Recently I’ve really been enjoying reading two prose books about comic books:
How to Read Superhero Comics and Why by Geoff Klock (2006)
Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Douglas Wolk (2007)
I mostly found these books in search of more commentary about Alan Moore – and they’re both very good for that purpose. I’ve already read plenty of very good books about Moore himself. I recommend (in order of my favorite to least favorite): Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore by George Khoury, Alan Moore: Conversations edited by Eric Berlatsky, and Alan Moore: Storyteller by Gary Spencer Millidge. If you’re interested in Moore, check out my annotations of Moore works.
But back to those two books I just finished reading. I am lumping them together here, and though they overlap, they’re also pretty different. I should start by saying that neither of these books are likely to appeal to people who don’t already read comics. If you’re looking to read comics, I’d suggest starting by reading some comics first.
Klock’s book, as the title suggests, is specifically about super-hero comics. I don’t read too many of these lately, but part of what appeals to me about Alan Moore, which I initially wrote about here, is that he does have one foot in the super-hero genre comics I grew up with, and one foot in a deeper more meaningful literature that I now love. Klock explores a lot of comics as commentary about comics. Primarily 1980s and 1990s superhero comics, foremost Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as commentary on the ways that comics critique comics continuity. This makes Klock’s book have a somewhat less broad, more insider appeal than Wolk’s.
Wolk’s book is, at least genre-wise, more expansive. Though Wolk writes some about superheroes, his focus is quite a bit broader, encompassing more serious adult comics creators from Craig Thompson to Alison Bechdel to Art Spiegelman to the Hernandez Brothers.
I don’t have enough time to write extensively about these, so I’ll launch into some excerpts about Alan Moore:
From Wolk: (p.228)
Moore is one of the few comics creators whose work I actively collect – as prolific and inconsistent as he’s been over the last quarter century or so, I still buy anything with his name on it. Even his most minor or slapdash pieces almost always inform the way I understand his major work. And the major work still sends out shockwaves, years after it’s been completed. It’s not at all correct to say that the last twenty-five years of the history of comics are the history of Alan Moore’s career, but it’s fair to say that it sometimes seems that way.
From Klock: (p.63)
[In Watchmen] Moore’s realism does not ennoble and empower his characters… Rather it sends a wave of disruption back through superhero history by asking, for example, what would make a person dress up and fight crime? Dan Dreiberg sees his own adoption of the Night Owl persona as a childish fantasy: “Being a crimefighter … was just this adolescent, romantic thing. […]” … Moore devalues one of the basic superhero conventions by placing his masked crime fighters in a realistic world where flashy masked villains – albeit with a few pathetic exceptions – simply don’t exist. Superheroes only make sense in a world where masked opponents support their fantasy, and masked opponents only exist to fight superheroes.
There are lots and lots more to recommend in these books. Klock has really the only broad analysis I’ve seen of Moore’s ABC comics line (including Splash Brannigan.) Klock got me to track down and read Marvels and Planetary, which I really enjoyed, both very Moore-esque meta in their own ways. Wolk has great explorations of Lost Girls and Promethea, plus a great sweeping history of comics history as represented by a half dozen example covers from the 1950s to the present.
I’ll close with an excerpt from Wolk – on superheroes: (p.92)
Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. […] Super-hero cartoonists can present narratives whose images and incidents are unlike our sensory experience of the world (and totally cool-looking) but can still be understood as a metaphorical representation of our world. That’s something very easy to do in comics and very hard to do in any other medium. It’s not the only that comics do well, or what comics do best – but it’s something that can be pulled off easily in comics.