“Comics no longer have to make a point about what they aren’t,” writes Douglas Wolk in his Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. “If there’s such a thing as a golden age of comics, it’s happening right now.” Wolk traces this golden age back to the annus mirabilus of 1986, when the big three of modern comics hit the shelves: Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. “From then until the turn of the milleniu, those three books became the standard against which comics that wanted to be important or meaningful were measured and the standard to which too many cartoonists who wanted to create something meaningful (but didn’t know how) aspired,” Wolk believes, and then proves in this combination of the state of the comics universe as well as an enthusiastic and unashamed appreciation of the good and the so bad it’s good in comics and graphic novels.
Wolk, comics and music critic (and blogger), brings the enthusiasm of a fan and the hefty intellectual credentials of an academic to his criticism of comics, all without losing his sense of fun and imagination at the center of comic entertainment. Analyzing the current state of comics, Wolk sees the central problem as finding a way “to read and discuss comics now that they’re very different from what they used to be.” Comics’ long superhero problem, or what Wolk calls “the spandex wall,” has been breached by the revolutionary new ways comics have evolved. Borrowing from the critical lexicons of film and literature no longer works. Even Wolk finds himself searching for the right approach, distinguishing himself from Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, this way: “McCloud likes to make categories; I like to make generalizations and excuses.” Fortunately, Wolk has little reason to make any excuses in his thought-provoking and entertaining attempt to craft a comics’ critical language on the fly.
Wolk’s greater achievement may be in plunging into the depths of the “comics culture,” which he sees as “the blessing and curse of comics as a medium.” The insularity parodied in the form of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy stands in the way of many who want to enter the world of graphic comics, but Wolk calms all those fears and reveals the comics culture as one that invites sincere interest and rewards the accumulation of knowledge and understanding, feeding the addiction more with each new exposure. Through works such as Chester Brown’s “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” (above), in which Brown explores the complex theories of Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing on schizophrenia amidst his simplistic drawing style, Wolk shows the schizophrenia of the comics culture itself, wanting to be accepted by the general public yet simultaneously wanting to be an exclusive club full of esoteric knowledge. Wolk’s book brings some of that esoteric knowledge together in one place, providing a ticket of admission for people of all backgrounds and gender, thanks to the diminishing of comics’ “internalized sexism” and emergence of a generation of women comic artists and writers.
After his survey of the general state of comics as an institution and as a critical field, Wolk gets down to particulars in the second half of the book with a series of essays on various figures in comics over the past 60 years, from Will Eisner’s early work to the online independent comics of today. Along the way, you learn more about figures such as Gilbert Hernandez, author of Love and Rockets (above) and “maybe the most sex-obsessed great cartoonist.” Follow Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and, according to Wolk, “the ghost haunting the last forty years of American comic books,” descend into Ayn Rand-inspired incomprehensibility. Discover how Tomb of Dracula embraces everything great about bad comics. Understand how Chris Ware in Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth “systematically dismembers the idea of light entertainment.” Along the way, Wolk drags along the corpses of Immanuel Kant and Leon Battista Alberti to illuminate these and other figures, all without losing a sense of comics’ fun while keeping in mind that such fun can be serious intellectual business, too.
When Wolk brought Alberti into play to discuss Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and how that work plays with ideas of perspective and reality, I remembered the discussion of Alberti’s work on perspective in The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Art of Human Creativity (reviewed earlier here). The Artful Mind traces how art encouraged cognitive development in the human race, pushing the mind to understand more and more complex abstractions. Such an idea dovetails well with Wolk’s idea of a “superreader” of comics. We may not have the critical language to truly discuss comics yet because that “leap” in cognition has not yet been completed. Comics as a medium marries words and images in ways that visual art and literature cannot, creating a sum greater than its parts. In works such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets (above), Thompson achieves effects impossible in just images or words. In the panel above, Thompson shows the main character sleeping with his girlfriend, representing the sounds of her heartbeat and breathing, the “spirits” milling about the room, and the snow falling outside as four different motifs cascading behind the bed. My long description of that single image shows just how farther comic images can go than just pictureless words or wordless pictures. Reading Comics allows everyone to begin their great leap into a new way of thinking that imbues the current art of graphic novels and comics. Comics are not just for kids anymore, the saying goes. Comics are for every thinking person today, is how it should go.
[Many thanks to Da Capo Press for providing me with a review copy of Reading Comics as well as the images above from the book.]