Saturday, September 25, 2010

Deadly-Serious Funnies: Andy Panda in "The Mad Dog Mystery" (Dell one-shot #85, 1945)

There was some interest in seeing this early long John Stanley narrative. By no means is this among Stanley's better work. It is a decent example of his storytelling skills, largely devoid of his characteristic comedy.

A couple of tics emerge throughout this deadly-serious story. One is the eccentric 1940s beardo who appears early in the story. He gives the story a false comedic start that's immediately replaced by a Fredric Brown/Dorothy Hughes-esque mystery, garnished with Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces.

Well, take 15 minutes and read it yourself. Then we'll talk...

There is a fair deal of incidental comedy throughout "The Mad Dog Mystery." I dare say that the phrase "I'd walk a skunk for ten bucks!" is the funniest comment I've encountered so far today.

A mild theme of wartime intrigue gives the narrative some decent stakes. Stanley almost never included topical references in his work. Whereas Walt Kelly and Carl Barks played up the America-at-war angle for maximum drama and laffs in their contemporary stories, John Stanley disengaged from the realities of the day.

Kelly, in particular, played up the fifth-column angle like mad in his "Our Gang" stories, which "The Mad Dog Mystery" rather resembles with its rambly plot and childish protagonists. Barks, as in his "Terror of the River" and "Ghost of the Grotto," would have made the bad guys much more sinister in appearance.

The sequence in the houseboat is particularly Barksian. Left to die in the sinking, scuttled houseboat, Andy Panda and Charlie Chicken stoically prepare to meet their maker. Sheer practical survival-thinking--and a poor plastering job--save the day. The cramped 12-panel grid of the wartime Dell comics adds to the tension and sense of inescapable threat that pervades this sequence--and the whole story.

Stanley often gives a lumpen ordinariness to his antagonists. The traitorous scientist (and member of Stanley's antiques-loving Evil Rich) Klinker is a frumpy, seemingly ineffectual fellow. He's distinguishable from the cops who burst in as an un-needed deus ex machina at story's end. Klinker is slighter, more composed and less earthy than the derbied dicks.

The theme of the Evil Rich was a constant throughout Stanley's comics writing. Here is where he and Carl Barks part ways with a vengeance. Scrooge McDuck is a frequent violator of human rights--a driven individual who will stop at nothing to increase his already-absurd level of wealth. He has almost no time for anything but money.

Stanley's wealthy are idle aesthetes who fiddle with antiques, paintings and other trappings of the good life. Their actual money is almost never seen--in contrast to Scrooge McDuck's iconic Money Bin, and its owner's orgasmic rolls-in-the-hay with his cash. Money is the fetish-object of Scrooge McD's life. The trappings of wealth are the end-goal of Stanley's Evil Rich.

In Stanley's world, it is preferable for the elite to admire their Van Goof canvases, esoteric upholsteries of the 16th century, statuary, rare coins, books and whatnot. This keeps them distracted from the genuine harm and suffering their money and power can cause other people.

"The Mad Dog Mystery," a sorta-sequel to "The Secret Six," Stanley's Oswald Rabbit thriller of the same year, suffers from the vagueness of Klinker's actions. We never learn exactly what Klinker does--or how it helps "the enemy."

There is that canister of carefully-labeled lethal gas--the agent of Klinker's undoing, and a rare moment when Stanley's work aligns with the crude doings of the super-hero comics genre. Comics' mad scientists always seem to have such a clearly-marked supply of dangerous acid, gas or poison on hand. I'm pretty sure it was in their contracts to do so.

Stanley was usually alert about genre cliches and how to bend them. Such occurrences are usually tongue-in-cheek in his work.

Of course, this is from the early period of Stanley's career as a comics writer. He was still learning, and still forming the vision that became so distinct by the later 1940s. The relentless flow of the narrative may have eddied into a corner, and forced this obvious plot-point.

"The Mad Dog Mystery" has one of many occurrences of consequential cross-dressing in Stanley's oeuvre. Boys dressed as girls, and vice versa, are a common sub-theme in Little Lulu and Tubby. The stakes for these kids are as high as Prof. Klinker's herein.

Stanley's minor stories, among which "The Mad Dog Mystery" resides, reveal as much about their creator as his most acclaimed and important work. Like his characters, John Stanley was driven by apparent compulsions to repeat certain themes, actions and devices.  He refined them, over time, but they remained central to his work as a storyteller and artist.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Glad to see your blog. Always good. I am fan of the old New Funnies, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda. Keep up the awesome blog!