Friday, June 26, 2009

A Nightmarish SF Epic, Starring Andy 'n' Charlie: The Mighty Mites, "Four Color" #198, 1948

Remember "The Secret Six," the intense, ultra-dark Oswald Rabbit story from 1945? (It was posted here last year--well worth the effort to locate, if you've got the time.)

Here is its twin--one of John Stanley's final "Four Color" books featuring the Walter Lantz characters. "The Mighty Mites," from late 1948, is devoid of all but the darkest, dryest black humor.

Loaded with Stanley "tells"--floating eyes in blackness, morbid themes (including a jaw-droppingly grim finale, made all the darker for its casual, conversational delivery), ZAZzes galore, windmill action, SFX in speech balloons--"Mighty Mites" may qualify as the darkest Stanley Story of the 1940s.

Grim as "The Secret Six" is, it's leavened with light comedy, and trades on the sexual ambiguity of Oswald Rabbit and his domestic partner, Toby Bear.

Fellow dompars Andy Panda and Charlie Chicken have no time for comedy in this breathless, EC-like intense story of a mad scientist, living alone in a rambling house out in the middle of nowhere.

It starts on a dark and stormy night... well, take 15 minutes and just read this thing. Then we'll talk...

Morgan is one hell of a disturbing villain. He has no motivation for his actions. Sure, one of his victims mentions that Morgan wants to be "king of the world," but his scheme of shrinking every being on the planet to "four inches--or SMALLER!" would take several lifetimes. There would have to be chartered busses bringing large groups of people around the clock, for years and years, for Morgan to attain his dark goal.

What chain of events led him to (a) develop the shrink-ray and (b) lure unsuspecting chumps into his remote forest home, whereupon he (c) shrinks them and collects them in bird cages while (d) actually believing he can rule the entire world?

In the best tradition of sociopathy, Morgan's outward persona is bland, ineffectual and even cordial. Although everything about his homestead screams WARNING! PSYCHOTIC LOSER! AM-SCRAY!, etc., his apparent affable, cheery facade disarms his victims.

This isn't the first time Stanley has invested the villain of a story with more interest than its alleged heroes. In this case, bland, low-key Andy and Charlie are, initially, evenly matched in the vanilla personality of Morgan.

A repeated nightmare image in Stanley's work involves a commonplace item--a bed, a house--sinking into the ground. (Check out the first story I ever posted here, "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel," from Tubby #7, for another vivid rendition of this theme.)

Morgan's house, filled with retracting panels, secret passages, and even a light rail line, is clearly a labor of insane love. One can imagine the years it took this guy to design and build this nightmare castle out in the sticks.

A stronger pair of protagonists might upstage a bad guy like Morgan. It is to this story's benefit that panda and chicken are so lackluster and ordinary. As the evident madness of Morgan's world slowly dawns on our heroes, a deeply disturbing facet of Morgan surfaces.

It isn't just that he traps people and shrinks and collects them--he takes out his rage on them. "He'll TORTURE us--he always does when he's angry," as one of Morgan's early victims exclaims, after Andy and Charlie shoot him in the big toe with his own gun.

Just enough is said to fill the reader's mind with the many sessions of torment the little people have endured before the time-frame of this story. Brrr!

"The Mighty Mites," from its misleading title onward, lacks many specific details. An obvious twin to this story is Carl Barks' "The Terror of the River," from 1946. Barks' story also has a sociopathic villain with elaborate equipment, for the express goal of scaring the daylights out of people.

Barks' story is full of down-to-earth anecdotes and experiences--of life on a riverboat, of the atmosphere of the water and the night, and of the foibles of funny-animal "humanity."

Stanley, by not crossing Ts or dotting Is, creates an inescapable, relentless state of nightmare in "The Mighty Mites." Nothing has much meaning--as in a bad dream, events just happen, and the protagonist bobbles in the wake of these random actions.

As is proper in the mad-scientist genre, the creator's evil creation proves his own undoing. And, in time-tested heroic fashion, Andy risks all to run back in the collapsing, flaming Morgan residence to rescue the villain, now reduced to canary size.

In the confusion, Morgan is lost. This leads Charlie to comment, in a masterpiece of understatement, "it's like looking for a lost golf ball."

Andy and Charlie only discover Morgan's fate via the afternoon newspaper: "Shortly afterwards, a neighbor reports finding his cat playing with a little suit of clothes and pair of shoes..."

Stanley lets his grimmest conclusions happen from afar. As with the fate of the evil industrialist in "The Secret Six," Morgan's death gains impact from its dispassionate depiction.

This is one way that Stanley routinely got away with stunningly grim finales. Since it's not visually depicted, and since only older, more literate readers could read the speech balloons and connect the dots, "The Mighty Mites" is, technically, still wholesome reading matter for the kiddies.

I admire Stanley's canny ability to work the system to his own benefit. "The Mighty Mites" packs as much horror and weirdness as a year's run of Tales From The Crypt--only it's executed with an adroitness and matter-of-factness the EC comix never achieved.

I hope this story properly rattled your cage. I am sorry that Stanley stopped writing these "Four Color" adventures. The combination of his imagination and the bland licensed characters, in stories such as this, are devastating.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"What a Caricature He Is!"--John Stanley at the Fleischer Studios, 1935

This grade-A scoop arrives courtesy of award-winning animator Bob Jacques, whose Popeye Animator ID blog [see HERE] is an invaluable piece of animation research and history.

I believe that Stanley mentioned his employment at the Max Fleischer animation studios in New York City in the mid-1930s. Well, here's visible proof of his presence, from an issue of Fleischer's Animated News [Vol. 1 #6, May 1935].

Those of us with access to Another Rainbow's flawed-but-beloved Little Lulu Library will recall that some Stanley-drawn caricatures, from our man's high school yearbook, were reproduced.

The image below reminds me of the days, lo, some 30 years ago, when I discovered, in the musty bowels of Strozier Library, at Florida State University, a complete run of Fleischer's Animated News on microfilm.

I pored over those reels, but never took notes (hey, I was a teenager at the time!). I wonder if those microfilms are still there. If they've not degraded, I urge any Northern Florida-based Stanley Stories readers to go into the library's basement and request those three or four boxes of reels.

This is very likely reproduced from microfilm. Fleischer's Animated News was hectographed, and I'm guessing that the artists who did the illustrations drew their stuff directly on the hectograph masters.

Here we see Stanley take some good-natured pot shots at Fleischer colleagues Dave Tendlar (spelled "Tendler" here for reasons unknown), Tom Johnson, Frank Paiker, and a guy named Hastings, whose first name escapes me...

These are great caricatures. I especially like Tom Johnson's, which looks like a sinister type, as envisioned by Gluyas Williams.

Tendlar and Johnson stayed with the studio for decades, long after Fleischer became Famous Studios, and ushered in an era of baroque violence and cartoons that, in their own way, are every bit as bizarre and unsettling as the pre-Code output of the Fleischer concern.

I would wager that there are more John Stanley pieces in other issues of FAN. Were that I was not thousands of miles (and, metaphorically, thousands of years) from dear old Tallahassee, I'd be the first in line to hunch over the microfilm viewer, in the air-conditioned darkness, and pore over this faskinatin' publication.

As said: any FSU readers of this blog? If so, care to make a research trip to Strozier Library? Drop me a line--let's talk!

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.