Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean BY Douglas Wolk. Da Capo Press. Hardcover, 405 pages. $22.

The cover of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

As comic books and graphic novels achieve greater literary prominence, they require a critical context that encompasses not simply writing and art as separate entities but also the unique interaction between visual and textual elements. In Reading Comics, critic Douglas Wolk wants to provide just that: His aim is “to explore some of the ways it’s possible to read comics, and to figure out where their power comes from.” For Wolk, comics have won the battle for respectability, and he here develops a structured method for readers and critics to evaluate and analyze them.

Wolk’s style is chatty and casual, and he knows his subject well. His survey of the history of comics in America is concise and informative and provides a solid context for the current state of the medium. He also establishes a helpful distinction between “art” and “mainstream” comics, the former being creator-driven, auteurist books (which serve as the majority of his subjects in the book’s second part). Wolk also dissects contemporary terminology (comics versus graphic novels versus sequential art) and takes a clear-eyed look at comics culture, which he describes as both “an insular, selffeeding, self-loathing, self-defeating fl ytrap” driven by nostalgia and fraught with gender issues and “a culture that really does privilege deep knowledge of its history and present . . . [encouraging] unmitigated enthusiasm and unmuted pleasure, especially because those are mocked by other subcultures that don’t permit them.”

The book’s second half comprises essays on individual writers and artists, including Alan Moore, Jaime Hernandez, Carla Speed McNeil, Craig Thompson, Dave Sim, and Alison Bechdel. Wolk’s selection is largely driven by his stated preference for art comics, although he also takes time to discuss Spider-Man cocreator Steve Ditko and Tomb of Dracula writer Marv Wolfman. By his own admission, this assortment is by no means comprehensive, but the comics discussed have the advantage of being readily available to American readers and are a representative sample of important ones created in the last few decades.

Reading Comics suffers slightly from disorganization early on, as it moves too r apidly from one point to the next. A discussion of sexism in the industry digresses into an anecdote about a series of columns Wolk once wrote in the persona of Jess Lemon, a fictional female college student. Though this instance is funny and provocative, the section remains strangely inconclusive. Additionally, the book could benefit from at least twice as many illustrations; it can be frustrating to read Wolk’s detailed descriptions without accompanying pictures.

This study will be most useful to comics readers hungry for a solid critical approach to their favorite medium and to critics desirous of engaging comics and graphic novels on the medium’s own terms. Complete newcomers may find themselves somewhat lost, however, for Wolk’s very specific examples may not be meaningful to those unfamiliar with the comics canon. Nonetheless, despite its fl aws, Reading Comics is a valuable book, an important and fascinating addition to comics discourse, and a long-overdue leap beyond the obligatory critical nods to Maus and Watchmen.