Reading Comics

Comic books, comics, graphic novels, or whatever you call them are not a genre, they’re a medium. Wolk emphasizes this from the outset of this vivid examination of the form and many of the geniuses and misfits of the American mainstream and avante-garde. Always frank, always insightful, Wolk, a former comic book store clerk, covers a lot of ground: pregnant moments, metacomics, parallel Earths, disposable Sunday strips, and, of course, how the world of comics can be “annoyingly male.” The first half of the book tackles history along with an overall assessment of what comics mean and how to read them. There are great bits about what makes a “superreader” and how the form blossomed despite the economics of limited shelf space. The second half is a series of precise essays on specific artists, including Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and Steve Ditko. Critics often disparage contemporary artists or cite a myriad of ways their work could never compare with the classics of yesteryear. Wolk doesn’t pull punches, so that makes his optimism all the more appealing: he believes the next generation of cartoonists, currently coming of age with Manga, animation and those ‘classics,’ will soon be doing amazing work. Until that happens, this is the book to catch you up and understand much of where they’ll be coming from.

– Steven Leckart

Reading Comics
Douglas Wolk
2007, 371 pages
$16
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

No matter how far back you go, though, there’s always going to be something comicslike – if a bit less so with every step. There’s not much to be gained from that kind of ancestor seeking, other than a kind of validation that salves nothing but insecurity. Better, perhaps, to wave vaguely at the past and say that, yes, comics have been around for a good long time, and a lot of the formal conventions associated with the medium’s current state were solidified (although probably not created) in the early twentieth century. No genius gave birth to the form; it just coalesced.
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Nostalgia, especially nostalgia for childhood, is a heavy burden for a medium to bear, and comics have been carrying it since the culture around them began to coalesce. The comics collecting market was called the ‘nostalgia market’ at first; The Comics Journal was renamed from The Nostalgia JournalŠ As far as thinking about what makes comics interesting, though, nostalgia is poison – no just because it makes people overvalue the stories that fueled their childhood fantasies but because it makes them misunderstand the reasons why the good stuff or even the resonant crap affected them so strongly, and what exactly might have been messed up about it, or the way it made them feel the first time around.
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Once you’ve seen Steven Ditko’s hands, it’s hard to forget them. Not the hands of the famously private cartoonist himself – not many people have seen those. The hands he draws on his characters, though, are unmistakable: expressively gesticulating, fingers pointing in all directions, casting spells or shooting webs or passing judgment. Ditko doesn’t have as big a name outside comics’ inner circles as his reputation among cartoonists would suggest – there’ll never be an awards ceremony named after him – and his deliberately low profile has a lot to do with it. Insisting that his work speaks for itself, he’s refused to be photographed or interviewed since the early ’60s, and his prickly, loopy individualism has kept fame at bay. Still, he’s the ghost haunting the last forty years of American comic books. Over time, his incandescent drawing style darkened, clotted, and shriveled into something much less easy to like, but more like a product of the art-comics world to which he’s never suggested he feels any kinship. If his work has a single constant theme, it’s I’m Not Like Everybody Else.
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Until the late ’60s, virtually all American comic books were published by a handful of large companies, because that was the only way they could claw their way onto the limited rack space at newsstands; no matter how expressive and creative a comic book was, it also had to be broadly commercially viable or there was no sense publishing it. The fact that unsold comics were returned to the publisher meant that a not-especially-successful issue could be a financial disaster. And a print run of five thousand or ten thousand copies of a comic was unthinkable – there would have been no where to sell it. That began to change in the ’60s, as the counterculture created an informal network of head shops and record stores that were prime outlets for selling ‘underground comix’ – mostly black-and-white, artist-driven comics that mainly showed off their countercultural credentials by being as transgressive as possibleŠ In the mid-’70s, largely as a result of the efforts of a guy named Phil Seuling, comics ‘direct market’ came into being. Distributors made deals with comics publishers to sell comics to specialty stores earlier than newsstands got them and for a deeper discount than newsstands got, but on a nonreturnable basis. Newsstands and drugstores, the traditional venues for comics, had no use for old issues once the new ones came out, so they’d tear the covers off comics that didn’t sell and return them to distributors for credit, as with any other magazine. Comics stores, which knew their market, could order exactly as many copies of each title as they figured they could use, and whatever didn’t sell before the next issue appeared could always be sold later for a bit of a markup. The direct market transformed the comics industry, although it took a few years before cartoonists figured out how to use it to their advantage.
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People talk about ‘graphic novels’ instead of comics when they’re trying to be deferential or trying to imply that they’re being serious. There’s always a bit of a wince and stammer about the term; it plays into comics culture’s slightly miserable striving for ‘acknowledgment’ and ‘respect.’ It’s hard to imagine what kind of cultural capital the American comics industry (and its readership) is convinced that it’s due and doesn’t already have. Perhaps the comics world has spent so long hating itself that it can’t imagine it’s not still an underdog. But demanding (or wishing for) a place at the table of high culture is an admission that you don’t have one; the way you get a place at the table of high culture is to pull up a chair and say something interesting.
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There’s a certain kind of rain that falls only in comics, a thick, persistent drizzle, much heavier than normal water, that bounces off whatever it hits, dripping from fedoras, running slowly down windowpanes and reflecting the doom in bad men’s hearts. It’s called an ‘eisenshpritz,’ and it’s named after the late Will Eisner, one of the preeminent stylists of twentieth-century comics, who never drew a foreboding scene that couldn’t be made a little more foreboding with a nice big downpour. Eisner deserves his veneration in the comics world. He was one of the most gifted, innovative storytellers American comics have produced, and his work has had a lasting impact on the aesthetics and the economics of the medium. The comics industry’s annual awards are named after Eisner; until his death in 2005, its honorees had the thrill of being handed an Eisner Award by Eisner himself. (I was one of the award’s judges in 2001 an have never been starstruck as badly as I was meeting him.)

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