Sunday, December 19, 2010
Stanley Shards from various Dell Christmas comics, 1950-1960
Western Publications' comics editor, Oskar Lebeck, had an apparent ambition to transcend the rough-house action and slapstick that filled most Dell comics. In the 1940s, he pursued a line of gentler, slightly more literary fare, aimed at the market's youngest readers.
Walt Kelly wrote and drew some of the earlier examples of this Lebeck trend, including Dell's Fairy Tale Parade series and some "Four Color" one shots such as Christmas With Mother Goose. Kelly made this genre work without seeming treacly or condescending. Dan Noonan, a cartoonist whose '40s work is a ringer for Kelly's tighter cartooning, also created toddler-set comics that didn't patronize their audience.
A great deal of these kinder, gentler comics now seem faintly patronizing and extremely dull. Much of them are not actually comics, per se, but stories with illustrations, songs, plays and other material. Though they're called "funnies" and "comics," they're more accurately children's storybooks or activity books slumming on the funnybook rack.
They were well-intentioned, and their creation was no doubt a challenge to all who participated.
As the author of a first-grade reading level book, I am familiar with the experience. I finally arrived on a winning formula--I wrote all sentences as if they were spoken by Lennie, from John Steinbeck's tragicomedy Of Mice and Men. That created an editor-pleasing ideal lexile level, although I had the urge to add "George" to the end of every sentence.
The worst tendencies in writing for the very young is to under-estimate their smarts. Children are much sharper than most adults would like to admit. Though they don't necessarily understand the nuances of adult life and interactions, they catch everything. Every kid I know appreciates having their intelligence respected and gently challenged. If they notice condescension, they usually reject the work in question, and move onto something better.
My inner child frequently rolls his eyes at much of Dell's "for the wee ones" comics. Thank goodness that John Stanley participated in this trend.
He never received any credit for his work in Dell's toddler line--unlike other Team Lebeck stalwarts such as Kelly, Noonan, Frank Thomas, Morris Gollub and Tony Rivera.
Indeed, Lebeck's atypically generous credits are the only way it's been possible to put names to some of these artists. Here are two examples from a comic-storybook, authored by Lebeck, that appeared in Dell's one-shot series in 1950:
Stanley's work in this vein appeared in Animal Comics, Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Christmas comics Dell published, either as stand-alone series or as part of the "Four Color" line.
Here is obvious evidence of Stanley's work in the Christmas comics--done in the very loose brush style of his contemporary Little Lulu covers, from Santa Claus Funnies FC 361, published in 1951:
Last holiday season, I ran this story from a 1961 Santa Claus Funnies. At that time, I hadn't examined the other issues of this annual book, nor of its partner, Frosty the Snowman.
Closer scrutiny of these titles reveals several stories which I can confidently attribute to John Stanley. They are dialed-down Stanley, to be sure. His tell-tale character quirks, sound effects and other tip-offs are evident. As well, unlike the other stories in these books, they are funny, entertaining and have decent narrative stakes.
These are stories you can share with your kids. They may be a few notches below Stanley's Little Lulu work, but they have something in common with those better-known, more iconic stories.
I don't have too many more of these surprises left in my trick bag. I've just about exhausted all the obscure back-roads of Dell's comics line. I'm happy to share these minor-but-charming pieces with you.
From the November, 1950 edition of Santa Claus Funnies come two stories which appear to be written by Stanley.
In our first offering, "Teddy Bear in Toyland," illustrated by Mel Crawford, notice the genuinely anti-social antagonist, who is very smitten with his cognitive biases, and the cinematic timing of the action sequences (which are tricked out with vivid, often funny sound effects).
Tiger Cat's aggressive agenda distinguishes this story. He's just a little too into his personal delusions, and too fervent about carrying them out. There's also some gentle fun-poking at the wide-eyed cutesy world of fairy-tales.
Also from the November, 1950 SCF is the slightly zany, droll "Santa's Christmas Presents." I believe the artist to be Mo Gollub.
Aggressive SFX, including a tell-tale bonging clock, almost-incongruous slapstick, and the elf Blinkey's grouchy, self-absorbed persona signify "Santa's Christmas Presents" as Stanley's work.
A similarly self-deluded elf dominates "Christmas in November," a piece from the 1954 edition of Santa Claus Funnies. The dialogue is curiously strained in spots, but the story's innate comedy still comes through clearly.
Rufus' insistence that his bad eyesight isn't an issue brings a touch of the Tubby TypeTM to "Christmas in November." Rufus gets his comeuppance, and the one thing he truly needs, in the story's amusing finale. Without his misbehavior, and his stubborn insistence that he is unerringly right, this story would have little to recommend it.
We now leap to the end of the 1950s, with this manic piece from the December, 1960 Santa Claus Funnies. With spiky artwork by Fred Fredericks, "Santa's Problem" feels like an out-take from New Terrytoons.
"Santa's Problem" features a deluded team of Tubby-types. The three reckless, inept polar bears invite themselves inside Santa's workshop, and amusingly destroy everything they encounter. Wise Santa averts economic ruin by enlisting the bears' spazzy playful nature to "test" potential gifts. I suspect those rainbow-hued sleds will soon be kindling, but it's the thought that counts.
"A Surprise For Santa," from the same edition, appears to be drawn by Tony Rivera, a name I've just discovered. Slowly but surely, more Dell puzzle pieces emerge from the black hole of history.
The squatter mice provide this otherwise-meager story with an identifiable Stanley kick. Otherwise, this is cheerful filler.
For our holiday chaser, here's a story from the Frosty the Snowman book of December, 1961--the end times for Dell's connection with Western Publications. The cover's sherbet jollity doesn't reveal the internal tensions that Dell and Western faced in this darkest hour.
"Frosted Frosty" is drawn by longtime Stanley collaborator Lloyd White. As the Frosty character has a touch of the Tubby self-delusion, the lumpen quality of White's art seems apt here.
Static, repeated images and in-your-face SFX are tells of Stanley's hand in this agreeably silly story.
None of these are stories on the level of "Five Little Babies," "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" or the best of Stanley's 1960s work. They weren't meant to be masterpieces. They helped enliven holiday anthologies which were truly team efforts.
They provide a window into Stanley's gentler side, as he consciously wrote holiday stories for younger readers.
Stanley couldn't avoid writing humorous situations, or building up the narrative stakes for reader interest, in any of these stories. That they are genuinely amusing, and sometimes archly surprising, is no small feat.
See you in 2011! May your holidays be festive, peaceful and not at all tense.