Tuesday, August 26, 2008
selections from "Nellie The Nurse:" Four-Color #1304, 1962
Here is the first taste of 1960s John Stanley I've posted so far. I have mixed feelings about much of Stanley's 1960s work. I like Dunc 'n' Loo and the short-lived beatnik spoof Kookie quite a bit. The first issue of O. G. Whiz is wonderful stuff, as well.
This is heresy in some comics circles, but I must be honest: Melvin Monster and Thirteen Going On Eighteen leave me rather cold. I really, really want to like them, in the way I like Stanley's 1940s and '50s work. I want to like them because they're Stanley's "auteur" work as a comics creator.
On the one hand, I'm happy for 1960s Stanley. At last he was able to create new characters, draw them, write them, and sign his friggin' name to them!
The opportunity should have come in the 1950s. He peaked as a comics creator in that decade.
I think his best days as a comics writer were over by 1962. There are still inspired stories and characters in his later work. For the most part, his late work strikes me as strident and repetitive, rather like the emerging sitcom school of television writing.
To his credit, he did not become crabby, as did Barks in the 1960s. Perhaps Stanley sought to simplify his M.O. His post-1960 stories are much lighter, simpler, and surfacy. His verbal wit remained razor-sharp. If anything, his dialogue improved in the last decade of his comics career.
Stanley could have prospered as a TV writer. His vivid, colloquial way with words might have also worked on the Broadway stage. He remained a canny, commercial writer to the end of his career. I dearly miss the subtleties he sacrified as the '50s folded over into the '60s.
This one-off licensed-property book provides a good representation of Stanley's 1960s work. To me, the comedy seems forced and shrill. His writing is still superior to any other contemporary funnybook writers (save Carl Barks, whose own work was in decline in the 1960s, and Sheldon Mayer, whose writing actually improved over that decade).
It is, however, a shadow of its former brilliance.
In the 1940s and '50s, Stanley consistently achieved a "best of both worlds" type of comedy. He combined broad, earthy low comedy (slapstick, stock plot situations) with unusually subtle, even introspective characterization. His average comic-book character of the era is rich, well-rounded and compelling.
Stanley went out of his way to endow his characters with naturalistic shadings of absurd and believable behaviors. From the licensed animated characters to the cast of "Little Lulu," Stanley's pro- and antagonists are routinely given a complexity worthy of an accomplished novelist.
His 1960s characters react intensely. They scream, shout, flail their arms, and run around like mad. They are very loud--the din of a 1960s Stanley story might prove deafening!
In a more reflective state, they are richer, but they often lapse into dark, neurotic behaviors. This makes Melvin Monster and, particularly, Thirteen Going On Eighteen rough going for me, unless I am in a certain melancholic mood.
The harsh, truly existential landscape of Melvin contains a lot of anger and pain. I find the dichotomy between the intended merriment of the stories and the pitch-dark material they contain to be troubling. Fascinating, yes...but deeply troubling.
Perhaps, to best appreciate this later work, one must see Stanley as a re-invented creator in the 1960s. He had shed his prior style of writing and pacing, while retaining most of his elemental 'tics.' He let the darkness in his worldview come front and center, with no suppression.
He was, perhaps, more honest and revealing in these later efforts. In his best work, prior to 1961, he balanced that inner darkness with an appreciation of the world's absurdities.
That appreciation is missing in Stanley's 1960s work. The worlds of his two major 1960s series are hard places, peopled by hard cases. There is no room for felicity or absurdity. His characters are wracked with uncertainty, and their status (or, in Melvin's case, his life) is constantly in peril.
That phase was still to come when this "Four-Color" one-shot hit the newsstands in early 1962. "Nellie The Nurse" was a sub-standard syndicated newspaper panel cartoon. It was an odd choice for a Dell license. Stanley does what he can with an admittedly limited cast and the strictures of the hospital setting. While not as good as "Dunc 'n' Loo" or "Kookie," it has a certain charm.
Once again, I know not who the cartoonist was on the finishes. It's not Bill Williams (who so brilliantly illustrated "Henry Aldrich, "Dunc 'n' Loo" and "Kookie"). It's rather pallid, anonymous cartooning. Once again, the artist was hemmed in by the original series' sub-par visual style.
Here are three short stories from this curious li'l comic book. See what you think!