Phelps, Donald (Norman) 1929-

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PHELPS, Donald (Norman) 1929-

PERSONAL: Born December 13, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Walter Sinclair and Anna (Bruckert) Phelps. Education: Brooklyn College (now Brooklyn College of the City University of New York), B.A., 1951. Politics: Conservative. Religion: Protestant.

ADDRESSES: Home—Cabrini Center, 542 East 5th Street, New York, NY, 10009. Office—c/o Author's Mail, Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA, 98115.

CAREER: Writer, editor, publisher, and civil servant. Contributing editor, Kulchur, 1958-66; associate editor, Second Coming, 1959-64; editor and publisher of For Now, 1962—.

AWARDS, HONORS: American Book Award, 2002, for Reading the Funnies.


Covering Ground: Essays for Now, Croton Press (New York, NY), 1969.

(Editor, with Anne Heller) Hearing Out James T. Farrell, Smith (New York, NY), 1985.

Reading the Funnies: Looking at Great Cartoonists throughout the First Half of the 20th Century, Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 2001.

Contributor to numerous publications including Film Content and Nemo.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Essays on Paul Goodman and Harrison Cady (a children's illustrator and cartoonist); a screenplay on Jonathan Swift.

SIDELIGHTS: Although he worked for decades as a civil servant for the city of New York, Donald Phelps also wrote numerous critical essays on art, film, and popular culture for small literary magazines in his free time. By the 1960s he had developed a reputation as a well-respected critic in New York's literary world. "Donald Phelps is the sort of nonacademic critic whose crafted essays are way too pop for the scholarly journals and whose aesthetic interest are far too quirky to ever be freelance-worthy no matter how many times Talk magazine crawled back from the grave," wrote J. Hoberman in an article for the Village Voice. Nevertheless, Phelps is a prolific writer and finally received national recognition in 2002 with an American Book Award for his collection of essays called Reading the Funnies: Looking at Great Cartoonists throughout the First Half of the 20th Century.

Phelps's first book was a collection of essays called Covering Ground. Hoberman described the book as "a startling mix of pieces," talking about everything from noted author Isaac Bashevis Singer to the Supreme Court to Phelps's own teeth. Hoberman went on to note, "It is often pretty brilliant, especially the piece on the 'Muck School' of stand-up comedy." Phelps is also coeditor of Hearing Out James T. Farrell, which presents thirteen lectures that the novelist Farrell delivered to college students during the 1950s.

In Reading the Funnies, Phelps presents a series of new and reworked essays on the classic newspaper comic strips that he read during his childhood, from famous favorites such as Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, and Gasoline Alley to lesser-known cartoons and cartoonists, such as the Thimble Theatre cartoon and the cartoonist B. Kliban. Writing for the online film journal Senses of Cinema, William D. Routt commented that Phelps's writing voice is "as distinctive and pointed" as noted novelists Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon. Calling Phelps's book "really good criticism," Routt also said, "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." In his Village Voice article Hoberman noted, "Reading the Funnies evokes not just the comics but a whole Depression-era mentalité." The reviewer went on to wonder why no one has collected and published Phelps's many essays on movies that have appeared in Film Comment. Hoberman then asked, "Better yet, why don't they ask him to write some more?"



Chicago Tribune Book World, June 16, 1985.

New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1985.


Senses of Cinema, (October 8, 2002), William D. Routt, review of Reading the Funnies: Looking at Great Cartoonists throughout the First Half of the 20th Century.

Village Voice, (October 8, 2002), J. Hoberman, "Funny Boy," review of Reading the Funnies.