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July 17, 2007

Book Notes - Douglas Wolk ("Reading Comics")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Douglas Wolk has long been one of my favorite music and book critics, and his 33 1/3 book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo album is one of my favorites in that series. Wolk is also a devout comics fan and critic, and both these traits are evident in Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. To a budding graphic novel fan like myself, I found the book invaluable. The book has two parts, Theory and History offers an overview of the evolution of the genre, and Reviews and Commentary examines individual authors and works.

In his own words, here is Douglas Wolk's Book Notes essay for his book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean:

I write about both comics and music; my first book, "Live at the Apollo," was about a performance James Brown gave in Harlem one night during the Cuban missile crisis, and my new book's called "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean." But it's very rare that I get to write about comics and music at the same time. So rather than trying to come up with songs that relate directly to comics (which Benn Ray did really well in Book Notes a few weeks ago), I've made a mix of 15 songs I associate somehow with specific chapters of "Reading Comics."

The Vaselines: Let's Get Ugly

An early chapter of the book talks about the relationship between the art-comics tradition and "ugly" drawings--by which I don't mean cartooning that's inept, or that tries and fails to be pretty, but artwork that deliberately refuses to give the sort of easy pleasure associated with "good drawing" and the mainstream cartooning tradition, so that you have to think about it in order to enjoy it. The wonderful '80s Scottish indie-pop duo the Vaselines did pretty much the same thing, and they even wrote a kickass song about ugliness. Great detail: Frances McKee pronouncing the word "ugly" with three syllables.

Eartha Kitt: I Want To Be Evil (YouTube video)

One chapter is called "What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics," and there's some stuff elsewhere in the book about mainstream comics' recent interrogation of what "good" and "evil" mean at a time when they're mostly used as political tools. Sometimes, though, you want the bad guys to win. Especially when they're this ridiculously sexy. (Seriously: click on it!) Bonus geek points to Eartha Kitt for going on to be Catwoman!

Camberwell Now: Green Lantern

"Superheroes and Superreaders" is a chapter about the messed-up genre of superhero comics, and the double-edge way they require readers to immerse themselves in a fictional world to get anything out of them. Here's a song named after my favorite superhero; its lyrics will be familiar to people who've read lots of his comics.

The Yummy Fur: Amelia Scoptophilia

The Yummy Fur are probably best known these days for being "the pre-Franz Ferdinand band," and their wonderful, acid-tongued, dissonant, speedy records are all out of print, which is a real shame--Ba Da Bing! was talking about reissuing them a while ago. Anyway, the Yummy Fur were named after Chester Brown's first comic book series, and the 42-second-long "Amelia Scoptophilia" (sic) is a great little exploding-note spasm about two of Brown's obsessions: messed-up adolescent sexuality and the pleasure of looking.

A.A.B.B.: Pick Up the Pieces One By One

A tenuous link if ever there was one: the chapter on Steve Ditko is called "A Is A" (after his dogmatic Objectivist tendencies), and... this was James Brown's 1974 response to the success of the Average White Band, a.k.a. A.W.B., with their rather J.B.'s-like "Pick Up the Pieces"--a newly overdubbed version of the J.B.'s' "Hot Pants Road," credited to an acronym that stood for Above Average Black Band. Anyway, it's great. (And recently covered by the J.B.-idolizing Japanese funk band Osaka Monaurail, whose records I really wish somebody would put out in the U.S.)

Art Barnes: Ev'ry Little Bug

In the '40s, there was a running gag in Will Eisner's weekly comic book "The Spirit" about a tune called "Ev'ry Little Bug" that everyone seemed to be singing. 40 years later, Kitchen Sink Press released a picture disc of "Spirit"-related recordings, and this version of the song, performed by Bill Mumy (of "Lost In Space") under the same pseudonym he used for Barnes & Barnes (the "Fish Heads" people), was one of them.

Judee Sill: The Kiss (YouTube video)

I find myself wrestling with Craig Thompson's comics a lot--I'm frustrated by the way Blankets doesn't move nearly as far past his tortured-high-school-romantic perspective as he suggests it does, for instance--but when he wants to get across a certain kind of swooning, tangible pleasure, there's nobody better at it. This solo performance by the late, incredible singer-songwriter Judee Sill evokes that feeling the same way the snowfall-and-kissing scene in Blankets does.

New Order: Everything's Gone Green (YouTube video)

Hope Larson's comics (Gray Horses, Salamander Dream) are all about things becoming other things--synaesthesia, images that transform themselves with a few strokes of her pen, and physical manifestations of emotional states. Their fluid metamorphoses sometimes remind me of this New Order song, which never quite takes the paths it seems to be heading toward.

Roy Orbison: The Comedians (YouTube video)

The longest chapter on any creator in Reading Comics is the one on Alan Moore. When I was a 16-year-old having my mind blown by Watchmen, I tracked down all the songs that Moore slipped fragments of into the story and individual issues' titles; the first issue, "Absent Friends," got its title from the chorus of this song. Elvis Costello's recording of "The Comedians" is, by his own admission, not so hot, but I love the rewritten version that Roy Orbison recorded a few years later.

The Creation: Painter Man (YouTube video)

Two reasons why this is appropriate for the chapter about Grant Morrison. For one thing, Morrison is a mod at heart, and the Creation are one of the great underappreciated mod bands--"Making Time" (another Morrisonian title!) turned up in Rushmore, but this is an awesome song too. For another, Morrison's work (especially The Invisibles) has a running theme of art-making, and the idea that language and images are magical talismans to shape the world.

Jad Fair: The Zombies of Mora-Tau

In the chapter on Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's old Tomb of Dracula series, there's a discussion of the difference between "matinée horror"--the menace that can be defeated so that the order of things is restored--and endless, hopeless Lovecraftian horror. Jad Fair's scariest song (inspired, of course, by a B-movie) is about the first kind becoming the second; he can't even articulate what he's seen. ("There was one and--he had this red shirt on--") The abrupt conclusion still sets my hair on end.

Assagai: Hey Jude (MP3 at link)

Kevin Huizenga is one of my favorite young cartoonists, an insanely original, constantly mutating formalist whose work has a big tender heart. The first issue of his Ganges series includes a story that actually breathes life back into the Beatles' tired, tired "She's Leaving Home." Which provides an easy conceptual link to another example of somebody taking a dead-from-exposure McCartney song and making it better and then some: this 1971 version of "Hey Jude" by a Nigerian band that included Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana.

The Ridiculous Trio: No Fun (MP3 at link)

And, while we're doing the transformative-cover thing: I've already taken a bit of heat for calling a chapter "Why Does Chris Ware Hate Fun?," and to be honest, it was meant to draw some fire. But it's a good excuse to include this rampaging instrumental dance version of the Stooges song, as played by a tuba/trombone/drums trio. I've started a few killer parties with this.

The Go-Betweens: Cattle and Cane (YouTube video)

Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" is the best and deepest book about memory I've ever read, and one of my two or three favorite graphic novels ever. This song goes along with it in my head: its odd but seemingly inexorable shape, its evocation of bits of the past from angle after angle, its suggestion that its narrator grew to be shaped by "a world of books."

Trollin Withdrawal: Emil Eye

There's a fantastic Ron Regé Jr. image illustrating Reading Comics' afterword, "The Rough Wave and the Smooth Wave." Ron is probably best known in the music world as the drummer of Lavender Diamond, but I have a place in my heart for his old band Trollin Withdrawal, a completely sui generis project fronted by a guy who called himself Non-Robot #27. This is their greatest single; its peak is probably the two of them concluding a long list of first names by singing, in unison, "...and innumerable U. Mass M.F. Arts students!"

Douglas Wolk and Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean links:

the author's website
the author's DC Comics blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

an excerpt from the book
the book's page at the publisher

Christian Science Monitor review
Comics Alliance review
Time Out New York review
The I Love Music community discusses the book

the authors articles at the Believer
the author's articles at Entertainment Weekly
the author's articles at the Huffington Post
the author's articles at The Nation
the author's articles at New York magazine
the author's articles at the Phoenix

Minnesota Public Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)