Where, amid the current whining about the dearth of big-shot public intellectuals, is there a thought for the fate of the institutionally unaffiliated, luftmensch intellectual? Donald Phelps is the sort of nonacademic critic whose crafted essays are way too pop for the scholarly journals and whose aesthetic interests are far too quirky to ever be freelance-worthy no matter how many times Talkmagazine crawled back from the grave.
Reading the Funnies: Essays on Comic Strips By Donald Phelps
Fantagraphic Books, 305 pp., $19.95
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Brooklyn-born and Brooklyn College-educated, a day worker in a large New York City bureaucracy, Phelps published most of his pieces in small literary mags. I stumbled across his lone collection, Covering Ground, at the Strand some 20 years agoit is a startling mix of pieces on the Continental Op, William Buckley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, old-time director Allan Dwan, the Supreme Court, Phelps's teeth, and his friend Manny Farber. It is often pretty brilliant, especially the piece on the "Muck School" of stand-up comedy.
Reading the Funniesanthologizes Phelps's essays on the newspaper comic strips of his childhooda series of alternative universes whose "daily, hypnotic present tense" he celebrates in beautifully long, dense sentences. Phelps not only addresses the classicsDick Tracy, Popeye, Little Orphan Anniebut defends such forgotten figures as the funny-animal illustrator Harrison Cady and unfunny single-panel cartoonist J.R. Williams. The thinking invested in this crumbling ephemera is moving in itself, particularly when Phelps praises Gasoline Alley's "majestic self-containment" and Wordsworthian feel for commemorative rites. Phelps's descriptions are precise and pungent. He characterizes the feel of Our Boarding House, home of the imperial deadbeat Major Hoople, as suffused with "the stodgy, dawdling, hand-in-pocket, near-torpor of such a place, where it seems perennially to be Sunday afternoon: The men shuffled about in vests and pullovers, toothpicks or cigar butts drooping from jutting lower lips. . . . The standard facial expression was a Ned Sparks stare of bilious doubt, which, one felt, would deepen to incredulity were the other person to say anything remotely new or important."
Reading the Funniesevokes not just the comics but a whole Depression-era mentalité. Phelps shows a surprising fondness for "cat man" B. Kliban that allows him to comment on R. Crumb and other underground cartoonists. I'd like to hear more on thatin fact, Phelps did write on the movie Crumbsome years back in Film Comment. Why doesn't someone collect the dozen essaysmainly on '30s movieshe was publishing in Film Commentas recently as January 2000? Better yet, why don't they ask him to write some more?