Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rag Dolls Considered Delicious, Pet-Worthy By Evil Witch; Uses Talkative Broom As Accomplice; Scheme Thwarted--from Raggedy Ann & Andy 35, 1949

Before the first appearance of Witch Hazel, Lulu Moppet's fictional nemesis for her meta-self, in her endless line of improvised fairy-tales, witches were a part of John Stanley's own fictive world.

Stanley seldom called on these trickster/shape-shifter characters prior to Hazel's debut in 1951. The first Stanley witch appeared in an "Oswald the Rabbit" story, which you can read HERE.

Given the significance witches, goblins, ghosts, and other supernatural figures would have in Stanley's work of the 1950s and '60s, it's a surprise how few appear in his '40s comics. Stanley did not shy away from supernatural themes in general, prior to Hazel's emergence in the Lulu universe. His attention seemed more fixed on the situation comedy of daily life.

When he took on the writing and sometimes-drawing of the title feature in Raggedy Ann and Andy, Stanley had to consider these stock elements of fairy tales and fantasy. It's one thing to have a talking panda and chicken, or a talking rabbit and bear, sharing their suburban households, and going through the slapstick paces of their workaday life.

It was another to have, as a story's main figures, two sentient, ambulatory rag dolls. Stanley's "Raggedy" stories are filled with the most high-stakes elements of fantasy stories--inescapable castles, pirates, angels--so an appearance by a cackling witch was inevitable.

These stories are strong examples of fantasy-based comics, in which wit and intelligence hold center stage with the unearthly elements. Seen as dress rehearsals for the Little Lulu fairy-tales, they have a place of importance in John Stanley's q.v.

This story borrows images and events from the 1932 Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, Babes in the Woods, which must have made an impression on John Stanley. It's always fascinating to see how he messes with the stock elements, gives them more personality and higher stakes, and makes them funny and menacing in the same breath.

This story looks like it was drawn, or started, by John Stanley. The witch character, in particular, is congruous with the teacher, and other female figures in Stanley's concurrent "Peterkin Pottle" stories.

As well, a certain boldness, bordering on sloppiness, gives this story's drawings a real vitality that mirror its content.

As in Lulu's on-the-fly fables, this story has a drifting, loopy quality. It feels almost as if it's being created while the reader experiences it. Dreamlike transformations--as when the found airplane becomes a flying broom--add to this spontaneous feel.

The nameless witch, and her pushy broom, add a burlesque element that keeps the story's nightmarish elements from getting too intense. As well, wordplay bolsters this story. The repeated use of the word hoot climaxes with a handsome call-back/pay-off at the story's conclusion.

Stanley found the right format for including fairy-tales in the fabric of the close-to-reality Little Lulu. His gift for telling fresh stories in this vein, seemingly without effort, is among his greatest achievements as a writer. As well, Stanley never writes down to his intended audience. The reader is required to have a certain amount of savvy and wit. Without this input of intelligence, these stories might drift away from the reader's attention.

This respect for the reader is one element that has kept Stanley's work fresh and relevant, half a century (or more) past its original creation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

John Stanley's Horror Comix Remixed by Yikes Creator Steve Weissman

In last Thursday's Inkstuds radio conversation, Robin McConnell asked Jeet Heer and myself what impact we thought John Stanley's work might have on 21st-century cartoonists.

I'm interested in what the future holds for comics. I feel that there is still gold to be mined in Stanley's approach to sequential narrative. To my pleasant surprise, I've found a current example of a cartoonist doing a sort of "remix" of one of John Stanley's horror stories.

HERE is a fascinating remake of the John Stanley Ghost Stories feature "The Black Stallion." Writer/artist Steve Weissman, the creator of Yikes, shares with Stanley a clever, plausible take on the inner and outer life of children.

Weissman's story is a re-think of the Stanley piece, with new dialogue, but it covers the same basic story arc. I find Weissman's stylized, impressionistic artwork highly effective in telling this story. It far outshines the rushed hackwork of the original version, which you can compare/read HITHER.

I would love to see other modern cartoonists attempt "remix" versions of Stanley's work. If anyone knows of other Stanley-inspired contemporary comix, please drop me a line. I'd like to share them here on this blog.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Inept Violinist Is Cause of Miniature Invasion From Mars: art and story by John Stanley, from Tubby #4, 1953

Here, as promised via a recent teaser, is the fourth Tubby comic. It's an ambitious send-up of the likes of The Day The Earth Stood Still and other early science-fiction movies.

It's another large dose of John Stanley's cartooning. This is one of the last book-length, adventure-slanted stories he did for Western Publishing. This was the final of the four try-out "Four Color" Tubbys before the rotund, sublimely deluded one got his own quarterly title.

Dark Horse Comics has begun to reprint Tubby from its first tryout issues. This story will soon be in print, albeit with DH's too-much-brightness-and-contrast treatment. It is a damned pity that Drawn + Quarterly's first volume of Tubby must start with the 9th issue. Only that issue contains Stanley artwork.

The remainder of Stanley's run on Tubby was illustrated by Lloyd White--a competent craftsman, certainly, but not a vibrant cartoonist by any stretch of the imagination.

I haven't many more of these lengthier Stanley stories to run here. I've covered a lot of ground so far in the life of this here blog...

Here is a fine example of Stanley's typical stakes-raising approach as a storyteller. He starts with a simple, mundane premise, gets his protagonist involved, and then builds a narrative stairway. In this story's case, that stairway spans the far reaches of outer space.

Stanley's chains-of-event are usually fueled by the comedic and absurd. In this story, Tubby's extremely poor musicianship is the hilarious catalyst. Were he skilled, in any way, on his violin, none of the things that happen would have a reason to be.

In Stanley's comic universe, failings are just virtues tipped sideways. He has a soft spot for the inapt and ill-informed. In this light, his character's shortcomings have a side-effect of being effective and useful. "Tubby's Secret Weapon" is a particularly fine instance of this inverted, oblivious heroism.

This is also a rare Stanley effort that makes a sort-of-topical reference to trends of its day. America was flying saucer-conscious in the early 1950s. As well, the first batch of modern science-fiction movies appeared in 1950 and '51. This story has some vague commonalities with Day the Earth Stood Still, The Man From Planet X, The Flying Saucer and some other early post-war SF flicks.

I don't think Stanley envisioned the little men from Mars as more than a one-shot story device. (For that matter, I doubt Carl Barks had more in mind for his Uncle Scrooge character, outside of his similar stake-raising first appearance in 1947's "Christmas on Bear Mountain.")

Further leavened with humor, and thus less menacing, they became a significant sub-theme in his "Tubby" stories of the 1950s. Whether you're of the mind that they truly exist, in the fictive world of Lulu and Tubby, or consider them a manifestation of Tubby's puissant cognitive biases and daydreams, the miniature Martians are a brilliant invention.

Stanley mined them for much humor in their subsequent appearances. Here, they constitute a true threat to the well-being of Tubby, Gloria, and the orange tabby cat. All three are whisked from their suburban Everyworld to the unimaginable realms of outer space.

Just by being his typical self, and staying true to his highly impulsive, self-absorbed nature, Tub drives the story through its ingenious blend of absurd comedy and outer-space spectacle.

Stanley the writer gave Stanley the artist some challenges in "Tubby's Secret Weapon." It's fascinating to see him drawing a story that so departs from the typical environments of his work. A certain impulsive streak in his cartoon art seems ideally matched with his ultimate anti-hero, Tubby Tompkins.

The illegal street vendor and his mechanical wind-up men are another pet Stanley motif. This comedic complication shows up in several 1950s Little Lulu stories. It's also an aspect of this story, which remains among my favorite Stanley pieces.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hear Me Gabbing About John Stanley!

CLICK HERE to hear myself, Robin McConnell, Jeet Heer and Gail Singer chatting about John Stanley, via the fabulous Internet radio show, Inkstuds!

The broadcast had some technical problems, but the conversation was great. I'm honored to have been a part of this show!

Here's a teaser from the next Stanley Stories post--the first "Little Men From Mars" story. 32 pages of John Stanley story and art, from the fourth issue of Tubby!

Monday, March 15, 2010

John Stanley Draws "Lulu" in 1956: Selections From Little Lulu and her Friends #4

200 pages of prime mid-1950s John Stanley material comprise a pair of Dell Giants published in 1955 and '56. Snatches of these may have been reprinted in the 1960s and '70s, but these stories remain unknown to most modern-day Little Lulu readers.

Of particular interest to this blog are a scattering of stories, in the 1956 edition, that have finished artwork by John Stanley. This is not Stanley's best cartooning. Perhaps it was an eleventh-hour effort, done to meet a deadline that Stanley's typical Lulu collaborator, Irving Tripp, could not fulfill. (You'll find a similar-looking effort from 1951 in THIS POST.)

Stanley's yearly Little Lulu workload, by today's standards, is staggering: one dozen 36-to-52 page comic books, plus a quarterly satellite title, Tubby, and an 80-to-100 page annual. Stanley found time for side projects, as well, throughout his long tenure on Lulu.

He must have had a great work ethic. Small wonder that he ever found time for cartooning, between 1950 and 1963.

His best-known work of this period is the eight-issue run of Tubby (issues 2-9) that he wrote and drew solo. The scattered pages in this '56 giant are the only other published examples (that I know of) of his finished 1950s cartoon art.

That is, aside from the covers for Little Lulu, which he continued to draw through his 135-issue stint on the series. Speaking of which, here's his cover for this giant funnybook:

A sure-fire indicator of John Stanley cartooning, on the Lulu series, is what I call the "angry profile." As you'll see in these selections, Stanley tended to draw his characters looking POd, in a particularly angular profile.

A static ink line, so controlled it looks like it came from a technical or drafting pen, is another "tell" of Stanley's Lulu artwork.

Here is a comparison of the "angry profile" by both artists. Theirs is a subtle difference, but a telling one. Tripp tends to draw the characters with larger eyes, and their angry profiles have a softer look. Stanley's are far more severe, almost like a hawk's profile.

Stanley strived to conform to the house style Tripp quickly set up, when he took over the artwork on the Lulu book in 1948. But the characters gave Stanley trouble in the 1950s.

Marge's characters are not particularly attractive or graceful. Tripp managed to make them work; Stanley, aside from his earliest mid-1940s Lulus, which look far different from Tripp's typical cartooning, had a hard time making the badly-designed figures live and breathe on the page.

Here are all the Stanley-drawn stories from this Lulu giant. They provide a rare mid-decade glimpse of Stanley's neglected cartooning.
Expressive, effective cartooning graces the story above. Vivid character poses and body language sell the humor of the piece superbly.

The last Stanley-drawn story is the longest, and, by far, funniest. It demonstrates that, while the Stanley-Tripp collaboration was an ideal one, Tripp leached a certain amount of energy out of Stanley's raw materials.

The irony is that Tripp made Stanley's Little Lulu palatable to the masses. He softened the agitation and darkness of Stanley's input just enough to enable it to pass by the reader without causing abrasion or alarm. Tripp's work was a boon to Stanley's. Although I mourn the lack of published 1950s Stanley cartooning, I appreciate the balance that Tripp brought to the table.

The first two tiers of the story's third page are flat-out brilliant. That's John Stanley at his best--taking liberties with the comics medium, while putting everything on the table for the benefit of his characters. That's great comics writing--and it isn't about anything plotty or significant!

It's probable that the 1955 and '56 Lulu giants will never be reprinted, so I'll run more stories from them in future posts. As always, I'd like to know what you wish to see here. As DJs used to say, "we take requests!"