Picking up where last week’s column left off, here’s part two of my interview with Douglas Wolk, author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean“:
Q: Let’s talk about superheroes for a moment.
A: Awesome! I love superheroes.
Q: Why did you do a chapter on superheroes? What made you want to address it, especially considering you don’t really focus on a lot of writers and artists who have worked in that idiom.
A: Actually, there’s the Warlock thing, there’s the Tomb of Dracula thing. It’s weird. A lot of the reactions I’ve gotten from the book have either saying I spend way too much time on superheroes or nowhere near enough time. (laughs) There’s that trap. Again, I thought it would be something interesting to talk about. There’s a hell of a lot of superhero comics being published and I read a bunch of them. It’s not all I’m interested in, but it’s something I’m interested in. And I’m interested in the way that this incredibly weird little genre has gotten to have such gigantic play in this much bigger medium.
There’s a backlash against their hegemonies that I see a lot, which is people hating superhero comics because there are so many of them and so many of them are crappy and they’re what people generally think of when they think of comics. But I think that’s still not dealing with them on their own territory. And, you know, there’s really good stuff in the genre. It’s worth talking about what it is and why it’s good. The purpose of being a critic is to try to make the world more like you. I would much rather see 40 superhero comics that I really like being published every month.
Q: Actually I wanted to use that question as a way to segue into my next one, which is: You talk a lot about this art comics vs. mainstream divide. It seems like you focus a lot on the idea of the people on the art side of the group looking down on the people who enjoy “Immortal Iron Fist” or what have you. I’m just not really sure that exists anymore. Do you really think that kind of divide is out there?
A: I do. I’ve taken flack already from the people on the art comics side of things. I went to a comic store a few days ago and gave a talk about World War Hulk and why I think it’s the best political allegory of the year. (laughs) It’s really an amazing story about blowback.
Anyway, one of the first questions I got was “Don’t you think it’s counterproductive or retrograde to be going around talking about comics when you’re talking about the Hulk?”
There is that perception and the fact is that when I’m talking about the Hulk and Spider-man I’m talking about characters that mostly commercially exist to be on children’s bedsheets, pajamas and breakfast cereal. I think it’s useful to keep that in mind. There really are an awful lot of heavily-hyped, very bad superhero comics out there. And there are a bunch of cartoonists I talk to who are like, “You know I used to read the mainstream stuff and I just can’t be bothered anymore.”
Q: To a certain extent I understand the question you were asked in that this column I do on a weekly basis, I find myself tending to focus more on the indie and artsy, mainly because that’s where my interest lies, not that I don’t enjoy superhero books, but also to an extent I feel like these are the books I should be talking about because everyone already kind of knows about “Civil War” or “World War Hulk,” even if they don’t necessarily follow comics. I’m trying to point out things people don’t notice.
But beyond that, 15 years ago, if we were having this conversation back in 94 or 95, I would have said you were absolutely right, there’s a huge divide. I just don’t necessarily see it, but maybe you’ve talked to more people than I have. Readers seem more willing to look beyond, unless they’re die-hard Marvel or DC zombies, the normal kind of books they read.
A: I don’t think there’s a strict divide. I think it links together at the end. I was in Frank Sotoro’s studio a few weeks ago, you know, the guy who does “Cold Heat?”
Q: Yeah, sure.
A: He was really, really excited that he just bought some Paul Gulacy art. I don’t think there’s an absolute divide, but I think there’s a real distinction. There are populated areas. Art comics are kind of heavily populated. Mainstream comics are kind of heavily populated. So populated that you crossover, but I don’t think they crossover very much and I think there’s a lot of sparsely occupied no-man’s land in the middle in terms of readership.
I may have made it more sharp than it actually is, but that was pretty much what it seems like to me. I don’t see a lot of crossover in the audience necessarily but there may be more than I think there is.
Q: What’s wrong with comics criticism right now, and conversely, what’s right with it?
A: What’s right is that it exists and there’s some really good stuff. I don’t necessarily have a sense of the breadth of the field. When you see comics criticism in a broad circulation such as newspapers or magazines a lot of the time 40 percent of the piece is spent justifying that it’s about comics at all. That’s starting to go away. But there’s a lot of “go back and explain.”
One thing that I would like to see more of is more of an analytical eye toward artwork, especially in mainstream comics. You’ll see a lot of the time where a reviewer will reproduce a few panels but there will always be a punchline or this shot of Kyle Rayner’s butt. Or a thing that could be taken as a double entendre.
I think it’s much easier to talk about stories than it is to talk about art. I think it’s something that people are trained to do, I think it’s something that people are used to doing. There’s not a lot of visual art literacy that can people pick up. They can tell what’s happening, but they can’t really talk about the drawing.
Q: Yeah, I don’t think most people have been educated in how to talk about art. Unless it’s something really obvious like Josh Simmons’ “House” where you can say “The panels start out big and then get small.” It’s very hard to talk about what makes, for example, Kevin Huizenga’s comics work. Because you not only have to talk about the style of drawing but you also have to talk about the composition and the arrangement.
A: I essentially went back to school so I could learn how to talk about that stuff. I was at a program at Columbia a couple of years ago for a National Arts Journalist program. The idea was that you would learn about things within the field you were wrote about instead of just writing about it. You could spend a year on Columbia’s campus, taking whatever classes you wanted to take and learning about our subject from the inside as much as possible.
So I pretty much put together a comics curriculum for myself. Of course there were no classes on any of this. So I cobbled it together from a bunch of things: the required art theory class that visual arts MFAs took, I took a visual narrative class in the film department, and that was just an amazing class for learning about how visual narrative works. I took a bunch of classes to basically teach myself the language of talking about art and understanding how to look at images and look at their “drawnness” or “made-ness.” Just essentially so I could be better at writing about comics. It was a really good way to spend a year, I was glad to do it.
Q: Is that something you think everyone who writes about comics should be doing? What would be an ideal background for a comics critic?
A: I don’t want their to be an ideal for anything. Any definition I could come up with that would be based on what I’m interested in would probably exclude Abhay Khosla, who I think is a freaking genius (laughs). If there’s room for Jog and Abhay then there’s no specific kingdom.
In the same way that I’ve done music criticism for a really long time and some of the best critics I know of are rigorously trained musicians who know a lot about music and its theories, and it comes out in their writings and their writing is great because of it, some great critics go the absolute opposite route. That’s not something I can be prescriptive about. What my program was something that I thought was going to be good for me specifically.