Feb 23, 2010

Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

(Warning: this post turned out to be a bit soap-box-ish. Sorry!)

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean is a book-length piece of comics criticism – somewhat similar to Scott McLoud’s Understanding Comics, but with the crucial difference that it’s written from a reader’s rather than a creator’s perspective. (Also, unlike McLoud’s work, this is not itself a comic.) Needless to say, I gobbled it up. The book is divided into two parts: the first, “Theory and History”, takes a close look at what the comics medium is, how it works, and how it came to be what it is. The second, “Reviews and Commentary”, is exactly what it sounds like. I preferred part one, for many reasons, but I’ll get to that in good time.

My reaction to Reading Comics varied from joy and delight to complete exasperation, sometimes on the same page. A paragraph was often all it took for me to go from wanting to effusively shake the author’s hand to wanting to wring his neck (metaphorically, speaking, of course). But you know, I suspect that’s more or less the reaction Douglas Wolk was going for. He’s a self-professed fan of exciting criticism and passionate debate, and that’s certainly what we have here.

The thing about Mr. Wolk is, he’s quite abrasive – intentionally and unapologetically so. And it’s easy to laugh along with him when he's making fun of things I do find ridiculous, such as people who refuse to say the word “comics” and instead refer to the medium by absurd little names like “graphic books” or “illustrated novels” (not the same thing at all). Come on, it’s not a dirty word. Try saying it: c-o-m-i-c-s. (It is a bit of an awkward name, but then again, “movies”? Because they move?) It’s also easy to laugh when his target are reviewers that go, “Book x is actually good, so therefore it's nothing like a comic at all. I know this even though I've only read one comic in my life - but smart, sophisticated people surely know that all comics are rubbish, so x is naturally the exception to the rule.” (“X” very often being either Persepolis or Maus).

Wolk doesn't actually waste much time on the issue of comics’ respectability, though, because he thinks that mainstream antagonism is mostly a thing of the past. Which I tend to agree with – the little of it that's left will surely be gone in a few years. It amuses me to establish parallels between this and the rise of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that’s probably a topic for a whole other post.

Anyway, as I was saying: it’s easy to laugh sometimes, but not so easy when the target is, say, Craig Thompson and Blankets, which, as you may remember, I absolutely loved. As amateur reviewers, this is something we book bloggers have discussed ad nauseum: the danger of snark is that while some of your readers will feel you’re laughing with them, others will inevitably feel it’s them you’re laughing at. But there’s another reason why Reading Comics sometimes frustrated me: the book relies on certain assumptions about the role of professional criticism that I don’t quite share. Wolks says:
I also think it’s my responsibility as a critic to be harsh and demanding and to subject unambitious or botched work to public scorn, because I want more good comics: more cartoonists who challenge themselves to do better, and more readers who insist on the same. Here’s a bit from one of my favourite critical manifestos, Rebecca West’s 1914 essay, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”: “Just as it was the duty of students of Kelvin the mathematician to correct his errors in arithmetic, so it is the duty of critics to rebuke these hastiness of great writers, lest the blurred impressions weaken the surrounding mental fabric and their rough transmission frustrate the mission of genius on earth.”
Um. In my humble, uninformed opinion, that might not quite be how the relationship between criticism and art production works. This passage also assumes that there’s some sort of universal standard of “unambitious” and “botched”, and that works that fail to reach a minimum level of quality as measured by this universal scale deserve public scorn—and also, of course, that the role of the critic is to “educate” the masses so they can tell the good and the bad apart. Only who determines what’s what? This is difficult to explain, especially without coming across as taking an anti-intellectual stance and refusing to acknowledge the existence of experts of any sort, which is certainly not what I mean. So, again, best to leave this subject for another time.

The reason why I read Reading Comics in a day and a half (and I’m a slow reader of non-fiction), though, and the reason why I’m very glad I picked it up despite my occasional exasperation and philosophical disagreements, is that when Douglas Wolk is brilliant, he’s truly brilliant. His writing is passionate, intelligent, direct, and simple, even when dealing with complex ideas. He has the ability to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about comics in the most succinct and straightforward possible way – something I’ve been trying to do (and failing) for literary years. I particularly loved how he explained that comics are a) not a genre (I’m going to get this tattooed on my forehead someday) and b) not “novels with pictures”. They’re a medium that functions in an entirely unique way; one doesn’t aspire to being anything else. Allow me to share a few passages, even though this post is already quite long:
There’s a problem with the way many people talk about comics: it’s very hard to talk about them as comics. One numbingly common mistake in the way culture critics address them is to invoke “the comic book genre”. As cartoonists and their long time admirers are getting a little tired of explaining, comics are not a genre; they’re a medium. Westerns, Regency romances, film noir: those are genres—kinds of stories with specific categories of subjects and conventions for their content and presentation. (Stories about superheroes are a genre, too.) Prose fiction, sculpture, video: those, like comics, are media—forms of expression that have few or no rules regarding their content other than the very board ones imposed on them by their form.
EXACTLY. For the record, I’m not trying to dissociate comics from genre literature because I think there’s something wrong with it—quite the contrary; I read it all the time. But the reason why I care so much about this is because I think that thinking of comics as a genre does them a huge disservice. People tend to see genres as a bit samey, which I don’t think is really true. Nevertheless, they obviously do have things in common, and they do use some of the same conventions—that’s what makes them genres. So if someone tells me, “I don’t usually like adventure novels”, I’m not inclined to argue with them. To think of comics as a genre, though, is to think that content-wise they’re all at least somewhat similar to one another, which is simply not true at all.

An example: a while ago I saw a review of a comic in which the person said they didn’t like it very much because the characters were a bit black and white. This is fair enough—but then someone commented suggesting that this was probably just a characteristic of the ‘genre’, and therefore the reviewer really shouldn’t have expected more in terms of characterisation. The ‘genre’ this commenter had in mind was probably superhero comics – and even then, something could be said about the assumption that they all have cardboard characters. The funny thing, though, is that the comic in question was not about superheroes at all – it was a piece of realistic fiction. But when we mistake the medium for a genre, we tend to unconsciously slip into these thought patterns. It’s amazing how many people still seem to assume that all comics are like those early twentieth-century black and white good-versus-evil superhero stories.

(Of course, there’s nothing wrong with not being a fan of the medium, just like there’s nothing wrong with, say, disliking music. What frustrates me is that people often justify their dislike with reasons that are simply not true. And also that some cross the line that separates dislike from disdain. People never quite seem to sound superior and proud when they announce they don’t like music, do they? But ooops: I’m slipping into the kind of demand for acknowledgement that Douglas Wolk so dislikes about comics culture. )

The genre/medium confusion is an error of ignorance, while the if-it’s-deep-it’s-not-really-comics gambit is just a case of snobbery (in the sense of wanting to make a distinction between one’s own taste and the rabble’s taste). But the most thoroughly ingrained error in the language used to discuss comics is treating them as if they were particularly weird, or failed, examples of another medium altogether. Good comics are sometimes described as being “cinematic” (if they have some kind of broad visual scope or imitate a familiar kind of movie) or “novelistic” (if they have keenly observed details, or simply take a long time to read). Those can be descriptive words when they’re applied to comics. It’s almost an insult, though, to treat them as compliments. Using them as praise implies that comics as a form aspire (more or less unsuccessfully) to being movies or novels.
The comparisons to literature and film really amaze me. Saying comics are the same medium as books just because both have pages and you sit down to read them (or saying they’re like movies because they have images) is kind of like saying that theatre and film are the same medium because you sit down to watch them. Or that radio plays and music are the same because you listen to them both. They have similarities, of course, but they're not the same thing at all.

I wish the first part of the book had been longer, because there’s so much that can be said about how comics work. This is a topic that truly fascinates me. Part two, which takes a little over half the book, offers detailed commentary on the works of several comics creators, such as Alan Moore (of course), Craig Thompson (Mr. Wolk is not a fan), Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Mr Wolk is a fan), Dave Sim, Will Eisner, Hope Larson, Alison Bedchel, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, and so on. It’s not that this second part wasn’t interesting, but unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the chapters about authors I’ve read a lot more than the chapters about ones I haven’t. And as I’m still quite the comics newbie myself, this only amounted to about half of them.

Despite my earlier complains, I’d definitely recommend Reading Comics to anyone interested in the medium, or in lively literary criticism in general. There’s a lot to be learned here. There’s also a lot I loved and haven’t even addressed at all, because this post is already ridiculously long as it is. For example, I quite liked the way Wolk dealt with the issue of gender in comics. But most of all, I loved how the book encouraged readers to discuss comics without diminishing them by treating them as an art form that tries to be something it’s not.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I'll add your link here.)


  1. Your first line there made me smile right off the bat. :) I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this review! But I doubt I'll ever read the book. Start talking theory and professional criticism and things like that and I start feeling really ignorant. (And believe me, I don't need any help when it comes to "feeling stupid"!)

    You know, I think I was really lucky. I was introduced to comics by people who I greatly respected...you and Dewey and Chris and Carl. Before knowing you all, I had no judgments about them at all...I just didn't know anything about them and it just never occurred to me to read them or to not read them. And I think I was maybe lucky in a way that the first one I read was Alice in Sunderland...if I had any false beliefs about comics being a genre before that, that would have immediately set me straight. I don't know...it just seems so clear to me that graphic novels and movies and novels are all different forms of storytelling. But saying that, I still don't doubt that I'm full of all kinds of different misconceptions. Ahhh, and this is part of why I love blogging so much...the chance to rid myself of misconceptions. :)

  2. You know, I have to admit I don't use the word "comics" very often because I associate it with the short strips that come in the newspaper every day. If a book is a collection of those little s horts, then I refer to them as comics, but if they are a longer work, I call them GNs. Sort of like the difference between a short story and a novel. I know that's not a technical difference, but that's how it feels in my head so I don't mind separating it out. I don't have a bias against either the term "comics" or "graphic novel" - to me it just feels like the difference between "short" and "long."

  3. I try to use the word "comics", which I actually like better, but then people frequently miss the point and think I'm talking about newspaper comics. This book sounds so interesting. Why doesn't he like Craig Thompson though?? Does he like Dave Sim? Even though Dave Sim is crazy crazy in the head and passionately hates women?

  4. I received this one for review from the publisher a long time ago, and I tooootally couldn't get into it. I never even mentioned it on my blog because I had some issues with the part I actually did finish. Then again, I think I'd had my fill of any sort of comics theory or criticism at the time having come off my Masters thesis over Fables. A very good review, Ana! I love that you present the bad right alongside the good stuff.

  5. Amanda I feel the same way! I also associate the word comics with the strips in the newspaper! I actually really like the term graphic novel, which makes me a total outsider.

    Love this review Ana! I have a few books on this topic I need to read and I'm ashamed to say I can't remember if this is one of them!

  6. <3 <3 <3

    Everyone else has already said pretty well everything I wanted to say, so I'll just add that I'd love to read your hypothetical essay about the parallels between the legitimization of comics and the rise of the novel.

  7. Debi Debi Debi....there's absolutely NOTHING here you wouldn't get. Just saying :P My journey towards comics was similar to yours: I didn't have much of an opinion of them either way before I started reading them as an adult. And I loved Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, so it was a natural progress. And yeah, the whole being a different medium thing seems SO clear to me as well. But then again, I bet I have silly misconceptions about other things too :P

    Amanda: I get that about "comics", but then again, "graphic novels" makes it sound like they're trying to be novels...argh! But I do use it as well when referring to book-length ones - I just use "comics" when referring to the medium regardless of whether it's a book, an individual issue, a web site, etc.

    Jenny: He thinks Craig Thompson is pompous and self-important. He makes fun of that panel where he says the only time he ever masturbated in high school was to one of Riana's letters, which I thought was SUCH a low blow...that panel is so beautiful and vulnerable, despite the unlikely subject matter. And yes, he is mean about it :P He goes out of his way to be mean, really. I guess he thinks Thompson deserves to be subjected to "public scorn" and it's his duty to do it. He also thinks that the characters in Blankets are all black and white, either saints or complete villains, which... *paperbag* Did we even read the same book?! You know, I saw that Blankets was mentioned in the index, so I went ahead and read that bit first, and then I almost decided not to read the book after all, lol. I'm glad I did in the end, though, and I'm all the more impressed that he mostly won me over despite my predisposition to dislike him :P

    As for Dave Sim, he does like his earlier work, but he fully acknowledges his misogynistic rants. Which I had NO IDEA about! All I knew was that Neil Gaiman liked him! Wolk says some interesting things about feeling conflicted by liking his technical skills but abhorring his politics...I quite liked the chapter on Sim, despite the EEK factor.

    Andi: Thank you! And I can totally understand not getting into it. It might have happened to me too if I'd been in a different mood.

    Amy: I don't hate the term "graphic novels" or anything, and I do use it, but like I was telling Amanda, it gives the impression that they're trying to be novels :P Also, it's a bit weird to use it for non-fiction. "Graphic books" might be better, but then there's the problem of the whole connotation of "graphic"...argh! *head explodes* :P

    Memory: Now I just need to actually write it :P

  8. I admit it, I use the term graphic novels, as I tend to think of comics as what you read in the newspaper (I love me some Garfield). Also, comics evokes for me, the image of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons and people I strongly dislike who are like that. I do collect comics, or, graphic novels such as Bone, Alan Moore's Work, as well as the comic versions of The Dark Tower by Stephen King, actually anything adapted from Stephen King's work in the graphic novel medium.

    I wonder what he said about Spieglman (I really enjoyed Maus).

  9. I loved your in-depth review of this book and your thoughts on criticism. I tend to have a negative reaction to reviewers who use ridicule and sarcasm as tools, no matter how clever they may be. In general, I feel that literary criticism should be a respectful conversation among readers, reviewers, and authors, and it sounds like you're on the same page. This book does sound fascinating though!

  10. Love your soap boxes. Thanks for a great review.

    The name question interests me too. "Comics" and "graphic novels" both have problems, because they both refer to other art / entertainment forms that are more widely known. But that's always been an issue with young-ish art forms. People are doing their best to stick on a handle they know how to grab. I've noticed early silent films often call themselves "photo plays" when they want to sound refined! Time sorts some of this stuff out on its own.

    It makes sense to me to put comics/graphic novels in a class of their own, despite the book-shape Physically they are a very different experience from reading prose text. If you have any eye problems that involve tracking or transitioning, they can be really difficult to read. You do a lot of switching with between the image-processing and text processing parts of your brain. Comes naturally to some people, for others its a conscious effort or even a source of fatigue. Either way, a very different dynamic from plain reading.

  11. This book sounds like it could be at turns frustrating and enlightening, so I am glad that, for the most part you enjoyed it! I haven't read very many comics, but I would really like to. Where would you recommend a beginner to start?

  12. This sounds fascinating - I'll be on the lookout for it. Thanks!

  13. I'm shocked he made fun of that bit from Blankets. How mean! But I'm interested to see what he says about Dave Sim. Dave Sim is seriously made out of crazy. Dave Sim says he won't read any mail he gets unless it says in large letters across the top "Dave Sim is not a misogynist". I shall send him a package full of pills with a letter that says "Dave Sim is not a misogynist. Enclosed please find a lifetime supply of Healthy Vitamins," except instead of Healthy Vitamins (and this is the cunning part), the pills will be 25mg of Seroquel. Better living through chemistry (and, you know, lies).

  14. I saw this book in the library but I didn't pick it up because I thought I should read some comics or Graphic novels first before I can truly understand what the author is saying.

    Loved your analysis and your review though.

  15. Great, great post, Ana! I would love to read a post on how you think criticism and art work together--I think a lot of reviewers who see themselves as the thin black & white line, so to speak, between the public and creative rubbish wind up making asses of themselves at some point. But you're right, that's a topic for another post...

    Did this book talk about how comics were seen as totally subversive and dangerous in the early 20th century? Or how a lot of the surrealists were fans of comics and referenced them in their work?

  16. I really don't know if I could read this book or not! Which is weird, because I'm absolutely in love with this post. It's one of my favorite posts you've done in awhile. And while, like you, I feel like I'd agree with him on a lot of the points he makes..there's something that makes me feel like I'd want to yell at the book! Like him not liking Craig Thompson :p (You mean I have to tolerate other people's tastes? :p)

    Kudos to you though Ana for elaborating on his points with your own commentary in such a WONDERFUL way :D You always say what I wish I could say in such a more eloquent way that makes so much more sense. <---Could you please take that sentence and make it make more sense :/ Ok...shutting up now >>

  17. April: I really don't have anything against "graphic novels", and I use it myself. I just don't like it when people make up a new name every week with the intent of, as Wolk says, distancing their taste from the masses' :P And yeah, I'm not a fond of the Simpsons guy either. That element of comics culture exists, but like all caricatures, it's a great exaggeration :P As for Spiegelman, he's a fan! (And so am I.)

    Stephanie: Yeah, same here. A scornful tone usually rubs me the wrong way. I do think it's possible to use sarcasm without sounding scornful, but it's always a little risky.

    Trapunto: I know! The problem really is that all the available names are rather awkward :P But I think that over time whichever one becomes the dominant term will lose its association to other art forms and just come to mean this very specific medium. I had no idea about "photo plays", btw! That's fascinating. Also, I completely agree with you about the experience of reading a comic being very different even brain-wise.

    Zibilee: Hmm....a difficult question. This isn't a very original suggestion, but from what I know of your taste, I think you'd really enjoy Persepolis if you haven't read that yet.

    Darla, I hope you enjoy it!

    Jenny: I know - I looked Sim up when I finished the book and read about all of that :S I read that he actually makes people who want to correspond with him sign a document declaring he's not a misogynist, lol. If he's so concerned about sounding like one, he might as well, I don't know, not include misogynistic rants in his comic. Just a thought :P I vote yes to the pills, lol.

    Violet: Thank you! And yes, it's probably good to read some first, especially before part two.

    heidenkind: He mentions the "comic book scare" and all that, but not the surrealists! I'd love to read about that. Also, I agree about those people tending to make asses of themselves :P

    Chris: Is that a nice way of saying all my posts lately have sucked? :P Actually, don't answer that, lol. I know I've been saying the same again and again and again :S I don't have a problem with tolerating other people's tastes; I just have a problem with them trying to "enlighten" me about the bad quality of a work I'm sadly mistaken to like, lol. Trust me, he doesn't come across like he thinks it's a matter of taste at all :P

  18. This sounds very interesting. The thing I liked most about McCloud's book,though, was that it was written in the medium: that made it so powerful! Anyway, I'll have to keep this one in mind.

  19. my own sort of arbitrary distinction between comics and graphic novels is length. So if many comics are combined to form a volume, they become a graphic novel. If they are by themselves, they are comics. To me, this makes sense.

  20. Rebecca: I know! It also made it so much easier for him to illustrate his points - literally speaking :P I liked the McCloud better, but this was good too.

    J.T. Oldfield: I don't think it's that arbitrary. It's a widely accepted distinction and I didn't mean to argue with it at all :)

  21. Your review inspired me to reserve this one at my library and I finally got it this week!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.