Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stolen Snacks, Balloon Boys and Hallucinations: the last Little Lulu one-shot, 1947

As has been evident for the last year-plus, this blog is winding down. I've said pretty much all I have to say on John Stanley, short of a larger study, such as a book.

But with no visible interest in the publication of a book on Stanley, this blog is the testament of my years of thought and detective work. Perhaps Michael Barrier's forthcoming study of the Oskar Lebeck-edited Dell Comics, Funnybooks, will change this apparent apathy. Time will tell.

To complete a series on this blog, here are the three stories that comprise the final one-shot Little Lulu comic book (#165 in the Dell Four Color series), with a publication date of October 1947.

This issue would be followed quickly by the first official bi-monthly edition of Marge's Little Lulu. That short launch time speaks to the popularity of the Lulu one-shots. Carl Barks (and other artists) did 25 Donald Duck one-shots before Dell committed to a regular numbered series, four years later.

The Disney character was, arguably, a more potent commercial property than Marge Buell's magazine cartoons, but the decisions of publishers, then as now, remain a mystery.

Team Lulu is in great shape throughout this last trial issue. Charles Hedinger provides finishes to Stanley's script/pencils. John Stanley's understanding of the character of Tubby comes into sharp focus in the first two stories. All that remains is the entrance of artist Irving Tripp to complete the winning formula.

I have come to admire Charles Hedinger's work. He translated the feeling of Stanley's characters more efficiently and expressively than Tripp. There is something rawer and more real to Hedinger's work. Tripp tends to soften and sedate the comedic impact of Stanley's writing.

The pleasant contours of Tripp's work, and its crisp economy, is what we think of when we consider Little Lulu. Like Carl Stallings' music for the Warner Brothers cartoons, it was that last needed touch to finalize the formula of a highly popular (and profitable) mass-media entertainment.

Something was lost from Lulu with the departure of Hedinger. He is in fine form in this issue's three stories.

Opening the issue is a classic example of a constant LL formula, "The Case of the Purloined Popovers."

Stanley's focused and crystalline characterizations here show an assurance and confidence that were necessary to make a bi-monthly (soon monthly) Lulu a reality. Stanley would recycle the basic story of "Purloined Popover" over 100 times in his tenure on Little Lulu. As with Tripp's artwork, this is the story-type we think of when the phrase "Little Lulu" is mentioned. 

I would like to nominate this as one of the funniest single panels in the entire run of Little Lulu:

"Alvin's Solo Flight," at 22 pages, is the longest "Little Lulu" story. This was the last chance Stanley had to play with such a large canvas until his remarkable series of book-length Tubby pieces in the early 1950s.

Again, it's a Lulu story-type that would be revisited often by Stanley. By this time, it was already a Lulu trope. Here it is, in livid color:

In a 2010 post, I referenced a curious 1961 animated cartoon that adapts this story. "Alvin's Solo Flight" is a first-class example of John Stanley the spontaneous storyteller. With length no issue, he rambles from tight-knit incident to surprising outbreak, and the story's drive and energy are unpredictable.

There is much to savor here. Lulu and Tubby's adoption of parental roles, and their mimicry of the condescension and nescience of those figures, is beautifully written and woven into the fabric of the piece.

This Tubby is less quixotic, and more self-aggrandizing, than the c. 1950 version. His acts of greediness, presumption and bossiness are often priceless. This is the Tubby of "The Kid Who Came to Dinner," a "Four Color" gem from earlier in 1947. Something was lost when the more aggressive edges of Tubby's persona were softened. They had to be, to make him a more sympathetic figure in a sustainable series.

The beach, like the public park, is a key setting in the world of Stanley's Little Lulu (and much of his other work).  It is a ground zero for human interaction, and a showcase for the foibles of young and old. Getting outdoors always brings life to Stanley's stories. "Alvin's Solo Flight" is a masterful piece of work. It's a pity that the regular-series Lulu so rarely gave him the chance to go beyond 10-12 pages per story.

The last piece in this last one-shot "Lulu" is seldom discussed. "Never Again" is a pantomime of hedonism gone wrong. A great wordsmith, John Stanley also excelled at expressing volumes about his characters, and their world, without one line of dialogue:

 "Never Again" is pure comics, and a sophisticated presentation in its social satire. Most notably, it lacks a moral message. Lulu is not likely to smoke doll hair again, but there's no Buster Brown-like swearing off... just nausea and weakness.

The freeform hallucination sequence (pp. 5-8) is breathtaking in its imaginative comedy and its audacity. Stanley's hand as artist is most deeply felt in this piece. Hedinger simply finishes Stanley's innovative, playful sketches. Irv Tripp would have taken the life out of this story, so we're fortunate that it appears at this time in the Lulu chronology.

We close with the one-page gag (again, an pantomime) that ends the original comic book:
As my colleague Thad Komorowski has commented, this page captures a child's mindset brilliantly.

John Stanley was on the brink of a career-defining series with this final one-shot issue. Little did he, or anyone involved, know that this would lead to another 12 years, and thousands of pages, of  "Little Lulu" stories.

With this entry, I feel that Stanley Stories, the blog, has come to a satisfactory close. That said, I will likely post here on occasion, as whim or opportunity dictates. But all good things must come to an end, and after six years and over 250 posts, I think it's time to bring down the curtain.

The work I've done here has, I hope, meant something to the world of comics, and helped readers better understand the complex, rich and rewarding efforts of the man who was mainstream comics' greatest writer. I hope that, someday, I will be given the opportunity to do a book on John Stanley's life and work. Despite the importance of his work, and its lasting impact on comics, there is still no market for such a book. These are difficult times, though, and not likely to get any better.

Thank you for your interest in Stanley Stories. I hope it will continue to inform, entertain and inspire readers around the world.

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Indaboopadilly!" (or "Baby, It's Cold Inside"): John Stanley's Last "Tom And Jerry" Story of 1946;Our Gang Comics 22

John Stanley's first run on his first regular comic book series, "Tom and Jerry," ended abruptly in early 1946.

The runaway popularity of his "Little Lulu" comics, still part of Dell's one-shot monthly "Four Color" series, took its toll on Stanley's other comics efforts in this year.

Stanley stuck with his New Funnies features through 1947, as other writers and artists were phased into his shoes. He would return to Our Gang, in 1948, for a brief but brilliant second act that remains one of comics' hidden gems.

His first departure ended a remarkable trifecta of talent in Dell's Our Gang Comics.

For roughly a dozen issues, lucky wartime comics readers got a knockout combo of Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and John Stanley with their purchase of this ten-cent comic. They also got Charles Hedinger's "Flip 'n' Dip," which approached the high level of this work with its sharp drawing and keen knockabout wit.

As with Stanley's work for New Funnies, the "Tom and Jerry" stories are a mixed lot. With this post, all of his first run of significant Our Gang stories are available on this blog. Some of them are little masterpieces; others betray late deadlines, disinterest or a bad hangover.

This last "Tom and Jerry" of 1946, so redolent of his growing wit and confidence, sits somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the "better" side of the bell curve. It's an example of a streamlined, bold approach to comics that Stanley would perfect in the 1960s, and set aside for the entirety of the '50s, as Little Lulu and Tubby demanded a consistency that fell somewhat outside of his personal preferences.

This attitude can be seen in some of Stanley's "Jigger and Mooch" stories, for Animal Comics, and in a string of one-page "Woody Woodpecker" gag pages for 1947/8 issues of New Funnies. This impulse is pronounced enough in his 1940s non-Lulu work that it does not seem accidental or experimental.

Stanley's hand as a cartoonist is felt throughout this series. His work as artist, on "Tom and Jerry," preceded his first work as a comics writer for Western Publications. The first few T&Js he did for Our Gang appear to be written by Gaylord DuBois, a prolific writer for Dell and Gold Key titles into the 1970s.

While DuBois lacked much of Stanley's adroit comedic sense, he can be seen as a mentor figure in terms of story structure and character relationships.

Stanley's involvement as cartoonist in this story is evident, but the finishes appear to be from another artist's hand--or with his considerable help. The finishes somewhat dull Stanley's drawings, but are tidy and serviceable.
The fourth page of this story is instantly recognizable, to any Little Lulu fan, as John Stanley's work. In no other comics creator's work would the antagonist stop to struggle with word pronunciation! Tom's failed attempts to get a handle on "indubitably" are a cherished moment.

As often happened with Stanley's mass media adaptations, he made the characters and their world over, always for the better. Giving voice to Tom, Jerry and the diaper-clad Tuffy (a creation of the comic book stories who migrated to the lavish M-G-M cartoons), Stanley gave these characters more complex, quirky personalities.

Most importantly, their voices allowed them to stop and take stock of crises and challenges. This is a hallmark of Stanley's comedic vision. Stanley's quixotic, self-absorbed anti-heroes would much rather chit-chat about catastrophe than take ownership of such situations.

Jerry and Tuffy are more pro-active than the typical Stanley protagonist, and thus more prone to violent acts. This may have been dictated by the source material. William Hanna and Joe Barbera's animated series has the violence level of a Herschell Gordon Lewis drive-in flick. Horrific acts of in-your-face mayhem, in big-budget Technicolor, animated with masterful finesse, are the meat and bones of the film "Tom and Jerry."

Stanley's heart doesn't seem in the acts of cartoon violence throughout the series. Though Stanley would later develop an appreciation for physical violence, especially in his 1960s material, he seems happier when the characters just rattle on about their likes, dislikes, and their unquenchable self-regard.

A rich ear for dialect and language informs the dialogue. Stanley fell a distant second to friend and colleague Walt Kelly, in this regard. His use of phonetic spellings, g-clipping and vocal accents is, arguably, more controlled and coherent than Kelly's, and its inclusion adds much flavor to this series.

The last page of the story demonstrates the necessities of the publishing world. That Statement of the Ownership, etc., had to be included. Dell's comics had no advertisements in 1946, so this statement had to interrupt someone's work. It appears this insertion was known in advance. Stanley does his best to incorporate this shape into the story.

Stanley's replacement on "Tom and Jerry" was one of the early workhorses of the American comic book. Tom Hickey worked for several comics publishers in the pre-super-hero era of comic magazines, and continued on, mostly for National/DC, into the 1940s.

Walt Kelly appears to have gotten Hickey the "Tom and Jerry" gig, which lasted into 1948. Hickey's work stands out like a bruised, battered thumb in the pages of Our Gang. Example given:
Hickey's eccentric-yet-stodgy style (and genuinely ugly lettering) did not lend itself well to funny animal comics. The light touch of Stanley's version gave way to a vision that seems sweaty, heavy and uncomfortable.

Hickey made the cardinal error of showing the caricatured black maid in the worst light possible:
In comparison, Stanley's version of the maid seems tasteful.

Hickey got the hang of the series a bit more, but his work never fit into the look and feel of the other cartoonists in editor Oskar Lebeck's employ. Stanley's return to the series (as writer only) with issue 43 of Our Gang was a welcome respite.