Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reading comics, and some comics I read

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They MeanSo I decided to read the book Reading Comics, by Douglas Wolk, and inspired by that decided to read a couple of comics. First of all lets look at the book. I'm not really a comic book reader, and so this book gave a good background on what types of comics there are, the differences between them. It was fairly focused in scope on comics with a narrative, so no single panel cartoons or anything, from the west (so no manga). The book was well written, and I plowed though it quite quickly. One of the main things it tries to do is to make people read comics as a form of literature, or fine art, some strange cross between movies and books. It defends this pretty well, pointing out that comics seem to be unfairly judged by the equivalent of the romance-novel serials that make huge amounts of money for book publishers, but that so one really would try to defend the artistic value of, rather than the best that comics have to offer.

There are two types of comics according to this book: Art comics and mainstream (or superhero) comics. The label art comics has to do with the goal of being a work of rather than a signifier of quality, one of the surprising things about this book is that the author goes through a lot of trouble to defend superhero comics, even though there are a lot of very bad mainstream comics. Apparently the watershed decade in comics was the 80s: art comics first appeared and superhero comics sort of grew up since they started selling to a more mature, more stable audience (and some good writers were allowed more freedom).

The book concludes with a series of discussions about different comics, chosen for their discussion value, rather tan just quality. I'm going to talk about a couple that I read below, but the main thing I got out of the discussed comics is the huge level of diversity in comics, and that I probably am more interested in art comics, since most mainstream comics require a huge amount of background, and I hate starting in the middle of a story. I would have to start with the originals from the 40s, or stick only to new characters and settings (which is what I plan to do), or else go crazy.

One thing I thought was funny was the author was discussing how superhero comics are usually a metaphor for some sort of larger struggle or moral dilemma, and he seemed unsure what wonder woman was a metaphor for: it' obviously female domination: what with the rope and everything.

So I recommend the book to comics newbies like me, but I don't know how people who already are into comics will feel about it.

So I read two comics, both discussed in the book, after reading the book. Both I had heard about before and wanted to read, and both are held up as top superhero and art comics respectively. These comics are Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and Fun Home by Alison Bechtel.

WatchmenWatchmen is really well put together, you can tell by reading it, even without having much in the way of other comics to compare with. I'm not going to discuss much of the plot or the setting, since one of the joys of the comic is discovering how the setting and characters are tied together. It has multiple intertwined storylines, moral ambiguity, and an interesting, mostly plausible, backstory. The only thing I didn't like is the ending, which I felt like was a "Philosophy 101" moral dilemma that did not seem natural. I just hope the upcoming movie doesn't suck.

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home also approaches ambiguity, but rather than grand moral dilemmas, it's more an ambiguity about identity. It's basically about her father who died in 1980 shortly after she came out as a lesbian. The ambiguity is everywhere and fully acknowledged: her father had sex with young men, but it's unknown whether he was truly gay or just bi or some sort of other label. He died being hit by a truck, but was he distracted when he jumped in front of it, or was it suicide? There is a lot to this comic, and it's extremely "literary", not just for comic book geeks, but since it's full of literary allusions, those best able to appreciate the comic may be literature geeks. Highly recommended. I also like Alison Bechtel's running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For", which is currently on hiatus, even though I can't look all the way to the beginning.

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