Drawn + Quarterly's "John Stanley Library" has begun with a handsome volume of Melvin Monster. While the book is not all it could be, it still earns my highest accolades. I felt it appropriate to review it for this blog.
This is the first time an easily-available mass market hardcover of John Stanley's cartooning has been published. (Stanley's prior hardcover appearances include a generous berth in Michael Barrier's Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics and the multi-volume, limited-run "Little Lulu Library" of the 1980s.
Within this book are the inner contents of the first three issues of Melvin Monster. This title was a part of John Stanley's renaissance as a "total" cartoonist in the 1960s.
Freed from the constraints of licensed characters, and of other, usually lesser cartoonists to complete his work, Stanley realized an elegant, distinct style of cartoon art. This style had been present in his work from his start in comic books.
By the 1960s, Stanley's sure hand and economical line were at their peak. Wielding an elegant brush-stroke, Stanley wrote, drew and lettered his work with a seeming effortlessness. As with Harvey Kurtzman and Jesse Marsh's work, Stanley's '60s comix make the artform look easy as pie.
This seeming facility belies the hard work that went into each panel. A casual look at the pages of this book reveals a masterful sense of panel composition, of narrative flow, and of the use of typography as a vital storytelling element.
Melvin Monster was John Stanley's entry in the "kooky monster" trend of the early 1960s. Alongside The Addams Family, The Munsters and a multitude of zany monster-themed trading cards, records and other ephemera, Melvin Monster was very much a product of its time--an unerringly commercial concept.
Stanley takes his time in establishing the world of Melvin Monster in these first three issues.
I don't want to burn a lot of daylight discussing the content of these stories, nor provide a sweeping canned overview of their characteristics. I'll come back to this material shortly.
From its start, Melvin Monster displays the growing darkness of John Stanley's vision. Were I a parent, I would have reservations about handing this volume to my kids without a preliminary sit-down discussion. There is intense stuff between this book's hardcovers.
The world of Melvin Monster reminds me of Lynda Barry's devastating novel, Cruddy. Both depict a universe of loosely organized chaos into which children are swept around like dead leaves.
Isolation, abandonment, entrapment, threats to life and limb (quicksand, alligators, falling objects, random acts of violence) and parental neglect are part and parcel of Melvin Monster's daily life.
Pop culture of the 1950s and '60s was quite dark in its matter-of-fact depiction of the downside of human existence. Melvin Monster is not as disturbing as the most extreme artifacts of this era.
If you want to really see something disturbing, try the Highway Safety Council-produced "educational" classroom film, The Child Molester, from 1964, or the 1960s "gore" horror-movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, which wed Grand Guignol theatrics to the crudest lack of artistry imaginable.
Admittedly, these two examples are farther removed from the mainstream than Dell's comic books of the era. But they capture the darkest of the dark of the 1960s.
Melvin Monster comes off much lighter, in comparison, but has an inescapable, palpable bleakness.
The saving grace is John Stanley's unerring wit and Lubitsch-like comedic timing. Just when the events seem too foreboding, too grim, a comic zinger swoops down, like some benevolent bird of prey, and brightens the balance.
By this time, Stanley was comics' master of verbal patter. He, above all other contemporary comic book creators, got the rhythm of language--how to write it, how to sell it, and how to enforce its intake.
Stanley's language and verbal rhythms perform a masterful lightfooted dance throughout his 1960s work. It's abundant in Melvin Monster. It impresses me that such a dark concept can also be so frequently hilarious.
A genuine edginess distinguishes this work. Nearly half a century has not dulled this edge. If anything, these stories may be more humorous--and distubing--to 2009 readers than they were to their original audience.
About the book itself: designer Seth has done a lovely job on this book. With its foil embossing and teach-yourself-taxidermy color palette, it is also a very typical piece for the designer.
I do wish Seth would let less of his personal style into his design work. While these books--including Fantagraphics' successful hardcover reprints of Charles Schulz's Peanuts--are attractive, they often have nothing to say about the work inside, but everything to say about Seth's highly recognizable sense of graphic design.
Were John Stanley's name not on the front cover, a casual observer might think, "oh, wow; another Seth book. He sure is prolific!"
I do not criticize Seth's graphic design sense. It is well-established and easily recognizable. I think he has plenty of room to let more of the essence of the work inside shine through.
It's as if he feels a responsibility to vigorously sell the book--almost as if the work, itself, might not be strong enough to attract readership.
Upon opening the book, the reader is treated to one handsome spread after another--mood pieces that set the stage for the stories themselves. In light of my earlier comments about Seth's ubiquitous design sense, I must also state that this is the nicest-looking archival comics volume I've seen to date.
The original comics panels are isolated against a reassuring field of vintage newsprint. The effect is attractive, and makes a strong first impression.
The quality of the scans, from vintage comics, is very good. The blacks are strong and well-balanced, and fidelity to the source materials is strongly maintained.
On the flipside, some of the source materials are visibly flawed. The second issue, for example, appears to be sourced from a water-damaged, badly fluted and wrinkled original. The high-rez scanning makes every flaw in these pages vividly evident.
I found myself often distracted from the reading experience by these found eyesores. These original comics are not that rare: surely better sources can be located!
I regret that Stanley's striking cover designs for these issues are not included. Perhaps they were omitted to skirt the legal waters of Dell's possible claim to ownership of this series. Certainly the cover images themselves could be isolated and presented in these books. For one thing, they often bear John Stanley's signature--that rarest of things in his career.
For another, they are outstanding pieces of schematic design. Stanley's covers sold millions of comics--he designed the monthly Little Lulu covers. To omit this artwork and design from future volumes of the Stanley Library would be a crime.
Lastly, I am shocked at the lack of introductory material here. There is nothing that sets up these stories for the reader. It may be that D + Q want these stories to be read on their own merits, without historical context.
They work on their own, as they did in the mid-'60s. But there are remarkable aspects to this work that deserve to be stated--and which would enhance the reading experience.
I am certain that even a casual first-time reader would find the history of interest. It is a story of perseverance and artistic triumph, in a medium not inclined to reward such actions.
Just think: here is a brilliant comix creator who had over two decades' non-stop experience as a writer, artist, designer and creator--but who never signed his work before 1963, with one fluky exception.
This was the same experience Carl Barks suffered, on the other side of the continent, in his 25-year career as the "duck man" of Dell's California branch.
But Barks never developed and produced an original series idea for comix--or for any medium. He arguably rethought Donald Duck, and other Disney characters, and made them over into living, breathing, beautifully real individuals.
Barks certainly had ambitions to create his own comic strip or book from scratch, but the opportunity never happened for him.
John Stanley created at least seven original series for comic books, going back to the late 1940s.
With his all-original '60s work, Stanley reinvented himself as a newly vibrant creator. He no longer hit the ceiling of limitations imposed by licensed characters. He owned his world, from scratch, and could do as he pleased.
Decades of the daily discipline of comix writing gave his work a professional polish that helped cloak the dark themes he increasingly favored. John Stanley could sugar-coat his bitter pills of human truth just enough to get us, the reader, to swallow them.
My experience of reading his work is that its darkness and brutality often occurs to me later, in reflection. In the moment of the act of reading, his winning comedic sensibilities and brilliant narrative pacing occupy my attention.
I admire him for his ability to do two things at once: entertain and create works of emotional gravity. I think this is exactly what any modern-day alternative cartoonist strives to do with his or her work. Here is a man who managed to slip this highly personal vision between the cracks of mass-market publishing.
In closing, I urge you to purchase this book. Your purchase will encourage and support D + Q's ambitions to make a great deal of John Stanley's best work widely available. These are troubled days for book publishing. We can no longer afford the luxury of being idle spectators. This book can currently be had, for a very affordable sum, from amazon.com.
Or, better yet, buy this from your friendly neighborhood independent book store/comix store. This will encourage said seller to re-order this book, and others like it. Your purchase helps to create and sustain a market for non-crap comix in hardcover.
You will be glad this volume, and future John Stanley Library volumes, are on your bookshelf. They reward repeated readings and speak of a potential only rarely -achieved by mainstream media.