Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rabbit, Bear Induce Fugue State of Time-Travel While In Antique Shop: "Oswald Rabbit" from New Funnies #123, 1947

Spoofing the ways of the past is a staple of American comedy. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which was published in 1889, may not have been the first American work of its kind, but it established a template that has stayed with us.

In the 1930s and '40s, it was fashionable to poke fun at the Gilded Age of American life. S. J. Perelman, John Held, W. C. Fields and other major comedic voices did it with relish. Fields' movies The Old-Fashioned Way and the two-reeler The Fatal Glass of Beer are brilliant examples of this comedic trend.

This would be equivalent to us spoofing, say, post-war America--except that the world isn't as fundamentally different between 1946 and 2010 as it was from 1888 to 1935. Sure, we have cybernetic doo-dads out the wazoo. People beeble and booble and bleep their way through each day, aided by a battery of portable gewgaws that no one really needs, but that everyone desires to own and use.

Many of our modern marvels are just modernizations of innovations made in the early 20th century. An iPhone is still just a telephone; a PC or a Mac is essentially a typewriter with a picture tube; plasma TVs are still just television sets.

We haven't had anything as game-changing as the automobile, airplane, telephone, motion pictures, recorded sound, et al, in our lifetime. Heaven knows, I'm no expert in such matters. It would seem that the greatest strides made since, say, 1950 have been in space travel (on the big end) and health care and medicine (on the everyday level). (Thad K. reminds me to mention the Internet. I forgot the Internet. There's high-grade irony for you.)

2010 Americans would not find post-war America an alien place. With a careful choice of retro clothing and a pocketful of silver coinage and silver-standard folding money (the kind that actually states it's worth something, as seen here)...

a 2010 person could convincingly roam the streets of 1948 America (although most would be bored to tears within 90 seconds).

To humorists of the '30s and '40s, the ways of the 18th and 19th centuries were a carnival of hilarity. The elaborate dress, the florid language, the courtly behavior, the rituals of social life, and the chaste nature of romance seemed alien, cornball and insufferable.

John Stanley trafficked in this trend of fun-poking at the past and its quaintness. He chose to go back to the 18th century. This ties in with popular culture's contemporary fascination with period dramas--in which the past is taken very, very seriously.

Novels such as Kathleen Winsor's 1944 Forever Amber were huge best-sellers in wartime and post-war America. In the 1940s, Hollywood was in the midst of a decades-long love affair with Ye Olden Times. Movies as diverse as Hangover Square and Gone With the Wind painted elaborate portraits of the lifestyles of yore.

Stanley chose the costume-drama era, rather than the Gilded Age, for his comic book spoofs. Like Perelman, Fields and Held, he emphasized the excess and needless courtliness of those bygone days. Stanley makes the same point in his spoofs: isn't this just too much? Why on earth did these people go to so much fuss and bother?

In New Funnies #99, his "Woody Woodpecker" story has the bird reading a book on the subject...

Woody has a more conventional dream sequence here, as you can see. He makes a burlesque of olden manners, including the gentlemanly art of the duel. He  humiliates his duel partner--and picks his pocket for good measure.

At story's end, Woody returns to consciousness, and the present. He addresses the reader, with obvious self-satisfaction:

This untitled story is quite amusing. It's loaded with energy, wordplay and wit. John Stanley was on the start of his learning curve as a writer in 1945. Two years later, he returned to this spoof-the-Gilded-Age turf in New Funnies. This time, he adds extra layers to the scenario. As with my favorite Stanley story, "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel," this story's occurrences walk the fine line between reality and fantasy. 

Notably, this story starts with rainfall--always an agent of change in John Stanley's world.

Loaded with clever humor, farcical action, and higher stakes than the "Woody" story, this "Oswald" piece benefits from twice the page count. Stanley has time to indulge his loves of wordplay and broad physical action. He sets up an elaborate, rather intellectual gag sequence (on pp. 4-5), in which the town crier includes an oral comics section in his news broadcast.

The Thurber-esque look of the male human characters is typical of Stanley's 1946 and '47 work. I would assume Stanley was an admirer of Thurber's. I don't know if the decision to sorta-ape Thurber's cartoon style was Stanley's, or that of the unknown artists who worked on New Funnies in this period. Whatever the case, there are many occurrences of faux-Thurber in Stanley's post-war New Funnies work.

Most noteworthy in this story is the transition from 1947 reality to that of the gilded past. There is no dream sequence signifier. The antique dueling pistols bring the cuddly duo to the past; a falling chandelier literally smashes them back to present-day.

It is the characters' dialogue--and their imaginations--that put them in this timeless state. Therein, they're free to act out, 1947-style, in a world they don't understand. Oswald and Toby are somewhat informed by the knowledge of the past they've picked up from costume-drama movies and whatever pop fiction they've ingested.

Of course, their standard-issue 1940s behavior now seems a bit quaint to us in 2010. This adds another, unintended layer to the story's functions.

Carl Barks achieved something similar in his 1951 story "Donald Duck in Old California." He, too, used something more than a mere daydream to transport his characters to a very real, solid past. Barks plays things much more straight than Stanley, but he also gets some comedy from cultural incongruity--from how much things have changed in 100 years.

The way Barks brings his characters in and out of the past is far more elegant and elaborate than Stanley's devices here. Of course, Barks had over twice the page length accorded Stanley in today's offering.

If you've never read "In Old California," which is among Carl Barks' greatest achievements in comics, you can peruse it on-line HERE. These two stories allow a rare window to intensely compare the storytelling styles of Carl Barks and John Stanley.

Though I still consider Stanley the superior creator, for many reasons, I don't deny Barks' skills as a storyteller or cartoonist. They came, literally, from different places--Barks from the Pacific Northwest and Stanley from the Northeast.

The approaches of these two stories are tellingly different in that regard. Barks embraces a specific, deeply felt locale, and renders it lovingly. In "Old California," the landscape is the unspoken star of the story.

Stanley, focused on his characters, merely sketches in a broad background and lets it function as a backdrop to the action. Historical accuracy is obviously not a concern of his. He gives the reader just enough to coast on, and lets his characters and their motivations run the show.

With this final thought, I'll seal the cork on today's missive, and toss it upon the vast waters of the Internet...


John W said...

"Historical accuracy is obviously not a concern of [Stanley's].

Ummm.... Yeah, I guess you can say that. 16th-17th century language, 19th-century target-shooting pistols and carriages (and the 20th-century word "taxi"), and God only knows what period those garments and hairstyles are supposed to be....

Thad said...

A few things, other than I don't care for this story very much and find the Woody Woodpecker from NEW FUNNIES #99 to be much more satisfying...

- The Internet is definitely one of those great boons to mankind, equal in importance to anything in the first half of the twentieth century. You couldn't have convinced me for one minute that as late as 2001 that the tools of the Internet would go beyond email, low-res JPEGs, and dial-up porn. Now look at us!!

- Drawing comparisons between this and "In Old California" (a work I consider somewhere between an A and a B effort in the Barks opus) makes me arrive at the conclusion that Barks was better than Stanley. Barks was always a conscientious craftsman, against his will probably, so even the most unimportant panel is beautifully rendered and laid out. This isn't something that could be said of many cartoonists - certainly not Stanley.

- Not to pick on Stanley, but the issue with the girl not being resolved is pretty shoddy writing even for the story's length. Barks's ten-pagers never left holes this wide open, regardless of the subject matter.

- Whoever the artist is (Stanley?) seems to have trouble drawing the main characters here. He seems incapable of unique expressions on Oswald and Toby, only tracing the heads from a better draftsman's example. This is a great problem I have with a lot of Stanley's 40s work. The artwork is artless. Not his fault, but still...

Let me say though that regardless of my reservations, I think John Stanley is of vast importance to comic book literature and that very few were capable of even his weakest work.

Frank M. Young said...

Wow--a story people don't like! It had to happen eventually!
The art is not by Stanley. Some of the artists who worked for Western in the '40s were not very good. Their lack of care does bring the work down somewhat.
I forgot about the Internet--if that isn't irony, then there is no irony.
The Barks v. Stanley battle will continue beyond our lives. I admire both creators. I feel that Barks was sometimes a prisoner of his craftsmanship.
This is among Stanley's sloppiest work. This was not a good choice for my argument. The trouble is that I've just about run out of unique material for this blog! That explains the scraping sound you might have heard on Sunday morning...

Thad said...

By all means, continue the discussion with a widely available story as an example if you have to. Choose a Stanley and a Barks that are on an equal playing field, say their best ten/twelve pagers from 1951, and break down why Stanley is better than Barks. I'd enjoy reading that even if I disagreed.