Shortcut #44: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

This book is awesome.  And I’m not just saying that because it is awesome.

Or maybe I am.  Because that’s how awesome it is.

I received this as a Secret Santa gift.  A fact which seals the deal on Santa’s awesomeness! (In case you were wondering, Virginia.)

Because awesomeness alone doesn’t make a review (or a shortcut), I will now continue to discuss awesomeness in terms that no longer use the word awesome.

Shortcut #44: Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk

First, I suppose I should get it out of the way that I love reading criticism.  In many people’s minds (especially if you’ve been to graduate school or were an English major) “criticism” probably calls up the specter of dry, dull essays on literary minutiae such as hair color in Ulysses and how it can be used to determine Joyce’s stance on racial politics in his day.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that I like criticism, so I suppose I’ll have to define what sort of criticism I mean.

Specifically, I’m talking about reviews.  Well, reviews that are generally longer that what you might see in your local alternative weekly, and reviews that are more concerned with the field at large rather than just the specific work they are talking about at the moment.  In poetry, I find my hunger satisfied by the critical collections of Randall Jarrell and William Logan.  In speculative fiction, my model has been James Blish (as William Atheling, Jr.) and Damon Knight.  With movies, I hold up The Golden Turkey Awards as a model, even though I know that their focus was very narrow.  And with comics, there’s Douglas Wolk.

For me, the mark of a truly great review is that the reader is invested in the writing and the thought process of the critic even if they haven’t experienced the work under discussion, even if they never plan to.  For most of the criticism I read, I haven’t had first-hand experience with the subject under discussion.  A good critic, however, gives enough info about the work on the table so that you don’t need to have read it to understand his/her points.

Wolk does that.  His tastes aren’t exactly my own in terms of comics, but his enthusiasm for the subject, his obvious depth of knowledge regarding comics, and his critical eye make his mini-essays joyful reading.  One particular point I appreciate: his take is evaluative, rather than judgmental.  Even regarding those artists he most obviously loves, he can see what their weak points are along with their strengths and, more interestingly, what the connections are between the two.

The quote that most clearly identifies what I want from a critic, and what I aspire to in my own criticism:

I also think it’s my responsibility as a critic to be harsh and demanding and to subject unambitious or botched work to public scorn, because I want more good comics: more cartoonists who challenge themselves to do better, and more readers who insist on the same. (22)

I was talking to Laure Eve the other day about reviews in the poetry world.  One of the points that she made was that the worst criticism a bad debut book of poetry can receive is no criticism.  I said that works should be held accountable no matter what.  Wolk phrases it much better than I could.

Of course, part of the problem with writing review of poetry books is that most people who write those reviews are also poets and integrated into the poetry world in a way that Wolk, as an academic, isn’t integrated into the world of comics.  There’s the fear that if I write a bad review of a certain book I’ll hurt myself professionally, either from the criticized poet and his/her friends or from the press I’m reviewing (since, ideally, they might publish a book of mine one day).

The main reason I include The Golden Turkey Awards above is because those books are chock-full of research – little nuggets of trivia that I wouldn’t be able to find on my own.  I feel the same about all the critics I admire, that they bring in the history of what they’re talking about, or view the subject in a light I wouldn’t have seen on my own.  So I’ll leave you with one of the bits of trivia that made me laugh aloud.  This quote is regarding Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein.

His solution to every problem is brute force; he has no need for the niceties of plot mechanics.  How does he get to Mars and back?  He’s Frankenstein.  How does he travel a billion years into the future?  The caption that explains it: “All in a day’s work… for FRANKENSTEIN!” (283)

See?  Did I lie about the awesome?

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4 Responses to Shortcut #44: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

  1. Jason Myers says:

    Much like the pasting that Frank Miller and Jim Lee got for a Batman comic (I believe the subject of one of your long ago blogs), this review of Frankenstein makes me *more* likely to buy the comic (because, as we discussed also previously, I’m a fan of the Golden Turkeys.) Douglas Wolk’s plan to make better comics through criticism has possibly backfired. Which brings up another question: Are you and I, with our omnivorous taste in movies, personally culpable for the continued existence of bad movies? And should we feel bad about that?

  2. Andrew says:

    I don’t think that I correctly conveyed Wolk’s opinion. That wasn’t a panning of Frankenstein, just a description of how Morrison uses the conventions of comics in unexpected ways.

    Frankly, I included that quote because it definitely cemented my desire to read Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, not because I thought it was bad.

    And, no, we shouldn’t feel bad. We don’t call forth the bad movies, we simply give them an appreciative audience. (Most bad movies made as bad movies tend to be really bad, and not in a good way. Bad movies have to be organically bad.)

  3. Jason Myers says:

    I think we *are* morally culpable; but I don’t feel bad about it. I think if people only watched movies or read comics that they were promised ahead of time were going to good, that it wouldn’t be long before even what we call “good” movies would be almost uniformly “blah”. On a personal level, I’m always looking to discover things for myself, experience them firsthand, not refracted through someone else’s prism. Of course, I’m also the type of person that, if someone says, “This is the *worst* candy I’ve ever tasted”, I’ll be like “Can I have a bite?”

    Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading or writing criticism, or don’t sometimes rely on criticism to point me in directions I otherwise wouldn’t have gone. But there’s something to be said for just putting on your boots and tromping through the entertainment wilderness. Otherwise, I would have missed out on the truly unforgettable experience of seeing House of the Dead in the movie theater. The bad stuff makes for great stories, and the good stuff… Well, discovering truly awesome movies like Six String Samurai, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Cannibal: The Musical alongside you was worth the pain induced by the likes of The Masque of the Red Death, Shaft in Africa, and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies. If I haven’t already said this to you, I very much miss having at my side an intrepid movie Indiana Jones who is even more gung-ho gleefully kamikaze stupid adventurous than I am.

  4. Andrew says:

    Aren’t you supposed to be visiting sometime soon? And thank you for saying that. I love being compared to Indiana Jones.

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