Wolk’s Reading Comics Revisited


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wolk's Reading Comics

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.

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24 Responses to “Wolk’s Reading Comics Revisited”
  1. Bill Randall says:

    Jeet, this review & PS hit on many of the things that bugged me about the book, especially the limitations of the shorter essays. One thing, though– I recall a lot of the first section of the book is about what went on at conventions? I recall reading it felt like browsing people’s SPX Flickr streams, wondering who everyone is since I never go to cons. It seemed like a misstep, but I could be misremembering.

    And he’s good enough on Warlock that he sent me on a fruitless trip to dig my copies out of the vaults of my childhood. Failure, alas.

  2. DerikB says:

    He almost got me to read Tomb of Dracula, but then I actually thought about it…

    The theory chapters were a mess. Wolk writes about comics using superhero comics as his basis which skews his perspective, and his binary of mainstream/art comics just didn’t ring true. (fwiw, I reviewed the book at http://madinkbeard.com/blog/archives/reading-comics-by-douglas-wolk )

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    @derikb. That’s a smart review.

    I should also have added that what would really be great is for Wolk to write a monograph on a cartoonist or creator that interested him: say, Steve Ditko, or Gilbert Hernandez or Alan Moore. The model here would be the 33 1/3 series about pop music: a short, focused look at a single important figure. That would really draw out Wolk’s strengths as a writer.

  4. DerikB says:

    Thanks, Jeet.

    A 33 1/3 type series for comics (“4 color” series?) that focused on individual creators, series, books would be awesome. Not just for Wolk, but for comics criticism in general. I think Leigh Walton (of Top Shelf) floated that idea in his blog awhile back.

  5. What’s funny to me, Jeet, is that you refer to Gene Colan as a journeyman hack – yet David Mazzucchelli told me he considered Colan’s late 60’s work some of the best comics of the era. So…just sayin’. I use strong language around here all the time – but Colan, a hack? I dunno, Jeet. We all have our preferences, of course. My fannish roots are bristling from the outsider POV, haha.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    I stand by journeyman, which I think applies to many of the very best cartoonists in commercial comics, including John Stanley (whose work I love). “Hack” might be too severe but I don’t think Colan was personally invested in the genre comics he did, except maybe for some of the romance comics and some of the supernatural stuff (but by no means all). Certainly Colan had no real interest in the superhero work which made up such a large part of his output (through no fault of his own, of course, but simply because that’s where the industry was). I think we need a term to distinguish between artists who were imaginatively engaged with their material (as Kirby was with most of the superhero stuff) and those who were skilled but still a bit distant from what they worked on. As I said, “hack” might be too strong but there should be a similar but less harsh word: perhaps “craftsman” or “craftsperson”?

    • Word up. I’ll take “journeyman” – I mean, “hack” can definitely applied to a lot of Colan’s work – certain periods outshine others – it’s a tricky distinction for sure. Not really trying to split hairs. In your review you are using the term against Spieg and Ware so I see what you are getting at – point made.

  7. Rob Clough says:

    I see where both Jeet and Frank are coming from. The best hack of all time is John Buscema. He hated doing superhero work and so came up with a variety of methods to do it quickly and simply, but still professionally. As a result, his figures are wonderfully loose and sketchy, with a liveliness to them that few superheroes could ever match. He would literally teach his hacking method to young artists, instructing them not to waste too much time on extraneous details. It’s not a method I advocate, of course (it is certainly anhedonic), but I think it’s a lesson worth learning for any cartoonist paralyzed by craft issues or intractable problems on the page.

    His brother Sal is a hack in the sense that most of us would understand it: functional, solidly-crafted art that tells a story clearly that is entirely free of adornment or any aesthetic charm beyond mere functionality. I would never go out of my way to look at a Sal Buscema page for any reason, but I know I could read any comic he drew without looking at the words and understand everything that was happening.

    Colan was a hack in the sense that all superhero artists are/were hacks: they are creating product on a tight deadline, written by someone else and for someone else’s vision. The Marvel artists at least had freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted on the page with the Marvel Method of drawing, which explains why Colan used an array of weird angles, highly stylized action and as un-Kirby-like approach as possible. He basically drew superhero comics like they were romance comics or noir comics. I think “Journeyman” fits him fine.

    The hacks that I think of in a derisive sense are those that pretty much straight-up copied Kirby, once again in an effort to be fast and fit in the Marvel house style. Rich Buckler is the classic example, but there are others.

  8. dave ball says:

    Thanks Jeet for consistently interesting and thoughtful work in this vein… this put voice to my own ambivalences about _Reading Comics_ when it came out. I’ll definitely dive back into it now. It’s been a joy to read such well-written work as yours and Douglas’ as it comes out… keep reposting.

  9. patrick ford says:

    TCJ cover featured “Hacking” in issue #226.
    In terms of old comics I like to reserve the word for the writers who were pretty much all hacks.
    The reason for this from my reading seems clear enough.
    The artists, almost to a one, dreamed of doing comics as kids, and if you read interviews with them it’s apparent they had a real love for comics, a passion in most instances.
    This isn’t the case with the writers who almost to a man dreamed of escaping comics to write novels, or short stories. Very few of them come across as fans of the comics (I’m speaking of the period before comic book fans entered the field as writers in the 60’s, and later).
    Many of them entered the field by way of their previous contacts with the comic book publishers while writing fiction for the pulp magazines in the 30’s.
    This is why you will find all the best writers in comics were writer/artists. Cartoonists like comics, and want to create them. The writers were in their minds slumming.
    Mort Weisinger said: “Writers rarely get out of comics. I’ve found that nobody really respects a comics writer. Mentioning it is a liability. Mickey Spillane wrote comics when he was hungry, but he quickly got out of it. Many of the other writers who wrote for me were ones I got from outside the field of comics, from science fiction, and they used to do comics work for what they called ‘hungry money.’ They’d turn out a quickie once a week to pay the rent. Then they went on to radio, TV work, novels or films. They outgrew the field.”

    • djm says:

      That would probably explain why so many stories were one note, striking on a certain feeling. General sensationalism. The artists (who were often at that point themselves) picked that up and elaborated up to their point of interest and skill.

  10. Jason Michelitch says:

    “I would never go out of my way to look at a Sal Buscema page for any reason…”

    And everybody’s got to have their defenders, I suppose…so here I go:

    I haven’t gone back and looked at Sal Buscema for a while, but in my memory (granted, could be imperfect, through rose-colored glasses, etc. etc.) his Web of Spider-Man work in the (’80s? ’90s? My memory is shit) stood out as this very strange, angular, dark work. It’s possible he was riffing off someone specific (in my mind the style is somewhere near mid-period JRjr or early Mignola) and I’m now going to have to go dig out some crumpled back issues to take a look, but as a kid inundated with crap generic super-hero stuff, Sal Buscema’s art definitely looked different and creepy. I do remember seeing other work by him that didn’t fit that description, so it may have just been a style he was trying for a while. But it stuck with me.

  11. Rob Clough says:

    Let me also say that I don’t mean to impugn Sal’s work–it’s just that I wouldn’t want to look at it outside of the context of a comic I’m reading. And to be fair, he was prized because of his great speed along with his storytelling. But that speed led to sloppy inking by others. When he was given the Thor assignment working with Walt Simonson, it was a kind of reward in that he was given time to draw and ink everything, and it was both very good-looking and as professional as ever.

  12. wayne says:

    There’s more life, innovation, and storytelling ‘art’ within the serious restrictions Gene Colan worked in than any page of ‘Breakdowns’. Spiegelman had one of the most uncensored ‘movements’ ever to work in, and was still a pretty minor talent until ‘Maus’-hype made him ‘important’. Colan was on a par with Kirby and Ditko imho.

    One did a stunning, beautiful job for a fixed-format copropration, the other ‘hacks’ out lame po-mo cliches and liberal pieties for the New York intelligentsia. Pimping your fathers pain for a Pulitzer does not a genius make. Today’s ‘hacks’ know they can sell unbearable suffering to our Oprah-fied rubes, and not worry too much about those medical bills when doing so.

  13. B.W. Costello says:

    Sal Buscema’s work on What If? #44 (1984) is pretty amazing (even if he swiped the big final fight scene from Kirby). Dave Simons inked it — not sure how much of what I like is his contribution and what is SB’s. But there’s a big splash near the end where the “real” Cap is leading Spider-Man and a bunch of Black Power militants against the 50s Cap that’s really something.

  14. Heidi M. says:

    I think some of the wacky Sal Buscema work you’re thinking of is ROM SPACEKNIGHT. It got pretty abstract with those shadwomasters or whatever they were.


  15. Jeet Heer says:

    You know who really loves Sal Buscema? Evan Dorkin. We need to get him to put in his two cents here.

  16. wayne says:

    Sal B was the first hack I copied as a kid. I always drew that gaping shocked mouth and strained hand movement he did (to cover about a dozen emotions) – even when I drew my mom!

  17. Nate says:

    I like to use hack as a verb… most great artists hack at some point or another. You’ve got to put food on the table, right? Both Buscemas hacked, and both put out some gorgeous stuff. Colan is a weird one for me, since I see a real love of drawing that shines through even in his lesser work. Still, there’s enough repetition (stock poses and the like) to suggest hacking.

  18. David says:

    Sal Buscema was great. The DeMatteis Spider Man stuff especially, (great, nuanced acting in those) but also those 70s Hulk comics.

  19. Bryan says:

    I think Sal is also great –and much more interesting than his brother –lots of weird flourishes, saliva, elongated, stock figures, patented Buscema claw-hands, In the same class as Ogden Whitney. Defenders, Hulk are showcases for this style.

    Wolk’s book is a mixed bag. Some interesting how comics work stuff in the Seth section. The Sim chapter, originally the first major serious treatment of Cerebus in a mainstream pub, is balanced and professional in a generic feature article reporterly way. Not too much to return to…

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