Saturday, 8 September 2007

Books you should read: Reading Comics

I'll be continuing the posts on Morrison on Tuesday evening, once I get back from seeing Brian Wilson in London. I want to do at least one more Seven Soldiers post, and then I want to look at 52 and the current Bat-books, and Morrison's involvement in those.

But for today, I'm going to have a quick look at Douglas Wolk's new(ish) book Reading Comics.

One of the ideas we see floating around on comics blogs a lot at the moment is that we need a comics magazine 'between Wizard and The Comics Journal'. Now, I expect that the people who say this mean at least two different things. I think for the majority what they're talking about is some ghastly middlebrow Mojo magazine for comics, something to confirm for them that the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans was the greatest achievement in the history of the comics medium, and that Alex Ross is the only real artist working today. Sadly, given the current demographic of comics fans, I suspect such a magazine would outsell both Wizard and The Comics Journal.

But what I think at least some are talking about is the potentially far more interesting idea of criticism that engages with work of whatever genre, with neither TCJ's incessant brown-nosing of whoever Fantagraphics are publishing this week (and I say that as someone who finds TCJ generally a very readable, interesting magazine) or Wizard's role as a press release outlet for Marvel. Something that actually applies actual critical standards to the work in question. Now, for someone like myself who thrives on discourse, for whom almost half the fun in a piece of art is reading the criticism of it and formulating my own response to it, that sort of thing is worth seeking out. Much of what is available in the comics medium, like in any other medium, is pap, but there is good material out there, both in the superhero genre and in 'art comics', and there is a lot of material out there that is worthy of discussion.

There are a few people out there who are actually looking at comics with a critical eye - Jog is obviously the most prominent, but some of the other writers in my sidebar do the same kind of thing at times. And Douglas Wolk's book is in many ways the book I would like to have written on comics, had I the knowledge or writing ability.

Reading Comics does not pretend to be a comprehensive guide to comics - Wolk (who most of you will know from his blog 52 pickup , the blog that inspired the original incarnation of this one, and from his writing for The Savage Critics ) is not stupid enough to pretend that such a thing is possible - but is instead a discussion of those comics Wolk finds interesting to talk about, primarily English language comics published by American publishers. And it is all the better for that - Wolk's passion for the medium and his chosen topics shines through even when he is talking about work that he considers flawed.

The book is split into two sections. The first, shorter section of about 140 pages is mostly devoted to explaining for non-comics readers what comics are, and some of the ins and outs of comics 'culture'. Most of those reading this will be familiar with many of the concepts here, and some of the material of necessity duplicates that in works such as Understanding Comics, but a lot of it reads as surprisingly fresh. In particular Wolk's explanations of how continuity functions in modern superhero comics and the way that a story gains significance from its placement in the larger context are very effective at putting into words things which many superhero readers have internalised but may never have verbalised.

But it's the second section which will be of most interest to the readers of this blog. Wolk devotes a series of chapters to creators or works he has something to say about, ranging from Chris Ware to Steve Ditko, from Fun Home to Tomb Of Dracula.

What most of these works and creators have in common is that they're ambitious but flawed, and Wolk deals well with both aspects of the work. All too often (and I'm very guilty of it myself) comics critics fall into the habit of overlooking flaws in an impressive work, or conversely overlooking the good points in a flawed work. It's very easy to see the flaws in Jim Starlin's Warlock and dismiss it as superhero hackery. Likewise, it's incredibly easy to look at Will Eisner's later work and be awed by the mastery of the form, without noticing that a lot of the content is semi-competent.

Wolk doesn't fall into this trap, and it's to his credit. He's especially good on works where the quality and the flaws are both very noticeable - he's one of the depressingly few people who seem to acknowledge that the Dave Sim of the last 15 or so years is both the most interesting and creative comics writer/artist in the business and as mad as a box of frogs rather than focussing on one to the exclusion of the other - but he is equally good on someone like Alan Moore, pointing out the lazy shortcuts Moore sometimes uses, while still acknowledging his achievements.

The one exception is his chapter on Grant Morrison, which reads almost as a love-letter to Morrison. With good reason - Morrison is the kind of writer a critic like Wolk should love, packing endless layers of meaning and subtext into almost every panel - but Morrison at least as much as Moore is a flawed writer, with his own tics and bad habits. I suspect though that this chapter has lost quite a bit in the editing - it is mentioned near the beginning of the chapter that "Morrison's arguably still grappling with Moore's legacy, as we'll see", and then Moore's not mentioned again. If there was a section on this that was cut, it's a shame - one of the most interesting things about Morrison is the way he interacts with Moore's work, flitting between outright imitation, critique, and deliberate attempts to be as dissimilar from Moore as possible, and I would have liked to see Wolk deal with that.

I'm possibly over-praising Wolk's book here, but that's partly because it's so close to my own tastes and concerns. As Wolk says of The Invisibles "I've never been able to recommend it to anyone else with a clear conscience... partly because it struck me as being exactly the kind of story I like to read." I can think of only a handful of cases where I actually disagree with him (his acceptance of the claim that 'art comics' have no genre rather than being a genre themselves is surprising for someone who's otherwise so insightful about this sort of thing, his claim that the early Image artists had much technical skill, and his rather over-high opinion of Art Spiegelman) and many where he cast an interesting new light on something I'd read, or articulated something I've thought but been unable to put into words.

I have criticisms of course - many of the individual creators Wolk writes about deserve (and some have) entire books written about them. Dealing with Alan Moore or Chester Brown in a chapter, or Will Eisner and Frank Miller in half a chapter each, sells them short. But it made me want to reread Ed The Happy Clown, Lost Girls, The Invisibles, the last half of Cerebus and Jimmy Corrigan, and to seek out the comics he talks about that I haven't read. If you're the kind of person who likes the stuff I try to do on this blog, I can't recommend it strongly enough.


ATOM-HOTEP said...

One criticism I have of Wolk's book is that everything Kirby seems to induce eye rolling and groaning in him, which I find puzzling.

FrF said...

It may be useful for readers of Andrew's review to know that Newsarama published the entire chapter 16 of Douglas Wolk's book which is the one about Morrison's "Invisibles" and "Seven Soldiers".

No Radio said...

If you can find a copy (I forget who published it), I'd recommend Geoff Klock's "How to Read Superhero Comics and Why". As the title indicates, it's maybe a little too much in the Harold Bloom school, but it traces an interesting line through stuff like Watchmen to some of Morrison's later superhero work. It's not as well written as Wolk's, nor as broad, but I think it gets a little deeper into the texts it looks at. I felt Wolk's book was a little too much like a survey or intro course in "art" comics, although an excellent effort at canon building.

Cliffy said...

That's weird, atom-hotep. How can anyone who loves Morrison hate Kirby?