his theories. It’s another way in which his writing feels familiar, because I do the same thing myself: I don’t hesitate to praise another’s work but tend to present my own ideas tentatively, attempting to communicate every subtle nuance of my perspective, and phrasing them with enough caveats that I can be sure of their truth. Unfortunately, as some helpful mentors have informed me, such equivocation weakens one’s prose and makes it harder to read.

Sometimes his parenthetical style is a sign of that hesitance, but other times it’s a sign of disorganization — his (admittedly contagious) enthusiasm is such that he can’t resist throwing in tangential comments and anecdotes, when they might better belong in another section. In fact, the whole structure of the first half feels a little uncertain to me — it’s all very good stuff, but chapters begin and end somewhat arbitrarily and don’t always flow. I think I’ll have more useful comments along these lines later, when I’ve digested more.

Observation 2: On “furcation”

One of the central ideas of the book is this divide between “art comics” and “genre comics.” There’s no arguing the fact that the market is quite bifurcated (or, as he points out, trifurcated, when you include manga), but I believe that the division is harmful and stupid and does readers no favors. It locks them into one school or the other, exacerbates their existing prejudices against comics on “the other side of the fence,” and discourages cross-contamination or cross-examination from one side onto another. And honestly, I see a hell of a lot of “in-between” works cropping up — the eternal “Scott Pilgrim question,” you might call it. Maybe he’ll address this in the final chapter, but comics as an industry desperately needs to address the concept of “the new mainstream” — the folks buying Buffy comics and Blankets and, hell, Sandman (this is not a new phenomenon). Comics are never going to reach the general public as long as people feel that reading a comic involves joining a subculture, regardless of whether that subculture’s mascot is Superman or Crumb or Naruto. I’m desperate for a view of comics in which readers don’t have to “choose sides”; I wonder how much the childish good-vs-evil mentality of our childhood heroes continues to lock us into that framework.

To drop a music comparison (which is my natural instinct, but coincidentally also one of Wolk’s techniques): Is there a division between art music and pop music? Of course. Ought there be? I’m not so sure. I know that for listeners of my generation, John Bach and John Lennon are both dead white guys who wrote good music a long time ago. They’re next to each other in my iTunes library, and switching between them is trivially simple. If I sort by date, the 1950s section is populated by the black American gospel of Sam Cooke, the white American rock of Elvis Presley, and the melodic French modernism of Francis Poulenc. In the 1950s, the three of them played to completely separate audiences — probably no one on Earth attended the concerts of all three — but fifty years later they’re all accessible to me from the same place, in the same listening context. And that prods me to consider how all three of them are working from the same Christian themes, how all three made public the conflicts and connections between spirituality and sexuality, and whether that tension is reflected in the way their music balances passionate chaos with tempered control. Presumably, similar ideas could be inspired by simply putting the entire library on “shuffle” and listening for new connections.

The point is, I’m much more interested in criticism that is colorblind rather than segregated. It’s (usually) not difficult to read a work within the context of its closest neighbors — what’s more difficult, less common, and more useful is to read a work out of its niche, to find the context dictated by its content rather than its circumstances.

Wolk is doing some of that, simply by writing the book he did: READING COMICS, not READING ART COMICS or READING GENRE COMICS. Comics, he argues, are united by certain formal characteristics and are worth considering as a body, and I’m completely with him. God knows most Marvel artists could to learn something from Charles Schulz, or Jaime Hernandez, or Ai Yazawa. In his effort to be descriptive, though — to explain comics as we see them — I think he’s missed an opportunity to encourage that assimilation process.

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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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