Monday, September 26, 2011

John Stanley's World, Pt. VII: Stanley's Status-Seekers

In my ongoing study of John Stanley's work in comics, I explore various Dell Comics publications, more or less at random. My hope is to find undiscovered Stanley work. Most of the time I come up empty-handed, and slightly depressed at the badness of the material I've scrutinized.

Stanley's 1940s work is easy to spot. At this time, his narrative and comedic tendencies still in development, Stanley's writing stands out from that of Walt Kelly, Frank Thomas, Gaylord DuBois and others in editor Oskar Lebeck's stable. (More about this talented group at the end of this essay...)

The 1950s saw the rise of a group of creators who, either by editorial command or from their own admiration, assimilated the surface quirks of Stanley's writing style. Dick Hall, Frank Thomas and various other creators saw a successful thing and did their best to meet it. Thus, '50s Western Printing-created comics (published by Dell) abound with stories that, upon a casual reading, might seem to be Stanley's work.

The superficial trappings are there: broad, brassy SFX, the use of "Yow!" and other Stanley-associated phrases, aggressive physical action and frenzied comedic finales. The affect is almost convincing, but that extra level of depth--the quality that distinguishes Stanley's work in comics--just isn't there.

The "Stanleyisms" I've written about are a sure thing when looking at his work of the 1940s and 1960s. In the '50s material, with so many homages by Stanley's peers, it is the quality of the characters that makes the difference. In particular, it is the central figure in all of Stanley's work--the character he takes the most interest in, and subjects to his wildest whims as a storyteller.

I've called this figure the "Tubby Type" here before. As Stanley's interpretation of the Tubby Tompkins character, from Little Lulu, is the richest, most well-rounded figure in his 30 years of comics creation, that's an apt title. Yet it's also limiting. Stanley's outsider figures embrace a dramatic and emotional range that goes beyond the boundaries of the child figure, Tubby.

At the risk of getting sneers and chuckles, I've named this figure the Aggressive or Alienated Status Seeker. Yes, I know what the acronym for this is--and I intend to use it throughout this essay!

The, er, ASS is the most vivid figure in any John Stanley story. He/she/it is the voltage that powers his narratives. This character was not Stanley's creation. It goes back to the earliest traditions of comedy, from at least the commedia dell'arte trend of 16th-century Italy. (I'm not well-read on Greek or Roman theater, and it's possible there are such figures in those traditions as well.)

This figure is not just a gadfly. The ASS needs very badly to belong to the world around them. That world doesn't necessarily want them among its numbers. Not having societal acceptance goads these figures to take desperate measures--always at the expense of their well-being and dignity.

Silent American cinema is full of comedic ASSes: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Fields, Linder, Laurel and Hardy... Some comedians (W. C. Fields in particular) refined this figure and successfully translated them to talking pictures. Laurel and Hardy's characters became more domesticated in the sound era, but still displayed traits of the comedic outsider from time to time.

The 1930s brought a contrasting, more anarchic figure to American comedy: the screwball. This figure is a trouble-maker, a threat to society, and a trampler of affectations and conventions. The screwball is here to stay in American comedy. The Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, The Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis, Sarah Silverman, et al, have no high stakes in mind. They enter a stock societal set-up, bungle and bicker their way into chaos, annoy and aggravate the high-status characters, take a look at the debris they've created, and scram.

These figures don't give a damn whether the world loves them or hates them. Depression-era audiences took to the screwball character, and it has remained in the trick bag of American comedy. Successively worse, more abrasive corruptions of this figure abound in network TV sitcoms and mainstream movies.

In its finest manifestation--the Warner Brothers cartoon character Bugs Bunny--the screwball is capable of depth, stakes and likablity. It takes a sure hand and a sound wit to make a Bugs Bunny work. Many have tried--and failed--to create such figures, especially in the American comic book.

This was John Stanley's first task, as a professional comics writer--to adapt screwball animated cartoon characters for Western titles such as New Funnies and Our Gang Comics. By the end of 1943, his first year as a comics writer, Stanley had assigned narrative depth to these flyweight figures.

His first notable screwballs are Charlie Chicken, in the "Andy Panda" short stories (visually based on a nameless character in the 1943 animated short, Meatless Thursday) and the diaper-wearing Tuffy Mouse in the "Tom and Jerry" series.

With the assignation of Marge's Little Lulu in 1945, Stanley again took screwball licensed characters and gradually imbued them with very real, and human, stakes and needs. By the end of the 1940s, Stanley had this down cold. With seemingly casual effort, Stanley spun hundreds of stories around the concepts of status (and its lack thereof).

Stanley understood that, for his stories to succeed, the reader had to care about the characters--even the gadflies in his cast needed something of value.

Thus, by 1948, his Little Lulu was no longer the cipher/imp of the Marge Buell gag cartoons (or the Famous Studios animated films, which had, by this time, ceased production). She was a reasoning, intelligent, aware being--able to see her place in the world and how to best protect it.

Stanley's Lulu, from the end of the 1940s on, understands the dichotomy of her life. She is a child, and is essentially powerless in the adult world. But within her sub-society of other kids, she is a leader, a figure of reason and wisdom. Mischief gets the better of her, on occasion, but there is always a reason for her behavior. She is not willfully malevolent.

Stanley gave his young readers a heroic figure in Lulu Moppet. She is in charge of her destiny (within the severe boundaries of suburban childhood) and cognizant of her peers' behavior. She makes a strong attempt to encourage her friends to do the right thing--even when the right thing ticks off adults and authority figures.

Famous' Lulu is much more passive than Stanley's refinement. She causes mayhem (sublimely, in the 1946 short Bargain Counter-Attack), but is deceptively gentle. Their writers were on the verge of finding a character similar to Stanley's version (which developed simultaneously in the ongoing Dell one-shot comics of 1945-47) when the series ended.

I don't know if John Stanley saw the Famous cartoons, or was even aware of them. It is fascinating that, at the same time, two creative teams worked at adapting the same licensed character, under more or less the same circumstances, and in the same place (general New York City area) and came up with such different interpretations.

Stanley's Lulu is never passive. Even in her first, tentative stories (among the most popular posts on this blog), she is forthright. Less aggressive than the Marge Buell original, Stanley's Lulu, in her pre-1948 stories, still conjures mischief and chaos for the adults in her life, but is never vicious or malicious. Her mis-steps are based on what little she understands of the world around her, and of her best attempts to cope with the great unknown that lies outside her house.

A hero needs a foil, and Stanley found his ideal in the character of Tubby Tompkins. In the Buell cartoons, Tubby contributes little; he's just window-dressing. Famous Studios' writers made an attempt to better integrate Tubby (sometimes called Fatso in the animated version) with Lulu--to play them off each other. But no one recognized the rich, innate chemistry between these two opposites until John Stanley connected the dots, circa 1949.

Stanley obviously is more fond of Tubby than of Lulu. Lulu is the necessity of the series--it's got her name, and she is the focus of every story. But the stories come alive when Tubby enters the scene. Lulu is a charming, in-depth character--neither a Pollyanna or an imp. Her stability and intelligence adds much to the stories. But without Tubby, Stanley's Little Lulu would lack its spark, stakes and significance.

Stanley attempted to fashion Ernie Bushmiller's Sluggo into a Tubby II, in his run on the post-Lulu Nancy and Sluggo title. Sluggo is too low-status to want anything better than what he's got. A passive figure, Sluggo stoically accepts his fate. He's a fascinating example of Stanley's low-end status character.

Stanley's second-best ASS (in a dead-heat tie with Woody Woodpecker) is Loo, from the eight-issue teen-slanted series Dunc 'n Loo. Gangly, graceless and guileless, Loo wants desperately to be respected and liked. He's less in-control than Tubby--chalk it up to those teen hormones!--and thus his falls from grace are harder and brasher.

To see a Stanley ASS in action, flailing for dignity in a world that will grant him none, here is a tossed salad of selections from the fourth and sixth issues of Dunc 'n Loo.

Drawn + Quarterly will reprint these, in time, in much better-quality scans than what I humbly offer here today:

"Dress Affair" takes place in an exclusive French restaurant--dangerous ground in Stanley's comedic world. Though Loo's more suave foil, Dunc, shares in the social humiliation of this story, Loo pushes himself farther outside his accepted limits than his world would like.

Although the Nat Hiken-esque antics of "Dress Affair"'s last half do amuse, it's the mockery and hostility shown Loo, in the first four pages, than hit their mark most fully. Loo is determined to be seen by his peers and neighbors as, at least, an equal of his buddy Dunc. His spray-can "cologne" and Jerry Lewis-ish "Ivy League suit" bring on catcalls and put-downs from everyone he encounters.

Once Dunc and Loo enter the no-man's-zone of "Le Chien Cher," the mockery of Loo vanishes from the story. It's a curious switch, and perhaps Stanley felt he was laying it on too thick for his anti-hero. The aggressive sitcom of the story's last half is an abrupt swerve away from Loo--although he has the last word, in one of Stanley's classic double-barrel endings.

"Readin' & Riotin'," from issue 6, shows a far harsher world in which Loo's only saving grace is his literacy. This barely exempts him from an avalanche of cartoon violence...

Stanley seems to have crossed an editorial trip-wire in this story. Notice that his Mickey Mouse parody was re-named after the story was finished. Each "Maxie" is crudely and hastily lettered. I'd love to know what the original spoof-name was--but it worried Dell editor (and Stanley adversary) L. B. Cole.

Stanley slips in some wry satire of the marketing of licensed characters that was rife, even in 1962. Strongboy Stoop's line on p.2, panel 4 is among Stanley's most sublime moments as a writer.

Loo is used and abused throughout this story. Though the violence is so extreme and cartoonish that even the characters don't seem to mind (as opposed to the all-too-real, usually implied violence in Stanley's Little Lulu), Loo bears much of its brunt.

He isn't seeking higher status in "Readin' & Riotin'," but he is on tenuous ground. Sid's soda shop is a touchy place for him. He and Sid are on dicey terms, at best, and subject to change for the worse at the whims of the risible merchant. Aggression and oppression zoom around Loo in this story. Only by his ability to read out loud to others is he spared the worst in Stanley's violent world.

"Tough Customer," also from issue 6, shows Loo's cheerful desperation to make good and find respect. Because he's a bit of a wise-ASS, and knows it, Loo brings on more woe to himself than he might otherwise receive. 

Loo's punishment in "Tough Customer" is earned. Perhaps he jinxes himself by trying to out-aggress the superior aggressors he sees around him. His lack of expertise in being an alpha-dog sends him, literally, to the dogs. We are spared the episodes of stomach distress that surely follow those familiar words, "The End..."

Loo is a dress-rehearsal for Stanley's most poignant ASS character, Val, in his late masterwork Thirteen Going on Eighteen. Both characters frantically strive to transcend the status-card fate has dealt them. Both bring acres of stress and abuse upon themselves because they want more than they've been given. Stanley's core message seems to be that old country maxim:

Don't get above your raisin'!

Predestination drives his characters, and their struggles to change the game are a consistent agent in John Stanley's comedy, from the start to the finish of his long comics career.
Michael Barrier recently made a fascinating post on his blog, revealing some of the fruits of his ongoing research on Oskar Lebeck and his editorial tenure at Western/Dell. Today's starter picture is borrowed, with kind thanks, from this must-read post. I look forward to Barrier's book, to say the least...