Sunday, March 30, 2008

02:43 Reading Comics

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
Douglas Wolk

Wolk’s book on comics attempts to establish comic theory, analogous to film theory or literary theory, as a starting point for discussing comics. Wolk himself seems to know how hapless a task this is, pointing to the example of how Scott McCloud tied himself in knots just trying to define “comics” in his book Understanding Comics, only to find his definition immediately denounced by some readers. There never has been a consistent, universally acknowledged approach to understanding and writing about literature, film, music or any of the arts. Criticism is an art, not a science, and is prone to the re-thinking, revisions, and arguments attendant to other art forms. At least literary theory is in the same language/form as what it discusses, a fundamental drawback in film and art criticism. McCloud seemed to recognize this, which is why Understanding Comics is a work of criticism in the form of a comic book. Wolk is determined to codify comic book aesthetics as an initial step in discussing the art form, hapless task or not.

Reading Comics is divided into two sections: an overall history and theory of comics, followed by reviews of comics Wolk likes. The first section is the less successful of the two. Wolk attempts to define theory and detail 60+ years of history in under 150 pages, not only for those familiar with comics, but for those unfamiliar with the form. I read comics and know what he was talking about, but I’m not sure it would hold the interest of those who don’t. I found myself engaging less with his ideas than looking for nits to pick.

His reviews in the second half fare better. I remember reading many of them on and they’re intelligent essays, neither stuffy nor puerile. His essay about David B’s Epileptic made me want to put down this book and go read Epileptic – a compliment to Wolk. On the other hand, his piece on Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles made it sound incomprehensible and, even worse, a complete drag. I’m working my way through Morrison’s work right now and it is neither. He finds new things to say about the Hernandez brothers and his dissection of Chris Ware is perfect. “There is insight there” as Pauline Kael would say, and Wolk is at his best when he focuses on individual books or creators rather than overreaching for a theory to describe an entire medium.

No comments: