Dark themes are a constant of these stories. "Little Lulu," the most heavily protected of the various licensed entities John Stanley brought to the comic book page, tended to be less grim and downcast in its early years. Once Marge Buell seemed confident in Team Stanley to deliver the goods for her gag-panel creations, Little Lulu began to get more of a taste of the real John Stanley.
Themes of despair, abandonment, physical threats, homelessness, hunger and poverty pepper his 1940s stories, starting with his first masterwork, "The Secret Six," in 1945.
Most of these themes are, indeed, staples of comedy. To be fair, Stanley plays them for comedy, with exceptions in his longer one-shot adventure stories. Here is a deadly-serious excerpt from "The Mad Dog Mystery," an Andy Panda story from 1945:
The Little Lulu one-shots, which appeared alongside these usually book-length serious pieces, are suites of shorter stories, including a liberal amount of single-page pantomime gags.
Perhaps Stanley felt inspired by the longer pieces he had written. In 1947, he tried two unusually long Lulu stories. "Little Lulu is Taken For a Ride" is the second-longest such piece, after "Alvin's Solo Flight" (also published that year). Unlike Stanley's earlier long stories, "Ride" plays its dark elements for broad, bright comedy, and focuses centrally on character quirks, rather than narrative stakes.
There's nothing funny about kidnapping, natch, but it was a frequent plot device in 1940s and '50s mass media. Stanley had an affinity for pop-culture cliches--more precisely, for how he could skewer reader expectations of these stock situations.
In this 21-page story, Stanley takes time to set up a seemingly high-stakes, no-fun-intended world of crime and kidnapping. The first page is given over to a discussion between two thugs. Lulu enters on the second page, via omniscient narration. Stanley seldom uses a narrator in Little Lulu--unless it is Lulu herself, telling one of her on-the-fly fairy-tales.
Stanley could not have written this story for the 1950s "Lulu." Here, she is still in Marge mode--she's the apparently innocent hellion who wreaks havoc with a poker face. Just by being in the same room with the kidnappers, and staying with them, she causes their plans--and lives--to unravel.
This story, along with "Alvin's Solo Flight," was reprinted in the first 100-page "Lulu" comic book, the gruffly titled Little Lulu Tubby Annual 1953. More recent reprints, brutally traced in stark black-and-white, have appeared from Another Rainbow and Dark Horse. Here it is, as originally published, in off-center, blotchy living color... (and with a missing page finally added on 12/10/10!)
Lulu is never in serious danger for a single moment in this story. She may flirt with tooth decay on p. 2, get snatched on p. 5, suffer mild internal jostling on p. 9 and almost get throttled on p. 19. Other than that, she emerges from this potentially harrowing episode unscathed--while Al and "Boss" are so ravaged by their time with her that they abandon crime as a career option.
Because this story is so upfront about its dark themes, it achieves moments of sublime comedy. Stanley's dry tone assures that these comedic uprisings delight and disarm the reader.
Al and "Boss" are members of the Wile E. Coyote Club. They get abused, then step back in line for more of same. In the wake of the kidnapping (a sequence with Hitchcockian overtones), "Boss" is pummeled by the struggling tot and given a black eye. Lulu's subsequent episode with the machine gun leaves "Boss" dazed and apparently dead.
Al soberly digs a grave for "Boss," with Lulu's cheerful assistance: "This is fun!" she says. Samuel Beckett couldn't have written this profoundly absurd scene any better. Ditto for the earlier bit in which "Boss" and Lulu struggle over the spelling of the word "daughter."
"Boss" is an ineffective leader. Stanley's interest is in Al--a stock figure invested with unexpected character. The story's length allows Stanley to indulge in some fine quirk-driven comedy. Man-child Al and child-woman Lulu constantly spin the status wheel. Their dance of control is a thing of beauty.
The story's climax, on p. 21, offers its only scene of real physical violence. As my colleague Thad K. has noted, Stanley had trouble drawing scenes of violence. His line of action in panel 5 is wooden and awkward. Saddled with the demand to emulate the amateurish cartoon style of Marge Buell, Stanley did not do his finest cartooning on these early Little Lulu stories. The lifeless pen line, a la Marge, gives his work here a leaden quality.
Sparks of life break through the stylistic curtain, but the ungainly Marge look and feel takes its toll on his cartooning. "Lulu" didn't really look good until the end of the 1940s.
As a great admirer of John Stanley's cartooning, I find his work on the early Lulu a misfire. He put a great deal of effort into these stories. Here, we see TLC paid to the "camera angles," the compositions of panels, and in the body language of the characters. P. 17 impresses with its multiple angle drawings of a 1940s automobile. Though some of the drawings are ungainly, the ambition and energy of this sequence is impressive.
It's not Stanley's fault that he had to draw the figures in the ugly Marge style. His writing is the real star of the series, and he achieved some great cartooning in other 1940s features. (For a stunning example of his 1940s cartooning, check out his New Yorker cartoon.)
For dessert, here are four pantomime gag pages from this Lulu one-shot, carefully chosen for their taboo themes of spanking, smoking, make-up abuse, and physical violence. Early Lulu, still in Marge-mode, is quite the hellion!