Comic critic Douglas Wolk on Reading Comics
Ever wondered what would happen if the famed Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy held a master’s in literary criticism? (“Worst. Extended metaphor. Ever.”). Then look no further than Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Phoenix contributor Douglas Wolk’s infectiously impassioned Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (De Capo). Wolk is wise to keep his commentary accessible: rather than apply a sense of haughty legitimacy to comics, the author ably recognizes that comics are legit already, a bona fide medium with its own history, its own rules, and its own pratfalls. While he differentiates between “mainstream comics” and “art comics,” there is, above all, nothing but respect for what the form has to offer, regardless of genre. Especially now, in the midst of what Wolk refers to as the medium’s real “Golden Age,” when cartoonists like Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson, and the Hernandez Brothers are coming out with work that’s as artistically fresh as it is commercially viable. Wolk will be on hand to discuss Reading Comics (and maybe pick some fights) at the Brookline Booksmith on August 2, and we spoke with him from his home in Portland, Oregon.
You talk a lot about a “Golden Age” of comics being something that’s currently in full swing. How would you describe this in terms of what’s being produced versus what’s actually selling?
I don’t know how much it really matters. I mean, there’s selling and there’s selling. You can have a critical success that isn’t successful commercially, but still influences a lot of stuff after it. I think one of the absolute best things to come along in year was Alison Bechdal‘s book Fun Home. That has sold really well and just came out in paperback and it was Time magazine’s book of the year last year. There are lots of really good things that are, you know, small press and not a huge audience, but there are some really good things that are big presses and that are gonna do big audiences. The quality and importance of what’s coming out is kind of hard to correlate with what’s selling. You can say the same thing about movies or art. Are the biggest movies the most important or interesting movies, necessarily?
But mainstream comics are historically such a serialized form, to ensure a longstanding, consistent readership. Why do you think it’s so rare for art comics to be published that way?
They take a really long time. One big advantage of the serial format is that if you’re getting something fresh and new every week or every month, that keeps people really excited and really interested and really curious to find out what happens next. But cartooning takes a really long time. A lot of the comics that have come out monthly historically have been done assembly-line style — one person writing, one person penciling, one person inking. And art comics are generally done by one person, and the only person that has really been able to pull off that kind of auteurist thing every month is Dave Sim with Cerebus. Most people just can’t keep up that pace.
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