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Saturday, July 12th, 2008
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Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

by Douglas Wolk

See You in the Funny Books

A review by Chris Bolton

Comics is a tricky business.

For decades the medium was deemed a playground for children, filled with talking animals, adventure stories, and colorfully clad super-people in tights. Then, in 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent claimed that comics were destructive and inappropriate to delicate young minds, singling out panels from EC horror comics featuring syringes penetrating eyeballs. Following a Congressional inquiry, comics publishers formed their own Comics Code Authority to police themselves and ensure that comics stayed kid-friendly. Led by pioneers like Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch, the underground comix movement began to flourish in the late '60s, partly as a response to the overly sanitized fluff produced by Code-restricted publishers, ultimately leading to a thriving independent scene during the '80s that has spawned mainstream successes for one-time fringe artists like Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Charles Burns (Black Hole). Meanwhile, the late '80s saw the publication of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, two seminal works that injected adult themes and attitudes into the superhero genre -- and suddenly even spandex-clad comics weren't safe for kids anymore. The past few years have seen a resurgence of comics aimed specifically at younger readers, led by the success of Jeff Smith's Bone.

Today, depending on what news story you read on which day, comics are "no longer just for kids," or "kids' comics are thriving once again." Mainstream publishers Marvel and DC crank out bombastic, convoluted superhero sagas that are virtually incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read forty years' worth of the stuff, while independent artists like Craig Thompson (Blankets) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) climb bestseller charts with small, personal, beautifully drawn memoirs.

A newcomer can be forgiven for feeling a mite confused and overwhelmed. While there are several primers in circulation designed to ease the neophyte into the comics scene, Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics is intended as the first serious critical study of the form, rather than a guide to "How graphic novels work and what they mean," as the subtitle suggests.

A journalist and music critic, Wolk is also a lifelong comics enthusiast, and his dedication shows. His book begins with a survey of the industry called "What Comics Are and What They Aren't," in which Wolk enthuses about the seemingly limitless possibilities of the medium even as he complains about the runaway fan-oriented culture that keeps so much mainstream output confined to a genre of obsessive devotees.

In a chapter titled "What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics," Wolk challenges the knee-jerk assumption that mainstream superhero comics are all garbage aimed at arrested adolescents and all art comics are necessarily better. He concludes with an impressive list of things he loves about comics, among them:

  • The sound effects in Howard Chaykin's early-'80s science fiction satire American Flagg! -- crowding the borders of every panel in convincing evocation of sensory overload, not to mention that some of them were pretty hilarious on their own, like the guns that went PAPAPAPAPAPA-OOOOOO-MOW! MOW! MOW!
  • Paul Gambi, the "crime tailor" -- a very minor '60s-era DC character whose job was making supervillains' costumes (those fur collars!).
  • Not so much the superhero Hostess pastry ads that ran in the '70s, but the joke of throwing pastries at villains to distract them that has persisted in comics ever after.
  • If you're one of the many who wonders why flying people in tights became the mainstay for the comics medium, Wolk's chapter on "Superheroes and Superreaders" will be fascinating and horrifying in equal parts; it begins with a section titled "Why Superheroes? Why??"

    After establishing the history of the medium and a comprehensive theory of the canon, Wolk embarks on reviews and commentary, dedicating a chapter each to such comics touchstones as Steve Ditko (the original Spider-Man artist, who became an Ayn Rand-obsessed recluse), the "raconteurs" Will Eisner and Frank Miller, influential Love and Rockets creators Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (who get a chapter apiece), Alan Moore, and many others.

    Rather than toeing the popular line on many well-regarded works, Wolk is less than enthused with much of Craig Thompson's Blankets, argues that Jimmy Corrigan creator Chris Ware "hates fun," and devotes almost no attention to Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, who is arguably the most popular writer to emerge from comics and find equal -- or greater -- success in other media. I might have been suspicious of Wolk's taste if he weren't so enthusiastic about so many other great books like Bechdel's Fun Home, and didn't devote whole chapters to lesser-known, often-neglected women artists like Hope Larson and Carla Speed McNeil.

    Wolk writes with a critic's authority, offering penetrating analysis of writers like Moore and Grant Morrison whose dense, circular works can be challenging, to say the least, and sometimes incomprehensible. He also writes with a fan's enthusiasm, and it shows through in every riveting page. One hopes Reading Comics won't be the last popular critical study of a diverse and truly unique medium that deserves more serious scrutiny than it's so often served by the media, but it's certainly an excellent first step.

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