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Sunday, July 08, 2007

 
Reading Comics -- This new hardcover by Douglas Wolk is probably more a book you'd want to sample from your local library before you decide to lay out real cash for it. I think his intentions are probably sincere, but the ultimate product seems more like an opportunity to profit from the current and growing interest in graphic novels than any kind of paradigm-shifting insight into the artform.

Wolk's tastes are pretty close to mine when it comes to what he likes in comics, so I was surprised by how often I found my contrarian hackles were raised by his writing. I found his occasionally awkward or bizarre phrasing a genuine annoyance, and I don't think the book at all rises to its stated goal of explaining "how graphic novels work and what they mean." There's definitely room for a prose version of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, I think, but Reading Comics is not it.

Fully half the book is reviews of specific works, a lot of which is reworked from previous publications -- as if there just wasn't enough stuff in his head to fulfill the book's stated remit, so the "best-ofs" get dragged off his hard-drive to pad out the second half of the book. And a lot of those essays are worth reading, but they get in the way of what the book sets out to do.

I was a bit disgusted to see how fully involved Wolk was in the ridiculous "Jess Lemon" fraud that was perpetrated on the comics internet a few years ago. He goes into painful, self-satisfied detail about that sorry incident. Not that the fanboys Wolk and Heidi McDonald were tweaking didn't have it coming, but more that there was an opportunity there to enlighten some truly ignorant superhero comic book readers, and instead they just fucked with some pathetic fanboys to their own amusement. I hadn't known Wolk was in on it, but I have had pretty much zero respect for Heidi McDonald ever since, and now Wolk can join in that rarefied number.

Most off-putting of all is the marketing of the book as "The first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics criticism by the leading critic in the field." It's none of those things other than readable (pretty much the baseline for what you'd expect from any book, no?), and most exasperatingly, Wolk is very, very far from the leading critic in the field. Tom Spurgeon, R.C. Harvey, Bob Levin, Chris Allen, Christopher Butcher, Rob Vollmar and Jog all come immediately to mind as far better writers and more nuanced critics of comics and graphic novels. There are probably more good and persuasive reviews of comics in any single issue of The Comics Journal from the past three years than in the entirety of Reading Comics.

There are portions of the book that make it worth a read, but overall it feels undercooked and over-hyped, and I had hoped for far better. If you're interested, proceed with caution and prepare to be underwhelmed.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Stephen said...

I just got Wolk's book yesterday, and am still early in the process of assimilating it. So I can't really come to a full evaluation now -- although my preliminary sense is that your review is about right.

Nevertheless, I think it should be stressed that some of Wolk's reviews are actually quite interesting; in particular, I thought that his passages on Watchmen (not an easy book to be interesting about, given how much has been said about it) and The Invisibles were extremely interesting. It may not live up to its subtitle, let alone its publishing hype, but there's definitely some good stuff in there.

10 July, 2007 14:53  

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