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July 22, 2007|Michael Sims

Reading Comics

How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

Douglas Wolk

Da Capo Press: 406 pp., $22.95

"As cartoonists and their longtime admirers are getting a little tired of explaining," sighs Douglas Wolk, "comics are not a genre; they're a medium." Offering as much variety and creativity as novels or film, this versatile form has become hugely influential over the last few years. Besides the "Spider-Man" franchise, movies from "Ghost World" to "Hellboy" originated as graphic novels.

Superheroes are standard fare in movies partly because they provide a great excuse for long fight scenes and computer-generated pyrotechnics. But popular approval of the more adolescent side of the medium is now matched by awareness of its serious artistic possibilities. Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and Carla Speed McNeil's "Finder" series are a long way from "Peanuts" and "Aquaman."

So much commotion and talent -- not to mention ego and hype -- cry out for insightful critical analysis. In his writings for the New York Times, Spin, Blender and many other publications, Wolk has established his credentials as a walking encyclopedia of comics and their most articulate watchdog. Recently, Wolk even surfaced on the Huffington Post blog, denouncing the near-porn silliness of superhero comics, which sends girls the message that a whole category of publishing not only has no need for them but actually enjoys antagonizing them.

In his new book, "Reading Comics," Wolk's tough-love approach is deliciously quotable. Describing the mammiferous babes of the DC superhero series "Birds of Prey," he mutters in an aside, "The phrase 'kickboxing in wet lingerie' comes to mind." Of Dave Sim's paranoid misogyny in his seemingly endless "Cerebus" volumes, Wolk invokes the familiar quote, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Even his more oracular generalizations seem apt: "Any art with a bygone golden age is doomed to try to repeat it, and to repeat its failings."

Apparently Wolk has an endless supply of information and anecdote. He can admire Carmine Infantino's "Flash" as well as "Lost Girls," the artsy erotic graphic novels by Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore. He details how Moore rigorously planned his interrogation of the superhero mythos in the mid-1980s saga "Watchmen," and how its once revolutionary grim-and-gritty approach soon became the default mode -- and devolved into a kind of noir kitsch. He explains the ways in which Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World" series reflects in its female protagonist (Enid Coleslaw, an anagram of Daniel Clowes) the autobiographical preoccupations of the male artist. Wolk's close reading of the drawing style of Jaime Hernandez is a work of art in itself.

Illustrations? Everything is here -- Will Eisner's sketchbook of New York, Megan Kelso's elegant awkwardness in "The Squirrel Mother," Hope Larson's dream scenes and the almost abstract "Tomb of Dracula" fight scenes. You'll find great artwork by Frank Miller, Kevin Huizenga, R. Crumb and Peter Bagge. Perhaps it is greedy to wish for even more. •

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