Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Unseen Stanley, Pt. 2: John Stanley's Gag Cartoon Concepts

As in this post, I am honored and pleased to present some completely unpublished, unknown work of John Stanley. The following pieces are roughs for magazine gag cartoons. I don't know if these were reworked into slicker published versions, or if they were gags written for other cartoonists.

This is part of the heart of a curious choice John Stanley made in his career. He placed a cartoon in the pinnacle market for such material. The New Yorker published apparently just one of his signed cartoons in their March 15, 1947 issue. You can see a lovely hi-rez scan of this cartoon here.

Stanley was evidently held in high regard by Jim Geraghty, the New Yorker's cartoon editor at the time. According to an interview done with a Stanley colleague by cartoon/animation historian Michael Barrier, Stanley let what most could see as a golden opportunity slide. I quote from a recent post by Barrier:

Dan Noonan, who knew John Stanley when they were drawing comic books for Western Printing, said of Stanley that he “used to send ideas to The New Yorker, and Jim Geraghty, who was the cartoon director there, was so impressed with Stanley he wanted to give him a contract. Stanley wouldn’t have any of it; he didn’t want to be tied. Although I can’t think of any nicer way to be tied down than under a contract with The New Yorker.” Stanley’s ideas were “very sophisticated gag ideas, all of them,” Noonan said.

Stanley apparently had no issues with being "tied" to Western Publications, where he worked for 30 years or so in a work-for-hire capacity. In this time, he mostly did (vastly improved) versions of licensed media characters, and his few original series of the 1940s, which he never signed as his work, were failures. Not until the July, 1952 issue of Marge's Little Lulu was Stanley (and his assistants) given clear credit. (You can see that rare instance in this post.)

One dozen years after that, an apologetic "Stanley" is scrawled on the cover of the 12th issue of Stanley's superb original creation, Thirteen Going On Eighteen, which featured his writing and cartooning. That dashed-off  "Stanley," stuck into the corner of subsequent covers, was all the credit this creator allowed himself for all his hard work.

Being "tied" to a prestigious magazine like the New Yorker might have given Stanley a cache similar to that of Charles Addams, George Price, James Thurber, Roz Chast or Gahan Wilson. It would have likely been less work for the same--or more--pay. On the other hand, we would not have his large and important body of comic book stories.

Gag cartoons have their limits. They exist for the initial moment of surprise (and delight) of the reader. Their illustrations, usually tinged with ink wash, invite the eye to linger perhaps a bit longer than it might rest on a newspaper comic strip.

They are like a good joke: effective the moment you hear it, and to share with others who are unaware of it. After that, they cease to exist, save for those who enjoy the moment of the cartoon enough to either clip it out, or buy the eventual book collection of their favorite cartoonist's work.

The heft and depth of Stanley's comic book narratives is, ultimately, a far finer, more important body of work than almost any gag cartoonist's output, in my admittedly biased opinion. Stanley's stories invite multiple returns. Re-readings reveal details of character, stakes and narrative that grow richer in reflection.

Would the world be a better place, had John Stanley switched careers and become a full-time gag cartoonist? Would we, the world, be better-off with hard cover volumes of Stanley gag cartoons? The higher status and income would have served their creator well, but I wonder if he found the form, ultimately, as limiting as I do.

Stanley's sharp observational wit lent itself well to highly effective gag cartoons. His comic book stories often don't contain such explosive moments of comedy. The payoff of a gag cartoon is like an explosion--a trick cigar, if you will. The payoffs of Stanley's comic book narratives are slower, richer and more resonant. More like a fire, the effect of these pieces come upon the reader gradually, increase in intensity, and leave its aftermath (of one-upmanship, chaos and status shifts). These elements tend to linger in the reader's thoughts long after the impact of a sharp punch-line is gone.

Stanley was adept at the impact of a single panel cartoon. As these four rare examples show, his trick cigars often take a bit longer to burst. This first cartoon is an ideal example:

This gag is in line with many of Stanley's comic book stories that involve animals or pet shops. The resigned, blase expression of the shop's proprietor, and the radial arc of form and movement at his feet, are remarkably effective. Although this is clearly a rough, it keenly expresses its point.

Apropos with the holidays, the next two cartoons feature different aspects of jolly ol' Saint Nick--first as a swinger/lush:

and then as a pragmatist...

The concept of Santa at a self-service laundromat is gently incongruous, and settles into the reader's brain over the course of a few seconds. As with many of Stanley's comedic ideas, there is a palpable tinge of melancholy to this punchline.

The last of today's quartet is most typical of our gag-cartoon expectations, with a touch of black comedy:
Stanley's loose rough forms seethe with energy and personality. Even in this concept-pitch state, they're worthy of publication. These unseen examples give us an example of what might have been, and very likely could have been.

The loss of income and prestige Stanley had, by stubbornly remaining in the comic book field, may have contributed to his growing bitterness in the later 1960s. It was his decision, and it has ultimately given us a far greater reward in the work that remains.


Gabriel said...

Wow, wow, wow, wooow!
Thanx a million, Frank!

Harry said...

Great stuff! The pet shop one seems to have been the basis of this 1967 Edward Koren cartoon:



Karl La Fong said...

Fascinating stuff, Frank! You are the oracle on all things Stanley. I mentioned O.G. WHIZ on my blog - is that absolutely, definitely by Stanley? Grand Comics Database has no credits.

I've also been reading your posts on the Drawn & Quarterly volumes (I've just finished THIRTEEN book 1 - superb stuff, that I could never afford to collect in its original form).

Do you have any idea just why they've been leaving out the cover art in these otherwise visually splendid tomes? And whether there will be another collection of THIRTEEN?

Keep up the great work!