If you visit this blog regularly, or any comics news blog really, you’ve probably seen Douglas Wolk‘s name crop up once or twice. That’s not terribly surprising, as in the past few years he’s become one of the most prominent comic critics around, having written for Salon, Publisher’s Weekly and, let us not forget, his now deceased blog about all things “52.”
A large part of that attention is due to the fact that he’s a clear, personable writer, able to talk about a graphic novel or a particular artist’s style in a friendly, easy-to-understand manner that nevertheless penetrates into the core of what makes their work matter (or not as the case may be).
Now he’s written a book, “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.” With a title like that, how could I not pounce on the opportunity to interview Wolk for this column? As he made his way through the subways of Chicago, I talked with him over the phone about his book and comics criticism in general. Having to stop talking every couple of minutes because of passing trains isn’t exactly the ideal situation for conducting an interview, but in this case I think it led down some interesting avenues.
Q: You are frequently cited as being the leading critic in the field of comics. How do you get a swell gig like that and how can I horn in on it?
A: (laughs) I’m not sure that I have that gig. I don’t necessarily think that’s a job that somebody has right now.
Q: In all seriousness, you seem to have arrived as one of the tastemakers, I guess, as far as readers of Salon are concerned.
A: I came into in kind of a strange way, which is I was doing music writing for a whole lot of places, and in a lot of cases, once I was already writing for people about music, I was like “Can I talk about comics too?” That’s how I got my foot in the door with a lot of higher circulation magazines and Web sites.
I’m actually just about to start writing a column for The New Republic’s Web site, which has nothing to do with comics or music, it’s going to be political. I’m not going to give away exactly what it is — it’s an entirely other thing – but it’s a gig that I got essentially because there’s an editor there who really liked the 52 blog.
Q: What was the impetus for “Reading Comics”?
A: I really wanted to do something that would be along the lines of Pauline Kael’s book “I Lost It At The Movies.” I wanted to do something like that for comics. Something that would be a book of criticism that didn’t try to be definitive, that didn’t try to say “This is exactly how everything is and these are the books that you need to read and they’re the best there is.” I wanted something that can be argumentative and also really subjective. Something that people could argue and debate with.
Q: Who is the book aimed at? Did you have a specific audience in mind?
A: The audience I’m interested in most are people who are just starting to get interested in comics and are interested in finding out more. Not just about what’s out there but also how to talk about comics. How they might think about comics. How they might not think about comics. I’m trying to open comics up to people in a critical way to people who are starting to explore them. But I hope there’s also some stuff in there for people who have been reading for awhile.
Q: I’ll ask an obvious question, which is one you mention in the book: Why do comics deserve any kind of critical thinking at all? Why even bother with the idea of comic criticism?
A: For the same reason that anything else deserves critical thinking at all. Because it can deepen the experience of reading them. You can think about them more. I also think that having good criticism and strong criticism and maybe even harsh criticism is a good way to make art itself stronger. Did you see “Ratatouille”?
Q: Yes, I did.
A: There’s that scene where Anton Ego, who’s been set up as the unpleasable, irritable, grouchy, eccentric critic, is asked why he hates food and he says “No, I love eat, I want food to be better.” And that’s the way I feel about comics.
Q: He’s my favorite character in that movie.
A: I love the fact that they don’t just set him up as a villain, that they actually give him some kind of dignity.
Q: One of the recent reviews I read about your book took you to task a little bit – it was a positive review, but it took you to task for not taking a more academic tone. It mentioned Thierry Groensteen, I don’t remember which one it was.
A: The Guardian one.
Q: Yeah, that’s the one. I wanted to address that a little bit. Why didn’t you delve more into the academics of comics? Were you just trying to keep it reader-friendly or was there another reason as well?
A: Partly. When I started writing the book, the first couple chapters I worked on came out really academic sounding, but they also seemed really stilted. It wasn’t fun at all and I wanted something that would at least be kind of fun to read. If you’re writing an academic book then you’re trying to be a definitive resource on something, you’re trying to say exactly how it is. I wanted my book to be much more subjective, using much more my own voice and much less an academic voice. I wanted the tone of the book to be much more personal and much more me; much more something that people could argue with than complaining about an impenetrable source that is just off somehow.
Q: Other than the fact that it would have lengthened your book considerably, can you talk about the things you decided not to discuss in your book, like manga and European comics and comic strips?
A: First of all, in the case of manga, I’m really not super-manga literate. There is much, much more out there than I’ve read, and I didn’t want to go spouting my mouth off if I didn’t really have the depth of knowledge. And the same applies to European comics. I’ve read a bit more, but I don’t know a lot of what there is and I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert in something I’m not an expert in.
Comic strips I didn’t do so much of because a lot of them are less concerned with long-form narrative, which is something that I am interested in. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit those categories that’s not in the book either. There are some of the things that I think are the most important works in comics that I barely mention or skip over. There are cartoonists that are nearest and dearest to my heart that I don’t mention at all. It’s not a definitive resource. It’s a sampling. It what happens to be around at the time. There will be another book sometime.
Q: You talk a lot about how comics are great at sustained narratives and the authors you talk about reflect that aspect. What do you think it is about comics that make that sustained narrative work and aren’t there other artists – I’m think specifically about the Fort Thunder group or Paper Rad or John Hankiewicz – whose narratives are really disjointed or really don’t have a narrative at all? It’s all more about creating an atmosphere.
A: Right. I think creating a narrative is something that comics are really good at and I think one of the reasons for that is there is that sequence of one image and then the next image and then something happens between them and you have to fill it in by yourself in your head. That’s something that is pretty much more the territory of comics than any other medium I can think of. It’s a natural tendency of people – you look at two pictures and you try to figure out the relationship between them in time or space, whatever. The relationship between the change over time and space, that’s narrative right there. I admire lots of the people you’re talking about. I like some of them a lot. Comics can do lots of other things too.
Q: One of the other things you talk about is how comics can offer or can give you a subjective view of reality, specificially the cartoonist’s subjective view of the universe. But how does that differ from other forms of art? Don’t say the films of Luis Bunuel or Picasso’s work subjective as well? Don’t they give you a subjective look into that artist’s world view as well?
A: Absolutely, but they’re not necessarily a series of pictures. In the case of Bunuel, what you’re seeing is still something that because it’s a photographic image, your eyes are deceived into thinking what you’re seeing is reality, even though it’s not. It’s something that when you look at it, the impression you get is that “if my eyes had been in the right place in the right time, this is what I would have seen this image.” Which you don’t get with a visual artist or somebody’s drawings.
In the case of Picasso, what you’re getting is one image at a time, and maybe you can construct a narrative or a story around that, but it’s not feeding a narrative to you. It’s taking you into that world for the space of one image, instead of on a tour that does take you over space and time.
Q: OK, but let me ask you what about prose then? You don’t have that feeling like in film that you could be there, or that it is reality. Obviously it’s not visual, but it is subjective. Especially considering the more stylizied the author, the more obvious the subjective viewpoint.
A: That’s right, but that’s the thing, it doesn’t have pictures. It’s not showing you something that comes straight to your eyes. That’s a really, really big distinction. It’s hearing about something versus seeing it with your own two eyes.
Q: It’s just that a lot of art is of course subjective, and I want to try to narrow you down on what specifically makes comics – I dunno — are you saying that comics are more subjective or are they just subjective in a completely different way than other art forms?
A: They’re good at leading you into subjectivity. All art is subjective, at least in one way or another. Even in photography, there’s lots of choices that come from the artist doing that. But comics are particularily able to lead you into something that is a particular artist’s view.
Q: And that has a lot to do with their own particular style and art and the way they hold their brush.
A: Yes, exactly.
Q: You also talk about how when we review comics, we borrow phrases and words from other idioms, just by force of habit. Taking that a step further, do we comics critics need our own language? Do we need our own way of talking about comics? Are we just kind of groping around when reviewing comics?
A: Well, everybody’s groping around when they review anything. I’m not going to say “dancing about architecture,” but it’s all trying to communicate about one kind of thing in another kind of thing. There is a more robust vocabulary for talking about most kinds of art than there is so far. I think it will happen. I think it’s not something that’s possible to do by just willing it into being. The standard reaction to realizing that you need a vocabulary is to just make up words willy-nilly, which is dangerous and not very useful. I think it will happen and I think it will basically happen by accident. In the same way that the term “comic book” happens. In the same way that the term “graphic novel” happens.
Q: But the problem with that is those are terms that, as you say [in “Reading Comics”], don’t really fit the medium at all.
A: They don’t really fit, but they happened and they stuck (laughs).
Q: So we could end up like we do now where we use film terms that aren’t really adequate in explaining what happens in a comic.
A: Yeah, but I think as people come up with better terms, especially if they’re not trying to come up with better terms for everything, somebody will come up with something that will fit. Decompression is a good example. It’s an odd way of putting it, but it’s a reasonably decent metaphor. I don’t know who used it first – somebody must have, but it stuck. We’ll probably see more of that as it develops.
Next week: Pow! Bam! We talk about superheroes!