Monday, August 9, 2010

The Last of Little Lulu, pt. 3: selections from #134, 1959

Here is the third part of our extended look at the last four issues of John Stanley's Little Lulu.

Issue 134 is the first to contain non-Stanley material. It is the second piece in the book. It comes after one of Stanley's more typical late pieces, "The Star Gazers." This story is as talky as some of his Nancy material.

Talk is cheap, but Stanley enjoyed creating a kind of screwball chaos in his dialogue. A lover of convoluted crowd scenes, Stanley also sought to cram his comics panels with a Babel of balloons.

Stanley was a kind of Lubitsch of the comics. Like the director of such sublime movies as Trouble in Paradise and To Be or Not to Be, he had a good ear for dialogue. Lubitsch didn't write his own dialogue--he relied on writers such as Samson Raphaelson, Billy Wilder and Edwin J. Mayer. But, also like Stanley, he understood the cadences of dialogue, and how to present it with snap and flair.

Lubitsch had the benefit of movement and sound; Stanley had poorly printed ink on cheap woodpulp paper. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of its grandeur or humbleness. 

To start, here's the cover, drawn by Stanley...

"The Star Gazers" isn't about what its title might suggest. The story's only narrative stake is Pop's all-important visit to the Mayor. (What is it, exactly, that Mr. Moppet does for a living? He sometimes seems to be self-employed, as seen here. At times he works a night shift, and he's also heard to complain, vaguely, about "the office." I don't think his profession is ever clearly stated.)

The stake is rather low-key, by Stanley standards. This story really isn't about anything, except the kids acting out, and being kids. Thus, it harks back to the earliest Lulu stories, in which the kids are much more randomly kid-like. The personalities of Lulu, Annie and Alvin are set in stone here, but there's no concrete goal for them. The girls self-indulgently indulge wish on falling stars (no tangible payoff for them). Alvin has more of a case for action: he just wants to sleep.

"The Star Gazers" is a surprising anomaly from an author so fixated on narrative stakes. The characters are so surely defined, and likable, that this non-story still has great charm.

"The Case of the Missing Tickets" returns to the major Lulu formula I discussed last time. One important thing: Tubby doesn't bother with the "Spider" business here. He just sees an opportunity to perform a heroic duty, and be praised by his elders. Armed with that status fantasy, he wreaks havoc on the Moppet household, to the horror of its inhabitants.

"Missing Tickets" is richly Tubby-centric. As usual, his instincts are right, although his approach is too aggressive and insensitive for the world outside his enormous ego. The stakes are somewhat higher here, but the joy of the story is Tub's destruction of the Moppet household. Room by room, Tubby dashes everything into chaos. No stone is unturned. I love that he even examines the family financial records.

And, of course, there is the priceless moment on p. 5, where he passes the fridge and succumbs to its siren song. By this time, Stanley's comedy begins to strongly resemble that of Nat Hiken, the creator of Sgt. Bilko and Car 54, Where Are You? Hiken was a sort of rugged genius of situation comedy. He was hep to Stanley's credo that comedy is built from the characters up.

As well, Hiken understood timing, and the chain reaction of events that lead to humorous fission. I've recently been watching the 1955 season of Sgt. Bilko, and I'm struck by the comedic kinship of Stanley and Hiken's approaches.

This sensibility greatly informs Stanley's post-Lulu works, especially Dunc 'n' Loo, which Hiken could have filmed as a live-action sitcom.

More curious synchronicity occurs in this issue's fairy-tale, "Little Itch and the ANIMAL CRACKERS" (Stanley's capitalization, not mine.)

Around this time, veteran comic-book creator Dick Briefer worked up a sample sequence for a proposed daily newspaper strip. It featured his darkly comic re-imagining of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster, which had a successful run in 1940s and '50s comic books.

The story arc of these sample Frankenstein strips involves an ill-tempered magician who turns the gentle monster's best friends and associates into cookies. This fiend also urges Franky to eat his baked goods-cum-chums. He uses the exact phrases Li'l Itch speaks here, on the fifth and sixth pages of "ANIMAL CRACKERS," plus some equally amusing variants.

Many years ago, I bought a set of high-quality photocopies of the sample Briefer strips from an eBay seller. I know they must be around somewhere, but it's been years since I last saw them. I could not find any examples of the sequence on-line. I'm going on memory, but this is still a striking coincidence.

UPDATE, 10/20/2010: The blog Mippyville posted the original version of this story, from issue 4 of Dick Briefer's 1946 Frankenstein comic book series. Briefer re-purposed this story for his sample daily comic strip sequence. The similarity of the two stories is striking. Did Stanley lift the idea from Briefer--or had he read this story, back in the '40s, and tucked it away in his sub-conscious?

Every Little Lulu drew its curtains on a solo "Tubby" story. This issue's example has a name more like as the title of an Edward Hopper painting than a comic book story--"Crowded Beach."

By its title, "Crowded Beach," the finest story of this next-to-last issue, suggests its creator's love of crowd scenes. Throughout Little Lulu, John Stanley devised many stories that use a mob of people. Stanley's crowds are typically reserved for story finales, where the mass witness of an embarrassing event amps up the humor.

Artist Irving Tripp was up to the challenge. Stanley's doodled script may have indicated the volume of beachgoers in each frame, but Tripp takes the time to give them a variety of looks and body types. He also manages solid compositions with numerous visual elements--not an easy feat.

Here, the crowded sand is the playing field for the eternal unsolved love-hate relationship of Tubby, Wilbur and Gloria. It's love on Tub's part, and condescension and manipulation, at best, from the fair-haired upwardly mobile W and G.

Against the remarkably dense panels of its five pages, "Crowded Beach" plays out the tragicomic desperation of Tubby's hopeless crush on unattainable ice-goddess-in-the-making Gloria. We see Tubby at his most emotional--his tantrum on pages 2 and 3, which climaxes with the second panel of p.3.

Yet, like Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko, Tubby is a schemer. Even when his status crumbles, he still has his wits--and his massive ego--to bolster his spirits and keep him going.

"Crowded Beach" is Stanley at his best. No narrative element is wasted, or underplayed. The story arc fits the disparate elements into a satisfying whole--and allots its main character an unusually busy playing field, and audience, for his unorthodox, vibrant personality.

Just one more issue to go...


Kevin H said...

thanks for the posts as always

Myrrpage said...

Very interesting issue. Itch was invented by Hazel's half-witted, half brother Stanley? Who says Dell/Western didn't give proper credit to writers? Also noticed that this is the second issue in a row where ol' Tub tears up the Moppet house. Finally, what a great, classic LL cover.

Mark said...

The strips were adapted from early Frankie stories. I'll try to post the one you mentioned at Mippyville. I believe it's also available in _Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries_

Great post, by the way.