Wolk’s READING COMICS Revisited: Part Two


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Douglas Wolk disguised as Scott McCloud

Since Jeet has requested it, here is a reprint of my review of Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. This essay was originally published in the third print issue of Comics Comics, from June 2007. Following Jeet’s example, after the review, I have added a few brief notes.

For Nerds’ Eyes Only

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
Douglas Wolk
Da Capo Press, $22.95

Even now, with comic books and “graphic novels” finally cracking through the art/literary establishment glass ceiling, you can count the number of intelligent, knowledgeable American comics critics who actually know how to write on two hands (maybe add a foot in there, too, if you’re feeling generous). In any fair version of that list, Douglas Wolk would certainly be one of the fingers or toes. Unlike a lot of writers about comics, Wolk is a professional, meaning he gets paid to write, and he writes about comics because he wants to, not because it’s all he knows; he’s not just an entitled fan who feels the need to tell you the long, sorry, and interminable story of how sad he is that he doesn’t like reading Sandman as much as he did when he was thirteen years old. Wolk is probably best known for his music criticism, where his clear, unpretentious prose stands out in a field populated mostly by Lester Bangs-fixated, obscure-name-dropping showoffs all seemingly competing with each other over who is the biggest asshole. His comics criticism displays the same attractive qualities that his music writing does: a broad base of knowledge, a genuine enthusiasm for good work, an open-minded ability to disregard genre biases, and a winning sincerity. Wolk is one of the few writers around who is perfectly poised to write the kind of book promised on this one’s cover: a guide to understanding how comics work for newcomers to the medium. So it’s a shame that his new book, as pleasurable and thought provoking as it often is, doesn’t really succeed in its stated goal.

But before we get to the problems with the book, let me point out its strengths, which are many. Wolk divides Reading Comics into two unequal sections: an introductory selection of chapters on “Theory and History”, and a much larger second part filled with “Reviews and Commentary”. This second section, which fills out the bulk of the book, is a rewarding and diverse sampling of reviews and essays, mostly reprinted and reworked from earlier appearances in publications like Salon, The Believer, and The Village Voice. These include short but fairly comprehensive (and often excellent) critical profiles of such cartoonists as Chester Brown, Frank Miller, Kevin Huizenga, Alison Bechdel, and Charles Burns. He is particularly insightful when exploring the appeal of the Hernandez Bros., contrasting artists like Craig Thompson and James Kochalka, and analyzing the oeuvre of Alan Moore. A terrific essay proselytizing for his favorite comics writer, Grant Morrison, may not have convinced me to revise my opinion of his work, but it did convince me to go back and give it a closer look. And Wolk’s willingness to go to the mat for such hardly canonical figures as Jim Starlin and Dave Sim makes those articles refreshing and fun to read, the best kind of nut-job advocacy. Not everything here is perfect, of course; his article on Chris Ware is fatally flawed by Wolk’s proclaimed belief that Ware could be a great artist if only he would make his comics more “fun”—an embarrassing position, not unlike a hypothetical critic imploring Kafka to assure his place in posterity by making his stories more “upbeat.” But that’s the kind of error that provides a reason to read criticism in the first place, and helps the reader to clarify his own views. So most of this volume is very good indeed.

It’s the first section, where the heart of the book’s argument should be, that disappoints. After beginning with a fairly successful overview of the American comic book market (and introduction to Wolk’s viewpoint and prejudices), and an appropriately brief potted history of the industry, things start to get a little wonky, but everything’s still basically on track. A protracted and somewhat aimless comparison of “auteur” theory in film and comics ends just as it begins to become interesting—Wolk stops short of drawing any meaningful conclusions or judgments—and he makes some rather dubious statements (“Gary Panter, for instance, couldn’t even begin to pull off a Wonder Woman or X-Men story”, for example, though maybe Wolk simply forgot to include the word “conventional”), but throughout the early pages, he’s still writing for the new reader, patiently explaining the medium without condescending.

Then the superheroes come in, and everything goes sour. Although Wolk clearly understands (and writes) that it is a mistake to confuse the superhero genre with the medium as a whole, in this introductory section on theory, he limits his comments on the entire multifaceted world of underground, alternative, and art comics to a few brief pages about “deliberately ugly” art (that even he admits is reductive) and then fills the bulk of his section with a defense of superheroes. And while his discussion of the metaphorical value of superheroes (Fantastic Four as a representation of family, Hulk as id, etc.) isn’t really wrong, it is unclear why it deserves so much space here—this kind of analysis of the superhero genre is not exactly rare, and it will be of dubious help to the novice reader who’s heard about these newfangled “graphic novels” and was attracted to this book by its Chris Ware-imitation cover design. That new reader already knows all about Superman—she wants to know more about the world that gave birth to Ghost World. Imagine a book called Introduction to Literature that spent whole chapters explaining the appeal of murder mysteries, while noting only glancingly that Joyce and Céline wrote “deliberately ugly” prose, and the problem becomes obvious.

Later, when Wolk, eager to justify his affection for capes-and-tights stories, writes that superhero comics are “the closest thing that exists right now to the ‘novel of ideas’”, you have to wonder how many actual prose novels he’s read. You can certainly argue that by their power-fantasy nature, superhero stories are inherently about ethics, and that they represent a literature of ideas. But let’s be honest about what ideas we’re actually talking about here: “with great power comes great responsibility”, the ability to run real fast has its upsides and down-, and super-powered beings should certainly refrain from destroying entire planets if they can. These “ideas” are pretty weak tea compared to the complex concepts explored by Richard Powers, J.G. Ballard, and J.M. Coetzee, just to name a few novelists all currently alive and actively writing. (Hell, Tom Clancy’s stories juggle as many complicated “ideas” as the average caped crime-fighter comic!) Don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes, but there’s no reason to oversell them, and it’s unclear what point there is in doing so here. There is little in the content of superhero stories that hasn’t existed in fantastic prose literature for thousands of years. If so many pages are to be spent defending stories about super-powered protagonists, at least let it be a defense of such stories as comics. Otherwise, it’s all so much wasted space, and (as Wolk says about cartoonists like Crumb and Clowes who he feels spend too much time denigrating superheroes), it’s a bummer.

It’s time that writers about comics started spending less time justifying their nerdiest, guiltiest pleasures to the world at large, and spent more time simply talking about what they think is good. For much of the rest of the section, Wolk deals more with the world of Internet “comics culture” and crazy fanboy collectors than he does on comics themselves. (Again, imagine if that hypothetical Introduction to Lit. spent a chapter on loony streetside booksellers.) The book is padded with an old hoax review of an obscure Vampirella story Wolk wrote for the Internet under a pseudonym—amusing enough for old comics geeks but again of little value or interest to novices—and a full reprint of Wolk’s contribution to a blog meme that traveled the Web a while back, “100 Things I Love About Comics”, a long list of one hundred mostly esoteric moments of superhero history, unlikely to mean anything to anyone not already well-versed in the lore. The final chapter of this section, the first that actually tackles the hard work of explaining “How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean”, is good enough, but mostly offers nothing more than a warmed-over version of material already well covered by Scott McCloud and Will Eisner.

I don’t want this review too sound too negative, though. It is an enormously fun book for anyone already knowledgeable about comics, and even neophytes will find plenty of things to like, especially in the judicious and interesting second section. Wolk rarely strikes an attitude, and his reviews all display intelligence, a sincere fair-mindedness, and clarity of prose. In fact, this is a rare example of the kind of book that is better when not taken on its own terms: as a newcomer’s guide to comics, it’s a flop, but considered simply as a collection of Wolk’s best critical writings on comics, it more than earns it spot on any comics fan’s bookshelf.

Things that have changed since I wrote this review: J.G. Ballard is dead, and I finally began to enjoy Grant Morrison’s writing, if only occasionally. Otherwise, I mostly stand by my article, awkwardly written as it often is. I must admit that I was later surprised by how much positive response Wolk’s book seemed to get on the internet from writers who claimed not to be comic-book aficionados; either the reviewers in question were closeted superhero fans (a distinct possibility), or my thesis may be flawed.

Mostly, I still feel like Wolk’s book was a big missed opportunity. The fact that so little has really fundamentally changed in terms of informed writing about comics outside of fannish media (the slick but shallow David Hajdu’s ascension as our national go-to comics expert being a case in point) only makes that feeling stronger. But I am also still glad I can look up Wolk’s articles about Jaime Hernandez and Dave Sim any time I want.

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53 Responses to “Wolk’s READING COMICS Revisited: Part Two”
  1. patrick ford says:

    Tim: “fatally flawed by Wolk’s proclaimed belief that Ware could be a great artist if only he would make his comics more “fun”—an embarrassing position…”

    Fatally flawed is putting it mildly. That comment from Wolk, is at the very end of the stupid rope.
    This has nothing to do with Chris Ware, it’s just an incomprehensible sensibility.
    Are there more people who see an artist as their personal tool?
    Readers who aren’t interested in what the artist has to say, and how he says it. but rather see certain qualities which could be put to better use if only the creator did the kind of work they think he should be doing?
    Of course the end of the stupid rope is so crowded, there are now people crowded off it and hanging from Wolk’s ankles.
    What’s next? Someone who gives cartooning advice to R. Crumb?

  2. XyphaP says:

    I don’t think that Wolk is suggesting that Chris Ware devotes his pen towards a particular type of comic, but he’s pointing out a very pervasive tone in Chris Ware’s work that could be changed by trying out different techniques and themes. He isn’t so much telling Ware to do a specific type of comic, as to NOT do a specific type of comic.

    The difference is a little important: he’s not being so controlling as telling him what to say and how to say it. And there’s a little, although overstated, truth in Wolk’s critique. Looking at the tone of Ware’s work (once you can get past his fantastic design sense), Ware’s work does only have a couple shades to it: bleak or cleverly, but often bleakly, funny. It’s telling that such an author who jumps around from Clowes to Starlin would find an artist such as Ware, who has developed a singular style so deftly, a little constraining to approach critically. He’s just not the artist that Wolk’s criticism best enlivens. His comment may come off as insensitive until you compare Ware to the artist that he views of as “great”. They almost always are very involved with the industry of comics, like Starlin, Morrison, or Sim. And when they aren’t, they still acknowledge and interact with the industry of comics (Clowes with Eightball #22 and the newspaper referencing Ice Haven, Hernandez Bros. constant genre references).

    But who needs a comprehensive explanation of how comics work as a medium beside Groensteen’s System of Comics, anyway? It’s sad that its first section is more an introduction to Wolk than the ninth art, but wherever Wolk’s theoretical failures about what comics are may fail, whenever he gets specific and, more importantly, researched, about a topic, his objective and always adventurous view of what a comic tries to express is great.

    • T. Hodler says:

      I stand by my judgment. Wolk’s take on Ware is spectacularly dumb. The idea that great comic-book art (or any kind of art, for that matter) must be “fun” isn’t worth taking seriously. And Wolk says exactly that in so many words.

      I agree that on other artists, Wolk can be very perceptive. I don’t think that means he gets a pass on this, though.

  3. patrick ford says:

    xyphap is correct; Wolk is suggesting Ware change his tone, and that is exactly my point.
    The problem I see with Wolk’s comment has nothing specifically to do with Ware.
    It would be the same problem if he said Schulz should have let Charlie Brown win a game, get the pretty girl, or kick the football.
    It’s fine if someone doesn’t like Ware, or Schulz, or Crumb, but they are who they are.
    The reader owes them at least that very basic level of respect.
    I don’t care for the work of Frank Miller, but I’d never suggest he move away from the very thing that makes him what he is.
    Wolk isn’t suggesting Ware work in a different genre, he’s suggesting Ware be someone other than who he is.
    Perhaps Wolk dreams of a sum greater than it’s parts? Chis Ware overdubbed by Stan Lee.

  4. cbren says:

    Can there be critical discussions about something not Ware?

    • T. Hodler says:

      I hear you. I didn’t expect that part of this review to spark any discussion! You should be glad that Jeet requested I post this old thing, though, because I had half-written a post on Ware that got postponed because of it.

      I know it can sometimes feel like Ware gets written about too often–that was one of our animating ideas when we began CC: that most comics criticism at the time only seemed to discuss a certain kind of “respectable” comic, and the argument needed to be widened to include overlooked artists. But at this point it feels like we (and like-minded others) won that battle.

      And now I’m with Frank — if anything Ware needs a lot more, and better criticism. There are a hundred or so other cartoonists who also need more and better criticism, too, of course. We’ll try to spread it out as much as possible (see Dan’s post on Rand Holmes), but Ware will inevitably keep coming up as long as he keeps putting out books as interesting as Lint.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Frank: “most folks can’t even wrap their head around what he is doing”

    Well that, and the fact that his work isn’t fun.
    Did you hear the one about the Dan Clowes character who isn’t likeable?

  6. cbren says:

    OK, I’m breaking my own rules by just being snide and sarcastic about Ware instead of trying to really engage the topic. So here goes. I don’t think Ware himself is even interested in what he writes about. His subjects are contrived for “literary” “significance”, based on the most narrow possible definition of “literariness.” Like “literary” means Jonathan Franzen. I hate how condescending he is to his “mundane”, “ordinary”, know-nothing consumerist American protagonists—especially women. He thinks they’re stupid. He’s deliberately writing ignorant, hopeless characters. They all have their litte spines broken from conception. I personally find it disgusting when he writes about women because I hate it when a male author creates female characters that are pathetic so that he can patronize and condescend to them. Then there’s the drawing. He breaks his page down into millions of these identical tiny panels so that there is nothing interesting happening, not a single compelling image. It looks like one of those tiny comics from the Scott McCloud book, except in color. It’s not good. It’s not interesting. There’s no motion. There are those big splash panels or giant bodies, but whatever. The drawing isn’t good, just slick and surface-y. He makes the medium “respectable” by strangling the life out of it. Everything feels contrived to force a weighty emotional response. He’s a totally disigenuous artist. If I’m going to read “literary” comics I’ll look at Yoshiharu Tsuge, or Jacques Tardi—I liked “You Are There.” You could write about these as “literature” in a meaningful sense—there’s a context to engage with. There’s some sense of historical literary relevance. Like writing about the doppelganger, for example. I think there’s continuity from E.T.A. Hoffman, to Edgar Allen Poe, to Edogawa Rampo and a story like “Gensenkan Shujin” by Tsuge. With Chris Ware, what literary context do you have? Don DeLillo? He’s just aping the atmosphere of what has defined mainstream “serious” literature in America for a very limited time frame—again, stupid, condescending stories about how hopeless “our” lives are. Not my life. Probably not the author’s life, either, which is why it’s disingenuous and condescending. I don’t think that trend in literature is good, so I certainly don’t think Chris Ware is good literature, especially since he’s an imitation of an imitation. I feel like people throw around this concept of “literariness” all of the time while talking about work that doesn’t substantially engage with any literature. There actually are literate comics. That doesn’t mean that the best comics are literate, but the literate/literary comics are there. Chris Ware is not literary or literate.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Don’t be sorry. I’m glad you wrote this comment — the jokey ramen stuff was lame. This is much better, with several issues worth laying out there, I think.

      Obviously, it’s totally fine if Ware isn’t to your taste—I can respect that—but I think a lot of this argument is based on red herrings. Who cares if Ware’s comics are or aren’t literary? What does that really mean, anyway? Where does that label even come from? I’ve written about how this “literary comics” stuff is nonsensical about a million times now, so I won’t bore you with a rehash, but it just feels like you’re letting idiots from NPR and the New York Times Book Review set the terms for your engagement with comics — a terrible way to go through life.

      I think your point about his characters being pathetic is an interesting and important one, and deserves more consideration than I can bring to it here in a comment. (I’m surprised that you find his female characters to be even more hopeless and ignorant than his male characters, though — I’ve always thought he showed more kindness and understanding to the women than the men in his comics. Maybe this is a blind spot for me. I’ll go back and look again.)

      That his drawing isn’t “good” is I guess true from a certain perspective, as is the idea that his images taken separately aren’t particularly interesting, but that’s not how his comics work, obviously. Instead it’s in the juxtapositions (of text and image, image and image), the compositions, the montage, as you doubtless know. His narratives flow in page spreads, not panels. It’s a different way of working than a more virtuoso style artist might use, but it seems just as valid to me.

      Finally, in most cases, it’s impossible to know whether or not any artist is disingenuous, but I sense far too much empathy from Ware towards (at least some of) his characters to agree with you on that. And if you don’t believe that anyone truly feels that life is that bleak, you’ve never met a genuinely depressed person. But they really exist, and some of them have created some of our most moving art.

      Thanks again for your comment. It’s much appreciated.

      • cbren says:

        Yeah, you’re right about the “literary” stuff being a red herring. My comment was 10% rational argument and 90% vitriol. All in good fun, I hope. What you said about montage is also a valid counter to my exaggeration, and I think it is a matter of personal taste in drawing—the comics I like most usually have generously proportioned pages that make room for single images or series of images that burn themselves into my imagination in a way that Ware’s images don’t intend to do, I think. Minus the hyperbole, I think I would still say that he’s condescending to his characters in a way that’s problematic. It’s not that I haven’t experienced hopelessness, or major depression. I have, but I would choose/do choose to honor that in a different way in my work. And having experienced it, I don’t need to have my nose rubbed in it, either. It’s not that I want to avoid it—I deal with it every day! But Ware’s work feels condescending to me, the reader—the only thing it wants to do is keep saying over and over again, look! look how miserable you are. Yes, I already know that. And I’ve moved past it. And I’m glad that not all art in the world is like Chris Ware’s because that would have made it a lot harder to do so.

        I think that when you aestheticize hopelessness and suffering to the point where it becomes a familiar effect that you strive to reproduce again and again in your work, the work you’re making can contribute to oppression. There would be a lot of problems if I argued that Ware or anybody has an obligation to express this or that message in their work—that’s a disclaimer. I still feel the need to criticize him for expressing this aestheticized hopelessness, however. Mark Beyer’s work is hopeless, but there is a lot of humor in his work—and Beyer’s work also has a strong spiritual and imaginative dimension, as well. When I say that Ware’s work is oppressive, I mean that it seems to me that it’s making any alternative to being ground under the heel of consumer culture look impossible or stupid. Like I was trying to say earlier, the cards are stacked against his characters from the beginning—that’s what I mean by disingenuous. I disagree with his hopelessness, not because I haven’t experienced depression, or oppression by society, but because I know that there is escape from it, through the imagination or community. That crushing hopelessness you see in Ware’s work is the same hopelessness that our society deliberately instills in us in order to keep us isolated and desperate. I would never want to perpetuate that system of expression by instilling the same crushing hopelessness in readers through my work. Yes, there are miserable and hopeless people and situations, with no apparent escape, and it would reek of projecting ideology onto literature if I were to argue against creating characters like that. But there seems to be something really wrong, ethically, with aestheticizing misery—even creating a brand out of it—because it seems like the aestheticization of misery is likely to make more of it. I guess I have a certain expectation that art should be radical. Ware’s hopelessness is conservative, and I think that he ultimately takes the same side as the consumer culture his work seems superficially to criticize.

        • T. Hodler says:

          This is a great comment—thanks. I need to think about what you’ve written, because I don’t have a ready answer for you, and it’s an issue I’ve often wrestled with in terms of not just Ware but a lot of similar narratives. There seems to be a line for this kind of art that everyone draws at a different point — I’ve had nearly the same reaction you talk about here, but I had it when I saw Todd Solondz’s Happiness. (I should see that film again, to see if I still feel the same way.)

          In any case, this is all worth considering more seriously, and not responding to glibly, so I’ll leave it there for now. Maybe someone else has some thoughts in the meantime. Thanks again.

          • zik says:

            I agree with a lot of what cbren wrote, or I should say I “feel” that a lot of what he says is right, without necessarily being able to intellectualize why. I’ve long since stopped expecting to really get anything out of what Ware is discussing, or interested in discussing; I just don’t share his bleak world view or his interest in depressing, marginal characters. And LINT is a prime example: did anyone really think his marriage was going to last? That horrible things weren’t going to happen to him, and that, from the book’s perspective, these things weren’t the main focus of his life? It just doesn’t ring true to me at all, it reads forced, narrated, and in a work where it is meant to be read as an organic montage of someone’s entire life, it feels counter productive. LINT made me actually appreciate WILSON more, since WILSON (a very similar work with a similar “montage” conceit, down to the each-page-being-an-event thing) felt infinitely more varied and textured.

            Ware, of course, doesn’t owe me or anyone else a different story, and I think just saying, “He’s too sad!” is a silly critique, but what are we really learning from these books? I don’t think his characterization is that deep to sustain the level of focus they seem to be asking for. I doubt I’ll really learn anything different about Rusty Brown in the hundreds of pages to come that I haven’t already been shown by Ware in Jimmy Corrigan, anything surprising about his character, surprising about human life.

            BUT, with all that said, I think Ware is, fundamentally, our best cartoonist. I think he just knows how to make the core “engine” of comics work better than anyone else. So, for me, he’s like the writer who can just plain write the most beautiful, flowing sentences, but always in service of a story I have no interest in. I’ll still read the damn thing, but not without a lot of deep sighing.

          • T. Hodler says:

            @zik: Hmm. I disagree with a lot of this, actually, or maybe it would be better to say I see things differently. For one thing, while I agree that it seemed evident from the beginning that Lint’s life would include many “horrible things,” I’m not sure that tonal consistency and foreshadowing is necessarily a problem. (For that matter, I could easily imagine a different version of Lint’s story, in which the marriage continued unhappily—many couples stay together even when they shouldn’t.) All I can say is that Lint’s story did ring true to me, and I thought it was interesting how Ware stretched out of his comfort zone to portray a character (wealthy, successful, athletic, sexually active, “type A”) so ostensibly different from those he’d previously written. (That used to be the big rap against Ware, after all: always writing about the same old sad sacks.)

            I think just saying, “He’s too sad!” is a silly critique, but what are we really learning from these books? I don’t think fiction and art is about learning things, but about experiencing things. A lot of this goes back to our arguments about Wilson, and whether or not art has to have a message.

            Thanks for commenting.

          • zik says:

            Just to clarify for Hodler: When I say “learning” I mean either learning about the characters or learning about ourselves, not learning a “life lesson” or something.

        • sk says:

          This is a very selective interpretation of Ware. If you are unable to detect the humor, imagination and (er…) spirituality in his work, then yeah it’s going to seem incredibly bleak.

        • “I disagree with his hopelessness, not because I haven’t experienced depression, or oppression by society, but because I know that there is escape from it, through the imagination or community.”

          Hmm, I think Ware has lots of imagination and escapes it all through his work. I think it’s interesting how strongly his work affects you. Seems to me his work “works” and your difficulties with it are a reflection of how deeply his work cuts into these very messy feelings.

          • cbren says:

            I think there’s something wrong with this argument. Just getting a reaction isn’t a good measure of the success of a piece. If I drew a comic strip about someone with a physical handicap, and it was about how difficult it is to have a physical handicap, but the focus was just about how miserable and hopeless the life of someone with a physical handicap is and about how there’s no escape, something totally reductionist like that— if this made somebody with a physical handicap really angry, it wouldn’t mean that my piece succeeded. They already know how difficult is. They don’t need to be reminded. And they would probably prefer not to view in terms in which I’d be handing it to them. It would be condescending for me to say that they should have liked my piece because they need to be reminded, because it’s obviously such a compelling and poignant depiction of suffering, etc. You could make a similar argument about a mental affliction like depression… I have depression, but I’m sure Chris Ware does too, so it’s not really a question of whether or not the author has the right to speak about depression (or who’s more depressed) but rather whether it deserves to be read or liked by anyone who’s already experienced what it depicts. It think it’s best to avoid in a discussion about the merit of a piece of art this argument about people needing to be reminded of suffering through artwork because it usually turns out to be condescending to people who experience suffering already every day.

          • cbren says:

            It is a little bit weird for me to make that argument about people who have depression, vs. people who don’t, because suffering is everybody’s province. But given that fact about suffering, I would probably have to argue that it’s questionable why Chris Ware’s work should be read not just by people with depression or whatever but by anybody at all. Obviously that sounds really harsh…

        • Brian Nicholson says:

          I’m just going to reiterate someone else’s point here- I think Dash Shaw, in conversation with Mazzucchelli, that the argument that Ware’s stuff is depressing ignores the fact that it’s about the beauty of the natural world. This point comes through in the naturalistic coloring.

          Some of Ware’s stuff is totally brutal and nihilistic though. That’s usually going for comedic effect, but they’re a lot crueler than Mark Newgarden ever is.

  7. Jon Hastings says:

    Re: the “literary” question…

    I think it’s too bad that this word gets thrown around as a pejorative, because I do think it’s getting at something that’s really going on. I tend to link Ware with filmmakers like the Coen Bros (masters of what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity”) because they’re trying to reduce each panel/shot to a single idea. As Tim pointed out, the complexity in their work comes from juxtaposition/montage: from building up elaborate constructions out of these tiny, self-contained, “simple” boxes. I’d oppose this to the way something like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours or Frank Santoro’s Storyville works, where the shots/panels don’t reduce to “meanings” in the same way or, rather, what they mean is a lot less important than how they mean. I tend to think of the Ware/Coen approach as “literary” simply because it strikes me as being closer to reading and they seem to be writing with pictures. The Weerasethakul/Santoro approach seems less about transmitting meaning and more about conveying experience through texture. Its more erotic and less directly cerebral.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Okay, now that’s an interesting way to look at it. I still think the term “literary” might cause too much confusion to be worth using this way, but you’re definitely on to something regardless.

  8. ellen says:

    I used to dislike Chris Ware because his stories felt too depressing and hopeless to me that I didn’t enjoy reading them. I eventually found other things that I truly appreciate about his work, things that others here have already named–his ability to use all the things that define something as a comic to tell a story, creativity with structure, naturalistic coloring. The big blue Quimby the Mouse book made me notice how Ware can tell a story (or illustrate a scenario) using comics in a way that is almost sculptural, directing the reader all over the page, yes, and mentally all around and inside and outside the object of the story as well. Acme Novelty Date Book highlights how intentional and effective Ware’s drawing style is when he’s drawing comics. I also agree with Hodler that his female characters are depicted with more … humanity? (Acme Novelty Library #18 is probably my favorite of Ware’s comics.) It was after reading these other things that I reread Jimmy Corrigan and actually liked it a lot. These comments are great, now I’m excited to go back and reread some of Ware’s stuff to see if I can separate my reactions to the formal aspect of his work and the stories.

    Also, I’m curious what books or authors of comics criticism you would recommend?

    • T. Hodler says:

      I’m sorry your question never got answered, Ellen — it was lost in the deluge. I don’t know if you’re still reading, but if so, I’m going to outsource your question to Tom Spurgeon and his readers — a good percentage of the lists he posted today are solid. You can also see what we’ve written about various books on comics here, and Daniel Raeburn has recently posted all four issues of The Imp, which you can now read for free.

  9. Discussions like this are the reason I enjoy CC, though I rarely post here.

    Personally, I find it difficult to make my way through Chris Ware’s books. This is definitely attributable to the depressing tone – for lack of a better term – of much of his work. The stories are “heavy” and are not “enjoyable” in the traditional sense. Which is not to say I do not appreciate his books. Acme Novelty Library is one of those few books I still get when it comes out (anything new from Los Bros Hernandez, Scott Morse or Alan Moore also being on that list).

    It’s interesting, to me, that what I often take away from his books is the structure of the stories rather than the narratives themselves. There’s the Rusty Brown volume where the panels along the bottom of the pages eventually syncs up with the narrative in the larger panels above, or that single panel in the oversized Acme that tells a non-linear story with the single image (differentiated in each panel) of the tree outside the house. It’s definitely Ware’s style and design that remains with me rather than the story.

    I’m reminded of something Jose Villarubia told me at a Baltimore Con years ago – that Craig Thompson’ Blankets was like Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, but not as depressing. And I wonder, now that I’m thinking of that, if that has to do with the differences in their art styles. Ware’s is so precise that it can be seen (read) as very stark and distancing, while Thompson’s brush work is flowing and imbues the narrative with an energy that might be lost in the precision of Ware.

    Not sure if that last paragraph really makes sense. I was looking for a different word than “flowing” for Thompson’s art, but I haven’t processed my full caffeine regimen yet. If a more apt description comes to mind, I’ll drop it in here. Hope this adds a little to this.

    Great discussion,

    • Alec Trench says:

      His formal “engineering” is, indeed, terrific. Especially in regard to typography and syntax as applied to imagery.

      “There’s the Rusty Brown volume where the panels along the bottom of the pages eventually syncs up with the narrative in the larger panels above…”

      Gilbert Shelton did that with one of the longer Freak Brothers stories. 7th Voyage, maybe?
      The Fat Freddy’s Cat strip at the foot of the page running in parallel to the main narrative above it.

      “… or that single panel in the oversized Acme that tells a non-linear story with the single image (differentiated in each panel) of the tree outside the house.”

      That’s based on something that Frank King did occasionally for his 1930s Sunday pages. also once imitated (oh so crudely) by S Clay Wilson.
      A picture from a single POV takes up the page but is divided into (sub) panels which the characters move through so that each moment is assigned it’s own physical space.
      Ware, as is plenty documented, is a big fan of King (and many other pre-comicbook comic creators) so I’m farely sure this one is a deliberate play (with development) on that artist’s idea.
      The development is that, in Ware’s version, linear time is disrupted and becomes associational, more like the flow of memories.

      Then there are those pages layed out like brainstorm diagrams, each element taking part in a network of reminiscence.
      Those single page experiments are what i like best in Acme.
      The extended, droning melancholy and the eye-punishing quimby stuff are perhaps too dedicatedly avant-garde for my “liking,” however much i can “appreciate” them.
      Still, keep it going, i say.

  10. Chris D. says:

    I think the Ware comment is dead on. Like a lot of comic artists, he has great design sense and nothing to say. Kafka actually is funny, but Ware usually isn’t. Comics’ fatal flaw is nostalgia, which Ware has in spades, even if he tries to hide it under a bleak current. His book designs make the stories look more important than they are, but otherwise there’s nothing to differentiate him from a bunch of other cartoonists who write about the comics world and “pop culture.” The stories are extremely insular. Clowes does a lot of the same thing, even though he’s better.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Humor’s subjective, of course, but I often find Ware’s comics extremely funny. (And in a very similar vein as some of Kafka’s humor, for that matter.)

      • I read an interview with what’s his name – The Unbearable Lightness of Being guy – Kundera – and he said he never understood why most didn’t see the humor in Kafka – I think he said it was like old slapstick to him. And then I heard that Kafka really dug schlock cinema – like “Dude where’s my car” kinda movies for his era – And then I re-read Amerika with this new attitude and laffed my self silly.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Oh, and honestly? I think the nostalgia rap against Ware is bullshit, based on work he did fifteen years more than a decade ago. (It wasn’t that accurate a criticism back then, either, but at least there was some basis to it then.) Have you read any of his recent work? If so, give me some examples of what you mean … because really I don’t see anything in his comics that justify this complaint, or any of your criticisms for that matter, beyond meaningless things like “designed to look important” … which, I mean: huh? Who’s laying this trip on you? He should make his books look bad? And you really don’t think anything but design separates Ware from other cartoonists? What other cartoonists are you talking about, anyway? I want to read these comics you’re talking about that do the same thing Ware’s do, but just aren’t designed to look important.

      • DerikB says:

        If anything, some of Ware’s recent work (haven’t read Lint yet) seems to show nostalgia in a negative light, the dark side of looking back (at least that’s partly how I read Acme #19).

  11. patrick ford says:

    Maybe the only two things as funny as The Trail, are Candide, and Segar’s Thimble Theater.

  12. patrick ford says:

    I love it when a critic rips everything of value in sight, and then reveals they like “Twilight.”

  13. J. Overby says:

    Jon – that’s a great comment. Ware is building mathematical lattices out of semantic units. But I’m with cbren and a lot of folks – it doesn’t have any humanity for me. There is an undercurrent of sneering black humor, an acceptance that drudgery and boredom are one’s lot in life, a wallowing in being unwilling to change one’s situation. Soul-crushing despair is not the price you pay for genius. To me, Ware’s work is really boring. He is definitely a talented, highly intelligent person, but I don’t get anything out of his narratives other than the structure and the design. I’m probably wrong, but I have the feeling that folks sometimes equate depression and intelligence with worth. There’s so much smart culture that is enjoyable or exciting or beautiful, but Ware sucks the life out of me without giving anything back. I’m not meaning to sound vitriolic, either, and I think I understand his appeal, but I’d rather read CF.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Comments this lazy are what suck the life out of me without giving anything back. Talk about boring postures. This and your next comment honestly piss me off. They are actively insulting to me and everyone else who enjoys Ware’s comics. Have you ever met anyone in your life who pretended to like something because it was “hard?” Have you ever done that yourself? Then why would you make such an accusation? You’re too smart to lay down this kind of bullshit.

  14. J. Overby says:

    In other words, I think sometimes Ware is considered good just because it’s hard to get through. That’s the only way I could enjoy it – the self-satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something.

  15. Rob Clough says:

    Ware’s work makes me happy, but then I have a dark sense of humor. Honestly, I’m baffled by those who keep coming up with reasons why people would like it, leaning on “it’s literary”, “it’s difficult”, etc. I’m not going to tell you to change your taste and like what Ware’s doing, but this need to come up with fake reasons why other people love it is simply bizarre to me. I love it because I love comics as maps, comics as a kind of sheet music, and the sheer, improvisitory scope of each individual page. And he keeps getting better, honestly. Acme 19 was a heart-breaking account of the ways in which one man loses his idealism when he has his heart broken, and the ways in which that hardens him in the future. I

  16. J. Overby says:

    Sorry – you’re right. Especially that second comment is pretty fucking obnoxious. I just meant that that was the way I would appreciate his work because it’s too difficult for me to parse in an enjoyable way. And my worldview is much different from his. The comment about the anesthetization of loneliness is right on, I think. You can get caught in an eternal loop of gloom by constantly viewing the world this way. I’ve had bouts of depression, myself, and the only thing that got me out of it was to believe a little in bullshit and try to look at things in a positive way even if I appear foolish.

    I think Ware is an impeccable craftsman, and I can take pleasure in his work on that level but it doesn’t engage me. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work for other people on another level. Almost every cartoonist I respect really loves Ware so I’m probably just a goon.

    I like this quote from cbren:

    “Ware’s hopelessness is conservative, and I think that he ultimately takes the same side as the consumer culture his work seems superficially to criticize.”

    The notes he’s trying to hit about alienation and the ruthlessness and brutality of society feel pretty safe to me. But he truly does design ennui beautifully.

  17. J. Overby says:

    And you’re also right that I wasn’t giving anything back – just venting. I shoulda kept it to myself.

  18. J. Overby says:

    and, oops, meant aestheticization, of course, not anesthetization

  19. T. Hodler says:

    Thanks for your new replies, Jason.

    I understand what you and Caroline Bren are saying, and while I haven’t yet responded to Bren (I’m trying to find the right words, and turn it into a post of its own, or rather to merge it with the one I already have part-written), I do want to say that while I liked her comment a lot, I don’t agree with it myself: I don’t feel hopeless reading Ware’s comics, I don’t think he aestheticizes loneliness, and I don’t think it ultimately takes the same side as the consumer culture he criticizes. That I hold this opinion may have been taken for granted by everyone already, but I wanted to be clear just in case anyone thought I was endorsing Bren’s position. I’m not. As I say, I’ll write more later, for anyone who cares.

    In the meantime, everyone else is free to keep arguing about this, of course, or anything else in the Wolk review.

  20. sorry, haven’t read the wolk review, but have read comments thus far

    ware’s “depression” or “black humor” seems healthy and awesome to me. Like Barthelme, Walser, Barth, Solondz, Tao Lin.

    i think about the notion of a “depressing book” being evidence of a constructive project, as opposed to the lack of activity produced by a bed-ridden depressive.

    regardless of the cultural trends that Ware slots into at a glance and the extended political slots those allude to, i think his work can and should be appreciated on it’s own merits, apart from it’s cultural placement (i.e. NPR, The New Yorker).

    I often think that the most exciting part of Ware is that after I read his books, I can’t escape from his “voice” when I try to keep on living life. His pacing and language are effective, wholly. This is where I might heavily disagree with cbren and overby, because the un-talked, un-politicized aspects of his comics, the pacing and mood and cadence that results from reading them on a basic level, continue to justify his “epic” placement in the comics world, wait….why am i defending Ware?

    I should be defending Martin Ramirez and Joseph Yoakum. Or Tagawa! …there’s a Ware connection to each and all. Oh well….

    • patrick ford says:

      I’ve always found “depressing” fiction (or even non-fiction) uplifting, because it gives me hope to see a person addressing real issues.
      Years ago I saw the movie “El Norte” and walked out of the theater on cloud 9.
      It gave me hope to see something that wasn’t full of shit.
      I doubt (really I know) we (all of us) will ever break the chain, but to even keep a sliver of hope alive you need to see something which makes you feel. I’m not alone in this world.

  21. NoahB says:

    This is a really interesting conversation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us lurkers.

  22. Rob Clough says:

    One last thing: Dan Raeburn’s Chris Ware issue of the Imp (#3) changed the way I thought about Ware. I’d recommend it highly to anyone wanting a thorough critical evaluation of Ware’s early work in particular.

  23. Rob Clough says:

    thanks for linking, Jog.

  24. Briany Najar says:

    Everyone should listen to the entire back-catalogue of Jandek.
    After that, Jimmy Corrigan would be the new Richie Rich.

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