Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tubby's Last Hurrah: Three stories from Stanley's final issue, 1959

Has the dust settled? Can we get back to business?


The fall of 1959 saw the end of John Stanley's tenure on the Little Lulu family of titles. I don't have any Lulus after #128; Stanley's final issue was #135, published in September, 1959.

I do have his final Tubby. Nowadays, if a comix creator of Stanley's caliber were to leave a long-running series, the publisher would create a media hoo-hah. Covers would be plastered with the sad [but marketable] news. It would be a big deal.

In 1959, it was just the cost of doin' business. Without a whit of ceremony, Stanley exited, stage right, into Dell's highly similar Nancy comix.

Between 1945 and '59, Stanley must have written at least 1,000 Lulu-family stories [probably more]. A certain exhaustion began to set in as the '50s wound to a close.

Yet inspiration never left Stanley, despite his having made more spins on the series formula than a dryer in a Bronx laundromat. Anyone would have been ready for a change by this time.

The three stories selected for today's post show major Stanley themes of the 1950s, in their final manifestations. While not daisy-fresh, these pieces still show a lot of life.

Here's the cover; oh, those reassuring Dell covers!

Our first story, "A Record Performance," trades on Tubby's absolute non-mastery of the violin--and the agony its shrieking sounds inflicts on the world around him. As ever, Tubby is proud of his playing, and convinced that it's the finest gift he could bestow on anyone.

Though his efforts are thwarted, they pay off at story's end. I wish we could see the book that Tubby's so excited to read--and I hope he enjoyed it thoroughly!

This story also features the rivalry of Tubby and Wilbur Van Snobbe--key exponent of Stanley's hatred of the rich. Wilbur's extravagance ends up as an enabler to Tubby's well-intentioned but tunnel-visioned gift to his would-be girl, Gloria.

Less subdued is "Whale Tale," co-starring one of Stanley's more controversial creations--seemingly senile Gran'pa Feeb.

Feeb is an uncomfortable character. As such, he is a harbinger of Stanley's 1960s comix, which teem with incidents and characters that cause unease. Feeb is in his second (or is it third?) childhood, and although his pursuits are childish, he recalls his past adult life enough to be a sort-of mentor for Tubby and his clubhouse pals.

The kids clearly like Gran'pa Feeb, and have a good time hanging out with him. With this character, Stanley pushed into edgy territory. Are we laughing at Feeb, the dotty, senile old coot? Or are we laughing with him--applauding his anarchic lifestyle, and his nose-thumbing of the "thin crust of civilization" [John Buchan's words] that the kids' parents cling to with such quiet desperation?

Tub and his friends see through a lot of Feeb's blandishments and boasts, but they genuinely accept him as a mentor and peer.

Feeb features prominently in the fantastically edgy 100-page special, Tubby and his Clubhouse Pals, which Dell published in 1956. My copy is too fragile to scan; I hope Dark Horse will reprint this unsung gem of black comedy in their promised Tubby reprint series.

Lastly, "Green Thumb" offers the potent combo of a Tubby nightmare and those resourceful allies from outer space, The Little Men From Mars. My friend Paul Tumey will do a guest-post here, soon, on TLMFM, so I won't go into detail on them in this post.

This story is a faint echo of earlier, more harrowing works such as "The Guest In The Ghost Hotel" and prior LMFM stories, which teem with life-or-death imagery and moments of extreme threat to life and limb.

This is a quiet farewell to TLMFM, and to Tubby's hyper-active imagintion and sub-conscious. With its equally faint echoes of "Jack and the Bean-Stalk," this story also touches on Stanley's love of fairy-tales and classic fantasy elements. His ability to weave these influences into the most mundane situations was among his great gifts as a story-teller.

I feel badly for 1959 kids who read this issue. They had no idea who John Stanley was, or that he was leaving the world of Lulu. Having read the post-Stanley issues, I can attest that they are, at best, a disappointment; at worst, they're mere product--something that can not be said about even Stanley's weakest work as a comix creator.


Chris Riesbeck said...

As one who grew up on Lulu and Tubby, I can say that 50 years ago there was nothing controversial or edgy in any way about Grandpa Feeb. We laughed at his infirmity, but also liked the part where he came out on top, sometimes with a wink to let you know he knew more than he let on. Senility was a fair target for humor in those days, for kids and adults. One of many social views that, as illustrated in the TV series Mad Men, has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.

Thad said...

Hmm, maybe I'm missing something, but I didn't find Grandpa Feeb very funny in that story. His design is out of whack for Stanley's world, looking like Poopdeck Pappy almost. But the record one was a classic, as usual.

So when did Stanley stop writing on Lulu permanently?

Elliot said...

Frank, thanks for posting these Tubby swan songs. My original fascination with the inhabitants of Lululand ended around 1958; I recall thinking at the time that the stories were becoming more sedate and the fiendish edge that made them so hilarious and real had been sacrificed for something much safer and cornier. Reading this trio now I can see that, despite the watered down nature of the dynamics between the characters, Stanley's writing is (was) as sharp and witty as ever. And while I was devoted to the Tubby comics of the time, I never felt they came close to the overall brilliance of the Lulu books. The finished art of the Tubby stories felt much more rural as opposed to the downright urban elan of the Lulus.
As for Gran'pa Feeb, I found the stories that introduced his character in the 1956 Tubby Annual to be far superior to any that eventually followed. In fact, that giant comic reigns fairly supreme in my Stanley collection; good for several reads a year! I don't recall feeling queasy or sad when reading those Feeb stories as an eight year old; I just thought they were funny! That book, along with the two Giants of original Lulu stories from 1955 and 1956 should definitely be reprinted in color some day!

ratskywatsky said...

I just found this place and I haven't even had a chance to look it over and read the comic yet, but growing up in the early to mid 50's I subscribed to Walt Disney comics and my little brother to Little Lulu comics and I loved them both. Other boys were into superheroes but not me - with the notable exception of Marvelman (Shazam!). I was into ducks and ganders and Lulu and Tubby and their friends and adventures in that idyllic neighborhood. Great stuff!!!