Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics has two major sections. In the first section, outlines a framework for comic book criticism. First, he makes it clear that the comic book (or graphic novel) is a distinct medium. Comics are not half-assed attempts at some other media such as film or prose.

Next he draws a distinction between mainstream comics and art comics. Mainstream comics have always been an corporate effort. It is corporate in the sense that it has been controlled by publishers. It is also corporate because most mainstream comics are the product of a team (a writer, an artist—sometimes separate penciller and inker—a colorist, and a letterer). Both of these types of corporate authorship give rise to a house style.

This gives rise to one of the major points of distinction between mainstream and art comics. Mainstream comics are dominated by a house style. Art comics are an expression of the style of the cartoonist. There is an element of auteurism in this understanding of art comics. An art comic, to a much greater degree than a mainstream comic, is a single artist’s interpretation of what he sees or envisions. Art comics are valued as an expression of their creators’ visions. The more skillful the cartoonist, the more likely he is to produce good comics.

There is more to Wolk’s framework of comics criticism than this, but it seems to me to be the central element. Wolk does not claim to be making a comprehensive system of criticism. Comic books are too new a medium for that, especially because comics criticisms is necessarily younger.

In the second section of the book, Wolk discusses the works of particular cartoonists. Some of these work heavily or mostly in mainstream comics, but the focus remains on how the artist interprets and expresses his vision in comics, with or without the expectations of mainstream comics.

One of the great examples of this is Alan Moore. Moore’s work for mainstream publishers had turned the mainstream, and especially the superhero genre, on its head while still producing comics that work excellently as mainstream comics. Moore bucks the trend of artsy cartoonists by being a writer only; all of his comics are mainstream-style collaborations with an artist. Wolk mentions several works of Moore, but the grand example is Watchmen. Moore, and especially Watchmen, has cost a long shadow on mainstream comics. He has pushed the mainstream to be much better, and eager imitators have unfortunately produced some horrible comics by learning all the wrong lessons.

Several cartoonists receive attention: the dark, strange visions of Steve Ditko (cocreator of Spider-Man), the epically deep world-building and beautiful drawing of Jaime Hernandez, the epic opus of Cerebus comics by Dave Sim, the artistry of Will Eisner, the power of Frank Miller (sometimes overpowering), and the consciousness-expanding ouvre of Grant Morrison (another writer, but not artist).

Even though the book is not new, it introduced me to cartoonists and comics that were new to me. It was worth the read for that, though Wolk’s perspective on the development of mainstream and art comics is interesting, too.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Douglas Wolk. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2007.