Donald Phelps

Phelps has been writing about the arts for over 40 years, published his own guerrilla cultural magazine in the '60s, and has appeared in various literary, political, and film magazines such as Pulpsmith, Jim Stoller's Moviegoer, The New Leader, The Nation, and, most recently, Film Comment. He has published two previous books of literary and cultural essays, Covering Ground and The Word and Beyond.

Reading the Funnies

The comic strip-a feature perhaps overlooked in your daily paper-is a creation unique to American cultural life and has for a century commented on the way we see and view ourselves as it has fulfilled its daily appointed task of amusement and distraction. From its "high culture" influence on Pop Art to its "low culture" appeal to children of all ages, this phenomenon has had a lasting hold on the imaginations of generations, and Reading the Funnies collects a wide range of noted writer Donald Phelps' ("...a phenomenon in contemporary American criticism...[a] critic of remarkable curiosity and perception," as Gilbert Sorrentino has written) essays on this often overlooked medium.

From essays on popular classics (such as Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre, and Frank King's Gasoline Alley) to the more obscure, Phelps' keen and discriminating eye discerns the sublime qualities of this most American of art forms with wit, candor, and an almost Baroque grace.

As Phelps tellingly notes in his introduction, he writes not "as comic strip specialist, nor as comic strip expert, but rather as a critic of some latitude and eclecticism, trying to articulate that which pleases and creatively perplexes me in my own samples of this phenomenon."

For the curious and the well-versed in the history of American comic strips, Reading the Funnies offers an elegant and eloquent look into this fascinating slice of American popular culture. It also serves as an excellent anthology of the golden age of newspaper cartooning, with copious examples of each strip Phelps writes about.

"Most writers react; a few do more because they feel and know more. Donald Phelps is one of the few."

-Nat Hentoff

"Donald Phelps is a world class critic, not just of comics, but of fiction, film, and poetry as well.…Phelps is an old-fashioned critic, in the tradition of an Edmund Wilson or an Alfred Kazin, who relies upon self-cultivation, observation, love of language, and an unparalleled eloquence to convey an appreciation for the recondite pleasures of the newspaper strip, and Reading The Funnies surely represents the most penetrating and sustained body of comics criticism by a single individual in the history of the medium. Phelps wrote these essays over the past 30 years and, like his friend and aesthetic compatriot Manny Farber, brings a rounded, sympathetic, and idiosyncratic love of American culture to bear on a form that has been severely neglected by both the reading public and the intelligentsia."

-Gary Groth, Publisher of Fantagraphics

"Donald Phelps is our great poet of the poetics of comics. He has made me see comic strips I've loved and come to take for granted with virgin eyes and taught me to love strips I once misguidedly passed over-all in an eloquent, besotted, lyric style that could talk me into anything."

-Art Spiegelman

7563 Lake City Way, NE
Seattle, WA 98115

 Return to Before Columbus' American Book Awards 2002