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Warshow and Phelps

[Click here to go my Commentary page on Warshow and Phelps, and here to go to the most recent entry on this page.]

From Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus: Just glancing, read the comment on Warshow and sadly agree, since I too admire his other writings. I remember years back being so disappointed by his EC essay and even his Kat essay (loving on the other hand e. e. cummings’ Herriman evocation that I discovered around the same time).

On the other hand—I’ve found Phelps a genuinely helpful guide to strips I might have been to impatient to savor (the J.R. Williams piece comes to mind) and lovingly responsive to the byways of, for example, Harold Gray. He’s easy to ridicule, but I don’t find Phelps’ imagistic style loghorreic; rather it’s a way of articulating subtleties that are almost beyond the possibilities of language. The essays strike me as works of art in their own right, responsive to
other works of art. I’ll guess you don’t have much use for Manny Farber either.

[Posted June 2003]

From Jeet Heer, a Canadian freelancer who writes frequently for the Boston Globe and The Comics Journal: I have a slight bone to pick with your commentary on the books by Robert Warshow and Donald Phelps. You make some cogent objections, but in both cases you could have been a bit more generous. In my experience, both of these writers have valuable insights to offer, despite their limitations (Warshow's haughty highbrowism, Phelps's spluttering shaggy-dog prose).

For example, in his "Krazy Kat" review, Warshow makes a glancing comment about the "the hygienic, progressive-school fantasy" of "Barnaby." Now, I happen to love Crockett Johnson's "Barnaby," so I had to wince when I read Warshow's comment—but it is deadly accurate as a description of the limitations of the strip.

As for Phelps, my experience is the same as Art Spiegelman's: after living with Phelps's essays over many years, reading and re-reading them with a mixture of exasperation and interest, I discovered that they were starting to change the way I look at old comic strips. Slowly and incrementally, Phelps's insights started to infiltrate my own reading (in part because I became much more familiar with the material he was writing about).

I think part of your antipathy to Phelps derives from your own stance as a writer. You are very much a critic in the tradition of Orwell or Roger Sale: you want to make your experience of art as intelligible as possible, in transparent prose. As I see it, Phelps is a critic in a very different tradition: he's an impressionistic writer, of the school of Pater or Clive Bell, trying to use words to re-create the emotional state that art induces in him.

[Posted July 2003]

From John Benson, editor of Squa Tront and Panels and a leading authority on the EC comic books, responding to my comments on the new edition of Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience: Warshow fits to a T your comments about Jules Feiffer's "curious rule" that knowledgable people are automatically disqualified from writing about their subject. Warshow's extended essay on "The Gangster Film" only mentions, very briefly, two films, Scarface and Little Caesar, and quotes only one line of dialogue, which happens to be one of the most famous in film history. A little like writing an essay on Shakespeare, with "To be or not to be" as the only quote. One has to wonder how many films he thought it necessary to see before writing a "definitive" essay on the subject.

Of course, one of the advantages of writing about "popular culture" is that you really don't have to concern yourself all that much with who created it. If Warshow mentions relatively few film titles, he's even more parsimonious with the names of directors and writers. Producers tend to get more credit: High Noon is "a Stanley Kramer film." His hatchet job on The Best Years of Our Lives doesn't mention director William Wyler, although he does credit the film to producer Samuel Goldwyn in another essay. (You're right, too, about Warshow having favorite words; "false" is another favorite. The Best Years essay is titled "The Anatomy of Falsehood," and falseness seems to be lurking everywhere for him.)

I, too, have often thought it would have been interesting if Warshow had been forced to sit down and talk with someone at EC, but I don't see how it could have happened. Warshow was firmly convinced that comic creators were "the other." They were people who pleasantly wave to fans through a doorway, or who give out autographs on their way to the men's room. Creators of "low" art who could never engage in a meaningful discussion with an intellectual the likes of Warshow.

If Warshow had tried to talk to someone, Bill Gaines, as the publisher, would have been the most likely spokesman. Gaines was not at all the same sort of Jew as Warshow. His father, Max, was a hustler who had made a lot of money (in low culture) and who brought Bill up in a typical environment of wealth. Warshow would have been so sure of the "type" that he never would have gotten far enough in the conversation to learn Gaines's amazing secret: that he was a "fan," a dabbler who published exactly what he wanted because he took delight in it. Warshow would have been absolutely certain that no such thing was possible.

Harvey Kurtzman would have fared no better. True, Kurtzman had a Jewish background that Warshow might have had slightly more sympathy for: lower middle class, Communist parents. But Kurtzman would not have been able to articulate his role as a true artist to Warshow. To Warshow, Mad was an "EC comic" the way High Noon was a "Stanley Kramer film." I don't think Warshow could have grasped that Mad was a highly personal creation and the expression of a single individual. And Kurtzman was amazingly inarticulate about his own work.

The person I'd really like to have seen Warshow sit down with is Bernie Krigstein. In addition to your citations "mechanical" and "vulgar," other favorite Warshow words are "philistine" and "stupid," and these both put me in mind of Bernie, who used them regularly in the exact same way that Warshow did. Krigstein was the only Jew at EC who was at all like Warshow. Gaines, Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, and the rest had a cultural commonality that had its roots in Jewishness, but they were just New Yorkers, really. Lenny Bruce said that if you live in New York, you're Jewish, meaning that someone like myself (at the time Bruce said it) lived in Jewish culture simply by living in New York. Kurtzman's humor, and Will Elder's humor, were certainly deeply rooted in the culture of Jewish humor, and I was attuned to it because my heroes were the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny. But I don't think Jewish humor was an aspect of Jewish culture that Warshow had much affinity for.

Which may have been true, too, of Krigstein; certainly Kurtzman thought so! Anyhow, Krigstein was different from the other Jewish comic-book artists. The standard way this difference was expressed is that Krigstein was a "fine artist" (as in Marie Severin's caricature of him in a smock with a palate). But this is just one aspect of Bernie's roots in a different sort of Jewish culture. Where the others knew that socially they were Jews, Bernie thought of himself as being part of Jewish culture. Only Bernie would have contributed to the magazine for Jewish youths, World Over; only Bernie would have illustrated a book series intended for Jewish children. Once I attended a lecture and slide show that Bernie gave about his work in a Jewish cultural center. This was way downtown in an area now dominated by Asians, in a building left over from the time when the Lower East Side was Jewish. The audience was mostly elderly Jews, comfortable in a familiar milieu, sitting on folding chairs and learning about the cultural achievements of one of their own.

In Greg Sadowski's essential book B. Krigstein, Bernie's romance with Natalie reads like Gerald Green's The Last Angry Man, the young idealistic couple drawing intellectual strength from the culture of their people. Bernie's militant unionism (in comics and later as a teacher) was intellectually derived from the sort of Jewish culture that Warshow understood intimately. I have no idea what Bernie thought of Israel, but I have no doubt that he did think about Israel and believed that it was important to have an opinion about it. Krigstein even did a cover for one of those intellectual magazines that Warshow contributed to; I think it was Commentary, actually. Typically, he had an argument with the art director, and only did one cover. Bernie felt comfortable talking about "art" films; he loved Dovzhenko and Renoir. He was an intellectual the way Warshow was an intellectual, but equally important, he was a Jew the way Warshow was a Jew. In some ways he was as different from Gaines and Kurtzman as he was from Gentiles Jack Davis and John Severin.

But the big difference between Warshow and Krigstein was that Krigstein strongly believed that there was no distinction between "high" and "low" culture, a belief that was intellectually arrived at. (He discussed this at the NewCon in 1978; the transcript is currently available in Squa Tront No. 10.) Warshow obviously believed the opposite. That's why his "Krazy Kat" essay is totally wrongheaded. "Krazy Kat" was "low" art to Warshow, but since all the virtues of "Krazy Kat" are "high" art virtues, he was unable to understand the first thing about the strip.

Like Warshow, Bernie was also prickly, and he might have instantly disliked Warshow, just as he instantly disliked Art Spiegelman—and for the same reason, that he thought he detected phony intellectualism. (Art had started their conversation by reading aloud his college paper on Krigstein's "Master Race.") So perhaps what we could have hoped for was a terrific, emotional argument between Warshow and Krigstein, in which Krigstein would have passionately argued his position that art was art, and that there was art and tripe in both the artificially separated realms of "high" and "low" art. Warshow would have felt secure in his superiority, and would not have been convinced. His resulting essay would have been a put-down of this poor deluded comic artist. But the seeds would have been sown, and Warshow would have been forced to confront a new point of view from a source he could not altogether discount. Eventually, without his realizing it, his thinking might have been changed.

[Posted August 2003]