Wolk’s Reading Comics Revisited
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
A few of my older reviews for various newspapers are no longer easily available. So to give them a somewhat more permanent home, I’m going to be posting them here, sometimes with a few words of after-thoughts.
Below is my review of Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics, from the Globe and Mail, July 21, 2007. After the review, I have a post-script written now.
How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
By Douglas Wolk
Da Capo, 404 pages, $27.50
Comic book fans are a wary, guarded lot. They can be gregarious enough in their native habitat, in the cloistered confines of a specialty store waiting for the regular Wednesday shipment of new comics, but they tend to freeze up when encountering outsiders. The fear, often enough confirmed by experience, is that any non-fan just won’t get it, won’t appreciate the special glory of Jack Kirby’s dynamically clunky art or Alan Moore’s intricately febrile writing, won’t warm up to the peculiar pleasure of seeing words and pictures jostling with each other to tell a story on a page.
This suspicion of outsiders is born of a long, embittered history. In the early 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham made a name for himself as the prototypical denouncer of comics. In his bestselling tirade Seduction of the Innocent (1954), he claimed that comic books were a subliterate art form best kept out of the hands of children. Comics, the accusation ran, were inherently sensationalistic and cheap, deadening fine feelings and nice discrimination. As proof of the inherent inferiority of this plebeian art form, Wertham noted that comics had never provoked a coherent body of aesthetic analysis.
Wertham’s influential polemic not only made comic fans embattled and defensive, it also produced an important counter-response. To refute Wertham’s claims, a group of teenage comic fans started pouring their souls into self-published chapbooks filled with detailed critical debates about their favourite art form. If an outsider like Wertham thought comics weren’t worthy of critical analysis, the fans were prepared to create a body of writing to prove him wrong.
Comic-book criticism was born, therefore, as an act of fannish apologetics. To this day, the most informed and intense writing on comics is found in fan magazines like The Comics Journal or in books by cartoonists nurtured in fan culture, such as Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud. The dominance of fandom distinguishes comics from any other comparable art form: In literature, the fine arts or film, criticism is the province of academics and journalists, professionals who have some distance from their subject. Writing about comics, by contrast, is the domain of partisan insiders who always worry about the need to justify their special love to the larger world.
In his new book of critical essays, Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk strikes an uneasy truce between fan culture and the outside world. Wolk is both a fan and a critic, both an insider and an outsider. His fannish credentials are impeccable: He describes himself as someone who breathes “the rarefied air of ten thousand yellowing back issues,” and he often casually draws upon the sort of esoteric knowledge that only the true cognoscenti possess. At one point, Wolk argues that “the Warlock serial that Jim Starlin wrote and drew between 1974 and 1977″ contains “a pointed subtext about the aesthetic and corporate context of mid-1970s comics.” You have to be fairly hardcore to remember Warlock, let alone understand its subtext.
To his credit, Wolk isn’t content to be a fan speaking to other fans. He’s aware that the moment is right for comic-book criticism to move away from the stifling enclave of insider lore and address a wider readership. In the past two decades, comics (repackaged as “graphic novels”) have won an audience with no allegiance to fan culture. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis were all appreciated by countless readers who couldn’t tell you the difference between Green Lantern and Green Arrow. These newcomers to comics often look for a critical guide who can help map out the strange terrain of this hitherto underappreciated art form. Writing about comics in magazines such as Salon and The Believer, Wolk has found a niche for himself as a knowledgeable insider who knows how to talk to outsiders, a devotee who can communicate his passion to novices.
Wolk’s book is a valuable introduction to the diverse and sometimes bewildering world of contemporary comics. The first third provides a brisk history of modern comics and a somewhat ad-hoc theoretical framework. (In this section, he makes some improbable claims, for example that comics are mysteriously linked to schizophrenia.) The remainder of the book profiles a cross-section of contemporary cartoonists, ranging from much-praised artists (Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown) to promising beginners (Hope Larson, Kevin Huizenga) to unfashionable visionaries (Steve Ditko, Dave Sim) to guilty pleasures (the Tomb of Dracula series, Jim Starlin’s Warlock). This survey, rich in perceptive analysis, supports Wolk’s contention that “if there’s such a thing as a golden age of comics, it’s happening right now.”
Wolk has a contrarian streak: He likes to tweak the masters and champion the half-forgotten. Strikingly, he has some harsh words for Spiegelman and Ware, while being tenderly protective toward Gene Colan, the journeyman hack who drew the Tomb of Dracula. These curious judgments (which I find thoroughly unconvincing) are perhaps a legacy of Wolk’s fannish roots. They also call to mind Wolk’s intellectual hero, the late film critic Pauline Kael, who liked to put in a good word for trashy pleasures. Kael loved starting critical fights, a habit Wolk has inherited.
Like Kael, Wolk writes with vernacular vigour, mixing slang (“comic books are awesome” he assures us) with analytical precision. He’s particularly good as a visual critic, able to find the precise words to distinguish between “the lusty, ragged brushstrokes of Craig Thompson” and “the tremulous Radiograph squiggles of Robert Crumb.”
As someone who is both a fan and a critic, Wolk is a writer at war with himself. His fannish side is enthusiastic and all-encompassing, tendencies that bristle against the critic’s need for discriminating evaluation. This internal contradiction is not a weakness. Rather, it gives Wolk’s writing a fertile tension. If comics are, as he says, in a golden age, Wolk is the right critic to memorialize the moment.
Post-script (2010): Wolk, of course, continues to be an important voice in comics criticism. I’ve gone back to Reading Comics fairly often, re-reading it in bits and pieces, largely because I intensely admire his ability to describe art, a skill I’ve tried to emulate. It has to be said, though, that the opening theoretical section of Reading Comics hasn’t worn well: it really is a mish-mash of ideas. Tim Hodler wrote a great review in the print incarnation of Comics Comics that made this point. (Can you post it on the site Tim?)
Wolk really is a product of comic book culture, and tends to be on uncertain ground when dealing with genres or artists that aren’t “fan favorites”. A good example of this is underground comics. One of the very few really embarrassing mistakes in Reading Comics is the reference to the late S. Clay Wilson (page 367). Wolk would never make a mistake like that about Neal Adams.
Also, I’ve never really trusted Wolk’s taste (although taste is not a big deal for me). To put it another way, I much rather read Wolk’s analysis of Jim Starlin’s Warlock than read Warlock itself (of course that’s true of the larger and very interesting field of comics criticism focused on commercial comic books: the analysis of these comics is more often than not more intelligent and engaging than the comics themselves).
The strongest pieces in Reading Comics are the ones on the Hernandez Brothers, Dave Sim, and Jim Starlin. In general, the longer a piece is, the better. But my sense is that these days Wolk doesn’t often have to room to stretch his legs as a writer. Ideally, he’d have a venue like The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker to let him write 3,000- to 6,000-word think-pieces. A book of long essays by Wolk on his favorite comics would be a wonderful thing to have.