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Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean [Hardcover]

Douglas Wolk


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Book Description

July 3 2007
Suddenly, comics are everywhere: a newly matured art form, filling bookshelves with brilliant, innovative work and shaping the ideas and images of the rest of contemporary culture. In Reading Comics, critic Douglas Wolk shows us why this is and how it came to be. Wolk illuminates the most dazzling creators of modern comics-from Alan Moore to Alison Bechdel to Dave Sim to Chris Ware-and introduces a critical theory that explains where each fits into the pantheon of art. Reading Comics is accessible to the hardcore fan and the curious newcomer; it is the first book for people who want to know not just what comics are worth reading, but also the ways to think and talk and argue about them.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (July 3 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306815095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306815096
  • Product Dimensions: 3.4 x 15.8 x 22.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 599 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #605,872 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

As the graphic novel flourishes and gains legitimacy as an art form, serious comics criticism is an inevitable byproduct, and PW contributing editor Wolk's analytical discourse is a welcome starting point. The volume contains two sections: Theory and History, an explanation of comics as a medium and an overview of its evolution, and Reviews and Commentary, a diverse examination of creators and works. This section spans Will Eisner's pioneering efforts as well as the groundbreaking modern comics by the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel. Since there are decades worth of books already focusing on the superhero genre, the raw clay from which the comics industry was built, the relatively short shrift given to the spandex oeuvre's insular mythologies is a wise choice that allows the nonfan a glimpse into the wider range that comics commands. Wolk's insightful observations offer much to ponder, perhaps more than can be fully addressed in one volume, but the thoughtful criticism and knowledgeable historical overview give much-needed context for the emerging medium. B&w illus. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Wolk certainly knows the field of comics and has interesting things to say about a wide variety of them. Unfortunately, his first two chapters are so bogged down because of his arrogant and condescending style that it's hard to find any content. In later chapters, some of his excellent assessment of comics and what makes them work as both art and entertainment shines through. The book is not meant to be a canon of what comics are good; as he states, "I'm more interested in starting discussions (and arguments) about comics than settling them with any kind of self-appointed authority." His critiques and in-depth looks at comics creators whose works he finds particularly interesting to discuss certainly meet that goal—but only for readers already familiar with the artists he's discussing. Despite his insight, his overuse of the phrase "more on that later" (oftentimes leaving readers with little explanation until chapters after his first argument) and the extremely antagonizing first two chapters make the book a difficult read. It may find use in classrooms about comics as literature or the nature of criticism, but it will have a difficult time finding an audience anywhere else.—Alana Abbott, James Blackstone Memorial Library, Branford, CT
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book that wants to be more than it is Sept. 17 2007
By Blake Petit - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is rather a difficult book to review. While I definitely appreciate the fact that comics are being treated seriously as a scholarly work, I'm not really sure that this book is, in fact, what it claims to be. The first third of the book is ostensibly dedicated to a discussion of the format of comics and he potential of the medium, but Wolk constantly peppers the book with condescending commentary on mainstream books even as he purports to love them, going so far at one point as to suggest that there's something developmentally wrong with an adult who still enjoys a character he enjoyed as a child. While there's certainly nothing wrong with the heavy bias towards independent comics this book displays, he often paints most superhero comics with the same brush (except, of course, for perennial exceptions Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and a few others). In other words, he does quite a bit to perpetuate the same primitive attitudes about comics that this book supposedly works to dispel.

The rest of the book is essentially a recommended reading list, with chapters devoted to different comic creators and their work. This section, honestly, is rather predictable. He gushes over the work of Alan Moore (even the total derailment of Promethea), pretentiously assures us that it's "okay" to read Dave Sim and Steve Ditko though they display (horrors!) conservative ideas in their work, and talks about the mastery of Maus. Not to say this section is all bad. Even in his predictability, he provides a very strong analysis of the Hernandez brothers' work, that of Chris Ware, of Chester Brown, and several other names that a mainstream reader may never have heard of. Perhaps the best chapter in the book is his analysis of Grant Morrison's work, which has actually convinced me to give The Invisibles another try. (I was put off by the anarchist tone of the first volume, something that doesn't appeal to me, but the idea in the analysis that the intended readers of the comic are actually people who have already read it makes me think that it's worth trying again).

This isn't a bad book - there are a lot of interesting ideas and thoughtful insights into comics as a whole and several comics in particular. But in the end, Wolk suffers the same fate as a lot of people who have tried to analyze comics as an artform. Simply put, the book thinks it's more important than it actually is.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needed an editor to really polish it Feb. 27 2008
By Andrew Otwell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There's a lot to recommend this book. No matter how versed you are in comics (I'm not), you're sure to find something new here about an amazingly complex medium.

But it's got some annoying flaws. Particularly in the first third of the book, it can be seriously geeky when it should be introductory and welcoming. You may find yourself stumbling on what seems like fan jargon or expert knowledge. I didn't(and still don't) understand the stylistic differences between Jack Kirby's early and late work. But that's the kind of thing Wolk more or less assumes at times.

At best, the book has some wonderful visual analyses of comic panels and styles. That's good, because most of the arguments require you to trust the visual descriptions. For a book about comics there aren't nearly enough illustrations, and none in color. How about a companion website where readers could look at more than a few low-quality black and white reproductions?

But Wolk's writing style gets annoying at this length. The book's trying to be academic and authoritative, but do it with a casual writing style. It doesn't work. Wolk often writes like a smart blogger; in other words, like someone who *really* needs an editor with a sharp red pencil. For example, he'll use annoying terms like "wave at" or "poke at" to mean "show" and "examine." He has a short "interview" between himself and Mr. Straw Man which feels like a clumsy way of avoiding constructing actual prose. Or he'll discover a new ten-dollar word (like "somatic") and use it two or three times in as many pages. He uses cliched writing (calling someone "a god-awful hack") constantly.

Worst, nearly every page has at least two or three parenthetical phrases, which makes following arguments clunky. An editor would have deleted these as either truly side comments, or else rewritten them to be part of the argument.

You might not be bothered by these things, though I was. They get in the way of reading and following what's actually a pretty subtle and worked-out argument.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Satisfying... July 11 2007
By earthbound - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a childhood comics fan returned to the medium as an adult in search of meaningful entertainment, I appreciated Wolk's book as timely for comics' present moment, perhaps even overdue. Few corners of American comics aren't discussed and none go unmentioned. Wolk's book provides adequately theoretical, satisfying discussions of both "mainstream" superhero comics and "art comics", mapping them in the constellation of American popular culture. It helps that Wolk is a music critic as well; Wolk writes accessibly, like a reviewer or critic, and is unapologetic about comics as pleasure-reading first, with enormous artistic potential behind them. He discusses a serious American comic fan's range of work in a thought-provoking manner (from Ware and Bechdel to Moore and Miller), but informs readers enough to avoid sounding like the snooty "you-haven't-read-that?" comics junkie expounding arcane comics references. Not perfect, but plenty good for a reader like me.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reading (what?) comics Oct. 5 2008
By J. Holt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Having read other books on comics, like "How to Read Superhero Comics and Why," I wanted to like Wolk's book more than those I've read before it. What I found most compelling about Wolk's book was his introduction where he talks about what makes comics different from other works of art is their unique deployment of metaphor. Yes, it's in that Straw Man argument (god, that is annoying, as other reviewers here suggest). What I found disappointing is that Wolk doesn't really deliver on giving us a coherent argument about that. Instead of giving us Comics, he gives us comics.

That being said, Wolk chooses some good, some bad, some interesting comics to talk about. I found his later chapters on individual authors interesting. Particularly on Starlin's Warlock, Ditko's Spider-Man and Mr. A, Sim's Cerebus, and finally Morrison's Invisibles.

You should look at the table of contents and see if Wolk writes about any comics (or creators) you have read and then pick up this book if there are enough of them. Note that Wolk will often spoil the endings of books so be careful.

Why I see Wolk failing to deliver on his promise to talk about metaphors in comics is that he spends way too much time telling us what the text in those comics mean (can't we figure a lot of this out for ourselves? -- exception: his take on Morrison's Invisibles is passionate and fairly coherent). I was hoping he'd be able to present a consistent view on the language of the comics medium (the art), and instead I got a lot of more of regurgitation of storylines (I already knew).
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's about damn time! Aug. 13 2007
By Jamie S. Rich - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has been a long time coming. In the big question regarding how comics can start getting talked about more seriously, the simplest answer is for people to actually just talk about them seriously. Douglas Wolk gets that started. While the first 1/3 may have an air of "well, duh" to long-time comics readers and professionals, it's still great to read how Wolk contextualizes the fundamentals, and many of his ideas may challenge you to consider why you have the conceptions about this artform that you have.

Once the author starts dissecting other people's work, however, we're off to the races. Even books I didn't rate on my own or haven't read come alive when Wolk writes about them. He proves that comics aren't as simplistic as their reputation often implies, and as with any passionate critic, his enthusiasm is infectious.

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