Feb 08

Clear-Line Criticism: Douglas Wolk’s “Reading Comics”

FT + The Brown Wedge7 comments • 804 views

Reading ComicsBetween Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics arriving in the post and my sitting down to read it, two things happened. First of all, my wife picked it up, flicked through, then settled down and read a few pages, before putting it down and pronouncing, “That is excellent writing.” Isabel doesn’t read comics but she appreciates – and constantly pushes me towards – the kind of clear, knowledgeable but informal style Wolk handles expertly. The major part of Reading Comics – the second half, with Wolk’s specific explorations of creators he more or less admires – is like an enthusiastic chat with a smart friend: you feel like he’s passing you the comics, not just recommending them. Since this was how I got into comics in the first place, I felt very comfortable with it.

The second thing that happened was that I read the outrageously unfair review of Reading Comics in The Comics Journal, which mostly focussed on the book’s (untypically hyperbolic) cover blurb. The lukewarm review started out sniffing at the blurb’s claim that the book is ‘canon-smashing’, but then spent most of the time squawking over who’d been put in and left out. Generally the review put me in an even more favourable frame of mind but a couple of the reviewer’s observations were astute – Wolk does rather hurry past the 60s underground comix boom, for instance: Robert Crumb gets a few mentions but no spotlight, the rest go mostly unnoticed.

That omission is fair enough – Wolk’s mission is to bring a current Golden Age to people’s awareness, after all, and if there’s one period well-served by existing comics criticism it’s the late 60s. It does shed a little bit of light on my other vague misgiving with the book, though.

But before I get onto that, I’ll say again: it’s an excellent book. Wolk has thought about the comics he reads a lot and the stuff he says about Los Bros Hernandez, and Grant Morrison, and cartoonists less familiar to me like Carla Speed Macneil and Hope Larsen, feels right and exciting. In the second section, where the critic rolls up his sleeves and criticises, I kept having that shut-the-book, think “YES!”, let-mind-race, dive-back-in feeling. I decided, because I liked the phrase, that I’d borrow a comics term and call Wolk’s style “clear-line criticism”. Unflashy, explanatory, generous prose that’s designed simply to enlighten the reader, show them stuff they’ll want to go and check out themselves, not bamboozle or hornswoggle or provoke them (well, not primarily to provoke).

I see clear-line criticism in music writing too* – Wolk does that, and so does his fellow Pitchfork writer Nitsuh Abebe. It’s superb at explaining how and why a particular effect works, and in briefly and fairly outlining the issues around more contentious art. The clear-line tone of reasonableness is what makes the first part of Reading Comics – about the history and theory of comics – less successful, or successful in a different way perhaps. I nodded my head a lot but I never said “Wow!” or wanted to rush for the keyboard: the style is maybe best used in explaining ideas, not sparking them. But after all that’s the point of the first part, and Wolk does the job very well.

So where’s the beef, if beef there be? Wolk’s clear-line, explanatory approach is particularly strong on craft, the structural and formal elements that make panels, pages, issues and whole series work in unit and sequence. Early on in part two he re-stages a little confrontation between ‘craft’ and ‘cuteness’ which is at the heart of the cartoonist James Kochalka’s work. He gives both a nod, but there’s a glee in his writing whenever he’s talking about formally complex or audacious comics (like Cerebus, or Watchmen, or Seven Soldiers or Finder) which isn’t there otherwise. He gets an especial kick out of ‘fourth-wall’ breaking – metafictional techniques which play with the gap between character and reader or with the structure of the comics page – and extended visual metaphors (which are often a vehicle for this play).

The book’s own metanarrative climaxes with Wolk’s confrontation with Chris Ware, the darling of the contemporary American comics scene, whose work is formally dazzling and emotionally sour. It’s one of the book’s best chapters – I thought he nailed exactly why Ware’s work is impressive and why it fails – on some level it’s also Wolk acknowledging the limits of the formal complexity that’s been drawing him through comics. Conversely, the weakest chapter, a little before the Ware one, is on the 70s Marvel title Tomb Of Dracula. Wolk has a clear-line explanation for the power the comic’s transmitting to him, but it doesn’t convince me – TOD is apparently Lovecraftian horror rather than defeatable horror, because it’s an ongoing comic and Dracula can’t die. But in this case surely ALL shared-universe superhero stuff is Lovecraftian in essence – it’s not like Lex Luthor’s going to stay in that jail. Wolk characterises the tone of the comic as panic, and his clear-line criticism demonstrates beautifully how artist Gene Colan achieved that panic, but he can’t convince me it was chilling rather than thrilling.

Ultimately, though, I think the reason Wolk likes Tomb Of Dracula is that he read it as a kid and it’s kept some visceral impact. But clear-line criticism doesn’t seem to deal well with the visceral: it’s simply not the kind of writing that can transmit those sensations convincingly. As someone who uses it a lot myself I can totally sympathise – I’ve tried at huge length to explain the awesomeness of 2000AD and end up every time falling back on half-baked theorising. There’s one part in Reading Comics where Wolk does drop his clear-line style and just reprints a blog post on “100 reasons to love comics” – a lot of the reasons are simple “OMG” moments and the list’s messy enthusiasm transmits their impact perfectly.

The underground comix were viscera all the way – generally not structurally adventurous, more just blurts from the id. And I’d argue it’s Wolk’s style, as much as his tastes, that stops him really getting to grips with that. It’s ultimately a minor quibble – Wolk’s clear-line style is so well-applied, and so useful, that the book’s lacunae don’t matter. And besides, I think the lesson isn’t about the limitations of one style, it’s more an incompleteness theorem: any way of writing will encounter some subject matter that it simply can’t effectively handle.

*Though clear-line finds the going rougher in music criticism, partly because of the spectre of L3ster B4ngs – in a rockcritics.com interview with Wolk the first question is “Who is the comics criticism L.B.?”

ADDENDUM: Writing this post I ended up with the following list, presented in a spirit of, well, I don’t know what really:

Richard Meltzer:Harvey Kurtzmann
Jann Wenner:Stan Lee
Greil Marcus:Jack Kirby
Robert Christgau:Steve Ditko
Lester Bangs:Robert Crumb
Julie Burchill:Dave Sim
Charles Shaar Murray:Pat Mills
Chuck Eddy:Gilbert Hernandez
Paul Morley:Grant Morrison
Simon Reynolds:Neil Gaiman
Byron Coley:Gary Groth
Jim DeRogatis:John Byrne
Conor McNicholas:Rob Liefeld


  1. 1

    “The underground comix were viscera all the way – generally not structurally adventurous, more just blurts from the id.”

    is this entirely true? i recall very clearly (i think it’s collected in the penguin book of comics) a strip of victor moscoso’s (sp.) playing while the image of mickey mouse as a sequences of evolving shapes; i think there was a distinct strand of “trip art” which attempted to replicate the (over)attention to detail and structure that acid (apparently) engendered…

    (it’s just occurred to me this may be why i find the formal stuff in watchmen so lame)

  2. 2

    of course i also consider bangs a formalist

  3. 3
    Tom on 13 Feb 2008 #

    Yeah you’re right I think – there’s structural adventure in there too, but I’d still say it’s often/usually overwhelmed by the id-stuff. And the Chequered Demon strips collapse page structure too, but of course it’s not really in the service of meaning in the way the stuff Wolk likes is.

  4. 4
    Tom on 13 Feb 2008 #

    Maybe it’s vulgarity clear-line criticism has trouble with?

    I also really should do that Coil post as a follow-up.

  5. 5
    Pete Baran on 13 Feb 2008 #

    (Book cover and link to where you can get it added as EVERYBODY should read it obv!)

  6. 6
    Paul I on 14 Feb 2008 #

    Loved the book in for exactly the same reasons as Tom (it’s that lovely, clear voice), but I found the chapter on Grant Morrison maddeningly abstract — not clear at all, really — which is a shame, as it’s the chapter I was most looking forward to reading. I especially didn’t think Wolk made his case for spoiling the end of The Invisibles. (In fact, I’d be pretty peeved if I had the “pop” moment spoiled for me.)

    The rest is pretty terrific though — the Dave Sim essay won’t be bettered.

  7. 7
    Tom on 14 Feb 2008 #

    I liked it mostly because it made me want to read the Invisibles again!

    I think the Invisibles and Cerebus pull a similar trick, which is to have a load of really cool exciting plot stuff and then pull the rug away and basically say “well all that cool stuff was misdirection and weren’t you a dodo for caring about it”. Wolk addresses this a bit more in the Sim essay because it’s *so* glaring in Cerebus that you really have to. I gave up on the Invisibles because I didn’t feel Grant’s ideas were worth the misdirection (and because the comic was still full of King Mob etc. running round being kewl even when it was transparently obvious the ‘story’ wasn’t about that, and because a Mary Sue who gets you magically laid is still a Mary Sue, etc etc.) – Wolk’s chapter suggests that they might have been worth it, or at least that they were being more interestingly presented than I credited.

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