Thursday, February 24, 2011
Beatniks, Bongos and Bourgeois Boobys: selections from Kookie #1, 1961
1961 marked a turning point in John Stanley's comic book career. He wrote the last issues of his final significant licensed-character series, Nancy and Sluggo. From then on, with three exceptions, Stanley never again worked with anyone else's characters.
It was a shot in the arm for Stanley. His two years on the Nancy title, added to 15 years on Little Lulu, left him apparently (and understandably) weary of the task of adapting outside characters to the comic book narrative form. Save for mid-1960s comics adaptations of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Clyde Crashcup, and 1969's curious Choo-Choo Charlie one-shot, Stanley only created original concepts, characters and series from 1962 forward.
His earnest attempts to get original series going in the late '40s failed. Although "Jigger and Mooch" and "Peterkin Pottle" have their rightful admirers, they simply didn't cut it, sales-wise and audience-wise, back in the day. It may have discouraged Stanley from using precious time--energy that could more productively go into Little Lulu and his other steady gigs--on the high-stakes risk of floating unknown creations.
Thank goodness the comics industry was in a state of flux in 1961. Super-heroes noodged their way back onto the shelves, while steadfast genres such as crime, western, romance and what passed for horror, post-Comics Code, dwindled or died. War comics continued to sell, as did many varieties of action-adventure and humor.
At this time, Stanley and his family lived in Greenwich Village. Perhaps this daily exposure to the bohemian vibes of that ultra-hip neighborhood inspired Stanley to try something different. For the first time in his career, Stanley created a title that was clearly aimed not at kids but at young adults, teens and college students.
Kookie, launched two months after Stanley's first original success in comics, Dunc 'n Loo, proved a quick flop. Both were collaborations with Stanley's finest artist, Bill Williams. Why one clicked and the other didn't is puzzling.
Perhaps Kookie was a little too libertine for mainstream comics. It's among Stanley's only comics with any acknowledgment of adult desires. Kookie is cast as a sorta-Candide of the espresso house scene. Given time, her role would have been more well-defined. She is, certainly, no Little Annie Fanny, but she's a great deal more voluptuous--and inspires more, shall we say, grown-up reactions from her male pursuers and admirers--than any Stanley character, before or since.
By late 1961, when its first issue hit America's news stands, beatniks were a bit on the wane. The Beat Generation still existed, and some of its more notable authors and artists continued to create vibrant, striking work. But the whole scene was already reduced to a handful of popcult cliches--Maynard G. Krebs from TV's Dobie Gillis, Ernie Bushmiller's outrageous put-downs in the newspaper version of Nancy, and countless beatnik wanna-bes in popular fiction.
Stanley's take on the beat scene owes a little to Max Shulman's Dobie Gillis sitcom, which it resembles in its cramped, grubby urban settings and with its risible, exaggerated characters. Dobie was only peripherally related to the beat scene, but the program's snappy pace and colorful patter has much in common with Stanley's work of 1962.
Here's "The Scene," the first story from the first Kookie issue. I posted a story from the second, and last issue, here. In that post, I posit some other theories about Kookie's marketplace failure.
But first, dig that righteous cover! Bill Williams' beautiful cartooning looks gorgeous in watercolor or gouache, whichever medium it's painted in.
"The Scene" is unusual for Stanley. Its narrative doesn't hinge on a single, escalating event. Rather, it paints a leisurely paced series of highly comedic vignettes--expertly designed to ease us into its quirky urban world.
Though Kookie is the star of the story, she isn't really its main focus. Like Jacques Tati's 1967 movie Playtime, "The Scene" isn't married to any one character or occurrence. Big things happen--roomie Clara's creative revenge on the bongo-mad dudes who plague her sleep; the wonderful beat poetry performance of Fleahaven; the entrance and exit of the two "bourgeois booby" richfolk; the epic cleaving of the sculptor Herman's three-story statue. Big characters crowd the stage, one after another, as Kookie watches and reacts.
Stanley does not condescend to his bohemian cast, nor exploit them for a cheap laugh. The buffoons of the piece are the two uptown types who wander into the world of Mama Pappa's expresso house--and pay for their slumming with social humiliation (witnessed by an audience who doesn't really notice or care) and a scorched leather car-seat.
Something decidedly different happens in the 18 pages of "The Scene." There's not another John Stanley story quite like it--which is a pity. "The Scene"'s expansive, democratic approach, and its creation of a world both gently and vigorously funny, suggests unfulfilled possibilities for this series (and for Stanley's work), had it lasted more than two issues.
1962 comics had to have an unrelated second feature, in order to qualify for postal distribution. "Bongo and Bop" was Stanley's solution to that need. It's a more hard-edged, brilliantly funny piece that anticipates the 1970s underground comix humor of Gilbert Shelton.
The urban landscapes of "A Breather" are familiar to Little Lulu readers. Unlike Stanley's scores of lark-in-the-park stories, this achieves a sublime level of character and black comedy, in five easy pieces (er, pages).
Bongo and Bop look somewhat alien and insectoid, with their berets, gaunt cheeks and oversized dark glasses, but Stanley once again doesn't treat them with condescension. They are a refreshing twist on his typical "Tubby Type." They're deluded, but susceptible to outside influence.
In the story's sublime ending, Bongo and Bop temporarily morph into "squares"-- until a lungful of carbon monoxide revives their true selves.
This return to form distinguishes Stanley's work. Most other humorists would have played the change to "normalcy" for boffo laffs, as if to say "See? This beatnik thing is just an affectation!" In John Stanley's world, you are what you are. Hero or zero, his characters are true to their tendencies and tics.
Stanley never again had--or gave himself--the luxury of pacing, nor the openness of his comedic attitude, that is evident in the brief life of Kookie. This is John Stanley at his warmest and most down to earth.
My next post will be the 200th for Stanley Stories. I hope to have something special to mark the occasion.