Here is a Stanley story that may have introduced one of the writer/artist's pet themes to his work-- wealth as absolute corrupter, destroyer and agent of inhumanity. "The Secret Six" was the second half of a stunning "Four Color" one-shot from 1945.
I ignored this comic for years, based on its generic, namby-pamby cover. I mean, take a look at this wussy thing:
This comic book cover would get picked on at the playground. It would run home crying to its indifferent mommy.
Judging a book by its cover (as I, admittedly, once did), you'd expect a book full of finger-down-throat tales of goody-goody squirrels with pink picnic baskets, scampering through an endless sunshine balloon marshmallow meadow, where cookies grow on butterscotch trees and oxygen is made of gumdrops.
Thank you, Thomas Andrae, for looking past that cover and determining that the innards were most worthy of our attention as Stanleyists.
The content-free cover has no bearing on the intense, upsetting contents of this ground-breaking double-header. The untitled lead story boasts significant Stanley firsts:
Stanley's first evil witch; his first fairy-tale environment (the stuff of Lulu's monthly stories for Alvin, later on) and some of the most energetic breaking of the "fourth wall" I've ever seen in comics.
I'll post that story here soon. But today, it's the second story, "The Secret Six," that steals the show. Here is Stanley's first fully realized figure of Wealthy Evil. D. J. Rarebit, industrialist, owner of a "vast empire...fourteen railroads"
and scion of limitless wealth, is hounded by a secret society (Blackwater 1945?) that he quit, and who now threaten his life.
Secret societies were part of the underbelly of 19th century life, and their roots have continued to this day. The most recognizable manifestation of the era would be the Harvard "Skull and Bones" club. Modern-day organizations such as the Masonic Temple continue this occult tradition.
Rarebit is an utter bastard--a deceitful, conniving, bitter individual with an undisguised contempt for his fellow funny animal. It seems proper that he would have ties to a sinister secret society.
Rarebit is a dead ringer for fluffy, naive, picnic-loving Oswald Rabbit, and his domestic partner Toby Bear. Long before gay rights were advocated publicly by anyone, Stanley had a few pairs of male funny animal characters who shared the same bed, bath, and household, and who were clearly life companions. (In the book's lead story, the couple embarks on an idyllic, loving picnic, as you'll soon see.)
Moreso than Andy Panda and Charlie Chicken, Os and Toby truly seem to be a couple. Their companionship is a balm in a world of uncertainty. I hope they enjoyed many happy years together, and I am certain they had a joint checking account.
Hired by Rarebit to impersonate him while he flees to his "hideout in the Rockies..." (shades of Dick Cheney!) to "...relax until my double is knocked off," Oswald and Toby (as the bunny's 'secretary') unknowingly enter a dangerous world.
Tho' Oswald is Rarebit's visual match, he blows his cover--and upsets the tycoon's staff-- by being cuddly, playful, humane, sympathetic and sexually ambiguous (witness the wrestling scene that's interrupted on page seven of the story).
What appears to be a Frank Capra-esque heart-warmer, as Oswald bestows kindness upon Rarebit's downtrodden staff, and generally has fun pretending to be a bigshot, turns dark upon the introduction of the Secret Six.
These sack-headed terrorists have infiltrated Rarebit's mansion, where they've planted a bomb. They also wreak havoc on the city by loosing vicious zoo animals and making an attempt on Oswald's life with a dagger.
Stanley is subtler in his hatred of the wealthy elite than he'd be in later years.
D. J. Rarebit earns our contempt by his actions, which speak loudly for themselves. It seems inconceivable to fuzzy, playful Oswald and Toby that such a notable, high-profile guy as Rarebit could be such a nasty meanie. Even at the story's end, I don't think the truth has really sunk in to the naive young couple.
I'll say no more, except to note the shocking finale of this story. It hews to Gilbert and Sullivan's philosophy that "the punishment fit the crime," and, as well, to G. B. Shaw's rule that the proverbial rifle-over-the-mantle must be fired to fulfill audience expectations.
Morally, the ending provides justice (and resolution) to an ambitious, truly subversive little story. This is mind-blowing material for a 1945 "kiddie comic." I can think of no other funny animal story that ends as does "The Secret Six."