I don’t just hate comics…

…I hate criticism too. Two sentences from the introduction to Fantagraphics’ Popeye Vol. II, by Donald Phelps:

1) It is extraordinary to reflect that in this comic strip, which calls to mind Gilbert Seldes’s dour reflection on The Katzenjammer Kids — they looked the way people who never read comic strips thought they all looked — what appear to be drawing conventions, and the most rudimentary at that, turn out, on close and serial scrutiny, not to be conventions in the generally acknowledged sense at all; nor the “style” to be any acknowledgeable style, even a bad one; least of all, the sense of any authority, any fanfaring of the strip’s personality, its worthiness and beaming future intentions, in terms of a visual plumage, such as the daft elegance of Bringing Up Father, the jaunty scurry of Jerry on the Job, and the slapstick swank of Polly and Her Pals alike convey.

Hey, I like asides and semi-colons, but you can have too much of a good thing. And, worse, the sentence is so long that, by the time he gets to the final clause, the author himself has forgotten to give it a verb. Seriously, parse that last clause–what is being predicated of “the sense of authority”?

2) He [Segar] evidently acquired early on in the Popeye sequences not only the grand operatic gravity which he imparted to the lovely little businesses, like the one with the pillow described above, or Olive Oyl’s kittenish-wistful tilting of Popeye’s sailor hat in the Skullyville adventure; but of Segar’s apprehension and general deployment (at once “primitive”, i.e. in its literalness, and sophisticated beyond most of his contemporaries) of “actual” time-space, his use of both attenuation (the longueurs, the off-stage sequences of action, chronicled in the characters’ reactions); the use of pause and double-take (in which I do not believe he was matched until the advent of intimate-toned comic strips like Johnny Hart’s B.C., Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and Mell Lazarus’s Miss Peach, and later, Momma); and, on the other hand, the excited jamming of conversations, interjected comments, hasty summaries of relevant information, or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.

…I’m sorry, what were we talking about again? First of all, something has gone wrong with the expression “he evidently acquired … not only [blah] … but of Segar’s apprehension”. He acquired of Segar’s apprehension? What? Second, “his use of both attenuation”…and what? Both blah and blah, right? What’s the second “blah”? Third, something has gone seriously wrong with this phrase: “or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.” Huh?

These aren’t cherrypicked examples. They are two of the particularly egregious sentences, but they’re far from the only frankensteins in the introduction. There seems to be lots of interesting stuff in the introduction. But I’ll be damned if I can get through the syntax.

I’m not just being an arsehole here (emphasis on just). I literally cannot parse these sentences; they do not make syntactic sense to me as English sentences. If it was just some blog-post, then the reaction would be “whatever” — god knows I live in a glass house, a glass house made of over-long sentences. And, uh, glass. But this should have been proof-read at least once, preferably by somebody concerned with whether the sentences, you know, actually made any goddamn sense whatsoever.

The strips themselves, of course, are the shit. Not least because: first appearance of the real Jones.

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4 Responses to “I don’t just hate comics…”

  1. Tucker Stone Says:

    You caught whatever I had that made me judge Stan Sakai harshly–because Donald Phelps? Seriously Jones, guy is like 93. He’s held together by baling wire. Who’s kicking puppies now?

  2. Marc Says:

    I’m coming to this post rather late, but I can’t tell you how glad I am to see this bothers someone else. Of course, the twisted syntax is just the tip of the Phelps iceberg (dead metaphors, on the other hand, belong to the world); the real threat is his establishment of the “quote and gush” school in which the comics critic never needs an argument or a point of view — or a predicate — just effusive praise, best expressed through breathless, senseless grammatical pile-ups and blithe comparisons to other comic strips that are held to be masterpieces by the author, if no one else. Johnny Hart and Mel Lazarus? Really?

    Phelps has performed one invaluable service to comics criticism, and one only. When some other blogger or critic cites him with starry-eyed admiration, I know I can safely ignore everything else they say. Nothing worthwhile will be forthcoming.

    Kick that puppy, Jones. KICK IT.

  3. Scipio Says:

    Segar’s work may, as Phelps claims, not have been perfect.

    But unlike Phelps’s work, it was at least intelligible. Honestly, those excerpts almost make me embarrassed on behalf of the English language.

  4. S.D. Joe Says:

    You think Phelps is tiresome? Try Kenneth Smith.

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