Saturday, August 13, 2011
"B-Be Careful of the Doll:" Three Stories from Little Lulu Four-Color 110, 1946--story and art by John Stanley
We haven't had any Little Lulu material in awhile. Stanley Stories readers really like seeing the early stories in color. These stories were created with color in mind. The hues that fill the shapes really complete the pages.
In thanks for your kind indulgence, as I step down from my New Funnies fixation, here's another installment of the John Stanley-drawn Little Lulu.
This was Stanley's third Lulu one-shot, with a publication date of April, 1946. In these stories, created in late 1945/early '46, Stanley feels more at home with the characters and the turf. He begins to deviate from the Marge Buell formula--and to take chances with his stories.
Today's three selections range from an unsung gem of status-shifting and gender games ("He Can't Hurt Us") to elaborate screwball comedy ("Stuff An' Nonsense") to one of Stanley's earliest pantomime pieces ("Working Girl").
"He Can't Hurt Us" takes the battleground of childhood seriously, to best engage its readers, and then turns it on its ear. It is one of Stanley's first gender-reversal comedies. Tubby is a timid, lazy male, capable of self-defense, but too easily distracted by passing whims.
Lulu steps into a father/big brother role, in an attempt to "man up" Tubby. Her efforts to teach Tub boxing are in vain. Tub resorts to a different type of "boxing" to settle his beef with Willy. I wonder if this visual pun was intentional?
Tubby is not yet the divinely self-deluded Quixote of the 1950s. He seems less smart than his later self. Lulu's inherent superiority is under-stated and quite matter-of-fact. She is far wiser in the ways of the world than either of the two males she encounters.
"He Can't Hurt Us" is less developed and focused than Stanley's best gender-war pieces of the '50s ("Five Little Babies," et al), but, as the first of its kind, it's noteworthy.
Lulu suddenly seems younger and less savvy in "Stuff An' Nonsense." This early in the game, Stanley could revise the cast of characters to suit his narrative needs. Lulu's behavior in this story would be unthinkable by the end of the "Four Color" trial run.
"Stuff an' Nonsense" is more akin to Stanley's knockabout comic narratives for the Walter Lantz characters in New Funnies. In the Lulu-verse, Stanley is able to add a layer of comedic status-shifting--the embarrassment of proper adults at the free-form actions of a child.
This 1946 Lulu is still more like the Marge original than the wise, level-headed Voice of Wisdom Stanley's version would soon become. She's very much a naive little kid, and she follows the logic of the world as she understands it, based on what little she knows.
Her intentions are sincere and thoughtful; she wants to get her mother something special for her birthday. Lulu is not set on mischief, as she is in the Marge cartoon panels, on in the earlier issues of Stanley's Lulu. Her innocence and Tubby-like stubbornness to stay on task makes her an unconscious agent of chaos.
The idea of bringing a horse into a suburban household is right out of an Irene Dunne screwball comedy movie. Stanley is aware of the inherent humor, but he furthers the impact by contrasting Lulu's sober determination with the wrinkle it throws in her mother's social life. (She has the priest over, for goodness sakes!)
The three adults suffer shock, embarrassment and physical discomfort from the invasion of Edgar, the decrepit horse, into their civilized daily doings. Like Tubby, in "He Can't Hurt Us," Lulu is literally boxed in at story's finis. She loses her magenta frock and is given a social humiliation (near-nakedness) that she doesn't yet grok. She knows she's in trouble, but also that she's too young to really get reamed for her misbehavior.
Typical of Stanley's earlier Lulu stories, "Stuff an' Nonsense" ends on a note of self-awareness. Lulu may seem an innocent, but she knows how to work the system, based on the limited power she has as a kid. Stanley would hone this power-struggle to perfection in his early 1950s Little Lulu stories.
"The Working Girl," as said, is told without dialogue. It is fast-paced, and it invites the reader to consume it quickly. Details are almost diagrammatic, and nothing goes unsaid.
"Working Girl" is a straightforward chain-of-events comedy, told with only a handful of functional words. Stanley had a knack for these silent stories, but there are few full-length pieces such as this in his portfolio. He more often used pantomime for one-page fillers, such as these two, also from this issue:
The last piece makes clever use of page width. It also shows Stanley's trait for ending a story before it really ends. Most other comics creators would have added that last panel, in which the Scottie dog bites the phallus/weiner balloon, and both parties startle at the resultant BANG!
By eliding that obvious finale on the page, we're allowed to let it happen in our heads. This is far more satisfying and makes us readers feel plumb smart.
Stanley's cartooning is far tighter here than in the previous Lulu one-shots. A stronger, more assured pen line gives these stories more visual oomph. He seems not as hidebound by Marge's rotten character designs and breathes genuine life into his cast.
Animals a la Stanley are always a delight. Edgar, the obese, oblivious horse in "Stuff," is particularly funny and nicely cartooned. The sprightly, angular Scottie dog in the one-pager is also spot-on.
The sparse, functional interiors are akin to Charles Schulz's, in the early years of his Peanuts strip. Both artists were producers of slick magazine gag cartooning, and understood that the settings simply needed to be there, and be tidy.
Stanley's urban cityscapes and household interiors are more elaborate than Schulz's. He had larger panels, and longer narratives in Little Lulu. Such details counted for far more here than in the pint-sized newspaper strips of Schulz.
Stanley avoids the flat proscenium view in his panel compositions. There is a constant suggestion of depth and dimension in these simple drawings. Stanley varies his viewpoints, from long shots (to depict a comedic event in detail) to middle shots (best suited for conversational scenes) to effective use of close-ups.
He invests the elemental linework with enough depth to make its recognizable, inhabitable world come alive for the reader. As well, all straight lines are ruled, which gives the settings a solidity. Color, as said, was the final touch. Without it, these stories have a ghastly, under-nourished look.
John Stanley was a thoughtful cartoonist with strong attention to detail. Whether his work is tight (as here) or loose and free (his "Peterkin Pottle" and "Raggedy Ann and Andy" stories), it always has authority and a strong presence.
This would be the last Lulu artwork he would create (save for the title's covers) until 1951. Stanley's duties as writer, on a number of series, made the labor of cartooning Lulu a liability. He had bigger fish to fry (or so he thought) as he strived to create original comics series from 1946-49. Lulu was his inevitable touchstone, and by decade's end, he was resigned to his role as writer of this highly successful comic-book iteration.