Tuesday, November 17, 2009

John Stanley's World, pt. 1: Stylistic Signatures--Three Notable Character Archetypes

This is the first in a series of more in-depth essays that I'm calling "John Stanley's World." This is a break from the traditional "Stanley Stories" format of a single story and some focused commentary on said story.

I'd like to identify and explore some of the distinctive themes that make John Stanley's work worth our care and consideration. Consider these pieces as rough drafts for a possible larger work I hope to write someday.

I hope to do pieces like this fairly often from now on. Here's hoping this is of some interest and value.

John Stanley's Three Archetypes: An Introduction

John Stanley rarely signed his comics work. His most successful and well-known project, Little Lulu, was essentially anonymous--as were Carl Barks' contemporary efforts with Donald Duck and other licensed Walt Disney characters.

Stanley was given credit--just once--in issue #49 of Little Lulu.
(That's a better deal than Barks got--his name NEVER appeared in any of the Dell comic magazines he created.)

Thus, John Stanley, in his almost 30-year stint as a comic book writer and artist, developed a set of stylistic "signatures"-- motifs, quirks and pet topics that now help comics scholars ID his work.

Many of these "Stanleyisms" were expertly copied by his peers at Western Publications, the creative house that produced Dell Comics titles from the 1930s to 1962.

Particularly from the early 1950s on, Stanley's approach became the basis for an unofficial Western house style of writing. Frantic physical action, brassy SFX and other elements of Stanley's comic style became much-used, albeit usually without grace or understanding, by other writers.

Thus, such stalwart "Stanleyisms" as his mantra-like "YOW!" and "Ha! Ha! Ha!" are not always a guarantee that a comics story is from his hand. It appears that Western's editors absolutely encouraged their other New York-based writers to emulate Stanley's mannerisms and style. Either that, or these other creators were inspired by Stanley's example, and sought to bring some of his energy to their own work.

While this muddies the waters for 21st-century comix scholars, there are still unmistakable elements of John Stanley's work--aspects that no other writer could adequately mimic.

Stanley's stories are typically built on melancholy. This is often an undertone to stories that are, essentially, positive and engaging. Yet this sensation is present in almost every comic book story Stanley created. It is an acknowledgment of the darkness and despair of life. Stanley confronted life's sadness unflinchingly in his comics work.

At times, the darkness of his work can be overwhelming. At its best, Stanley's comics work balances light and dark with supple grace. This is at the heart of his writing and intelligence. I don't think any other Western staffers comprehended this aspect of his work--certainly not to the point of synthesizing and emulating it in their own stories.

John Stanley was drawn to three character archetypes. These are present from his first comics work to his last. The middle character in this "holy trinity" is Stanley's central focus in all his stories. It is the character that sparked his imagination, time and again, and enabled him to spin infinite variants on a handful of simple, central themes. This character walks the fine line between light and dark--between hero and heavy.

This character I call The Tubby Type, or TT for short. Tubby Tompkins, the exquisitely flawed, self-consumed anti-hero of Stanley's Little Lulu, is also his finest achievement as a comics creator. TTs appear in Stanley's work consistently before, during and after his 14-year tenure on Little Lulu. TTs are the single strongest "tell" that a story is from Stanley's hand.

When other writers took on Little Lulu in 1959, Tubby remained a central character in the series. The finer shadings of his character flaws quickly vanished, and he reverted to the diluted stock figure of his pre-Stanley incarnation.

It's tempting to dive deeper into The Tubby Type. I must first identify the two balancing archetypes. For without them, Stanley's TTs would be unguided missiles of anti-social behavior. They would merely be antagonistic pests--not flawed, compelling anti-heroes.

On the left of TT is The [Usually Thwarted] Voice Of Reason--hereafter, VOR. This is a role of great responsibility, and requires patience, perseverance and a quick wit.

The Tubby Type needs the Voice Of Reason, like the ego needs the id. These two characters complete one another. They give one another a constant motivation for being.

Without the careening, impulsive actions of the TT, the VOR is merely a goody two-shoes type. He or she has nothing to monitor--no resistance to spur their intelligent, logical actions. And, as noted earlier, without the VOR, the TT is just a mechanical pest--a mosquito in random search of fresh blood.

To the right of the TT is the Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle--TTO henceforth. This character has many guises. He or she may be a genuinely dark-hearted meddler who takes a special delight in aggravating crisis situations created by the TT.

As well, TTOs can also be rigid figures of authority, caught up in their tasks to a monomanic level, or aggressors who live to cause (usually physical) conflicts with both TTs and VORs.

TTOs are more than mere stock "heavies" in Stanley's world. They provide a resistance that both the TT and the VOR must react to and transcend. They cause problems that always have higher stakes than anything done by the other archetypes.

Their behavior is typically malicious or endangering. It is a reminder of the dark side of John Stanley's universe. TTOs are always present in some form in Stanley's stories.

Now that I've identified these three major Stanley archetypes, I'll listsome Stanley characters, as they come to mind, that represent the triad.

VOR: Andy Panda, Oswald Rabbit, Little Lulu, her parents, Tubby Tompkins' parents, Annie and Miss Feeny (from Little Lulu), Dunc (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Jigger, Jerry Mouse (from "Tom and Jerry"), Judy and Val(from 13 Going on 18), Nancy, O. G. Whiz, Melvin Monster, Leonardo (from Clyde Crashcup),

TT: Tubby Tompkins, Alvin (from Little Lulu), Woody Woodpecker, Charlie Chicken (from "Andy Panda"). Toby Bear (from "Oswald"), Judy and Val (from 13 Going on 18), Peterkin Pottle, Tuffy Mouse (from "Tom and Jerry"), Gran'pa Feeb (from Tubby), Mooch (from "Jigger"), Loo (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Ignatz (from Krazy Kat), Clyde Crashcup, Melvin Monster

TTO: McNabbem, the truant officer, Wilbur, Gloria, the East Side Gang, Witch Hazel, Li'l Itch and The Little Men From Mars (from Little Lulu), Tom Cat (from "Tom and Jerry"), Spike, Rollo, and McOnion (from Nancy and Sluggo), Buddy (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Judy, Val and Judy Junior (from 13 Going on 18), Baddy, Cleopatra, and Miss McGargoyle (from Melvin Monster), Thutnose (from O. G. Whiz), Officer Pupp (from Krazy Kat)

Hmm--interesting! There are more TTOs in Stanley's work than any other archetype. I could list a long string of one-off TTOs from Stanley's work--usually present in longer narratives. Yet TTOs are rarely the central figure of his narratives.

Stanley's main focus figure is almost always a TT, with a VOR to attempt to keep them in check. These characters are Stanley's yin and yang.

John Stanley certainly did not summon these figures out of the void. They are stock players of Western drama. They have served countless other writers, dramatists and comedians well for centuries.

It is John Stanley's spin on these easily recognizable archetypes that brings individuality and originality to his work. Other comics writers have used these same archetypes, but rarely with comparable clarity and depth.

Some Stanley characters embody more than one of these archetype traits. Stanley frequently creates comedy from the cognitive biases of his characters.

All TTs are ruled by their cognitive biases. They live by a series of highly personalized rules and regulations. TTs sincerely believe in these rules, which seem obviously and fatally flawed to others. Their lives and actions are based around these biases, which typically put them into crisis and discord with the world around them.

These biases are seductive. They can pull the most rational mind into their web. Thus, a VOR character like Lulu Moppet is, at times, possessed of cognitive biases--usually when induced by the persuasions of a TT; another VOR figure, Miss Feeny, can, if need be, take on aspects of the TTO, when viewed through the bias-lens of Tubby and his clubhouse pals.

On rare occasions, utter TTOs such as Wilbur Van Snobbe become sympathetic figures, as demanded by certain narrative moments. They typically revert to their bad behavior in their next appearance.

Judy and Val, from Stanley's 13 Going On 18, cycle through the roles of VOR, TT and TTO to one another. The tension of this series is largely achieved via the unpredictability of these characters. They are as likely to be vicious as kind, with no reliable pattern or anchor for their behavior.

Melvin Monster, as you may have noted, is both a VOR and a TT. He is both the lone voice of reason in the dark, anarchic environs of Monsterville and its most self-deluded resident.

Melvin refuses to accept the awful reality that surrounds him, and retreats into a false belief that he can actually make his world better via counter-intuitive behavior. There is something heartbreaking about Melvin's dilemma. He is neither hero or anti-hero; he's an abused child.

There are "hard" and "soft" TTOs. The sociopathic Mr. McOnion and the East Side Gang are examples of "hard" TTOs; The Little Men From Mars, Gloria and Officer Pupp are "soft" versions of this archetype. The latter are catalysts in raising stakes and getting VORs and TTs in trouble, but they generally lack true malice.

Stanley's characters, like mankind in general, are changeable, flexible and multi-faceted. Although I can pigeon-hole them into types and groups, they are inconsistent in their behavior. This keeps them constantly fresh and compelling to us. We think we've got their number; to a certain extent, we do. But they have surprises for us that prevent their becoming stale and mechanical.

From his first comic book story, the "Andy Panda" episode in New Funnies #79, Stanley establishes the comedic conflicts (and symbiotic relationships) of TTs and VORs. (You can read this first Stanley Story HERE.

Charlie Chicken, Stanley's first TT figure, is symbolically hatched by Andy, the author's premiere VOR. Andy's reason for hatching Charlie is to make money. He reads a magazine ad that promises: RAISE CHICKENS AND EARN BIG MONEY!

He is sent one egg, from which Charlie hatches. Charlie is, from birth, contrary and stubborn. He has a chip on his shoulder, with no clear reason for his discontent. He is more like the trouble-making animated cartoon characters of the early '40s. They didn't need motivation; they existed to complicate gentler lives.

Charlie, in this first story, is a crude character, compared to Stanley's subsequent TTs. Right out of the egg, he clearly views the world through his own eccentric lens.

Without Charlie, Andy is a neutered goody two-shoes type (much as he was in the Walter Lantz animated cartoons of the 1940s). Through the 50-odd "Andy Panda" stories Stanley wrote from 1943 to '48, we see the development of this yin-yang dynamic. Charlie becomes less bombastic and more the true TT. He does things in a way that make perfect sense to him; he can't understand why Andy is so often flustered and challenged by his decisions--which are, to him, perfectly balanced and rational.

The Andy-Charlie relationship is at its most sublime and compelling in New Funnies #121 (March, 1947 issue). This story depicts the symbiotic link of need that sparks Stanley's TT and VOR dyads.

It's not a stretch to imagine this as a Little Lulu story. Although Tubby and Lulu lack the more adult abilities of Andy and Charlie, the story's stake-raising events occur because the TT--Charlie--can't overcome his OCD-fueled need to collect things.

The VOR--Andy--in a vain attempt to keep life calm, indulges Charlie and tries to encourage and guide him. He just digs them both into a ever-deepening hole.

This story shows John Stanley's growing sophistication as a writer. By 1947, he was able to explore subtle relationship dynamics, while delivering engaging mainstream material. This skill would be honed to apotheosis in the monthly Little Lulu magazine, which debuted a few months after the publication of this Andy Panda story.

In this story, Charlie is led by his biases to do illegal, anti-social things. His actions wear at Andy's everyman civility. Charlie takes his biases too far, and Andy, despite his disapproval, is inducted into helping his TT friend.

The sequence in which they drive by night, along a perilous, muddy road, and are stopped by a police officer, is a sort of comic-book Hitchcock moment. Stanley expertly plays on the fear and tension of the situation.

As the reader, we are put in the VOR seat in Stanley's work. We prefer rationality and caution in our everyday lives. Thus, we identify with Andy, Lulu and Stanley's other VOR figures.

But a part of us also wishes we could be the TT character. We get fulfillment from seeing these anarchic, self-driven Don Quixotes get themselves deeper and deeper into chaos, simply because they won't say "Uncle" to the contrary whims of the world around them.

By placing Andy in peril, as Charlie's accomplice, Stanley twists the knife of the unexpected into the reader. This is a unique experience in the "funny animal" genre of the 1940s. It plays on both our primal, childhood-based fears, and, as adults, on our distaste for anti-social behavior.

Little Lulu works on this dual basis, too. Children read it and have one experience; adults find other levels of reaction and understanding. In its day, Lulu was read by kids and grown-ups alike. This may explain its demographic-breaking all-ages appeal.

Back to today's story: In one beautiful karmic stroke, while Andy helps Charlie replace the stolen cannon, it goes off. The red-hot cannonball smashes through the roof and floor of his home.

Because of this, Charlie receives his only punishment--a burned hand from his child-like attempt to touch the still-glowing cannonball.

Andy keeps his cool, but he realizes that he has failed as Charlie's Voice Of Reason. He goes to the bank and buys a new sack of pennies. Better to keep his unpredictable companion occupied with OCD-enriched counting pleasures than to risk another flight of destructive fancy!


Carl Barks was the other major Dell creator who approached Stanley's depth of character. His Donald is a fascinatingly flawed, beautifully realized being. Like Stanley's adaptations of licensed figures, Barks' Donald is superior to his official motion-picture counterpart.

Yet Barks chose to ping-pong Donald around Stanley's triad of archetypes. Ditto for his use of the identical nephews, Huey. Dewey and Louie. These characters could be righteously rational one month, and endangeringly anarchic the next.

It's a different approach to similar disciplines. Barks and Stanley produced consistently intelligent, interesting work that rewards its readers. Both creators trafficked in the thrilling collision of dark and light.

Yet their work has little overlap. Each man had a different vision for where comics could go. Both were given a quarter of a century to explore their byways via mass-produced, popular and successful mainstream comic magazines.

I have come to prefer John Stanley to Carl Barks, as both a creator and a story-teller. Stanley's work and his world-view have become more profound to me, as both it and I have aged. Barks, as much as I like and respect his work, has not.

End of sidebar. Thank you for your kind indulgence as I think out loud.

Next time I get the bug to write one of these essays, I think I'll explore the nature of Stanley's TTO characters. I'm genuinely struck by how many there are, and how varied their characters and motivations seem to me.


Gabriel said...

Just amazing, Frank!
I could drop here a huge list of epithets to describe this gasping write, but I'll save you the trouble :) As far as I'm concerned, this represents a real lesson for me!
Just I like to thank you deeply your efforts and insightful analysis on Stanley's works from you began to do this site to date.
Hope this "John Stanley's World" comes to light someday in a printed format to our exultation!
Thanks a bunch, Frank!

Paul Tumey said...

Yow! This was an awfully good essay. I, for one, vote for more like this! As someone who is also analyzing a comic master's works piece by piece, I think it naturally yields to broader understanding of their work, as you so clearly help us to see in this insightful work. Bravo!

Rollo said...

Thank you for a fascinating read. I have fond memories of a childhood partly spent lying around on the floor with my friends reading comics. Even as a kid I knew Little Lulu had better stories.

Duffs said...

That was great, Frank! Your analysis is so good and so informed--it's opened up Stanley's work to me even more. This HAS to be a book!