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Now I Have To Pretend To Like
Graphic Novels, Too?: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

(Da Capo)


Monday, August 20, 2007

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
By Douglas Wolk
(Da Capo)

Reviewed by A S H Smyth

“Now I have to pretend to like graphic novels, too?”

All books these days claim to be easily (and gainfully) read by beginners and experts alike, but in this case it might actually be true. Just as well, really, since comics are something about which you either know everything or nothing.

Five years ago, Douglas Wolk reckons, there wasn’t enough high-quality primary material to justify a book like Reading Comics (a handy olive-branch to those of us who wouldn’t have given comics the time of day). But now, comics can be found in every branch of Barnes & Noble, and graphic novels are frequently reviewed in discerning Books pages. Now, it seems, it’s not just pseuds at parties who have to pretend to like graphic novels, too.

Wolk’s focus is English-language art comics (manga, being an exception to every rule, is left out): the auteured, book-sized affairs you find in “proper” bookshops, rather than the yellowing superhero pages in dank, collectors’ dungeons. Arguing that comics are still being “discovered” as a form — simultaneously still groundbreaking, yet reaching a new maturity — Wolk charts their rocky and sporadic evolution from throwaway kids’ entertainment to an adult art form (in every sense). In the process, he examines the Golden and Silver Ages of the superheroes, the convention-busters of the Eighties, economic upheavals in the Nineties and the newly flourishing mainstream of the 21st century, led (inevitably) by former rebels like Frank Miller, Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore.

The history and theory dealt with, Wolk offers 18 critiques of cartoonists whose work he admires (we’ve had the “how they work” section: this is “what they mean”), before concluding with an afterword on new themes, divisions in current artistic thinking and prospects for Internet-launched cartoonists.

As with all such labors of love, Reading Comics contains a certain amount of frustration at the misunderstandings of the outside world. Comics are not a lesser version of some other art form (the novel, for example): “They are their own thing: a medium with its own devices, its own innovators, its own clichés, its own genres and traps and liberties.” And — the same logic in reverse — it’s snobbery to pretend that intelligent comics count as something else. He cites a lady referring to precisely the comic I would choose (Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis) if asked to demonstrate how comics could be relevant to readers with no interest in spandex or fighting crime.

His professional defensiveness is self-aware, though, and humorous. Wolk is a funny guy — “drawing has historically been the red-headed stepchild of painting” — and very self-deprecating. He once wrote a mock column in which he invoked Dickensian parallels at every opportunity just to irritate the pointy-heads. The best of these involved a book report from a literal minded person trying to see past the glitches in a superhero tale: Where does Superman put his clothes when he changes in the revolving door? And he pulls out some wonderfully entertaining anomalies from comic history, like the minor superhero (there are leagues, it seems) who fought crime by doing the washing up.

But the real strength of Reading Comics is that Wolk writes cultural commentary as it seems only Americans can do. Easy but blunt: No BS. He is constantly bursting the balloon of lit-theory pomposity, even if he has to work within some of the lit-crit guidelines to make his points. Difficult to pull off when you’re referring to Sontag or Kant

Wolk doesn’t bother to deny his supergeek status (the man reviews comics for a living!), but that doesn’t stop him from throwing a few punches at certain of his brethren, like those who know the “rules” of Frisbee. “If there’s one thing freaks like to do, it’s forming alliances with other freaks.” He mocks the dingy collectors stores, and doesn’t think much more of their clientele: folks who speculate on collectible covers, or “slab” their comics between plastic boards, thus rendering them unreadable. FYOV syndrome (Forty-Year-Old Virgin), he reminds us, long predates Steve Carrell.

If you are a fan of superheroes — “the public and private shame of American comics,” the bankrollers of the industry — they get a look-in, too. It’s not all roses, though. Wolk warns that mainstream serial comics have some big problems: Rewarding their fanatical readers with mind-boggling cross-narratives and more in-jokes than Die Another Day, they are cutting themselves off from new readers, and slowly but surely sealing their own fate.

But Wolk is certain that for the auteured art comics, a new Golden Age is dawning. There seems little reason to doubt him. Comics have developed and matured, and are ready to “pull up a chair at the table of high culture and say something interesting.” The superhero days of black-and-white, good vs. evil have passed: Only politicians think like that now.


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