Adult Fiction · Comics · History · Nonfiction

Classics, Comics, and Continuity, or, How to Explain Books You Like

I was browsing through my local library’s online catalog recently, as I often do, and found two interesting books listed next to each other: How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom, and How to Read Superhero Comics and Why by Geoff Klock. “That’s gonna make an interesting blog post,” I thought to myself, so I got them and I read them. I read classics, I read comics, I’m down to talk about why.

Harold Bloom is a literary critic and professor, the one whose name is on all those collections of essays about classics you probably used for writing high school English papers. He’s written some very academic books too, but How to Read and Why is much more casual. He opens with an introduction on why to read: Because it “returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends.” He doesn’t believe in reading as empathy, and doesn’t spend time on reading as education, but addresses it as something that helps you create yourself and understand the world around you. The rest of the book covers Bloom’s must-reads in the categories of poetry, plays, short stories, and novels, with comments on why the choices are significant and what their reading experiences can impart.

A quick look at How to Read Superhero Comics and Why shows that the titles are no coincidence. Publishing in 2002, two years after Bloom, Klock is openly following in Bloom’s footsteps, although he takes more from Bloom’s other work. I’d rather expected an elitist book from Bloom and then a modification to include pop culture from Klock, but actually Superhero Comics is much more academic, all about literary theory, defining periods of comic-book history, and arguing that the then-current age of revisionary comic books was a distinctive new era trying to incorporate a fundamentally different literary style (a more-realistic and cohesive style, as opposed to the early comics’ chaotic non-continuity). He uses a similar list of major comic-book classics to do it.

The Dark Knight Returns

So, the books are connected. Klock talks about Bloom aaaallll the tiiiiiime. But what connection do the two books really have? One is pretty simple and quite subjective, a list of books Bloom likes, but it does have an impactful “why” at the very beginning. The other is quite technical, not so accessible for the average book lover, and why would a book called How to Read Superhero Comics and Why be like that? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of “why” in the book at all, really, and why name it after Bloom’s book? Klock even says he’s not going to spend any time defending comics as a genre — which I appreciate, because who wants to waste time on an argument that old — but that being the case, why choose this title?

After staring at it for some time, I finally figured it out. It’s not “why to read superhero comics,” it’s “here’s a way of comprehending superhero comics and why you should do it this way,” and that’s why periodization is so important for him. It’s Bloomian, apparently Bloom originated this theory of the “anxiety of influence,” which is essentially the pressure writers feel to be original and not influenced by others, while at the same time works aren’t really works on their own but have to be seen in relation to a whole continuum of works before and after them.

Bloom carries it to an intellectual extreme, but as a historian I find the basic idea of works being in relation to each other almost incontrovertible, and nowhere is it more apparent than in superhero comics. These are works deeply caught up in their own pasts and futures, constantly talking about their own natures and how they fit. It’s always struck me as odd that comic fans (including me) care so much about continuity given that comics are the least-coherent body of works I’ve ever heard of, but if the whole genre is about continuity in a fundamental way, almost tortured by continuity, that all starts to make sense. When a character somehow has life for nearly a hundred years, across any number of writers and artists and individual conflicting stories, you have to start asking what continuity is and what it means and what makes us the same person throughout our lives anyway. Klock offers his stages of superhero history and comments on how particular titles work inside that structure as a way of understanding what we’re talking about when we talk about comics.

The Joker quote

This comes full circle to the way Bloom talks about books in How to Read and Why. At first glance it looks like he’s just listing favorites and saying why he likes them, which many reviewers have found vaguely irritating… But, I’d argue, that’s what most people do when asked why something is important, which is interesting in its own right. That’s actually not all he’s doing in the book, though. He’s also linking his choices together, talking about originators of different kinds of works. Not just “trends,” but actually tracing a history for short stories as we know them, for instance. I wouldn’t have realized he was doing that without Klock’s work later, but it’s there. Again, Bloom takes it super far in his theoretical works, and any time you take that strong a stance then you’re going to start missing things. He has a lot of opinions even in How to Read and Why — and like, as a person — that I vehemently deny. But I did learn something about how to read from these books, individually but especially put together, and it’s the importance of making connections. There is a “why” in every book, a reason it exists and a genre it belongs to, and that informs why a book has meaning.

I like being able to say why I care about a story — that’s part of why I have this blog in the first place, to talk at excruciating length about why I read what I do — but as readers we all seem to struggle with that. So, for all of you, I’m happy to recommend both these books. They aren’t simple guidebooks or collections of reading tips, it takes a little effort to figure out what exactly they’re telling you, but both of them will help you figure yourself out as a reader: what you want to read, why it matters to you, and how to explain it to everyone else. I hope at least some of this made sense, and I hope they’re helpful!

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