Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tiptoeing Thru' Tip Top Comics: Two Hidden Stanley Gems

I have thousands of digitized vintage comics on CD-Rs, and as many on an external hard drive. I download several comics daily. They're mostly crap--Sturgeon's Law proves brutally true throughout the history of the American funny-book.

I had forgotten all about a disc that contained several Dell issues of Tip Top Comics. As I've posted background info about this title HERE, I won't repeat myself.

These are two more issues that I identified as having Stanley material in that 2009 post. I will rescind my "Is this Stanley's work?" question--it's obviously his.

I sense less of an editorial hand in today's offerings. The first story, from Tip Top #219, is pure Stanley. It has some flashes of the quirky, Gilbert Shelton-esque hardball comedy seen in Stanley's last comics effort, O.G. Whiz #1.

The second is analogous to Stanley's Little Lulu stories of status war and one-upmanship. Both stories feature the nastiest of Stanley's Evil Rich--Rollo Haveall. Read 'em and, by all means, don't weep!

"Phoney Boy" is a bright piece of jet-age sitcom, with major spanking incidences for a single John Stanley story. There's a tacit sadness to Rollo's life that is brought into the forefront here. Stanley's wealthy characters are on a different plane from the street-level, middle-class (or lower) protagonists. They have no friends outside their own circle.

It gets lonely at the top. Thus, Rollo's father must spend $10M on a robo-pal for his cruel, insufferable son. Awbry (which scans like "awry") is a hollow embodiment of wealth, and its consequences, in Stanley's universe. On the surface, Awbry is perfect--a metallic Adonis with impeccable manners. Awbry's gentility only serves to highlight Rollo's lack of grace and empathy.

Rich or poor, Rollo would have a hard time making friends, given his sadistic tendencies. Beneath its glitzy surface, Awbry is an imperfect gadget. Gadgets, in John Stanley's world, exist only to malfunction in some humorous, stakes-raising manner. It just takes a few taps to disable him/it. Awbry's voice recognition circuits are easily manipulated, resulting in Nancy's hilarious final command. Awbry tries its best to accomplish the impossible, and ceases to exist.

Nancy's sardonic exit line reinforces her salt-o'-the-earth attitude. No-nonsense trumps technology and wealth here, in a weirdly Harold Gray-like manner.

"Sluggo's Houseboat," from Tip Top #220, offers another epic conflict with the Haveall wealth. Again, the trappings of Stanley's mega-rich malfunction easily.

Rollo's self-centered, pathological attitude goes several notches beyond that of Little Lulu's Wilbur Van Snobbe. Wilbur is a jerk, but has flashes of redemption. He's much better socialized than Rollo is in the Nancy world.

Wilbur is capable of some empathy, and realizes when he's been bested. Rollo does not have these human qualities. Even when he fails, he refuses to show any human warmth. He's one of the creepier comics characters in John Stanley's world.

I like Nancy's insistence on calling Sluggo's craft a "doghouseboat." Her friendship with Sluggo has a touch of class-stakes. She's clearly from a middle-class home. Though Aunt Fritzi can be a martinet at times, Nancy doesn't go without essentials, and is allowed a few frills in her life.

Sluggo, orphaned (apparently) and a squatter in a trashed (abandoned?) house, has no frills, and Nancy and her friends are his only ties to a better life. Sluggo appears content with his lot, and has a freedom Nancy lacks. Thus, Nancy and Sluggo have something to offer one another. Their friendship thus has higher stakes than Lulu and Tubby's.

Flashes of Stanley's drawing style come through in these licensed characters. Whenever Sluggo shows extreme emotions--laughter, anger, fear--Stanley's hand is most evident.

My apologies for no Halloween posting this year. I've run out of significant Stanley Halloween material. All his horror comics are represented elsewhere here, as are the "Lulu" Halloween specials. Dig around this blog if you're in search of such kicks!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Towards A John Stanley Top Ten: The Tao of Yow! (pt. 1 of 2)

Anyone who approaches John Stanley's large body of work faces a potential overwhelm. His thousands of pages of Little Lulu and Tubby comics are increasingly accessible through Dark Horse's on-going reprints. Drawn + Quarterly continues their more lavish "John Stanley Library," and various Stanley stories appear in hardcover comics anthologies.

Several of Stanley's greatest stories are in print once again. Many stories of equal worth still languish in limbo--because they feature licensed properties. As the current copyright holders are greedy mega-corporations, these pieces many never see a legitimate reissue.

This post will attempt a Top Ten of currently in-print Stanley Stories. A following post will list my personal 10 favorite pieces not in print--or ever likely to see reissue. I hope this post will be helpful to those approaching John Stanley's work for the first time.

Please note that none of the images here are from the published books. They're digital scans I've picked up in my journeys through comics archaeology.


10) "Crazy Quilt" (originally published in Tales From The Tomb giant comic, 1962; currently available in anthology Art in Time, Abrams Books)

Undeniably goofy, this story is indelibly etched in the memories of anyone who's read it. The great Jim Woodring told me that this story utterly flipped him out when he read it as a young person.
Although sabotaged by sub-standard graphics, "Crazy Quilt" is a mainline into the darker edges of John Stanley's imagination.
As with many of his attempts at horror comics, "Crazy Quilt" is a failure as a traditional genre piece. As a slice of dream-logic, made literal in a mass-market publication, the story is a lunatic success. Faint shadings of Stanley's black humor peek into this short piece, as well.

9) "Tubby's Secret Weapon" (originally published in Dell Four-Color comic #461, 1952; available in Little Lulu's Pal Tubby Volume 1: The Castaway and Other Stories, Dark Horse Comics)

A 32-page blend of earthbound comedy, science-fiction elements, and high-stakes storytelling, "Tubby's Secret Weapon" further benefits from the adroit cartoon art of its writer.
John Stanley elected to illustrate the second through ninth issues of the Tubby spin-off comic book, which became an official quarterly title with its fifth issue.
These early Tubby stories are notable for their quite serious themes.
The sheer momentum of story-telling overcomes Stanley's strong grasp of comedy in many of these pieces. This story, which introduces the "Little Men From Mars," later a staple of absurd humor in Stanley's Tubby stories, has more comedy than normal. Its narrative has a great deal at stake, and its blend of laffs and thrills is impressive.

8) "Net Profit" (originally published in Nancy #165, 1959; available in Nancy: Volume One, Drawn + Quarterly)

Stanley's follow-up to his 15 years on the Little Lulu series, Nancy is, in many ways, a sideways continuation of that more famous body of work.
Stanley seems to have had a freer hand with this licensed property. His run on Nancy signals a sea-change in his approach to comics. A harder, broader and more modern sense of comedy informs these stories.

Disdain for the wealthy is a central theme of Stanley's work. Stanley's Rich are a callous, condescending and manipulative lot. Bored with their luxury, they take their ennui out on the less fortunate--and use their great wealth to enable immense, complex (and life-threatening) pranks and mind-fudges.
"Net Profit" stands out for its particularly venomous portrait of wealth gone wrong. Unlike Little Lulu's rich kid, Wilbur, Nancy's Rollo Haveall is an unredeemable cad. With its blend of space-age sitcom gags and horrific images, "Net Profit" is a sharp slice of Stanley's screw-the-rich sentiment.

7) "Two For The Price of One" (originally published in Tales From The Tomb giant comic, 1962; currently available in anthology Art in Time, Abrams Books)

A longer (and nuttier) horror story, "Two For The Price Of One" holds its tongue in cheek as it blends an EC Comics-type "crime suspenstory" with bone-dry lunacy.
As with "Crazy Quilt," this story is a complete mess as a traditional horror story. For its outburst of screwy themes, escalating narrative, and its utterly baffling shock-type ending, which leaves the reader somewhere between stunned silence and the urge to laugh uncontrollably, "Two For The Price of One" shows its creator struggling in an unfamiliar genre, and accidentally generating one of the oddest narratives even seen in comics form.

6) "Great Day" (originally published in Marge's Little Lulu #23, 1950; reprinted in Little Lulu Vol. 7: Lulu's Umbrella Service, Dark Horse Comics)

Alas, you won't see this story in color in Dark Horse's reprint. The brilliance of Stanley's writing survives the pallor of black-and-white reproduction.
Tubby Tompkins is the ultimate realization of John Stanley's favorite character type: the self-absorbed, tunnel-visioned Quixote who blunders through the world, never parted from the belief that his wisdom is supreme, and that everyone else is wrong.
Tubby is in rare form in "Great Day," in which he takes a special, ritualistic trip to the Sunset Diner and is coaxed into hallucinatory gluttony by his idols--blue-collar truck drivers.
Were this available in a color reprint, it would have a higher berth on this Top Ten list. "Great Day" is certainly among John Stanley's finest achievements as a writer. His grasp of the characters here--even incidental figures--brims over with life and wit. 

5) "The Outcast" (originally published in Thirteen Going on Eighteen #6, 1963; reprinted in Thirteen Going on Eighteen: The John Stanley Library, Drawn + Quarterly)

You'll read this story in a far, far better color scan than this poor sample in the first volume of Drawn + Quarterly's on-going series--an essential purchase for admirers of John Stanley's work.
The contents of Stanley's Thirteen Going on Eighteen have a loose but pervasive continuity (vaguely like Frank King's Gasoline Alley). Thus, it's tough to excise one story as an overall example of the series.
Thirteen's stories have a cumulative effect. The more you read, the more you get to know Stanley's characters, and the more you encounter their naked failures, their human failings and their heart-breaking self-delusions. Thirteen is the heaviest teen humor comic yet created. If Philip Roth wrote Archie, it might be something like this.
"The Outcast" serves as a vivid entree to the exasperating but sympathetic world of Val. She's not a female Tubby, but she subscribes to Tub's unerring self-belief, regardless of how it impacts others.
In "The Outcast," Stanley gives Val an unforgettable and utterly believable moment of complete social embarrassment, in which she reduces her older sister to tears with one reflexive, free-associative comment.
Though its impact is more complete when read in sequence, "The Outcast" shows John Stanley as a fearless interpreter of human folly. His cartooning is also incisive and highly expressive.

4) "Two Foots is Feet" (originally published in Marge's Little Lulu #94, 1955; reprinted in The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, Abrams Books)

A short story about the hilarity of language and communication, "Two Foots is Feet" also exquisitely depicts the chasm between the world of kids and the world of adults.
As well, it's one of John Stanley's funniest stories.
Perhaps my citing stories from this book is conflict of interest (I was on the editorial board, and picked this and some other Stanley pieces therein). Nonetheless, this remarkable little piece is crammed with dialogue, stakes and the sense that adults are, ultimately, bewildered by their children.

3) "Jigger"/"Jigg and Mooch" (two stories from 1947 issues of Animal Comics, reprinted in The Toon Treasury and Golden Collection of Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics, I&DW Books)

Jigger (later re-titled Jigg and Mooch) was John Stanley's first original creation for comic books. Its run was cut short with the demise of Animal Comics (also the birthplace of Walt Kelly's "Pogo"). Much more so than "Peterkin Pottle," "Jigg" had great potential, and deserved a longer run.
Existential street stories of two dogs on the make for food, shelter and kindness, "Jigg" blends thickets of black comedy and absurdity into its low-key, naturalistic narratives.
Stanley's sharp, elegant cartooning further distinguishes this series. He chose to sign this series as "Biff," for reasons unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. 
Flashes of Stanley's 1960s writing and themes appear in these stories, and show that his comedic sense was well-honed in the 1940s.

2) "Five Little Babies" (originally published in Marge's Little Lulu #38, 1951; most recently re-reprinted in The Toon Treasury, Abrams Books)

If you haven't read Stanley's Little Lulu yet, and want to know what all the fuss is about, look no further than "Five Little Babies." 

Though this is the story's third re-printing, it's the finest of them all, lovingly scanned from its original 1951 edition in large, crisp color images (1672% better than this digital scan).
Stanley's "Lulu" had many story formulas. Among them was a pre-pubescent battle of the sexes--a war of ideas, always won by the girls, often against huge odds.
"Babies" brings Wilbur van Snobbe, Stanley's original nasty little rich kid into the mix. His genuinely cruel scheme to publicly humiliate Lulu inspires the girls to a grand-scale social embarrassment scenario for the boys.
Though Stanley wrote this story-type repeatedly in his 15 years of Little Lulu, he never did it better than with "Five Little Babies." While it's not my favorite "Lulu" story, it is the one I would point a new reader to, above anything else.

1) "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" (originally published in Marge's Tubby #7, 1954; reprinted in The Toon Treasury, Abrams Books)

The first story featured on this blog, over two years ago, "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" is my personal favorite of all the John Stanley material currently in print.
Stanley's expressive cartooning garnishes this brilliant narrative, in which fantasy and reality seamlessly collide.
Garnished with nightmare imagery (quicksand, drowning, death, ghosts), "Guest" brings out the best in John Stanley's dark imagination. It's a story worthy of Roald Dahl.
Again, the Abrams book's beautiful full-size reproduction serves this story very well.
"The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" is a sort of bouillon cube of John Stanley's themes. If you like this story, you're apt to like the rest of Stanley's work.

I hope this post is of some interest, and that it might help a newcomer to Stanley's comics to find an entry-point to a remarkable (and large) body of work.


POST-SCRIPT: As I get suggestions from readers for other "top ten" candidates,  I'll add them here.

"The Little Rich Boy" (originally published in Little Lulu #40, 1951; reprinted in Little Lulu Volume 10: All Dressed Up, Dark Horse Comics)

This is, indeed, one of the best of Stanley's fractured fairy-tales. It is arguably as good an example of Stanley's Evil Rich as "Net Profit;" it's also among Stanley's stronger narratives of the 1950s.
Alas, you won't read it in color in Dark Horse's book. Its razor-sharp humor and fascinating psychology still come through loud and clear in this book's crisp black and white.
Stanley took chances in these monthly fairy-tales, and here some of his most brilliant and innovative writing occurs.
Especially in the early 1950s, Stanley could let himself get a bit unhinged in these stories, while not mussing a hair or raising an eyebrow. There is such intense control exercised in these fairy-tale segments. Wild ideas accumulate in a creative snowdrift; time and again, Stanley selects the pieces that accelerate the story, raise the stakes, and produce moments of fear, humor and even pathos.
Here is one of my favorite sequences from "The Little Rich Boy." I don't think it will ruin the story, if you haven't read it:

Orgasmic relief in a carload of yo-yos: that's the American dream!

"Little Lulu is Taken For A Ride" (originally published in "Four Color" one-shot #131, 1947; reprinted in Giant-Size Little Lulu V.1, Dark Horse Comics)

Among the longest of Stanley's Little Lulu stories, this adept comics noir can be read in full color (and read about) by clicking on the link above.

"The Gourmet" (originally published in Marge's Little Lulu #5, 1948; reprinted in Giant-Size Little Lulu V.1, Dark Horse Comics)

How on earth could I have forgotten this story? This is John Stanley's finest short story. It achieves sublime and transcendent comedy in its six pages. As well, it was a giant step forward in the development of Stanley's most fully realized character, Tubby Tompkins. Read and enjoy at the link above!

Got a Stanley favorite (in-print) that I didn't mention here? Interact!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

High Stakes and Hassled Hubbies: "Hector the Henpecked Rooster" from Animal Comics 12, 1944

Finding material for this blog has become an increasing challenge this year. More of John Stanley's comics are in print in 2010 than at any time in the past 60 years. Stories I featured here in 2008 and '09 have since been officially reprinted in books like The TOON Treasury, Art In Time, The Golden Treasury of Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics and Dark Horse and Drawn + Quarterly's ongoing Stanley reprint projects.

Aside from a few still-elusive issues of New Funnies, and the archaeological comix digs I still do through Dell Comics' back pages, there's fewer stories for me to choose from. I could, of course, run Little Lulu and Tubby stories, which are proven crowd-pleasers, but most of those are in print--or will be by the end of 2011.

So I sift through the remaining nooks and crannies. Occasionally I still have the good fortune to unearth stories such as today's humble offering.

John Stanley was about a year away from his first "Little Lulu" stories when he wrote a short batch of stories for the Dell anthology Animal Comics. Best-known as the birthplace of Walt Kelly's "Albert the Alligator" (retitled Pogo for its newspaper version, starting in 1948), Animal Comics was a hodge-podge of original material and licensed entities. The latter included Howard Garis' "Uncle Wiggily" and, for a year, newly-born characters from Famous Studios, the surviving entity of what had once been the Max Fleischer Studios.

Famous' "Noveltoons" series provided a fairly good simulacrum of the West Coast cartoons of the MGM and Warner Brothers studios, with flowing, full animation, lush Technicolor and striking musical scores by Sammy Timberg and Winston Sharples.

They struggled to create star characters. Blackie Lamb was the studio's attempt at a Bugs Bunny. A darker, more interesting series starred a feathered victim of spousal abuse, Hector Chicken. His bull-dozing, hyper-masculine wife runs and ruins his life. Only via the assistance of street-wise Herman Mouse, who scares the battle-axe $h!tless, is Herman ever briefly re-acquainted with his testicles.

Coincidentally, Famous also produced a series of Little Lulu animated cartoons, some of which are pretty good, tho' they take a far different path with the characters than the John Stanley version.

Stanley wrote a handful of these Famous-derived stories before the studio revoked their license. The Famous characters eventually wound up at Harvey Comics. Harvey bought the rights to all the Famous characters in the late 1950s. By this time, they'd been dumbed down almost to oblivion.

The early Famous Studios cartoons have much to offer, and have undergone a critical rediscovery over the past decade.

Famous' material was always dark. At worst, it was merely brutal and cruel. The underlying bleakness of their characters and scenarios somehow aligned with similar tendencies in John Stanley's writing.

This "Hector" story riffs off the Famous cartoon The Henpecked Rooster (1944). It does much more with the set-up than Famous ever managed. It also offers this first acknowledgment of a vital element in John Stanley's writing:
Stanley's characters almost never address the issue of stakes, but stakes-raising is the backbone of his narrative skill. He excelled at the creation of a problematic situation which gets increasingly worse--usually from the actions of his stories' self-obsessed, deluded protagonists.

Hector is a far cry from Tubby Tompkins, John Stanley's finest realization of this essential archetype. In this story, Stanley raises the potential for stakes-raising in his narratives, while effortlessly blending storytelling with incisive comedy. 

The plot of this story is similar to the 1935 W. C. Fields comedy Man on the Flying Trapeze. Stanley followed in Fields' footsteps in his depictions of enmeshed, co-dependent and deeply unhappy unions.

Like Fields, Stanley sided with the underdog in these effed-up relationships--which is most often the male. These unfortunates have let themselves settle for a bad situation. They're stuck with a disagreeable, inflexible mis-match, and do nothing to extricate themselves from the engulfing mire of their dilemma. They sigh, tuck their chins in and resign themselves to a lifetime of bickering and nit-picking.

Stanley's start for this story is remarkably like Fields' Trapeze. Though these stories part ways rather quickly, the obvious influence of the Fields movie is fascinating here.

For that matter, it's likely that the Famous Studios story men knew and liked the Fields films, and swiped their basic set-up from Trapeze, It's A Gift, You're Telling Me or The Bank Dick. All these movies feature Fields' grumbling, long-suffering anti-hero trying to cope with an impossible spouse. Fields' cinematic wives are hectoring, ranting killjoys. Simply by staying true to himself, even in these lessened circumstances, Fields' character wins in the end of these movies. Hid triumphs are tenuous, and it is painfully clear that he's doomed to quickly return to the ruts of bad behavior they have dug for himself.

Hector's married life is nightmarish.  His wife owns his cojones--and she's also a cannibal!

Through the smart-ass assistance of Herman and his mice brethren, Hector turns the tables on his trouble-making spouse--but the stakes are rather extreme. Chances are she'll be angrier--and meaner--than ever, upon her release from the mental hospital!

Corrosive relationships abound in Stanley's work; Loo and Sid, the candy store owner, in Dunc 'n' Loo, the pre-teen triangle of Tubby, Gloria and Wilbur in Little Lulu; Jimmy Fuzzi and Judy Junior in Thirteen Going on Eighteen and most of the character relationships in Nancy and Sluggo and Melvin Monster have something askew--or harmful--at their core.

The finished artwork for this story may have been drawn by a moonlighting Famous Studios staffer. The layout and staging are clearly of Stanley's hand. His 1940s comics are mostly set in home interiors. These settings are quite familiar to readers of his Little Lulu or New Funnies material. Whereas Carl Barks took his characters to exotic, far-flung settings for his comic book stories, John Stanley stuck close to home. No research was required, and the familiarity of the settings makes these stories still resonate with 21st-century readers.

Why circle the globe for trouble when it's all found in your living room, kitchen and bedroom? The dark domestic comedy of John Stanley offers us a reasonable world, and relatable human struggles and failings. Even in a minor work such as this, Stanley's vision is evident.