Reading “Reading Comics” by Douglas Wolk

In Reading Comics (Da Capo Press, 2007) Douglas Wolk speaks convincingly of comics readers and artists alike as secretly aspiring towards some sort of acknowledgment, respect and legitimacy from “highbrow” culture, from whence the origins of the word “graphic novel” arise. This is evidenced most directly by Bruce Eric Kaplan’s New Yorker cartoon, “Now I have to start pretending I like graphic novels too?

Wolk equally exposes mainstream comics for the boy’s club that they manifest, with their undertones of soft porn and adolescent gender politics. He speaks of the wall of solitude that comics readers may build between themselves and the non-comics reading world, and the fidelity that comics readers may have to particular publishers, artists and mythologies.

Wolk defies the construction of a comics canon, arguing that with the evolution of the medium, the interests and emphasis of participants in the comics community will continue to change. This may be true, but especially with the advent of the scanner, champions the likes of the late Bill Blackbeard, as well as Art Spiegelman, Dan Nadel, Jeet Heer, Chris Ware, Seth and Blake Bell continue to expand upon the giants and unearth lesser-known comics creators from the past, thus contributing to the evolution of a comics canon that at this point it would be difficult to dismiss.

When you look at editors’ selections in volumes like Best American Comics from one year to the next, or McSweeney’s 13, or Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories Volumes 1 and 2, for all of the featured emerging artists, the vast majority of the cartoonists included in these works also comprise a body of work that can at least loosely be characterized as the basis for a canon. And as with other canonical works, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that this is not driven by the publishing industry.

The latter half of Reading Comics is comprised of a series of essays devoted to individual artists, comics, or both. There are generous treatments of artists the likes of David B., Chester Brown, the Hernandez Brothers, Craig Thompson and James Kolchaka, Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Kevin Huizenga, Charles Burns and Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel—among others. At times Wolk’s appreciation of both artists and comics on the whole smacks of fanaticism (for example and in particular, his essays on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison), which is both the charm and frustration of reading his essays.

And for better or for worse, I have Douglas Wolk to thank for my decision to read the Cerebus run from the beginning. I think I only got up to the two hundreds, before I started selling off my comics collection because I was broke. But Wolk’s essay led to my listening to a couple of interviews with Sim on Comic Geekspeak, and I had already listened to Sim’s Inkstuds conversation. The recent Gerhard interview in The Comics Journal, compounded with Tim Kreder’s essay on Cerebus, have sealed my fate. Right now I’m on page 270 of the first phone book.

 

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