Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This One's For Trade & Son: Deceipt, One-Upmanship Causes Multiple Treks Thru' Rain; Kiddie Power-Play Inducts 2 Adults [Little Lulu #24, 1950]

Here at "Stanley Stories," we take requests. Not many folks have stepped up to the mike and asked for a particular story, so it's always a delight to get a nice note from our readership, with a query about a certain story.

Today's story is a special request by the talented cartoonist and story-teller Trade Loeffler, author of the web-comic Zip and Li'l Bit, which you can peruse by clicking HERE.

Trade also has a book coming out early in 2010 for RAW Junior's TOON Books imprint. We wish him all the success in the world--and in the comix world, extra wishes can't hurt!

Trade and son asked to see a classic "Little Lulu" story. I tend to shy away from Lulu stories that are currently in-print, via Dark Horse's trade paperback reprint series.

However, those stories from Stanley's classic late 1940s-mid '50s period, are not printed in color. Most newer readers of Little Lulu have never, and will never, see them as they were originally intended and as published.

As well, this story is peak Stanley work--a brilliant set-up, in which a single, innocent action is repeated, building in tension and humor with each reiteration, and through the richly developed personae of Stanley's "Lulu" cast.

It is, indeed, a rainy day here in Seattle--windy and cold, too. I'm feeling on the verge of illness. I've tried to work today, but have not gotten far. I think now is the perfect time for us all to enjoy a "Rainy Day."

It's mind-boggling to consider the consistent, almost dogged brilliance of John Stanley's Little Lulu. Issue after issue, one great story follows another. Rarely does the writing seem forced or compromised. Lulu seems effortless on its author's behalf.

It's easy to take such reliable, high-quality work for granted. But this body of comix deserves to be regularly recognized for its intelligence, creativity, and integrity.

These aren't just funny stories about comical characters. John Stanley added so much emotional and distinct shading to his work on Lulu.

He certainly didn't have to go to all this trouble. Little Lulu was, very likely, seen by Western/Dell as "good clean fun for the kiddies"--a popular licensed property that would attract readership on its reputation alone.

Certainly, many of Dell's other licensed-character comix were run-of-the-mill, at best. Look beyond Stanley, Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, Gaylord DuBois and a few other inspired creators, and Dell's output is, largely, lifeless tripe.

John Stanley seemed to really enjoy writing Little Lulu. He had given so much of an inner core to its characters--little more than stick-figures in Marge Buell's original magazine cartoons.

It's apt that Lulu was a shill for Kleenex tissues for many years. Her media, outside of the Stanley comix and a few of the early Famous Studios animated adaptations, are like tissue--simple, soft, and prone to collapse under scrutiny.

Like Barks' rethink of the Disney ducks, Stanley's Little Lulu adaptation brought rich character motivation and personality quirks to former stick-figures.

"Rainy Day" is a prime piece of sitcom, Stanley style. What makes this story funny is NOT just the motif of Lulu and Tubby missing each other as they trod, back and forth, in the rain to each others' homes.

It's the war of wills between stubborn Lulu and ego-maniac Tubby--archetypical yin and yang characters, who both need one another and repel one another, like identically charged magnets--that helps this simple scenario build to a delightful crescendo.

Lulu and Tubby's duelling determination to manipulate one another into doing things their way soon sucks in their mothers, who join the ping-pong match to and fro, from the Moppet residence to the Tompkins'.

For once, Lulu is also inducted into Tubby's mindset. Sensing that Tub is fibbing about his >sniffle< cold, she fakes a considerably less convincing illness. Beautifully, as the inexorable story-wheel turns, Tub forgets that Lulu was an obvious faker--he buys into the exact style of deception he deals.

Finally, the kids' mothers worry, understandably, that their kids might be catching a cold from all those trips through the rain. Lulu and Tubby end up having sort-of fun when they realize the extent to which their mothers have been drawn into this deceptive scheme.

Typical of his peak-period work, Stanley ends the story on a double-edged kicker: the skies clear up, and Lulu and Tubby decide to initiate a new wave of back-and-forth. We don't see them leave, and we don't need to. It's just the thought that they've learned nothing from their recent experiences that gives "Rainy Day" its boffo closure.

Trade and son, I hope you enjoyed reading this fine story in full color. Ditto to all you other fine Stanley Stories followers!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Is This Stanley's Work? "Frosty the Snowman," Four-Color 359, 1951

JOYVILLE, a great blog by the very talented Gabriel Corbera, has just posted what appears to be a "Frosty the Snowman" story that appears to be by John Stanley.

What do you think? It has many Stanley-ian "tells." It could have been written by Frank Thomas, a journeyman cartoonist/writer who seemingly modeled himself after Stanley's example in the 1940s.

The general darkness of the story points it in Stanley's direction. As ever, I welcome your input. Some of these "Is This Stanley's Work" pieces are really tough calls.

Be sure to peruse Gabriel's delightful site... there are hours of great links and postings in Joyville!

PS; Apologies for the formerly confusing headline... those are the risks of the auto-complete function in Blogger!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Our 100th Post: Sarcastic Mice [One Diapered] Foil, Annoy Supercilious, Self-Impressed Feline; Cream Pitcher Shattered, Stereotyped Maid Vexed (1943)

Well, friends, fans, followers, here it is--the star-studded, gala-enriched 100th post of Stanley Stories!

Whoa--hold that deafening applause just a sec! Wow, you guys are loud! Thank you, thank you, thank you...

While not all the 100 posts on this blog are "real" posts (some are political endorsements, some are citations of Stanley-related posts on others' blogs, some are self-promotion, and promos of outstanding print and media products), there are well over 100 complete stories by John Stanley, available for all the world to enjoy, on this blog.

Here's a new discovery (as of yesterday), and one of Stanley's earliest comix efforts--an untitled "Tom and Jerry" story from Our Gang Comics #5, May-June 1943. Our hero had just entered the world of comic book writing this year.

Stanley's earliest stories have elements of his later work. At this stage, each new story was a laboratory for their author to experiment with timing, onomatopoeia, character motivation and dramatic stakes. They seldom achieve the casual sophistication we see in his classic period (1948-1956). As with Barks' early work, Stanley's first stories are so much better than most of their contemporaries that it's easy to forgive their small faults.

With the "Tom and Jerry" series, Stanley had his first taste of writing with an ensemble cast. This was a fine set-up for on-the-job learning. Stanley had much to choose from: the dynamic between Jerry Mouse and his diaper-clad cousin Tuffy; the dynamic of each mouse with the proto-Tubby character of Tom Cat (who swims in a sea of cognitive biases, in classic Stanley manner); the relationship of Tom with the stereotyped Afro-American maid, Dinah; and, most importantly, the uncertain relationship of the two mice and the giant, unknown world that expands around them beyond the horizon of their consciousness.

Stanley would hone this multi-level relational comedy to perfection in his long run on Little Lulu [1945-59]. In these simple, straightforward cat and mouse stories, that skill was first developed and worked out.

I make no claims that this is a great story. It is energetic, funny, and leavened with some surprising, wild details. Read 'n' enjoy; then we'll talk.

Standard predator and prey antics are common material for the funny-animal genre. This may be the first such series to invest its characters with some semblance of personality flaws, skewered world-views, and a margin of believability. Stanley's reinvention of the MGM cartoon series is so much better than the largely witless, barbaric Hanna-Barbera animated version.

This was Stanley's standard MO when given licensed properties: pick out the crap (roughly 87% of the original version) and hone in on the remaining 13%; bring those elements to the fore-front, elaborate on them, and, in the end, create a secondary version that outshines the original.

Stanley did this with the Walter Lantz characters, with Famous Studios would-be stars, with MGM characters and, according to his own claims, with Warner Brothers' already A-OK Bugs Bunny, in two Four Color 1943/4 one-shots. (I do not believe Stanley really wrote the two Bugs Bunny FCs he claimed in his resume-- issues 33 and 51. There are no Stanley "tells" in them whatsoever; they appear to be the product of Dell's California offices, which routinely handled the Warner Brothers licensing.)

Some early Stanley "tells" are evident here: sound effects in word balloons, phonetic spelling of words, and un-punctuated dialogue.

Early in his comix career, Stanley trafficked in racial humor and stereotyped images--as did his peer and friend Walt Kelly. After that final "Li'l Eight Ball" story (which ran here a post or two ago), I don't recall any further Stanley uses of Afro-American characters. In fact, I believe they are completely absent from his post-1947 comix work.

That is a facet of the current popularity of Little Lulu, via those Dark Horse reprint books. There's nothing that un-PC about the stories. (Well, there are the parent-to-child spankings, but I'm sure there are still some parents whose parenting procedure involves this barbaric ritual...)

Carl Barks, who only seldom trod into un-PC territory, has had all the "objectionable material" deleted from his work by those history-revisionists extraordinaire, The Disney Corporation. His handful of stories with Afro-American characters were usually set in Africa, or the Middle East.

(The same fate has met some of his stories with Native American characters, which are much more plentiful. For a truly repugnant reading experience, try the 1980s Gladstone emasculation of his 1950 gem "Land of the Totem Poles." Disney censors rewrote the NA dialogue to read like all parts were played by Ronald Colman and C. Aubrey Smith. It's an object-lesson in how to completely destroy comedy via tampering.)

All this said, Stanley did the best he could with what was required of him. Dinah, in this story, is an active figure in the narrative. She doesn't just have things happen to her; she takes part in what's going on, and affects the outcome of the narrative.

That still doesn't make the visual treatment of Dinah any less upsetting. Oddly, the MGM cartoons chose to [almost] never show the maid's face. As with the parents in Sheldon Mayer's later Sugar and Spike episodes, she's seen only from the mid-torso down.

My guess: that Stanley rightfully realized this would seem weird on the printed page. To make the character a congruent part of the narrative, her face--and facial reactions--needed to be seen by the reader.

He could have done far, far worse--examine the "Tom & Jerry" stories by the anonymous, primitive artist who succeeded him for proof of how wrong this could go.

By far, the finest moments in this story occur when Stanley goes out of his way to stop the action, for the sole purpose of giving the characters added dimension. E.G., this lyrical moment in which Tom Cat rhapsodizes about his favorite high-lipid liquid:

Ditto this TMI moment, in which Tuffy retrieves an essential personal belonging:

Stanley achieves comedy brilliance here. Not only for the info that the garment is Tuffy's "next best didie," but that, in flight from the pee-oh'd feline, he tries to put the diaper back on.

Just bringing to our attention the fact that:

1) a cartoon mouse, clearly able to control his own BMs by now, would long to wear a diaper, in the first place
2) that said mouse owns several different pairs of diapers;
3) that said mouse has his didies ranked, according to a personal code of quality;
4) that his first impulse, even in a life-threatening moment, is to put his diaper on

John Stanley goes far, far beyond the call of duty, in the midst of an alleged "kiddie" comix story.

Moments such as this, in which we get a strong glimpse of an actual inner life and personality on the part of two-dimensional comix characters, distinguishes Stanley's work from even its earliest moments.

There is no good reason, in the traditions of the comic book industry, for precious panels to be squandered on such details. By doing so, Stanley raised the bar on comix writing and mass-media comedy. This is why Little Lulu was a major success as a comic magazine--and one read by adults and children alike.

Without these little details--the loving depiction of quirks, tics and personal biases--Stanley's characters would be just like the majority of witless, soul-less funnybook figures.

We can still learn a great deal, even from John Stanley's earliest efforts.

Well, here's hoping for 100 more posts... see you soon!

Monday, September 14, 2009

SS Press: Guest Post on CARTOON SNAP!

I sometimes write about cartoonists other than John Stanley!

Click HERE for the first of a three-part guest post on Sherm Cohen's CARTOON SNAP! blog on Jimmy Thompson's super-cool ROBOTMAN comix of the 1940s.

Check out the other posts on Sherm's blog... it's an interesting and impressive array of stuff!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Volatile, Addled Woodpecker Seeks Chinese Food; Is Rewarded With Temp Work; Attempts Bank Take-Over; Ends Up In Ashcan (New Funnies 101, 1945)

While I had my brittle issue of New Funnies #101 in the scanner, I decided it was high time to preserve the Woody Woodpecker story in that issue. I hope you've recovered, emotionally, from the Li'l Eight Ball piece I last posted.

Today's story was the one that hepped me, back in 1982, to a distinctive quality that I would come to attribute to John Stanley. I'd started collecting New Funnies because it was the only Dell anthology comic of the period that was then valueless. These prime Stanley-driven issues could be purchased for a buck or two, while contemporary issues of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, Our Gang, Animal, et al, went for 20, 30, or 40 bucks.

Cheapness drove me to New Funnies as a comics-starved college student. But I quickly discovered that a great mind was at work within its pages.

Though fellow writers Frank Thomas and Gaylord Dubois penned similar stories for New Funnies, neither person captured the same droll, dry quality, nor the cramped urban settings that I associate with John Stanley's efforts on the title. Before I became familiar with Little Lulu, New Funnies served as my introduction to his comix work.

Most importantly, Stanley gave his characters a rich selection of what behavioral science calls "cognitive biases"-- fractured logic-systems, created by the mosaic of good and bad experiences we all face in our lives.

H E R E is a list of cognitive biases. This guide is a handy supplement to your enjoyment of Stanley Stories. John Stanley didn't have this list, but he was a student of cognitive biases. They inform the personality and choice-making of all his characters.

The Stanley ur-character is Tubby Tompkins, who embodies nearly every bias on this Wikipedia list. I've discussed the qualities of the central Stanley anti-hero protagonist elsewhere in this blog. Just scan this list and you'll recognize major aspects of the Tubby-type.

Before Tubby became Stanley's primary flawed hero, Woody Woodpecker was the author's major cognitive bias figure.

Woody, in a much-improved variant of his '40s animated cartoon persona, is a fringe-dweller in a rough, heartless urban world.

He drifts from place to place--nothing steady under his feet except the pavement. Like the screen Woody, he's an impulsive being,easily seduced by whims, wherever they lead him. Unlike the movie Woodpecker, he lacks malice, unless sufficiently provoked by a genuine nemesis.

He's content to wander through the world--sometimes as an adult, sometimes as a schoolboy. Most often, as in this story, Woody is a man-child--completely out of step with the cares and goals of the bustling, anxious world around him.

In this story, simply by following his assumptions, and believing in them, Woody goes places and does things--but ends up where he started. Well, read it and see for yourself...

This is a beautifully constructed story, full of status shifts and neurotic human behavior. I pity poor Plunkett, the harried employment agency owner, with his passive-aggressive outbursts, and his sad mantra, "I got enough troubles!"

Woody's free-associative, innocent actions in this story remind me of Bill Griffith's 1970s Zippy the Pinhead pieces. In those stories Zippy beatifically wandered in and out of other people's angst-ridden struggles, was endowed with authority, wreaked havoc without an effort, and exited, stage right, no worse for the wear.

Woody hasn't Zippy's skill at spinning non-sequiturs and Spoonerisms. He is quite good at misinterpreting others' verbal signals, making rapid assumptions, and changing course, based on those wrong guesses.

Via Woody, Tubby, Loo and other anti-social characters, Stanley indulged in anarchic behavior on the printed page. I love the sequence of Woody opening the bank vault with a match-stick, then rifling through piles of large bills, in search of 15 cents, which he ultimately borrows from the errand boy!

The idea of wealth is meaningless to Woody. Getting pocket change for lunch at a Chinese restaurant is what he really wants out of life.

Status is king in Stanley's world, and via Plunkett's misinterpreted endowment, Woody assumes the role of a bank manager. Without question, he's accepted by the other bank employees. Were he capable of remembering where he was, and staying with his impulses, Woody could probably remain the bank's president, and retire a wealthy woodpecker.

Personal note; I wish real-life employment agencies were as active as the Placem outfit in this story! Seattle's temp agencies just ain't hiring these days. Where are the real-life Plunketts when a feller needs 'em?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Li'l Eight-Ball Endures Trauma of Pet Rejection; Encounters Nightmare Apparition In Deep Woods; Mammy Revives Stereotyped Tot (New Funnies 101)

Hi all...

While we're still in Li'l Eight Ball mode, here is Stanley's greatest, creepiest story of that series. Probably the only Li'l Eight Ball story--or commercial entity--that can be referred to as great in any way.

I ran this story, years back, on the primitive, original Stanley Stories website. It deserves a revival. I believe that Professor Thomas Andrae refers to this story in his new book, Creators of Humor in Comic Books. Dr. Andrae consulted with me during the writing of this book. I contributed some research and text to it. I don't know what work of mine survives in the published volume.

If you're reading this, Thomas, please drop me a line. I'd like to know how you are!

More info on the book H E R E.

Now onto today's story. This appeared in a late WWII issue of New Funnies, in the depths of paper rationing. Most comix published from 1944-6 suffer from low-grade pulp paper, highly susceptible to browning, brittling and foxing.

Dell's in-house printing quality was never worse than in these years. The size of their comics unreliably wavered between 52 and 36 pp., depending on the paper allotments, I'd guess.

This is from one of the 36 page issues. Stories were reformatted to run on less pages. Same thing happened to Carl Barks' work, and to other Dell creators.

This is really a Halloween-type story, but since I ran another Stanley Eight-Ball, now's the time to give this deeply disturbing piece another day in the sun...

I've mentioned before a certain parallel in Stanley's work and writer Roald Dahl's. That dichotomy seems quite strong in this brutal, trauma-ridden story.

Both authors never flinched at the chance to depict the dark side of childhood, and of growing up. Indeed, the antics with the
"Headless Horseman's stableboy," as that nightmarish silhouette tags himself, pales next to these two panels of Li'l Eight-Ball, deep in the vast woods, crying because he's been ordered to rid himself of a lovable pet cat by his irascible, mood-swinging Mammy:

I don't believe this is intended as comical. To devote an entire tier of precious space to this pitiful, private moment of grief is rare and jarring indeed. A moment such as this removes the regrettable racist trappings from this character and reveals him to be, for the blink of an eye, a sympathetic, relatable, deeply human creation.

Today seems a most apt day to appreciate the effects of trauma. 'Nuff said.

Of course, comix history contains a jillion such scenes, of disappointed, scared or discouraged kids bawling, usually over something trivial. I don't want to make too much of this moment, except to note that it exists, and seems to me more disturbing than the life-threatening actions that follow it.

The exchanges between Eight-Ball and the headless dude have a vaudevillian ring to them; they feel like Stanley trying to approximate the cadences of his friend and colleague, Walt Kelly. Perhaps it's the Deep South dialect, but their dialogue has a certain Pogo-esque feel. It isn't hard to imagine Albert the Alligator as the Headless Horseman's stable-boy, and Pogo in the Eight-Ball role.

The story's happy ending doesn't chase away the genuine feeling of trauma evoked in its earlier pages. Were I Eight-Ball, I'd have a hard time trusting Mammy again, and would likely find myself in the therapy process in adulthood.

Ever one to end stories on off-note zingers, Stanley punctuates the fragile stability of the ending with the cat's de-punctuated MROUR

Coming next: a brilliant "Woody Woodpecker" story from the same battered, browned issue of New Funnies!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Is This Stanley's Work? The Last of "Li'l Eight-Ball," New Funnies 126, 1947; Edenic Subway Trek Proves Living Nightmare

I've written about the controversial Li'l Eight-Ball on the defunct prior incarnations of this blog/site. His presence in the New Funnies anthology, home of many Stanley stories from 1943 to '48, has caused many PC Police alarms to be set off in recent years.

The 1940s witnessed a resurrection of Afro-American stereotypes in American pop-culture. They'd not exactly disappeared, but they assumed a higher, brassier profile, especially during the war years.

This may have been a side-effect of the highly visible Afro-American presence among US troops during World War II. I'm certain books have been written on this issue, and I don't pretend to be a social anthropologist.

Still, one wonders why there was such a strong resurgence in offensive anti-AA imagery in the 1940s. It continued after the war (in fact, it reached a horrifying peak in Tex Avery's 1948 MGM cartoon, Half-Pint Pygmy, a structurally brilliant effort horribly marred by its mis-use of a black character.)

Li'l Eight-Ball was a creation of the late 1930s. He first appeared in the Walter Lantz Cartune A-Haunting We Will Go, directed by ex-Disney nutjob Burt Gillett and feautring uncredited vocals by Mel Blanc.

This cartoon can be seen on Universal's second Woody Woodpecker and Friends DVD collection. Stereotypes aside, it's a charming, rather wild-spirited cartoon.

Eight-Ball fizzled out, as did Oswald Rabbit and Homer Pigeon, as a bona-fide screen star. As comic-book properties, all three had a long-lived berth in New Funnies.

The story presented today, which may or may not be Stanley's work, was Li'l Eight-Ball's final comic book appearance.

Stanley sporadically wrote the "Eight-Ball" feature. His most memorable entry, which I plan to re-scan and re-post here soon, was in NF 101--a nightmarish, Roald Dahl-esque fantasia filled with traumatic images and events.

This final story has ample creativity, nightmare imagery, and fourth-wall breaking to suggest John Stanley wrote it. Something in its overall flow doesn't feel right to me. Thus, I ask, in all sincerity: whadda you think? Stanley? Not Stanley?

Eight-Ball's hush-mah-mouf dialect is absent from this story, which has the intense urban atmosphere typical of Stanley's work. Most of Eight-Ball's comix stories take place in a pokey rural environment.

The story is a pointed satire of mass transit--an almost Kurtzman-esque series of expectation-reversals. This story might have been the daydream of many a post-war New York commuter--kind treatment by transit staff, comfortable seating, coddling and endless freebies. That is, until events take a turn for the worse.

Before darkness falls, amidst the humorous switcheroos on the commuter experience, one gentle self-referential moment pointedly reminds us we're reading a funny-book: in fact, the very issue that the addled news-dealer offers to Eight-Ball:

Here's the cover of this issue:

This business seems too clever for a staff writer, or another free-lancer. It smacks of an "inside job"--akin to the Woody Woodpecker story posted HERE, from the previous issue of New Funnies, which has caricatures of Oskar Lebeck's staff, including John Stanley.

Eight-Ball's exit from the Comfy Transit System, and his engulfment in the dark bowels of the RIP (Rapid Inter-Urban Perambulation?), offers a striking prediction of the techniques of EC artist Bernard Krigstein. As well, this sequence contains Stanley's trademark "floating eyes in blackness" and sinister "Heh! Heh! Heh!" motif:

Enough Stanley tics appear in this story to convince me it's his work. As we've seen with other stories, his work varies in quality and impact, possibly due to editorial input. This may be another instance of Stanley's work being revised by another hand.

If this isn't Stanley, it's a decent imitation. Stories such as this one remain puzzles to me. As said, I'm almost convinced--at least 88.8% certain this is John Stanley's work.

As poor Eight-Ball's adieu to the printed page--possibly his final appearance in American mass media 'til the DVD revival in 2007--this story is a remarkable end to an unremarkable career.

PS: For a fascinating complement to this post, please visit Michael Barrier's blog for T H I S follow-up piece. It answers some of the questions I ponder here, and offers Mr. Barrier's smart and savvy thoughts on the matter.