Thursday, September 30, 2010

Farcical Frontier Genocide With Peterkin Pottle: from Raggedy Ann and Andy 33, 1949

This is the second of seven "Peterkin Pottle" stories written and drawn by John Stanley. Western Publications' editorial department had high hopes for this original creation. It knocked the titular, licensed characters off the cover of their own magazine.

Raggedy Ann and Andy was one of many Dell Comics anthologies, but it was a very different magazine pre-Pottle. RA&A was the softest of Dell's comics, filled with long text pieces, gentle moralistic material and very un-John Stanley comics.  Its editors and contributors tried to be respectable--to soothe and please post-war American tots--to a fault.

What a jolt "Peterkin Pottle" must have been to this gentle-as-a-lamb readership! John Stanley opened a personal floodgate of dark feelings and themes with this series. His depictions of childhood cruelties--and adult indifference--are unusually harsh and real.

This was the first "Pottle" story I saw, back in those dark days before the advent of .cbr and .cbz files (and their ready-for-sainthood scanners and assemblers). Pete Dillon loaned his copy of this comic to me, by mail, in 2001. I scanned it for use on the original version of the Stanley Stories website.

Despite my excitement at finally seeing "Pottle," the story left me cold. It is still my least favorite of the "Pottle" stories, despite its sharp comic timing and appealing artwork.

John Stanley's sense of absurd humor, and his regard of the world around him, generally comes from a dark place. I accept that, and generally celebrate it.

Stanley's ability to juggle with dark and light, and to find refuge in the million shades of gray between the two, is the essence of his unmistakable gift as a storyteller and cartoonist.

Darkness leaks into the Little Lulu universe. It's a major ingredient in the believability of those stories and their cast of characters. The Lulu world has gravity, and characters' actions (and reactions) have consequences. Theirs are typically comedic calamities, centered on the peer pressures and concerns of childhood.

In general, Stanley kept the darker vibe of "Peterkin Pottle" out of Little Lulu. It surfaces most tellingly in the improvised fairy tales, as told by Lulu to her next-door neighbor Alvin.

It is present in the "real world" stories of Lulu: in supporting characters such as McNabbem, the egocentric truant officer, the menacing West Side gang, and the representative of Stanley's Evil Rich, Wilbur.

Sometimes Lulu goes farther into the black. In stories such as "Hide 'n Seek," the children encounter a clearly unbalanced, unsocialized adult outsider who poses a genuine physical threat to them.

Overall, Stanley keeps the battle between bleak and bright balanced enough, in Little Lulu, to assure the series had an appealing tension. In early issues of the satellite Tubby quarterly, Stanley more indulged his dark side. Without Lulu, he was much freer to use higher narrative stakes and more imaginative themes.

Tubby is often in peril, in these early issues (most of them tellingly illustrated by Stanley), but he is a confident, pro-active protagonist. He is never consumed by the world's tribulations; he is also too self-absorbed to notice fate's more glancing blows.

In the post-Lulu series Nancy and Sluggo, Stanley created an unforgettable, unsettling adult threat to children in the character of Mr. McOnion. Sluggo's next-door neighbor, the placid but grouchy McOnion, at the flip of an inner switch (due to Sluggo's actions) becomes a tireless, talkative harbinger of doom for the impoverished kid:

These encounters are played for laughs, and are accomplished pieces of black comedy. Yet they leave a bitter taste in the reader's mouth.

This sensation is at the foundation of "Peterkin Pottle." I've written several times about this feature elsewhere on Stanley Stories. I hesitate to repeat myself further, except to note that this story pushes the limits of cruelty and violence farther than any other story in Stanley's canon until the Melvin Monster series of the mid-1960s.

Stanley's cover illustration contains a curious cut-and-paste pattern. This noticeable repetition of the Native American figures sets the mood for the remarkable story ahead.

There are brilliant moments in this second "Pottle." Stanley evokes the cliches of the frontier Western in 1940s mass media as he thoroughly skewers them. This is no specific parody of a recognizable movie or book. As with all the "Pottle" stories, the target is an entire genre.

Painted in broad strokes, the spoofing of this series might potentially be more akin to The Carol Burnett Show than to Harvey Kurtzman's Mad comics. Stanley's keenly honed wit makes these daydream sequences among the best of his writing.

That said, Peterkin's wholesale slaughter of Native Americans is a bit hard to take, 61 years after the fact. Like the frequent spanking scenes in Little Lulu, this burlesque of slaughter, though not intended to disturb, are as stark as anything in Kurtzman's E.C. war comics of the 1950s.

This story's "real world" wrap-around has a particularly bleak world-view. Peterkin is nearly narcoleptic here--unable to come downstairs for breakfast without passing out. He takes a vicious tumble down the stairs, is verbally berated twice by his harridan mother, and then sets out for school.

That's just the first page. Page two takes place on the sidewalked path to school. Here, Peterkin again hits the hay, and is mocked, made the victim of a mind-game, and coaxed into a false moment of joy--for which he is further mocked by his peers. The jeers include condemning words from his female sort-of friend, Pam:

"I think you're the silliest boy in the whole world!"

Page three finds Pottle in the classroom. His teacher, a twin for his unloving, judgmental mother, declares him to be "stup- er, slow" and sends him to the back of the seats. On his way to the shame spot, a classmate trips Peterkin and causes him further embarrassment and mockery.

Peterkin betrays no affect from the world's mistreatment. It doesn't seem to move him one way or the other. He soon drifts into a dream, in which he is admired, feared, capable and infallible. This fantasy is also full of death and slaughter.

Though it's not openly stated, it's implied that Peterkin gets his rocks off on these fantasies of murder, oppression and superiority. He engineers a smoke-signal campaign that causes a tribe of Ojibway to suspect one another of being a spy, and apparently results in a mass konking-on-head, if not something worse.

The long panel, on the top of p.8, is among the most chilling images in the history of comics. I don't think it was meant this way, but it is nonetheless.

Peterkin displays more connection to his farcical fantasy world than he does to the grim gauntlet of his daily life. He is able to do anything, and be admired by his allies and feared by his enemies. As well, he gets the girl (who is always Pam) but rebuffs her advances. Here, he does so in perfect parody of Western-movie tropes.

Just as Peterkin is felled with a stray Ojibway arrow, Miss Dumphy's ruler shatters his fugue state. Her harsh awakening returns Pottle to his awful truth. He's a disempowered schlub who will probably never do better in his life.

In the story's bittersweet finale, Pam takes pity on Peterkin and fulfills his earlier request to carry her books. Pottle refuses, in the manner of his fantasy-self. He finds the last crumb of his dignity and plods homeward, where more parental disdain awaits him.


As said earlier, I do not shy away from the darker edges of John Stanley's world. I fully believe that this darkness gives his work a sense of literary permanence. Like any creator, Stanley made mis-steps and pursued concepts that didn't work.

"Peterkin Pottle" is the beginning of a great idea--one that anticipates Roald Dahl's writings about childhood, and a strong attempt to bring more of a sense of real life to children's comics.

Had Stanley been given another year to continue "Pottle," he might have gotten his ideas in focus--much as he did with "Little Lulu" and "Thirteen Going on Eighteen" in their first years of comic-book life. But this series was abruptly killed just at the crucial point of focus.

Like his also self-created and cartooned "Jigger and Mooch," "Peterkin Pottle" stands among Stanley's few outright failures in the comic book marketplace. (In "Jigger"'s case, it was due to the sudden cancellation of Dell's Animal Comics in early 1948.)

There is still much to learn from Stanley's failures. And although the cruelty and violence of this story may be a bitter pill to swallow, there are rewards in Stanley's approach--and in his unusual depiction of the shittiness of childhood.

This realistic decision went 100% against the "official" mainstream media vision of kid life. Even in Stanley's take on "Little Lulu," the tribulations of childhood are never overwhelming. Lulu, Tubby, and th' gang have supportive parents, teachers and friends. They are never alone. Even the ego-maniac Tubby is never truly isolated from the outside world.

Stanley's Lulu, charming and rewarding as it is, is much more in line with the mainstream reassurance that childhood is sweet and safe. There is just enough bitter mixed into the formula to give the stories lasting oomph.

I haven't yet encountered anyone who read the "Pottle" stories when they were new, but I'd imagine that they made an impact on more sensitive, less socialized children. "Pottle"s basic formula was revived in the 1960s for the American Comic Group's oddball masterpiece, Herbie. I briefly noted the similarities of "Pottle" and Popnecker HERE earlier this year.

There is one more "Peterkin Pottle" story I haven't posted here. I feel that I've said everything I can possibly say on this series (and fear that I've repeated myself too often), so let this be the last "Pottle" for Stanley Stories. At least for the time being...

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Killer, Not Filler Pt. III--Complete Set of 18 John Stanley WOODY WOODPECKER One-Pagers!

Go HERE to view the complete set of 18 one-page, one-color "Woody Woodpecker" gag pages, as written and drawn by John Stanley in 1947! This revamped, fancied-up post is finally finished!

It's taken me awhile to get all of these, but I'm happy to offer them all for your perusal. These are an important part of John Stanley's work as a cartoonist-writer!

Drat, I'm not able to write enough copy to fill out the space beside this teaser graphic!



yes! >whew<

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stanley's Noir Farce: "Little Lulu Is Taken For A Ride," from Four Color 131, 1947

I'm always happy to present stories that John Stanley both wrote and drew. (To be accurate, this is an art collaboration of Stanley and Charles Hedinger.) He seems to have really given cartooning a concerted effort in the late 1940s. He drew "Woody Woodpecker," "Tom and Jerry," "Little Lulu," "Raggedy Ann and Andy" and his own creations, "Jigger and Mooch" and "Peterkin Pottle."

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:

Stanley and Carl Barks worked in similar manner on their early adventure stories. As with Barks' "Terror of the River," "Ghost of the Grotto" and "Mystery of the Swamp," Stanley's efforts in this vein have a light dusting of comedy, but are serious pieces overall.

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!