Friday, August 10, 2007

Wolk's Work On How To Read Comics

Errr...I thought one just read just reading them! Of course for certain comics, you'd need to have a sensibility and awareness of what's going on in the world (or literary fiction for Alan Moore's works, American political system for Brian K. Vaughan's works, etc etc) in order to interpret and analyse the subtext, but generally, comics are meant to be read and enjoyed.

Well, in most cases at least, unless we're talking about literary novels like Watchmen.

From Wizard Universe:

The author and journalist bridges the gap between art comix and superhero monthlies and starts fights on comics criticism

By Kiel Phegley

Posted August 9, 2007 11:10 AM

Douglas Wolk owns the Internet.

Well, not really, but he sure does show up all over it. The freelance writer has racked up an impressive résumé of comics writing over the past few years with interviews, features and industry commentary showing up on sites ranging from Publishers Weekly to Salon to the newly minted Savage Critics review site. Of course, most superhero fans know Wolk as the man behind “52 Pick-Up,” a blog that ran along with DC’s popular weekly series 52, noting everything from the first appearance of Plutonium Man to the series’ symbolic and thematic underpinnings.

It’s no surprise, then, that Wolk’s reputation as a writer who can tackle art comics, graphic novels and superhero crossovers with equal critical skill landed him a book deal for his first major print work on comics: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, which saw release last month from Da Capo Press. Reading Comics is a primer for both longtime comic fans and newbies as to what some of the best comics in America are, from classic mainstream and underground titles to modern-day bookstore favorites and comic shop specialties. To dig deeper into the book’s content, his own interests and how exactly someone picks up the title “freelance comic book journalist,” Wolk took a timeout from interviewing other people to be the subject of discussion for once.

WIZARD: Considering the fact that the writing you’ve done has covered the breadth of the comics world from art comics to hardcore fanboy stuff in your 52 blog, I was wondering what the first comic you ever bought was?

WOLK: The first comic I ever bought was Green Lantern/Green Arrow #110, I believe.

How old were you at the time?

WOLK: That was the DC explosion time, so I would have been 8.

What was it about comics that got you going? Had you watched the cartoons and all that?

WOLK: No, actually, this was back when you could buy comics on the newsstand. I would go stay with my grandparents for the summer, and there wouldn’t be much to do, so I would go down and buy a comic book. And then I’d buy another. And then I’d want to know what happens next month. And then “Oh! He’s appearing in this other comic next month. I’ve got to pick up that one, too!” And before you knew it, I was mainlining the hard stuff.

I know everyone has their own path where they discover the world outside of superheroes. But for you going from journalism school and getting into your career, where did you start to go beyond capes and tights in your reading?

WOLK: I actually never went to journalism school. I did an English degree as an undergrad and kind of drifted into journalism as a career accidentally. And how did I move beyond the capes and tights stuff? Well, I never have moved beyond the capes and tights stuff. [Laughs] I’m still right there. I’m buying a lot of the same comics I was buying when I was 9. But there was a really great comic store that was in East Lansing, Mich., where I grew up. I started going in there and picking up my usual things, and I think the first other thing I started getting into was when the guy who ran the store said, “Hey, do you read Cerebus?”

“No, what’s Cerebus?”

And he says, “Okay. Here’s one of the trade paperbacks. This is a present for
you. Take it home. If you like it, come back and buy some more.” And of course, I spent the next three months saving up to buy every back issue of Cerebus I could find. And by the time I was 13, I was actually working in that store. [Laughs] So everything that came out, I took a look at, and I just kept reading everything from that point on.

Professionally, your comics writing has really taken off at the same time as comics have gotten this giant surge of critical praise and acceptance. Is this more of a fluke on your part, or do you feel like you’ve been chipping away at this fight for a long time?

WOLK: I’ve totally been in the right place at the right time. The fight has been fought by other people, and I’ve just totally been going after them and picking up the treasures. I’ve been writing about comics in one form or another since probably 1993, but the person who opened it up the most was Calvin Reed at Publishers Weekly. He made sure that PW was covering comics just as the graphic novel/squarebound format started taking off. He’s been really good at keeping that going, and a lot of things emerged from that. A lot of writing about comics emerged from the fact that all of the sudden there were a lot of comics worth writing about.

I did a little bit of stuff in the mid ’90s for this Australian art magazine called World Art that wanted people to write about cartoonists every so often. So I talked to Jim Woodring and Scott McCloud for them. I got to put together some really pretty-looking articles, and that gave me the thirst to do some more long-form comics pieces. Most of what I’ve been doing even up to this point, more than half of what I do is writing about music, and that’s what I’ve been doing on and off since 1993. Actually, that’s what I’ve been doing on and not off since 1994. I worked at the CMJ music magazine from 1993 to 1997. I’ve been doing freelance ever since, but gradually over that time I’ve been trying to do more writing about comics because there’s a lot of people writing about music, and there are comparatively not as many people writing about comics. It was an opportunity.

And a few years ago, I did this program at Columbia University. They had this amazing program called the National Arts Journalism Program, which was for “midcareer arts journalists.” They’d take 8 or 10 of us a year and essentially not pay us to write for a year. It was a program where we’d agree to not publish more than two pieces under our own names a year, and we’d just take a bunch of classes within our discipline instead of writing about it. It was absolutely fantastic. Sasha Frere-Jones, who’s the pop critic for The New Yorker, was in the program the same time I was. A number of other critics and a really good filmmaker and a woman from NPR were in it, and we’d just have this year to devote to deepening whatever we wanted to do.

I applied for that program wanting to be the Pauline Kael of comics criticism or the M.F.K. Fisher of comics criticism, and of course there’s no classes that Columbia has on comics criticism. How could there be? So I kind of pieced together a program from a bunch of other classes that looked interesting. Some of them were arts classes. I had the first-year MFA visual arts theory class. So it was 25 first-year visual art MFAs and me…and Coco Fusco, which was scary but fantastic. I had an amazing class with James Shamus, who is the guy that runs Focus Features and writes most of Ang Lee’s screenplays. Yes, he wrote the original “Hulk” screenplay—and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Ice Storm” and all these other amazing screenplays. And he had a seminar on visual narrative, which was technically a film class, but a lot of it was really comics-applicable. In fact, lot of the Invisibles stuff [in Reading Comics] and the Grant Morrison chapter was straight up from that class.

That was really an amazing, brain-opening experience for me. And after I did that, I decided I really wanted to try doing more long-form writing about comics. And long-form writing in magazines and online, as you know, is like, over 40 words. [Laughs] I was really fortunate to start doing some stuff for Salon and The Believer where they would actually let me ramble on. At some point, it started feeling like I wanted to do a book that would include that stuff and also include some general historical/theoretical work, because I got a lot of people who knew me and were sort of vaguely into comics. Maybe they’d read Persepolis. Maybe they’d read Fun Home. Maybe they’d read a volume of Preacher or something. They’d ask, “What else is there? What’s good? Explain this to me!” So it was an opportunity to do something, and I’m really, really glad I got to write this book.

Two things I wanted to hit on that you just mentioned. First, you were saying about your writing for The Believer and whatnot that they let you ramble on, and I wanted to say—as a compliment—this book read more to me like a blog than any comics book I’ve read.

WOLK: [Laughs] Oh boy!

Not in the terms of how you structure things, but through the book you never say, “I have to put on my distanced-journalist hat.” When you want to express an opinion on something, it’s all you and very personal. Did you ever consider doing a more straight academic book or journalistic book, or were you always planning on just being yourself?

WOLK: Wow. That’s so interesting. I never wanted to do a straight academic book, and the first draft I did was much more seriously academic, and I thought, “This is no fun at all. I want this to be entertaining and pleasurable to read. I really have to rethink the tone if I want to do that.” So I had to rework a ton of stuff that I’d written in a more formal way first to be more lively and personal and based around my voice—but at the same time trying not to go overboard. There’s a little bit of stuff in there that’s kind of about me, but I have a big problem with people writing about themselves when they are not that interesting themselves. If there’s something that I can’t make interesting to someone else about myself, I don’t want to talk about it in print.

The voice I was going for is more—I talk a lot about Pauline Kael in the book, and I love the voice that she had for her early movie reviews in the ’60s and ’70s especially. They’re so her. They’re bursting with life. Her voice is so absolutely present in every sentence of them that you get a real sense of her and her perspective and the idea that it is a particular person who has a taste in movies who’s not really trying to lay down the law for what aesthetics are. She’s trying to present a coherent aesthetic of her own that has a voice of her own and a tone of her own. I love that, and I think that movie criticism is something that 40 years later—I never met her, and I don’t care about half of the movies she’s writing about, but I love her writing about them. It occasionally points me to a movie that I like or I find interesting. That’s the kind of effect I was going for. So maybe she was a blogger 35 years too early. [Laughs]

You’ve divided the book into two halves: comics as a historical case study and then a section of single chapters on a bunch of different artists. Since that first half is more “let’s get X, Y and Z out of the way” rather than a strict academic definition of terms, did you swap a lot of those chapters and ideas around when you were writing the book?

WOLK: I spent so much time reworking the whole first half of it, trying to make it flow more or less logically, trying to keep it interesting, trying not to fixate on my own personal fixations too long….[Laughs] But so much of that stuff is so interconnected, I had to organize it in a way that would be potentially useful but would also be interesting to read. It would be great if some of this stuff ends up being used in some class or another, but I wasn’t trying to provide the definitive history. I don’t have a grasp of the definitive history that other people do. Gerard Jones’ The Comic Book Heroes is much, much better on this historical front than I will ever be. He actually did a lot of the research for it and went to a lot of primary sources for it. I wanted to give a really skewed—and a really self-consciously skewed—perspective on history and aesthetics and essentially give people something to argue with. If people agree with stuff I have to say, that’s great, but if people want to pick a fight, that’s even better. One of the things I really wanted to do with this book is stir up some conversation and have people arguing about stuff and fighting about stuff and maybe coming up with new perspectives from that, because I think that’s a lot more useful than having a doctrinaire history and a doctrinaire aesthetic.

One of the things I’ve started to notice in people writing about comics is that no one seems to be tackling how this golden age we’re in is coming about. In your book, you talk about the fact that so much amazing work is coming out these days, say, “Isn’t that awesome?” and move on to discussing it piece by piece. But if you were forced to explain how we’ve gotten to this point, what would you pin it on?

WOLK: I don’t know if there was a single thing that started this movement. I think it’s a lot more critical mass. It was a lot of little things happening at once. “Sailor Moon” leads to manga explosion leads to Naruto leads to even more manga on the shelves. “Sin City” gets made, leads to a bunch of bookstores opening accounts with Diamond, which they haven’t done before. Little things like that. There’s not one of them that you can point to—the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” movie gets made, is terrible but gets bookstores to order the book and gets people into that. Once you have a certain amount of really good stuff, all it takes is a little push. [DC Comics President] Paul Levitz said when he was on the panel at New York Comic-Con that when the “V for Vendetta” movie came out, they did a big publicity push and ended up selling 100,000 more copies of that than they do in a typical year. That’s fantastic and pretty much what they planned on. What they didn’t plan on is that Watchmen would sell a ton more copies than it usually does too. And Watchmen and V for Vendetta are both books where a certain number of people get into comics every year when they discover those books, and it’s a pretty consistent number. If you’ve been reading comics for a long time, either you’ve read those books or you’ve decided you’re not going to. The rise in sales of Watchmen means that half of the people who went and saw the “V for Vendetta” movie thought, “I should go buy the book,” went and bought the book, took it home and read it and said, “Huh. That was really good. I wonder what else this guy’s done.” That’s a push. The question is “What do they buy next?” Maybe they buy Blankets. Maybe they buy Promethea. Or maybe they pick up a volume of Spawn and decide they’re never going to read a comic again. [Laughs] There were a lot of little things building up slowly over a 20-year period since the early ’80s and really concentrating in the last couple of years.

Now there’s a really big comics feeding frenzy in the publishing world. A lot of big publishers are really getting started at setting up a graphic novel division. Of course, they’re going to have to fill it with something, and they’re going to have to find new things. That means that it’s financially feasible for somebody who’s got a really good comics work in them to have some hope at least that they’re going to be able to make a decent living off of it. 20 to 25 years ago, the only people getting into comics were people who were unbelievably passionate about it and were willing to starve for years and years, which is great because you get these really passionate people, but there are probably some mute and glorious Eisners out there who would have been in comics if there had ever been any conceivable way to survive on what you make as a cartoonist. There wasn’t then, but there is a little bit more now. So there’s going to be more good stuff, I hope.

In the second half of the book about the artists themselves, I know that you state that you didn’t want to pick canon and that there were some big names you were passing over. Who were some of the cartoonists who you really enjoyed writing about, and what was the process you went about picking them?

WOLK: There were a couple people who I tried to write chapters about, and it just didn’t come out—like I tried and tried and tried to write a chapter on Jim Woodring. I love him so much. I love Jim Woodring’s stuff more than any other cartoonist I can think of, and I couldn’t make it work yet. [Laughs] One chapter I tried and failed on a few times was on the Keith Giffen Legion of Super-Heroes five-year-gap stuff, which I again love to pieces and couldn’t get right. I’m actually taking another stab at that for an anthology of essays about the Legion.

But how did I come up with this list? Really, the idea wasn’t to write about people I loved so much as people I was interested in and felt I had something to say about. I think a good example of that is the Chris Ware chapter. Chris Ware, I love his stuff, but I also have some issues with it. He’s kind of anti-pleasure. [Laughs] Then there’s Dave Sim. Any comics the guy does, I will read in a second, and obviously there’s a lot of messy stuff there to deal with, but one of the things I wanted to try to do is—a lot of times you see Dave Sim written about, you see him written about, and you don’t see the work written about. I wanted to dive right into the work and see what happens there. So that was a big positive for that. There were a bunch of chapters that appeared originally in Salon. What I do in Salon is a monthly or bimonthly column on some new graphic novel release. They’re a little less generally about the cartoonist in question and a little more about the work in question. Some of those went in there pretty straight, and some got revised.

The Grant Morrison chapter—that one took a looooooong time. That got a lot of stuff pulled out of it. There were a lot of sections in the book where stuff wasn’t working, so I just cut it out. There was a lot in the first couple of chapters. I think I cut 15,000 words after [Scott McCloud’s] Making Comics came out. I was like, “Yup. McCloud got this right. I got this wrong.” [Laughs]

I’ve read any number of these academic takedowns of comics like…have you ever read How to Read Superhero Comics and Why by Geoff Klock?

WOLK: You know, I’ve been looking for a copy of that, and I can never find it.

It was an interesting read, but the writer was so strictly adhering to using Harold Bloom to make his case; in the end it was all text-based. All the writing was about story and theme. But you do the work early in the book to separate cartooning and the visual nature of comics out and explain why that makes a comic unique. Had you had a lot of conversations with people who would ignore the art?

WOLK: No. I think it was more like I’ve read a lot of stuff that was entirely about stories that just happen to be drawn, and the implication was that any kind of drawing would do. Comics are so visual and so firmly rooted in drawing and style and artistic decisions that I really wanted to try and address that some. I fall into that trap a lot myself. There were a bunch of chapters where I found myself going, “Dude, you’re talking about the story. Use your eyes. Don’t just read the words. Use your eyes, Douglas.” It’s something that because I’m such a word person that it’s hard for me to do, but I realize also that this is how comics work on my brain. This is how comics work on everybody’s brain. And it’s hard to talk about visual things in words in the same way that it’s hard to talk about music in words, which is also what I get paid for doing. And there’s a lot of people who will listen to music and write only about the lyrics. You give them an instrumental record, and they’re like, “Wow. It’s like a movie soundtrack!” NO! Listen! Use your ears! So that’s an ongoing struggle for me, but it was something that I really had in mind and wanted to try to do.

So much of what the book is posits this idea that you’ve written it to start a broader debate. Who is your ideal person to read the book and get brought into the discussion about comics as an art form, and where do you think the debate will take place?

WOLK: The ideal reader is again one of these people who says, “Oh, you know about comics. I read this one really good thing and heard about this other really good thing, but there’s so many, and I don’t know where to start or how to read. Do you look at the words first or the pictures first? I could never really figure that out.” At the same time, I’m curious to see what people who’ve already read a lot of comics think about it and to really have some conversations and arguments with them. Where those discussions can happen—I think they can happen in print. A blog might be a really fun thing to do, and I’m going to be doing some more online comics reviewing [on the new Savage Critic(s) site]. And I’m going to be going to a couple of conventions and doing some bookstore signings.

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