A few words about words in a book.

Wally's World: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World's Second-Best Comic Book Artist

(this review first appeared in The Comics Journal #282, April 2007; the format is different here, and I toyed with the punctuation and wording a bit too)

The best and worst thing about this book is probably its cover, a mournfully atmospheric panel taken from Dan Clowes’ Wallace Wood strip (as seen in his Twentieth Century Eightball collection) that unfortunately preps the reader for a deeper experience than they’re going to get from Steve Starger’s and J. David Spurlock’s text.

There is little doubt in my mind that an absolutely terrific book can be written about the life and times of Wally Wood, troubled, popular figure he was, but this volume is at absolute best a briskly-paced, occasionally bumpy diversion, composed for the most part as exactly the sort of era-by-era guided tour that probably springs to mind as soon as you think of the term ‘biography’ in the context of any notable figure. No particular species of innovation reveals itself upon reading.

Which isn’t to say that Starger and Spurlock don’t take the occasional stab at analyzing the complexities of Wood’s life and career; it’s just that their attempts at insight barely register above the din of chronology and focusing events, a structure unforgiving in its aptitude for surface-skimming across Wood’s childhood and arrival at EC and work on Mad and etc. Yes, we hear of Little Wally Wood and Big Wally Wood, the multitudes inside the man, but we mostly hear of broad accomplishments in art, and gradual personal failings. A bit of aesthetic criticism slips in, with comments about stiffness bowled over by breathless declarations like “At EC Wood had shown how beautiful clutter could be. At Marvel he showed us how beautiful simplicity could be.” The artist’s influences on recent and contemporary popular culture are dutifully rattled off.

Even the chronology gets a bit murky after a while, as bits of events repeat themselves in succeeding pages. The narrative often sidetracks itself to briefly impart the life story of half the notable figures that cross Wood’s path. An entire chapter is surrendered to recounting the myth and history of Finland, all for the dubious thematic punch of casting Wood’s cremation as a Viking burial at sea. It must be said that the sheer queasy impact of Wood’s later years manages to enliven the book in spite of itself, but that’s just more said about unrealized potential. Neophyte fans may get a nice overview, and die-hards will maybe demand a look, but too much more is possible.