I approach the business of reviewing this book frustrated in advance. How many people who read a pretty hip Australian online journal of film are going to read a review of a book about obscure old American comic strips? And how many of the ones who do are likely to go on to buy and read the book itself?
And yet they should. For reading Donald Phelps reading the funnies is an intensive course in how to write and think about any of the media in which words and images are mixed together: films, television, comics, theatre, advertising art – even photojournalism and web design. Most of us who write about such things write first from the narrative (this is what I did recently when writing about Milestone Comics). Phelps, however, seems to begin with a sense of the work, an evocation of its touch, as in this passage about the comic strip in which Popeye made his first appearance:
What Thimble Theatre yields up, through most of its stages, is a feeling of fugitive desperation, of these figures fighting their way, determinedly and recurrently, out of some abstract limbo, like spooks trying to regain – or retain – their hold on the real. (38)
When I first read these words, in an introduction to a collection of the Thimble Theatre daily strips from 1931-32 reprinted in 1988, they changed my experience of that comic. My appreciation of Popeye had begun sometime in the late ’40s at the only one of our local cinema’s Saturday morning cartoon shows that I ever attended. That is, for me Popeye was a streamlined, modern figure like Bugs Bunny, effortlessly, endlessly metamorphosing into whatever got the job done. Elzie Crysler Segar’s original creation, when I encountered it much later, seemed sketchy and primitive in comparison – and just a little creepy. I appreciated this early Popeye like most of us appreciate out-of-date popular art: only as a quaint, unsophisticated intimation of the good stuff we grew up with (now, alas, corrupted or destroyed by the degeneracy of our age).
The power of Phelps’ critical writing enabled me to recognise what I had been looking at, to see it anew and to value it at last. Moreover, I was able, through his words, to re-read Thimble Theatre as I always imagined comic strips ought to be read – starting with the sense of what one sees. Because of Phelps I now think that E.C. Segar ought to be accorded a place in the Comic Strip Pantheon just below Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Crockett Johnson and Walt Kelly.
The 1988 introduction to volume seven of The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye has been combined with two others published in the same series and “reshaped, expanded, reconsidered” into one long essay for Reading the Funnies. I am here to say that whatever new writing has been done to these pieces, it has not altered their critical impact: they can still change the way you see. But then, so can Phelps’ similarly reworked essays on Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie in this collection. Hell, so can any essay in this collection, even the ringer on B. Kliban’s cartoons. I particularly liked the piece on Harrison Cady – a long essay combining biography and extremely perceptive visual criticism about a popular artist of limited, but genuine, interest – and the one on Harry J. Tuthill’s almost-forgotten strip, The Bungles. But the pieces on Out Our Way, James Swinnerton, and Our Boarding House also contain the kind of understanding that sharpens and enriches one’s experience of their subjects, and of figural culture in general.
For those of us, like me, who cannot instantly bring to mind the experience of reading early American comics, Phelps’ publisher, Fantagraphics Books, has provided slabs of appended examples. These include complete episodes of the long form narrative strips like Dick Tracy, Thimble Theatre, The Bungles, Gasoline Alley, and Little Orphan Annie. Illustrations for the other sections are not quite so generous (in the case of the Kliban essay they are entirely lacking, doubtless because of costs), but in all cases there is sufficient material to give readers an introduction to the work Phelps is discussing.
I have had to word that last sentence rather carefully, because, in fact, the selection of examples seems to me a little eccentric. They are good examples of the work under consideration; they are (mostly) from the periods on which Phelps’ essays concentrate; they are (usually) printed in the correct order – but, almost perversely, they avoid reproducing the copious examples cited in the essays themselves. It is as though Bill Blackbeard, a titan of early comic scholarship in his own right, has used his peerless knowledge of early strips to select only examples to which Phelps has not directly alluded – or has been forced by constraints of space into compromising his choices.
This principal of (mis)selection is perhaps most sympathetically deployed in the episode of Little Orphan Annie appended to Phelps’ “Little Icon Annie” essay. In the essay, Phelps observes that in this strip we are privileged to experience “a different sort of suspense, geared to the sheer blankness of expectancy from one day to the next, and spiritual attrition which Gray’s rivals, from Hitchcock down, have shown no understanding of, or predilection for” (266), and he compares Gray’s work with the Straub and Huillet film, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). Blackbeard has chosen an episode, not mentioned by Phelps, in which Annie has been paralysed from the waist down and believes she will never walk again, which illustrates Phelps’ point very well, although its most direct filmic correlatives may be Bresson or Dreyer rather than Straub and Huillet. However, the selection of illustrative material is at its worst in the pages devoted to the work of Harrison Cady, where there is not one example of his cartoons for Life, which figure extensively in Phelps’ essay (perhaps these too would have cost too much to reproduce), the most interesting examples in the selection of strips seem to come from later than the work Phelps discusses (certainly there is a discernible change in style that Phelps does not remark on), and there is just one book illustration with no attribution whatever.
On the other hand, Blackbeard’s selection of a very simple, straightforward Thimble Theatre episode that Phelps does not cite has allowed me to understand for the first time some of what makes Segar’s work so narratively compelling. In this episode characters often look out of frame at each other (that Segar was well aware of what he was doing is clear from the way in which the direction in which the characters are variously looking keeps on changing), and the story gains a major impetus as the reader follows the characters’ looks from panel to panel, very much in the way that films impart an impetus to their narratives when they ‘cut on the look’. This business of looking out of frame is actually a regular strategy in Segar’s work (I checked), but something that hardly occurs at all in the other strips illustrated here. Only in a suspenseful passage that takes place on some stairs in the dark in the Dick Tracy episode is there anything like the device that Segar employs so cleverly. The usual thing is that characters face inward in groups, looking and talking away from the edges of the panel and the emptiness out there, animating the pictures of themselves rather than the invisible connection between.
This is a movie connection that Phelps misses, but that is not surprising. His mind is on higher things: on the phenomenology of these strips, on their gestalten or, as I have said, on the way they touch the reader. Mechanics are not at issue. When Phelps cites films, which he does often and with a great deal of savvy, it is to draw comparisons at the same level – often comparisons between the visions of comic strip authors and film directors who are working the same territory (Griffith and Lang get a lot of attention in these essays), as when he compares Harold Gray’s use of cliché with “the feeling, as with films of King Vidor, [Thomas] Ince, or Griffith, that we are rediscovering the actuality, in terms of singular immediacy, of these stock situations, which are being inscribed, as it were, before our eyes” (276).
Let me give you a bit more of that passage:
For Gray, I suspect, clichés had a value and authority of their own, and he redeemed them with the visual authority, which he brought to bear upon them. By that rearrangement of priorities with which the best painters and poets are familiar, he gave preferential place to outlines, which, in panel after panel, the theme of people’s presence and ongoing histories are graven into their immediate and projected situation. This action of etching, of engraving, is exactly what cliché, in Gray’s usage, performs. His style performs, not the conjuration of new stories, but the translation, and re-establishment, of old ones – an act of engineering which all-but-uniquely defines comic-strip style. (276)
In a passage like that you could be excused for thinking that Manny Farber has had an influence on Phelps’ perceptions. For one thing, it is ‘difficult’ the way Farber’s criticism is ‘difficult’ – that is, intellectual and abstract. Phelps is the kind of critic who is liable to say that someone (in this case, Chester Gould) was guided by the knowledge that “design is actually the approximation of design, the movement toward its own completion” (10), which is the sort of thing that some readers may find beyond them. But, besides its ‘difficulty’, the keen concentration of its observation and its quirky style, that passage about Gray’s use of cliché practically describes Farber’s own painting (for an example, see My Budd reprinted in this journal not too long ago). And, in fact, Farber and Patricia Patterson are thanked in the introduction, and you can feel their benign emanation like a benediction all the way through this book. Of the critics whose work I know, only Rick Thompson has learned what Farber has to teach as well as Donald Phelps has.
If you have been reading carefully, you will have noticed that there seems to be a word missing in that passage about Gray and cliché. I expected “in which” rather than just “which”, and you may have too. This sort of thing happens more than once in the essays in Reading the Funnies. The point is that in Phelps’ prose it is hard to determine whether such omissions are accidental or deliberate. He writes in a convoluted, evocative manner, depending on verbal surprise to elicit what conventional wording cannot. Here is another sample, this time from the essay on Dick Tracy.
The most rudimentary signals of ‘individuality’ – sacs under the eyes, crow’s feet and mouth-lines, liver-lips – all the apparently over-familiar ideographs of the human face and its emotions – were turned into imprimaturs of genuine, repeatedly fascinating expression, by Gould’s own crass, mordant dexterous poetry of near-caricature; and the dark overtone which he realized from playing the aspects of naturalism to wit in a thin smiles’ breadth of self-parody; milking this propinquity, not for cowardly laughter, but for the thrilling, giddying recognition of fantasy-as-potential in the very midst of fact. (11)
Just as in the passage on Gray, there is no getting away from the fine critical sense of what Phelps has written, but it might be hard to parse that long, jagged sentence according to conventional grammatical usage. And there is the “to wit”, which pops up as an idea in its own right, divorced from the context Phelps has given it here, levering up an opening for another train of thought going somewhere else, or maybe, to wit to woo, just looping back on itself as its own example.
I admire this style. I admire the hell out of it. And I think the way Phelps writes has everything to do with what he is writing about. His style might have been born with the comics. It is a vernacular, American style (like Farber’s and Thompson’s), but one beholden to the great American eccentrics and masters of diversion like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Marianne Moore, rather than to the directness and clarity of Twain, Fitzgerald or Hammett. It is a teens and twenties style derived from oratory and yarning, yet eschewing the pomp and persiflage of those modes of writing in favour of the kind of abrupt poetic vision one might associate with Wallace Stevens or perhaps Gertrude Stein. There are echoes of similar styles in the writing of Bernard Pomerance, Cormac MacCarthy, even William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon, but Phelps’ way with words is all his own, a voice as distinctive and pointed as any of these, a writer’s writer, one to chew on.
So even if you never heard of Thimble Theatre or Dick Tracy and never care to read them, still you ought to get this book because it is a book of criticism, really good criticism, written by someone who has thought long and hard about how images and words go together and can convince you that he is right.
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