I found this book to be both genuinely interesting and annoying. Interesting because it’s nice to see some discussion about comics that has depth and it was an introduction to some writers/artists that I haven’t read. I’ll definitely be picking up a few of the books Wolk discussed. The book is constructed with a few chapters talking about comics in general and then a dozen or so chapters that are each devoted to a specific artist/writer. Some of the people covered are: Kirby, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Eisner, Frank Miller, the Hernandez Brothers, Dave Sim, Jim Starlin, Charles Burns, Craig Thompson, and Art Spiegelman.
Annoying for a few reasons. The first is that I felt that Wolk was spending the first four chapters walking a fence. On one side were the comic fans whom he hopes will buy his book and on the other side were his critical peers, especially his fellow music critics at Rolling Stone magazine whom probably think comics are for kids. Probably what annoyed me most was that he frequently criticizes or marginalizes superhero comics for their formalism, but follows a very formalist method of measuring the ‘worthiness’ of art. He repeatedly finds fault with a work for what it doesn’t do. He also has a tendency to find symbolism and metaphors where they probably weren’t intended – aggravated by his glossing over justifications for the metaphors he does see. Wolk’s major distinction between “Superhero comics” and “art comics” is that “Superhero comics” are about the characters and plots while “art comics” are about the expression. He does admit there are exceptions (and discusses a few) – but I think it’s a distinction that is as inaccurate as calling comics a genre instead of a medium. Whether a character wears tights and a cape and saves the universe or wears jeans and a t-shirt and works at the Quicki-mart has no relevance to the work’s ability to be art. True a lot of superhero comics are created purely for entertainment and don’t aspire to be “art” in an intellectual sense, – but it is not a limit of the “formalism of the genre” as Wolk depicts it.
It bothers me when he cites a creator’s choice as a failure of the work. For example, in reviewing the “Sin City” books he says that Miller’s sharp contrast of black and white (morally not visually) is a failure of the work – and he cites film noir that was visually and thematically black and white but morally gray. I don’t see how Miller’s choice to create a world with that contrast reduces the artistic merit in any way. Wolk also makes a lot of snap judgements of the people, based on their work (labeling one creator a misogynist, for example, based on the type of female characters most frequently portrayed in his work.) He makes no attempt to modify his opinions with an “I believe” but instead states them all as simple fact. For example, he says that Eisner’s “ironies are cheap and his attempts at profundity aren’t very deep at all.” and that Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis” is a terrible book. Wolk seems to believe that a book that has something to say but isn’t fun is better than a book that doesn’t feel the need to say anything other than let’s have fun. In one quote he says “To keep buying stories about characters you adored as a child, out of something like team loyalty … is desperate and kind of pathetic. Who made up the rule that reading superhero stories is childish? Kids watch football on TV does anyone criticize an adult that does the same? Wolk doesn’t seem to understand that an emotional expression is just as valid as an intellectual one. That leads me to one of my pet peeves with critics – their absolute hatred of sentimentality. If an artist makes you feel an emotion, does it really matter if that emotion is simple or complex?
I like reading opinions that differ from mine – it’s good for me – and I certainly found several in this book. I’m of the opinion that “art” should come second to craft. Everyone has the right to expression, but if they can’t bother to develop some skills to use to present that expression, then their work is not worthy of consideration, to me. Some of the art (in the physical sense) that he shows, in this book, is so dreadful that it shouldn’t be published, on principle. This book largely marginalizes craft. I wanted to say it ignores it, but that wouldn’t be true – it is mentioned in many places, but it is never discussed on a par with the artistic expression of the piece.
So, while overall I felt that Wolk was really reaching on a lot of his discussions, I did acquire some exposure to artists I’d never really thought about – and the book is worthy, just for that. If you want to learn about comics, in general, stick to Scott McCloud’s excellent books – if you want to read essays on specific creators, you’ll probably enjoy Wolk’s book.