Those who believe the study of comic art as a mass-produced media does not involve highly developed tools of deconstruction would do well to stay away from Douglas Wolk. Rightly so, he believes that the Golden Age of Comics—a specific term originally meant to refer to the 1930 through early 1950s era of comic book product—is upon us today. Comic-related items (comic books, books, movies, toys, television shows) have flooded mainstream America.
Reading Comics is not an actual how-to book, but it can be broken down into two distinct halves. The first five chapters explore the ways in which comic art can be understood and its place in American culture. These essays include anecdotes, commentary about a variety of works, and Wolk’s own assessment of where this book fits into the field of literature about comic books. These essays include anecdotes, commentary about a variety of works, and Wolk’s own assessment of where this book fits into the field of literature about comic books.
The second half of the book is a series of essays that highlight and examine a particular artist, series, or phenomenon within the comic industry. These pieces includes assessments of the Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, Jim Starlin’s Warlock series, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and many other intriguing works. Wolk does not hesitate to destroy the notion that these essays are establishing a canon of sorts, but given the breadth and detail with which he expounds on some of them still hints at the implication. While readers do not have to be versed in any particular series that he discusses, it certainly helps. In fact, readers may find themselves running to the store to pick up some of the titles discussed by Wolk. He manages a decent job of explaining his meaning, but some readers may want more.
Wolk can be pretty assertive in his assessments about the various works out there. He is usefully critical, but sometimes a bit too harsh on titles for which he has obvious disdain and light on criticism for artists by whom he is fully enthralled, such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Though Wolk claims his focus is solely on American comics, the book seems lacking without at least some attention given to the influence manga and European comics have had on comics and reading them.
One of the more curious elements of his book is the title of the book. After providing some colorful insight into how the usage of a name for “comics” can imply certain values on behalf of the person using the term, he explains his usage as such, “The industry calls thin, saddle-stitched pamphlets ‘comic books,’…virtually any squarebound volume of comics sold on bookstore shelves a ‘graphic novel,’ and the form in the abstract ‘comics’. That’s how I generally use those terms too.” If this is true, then he should have labeled his book “Reading Graphic Novels: How Comics Work And What They Mean,” since he is explaining the medium (comics) by reading specific titles (graphic novels).
Wolk delivers a decent assessment of the medium with some interesting perspectives on a variety of works and artists. The insertion of over a hundred excerpts and illustrations from a variety of comics does often help further explain his points. As an introduction to the medium, Reading Comics certainly does provide insight on the further depths one can plumb when reading comics.