An interview with Douglas Wolk

Interview by Paul Kane

Paul Kane: What is your earliest experience of reading comics? Were you into Marvel or DC as a kid?

Douglas Wolk: My very earliest comics-reading experiences were probably Richie Rich comics when I was 3 or 4, but the addiction really started with a couple of superhero comics I bought when I was 9 or so. I was never a Marvel or DC partisan – I started consuming comics so heavily so quickly that it didn’t make sense to pick a team.

PK: Have you ever sat down and tried to estimate how many comics you’ve read over a lifetime? What would the ball-park figure be?

DW: They’re innumerable, and I’m innumerate. I’d say the long-boxes are in the mid-double digits, but I can’t estimate and be sure of even the order of magnitude.

PK: How did you first come to write about comics?

DW: My first professional writing about comics was probably a 250-word review of something in CMJ New Music Monthly, where I was the managing editor and was fairly desperate to fill space. I was on staff, so I didn’t get paid extra for it…

PK: What is your working definition of a “graphic novel”? (And is it a term you’d use?) Would Max Ernst’s Une Semaine De Bonte or Lucas and Morrow’s What a Life! ( http://scruss.com/wal) – to choose two difficult cases – qualify?

DW: Well, I use “graphic novels” in the subtitle of Reading Comics – I don’t much love the term, but it’s what we’ve got to work with. (I generally use it the way people in the comics industry use it, to refer to any square-bound book of comics.) I’d rather not define “comics” or “graphic novel” at all, because there’s always the problem of stuff creeping in at one end of the definition and falling out at the other. As for the Ernst and the Lucas/Morrow qualifying: sure, why not? They don’t look a whole lot like the panels-and-word-balloons tradition in comics, but they look much more like that than, say, fresh produce or a downhill motor race. To put it another way: my drawing teacher in grad school, when he was assigning us our final projects, drew two circles on the chalkboard, one around the other. “This,” he said, pointing to the inner circle, “is drawing. This” – pointing to the space in the outer circle but outside the inner circle – “is kinda drawing. And this” – pointing outside the outer circle – “is not drawing. Your assignment is to do something that’s either drawing or kinda drawing.”

PK: Is a comic in fact closest to a novel or closest to a kind of slow-motion movie (which also has a narrative, of course)?

DW: I’d like to argue that it’s closest to neither of them (or equally close to, say, sculpture and cuisine): one of the most important things about comics, probably the most important thing, is that they’re drawn (actually cartooned, which is a specific subset of drawing). They don’t just have content communicated visually, they have visual style and discrete, handmade images.

PK: What satisfactions can a reader get from a comic (or graphic novel) that they can’t get from a straight literary novel or a movie? On an opposite tack, what possibilities does the genre offer the writer?

DW: Comics aren’t a genre, they’re a medium – genres have particular assumptions about their content built in, which comics don’t. (Superhero stories are a genre; so are Regency romances.) The satisfactions particular to comics, again, have to do with drawing – the way the world is transformed by the eye and hand of the artist, and the way the reader’s mind gets to make little leaps again and again, from the drawn image to the concept it refers to and from one image to the next. For a comics writer (or writer/artist), comics present the possibility of showing the world as it isn’t, or as a metaphor for the way it is – anything that can be imagined as an image can become part of a narrative.

PK: In Reading Comics you say of Steve Ditko that “he’s the ghost haunting the last forty years of American comic books” (p.156). Can you explain why you think this is so?

DW: Ditko was arguably the first American cartoonist to make the shift from mass entertainment to style-first small-press self-expression, which is part of what I meant by that. But I also meant that his fingerprints are all over both independent art-comics and mainstream superhero stuff, in a way that’s less obvious than, say, Jack Kirby’s, but still very much present.

PK: Have you read any of Joe Brainard’s comics (the collaborations he did with Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett) and, if so, what did you think of them?

DW: All I’ve seen are a few examples on Gary Sullivan’s blog; I’m curious to see more. I tend to be biased toward narrative content in comics, but I also haven’t seen a lot of deliberately non-narrative comics, and my interest is piqued. I’ve seen some of the (basically image-less) comics Koch did on his own, though, and… well, I really like Koch’s poetry.

PK: One of the great virtues of your Reading Comics, in my view, is its comprehensiveness. You discuss Chris Ware and Tomb of Dracula both, and are wary of the notion of a “canon”. But if you had to choose three to five contemporary comics that could pass Harold Bloom’s ancient test for the novel ( “unless it demands rereading, the work doesn’t qualify”) what works you choose? Why?

DW: I’m going to make a little bit of an end-run around this question by citing a few things I’ve read multiple times, over many years, with pleasure: Jim Woodring’s Frank stories, Jaime Hernandez’s Locas, Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan, and the Grant Morrison-written series The Invisibles, which demands rereading in a very literal way: it works from the assumption that its reader has already read it.

PK: Comics are serialised before they are collected in a volume. It seems to me that there are parallels here with how Dickens wrote his novels and perhaps even with some of Shakespeare’s history plays (the continuity of all those Henry plays, say). Could you reflect on how this process makes comics what they are? You say “a lot of the comics I treasure most are somehow dodgy and flawed” (p.138); so what yardstick do you use when judging comics?

DW: Interesting to see the “serialization” question and the “how to judge” question together! (I should also say that a lot of the artworks in other media I treasure most are somehow dodgy and flawed…) Comics have traditionally appeared in serial form – that’s not always the case any more – but that probably has more to do with the economic circumstances under which they developed than to anything indigenous to the form. Still, there’s a connection to be drawn there: the space between issues or instalments is somehow analogous to the space between panels, the gutters that readers fill in with their minds. As for a critical yardstick, the one I use for comics is pretty standard, I think: does it give pleasure during the experience of it? does it continue to give pleasure in later contemplation? do I come out of reading it with a deeper perspective on something than I had beforehand?

PK: Americans seem to be attracted to the notion of superheroes; why is this so? Is it because they are quasi-religious figures? Do the super powers, the alter ego or the underwear outside the trousers attract most of all?

DW: I don’t think it’s just Americans – the whole world seems to love them, in one form or another! (What’s Doctor Who, after all, or Dan Dare?) But I think what’s most important about superheroes is that they’re vivid metaphors – each significant superhero character has some fairly obvious symbolic value. The “secret identity”/”alter ego” business is a really lovely metaphor for the relationship of public and private life, which also accounts nicely for the costume business – the simplified and attention-grabbing image one presents to the world as an act of consciously constructing one’s identity.

PK: This is perhaps a digression, but do you have a view on how the conventions of the superhero tale is used in Tim Kring’s TV series Heroes and/or the movie Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan? Do they relate to “comics culture”?

DW: I actually haven’t seen either Heroes or Unbreakable! Gotta take a pass on this one, I’m afraid.

PK: I enjoyed the story of “The Lesser Book of The Vishanti” (pp.79-80). Could you retell it and say why you like it so?

DW: The short version: Back in the ’60s, when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were respectively writing and drawing the earliest Dr. Strange stories, Lee would make up some good-sounding mumbo-jumbo every month that Dr. Strange would refer to or chant, etc., as part of his magical practice. In the ’70s, a woman named cat yronwode (the capitalization is hers), who knew perfectly well that the magical language of Dr. Strange was just whatever had popped into Lee’s and later writers’ heads, nonetheless attempted to organize it into a coherent system, published in a small edition as “The Lesser Book of the Vishanti”… which subsequent writers of Dr. Strange supposedly used as their guide to the specific language and incantations they should use in their stories. I like that anecdote, because it’s a microcosm of the beauty of mainstream comics’ readership – the devoted readers who don’t just find complicated meaning in the grand arcs of years’ or decades’ worth of stories, but create that meaning in a way that becomes part of the story as it evolves.

PK: How will the graphic novel develop in the future? Are there any signs that the internet, hypertext and non-linear narrative will influence it?

DW: I have absolutely no idea how the graphic novel will develop – if you’d asked me five years ago, I’d never have guessed it would be where it is now. (Part of the fun of reading comics these days is being surprised by where the medium goes!) There are certainly some interesting experiments going on with what Scott McCloud calls the “infinite canvas” of the Internet, and cartoonists like Jason Shiga have been working with non-linear narrative in print comics; I suspect that people are still fairly hard-wired to gravitate toward linear narratives, but I could be totally wrong about that.

PK: What are your current writing projects?

DW: I’m putting together rough materials for my next book (which isn’t comics-related!), as well as writing regular columns for The New Republic, Salon, Print and eMusic, and an essay for a book about the Legion of Super-Heroes.

About the interviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com

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