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Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel (NBM)

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Library director and noted graphic novel evangelist Stephen Weiner offers up a history of the graphic novel that serves as a great primer for the uninitiated, but its occasional omissions, inconsistencies, and errors may prove distracting to the more familiar reader.

 

 

80 pgs. B&W; $14.99
(W: Stephen Weiner)
 
It wasn't that long ago that the notion of finding a graphic novel in your average public library was as laughable as it was futile. Now, when I make my weekly visit to the library, I can find the bad and good from the whole spectrum of the comics industry. Standard superhero fare, manga, more literary and highbrow graphic novels, and everything in between is at my finger tips. One of the reasons things changed is a guy named Stephen Weiner. Weiner is the Director of the Maynard Public Library in Maynard, Massachusetts, as well as a longtime advocate for heavier inclusion of graphic novels in public libraries. Since the mid-nineties, after Weiner published 100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries, he's been speaking to librarians and other academics about why a too-often spurned medium deserves more spots on our libraries' shelves. He's often been asked to describe exactly how comics evolved from their supposed low-brow beginnings to a more widely recognized art form, and his answer is Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel.
 
With Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, Weiner succinctly outlines the history of comics from the late nineteenth century until today. He begins with Richard F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid in 1895 and ends with R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis, as well as sharing his thoughts on what's in store for the medium.However, rather than focusing on individual works, he takes a broader approach—looking at their impact and what forces drove them to be. He hits most of the major important eras of comics: the Golden Age, the fifties' superhero decline, the rise and fall of EC Comics, Fredric Wertham and all the trouble he caused, etc.
 
There are some notable omissions. Weiner doesn't mention the collector boom of the nineties or all the trouble that caused, nor is there any mention of the enormous drop in single issue sales. While one might argue that the former omission's subject matter doesn't directly relate to the evolution of the graphic novel, I doubt anyone could find a justification to ignore the latter.
 
Still, Weiner succeeds in providing a great deal of information in a short amount of time. The book can be easily read in a few hours. The text takes up fewer than 70 pages and that includes illustrations from a diverse list of comics. While there are some things he misses, anyone new to learning about the comics industry's history would find a wonderful starting place with Faster Than a Speeding Bullet.
 
But from the point of view of those of us a little more seasoned with this stuff, the book's weaknesses aren't so much about what Weiner left out as what he left in.
 
Weiner's writing style is fairly dry and book-reportish, though concise. He rarely makes judgments about the texts he covers, which makes it so startling and awkward when he does. He calls Frank Miller's and Alan Moore's respective runs on Daredevil and Swamp Thing “practice pieces.” He tells us Ghost World readers “grabbed friends by their shirt collars and pulled them into corners, telling them in no uncertain terms that if they didn't pick up Ghost World, they would never speak to them again.” Obviously, he doesn't mean this literally, but he's so rarely not literal that hyperbole like this just comes out of left field and makes you wonder if he simply didn't have anything substantive to say. He says of Marvel's many film adaptations that they “had little to do with the heroes appearing in comic books and graphic novels,” which makes me wonder if he never read superhero comics and just trusted a buddy's word on it, or if he's one of those guys still peeved about organic webshooters.
 
Speaking of which, there are quite a few instances when it's clear Weiner did not read some of the comics about which he writes. His summary of the plots of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, in particular, are just plain wrong. He tells us Batman comes out of retirement in The Dark Knight Returns “to save Gotham City from his nemesis, the Joker.” For those who may not know, The Dark Knight Returns was originally a four-issue limited series. Batman initially reemerges to stop Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. Joker and Batman don't come into conflict until the third issue; the Joker only shows up very briefly before that issue, and has absolutely nothing to do with the fourth and final issue. Of Watchmen's plot, Weiner writes “the disappearance of Dr. Manhattan demands that the less powerful heroes resume their careers.” Rorschach never stops wearing a mask and fighting crime, and while Manhattan's disappearance is one part of a series of events that cause the others to reemerge, his disappearance itself is not the cause. Weiner tells us a segment of Watchmen “appeared as a prose memoir of a retired superhero, treats for readers wanting highbrow comic books.” Of course, while each chapter (or issue) of Watchmen, save for the twelfth, ended with a prose piece, only three out of those eleven pieces were from Hollis Mason's Under the Hood.
 
These complaints may seem like nitpicking, but it's difficult to imagine a reader recognizing these inconsistencies wouldn't be yanked out of the narrative just like I was, or that he wouldn't find himself distrusting the writer.
 
Because of the mistakes, wild generalizations, and inconsistencies, I can't recommend Faster Than a Speeding Bullet to anyone who has already read a book or two about the history of the comics industry. But, in spite of it all, it could work as a great stepping stone for those just beginning to learn. | Mick Martin
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