We talk about "reading comics" because reading is what you do with printed matter; but comics fans and non-fans alike agree that what we do with comics is not exactly reading. People who don't read comics assume that "reading" a comic is easier than reading a book, because the serious matter of text is broken up by the frivolous diversion of images, as in a child's picture book; people who do will tell you that text is the easy bit, and that the hard work is the extraction of the other half of the story from the images. The "reading" rate slows right down when the comic is wordless (try Dave McKean's Cages for a demonstration of why this is so). A newcomer to the Readers of the Lost Art graphics novels reading group asked: "How long have people here been reading comics? How did you learn to follow their narrative?" She was unusual in coming to the medium for the first time as an adult; but even those who have grown up with comics, and don't think twice about this curious process of half reading text, half-scanning images, might wish to perfect their skill.

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

So the title of Douglas Wolk's book - Reading Comics - is promising: how we read comics is a subject worth discussing. And the spirit of his discussion is an engaging mixture of enthusiasm and missionary zeal: "But the way I experience and think about comics has a lot to do with the fact that I really enjoy them. I like figuring out how that pleasure works and describing it to other people so that they can enjoy them too, or at least enjoy them more fully than they would otherwise." Note that this enthusiasm is for "comics": the book's subtitle - How Graphic Novels Work, and What They Mean - introduces a red herring with the term "Graphic Novel". However a graphic novel is to be defined, Reading Comics extends beyond it, examining on the one hand comics as they appear in flimsy single issue installments, and on the other hand more sustained narratives which are something other than novels (often memoirs, biographical or autobiographical works). Its subject matter is not chosen on doctrinaire grounds, but because these are the comics the author enjoys and thinks his reader will enjoy too.

One man's preferences define a limited field, but Douglas Wolk's tastes are broad and various; and at least they are not restricted by snobbery about artistic worth or intellectual content - there's a section entitled What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics. Wolk describes himself - or rather, allows his 'straw man' to describe him - as "an 'indie' guy", but one who will not disown the Green Lantern series, at least at certain points in its history. He explores Kant's aesthetic theory (and offers some helpful suggestions about How to Look at Ugly Drawings), but he also devotes several pages to his response to the challenge to list "100 Things I Love About Comics"; the resultant catalogue includes the sound effects from Howard Chaykin's American Flagg, DC's 1960s tribute to letters-page stalwart Paul Gambaccini, Paul Gambi, specialist tailor to the supervillain community, even a Todd McFarlane Spider-Man cover (which is about as mainstream as they get), as well as work by Eddie Campbell and Jules Feiffer, and the running jokes about the notorious Hostess cupcake advertisements. He applauds style - the expression of an individual's creativity - wherever he finds it, in the silliest superhero extravaganzas from the big companies or the black-and-white autobiographical outpourings which are not merely self-published but also self-written, self-drawn, self-lettered and self-edited.

In theory, it is the latter group which are the most conducive to individual creativity, and Douglas Wolk admits a preference for the solo effort, for comics produced by a single creator, a writer-artist to whom he refers as the "cartoonist". The term can be disconcerting; bringing to mind the exaggerated hunourous drawings of Peter Bagge's Hate, for example, more readily than the fluid sketches of Eddie Campbell's autobiographical work, or the intricate plotting and luminous line of Bryan Talbot's Heart of Empire (Bryan Talbot is, in any case, one of the more noticeable absences from the book).

Once this semantic hurdle has been cleared, the doctrine of the sole creator does not impair Wolk's critical power, which is substantial. He is a persuasive advocate of such new talents as Hope Larson; he is clearsighted when discussing such giants of the field as Will Eisner, explaining both why he is one of the greats of sequential art, and where the shortcomings of his storytelling lie. He unearths such unexpected outbreaks of auteurism as Jim Starlin's Warlock, from the heart of 1970s Marvel (and disentangles its crazy twists with aplomb); and he acknowledges that there are exceptions to his rule that true creativity is best exercised solo.

"[T]he chief monkey wrench in comics auteur theory" is, of course, Alan Moore. The chapter devoted to him covers three of his works in detail: Watchmen, Promethea and Lost Girls. Melinda Gebbie's contribution to Lost Girls is seen as primarily decorative: the comment that "few comics artists care so much about wallpaper" acknowledges the luscious visual quality of her work, appropriate to a book which is all about the enjoyment of the senses; but it does not attribute to her the same narrative contribution as Dave Gibbons' art in Watchmen, where "almost every one of the tiny details Gibbons has somehow crammed into its panels signifies something of import to the story." Promethea is not an unqualified success, and Wolk balances its merits and defects deftly, acknowledging that this particular expression of the Magus's individual vision is saved by the artwork - "total eye-candy" - of J.H. Williams and Mick Gray - not to mention (and he doesn't) colourist Jeromy Cox.

Another concession is made for Grant Morrison, whose writing "is the most interesting thing happening in mainstream comics right now" - a claim which is illustrated not just by reference to The Invisibles, but also by a close visual analysis of the Mister Miracle segment of Seven Soldiers, on the face of it a less obviously profound work. This is a masterpiece of explication, and if it is not, quite, 100% convincing, it invites the reader to enter into debate, to take their reading of the comics to a new depth in order to respond.

This participatory quality is one of the qualities which makes the collection of essays the best part of Reading Comics (in interest as well as in bulk), and to do them justice in a review would result in a running commentary as long and as detailed as the book itself. It is here, rather than in the introductory generalisations, that the author takes his reader by the hand and settles down to some serious reading of comics, showing how his conclusions grow from the text itself (using "text" here to refer to the combination of words and pictures which make up the comics medium).

The indescribable artwork of David B.

This process has something illuminating to offer to every comics reader, from the long-time fan to the newest experimenter. In other respects, despite the claims made in its publicity material, Reading Comics is not really a book for beginners: its eccentric tastes, and opinionated judgements are enjoyable in themselves, but do not offer (and do not pretend to offer) a balanced introduction. The eclecticism of Wolk's tastes is no guide for someone who wants to be directed to the classics across the full range of comics; but it could open doors for those who already read extensively without ever quite crossing the boundaries between "mainstream" and "indie". It's a pity that, partly by choice and partly for reasons of availability, the selection is very USA-centric. Manga is excluded because "I simply don't have the taste for most of it, and I'm not going to go on about stuff I don't 'get'.". European - that is, Franco-Belgian - comics appear only if they are easily available in translation: an essay on David B's Epileptic (which, for reasons of alphabetical order leads off this part of the book) includes a brief survey of other material from L'Association, David B's original publisher, and Astérix receives a name-check, but that's as far as cosmopolitanism goes. It even stops short of including any illustrations from David B.'s work, obliging Wolk to do his best to describe the indescribable.

Benoît Peeters' 'Case, Planche, Récit'

Inevitably, therefore, there is no place here for Benoît Peeters' Case, Planche, Récit ("Panel, page, story", apparently not available in English: if any publisher wants to commission a translation, I'm ready and willing). Yet if Reading Comics has a predecessor, it is this book, rather than Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, because Peeters, like Wolk, is concerned less with general theory than with the specifics of how the reader approaches the exercise of reading a comic, from the individual panel with its combination of words and pictures, to the page, the simultaneous presentation of a sequence of moments, and on to the distinctive potential offered by the medium's visual aspect for the structure of the narrative as a whole. There is not enough comics criticism which looks at how comics achieve their effects, and Reading Comics is a valuable, as well as an enjoyable, addition to the list.

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Text © Jean Rogers, September 2007