[rockcritics.com kicks off phase 2 of is existence with an exclusive interview with music and comics writer, Douglas Wolk. An archived version of this interview is available here.]
Douglas Wolk… Dean of American Comics Critics
By Steven Ward
That title was not self-proclaimed by Douglas Wolk. I came up with the unofficial designation as soon as I finished the last page of Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean ($22.95 Da Capo Press). It occurred to me that sometime in the near future–if not already–the comics fanboy community as well as the pop culutre world will consider Wolk one of the premier critics of all things graphic novels.
Wolk knows his stuff.
When delving into Reading Comics, you find out that Wolk has definte favorites when it comes to comics authors. He seems to know the entire history of the medium off the top of his head and he isn’t afraid to criticize legends in the business.
How good is Wolk’s book? I’m no comics guy. I haven’t picked up a comic book since I was 12 or 13 when I was reading Tomb of Dracula in the ’70s. (Wolk has a whole chapter on that fine Marvel title BTW.) But the appeal of those graphic novels I always look at longingly in book stores, combined with Wolk’s reputation as an excellent music critic, made me want to explore what all the fuss was about.
Well, before I finshed the book, I went to my local comics store, and bought volume one of Alan’s Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. If you know who Alan Moore is, you will want to read Wolk’s book. If you don’t know who Moore is you need to read this book. Wolk has me hooked. (My wife is eternally grateful to Douglas. Now I have to spend money on something else besides all those books and CDs I have stacked all over our house.)
During the e-mail interview below, Wolk talks a little about music criticism and a lot about comics and comic book culture.
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Steven: Is there a Lester Bangs of comics criticism, and if so, who is it and where does he or she publish their stuff? If not, why not?
Douglas: That’s a hard question–partly because I reflexively twitch at the mention of Lester Bangs’ name. Not that I don’t love a lot of his writing, but I think he’s been a terrible influence on a lot of music critics who’ve tried to be idiosyncratic exactly the way he was, and holding him up as the example of what pop criticism aspires to doesn’t tend to yield very good results.
Another way to frame the question might be: what would it take for there to be an English-language comics critic whose writing would be as fresh and odd and powerful as Lester Bangs’ was in his time? My first impulse is that she’d have to be able to make a living at it, which I think is still functionally impossible–I’ve been doing this for a long time, but a lot of my income still comes from music criticism and political writing. But what overrides that first impulse is realizing that the best writers-on-comics right now (again, in English; I suspect there’s much better developed comics criticism in other languages) are writing on the Web, for no money or almost none.
It’s logrolling, but I’ll say it anyway: my two favorite writers on comics right now are both part of the Savage Critic collective, to which I also belong. Joe “Jog” McCulloch (who also writes at Jog – The Blog) is thoughtful and rigorous and goes deep into his subjects; I always come out of his reviews understanding his subjects more deeply than when I started. And Abhay Khosla is, I suppose, sort of Bangs-like in his approach–or mayb even Meltzerian, which is to say that he rips apart the unquestioned assumptions behind comics criticism and is also hilarious.
But it’s also worth noting that “comics criticism” no longer just means well-wrought prose essays. My favorite piece of comics criticism of the past year is probably Christopher Bird’s detournement of Ultimate Power #2–not just a brilliant commentary on its subject, but a more entertaining story than the one it’s replacing.
Steven: I really enjoyed your chapter on Alan Moore. Obviously, you are a super fanboy of all his stuff. In reading some of the bio-type information about Moore in your book, it seems like someone could do a graphic novel about Alan Moore! What an interesting character. Can you comment on that a little?
Douglas: Yeah, Moore is a character and a half–as I’m sure he knows well. He’s had a pretty immaculately constructed public persona for a very long time (and there are a pair of festschrifts about him that came out a few years ago: Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman and The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore). And he’s one of the most articulate people I’ve ever interviewed (by phone; I’ve never met him in person). You know how when you’re interviewing somebody you’re lucky if they can speak in complete sentences? Moore speaks in complete essays.
I first encountered his stuff when I was 12 or 13 and snapping up copies of British comics whenever I could–at that time he was publishing a lot of five- and six-page pieces in 2000 A.D., and it didn’t take me long to notice that the same guy’s name kept showing up on the good stuff. He had a period of almost unbelievable creative fecundity in the early ’80s–Marvelman, Captain Britain, V for Vendetta, the Bojeffries Saga, D.R. & Quinch, Skizz, Halo Jones, and then Swamp Thing on top of that, all of which have this incredible white-hot energy to them. I don’t love everything he’s done (a lot of his ’90s Image stuff does zilch for me), but I’m interested in looking at everything he’s done: he’s willing to extend himself far enough to risk failing embarrassingly, which I love. He actually reminds me a bit of one of my other obsessions, prime-period James Brown, that way: they both constantly pushed themselves beyond their considerable capabilities. I’m told that there’s at least one more major comics project he’s working on, besides his long-in-the-works novel Jerusalem; I’m still happy to follow his work wherever he feels like going.
Steven: I know you hate the whole canon idea, but in thinking of classic film, do you think Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comic books? Also, is Watchmen the comic book you would suggest to non-comics people who want to get into reading comics again?
Douglas: Hmm. I don’t think Watchmen is the high-water mark for the medium–I think it’s certainly one of the high-water marks for superhero comics, but it’s also such a strange kind of meta-comic about superhero comics that it’s hard to think of it in those terms. I was actually just talking about this with some friends a few weeks ago, and the consensus is that as great as Watchmen is, it’s a terrible starting point. (As my friend put it, “it’s like recommending The Seventh Seal as somebody’s first movie.”) So much of it plays off the assumptions that come out of having read a thousand other superhero comics that I can’t see it having the same kind of impact.
People actually ask me a lot what a good starting point for contemporary comics is, and my first answer is always that they should just go to a well-stocked comics store (or a bookstore with a well-stocked comics section) and flip through interesting-looking books until they find something they like–the fact that comics are drawn makes it immediately obvious what they look like, and what might appeal to particular people. Of course, then anyone I’ve said that to gets an annoyed look on her face, and I end up lending her Locas or Black Hole or the first volume of Y: The Last Man or Leviathan or something.
Steven: Do you think it’s harder for a writer to make an established genre/mainstream character interesting and relevant again such as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or Frank Miller’s Batman or to create something brand new in the art comics world?
Douglas: Just going by the numbers, I think making an old licensed property fresh again is much harder–there’s lots of new stuff happening all the time in the art-comics world, and the really mindbendingly artistically successful reinventions of long-running superhero characters can be counted on the fingers of both hands. Besides the ones you mention, there’s the Miller/Janson and Bendis/Maleev Daredevil, the Claremont/Byrne X-Men… Greg Pak has been doing very interesting things with the Hulk lately… I suppose Morrison’s Seven Soldiers counts–I think the Morrison/Quitely All-Star Superman is more a consolidation of everything that’s ever been good about the character than an actual new approach… On the other hand, I am probably being too harsh here. On reflection, if Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting had done what they’re doing now with Captain America 25 years ago, it would have blown everyone’s minds. Now it’s just another solidly entertaining superhero comic.
Steven: In the “Why I Love My Culture” portion of Reading Comics, you write, “The flip side of the Comic Store Guy’s sneer of ‘you mean you don’t know?’ is that it’s a culture that really does privilege deep knowledge of its history and present; the cuture, as it turns out, doesn’t take itself very seriously at all is very happy to open its doors to anyone willing to take comics themselves seriously.” That last part especially strikes me as almost warm when you think of the whole High Fidelity record store clerk/music geek kind of personality. I think that’s where maybe pop music and comics culture differ. The sneer is always sort of there for the music snob who always (not always, but you know what I mean) seems to take it all so seriously. Why do you think that is?
Douglas: I’d guess it has to do with the extent to which music and comics are integrated into everyday life right now. Even people who aren’t particularly into pop music are exposed to it all the time; you needn’t have any interest in hip-hop to have heard about the Kanye vs. 50 tussle going on this week. (So music elitists can afford to be picky.) Comics, on the other hand, are strictly fringe stuff–if you meet somebody else who knows who Alan Moore and Frank Miller are, let alone Jaime Hernandez and Carla Speed McNeil, you’ve got some common territory with them already. There’s also the narrative dimension, which makes comics’ stories fun to talk about–when people chitchat about music, they’re usually talking about personal experiences, shows they’ve attended, stories about musicians, etc. Comics people can chitchat about comics the same ways, but they can also talk about what’s happening in the comics. (“Who would win in a fight, Harvey Pekar or Light Yagami?”)
Steven: Let’s not forget you are a music critic? Do you prefer writing about music or comics? Also, what music magazines–online or print–do you enjoy reading and why?
Douglas: It feels, actually, like writing about music and writing about comics use different parts of my brain–after I’ve been doing one, the other one is always a relief to do for a while. Interestingly, though, writing about comics gives me many more opportunities to write long: music writing these days is very capsule-based. (But it tends to pay better.)
My favorite music magazines in print tend to be very narrow-focused–every so often I’ll pick up an issue of Murder Dog or Dirty Linen or something along those lines. I love the long features in Mojo; I love the style and breadth of Blender (for which, conflict-of-interest alert, I write). That Erik Davis interview with Joanna Newsom in Arthur magazine last year was one of the best music features I’ve ever read. Any time Alex Ross writes about anything in the New Yorker, it’s worth reading–I’m particularly fond of his writing on pop, although he doesn’t write about it often these days (I’m in the middle of his book The Rest is Noise, and it’s fantastic). Online, I really like Last Plane to Jakarta, and wish John Darnielle would post long things there more often. There’s always something good to read at Perfect Sound Forever. And, another conflict-of-interest alert, I do adore Pitchfork, for its depth, passion, and willingness to provoke–that’s why I like writing for them, too.
Steven: Is there any particular music critic or music writer that has influenced you? Also, has there been any writer of any genre that has influenced your writing about comics?
Douglas: Robert Christgau’s consumer guides–especially the ’70s book–were a gigantic influence on me when I started writing about music myself; so was a short-lived zine by Patrick Amory, Too Fun Too Huge! I love a lot of Greil Marcus’s writing, especially Lipstick Traces, but I’ve never quite been able to adopt that kind of writing mode myself. And probably the music writer who’s had the deepest impact on the way I think about writing is Paul Morley. As far as writing about comics goes, though, the writers who’ve affected me the most strongly are other kinds of critics–I’ve probably dropped Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag’s names too many times already, but they’re the writers whose level of thought and craft I aspire to. And there are a few other writers who’ve made permanent dents on my brain: Rebecca West, David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, and George W.S. Trow–my whole Live at the Apollo book was one big Trow homage in a lot of ways.
Steven: Thanks to the book Marooned, we know what album you would want to be stranded on a desert island with. If you could only have one comic or graphic novel with you on that island, which one would it be and why?
Douglas: Jim Woodring’s Frank, because every time I read it I understand it a tiny bit more, and understanding it leads to understanding lots of other things.
Steven: Back to the book. In the “Why I Hate My Culture” section, your write, “mainstream comics pamphlets that are incomprehensible to anyone not already immersed in their culture aren’t just the norm now; they’re the point.” So how can a newbie penetrate this culture? If you haven’t read a comic book since you were 12, but loved Iron Man or the Sub-Mariner, how do you pick back up where those stories are today?
Douglas: Well, it’s hard–you kind of have to commit to reading a bunch of material before it’ll start coming together in your head, and the only way that’s a worthwhile experience is if individual superhero comics are also aesthetically rewarding on their own. Which, way too often, isn’t the case. There are occasionally good jumping-on points, although they’re not often well labeled, and sometimes things that ought to be good jumping-on points (like first issues of heavily promoted series) aren’t–Countdown, I am looking at you. It’s probably best to pick up a trade paperback that looks like it’s a stand-alone sort of thing–hooray for libraries! The “Ultimate” line from Marvel is fairly self-contained at this point (and Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Ultimates, which is the Avengers analogue, are all pretty good); DC’s “All-Star” line was also an attempt to be a sort of easy entry point/top talent combination, although All-Star Superman is much, much, MUCH better than All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. To answer your specific examples, Sub-Mariner hasn’t done much of interest lately in the main Marvel universe, although there’s a very sharp take on the idea of the character in Ultimate Fantastic Four vol. 5. For Iron Man, maybe that Extremis collection by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, who’s the guy who designed the Iron Man suit for the movie that’s coming out next year.
Steven: Do you think kids even read comics anymore? It seems like the market is more geared toward people in the late teens, 20s, 30s etc. When I’m in an Barnes and Noble I never see kids flipping through comics books or gprahic novels. It’s almost always me–young and old. Maybe it’s the effect of the Internet. What do you think?
Douglas: Those are the people reading superhero comics (although there are a bunch of superhero comics now aimed toward younger readers, like the Marvel Adventures line–who knows how well they’ve caught on, though). But superhero comics ≠ comics. Kids love comics–but the comics they’re reading are, first and foremost, manga. Naruto sells and sells and sells to kids. Kids read Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat. There’s a gigantic audience of teenage girls reading shojo manga in general. And the “Bone” series that Scholastic’s been publishing in color is a massive hit with kids.
Steven: Do you think there is anything a non-comics fan could add to the world of comics criticism. In other words, could someone who never heard of Steve Ditko or Chris Ware write intelligently about a grahpic novel he or she would just pick up and read. Could they just react to the art or medium itself and write about their reactions and feelings to what they have just seen? To use music writing as an example, do you think someone could write a credible CD review of a Black Crowes album without having any knowledge of the musical sounds and history of the Rolling Stones or the Faces? Does that make sense?
Douglas: To paraphrase “30 Rock”: they’ve got two eyes and a heart, don’t they? A little bit of the idea behind the Jess Lemon exercise I talk about in the book (when I wrote a comics review column for a few months in the voice of somebody who knew absolutely nothing about comics) was to try to come up with a way of talking about them without that sense of history. Yes, of course, what we expect of a critic in any kind of field is that she’ll know enough about her field to have not just opinions but informed opinions; what happens a lot when people who are new to comics write about specific comics is that they spend a whole lot of time grappling with the medium itself (in a reinventing-the-wheel sort of way) and not enough time dealing with the actual work. But good writing and perceptive observation are what count most to me in criticism. It usually takes a while to develop that kind of perceptive observation, but it doesn’t always, and a fresh perspective is always a good thing.
Steven: How far can you see comics criticism and comics in general grow in popularity and influence on the pop culture at large? For instance, do you see a day where there are more mainstream print magazines about strictly comics. Do you see cover stories in Entertainment Weekly, for exmaple, on a comics writer or artist because of their comics work and not because there is a big budget film coming out based the comic.
Douglas: That’s strictly a numbers game, I think. The way mass media get critical and journalistic coverage is attracting lots of attention and money. I guarantee you that if DMZ sold as many copies as there are people watching “American Idol,” Brian Wood would be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly every other month. Supposedly Don Rosa is front-page news when he visits Scandinavia, because his comics are a mass-cultural phenomenon there. Could something like that happen in the U.S.? Well, we’re still a few years away from it, at the very least–the infrastructure’s still being built up, but we’re going to have to see graphic novels that sell 300,000 copies out of the gate first. Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who’d really enjoy comics but aren’t currently reading them; it’s going to take a while to get to them, though, and if it takes big-budget films to rope them in, so be it.