Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Stanley's World, pt. IV: Stanley's Soundscape

John Stanley's World:
Stanley's Soundscape

Comics, as a bridge between the written word and the moving picture, extensively utilize the former (as a necessity) and constantly suggest the latter. Although a silent medium, the comic strip or book has continued to compete with movies and TV, and hold its own.

This has been dependent on the developing vocabulary of onomatopoeia. Every WHOOSH, WHAM, SLAM and THUD (and their myriad variants) suggest the presence of sound, and abet the illusion of movement, in these fixed, mute boxes. They became a camp cliche in the 1960s, thanks to Marvel Comics' excessive, florid use of them, and via the network TV series Batman, which played up their cornball obviousness for comedic effect.

Even in 2010, when a newspaper (remember them?) runs a piece on comics, even if its subject is the most modern trends in non-mainstream material, chances are its unimaginative editor will have slapped a WHAM! or ZAP! into the headline. Onomatopoeia is a bedrock of the comics form. To many creators, it has been a necessary evil, to be used despite itself, or as a lazy way out of depicting complex scenes of action or destruction. (You could assemble a fat anthology of the off-panel CRUNCHes, BOOMs and TH-WACK!s that have occurred throughout the comic book's history.)

Others, among them John Stanley, embraced this sub-language of comics and brought it to the forefront in a vibrant and creative way.

Onomatopoeia was long a staple of newspaper comics. By the 1930s (the peak era of the continuity strip in American newspaper), several cartoonists made dramatic and highly visual usage of sound effects in their work. Roy Crane, Harold Gray, V. T. Hamlin, Chester Gould and Dick Moores come immediately to mind.

The concept of sound effects as a decorative, attention-getting element in the comics was clearly fixed before 1930, but these and other artists brought them to the fore and made them a component in the design of their panels, etc.

In the 1940s, comic books' use of onomatopoeia was all over the map. I've chosen three examples from 1940-44 comic magazines to show the spectrum of styles.

Some creators opted out of sound effects, as in this excerpt from the "Superman" story in Action Comics #27, 1940:
The absolute lack of SFX from these scenes of bending metal and ripping wood seems rather eerie. Author Jerry Siegel seldom used onomatopoeia. His stories tend to have a solemn feeling for their absence.

This panel, from Mystery Men Comics #7 (1940) shows the most common usage of sound effects in comic books. This is what the average person thinks all comic books are like:

Some early comic book creators made creative use of onomatopoeia--Will Eisner, Sheldon Mayer, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Dick Briefer and, most significantly, Jack Cole. Cole reveled in sound effects, and made them a vital part of his narrative and visual landscape. Typical of his mid-1940s use of onomatopoeia is this page from Plastic Man #2, 1944:
Cole's use of sound effects as a visual element would become more baroque in the late 1940s. (You can read a truckload of Jack Cole stories--and intelligent commentaries on them--at Paul Tumey's fine blog Cole's Comics. Paul, in fact, suggested the topic of this essay. Thanks, Paul!)

Onomatopoeia was warmly embraced at Western Publications (creator and packager of Dell's popular comics line). Its three major "star" artist-writers -- Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and John Stanley -- leaned on them extensively in their earliest stories.

Most conservative in his use of onomatopoeia was Carl Barks. Here's a chosen-at-random page from a 1944 "Donald Duck" story (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #48). The two instances of SFX are vibrant but measured. They're here to serve the story--not to call attention to themselves.

Onomatopoeia was to Walt Kelly what a wallow is to a hog. Kelly used its devices as a kind of music, in concert with the florid, playful dialogue (and dialect) of his archly comedic characters. Here's a robust example from Animal Comics #9, also 1944:

Each BOO RAWP, OOP, ULP and CLANK are exultant to Kelly. Kelly's onomatopoeiac joy seems to have made a strong impression on John Stanley, as he began his comic book career.

From his first comics story...

to his last...

onomatopoeia, volume variance and SFX presentation are an essential part of John Stanley's comedic universe. How Stanley used onomatopoeia tells a story of its own, throughout his almost 30-year career in the American comic book.

Stanley's personal contributions to the language of comics include the following:

 ZAZ (and its cousin, WHAZ)
this effect was used in the late 1940s, then abandoned until the late 1950s. ZAZ becomes one of Stanley's major onomatopoeia choices in his 1960s efforts.

CHOFF (and its derivative, CHOMPF)
 Stanley used CHOFF through-out his career. It's associated with Tubby Tompkins in Little Lulu, but all of Stanley's characters (those who ate greedily or for a comedic or stakes-raising purpose) choffed or chompfed their way through their comestibles. (Choff is used as a verb, at least once, by Stanley; see for yourself HERE.)

KRAAAKL (in various spellings and configurations):
Most often used in Stanley's Little Lulu and Tubby stories, this sound effect connotes either gluttony or a sort of autism associated with liquid consumption. As seen in this example from Dunc 'n Loo, it often has an annoying effect on its target.

It may surprise readers to learn that YOW is not a Stanley creation. Stanley certainly made it his own. There are many YOWs in comic books, comic strips and animated cartoons before Stanley's first usage (as the derivative YOWEECH) in his first comic book story, which you can read HERE.

One could wallpaper a room with all Stanley's uses of YOW, throughout his comics career. It's his one-size-fits-all exclamation. It can connote:




YOW is the mantra of the John Stanley character. It is all things to all people, animals or supernatural creatures.

YOW is not an automatic guarantee of John Stanley authorship--especially in post-1950 Dell comics. As I've discussed here before, Stanley's writing 'tics' were often adopted by less creative writers who also worked for Western Publications.

One Western staffer, Dick Hall, was greatly influenced by John Stanley's approach to comics. Hall was among the creators who took over Stanley's berth in Walter Lantz New Funnies in 1948.

According to the research of comics historian Alberto Becattini, Hall (who, I think, wrote his own material) had previously done the first two Woody Woodpecker one-shots, published in late 1947 and early '48. He also did some Stanley-esque stories, featuring the Lantz characters, for the March of Comics giveaway series produced by Western.

Hall deserves some props as a comics creator. Like Stanley, he was a journeyman. He worked for Lev Gleason, Hillman and, later, Gold Key. He fashioned a distinctive style, based on Stanley's work, and continued to write decent material into the 1950s. I'll do a separate post on Hall someday soon.

As Hall and others demonstrate, the affect of Stanley was imitable, but the soul and substance of his writing were not. Others could simulate Stanley's visual-verbal cues (YOW and such), approximate the frenzy of physical action and energy seen in Stanley's work, and still come up short.

That Stanley's vision was innately commercial is borne out by the influence his style had on Western in the 1950s. Until 1957 or so, when Stanley's writing and approach began to shift into a brassier, bolder mode, a superficial simulacrum of his comics style occurs constantly in the East Coast-produced Dell titles.

Another tic of Stanley's, used by all cartoonists, past, present and future, is his "Ha! Ha! Ha!" The way Stanley uses this device--to connote scorn, disapproval, social humiliation or triumphal revenge--distinguishes itself in his work.

John Stanley was among the few comics creators to combine creative onomatopoeia with a suggestion of volume, tone of voice and atmosphere. While this trend is seen throughout his career, it moves to the forefront--with a series of refinements--beginning in 1955.

Stanley's 1940s funny-animal work often affects a brassy, strident tone, as seen in this 1947 "Oswald Rabbit" page from Four-Color #143:
We see four distinct levels of voice tone on this page--from normal speech to ecstatic shriek. Combined with frantic physical action, this page is analogous to a scene from a Preston Sturges movie. These are loud comics.

Stanley tamped down these tendencies, on occasion, as the creator of Little Lulu. For stretches of his earlier Lulu stories, there are three voice-tones: normal speech, emphasis speech and emotional exclamations. All three tones are seen on this page, picked at random:
The overall feel is similar to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie of the late 1920s and early '30s. The volume is mostly "indoor voice," but outbursts are allowed for dramatic effect or narrative emphasis.

Stanley was inconsistent with his self-imposed rules. Even in the "quiet" period of Lulu, there are outbursts of hooliganism. Here are two examples, from Lulu #14 and 24, published in 1949 and 1950:
These pages are typical of Stanley's work, throughout his career. He never lost his fondness for aggressive shifts in volume, or for making his onomatopoeia jump off the page. That said, outbursts like this are less common in the Lulu of 1948-53 than elsewhere in Stanley's comics career.

The less flamboyant Lulu grounded Stanley as a writer--and provided his breakthrough to mass-market popularity.

The dialed-down tone of Little Lulu allowed Stanley to, for the first time, truly inhabit the skin and bones of his characters. He had written compelling character-studies before Lulu, most notably in his "Woody Woodpecker" stories of 1944-47. With Lulu, Stanley learned creative discipline. He had to. He was in charge of a major licensed property, and entrusted by the character's creator to do the right thing.

Boiled down, by 1949, into a series of bullet-proof story formulas, Stanley's Little Lulu rivals George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Chuck Jones' Road Runner animated cartoons as an exquisite expression of endless variations on a set of rigid themes.

Although this approach is more often borne of cynicism and mass-production, it can bear great riches in the right hands. Stanley used repetition of themes and incidents to solidify and deepen his characters. Thus, they felt real to millions of faithful readers.

Such discipline was not easily sustained. In his side-projects of the '50s, such as Krazy Kat and his eight-issue run as artist-writer of Tubby, Stanley let his wilder, looser sensibilities run rampant.

Compare these August, 1951 pages from KK #2 and  LL #34 :

Although the events in the LL page are far freakier than those on the KK, the difference in their energy is striking.

Both are recognizable as Stanley's work. It becomes clear that the characters themselves dictate the energy of the work. The usually unflappable Lulu chills out everything around her.

Stanley's antic re-imagining of Herriman's Kokonino Krew gave him a runway for his humor's inherent frenzy. Characters are physically and emotionally affected by their surroundings, and by the actions of others. Though the stakes are far higher for Lulu (becoming a "cute ghost"), Krazy's burrow into Offisa Pupp's living room is treated as a much bigger event--with more movement and noise.

As Stanley increasingly relaxed into Little Lulu in the 1950s, more of his true nature rises to the surface. The eight issues of Tubby he wrote and drew seemed to revitalize him. After 1954, the dry, tight tone finally leaves Lulu. Stanley's truly masterful comics period begins.

Harbingers of this mature style could be seen here and there. Here's another comparison of two contemporary pages--one from the fourth Tubby, the other from Little Lulu #58--both with April, 1953 publication dates.

These 1953 pages are more energetically matched. Stanley's artwork, on the first page, teems with energy. Irv Tripp's page, below, doesn't. But the events of the pages, and the reactions of the characters--and the variance of volume tones--are quite close.

The Lulu page is, in fact, louder than the Tubby. This is the template for the general intensity-level of Stanley's mature period. The mature Stanley has enormous range--from a whisper to a tsunami. The range isn't as extreme in either of these 1953 pages, but it's markedly different from the diffident approach of the 1951 Lulu page.

This '53 page has another career-spanning Stanley sound signifier: the placement of a sound effect in a speech balloon. Stanley used this affect often in the first two years of his comics career, and then soft-pedaled it for a few years. It is fairly common in his '50s material--most significantly in his eight self-drawn issues of Tubby.

Here's an example from Stanley's second "Andy Panda" story, published in 1943:

In the early 1960s, Stanley made the SFX-in-balloon one of his major stylistic tics. It's constant throughout his comics work...

This device, though downplayed during the austere Lulu period (1948-1953), never quite left Stanley's arsenal. It's a distinctive way to weave sound effects into the comic book story's fabric. I can't think, offhand, of another mainstream comic book creator of this era who used this technique.

Gilbert Shelton put sound effects into balloons in his early 1960s Wonder Wart-hog stories. He continued using this device through the 1970s and '80s. I can't recall if the last new work I've seen of his, Not Quite Dead, still features SFX-in-balloons.

It is memorably used by Stanley and Shelton to dryly underscore the monotony, futility or absurdity of their characters' actions. The traditional manner of showing SFX--as bright, bold, aggressive "floating words"--makes them seem like they're happening despite the presence of the characters. Stanley's ballooning makes a case that the SFX occur because of the characters' actions. The SFX are more intimately tied to the action via this enclosure.

Stanley also used specificity to make his sound effects funnier. As early as 1944, Stanley was hep to the potential of this specific-SFX comedy:

By the 1960s, repetition of common SFX, alone or in groups, was a major source of Stanley's comedic sense and of his timing:

Compare these three 1960s pages to the "quiet" period of Little Lulu. These offer a much more expressive soundtrack to the reader. Characters (and inanimate objects) raise their voices, act out more often, up the stakes of their narrative, and make a lot of racket in general.

Shouting matches started in mid-1950s Little Lulu. For comparison's sake, here is an argument sequence from 1949, and another from 1956:

In the 1949 sequence, the boys have a discussion that allows for several potential levels of volume--from normal speech to retorts to defensive response. It works because of the quality of the writing, and Stanley's growing investiture in his characters.

The 1956 page offers four visual levels of volume, and implies a much livelier "sound" overall. The reader is invited to "hear" the inflections of Lulu and Annie's speaking voices. Stanley is so deep into these characters that he can direct us to read these changes in tone on the silent printed page.

A fine example of Stanley's mastery of his comics soundscape is "Camping Out," from the last issue of Dunc 'n Loo, published in 1963. Collaborator Bill Williams really got Stanley's concepts on sound volume in the comics page. Oh, projectionist...

Sound effects and atmosphere are as much the stars of "Camping Out" as Dunc or Loo. This story shows Stanley on his A-game as both entertainer and sound technician. 

At this peak, Stanley achieved an alchemy of sound and silence not before seen on the comic book page. His innovations in comics sound, throughout his career, are as significant as his narrative or character-building skills. All these elements work together to distinguish his comics creations.

Gilbert Shelton, as I've said before, seems to have inherited this mantle of comics' foremost "sound man." But John Stanley, to the best of my knowledge, exploited sound, in the mainstream comic book, better and more thoroughly than anyone else.

You don't just read a John Stanley comic--you also hear it in your head. Its sounds are richly orchestrated, and add value to even the simplest of plots and conflicts.