By 1958, John Stanley had produced thousands of pages of Little Lulu stories, plus almost 40 issues of a companion Tubby magazine. He also created several 100-page seasonal specials.
This is an astounding performance for any creator. Some kind soul may have done a page count of Stanley's "Lulu" output from its inception in 1945 to his final issue, #135, which appeared in 1959.
It's safe to estimate that Stanley's output, on the "Lulu" family of titles alone, outdid Carl Barks' contemporary work on the Donald Duck family of titles. Of course, Stanley had a little slack cut him.
Although he did draw some of the earliest "Lulu" one-shots, and several issues of Tubby in the early 1950s, he could rely on a team of artists (among them Irving Tripp and Lloyd White) to create finished artwork from his comprehensive roughs.
The onus for filling those pages with narrative content was Stanley's. Little Lulu pinged Stanley's creativity as no other comix series did. He was able to spin out, like so much clockwork, consistently intelligent, witty, perceptive and vivid story material from a handful of stock set-ups and outcomes.
Towards the end, while his output remained of high quality, there is a fraying around the edges in Stanley's Lulu stories. They did not become shrill and crabby, as did Barks' later comix work.
A certain mechanical quality creeps into the stories. One can hardly blame Stanley for this. Even with the most gifted creative mind, there are only so many spins of the roulette wheel; only so many variations on a stock series of plots and outcomes.
Stanley would transfer to the Nancy and Sluggo titles in 1959. He experienced an immediate revitalization--despite the blatant similarity between the casts, situations and outcomes of "Lulu" and "Nancy."
Here are a couple of stories from issue 125 of Little Lulu--10 issues away from his final work for the series. These stories show his mind still strived to mine new angles from familiar material. There's something curious to this late "Lulu" work.
Here's "The Doll Contest," a genuinely odd three-page story that contains some delightfully weird imagery, but is compromised by a rather hurried ending. It's among the very few of Stanley's stories where I don't buy the events that conclude the story. Still, it has some obvious merits:
"Visiting Day," our next selection, is a genuinely unsettling fantasy story. It anticipates the mood of Stanley's Nancy stories which feature the supernatural, inscrutable Oona Goosepimple. As with those stories, one is never 100% sure what's real and what's hallucinatory.
The reversion of Lulu's father into a devilish, impulsive double of Tubby Tompkins(whom he physically attacks in the story) is as jarring as it is clever. "Visiting Day" takes broader leaps with reader expectation than Stanley had done with Lulu.
The success of this story is in its double-reversal of reader expectations. A parent acts out like a child, and the child must become an embarrassed, reactive guardian.
At story's end, when the nightmare is revealed and normalcy sustained, Lulu still takes a cautionary, adult role, to prevent the bad dream from possibly becoming real.
Tubby stars in "The Tough Customer," a tightly woven narrative of deception and reversal of fortune.
Tubby is Stanley's most interesting character. His self-deception, role as an outsider, and constant assertion and adjustment of his status make him a fascinating fictive creation.
Most of Stanley's core characters share aspects of Tubby's personality. Essential to this character is his/her core belief that they are RIGHT in their philosophy and world-view, regardless of how counter-productive these beliefs truly are for them in real life.
This character-type's plans and actions show little regard for their effects on others around them. In the comic karma that typifies Stanley's world, this selfishness usually backfires, or creates good fortune for the character's alleged rivals or enemies.
In this story, Tubby's cruelty pays off for other people. For Alvin, it results in a financial windfall. For estranged, reclusive Mrs. Murggle, it causes a realization of her own high status and importance to the world around her. Tubby remains unaware of the ripples he has caused in the world around him.
I'll post more late "Lulu" in coming days.