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 handIve 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. Hes easy to ridicule, but I dont
find Phelps imagistic style loghorreic; rather its 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,
other works of art. Ill guess you dont 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
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
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 Spiegelmanand
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]