Sunday, October 26, 2008

the troubling eccentricity of Stanley's Ghost Stories: two examples

The most curious and controversial work of John Stanley's comics career occured in 1962. At this time, Stanley apparently sought to transition from humor comics to dramatic genre comics.

Among the titles he created and/or wrote for Dell at this time were Linda Lark, Student Nurse and two horror/supernatural comics: the 80-page Tales From The Tomb and the first issue of Ghost Stories. Stanley wrote the first issue of this latter title.

(I've just perused the second and third issues of this series. The artwork improves dramatically from the first issue. Both issues have Stanley's... familiar... ellipses... and some dialogue that rings true. The stories have moments of eccentricity, but if they are Stanley's work, they're drastically toned down from the debut issue's contents.)

Whomever wrote Ghost Stories, Dell saw fit to continue it for the next few years.

In theory, this career change was promising. Stanley was considered by his peers to be a gifted storyteller. Indeed, his seemingly effortless flow of monthly original fairy-tales, as told to Little Lulu's bratty Alvin by the title character, ranks among comics' finest sustained narrative efforts.

His longer one-shot stories for the Dell Four Color series are strong pieces of humor-tinged adventure. While they often lack the benefit of Stanley's absurd comedic wit, they work as complex narratives that expand the boundaries of their licensed cartoon character protagonist.

Stanley's storytelling skill, coupled with the growing darkness of his themes and characterizations in the early 1960s, showed his obvious, untapped potential as a non-comedic writer.

Alas (and I realize this is a controversial stance I take), I find his non-humor efforts of the 1960s to be fascinating in their themes, but troubled and flawed in their execution.

As standard genre narratives, they consistently miss their marks. They are atmospheric, yet incoherent; vivid yet unfocused. They contain surprisingly sloppy storytelling, with poor set-ups, a general lack of foundation, and downright loopy attempts at O. Henry-ish shocker endings.

If one reads them as a pipeline to their creator's subconscious--a drainage ditch of his anxiety, xenophobia and general depression and unhappiness--they are far more rewarding to experience.

These stories are hindered by their wretched artwork. Dell, at this time, had no luck whatsoever in attracting accomplished non-humor cartoonists.

Most of the better serious cartoonists had defected to Dell's "evil twin," Gold Key Comics. Their horror/suspense anthologies boast work by the likes of Wally Wood, Reed Crandall, and other top-drawer dramatic illustrators.

Dell was left with a nameless lot of hopeless hacks and amateurs. Most prominent among them was Tony Tallarico, whom I suspect to be the artist of our second story today, "The Door."

These artists appear to have no concept of sequential storytelling. The stories read as if the concept of comics was described to the poor illustrators over the telephone, or in a badly-typed letter.

As Stanley wrote in visual form, creating layouts and scripts, this misuse of his media seems puzzling. The failure of these stories, in part, is that they do not succeed as traditional, coherent sequential narratives. Something of importance always seems absent. They read as if random panels were removed from the scripts by a demented editor.

These stories are bouillon cubes of Stanley's darkest ideas. A comparision to the use of these themes in his humor comics--and there are many instances to choose from--further impresses me as to how dark and despairing his writing had become by the early 1960s.

These horror stories are usually built on curious foundations. Things simply are what they are, with no attempt to justify or clarify them.

That's it--these stories are like nightmares on paper. They lack the careful narrative planning of a consciously-told story. They carom from one bizarre idea to another, without set-up, explanation or justification.

Perhaps these horror comics were a freeform release for him. For two decades, Stanley had crafted complex, impeccable comics, built around licensed characters and specific situations. The contrast between frenzy and control, lunacy and regularity, give Stanley's best work a tension and depth that so deeply distinguishes them.

Stanley would soon return to humorous comics writing, with his two "auteur" titles of the mid-1960s, Thirteen Going On Eighteen and Melvin Monster.

As I've commented before, I find the darkness and despair of these two series a sometimes bitter pill to swallow. I cannot, however, fault them in any way as coherent sequential narratives.

These two stories, from the debut issue of Ghost Stories, illustrate the virtues and flaws of this checkered chapter in Stanley's career. You will see fascinating themes, moments of genuinely chilling despair, and some of the loopiest material ever presented in four poorly-printed colors.

Today's first story, "The Werewolf Wasp," piles genre absurdity upon genre absurdity in a collision of breathless, atmospheric nightmare imagery. The story's conclusion is a familiar Stanley moment, seen many times in his "Tubby" stories, only given an attempted dramatic twist here.


Our next selection offers one of Stanley's most affecting portraits of a dysfunctional family. Were "The Door" not marred by shoddy, inconsistent graphics, its truly nightmarish theme might better succeed.

The parents' refusal to acknowledge their child's nightmare-reality is another Cream-Of-Stanley moment at its grimmest. The silent panels on the fourth and fifth page, plus the girl's quiet acceptance of utter devastation on the following pages, is fascinating.

Despite its tacked-on, school-of-Twilight Zone twist ending, "The Door" is a compelling, if spartan, narrative. Its overall tone is not that far from Thirteen Going On Eighteen and Melvin Monster. The dialogue in Page Six's final panel would have made a great macabre punchline to an intentionally humorous story. It's hard not to chuckle when that line occurs--it seems incongruously comedic.

These stories apparently caused some disgrace to Stanley. Their admittedly nightmarish, freaky scenes of primal terror had a disturbing effect on 1962 readers. Dell's squeaky-clean, above-reproach reputation was blighted by these unfit-for-the-Comics-Code stories.

I don't have the full story, but I've heard that Stanley was chastised in some way because of negative reactions from outraged parents. If this is true, it seems odd that Dell would have continued to publish Ghost Stories for the next few years.

As well, Thirteen Going On Eighteen and Melvin Monster are full of themes of discord and violence that would have never met with Comics Code approval. Stanley had a safety net in Dell's isolation from the rest of the comics publishing community. Because the censors almost never regarded Dell's product, Stanley, Carl Barks, and other Dell creators were able to write darker, less comforting and generic material.

I've said enough here for five entries, so I'll shuddup and let "The Door" speak for itself.

P.S.: This information was submitted by Pappy, an outstanding comix blogger. Even tho' it appears in the comments section on this post, it's an intriguing piece of information that helps explain the curious quality of these stories:

I believe Tales From The Tomb to be more like a collection of scary campfire stories or even folk tales, but the two from Ghost Stories seem goofy to me. Not funny, not dramatic, maybe just not given room to develop. This could imply that the editor, who I believe was L. B. Cole, wanted shorter stories and more of them, even if it caused them to come out as nonsense.

I didn't know that L. B. Cole was an editor at Dell, for starters. Cole was among the more eccentric comics artists of the later 1940s. His zany, exaggerated poster-like covers for various low-grade crime, horror and cartoon comics are revered by some comix cogniscienti. L. B. Cole editing John Stanley...that's a fascinating thought!

Thanks, Pappy, as ever!


prof. grewbeard said...

how bizarre, but how Stanley! too bad about the art on "The Door".

Chris Riesbeck said...

I'll take your word for it that Tales from the Tomb wasn't successful. I haven't seen it since I wore out the copy I had as a kid when it first came out. I only remember (fondly) the first story, about a monster in a throw rug, and a silly one-pager about giant chickens invading earth.

Frank M. Young said...

My comments on Ghost Stories would also apply to Tales From The Tomb. If read as subconscious manifestations of nightmares and angst, these horror stories are fascinating. It is as conventional narratives that they don't succeed. I'm sure the power of the images in the stories made these books memorable experiences for those who encountered them as kids. Had I gotten my hands on these in my childhood, I'd have slept with the light on!

Pappy said...

It was interesting seeing the two from Ghost Stories, because I owned that comic when it came out. It didn't survive one of my periodic collection purges, so I'm glad to see the stories again. I remember being puzzled by them and those last panels, which didn't seem like endings. "I lose more parents that way." Huh? How many parents do you get? "Those boys may all be alive..." Say what? Didn't you hear them moaning? The stories seemed unfinished.

I believe Tales From The Tomb to be more like a collection of scary campfire stories or even folk tales, but the two from Ghost Stories seem goofy to me. Not funny, not dramatic, maybe just not given room to develop. This could imply that the editor, who I believe was L. B. Cole, wanted shorter stories and more of them, even if it caused them to come out as nonsense.

Gabriel said...

I find the wasp story's art appealing in a weird ditkoesque way. The Door looks awful though. But I liked the writing on both of them.

The Holding Coat said...

I am a huge fan of Stanley's work on both "Tales From the Tomb" and "Ghost Stories #1", and have been since I first read them at age 10. I read somewhere (can't recall where) that he also drew some of the stories. In "Monster of Dread End", if you look at the little blonde girl with the ponytail, who resembles one of the characters in "Thirteen Going on Eighteen", and the shape of the monster's claw, which looks a lot like the hands of Melvin Monster's Baddy, I think we may have some clues to discovering which stories he drew. There are other similarites in "Werewolf Wasp" as well.