"Reading Comics"

Signs of comics' maturity are coming thick and fast these days -- I was in Forbidden Planet last weekend, and I swear there was at least 40 percent women in there -- but one of the most hopeful is Douglas Wolk's new book, Reading Comics. The book isn't a history of comics or a survey of the canon or an Understanding Comics-style dissection of the medium's mechanics. It's an intelligent critic's attempt to think about his responses to works of art. It works because Wolk is a a terrific reader -- attentive, insightful, sensitive, broad-minded -- and because he's very good at explaining his enthusiasms in layman's terms.

Wolk (who I've hung out with a couple of times) is unusually good at addressing initiates and novices at once: there's enough hand-holding for the reader who knows only, say, Maus and Persepolis, but even the most remedial paragraphs are larded with nuggets of interpretation and commentary for afficionadi to chew on. The bulk of Reading Comics comprises essays on specific cartoonists and works -- some canonical, some contemporary, some pure pulp. There's no attempt at completeness: Kirby and Crumb, among other colossi, are absent. (The book also largely ignores manga and strip cartoons -- the latter a surprising omission, given the reprint boom and the influence of Herriman, Schultz et al on art comics.) Some of Wolk's readings are clearly intended to upset a few applecarts -- Eisner and Ware come in for sober reappraisals -- but he's never ungenerous or capricious. In every case, he points out things I hadn't noticed in the work, even when he discusses cartoonists I've spent a lot of time with.

Most recent comics criticism wants to see comics as a new kind of literature, rather than a thing in itself, and thus winds up missing comics' drawn-ness. Wolk, on the other hand, is really good at looking: he's alert to the small touches that add up to a drawing style, and he loves the fact that such a style creates reality for the reader. This leads him to focus more on the nuances of illustration than on the panel-to-panel mechanics of comics storytelling (the kind of thing Scott McCloud emphasizes). Peeking out from behind Wolk's judicious tone there's a personal aesthetic. He particularly likes: pages that work as unified designs; comics that explore the connections between parts of a system; thorny, scratchy, "ugly" drawing styles; wild spatial abstraction. (Every item on that list is associated with Steve Ditko, the book's secret hero, and I suspect that if Wolk has an agenda it's to elevate wiry, intellectual Ditkoism to a position alongside massive, kinetic Kirbyism in the American tradition.)

Because Reading Comics is such a personal book, everyone will take issue with a few of Wolk's conclusions. He doesn't have much time for virtuosity, which causes him to underrate Crumb and Ware and to begin a strong essay on Locas by saying that "it's easy to like Jaime Hernandez's comics for the wrong reasons." (Really? Enjoying attractive drawing and witty dialogue is wrong?) And his long discussion of Grant Morrison probably has more to offer the converted than the newbie: he makes The Invisibles sound like an elaborate New Age metaphor, without capturing the punk dynamism and humor that make it a thrilling elaborate New Age metaphor. (I have a similar problem trying to convey what makes Morrison so awesome: if there were a parallel earth that was exactly like ours except that on this one I hadn't read any of Morrison's work, and if in some "Roth of Two Worlds"-style crossover I got to meet my counterpart and was encouraging him to read New X-Men and Seven Soldiers, I'm pretty sure my descriptions would be unconvincing and I would wind up waving my hands and shouting, "No, you don't understand -- it's awesome!")

Far more often, though, Wolk made me want to go back to work I've loved -- Love and Rockets X, Chester Brown's Yummy Fur, Ditko's Spider-Man -- armed with his insight, or to pick up things I haven't read yet. He gets Sim, Moore, and both Hernandezes dead-on. Mostly, he demonstrates that a love of comics can be as meaningful and as rewarding as a love of books or music. Recommended to fans and the curious alike.