Sunday, March 30, 2008
Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
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 Salon.com 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.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin’s autobiography covers the most interesting part of his career: the early years of doing standup in obscurity, then unexpected and unprecedented renown and success, early retirement from the stage in favor of movies and writing. There’s a little bit of psychobabble, and obviously emotional topics are written about in his dry, detached voice. But Martin is able to write with wit without coming across as an annoying jokester.
Like the best memoirs, Born Standing Up recreates a lost world, a world that Martin himself had a hand in destroying. Entertainment was not nearly as ubiquitous when Martin started out as it is today. There’s wistfulness in the passages about the small time entertainers who inspired and trained him, and his summers spent performing in a broken-down theater in which the audience could hear the toilet flushing backstage. It was an era when entertainment was a minor part of most people’s lives before it became a constant need and a major engine of our economy. Just as the unprecedented success of “Star Wars” forever changed the movie business, the comedy boom of the late seventies, of which Martin was a large part, expanded the role of entertainment in American life.
Martin himself is a fairly serious person and though he never directly discusses this change in society, it’s not hard to surmise his attitude when he writes about why he quit standup at the peak of his success. It was all too much: too many concerts, too many people, too many demands, none of which seemed conducive to comedy. Further proof: this slim book made me laugh out loud.
Sunday, March 09, 2008
Since getting a new computer I've really enjoyed burning dvds for friends. I'll see something on tv and think "Oh, so-and-so would probably love to see that - I'll burn them a disc."
Well, I was watching a movie this past Friday when I had the idea of John's DVD of the Month Club. Here's how it works: you subscribe by sending me your name and mailing address. Then, at the beginning of each month, you'll receive a dvd of something that I found interesting: an old movie, a documentary about weird religion, episodes of a BBC series not available in this country, whatever. Each dvd will be a surprise.
It's free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at anytime. The discs are your's to keep or pass along to friends or throw away.
If interested, please send me an email with your name and address and "John's DVD of the Month Club" as the subject. Please don't post your address in the comment section of this journal.
The first disc will be arrive the first week of April.