Friday, August 29, 2008

Woody Woodpecker, from "New Funnies" #94, 1944: Octo-pushy! Story and art by John Stanley

2011 PREFACE: This was one of the first posts on Stanley Stories. At the time, I knew Stanley's work less well. The purpose of this blog has always been for me to explore John Stanley's comics out loud, and in public. Thus, I occasionally find the need to append an early post.

This story is clearly drawn, written and lettered by John Stanley. He is in fine form here, as he is in the previous two issues' "Woody Woodpecker" stories for New Funnies. His spiky, expressive pen line brings an enormous energy to this dryly morbid story. That Stanley was already such an adept cartoonist, prior to his long engagement on the Little Lulu series, is something that most comics historians have overlooked.

Stanley's cartooning took a blow in 1945. He had to mimic the primitive, near folk-art cartoon style of Marjorie Buell in his role as writer-artist-adapter of her valuable commercial property. The look and feel of Marge's poor cartooning had an adverse affect on Stanley's work through 1946.

He reclaimed his own, superior cartooning style in 1947, with a series of dynamic, striking "Woody Woodpecker" one-page gags, and with his first comic-book original, "Jigger and Mooch," which he wrote and drew for the final issues of Animal Comics. Those pieces are available elsewhere on this blog. Admirers of John Stanley the artist are advised to seek these posts out.

And now, the original 2008 post...


Just in time for the Labor Day weekend--that last hurrah of summer--here's a 1944 "Woody Woodpecker" story set at the beach. Our favorite sociopath vends deadly hot dogs and saves the day!

Such stories make me wonder how often 1940s folks encountered food poisoning or other invasive bacteria in their daily lives.

This story continues the venerable link between nutty cartoon characters and the sale of hot dogs. Ub Iwerks made a wonderful Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1929 called THE KARNIVAL KID. This may be the wellspring for the whole hot dog fixation in animated cartoons--and, later, comic books. It's also the rowdiest, most un-Disney MM entry.

I won't be hitting the beach this weekend--it's rainy and cool in overcast Seattle. I don't eat hot dogs, either--well, perhaps I'll encounter a cartoon octopus!

See you soon...

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!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oswald Rabbit and Toby in another freaky fairy-tale: from Four-Color #67, 1945

As promised, here is the long lead story to Stanley's first Oswald Rabbit one-shot from 1945. As with "The Secret Six" (posted here prior), this story contains some John Stanley milestones.

The story is Stanley's first funnybook fairy-tale, and, appropriately, it contains the first of many witches-slash-supernatural figures that populate his comics.

This story's playfulness is striking. Stanley rarely broke the fourth wall with his reader. Lulu might sass the narrator of her stories to neighbor-brat Alvin, and on occasion a character will reference his/her status as a blob on ink on a paper page.

Stanley's characters are fond of running monologues. Yet they almost never reference the reader. Stanley's figures generally take great care to leave the fourth wall intact.

This is a remarkable incidence of sheer playfulness with comics itself. It is well-contained within a dense narrative. This story combines elements of "Snow White" and themes from other fairy-tale classics. There's even a reference to James Thurber's The Last Flower.

Stanley leaned heavily on genre tropes as he spun his own variations. These riffs are usually tongue-in-cheek, and typically have strong splashes of darkness [in best fairy-tale fashion].

He adds one beautiful element--the "merry witch" demands that the two fuzzy protagonists must spend a night in her topsy-turvy screwball castle without laughing.

This command would be especially potent to a child reader. Kids are typically shushed and suppressed from outbursts of spontanaeity...mostly because they get on the stressed nerves of uptight adults. To ask a child NOT to laugh is to increase the desire to do so.

This is a brilliant touch. With this edict, Stanley rains a garden variety of Smokey Stover-ish screwball visuals on the reader. It's as if he dares the reader not to guffaw. By doing so, the reader violates the witch's ultimatum.

Page 22 of this story is a thing of beauty. IMHO, this is one of the greatest single pages in 1940s comics.

Stanley didn't return to the fairy-tale genre until it was established as part of the monthly Little Lulu program in the late 1940s. He would continue to create free-standing stories in the genre throughout his comics career. [See our second post, and the previous post, for two strong examples of these stand-alone narratives.]

One more milestone: this story contains a very rare thing in Stanley's resume--a full-page scene. You'll spot it: have fun mulling over the Bob Clampett-esque zany details!

I really like the artwork in this comic book. It's extremely expressive and lively. I also dig the free-hand panel borders.

I wish that the average independent comic book of today would give me an equivalent helping of compelling themes, adept, spirited cartooning, and stories of comparable length and complexity. I'd gladly plunk down five bucks for such a funnybook. I've given up on the mainstream companies...they will never publish comics such as this again. Them days is gone forever!