A review of: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Douglas Wolk

Reviewed by Paul Kane

A review of: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
by Douglas Wolk
Da Capo Press
August 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0306815096, Hardcover: 405 pages

Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean is set out in two parts. The first part, “Theory and History”, is a critical discussion of comics as a medium (not genre; your reviewer has already been picked up on that): the 5 chapters presented here consider what comics are, outlines some ways to judge them, and looks at the kinds of satisfactions and pleasures they offer the reader and fan. Both “superhero comics” (the likes of Marvel and DC) and “art comics” (where Chris Ware is still pretty much the poster boy) are discussed. Wolk’s writing throughout isn’t po-faced at all; it is smart, insightful and inclusive with regard to both high and low culture. So he at one point makes use of Kant’s aesthetic categories of the “agreeable”, the “good”, the “beautiful” and the “sublime” when assessing comics’ worth; and at another he makes reference to Paul Gambi, “a very minor ’60-era DC character whose job was making supervillains’ costumes”. Gambi appears in a bulleted list of beloved miscellanea that ends Chapter 3, “What’s Good About Bad Comics and What’s Bad About Good Comics”. It is a list that extends over 8 pages.

The second part of the book, “Reviews and Commentary”, consists of 18 chapters, each concerned with a particular writer, artist or work. There are chapters about Steve Ditko (“the ghost haunting the last forty years of American comic books”), Chris Ware, Alan Moore and the Marvel series Tomb of Dracula, among others. Wolk is wary of the notion of a “canon” and, in a prefatory disclaimer, explains that he is not attempting to present “a ‘best of’ or ‘suggested reading’ list”. As he goes on to say: “I’m more interested in starting discussions (and arguments) about comics than settling them with any kind of self-appointed authority”. This is accepted. Nonetheless, his reviews and commentaries (a couple – including the essay on Alan Moore – extend to 30 pages; the modal class is about 9 pages, I’d say) are likely to encourage you to seek out the works discussed; and that is no bad thing. Alison Bechdel, someone new to me, definitely appeals. I’d have liked to have heard Wolk’s thoughts on Winsor McCay, Harvey Kurtzman and Brian Azzarello’s past and current collaborations with Eduardo Risso; perhaps another time.

Overall, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean is a book that is subtle, stimulating and enjoyable to read. It is certain to deepen your appreciation of what is a still-emerging medium (as Wolk says, “The Golden Age [of Comics] is Right Now”). As a critic, Douglas Wolk is an erudite (or anoraky: delete as appropriate) companion and his greatest virtue, I think, is a questioning, critical intelligence coupled with a catholic, inclusive sensibility and this allows him to talk about both the DC Universe (someone – William James? –said once about consciousness: “It’s like the Trinity. If it’s explained so that you understand it, it’s not been explained correctly.” The DC Universe can seem like this at times) and Art Spiegelman’s Maus with equal ease. He has written a damn fine book about comics.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com