Monday, January 31, 2011

Nancy and Sluggo Summer Camp special, 1960, Pt. 1: Serial Stalking, Addled Adults and Confused Kids

I've held off on using much material from John Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo comics, in deference to Drawn + Quarterly's ongoing series. It'll likely be awhile before they reprint the two summer camp specials of 1960 and 1961.

Thus, given the drying up of usable non-Little Lulu material I have, necessity commands that I mete out this 80-page giant for your reading and perusing pleasure.

This special comic book served as a gateway for the release of some of John Stanley's inner darkness. Said darkness bubbles up in the latter run of Little Lulu (the story "Hide and Seek," featured elsewhere on this blog, is a potent example).

The careful contrast of dark and light is the cornerstone of John Stanley's vision. At the end of the 1950s, the dark began to overwhelm the lighter aspects of his work. It seems inevitable that comic book creators' bitterness leaked into their work, as the years piled up. It happened to Jack Cole and Carl Barks, two other major creative forces of the American comic book. Their later work impresses--and depresses--with its glum, dimmed tone.

In Barks' case, it seemed to be 60-something crankiness. His 1960s stories cast an increasingly jaundiced, cynical eye on a changing, modernized world. Barks scowls at Space-Age America's fads and fancies, and declares most of it piffle.

In Cole's case, as my friend and colleague Paul Tumey has surmised, it might have been shame and feelings of personal inadequacy--the sense that nearly 20 years spent in comics may have been a squandering of his creative life-force.

We shall never know for certain what motivated Cole to the bleak themes and actions of his last years. Barring yet-undiscovered data, we may also never know for certain what changed Stanley's world-view at the close of the 1950s.

Stanley became less concerned with character, and more with cause and effect, in his post-Lulu comics. This is especially evident in his Nancy and Sluggo stories. The characters are almost completely shorn of defining characteristics. They're less characters than icons, symbols, or game-pieces.

Indeed, their stories read like chess matches. The storytelling passion that informs the best years of Stanley's Lulu is now cooled. An omniscient, indifferent hand moves the pieces around the "board" of the pages and panels. The moves and counter-moves of the game-pieces are still archly comedic. This is a masterful hand--one with experience and confidence. The personal connection is minimal.

Yet this wise guiding hand is not cynical. Perhaps Stanley decided to streamline his process. Streamlining and ease of efforts were goals of the Space Age mindset. The 19th century of America business had been all about doing big things the hard way. The post-war attitude was all about comfort, ease of use and not breaking a sweat.

In this push-button, spray-can age, the less effort expended, the better the product. Stanley does not break a sweat in his Nancy and Sluggo stories. Neither does he phone them in. In this first segment of the 1960 summer camp special, the Space-Age push-button approach dominates--as does a more reflexive, brassy comedic sense...

These books' inside front covers were illustrated contents pages that read like the pre-credits teasers of '50s TV shows. These panels are not direct lifts from the stories inside. They're bouillon cube moments that sometimes conflate events. All the major themes of Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo are highlighted on this black-and-white intro page.

As with the Little Lulu summer camp specials, this book is a suite of short, inter-connected stories. They cut back and forth to different sub-plots which, as the final teaser panel above notes, converge.

The most interesting character in Stanley's Nancy universe is Sluggo. He is the sort-of Tubby to Nancy's quasi-Lulu. Yet Sluggo is far more the outsider than the eccentric but socially connected Tubby.

Sluggo has no parents, no relatives, and no means of visible support. He lives on his own in a ramshackle (abandoned?) house, its lawn strewn with junkyard tidbits, its inside squalorous.

Sluggo's dilemma is known to all, and although he has some societal acceptance, he's still left to fend for himself. He is an abandoned soul just trying to cope.

In both the N&S summer camp specials, Sluggo is excluded from the woodsy ritual. As all his friends joyously prepare for their summer of sylvan fun, Sluggo faces a summer alone and further abandoned...

Desperate and hopeful, Sluggo tries to impress the powers-that-be, and to thus win a free ticket to summer-camp fun. His efforts to succeed incur the wrath of one of Stanley's most frightening characters, the sociopathic hair-trigger Mr. McOnion. Run, Sluggo, run!

The creeping, inexorable and passionless pursuit of Sluggo by McOnion is deeply disturbing stuff. It's clearly supposed to be funny. Its nightmarish quality (relentless pursuit, in which the pursued never escapes or gets ahead) is as vivid as the subconscious mind-fudgery of Stanley's "horror comics" of 1961-62.

Meanwhile, we encounter the other sociopathic anti-star of the N&S universe, Rollo Haveall. Rollo is easily the most malicious of Stanley's "evil rich" characters. He outdoes the worst excesses of Little Lulu's rich kid Wilbur, via his own dispassionate agenda.

Wilbur van Snobbe can be an a-hole, but he does have human feelings. Via his conflicts with Lulu and her friends, Wilbur occasionally cottons to the idea that humanity trumps material wealth. Rollo is a robotic blend of Richie Rich and Hitler Youth. Wealth automatically entitles him to do whatever he wants. He doesn't question his motives; he has been bred for superiority. If anyone is harmed, money will hush them up.

There's no joy in Rollo's antics. At first, his droll indifference to humanity earns some shock-value chuckles. But extended exposure to his toxic persona proves as disturbing as McOnion's slow... plodding... death march.

Stanley's most imaginative decoration to the N&S world was the other-worldly Oona Goosepimple. This Charles Addams-esque monster-child anticipates the "funny horror" craze of the mid-1960s, which included the popular TV series The Munsters and The Addams Family and John Stanley's original creation for comics, Melvin Monster.

Like Lulu's improvised fairy-stories, Oona was a release-valve for the formulaic constraints of this licensed property. It gave Stanley a place to express himself, and a forum for free-form thinking. His Nancy books perk up noticeably when they focus upon Oona and her inexplicable, topsy-turvy universe.

Note that the artist on this one story is not Dan Gormley. The pen line is looser and spikier. I'm not sure who illustrated "Oona Takes the Subway..." Tony Tallarico, possibly...?

We then return to the recognizable world for some campground shenanigans. Another Stanley invention, the gluttonous Eadie, appears.

We end this first installment with the pursuit of Sluggo by McOnion. His emotionally neutral affect is particularly disturbing here--as are his multiple-personality mood swings. This is Child Abuse 101, presented as zany Space-Age fun!

 to be continued...

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