Tuesday, September 13, 2011

John Stanley's World, Pt. VI: A Violent Universe

As John Stanley's 15 years of Little Lulu stories reach a new generation of young readers, via the reprints of Dark Horse and Abrams, parents may find themselves pressed to explain certain aspects of the work.

More specifically, they may find their children curious about the constant stream of violence, implied or real, inflicted upon the cast of children by often-unbalanced, comically flawed adults.

Whether these adults are parents, authority figures such as teachers, truant officers, dog catchers or shopkeepers, or random individuals, adults pose an ongoing threat to the kids in Little Lulu. This trend continues in Stanley's later works, such as Nancy and Sluggo, Dunc 'n Loo and Melvin Monster.

From episodes of corporal punishment (spanking) to the threats of death and suffering given by McOnion, the bi-polar neighbor of Sluggo in Nancy, Melvin Monster's Baddy and the unforgettable McGrouch in the infamous "Tubby" story, "Hide and Seek" (Little Lulu 79), children lead an uncertain existence in John Stanley's world.

As much as I admire John Stanley as a writer, cartoonist, comedian and master of narrative stakes, his attitude towards children, in regards to the threat of violence, puzzles me. Where did this impulse come from in his life and work? Why is it so prevalent in his work of the 1950s and '60s?

Stanley was not alone in this school of dangerous comedy. Grimm's fairy tales commonly place children in life-threatening (sometimes fatal) predicaments. Hal Roach's Our Gang/Little Rascals film comedies--especially those made in the early 1930s--often put their titular stars in the hands of perilous adults.

In comics, one has to look no further than Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz, and its American cousin, The Katzenjammer Kids/Captain and the Kids. In comic books, Carl Barks' Donald Duck often shows the adult Donald threatening his trio of nephews with a good switchin' and other physical assaults.

The children in these sources are often mischievous, with the intent of riling the adult figures in their lives. This table-turning comedy, in which the dis-empowered kids get the upper hand for a moment, often ends with them getting spanked, kicked or otherwise assaulted for their misdeeds.

These same characters are often cruel to each another. Exaggerated mistreatment and misfortune is the basis of Western humor. Events that we would recoil from in person (Moe smacking Curly; Fatty Arbuckle slamming Buster Keaton around like a basketball; Hardy back-handing Laurel) are met with our approval, via laughter, in the safe distance of the screen.

It can't be denied--we enjoy rough treatment in our popular entertainments. The American psyche responds strongly responds to it. It provides us a cathartic 'out' for our own, socially repressed, violent urges.

Little Lulu was originally an imp character in the Busch/Knerr/Dirks mold. The Marge Buell panel cartoons of the 1930s show a parade of knowing misdeeds perpetrated on adults by the allegedly angelic Lulu.

When John Stanley inherited the Lulu character in 1945, he at first cast her in typically Buellian shenanigans. His comedic sensibility, miles above Buell's, soon took over the character and her world. In the early "Four Color" trial issues of Little Lulu (many examples of which are elsewhere on this blog), Stanley conforms to Buell's formula. Lulu, Tubby and other kids constantly hassle their parents, without undue actions. Memorably, in one early Stanley-drawn story, an adult clearly shows her outright fear of the kids:


As the series became more controlled and owned by Stanley, this power dynamic subtly shifted. True, Lulu and Tubby still get plenty over on the long-suffering adults in their lives.

In his self-imagined role of the crime-fighter "The Spider," Tubby regularly proves Lulu's father wrong in his reflexive accusations of his daughter as wrongdoer. Lulu and Tubby also thwart the sputtering, slow-burning truant officer, Mr. McNabbem like clockwork.

In the "Spider" stories, Lulu is often wrongly spanked for a crime she didn't commit. Rarely--if ever--do her parents apologize for their unwarranted punishment. Any recognition of their own short-sighted prejudices are most often done in grudging, humiliated silence.

As the children of Little Lulu become more Stanley's property than Buell's, from 1949 onward, they are often mini-adults, like the cast of Charles Schulz's Peanuts. The stories are told from their perspective. They're often cast as righteous anti-heroes, their hand forced by stubborn, misunderstanding adults.

We read the stories because of the children. They are complex, interesting figures, and their tacit quest for civil rights in an adult world--a major underpinning of the 1950s Lulu stories--is compelling.

This is precisely why Little Lulu clicks so strongly with child readers, then and now.  Modern children's fiction and non-fiction advocates for the reader's rights as bright, creative beings. I believe that 21st century kid readers appreciate the struggle of the Lulu cast. Stanley's intelligent, resourceful characters have few of the rights young 21st-century readers possess. As a near-50 student of these stories, I find the power struggles of the kids, at its best, finely wrought in its balance of broad comedy and a more serious phantom theme.

Was John Stanley a true advocate of kids' rights? Or was he just writing to knowingly please his demographic? If he was as pro-kid as the best Lulu stories suggests, why did he so often place them in threatening, disturbing scenarios with out-of-control adults?

My friend and comics-history colleague Paul Tumey offered this comment about the experience of his now 11-year old son (who is a huge Little Lulu fan) with this aspect of John Stanley's work: "It is interesting that, whenever I used to read the stories to Reid, I'd have to explain why adults were hitting and threatening to hit children in these supposedly lighthearted stories."

Paul's comment gets to the heart of the matter. Where does this current of violence against children come from? Is it merely in the service of narrative stakes--to give his readers something to root for--and for his characters to transcend?

Stanley was comics' master of status shifts, and of constantly rising narrative problems. In his finest Lulu stories, he can turn a situation, on a dime, from placid to perilous. We know and like the characters, for all their apparent flaws, and we want to see them succeed.

By putting them through rings of fire in almost every story, Stanley keeps his Little Lulu cast in constant problem-solving mode. There is, literally, never a dull moment in Stanley's mature-period Lulu.

A major component of the 1950s Lulu are the improvised fairy tales, told by Lulu to brat-next-door Alvin, in every Stanley-written issue, beginning with "Lulu In Distress: A Tragedy," in the third trial "Four Color" issue in 1946.

There is more violence against kids by adults in these 175-odd fairy tales than anywhere else in John Stanley's universe (with the exception of the constantly threatening Melvin Monster series).

Stanley clearly meant for this recurring feature to give him some relief from the ground-level domestic settings of all the other "Lulu" and "Tubby" stories. The best of these fairy-tales are among John Stanley's supreme achievements as a story-teller.

Moreover, Lulu, the narrator, relates these scenarios of peril with herself as the put-upon protagonist. In her stories, she is ridiculed, humiliated, ostracized, chased, hit, imprisoned, buried alive, handcuffed, tied up, lost in the desert or in the jungle, frozen, and otherwise regularly threatened with extinction.

The violence of these tall tales is always intended as a burlesque of pop-culture cliches--as was Stanley's unsuccessful 1949 series, "Peterkin Pottle." As in "Pottle," the violence often carries too much weight for a mere parody or nose-thumbing.

There is something deeper and more concrete behind Stanley's scenes of violence.

With the introduction of Witch Hazel, in Little Lulu 39 (1951), Lulu's fairy tales found a steady source of malice. Witch Hazel, an appropriation from the fairy tales Lulu has read, is an ill-tempered, manipulative betrayer. She is a symbol for every failing an adult can display to a child. Deceptions, entrapment, abandonment, verbal abuse and physical hostility rain down upon Lulu, via this imagined nemesis.

Stanley furthered this brand of dark self-fulfilling fantasy with the introduction of Hazel's equally berserk niece, Little Itch (in the giant-size LL and Her Special Friends, published in 1955).

Itch is a negative mirror of Lulu, melded with the assault and betrayal of Witch Hazel. Due to her age, Itch is a peer of Lulu's. Her cruelty is akin to a bullying child's--although with far greater potential for harm and humiliation.

Stanley really seemed to enjoy inflicting these two ill-doers on Lulu. In post Comics-Code America, he regularly got away with disturbing images and narratives, via these home-spun inventions of Lulu's.

Children love to be at the center of drama--the star figure of something exciting. This is clearly Lulu's intent as storyteller. She is, in every case, the victor of her encounters with these two malicious figures. There is, in these stories, a child's joy at overcoming an oppressive, cruel adult figure--just as in the "Spider" stories, when Tubby-the-detective puts the Moppet parents in their rightful place.

There is also a masochistic sense of self-punishment. These stories were created in mid-century America--an environment in which corporal punishment was condoned by leading authorities on children and their upbringing. They are very much a product of their time--and of attitudes towards child care in earlier American society.

Though Dr. Benjamin Spock eventually revised his standard work Baby and Child Care to overtly state:

I hope American parents can outgrow the conviction . . . that physical punishment is necessary to bring up well-behaved children. . . [T]here are parts of the world where it has never occurred to any adult to strike a child. I have known personally or professionally dozens of families in which the parents never lifted a hand--or otherwise punished or humiliated their children--and yet the children were ideally cooperative and polite. Children are eager to be ever more grown up and responsible...

earlier editions of this book completely side-stepped the topic. Millions of American kids in the 20th century were raised in the shadow of implied violence. One wrong move or word could send them over their parent's knee, with a hairbrush, yardstick or other household item applied to their rear.

Lulu, Tubby and Alvin constantly tiptoe around this tacit threat. They're never seriously injured, or emotionally scarred, by these unpredictable run-ins with imbalanced adults. That is, ultimately, the saving grace of Stanley's Little Lulu. The children do indeed have an upper hand, dis-empowered as they are financially and in terms of personal freedom.

Were Stanley's work only sweetness and light, it would hold no interest to us today. Readers of Stanley's work recognize the blend of dark and light in their own lives. Though violence is a constant presence in Little Lulu, it is leavened by the sheer likability of the characters and their concerns.

In Stanley's original creations for comics, the usage of violence is less well-balanced. I have already mentioned "Peterkin Pottle." Most of the stories in this short series are posted elsewhere on this blog. The series, as a whole, has undeniable virtues. The harshness of the world, in both physical and emotional terms, is often downright chilling.

One significant change from the formula of Little Lulu is that Peterkin is praised and admired by all adults in his escapist fantasies. Part of the series' chilling effect is the discrepancy between Pottle's real life and the violent but embracing world of his daydreams.

In almost all of Stanley's post-Lulu work, the violence poses a greater threat to all characters, child, animal or adult. Stanley's comedy became more exaggerated and arch after Lulu. This affected every aspect of his work. Stakes became bigger, characters became broader, and their reactions louder, harsher and more provocative.

In this sense, Stanley's post-1960 work can be exhausting. Its events are brash and intense, and its characters seem caught in a tornado of frantic movement and angst. It often proves too much of a good thing.

In Stanley's greatest mature work, Thirteen Going On Eighteen, physical violence is present, but the focus is more on the emotional stakes of its cast. Words speak louder than actions in this agitated social war front. Val and Judy's well-being hangs on the right words, the right thoughts, and the right reactions to situations.

The ultimate comedy of Thirteen is Val's constant self-demolition. Like Larry David, of the TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm, she can't leave well enough alone. She picks at her psychic scars, even as she acquires new ones from social mis-steps. We like Val, despite her train-wreck tendencies. Judy, while more balanced, and clearly Val's social guardian, also has her over-reactions and outbursts.

The bond of these characters is strong and well-wrought. Like his earlier characterizations of Lulu and Tubby, the Thirteen co-protagonists have a lot to say to us. They remind us of our best--and worst--tendencies as human beings.

Perhaps this is the key to appreciating Stanley's vision: it connects with what we often experience in our daily lives. When faced with high-stakes situations, we don't always win. We sometimes fumble socially, say the wrong thing, put our foot in our mouth.

Our lives are mostly free of the slapstick violence seen in Stanley's antic stories. We read John Stanley's work for its intelligence, wit and remarkable mastery of narrative stakes. We don't seek out the violence that lurks in all his stories.

Perhaps, in contrast to the sublime qualities of Stanley's work, this violence is disappointing. It is, on one hand, a necessary evil--a narrative tool used to keep the stakes high for his characters.

On the other, it is an agent of darkness, one that sometimes adds too many black strokes to the overall canvas of Stanley's comics.

At its worst, it cheapens the effect of Stanley's writing. At best, it is a convincing, dramatic agent that keeps his work from seeming trivial. Like it or loathe it, violence is at the heart of John Stanley's world. To accept and enjoy his work, the reader must make peace with its dark side.

(P.S.: No story this time. Readers with the time to do so may find many examples of the stories discussed in this essay, elsewhere on the Stanley Stories blog.)

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