Review: Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel

A book review article by: Jason Sacks

Faster than a Speeding Bullet is a concise survey of comics and graphic novels, telling the history of the comics medium and the rise of the modern graphic novel in only 67 pages. This book is clearly intended for school libraries and schoolteachers who want to dip a toe into the water of exploring this medium. Unfortunately the book's brevity, its quality control, and its scope of coverage make this book less than essential.

At 67 pages, this book is extremely short for a history and survey of the graphic novel medium. 90 years of history about the comics medium is covered in a mere 16 pages at the beginning of the book. Barely a word is written about the creation of Batman or about the rise of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, though most of chapter two is devoted to EC Comics and Fredric Wertham's attacks on the comics medium.  

But while Weiner devotes less than a paragraph to the work of Jack Kirby, he spends much more time on the work of other creators. He devotes a full chapter to Will Eisner's A Contract with God, an appropriate choice because the book was one of the first real American graphic novels. Weiner also devotes full chapters to Neil Gaiman and Sandman, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Jeff Smith and Bone, and Scott McCloud's epochal Understanding Comics.

All of these are important and worthy comics that are obviously enduring classics, but all are older works that show a concentration on the 1990s and early 2000s. The most recent few years have seen the rise of more great graphic novels, and their absence in this survey seems lacking. Where is the discussion of the evergreen Vertigo series like Y: the Last Man, Preacher or Animal Man? For that matter, why does Weiner barely mention Marvel Comics at all in this book, when the company dominates industry sales? How can you create a survey of comics history that barely mentions Spider-Man?

Most glaring is the book's final chapter. Because this is the second edition of a book that was first published in 2003, Weiner has almost a decade of comics to cover in order to update the book. In order to bring readers up to date, Weiner surveys the medium in a breathless six-page final chapter. There have been more great graphic novels published in the last decade than in the whole history of comics up to that time, but Weiner's book just devotes a handful of pages to the last ten years.

For instance, manga – perhaps the most popular type of comics – gets exactly one paragraph devoted to it in this chapter. No middle school kid will be satisfied with that tiny discussion of such a giant topic. Furthermore, the update chapter only touches on a handful of great newer graphic novels – any devoted comics fan will find a long list of great graphic novels that were excluded from this chapter.

Quality control on this book is also weak, with a substantial number of typos and other syntactical confusion in the book. Spider-Man is called Spider-man in the book; Frank Miller's Ronin is referred to as a ninja comic when there are no ninjas in the book; a discussion of Love & Rockets repeats its description of Fantagraphics as the book's publisher; the commentary about Daniel Clowes's Ghost World is over-the-top rhapsodic in its over-praise of the book.

This isn't a terrible book, and I'm sure it will be popular in school libraries or with neophyte fans looking for a good survey of the medium and a list of interesting graphic novels to check out. But with a good edit pass, Faster than a Speeding Bullet could have been a much better book.

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