Friday, October 31, 2008

Is This Stanley's Work? The Little King, from Four Color 494, 1953

Perhaps fittingly for Halloween, here's the first installment of a new Stanley Stories category--Is This Stanley's Work?

Subject: Dell "Four Color" one-shot 494, The Little King, published 1953.

Professor Thomas Andrae, of Berkeley, California, is a fellow student of John Stanley's work. We have been exploring the lesser-traveled byways of Dell's comics publications of the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, in search of John Stanley-written material that earlier scholars may have overlooked.

Andrae found this comic and brought it to my attention. Thus, I present it to the world as a very likely work of John Stanley.

I have recently become aware of a division of levels in Stanley's published work. It is obvious to me that multiple editors worked on his material.

When said editor ruled with a lighter hand--as on Little Lulu--we have Stanley at his best. Understandably, as Dell managed numerous licensed properties in its comics, book publishing and merchandise materials, it was important for writers' work to be scrutinized.

Carl Barks occasionally chafed under this scrutiny. Whole stories of his were jettisoned, due to an editor's feeling that the characters--Disney Studio properties, each and every one--were not behaving in an acceptable way.

This happened to Stanley at least once--with his infamous Little Lulu story, "The Bogeyman." Further, less severe alterations of work must have been a regular issue with all the authors who created licensed-property material for Dell.

Now: add to this the personal preferences of each editor. In our previous post, we saw that the editor of Ghost Stories (believed to be eccentric cartoonist L. B. Cole) may have compromised the clarity of Stanley's narratives by demanding shorter stories. (This is just a supposition; I wish there was some written history of Dell Comics!)

Other editors may have seen fit to soften Stanley's material, rewrite dialogue, and use other means to dilute his creative efforts.

Mind you, this is all supposition. I have no hard facts to back up anything I've said. I feel that it does seem likely. As Dell operated outside the regular comics community--they even printed their comics on-site--and thrived on the use of licensed properties galore, they had a unique set of standards.

They couldn't risk upsetting the owners of the many copyrighted characters they brought into comics form. In best-case scenarios--as with Marge Buell, creator of the Little Lulu cast--a harmonious creator/adapter relationship emerged.

(Buell, as you may know, eventually sold the rights to the Little Lulu universe to Dell/Western. I suppose she felt her characters were in good hands.)

This "Four Color" book has a number of Stanleyisms, from ellipses to one "Yow," which the heavy-handed editor apparently missed, having transformed many of them into "Wow"s.

Following is a page from the longer first story in this comic book. Here is a typical tell-tale Stanleyism: floating eyes in blackness. In this case, one eye is curiously deleted, but the effect still comes through, and with humorous impact:

And now, for your consideration, here is the shorter second story from this Little King one-shot. Keeping in mind that Stanley obviously had more than one editor, and that his writing was edited, and not simon-pure from his head to the printed page, it seems feasible that this could be his work.

The Little King passes one important Stanley Story rule: in the opening sequences, as he "roughs it" by walking to his mountain lodge, he emits a lot of what I call "Tubby Talk:" a monologue rampant with self-justification and childlike insecurity about status.

I feel that Thomas Andrae has made a new find in comix archaeology. While it's not top-tier Stanley, I truly think Stanley's hand is evident as writer, although the presence of an editor's blue pencil is also strongly felt.

While this is not exactly a chilling Halloween topic, perhaps the question will lightly haunt you as you go about your day... enjoy, and please respond with your opinions!

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!

Friday, October 24, 2008

LXGOOPLE: from Marge's Lulu and Tubby Halloween Fun #6, 1957

'Tis the season for Halloween, that proud sub-genre of comic books past, present and future. I thought I'd dig up some seldom-seen Stanley Halloween pieces for your enjoyment.

Here's an imaginative, witty fairy-tale I doubt many have seen. Its only appearance was in a square-bound Dell seasonal special, published in 1957.

This was one of at least four giant-sized comics that are wall-to-wall Stanley, from his mid-to-late 1950s prime. Each of these giants has several unique fairy-tale stories, plus the usual OCD/ADD Tubby hi-jinx, and strong examples of all of Stanley's Little Lulu writing styles. They're well worth acquiring, as their contents have never been reprinted.

Alas, it's not easy to scan these comics without doing damage to them. My copy of this particular book is not a collector's showpiece. Its submission to the scanner caused some brittle page edges to flake away.

It's worth it to preserve this energetic, colorful and curious story for your reading pleasure. Observe the really painful show-tune-based pun on page 6.

I've never had frozen custard, but, boy, do 1950s comic book stories and TV shows make it look good! This high-cholesterol treat seems to have fallen out of favor. Perhaps it still exists in the Northeast regions.

I'll put up a couple more Halloween-themed Stanley pieces--perhaps other stories from this crumbly comic book--over the next week or so.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Two "Tubby" Tales (from #15, 1956)

I'm in the fourth day of a cold. It appears to be on the wane, I'm happy to say. I'm in that place where I don't quite feel good enough to rejoin the rest of the world (that, I say, will come tomorrow).

Nor am I so ill that I want to languish in bed. Thus, I turn to this blog for a simple but meaningful project.

I just happen to have these two stories from Marge's Tubby #15. Since Kelly and his kids [TM] enjoyed the recent set from that issue, why not double their (and your) pleasure?

First up: "The Teacher," in which we see Tubby at his most anarchic and self-determined. No one--not even filthy-rich Wilbur--can impede Tubby's plans, once they're set in motion. Especially so, if said plans advance Tubby's social status with ever-fickle Gloria.

Poor Tubby is setting himself up for a lifetime of frustrating, painful relationship troubles. Even though he relishes getting Wilbur's goat (and, usually, Gloria's), it's clear how ill-treated and poorly thought of he is by these supposed social superiors.

They address him as one would a mangy cur snooping in the trashcan, about to overturn a Hefty Sak of rancid leavings. "GET AWAY FROM HERE, YOU FRESH THING...GET OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT!"

Tubby may outwit these hoity-toity kids, but he does so at the sacrifice of his dignity. The psychotherapy community was designed for individuals like Tubby Tompkins. We are, thankfully, spared such potential titles as Marge's Tubby Therapy Time! and Tubby Traumas. The comix of Ivan Brunetti give us an approximation of what the adult Tubby might well be like...

# # #

Tubby comes out the victor in "The Lost Shoe." Wilbur and Gloria attempt a minor-league mind-fudge on erstwhile detective Tubby.

This prank is justified. Tubby has literally snowed the poor little rich boy, in a harsh moment of social humiliation. There is something quite real and jarring about Tubby's attack on Wilbur. For once, we, the readers, feel some understanding of Wilbur's point of view.

This story's most haunting moment is softly spoken, when we see Wilbur's fear of his father's anger. "I'd rather be out in the cold than in the house when father is in a bad mood," a subdued Wilbur confesses at the end of page one.

As wealthy patriarchs go, Wilbur's dad is a old softie in Stanley's world. His gripes concern something that's feasible and understandable--foot pain. Wilbur's highly vulnerable confession suggests that there are frightening moments in this high-faluting household. Stanley never shows us any of these moments. To know that they exist is enough.

Whoa--am I downer today or what? I forgot to mention how funny these two stories are. Stanley was at the top of his game in the mid-to-late 1950s as a writer. As I've said before, his weaving of dark and light gives his stories a resonance--even as they entertain us, they remind us, just a little bit, of life's harsh realities and hidden secrets.

OK...time for some more grapefruit juice!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chop chop: Woody Woodpecker from "New Funnies" #110, 1946

Here's the final story John Stanley wrote and drew in the "Woody Woodpecker" series that ran in New Funnies.

This is a choice example of Stanley's cartooning. His lines are full of life, and he routinely avoids static compositions. Despite some crudeness in his rendering, his finishes stand out from the other, more conventional cartooning in the magazine.

The story is not among Stanley's finest narratives. It's akin to a 1940s "spot gag" animated cartoon. A loose situation is set up, a string of gags reel off, and the story abruptly ends.

There's not much to hook the reader. The story lacks clear conflict. Thus, it's much like the contemporary Walter Lantz animated cartoon product. Though beautifully and innovatively directed by James Culhane, Woody's cartoons suffered horribly in the story department.

The stagnant, pun-happy and incoherent writing of Ben Hardaway is to blame in the Lantz cartoons. In his autobiography, director Culhane complains of Hardaway's limitations as a writer and humorist. It's painfully evident in the finished cartoons. They're gorgeously animated, strikingly designed, and full of appeal...but they always run out of steam, or self-destruct with a crappy, out-of-nowhere conclusion.

In comparison, this story has a simple but compelling structure. If there were more room to develop a rational conflict between Woody and the logging camp dude (who suspiciously resembles Woody's canine neighbor, Tackhammer), the piece might actually have become less funny.

Stanley evokes some original tree-felling gags (a notoriously limited comedy genre, the chopping-down-of-trees). He peppers the story with many of his trademark tics: "Ha! Ha! Ha!" and "Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!"s galore, and a spectacular instance of his "windmill action" device:

Stanley returned to drawing "Woody" in 1947, with a brief but brilliant series of one-page gags. These were printed on the inner front and back covers. I presented two examples of them way back in August.

Not much more to say about this story. I could digress to the whole cruelty-of-clearcutting issue, and, believe me, it distresses me, but I've got laundry to do.

Enjoy the woodpecker!