Friday, March 25, 2011

"Adventures of Tom:" Stanley's Other Fractured Feline, from Our Gang Comics 49 and 50

I am sad to say that I'm exhausting my reserves of John Stanley material! It is a reminder of how much of his work is currently back in print--the entirety of his Little Lulu (except for the six giant-size specials of the '50s), a good deal of Tubby, all of Melvin Monster and, eventually, the remainder of Stanley's post-Lulu humorous comics.

The only open territory is the 1940s and '50s material that doesn't feature Marge Buell's properties. There's still some of that to go. That will involve some serious scanning on my part.

For today, here are two delightfully perverse stories from the "Adventures of Tom" series in Dell's Our Gang Comics. These are the last two Stanley wrote, from his short second term as the writer of "Tom and Jerry" and this feature, in 1948. (Many of Stanley's stories from this second run are posted on the blog now, including this alarming double-feature.)

By this time, John Stanley was dialed into the character of Little Lulu's Tubby Tompkins--easily the most complex and compelling figure in his comics work. Tubby's self-delusional personality, and his refusal to face reality or conform to societal expectations, rubbed off handsomely on Tom Cat. For the first and only time in the character's long mass media career, Tom was endowed with a neurotic, believable persona in these Stanley-written stories.

Tom is a hapless soul, and could benefit from some intense therapy sessions. But, like Stanley's colorful losers, he is fascinating. He does the wrongest things with the highest fervor and we sit back and watch it happen, unable to change the flawed course of his behavior.

Much like Tubby Tompkins, Tom is obsessed with an unobtainable romantic partner. Toots, a svelte white cat seen in some of the MGM animated cartoons, has him constantly crawling on his knees, in a mode of unending humiliation and torment over someone he'll never really have. He's cut short by a better-off rival, Bob Cat, who is clearly making more money than Tom, is a snappier dresser (Tom chooses to "go native" in his grey-and-white birthday suit) and a far more aggressive asshole.

In Stanley's world, the Bob Cats always get the girl. The Toms are doomed to dream and make repeated failed attempts at a prize they'll never, ever win. Does this keep them from making this conquest their life's goal? You, of course, know the answer to this question.

From OGC #49:

Tom's low social status, his cruel treatment by Toots and Bob Cat, and his near-death-by-drowning experience make this a particularly disturbing story. In anticipation of Stanley's more distanced, omniscient tone of his 1960s comics, Tom is adrift and helpless in a world that really doesn't want him around.

His poverty forces him to cut corners in his doomed romantic quest. We see him hitch a non-paying ride on a streetcar (clearly not the first time he's done this, given his familiarity with the position).  More sadly, we watch him squeeze under the beachside dressing room in order to avoid the 50 cent entry fee.

Tom's almost-death scene, which occurs on pp. 4 and 5, is as intense as Stanley's horror comics of the 1960s. As he struggles to hold his breath, his tail entombed in a giant oyster shell, his mind plays out probability scenarios in which Toots and Bob are married, have children, and have clearly forgotten about Tom. Tom's enormous ego saves his life. He can't stand these thoughts, and they upset him enough to not succumb to the sleep in the deep.

This sequence, which ends with an ignoble Tom emerging from the sea, the huge oyster trailing behind him, is downright grim. He is greeted with contempt by Toots and Bob. Yes, he finds a huge pearl inside the oyster. And, yes, Toots is swayed by Tom's sudden wealth. But do you honestly think anything good will come of this?

Tom resolves to play it cooler towards Toots, as he hitches another non-paying ride home, but the writing's on the wall. We don't see the scenes that follow, but we can imagine them. Pure cartoon noir: Tom wines and dines Toots until his money runs out. When he's poor again, Toots rebounds to Bob, and Tom is again an agitated outsider.

And there's more! This remarkable (and final) "Adventures of Tom" story brings Tom's rich cognitive biases to the fore. Again, his ego drives his actions in this story, aided by his enormous fantasy life, which blurs the lines of reality for the poor addled feline.

This is another disquieting story. Some of Stanley's wittiest writing graces its dialog. Tom's "Tubby Talk" reinforces his characteristic belief that he is right in all things, and that it's obvious everyone should regard him as a brilliant, charismatic being.

Stanley shows us the dichotomy between Tom's deluded self-image and the harsh reality of his life. He prepares for an abysmally failed chat with his would-be GF, Toots, as he bubbles over with optimism, self-assurance and wit.

The call fails, and he flies into a rage. His resolve to become a hermit is simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking. Tom's inventory of his "chattel" is one of the most sublime moments in the John Stanley catalog.

His waking dream of revival, 40 years in the future, pushes the envelope of Tom's character and motivation. He sees himself almost half a century hence--bearded, toothless and cackling. He, of course, has to look up Toots, who is older, fatter, and, of course, married to Bob Cat. Tom gets an eyeful of Toots' shapely daughter and makes a Larry David-worthy decision. If you strike out with the mother, why not go for her daughter?

This is a perverse stroke of Tom's hyperbolic imagination. Of course, Tom's fantasies play out exactly like his real life. He wakes from his dream, again enraged, and returns to the real world for more suffering. The story ends on a characteristic off-note--while the conclusion is funny, it seems incomplete. Given how fragmented and frustrating poor Tom's life is, this finis is appropriate.

I don't know if Stanley knew this would be his last "Adventures of Tom" story, or if he cared. These last two installments, among the darkest of Stanley's pre-1960 work, are bracing chapters in a troubled, unhappy comic-book existence. His Tom, as I've commented before, is far more sympathetic and interesting than the Hanna-Barbera version. I can't imagine anyone allowing a modern-day cartoon character to be reshaped so darkly and carefully as is John Stanley's Tom Cat.

Well, now to get back to writing some Wacky Packages gags...


Thad said...

Loved both of these stories, but that's sure not Eisenberg doing the art. I actually quite like the writing of the stories he illustrated, when Tom became a manipulative bastard towards the mice. I fondly recall one where he invents a cure for the common cold, and to have guinea pigs for the experiment, he douses the mice in water and throws them in the freezer!

I sure wish Stanley wrote more of these Tom stories. They remind me of Tubby, but Tom is a young adult, therefore the range of possibilities is greater. Buying a 40 year supply of goat's milk and living off it as a hermit-maryr is sure a hilariously disgusting bit of writing, and I thank you for sharing.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Thad,

Always an honor to have your comments here. Thanks for your clarification on Eisenberg/not. The art in the second story does look a bit like his. He had a distinctive way of drawing trees that I thought was evident in that story.

I'm very familiar with the Eisenberg trees. At age 19, via some of those beautiful Foxy Fagan comics, I imitated his approach quite often. At age 48, when I have to draw trees, I can't shake the Eisenberg influence--I always have to re-draw them!

I know that he illustrated at least one of John Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories, which is posted elsewhere on this blog.

Eisenberg is one of the most appealing funny animal artists in comics. I do wish he and Stanley could have worked together regularly...

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

Just discovered this blog post, super!

Need to read more Stanley!

Unknown said...

These "Adventures of Tom" stories are great, and so is the artwork! For years -- decades, actually -- I've been eager to know who the artist was (I know it's not Harvey Eisenberg, as much as I also love Eisenberg's art). Can anyone identify the artist of these stories?