Book Reviews: July/August 2007

By Staff

Getting Graphic: READING COMICS: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

by Douglas Wolk (Da Capo)

The classic comics-fiend stereotype–an acne-ridden adult boy, asocial, undersexed, and infatuated with caped heroes–is increasingly obsolete. Comics nerds now include art snobs, scholars, literary sophisticates, and, yes, even pretty girls, all drawn to the medium not by flashy spandex and KAPOW! action but by rich metaphor, heartfelt philosophy, and beautiful and complex aesthetics.

This is why it isn’t so surprising to find references to thinkers like Susan Sontag and Immanuel Kant in Douglas Wolk’s new book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. His inclusion of theory, though, is never off-putting, and even his most academic turns are highly readable. The rest is a sassy exposition that is as exuberant as the art form it passionately describes.

Interesting and edifying for novice and expert alike, Understanding Comics details comics’ evolution from Mad and Superman to Maus and Jimmy Corrigan. It looks at how economics and distribution issues have changed how we get our comics (or don’t). Some of Wolk’s best passages are punchy editorials about the form’s subversive, underground nature and inspired digressions on topics like the quirky world of comics culture. In the book’s second half, Wolk keenly dissects various artists and their work.

Yet despite his often-cerebral comprehension of comics as an important emerging art form, Wolk is, above all, a fan. He emphasizes again and again that comics, intricately wrapped in youth, nostalgia, and imagination, are a source of joy for many people. Wolk understands that comics are great because–fundamentally–comics are fun. –Elizabeth Oliver


by Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press)

Rebecca Solnit’s 36 essays in Storming the Gates of Paradise, though dire in topic, are compelling examinations of political and environmental woes, suggesting that “the mind and the terrain shape each other.” She views lost paradises as “rulers by which to measure the failures of the present,” so it’s no surprise that she sees songbirds as Saudi jihadists, crashing through the office windows that light city nights like constellations; the Getty Museum parking garage as a “vehicular hell” spiraling nine levels “into the seismically unstable bowels of Los Angeles earth”; and Brazilian waxes as a metaphor for the clear-cutting of national forests. Solnit smoothes over this rough territory with melodious prose, offering readers a path through the storm. –Kristen Mueller

TO THE BREAK OF DAWN: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

by William Jelani Cobb (New York University Press)

Growing up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, William Jelani Cobb witnessed the birth of hip-hop. In To the Break of Dawn, he uses his personal experiences, biases, and encyclopedic knowledge of music and literature to create a sort of biography of rap. Forgoing the usual played-out discussions of identity politics and artistic validity, the book peels back the many digitized layers of hip-hop to explore the aesthetic evolution of the MC, from African folkloric traditions to the global (and often hypercommercial) phenomenon it is today. Cobb attempts to understand the music “for what it was, not for what it represented,” dropping his considerable knowledge with a biting sense of humor and irony. –Bennett Gordon

NOBODY PASSES: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity

edited by Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore (Seal Press)

The Nobody Passes anthology boasts a diverse crew of contributors–including an “Okie,” a sex worker, an Arab American, a former prisoner, transgendered individuals, and many others–who offer fresh personal insights into evolving notions of identity based on gender, sexuality, race, and class. Many of the essays resemble candid conversations as authors discuss complicated negotiations of identity and community, making the book more enlightening than many others of its ilk. Frustration with competing identities is a recurring theme; as one contributor puts it, “The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing.” The volume offers no easy solutions (there undoubtedly aren’t any), but it does put these long-overdue conversations within the mainstream’s reach. –Danielle Maestretti


from the editors of No Record Press (No Record)

Many fiction anthologies organize around a theme, or they present writers of a particular age, gender, or ethnicity. But beneath the overt parameter, there often lurks another limitation–the polished prose of the MFA workshop, that golden gateway to getting published. Screw that, say the editors of No Record Press, who assembled this anthology of “wholly unprofessional writers.” Among the 14 contributors are a 16-year-old math whiz, a former Yale divinity school professor, and the worst college football player in America (“statistically verifiable”). There are excellent moments: “Flesh,” set in a kosher slaughterhouse, employs razor-sharp imagery; “Organ Donation,” told by a disembodied, mentally disabled narrator, rings with spot-on tone. As a group, these stories are irregular and at times indulgent, but wholly uninhibited–a refreshing change of pace. –Julie Hanus

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