Reading Comics - Douglas Wolk

Although the cover jacket proclaims Wolk's 2007 volume as "the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism", the very existence of this blog proves that Reading Comics is no such thing. But, apart from the rather pompous cover blurb, Wolk, as a veteran comics reader and critic, has succeeded in putting together a very interesting and comprehensive book nevertheless.
Reading Comics is organized in two parts, in the first part that takes up about one third of the book, Wolk discusses various theoretical subjects regarding comics and takes up some of the more general aspects of comics readership. The rest of the book is devoted to reviews and opinions of Wolk on individual artists and their work. Although he has very interesting views on some of the most important artists and his reviews of their work are on the whole very enlightening, for the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the first part of his book and present a summary of how he tackles with the theoretical aspects of comics.

Wolk starts with an insightful discussion of what comics are and what they aren't. He emphasizes the ways comics differ from prose and movies. He then sketches out some of the limitations and possibilities of the unique characteristics of comics' language.
After establishing his understanding of comics, Wolk states his mission as to explore some of the ways it's possible to read comics and he adds that his interest lies more with the way readers interact with comics than anything else.
The comics Wolk is interested in the most are the ones that display an individual and distinctive style, which in most cases exclude long-running series, even though they have considerable cultural significance.
In aiming to more clearly define style, Wolk attempts to describe it by adapting the auteur theory from cinema to comics.

After establishing his interests as such, and why he is interested in them, Wolk goes on to provide a very concise, yet illustrative history of the art comics movement.
This is especially important because the history of this artistically most creative branch of the medium is seldom told by other studies of comics history.
While telling their evolution, Wolk also cites several other literary and aesthetic theories to explain the way arts comics come to diverge from mainstream and how is this divergence significant.

Another very interesting topic Wolk takes up is the naming conventions of various comics. He suggests the terminology used by the comics industry;
  • Periodic publications with saddle-stitching are comic books,
  • Anything square bound is a graphic novel and
  • comics is the abstract notion used to describe the form.
He claims that any value judgments that are inherent in terms like graphic novel and comic book are problematic and non-helpful.

Wolk also turns his attention to the comics culture and presents a very sincere picture of the comics enthusiasts and what he loves and hates about them.

Before finishing the theoretical part of his work, Wolk overviews the superhero genre and while trying to identify a way to constructively analyze them he suggests a deceptively simple question: "What does this character metaphorically stand for?"

Although Wolk covers in his theoretical writings many of the themes discussed brilliantly by both Eisner and McCloud, he manages to bring a personal approach to these issues and while I don't personally agree with some of his arguments, his sincere approach always makes interesting reading.

The rest of the book is taken up by the analyses of various comics artists and their work where Wolk usually provides very insightful and knowledgeable opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the works discussed.

Overall, Reading Comics might not be the only book you'll ever need to read about comics but it provides a very interesting perspective on all the issues it tackles. Probably what I loved the most about the book though is the apparent love of comics of the author that can be felt in every sentence and at least in this respect, the book sets a great example.