Friday, December 2, 2011

Self-Absorbed Scientist Invents Phonographs, Photographs; Fails To See Forest For Trees; Mute Assistant Suffers In Silence (two stories from Clyde Crashcup #5, 1964)

As John Stanley reached the prime period of his finest original series, Thirteen Going on Eighteen, in 1964, he still found time to write and re-invent licensed properties. This comic book was his last such effort until 1969.

Today's stories are typical of John Stanley the world-builder. Given a licensed character, he would extract the best aspects of that entity, discard the rest, and set up a new, better world for them to inhabit.

The John Stanley versions of Little Lulu, Tubby, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Tom & Jerry, et al, bear only visual resemblance to their official mass-media counterparts. All these characters ended up richer, more compelling and fully realized in Stanley's hands.

Only with his adaptation of George Herriman's Krazy Kat did Stanley fail to raise the bar set by the creator. Admittedly, Herriman is a tough--if not impossible--act to follow. Stanley tried hard with the Kat, and produced a compelling rethink that somewhat successfully translated Herriman's characters, settings and language to the mainstream comic book page.

Clyde Crashcup, a secondary feature on The Alvin Show, was certainly no Krazy Kat. But the character had potential for personality-based humor that was right up Stanley's alley. He championed the Quixotic, self-absorbed oddball. He genuinely enjoyed winding this figure up and letting him loose in the usually urban playground of his comics.

This was a formula of Stanley's work before the end of the 1940s, but it clearly spoke to him. He continually refined and rethought both this archetype and its place in his expansive comics world.

Crashcup's shtick is worthy of Stanley's humorous sensibilities. Completely self-absorbed, Crashcup is Barks' Gyro Gearloose turned inside-out. With great self-importance, he creates things that already exist. His voice-of-reason assistant, Leonardo, is appropriately mute--at least to us. He attempts to keep Crashcup from expending effort in creating the already-there. Lost in his own head, Crashcup ignores his voice of reason, and sees the process to its logical end. Leonardo suffers discomfort and stress, but he sticks by the wayward inventor, knowing these schemes are fated to implode.

This was Stanley's meat and potatoes--a theme which could be mined for endless variations. This harks back to Herriman, whose Krazy Kat sublimely explored this territory earlier in the 20th century. I'd love to know John Stanley's opinion of Herriman's work. To judge by his more delicate treatment of the comic-book Kat, Herriman made a big impression on Stanley. He followed Herriman's lead throughout his comics career.

Typically, Stanley would futz with a new licensed entity, uncertainly at first, get his bearings quickly, and refine both it and his process within a year. Crashcup followed this pattern. Thus, in this, the last issue of the title, Stanley has developed the simple premise of the character far beyond anything its creators cared to do, in their official version. Stanley saw the potential for comedy in places which now seem obvious, but may have been unknown, unlikely or ignored by others.

In these two stories, Stanley has relaxed into the characters, and into their place in the "normal" world that surrounds them. The Crashcup character is not a true Tubby Type (or ASS). He is an adult, and in control of his destiny. His self-esteem is ridiculously high, as is his enthusiasm.  These work against him--a serial fate that Leonardo vainly tries to stave off. By including the rest of the world into the Crashcup formula, Stanley improved the simple but clever set-up of the original character, and made him an inventor of comedic chaos.

The artist for this story must have laughed and groaned in unison as he surveyed the script. Epic scenes of pandemonium pepper this story, which starts in allegro and quickly moves to capriccio.

Crashcup's ability to literalize abstract ideas sets him apart from Stanley's other eccentrics. His apparently enchanted pencil is a wand of chaos, and it has profound effects on the inventor, his assistant, and (most importantly) the world around him.

Riddled with wordplay, "Invents Hi-Fi" is among John Stanley's most energetic stories. It shows his own "magic pencil" still in top form.

This issue appropriately ends with a story about Crashcup's excitable invention of the film camera. Leonardo is rightfully worried for his life...

Bah-da-DUMP! Thank you, ladiesangentlemen, we'll be here through Thursday. The rimshot-worthy punchline, Stanley's farewell to this brief romance, is entirely apt. The risible Crashcup is just the type to invent the already-invented camera, but forget that it might need film.

Assistant Leonardo's barely contained terror, on pp. 1-2, is a too-late breakthrough. One gets the sense that, had this series continued, Stanley might have done more with this mute sidekick.

The last tier of page three offers a rare piece of social satire. It pales in comparison to this scene from Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's Goodman Beaver, which offers the same basic message:

Kurtzman and Elder's cynical vision of urban America appeared two years earlier, in the August 1962 issue of Help! magazine. If Stanley kept up with the cutting edge of his peers' work, he may have seen this story, and taken inspiration from this jaw-dropping Breughel-esque spread.

This points out an important difference between Stanley and Kurtzman--two of the American comic book's finest writer-artists. Kurtzman was a social satirist, a teller of hard truths (until he was gelded by Hugh Hefner), and he unflinchingly pointed out, over and over, that the emperor was naked as a jaybird.

Stanley was a light comedian, not a social satirist, and his audience was mainstream American youth. By this time, Kurtzman consciously wrote for an older crowd. Most of the "chicken fat" in this spread would have made Stanley's editors nervous and/or outraged.

It's interesting to see this same general message delivered in the pastel-hued venue of the newsstand comic book. As it is the kind of moment Stanley assiduously avoided, throughout most of his career, it brings this sitcom-story to a temporary grinding halt.

The Formula Machine soon kicks in, and the remainder of the story takes place in one of Stanley's favorite spots for urban warfare--the public park. In Stanley's work, the park, a seemingly civil place, is a free zone for his characters to lose their cool, rebel against authority, fall into life-changing danger, and come to terms with their shortcomings.

Crashcup does all but the final, most important, step. To recognize the absolute folly of his existence would shatter him into a billion brittle shards. Though this story closes the book on Crashcup, one hopes that he eventually invents Fort Knox, and retires into a comfortable life of non-invention.

It's a pity that Stanley's tenure on this book ended here. It's evident that he had just scratched the surface of the refined version of this character and his world. This unfortunate event happened over and over in John Stanley's career.

In this case, Stanley was able to channel his creative energy into the brilliant, socially dysfunctional world of Thirteen Going on Eighteen. His triumphs in that series, in 1964 and '65, are among the mainstream comic book's rare moments of perfection. I hope our friends at Drawn + Quarterly will restore the remainder of that series to print soon.


Mark said...

"The John Stanley versions of Little Lulu, Tubby, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, The Little King, et al, bear only visual resemblance to their official mass-media counterparts. All these characters ended up richer, more compelling and fully realized in Stanley's hands."

I think Soglow's King can stand up to Stanley. For the rest, though, you're clearly right.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Mark, thanks for calling me on an over-statement. In the heat of the moment, when writing these posts, I can let hyperbole get the better of me. I certainly agree that Otto Soglow's original of "the Little King" is a fine work, and often a sublime one. Stanley's version of the character is, like his Krazy Kat, more of a loving homage than the take-no-prisoners attitude he gave other, lesser license entities.
I appreciate your careful and thoughtful reading of my work...