Friday, July 22, 2011

The Late Late Show: Selections From The Last Thirteen Going on Eighteen Issue, 1967

I've focused extensively on the early work of John Stanley in this blog. It's been fascinating for me (and, I hope, you as well) to see early glimmers of Stanley's mature style in his work of the 1940s. (That much of this material will likely never be reprinted is another deciding factor.)

I've accorded less space to Stanley's 1960s work. I've avoided it because much of it has been reprinted (the entirety of Melvin Monster, for example), or is being reprinted.

It will be awhile before Drawn + Quarterly gets to the last issues of Stanley's 1960s original, Thirteen Going on Eighteen. Thus, I thought to examine the final issue of this series, which has a cover date of December, 1967.

In mainstream comics of the late 1960s, it was very rare for one person to do everything in the creative process. Sheldon Mayer wrote and drew his increasingly baroque Sugar and Spike for DC Comics, although he left the lettering to other staffers. John Stanley and Carl Barks (who would retire from comics in this year) were able to complete their comics from concept to final inking, lettering and drawing of panel borders.

In this light, they worked more like syndicated newspaper cartoonists (although, unlike comic book artists, newspaper cartoonists often had assistants and go-fers). The humble art of comic books had been long turned into a team effort, and, with the advent of "the Marvel method," more of an assembly-line process. Fans of Jack Kirby know the often-deleterious effects this comics-by-committee process had on his work.

Stanley, Barks and Mayer had the luxury of making their decisions (and acting upon them) alone, at their drawing board. Editors might demand after-the-fact changes, but these creators were trusted to produce professional-level, marketable comic book stories.

Though Mayer struggled with worsening vision, as his book-length Sugar and Spike stories became more byzantine and visually complex, Barks and Stanley strove to simplify their work. Barks was burned out on comics by 1967. To judge by the stories you're about to read, John Stanley may have been, as well.

By this time, Stanley had substantially slowed the tempo of the book. The frantic, addled physical comedy of earlier issues has mellowed. Stanley's drawings are much simpler and stiller than in earlier issues. By this time, he has written and drawn the series for over four years. His hand is confident and reserved. As a writer, Stanley had let a lot of his former determination go by this time.

I wonder if John Stanley knew this would be the final new issue of this series, while he worked on it. Nothing in any of its stories betrays a sign of a finale. It's business as usual, although with lower narrative stakes than usual.

Thirteen's world was hopelessly out of date by 1967. America had undergone enormous societal changes during the book's run. Youth culture, which was underground (and frowned upon) when the series debuted, was strongly felt, and had rent the status quo of American life, by '67.

Teenagers were no longer wannabe adults. They embraced a coded culture of music, movies, literature and visuals that often alienated their parents and other elders. While much of this material was callously manufactured by adults, eager to cash in on this lucrative youth market, it still caused a breach in American life. The youth market is stronger than ever in 2011, and, ironically, is now very much a part of the status quo.

That sense of societal change barely exists in Thirteen Going on Eighteen. A 21st century reader can intuit more of a sense of the 1960s' changes from the Archie Comics titles of the same era, which embraced topical themes to a fault.

Never one to exploit current events, Stanley felt most comfortable creating a world, detailing it, and letting it run in perpetuity. This strategy worked remarkably well for Little Lulu, his most successful series. Though his 1950s Lulu run embodies the general societal vibe of that anxious decade, the stories contain almost no nods to fads, fancies or new technology--aside from really general items like TV.

For much of Thirteen's run, Stanley's isolationist formula-world was viable and fruitful. The series' middle-range issues, with their enormous vitality and sweep, are Stanley's finest late work. You can sample the start of this period in the last third of D + Q's first (and, so far, only) Thirteen reprint volume.

Formulas, no matter how solid or thoughtful, eventually pall. While there's nothing bad about this final Thirteen Going on Eighteen, it does lack the sparkle of earlier issues. Perhaps Stanley was simply written out. He achieved an earlier brilliance with the series, via the deftly wrought characters of the series' twin protagonists, Val and Judy. They are Stanley's most fully realized figures, and inspired some of his finest writing and cartooning.

This would not be Stanley's final published work as a writer-cartoonist. He did the giant-size "Bridget" strip for Wham-O Giant Comics, and wrote/laid out two more books--the one-shot licensed property Choo-Choo Charlie and his final original creation for comics, O. G. Whiz. Dig around on this blog and you'll find all of these late works.

Here are five stories from this final issue.

As noted earlier, the narrative stakes of the stories are quite low-key by Stanley standards. No event has great import, or truly affects any of the characters. The first two stories are basically longish set-ups for a single punchline. There is little investment by the author and, thus, little reward for the reader.

The last two stories here present slightly stronger stakes, and are endowed with more spirit by Stanley the cartoonist. "The Waswolf," our final glimpse at the imperfect relationship of Judy and Wilbur, concludes with a display of comedic physical violence reminiscent of earlier issues.

In the otherwise throwaway "Judy" story "Downside Up," we get one fleeting acknowledgment of 1960s youth culture. The image of 'Ronnie Knowse,' in the story's second panel, suggests a furry cross of David Crosby and John Denver. Like the network sitcoms of the '60s, which struggled to recognize trends in the world around them, Stanley made a few awkward attempts to inject a sense of currency to this otherwise-hermetic universe. The image is jarring, and it's apt that it occurs in the final new issue of the series.

In this final issue, Stanley also chose to alter Val's hairstyle from her sock-hop ponytail to a more modern coiffure. The issue's lead story makes a big deal about this change, but the point of the story is about boy-next-door Billy's admitted shallowness.

What the heck--here's that story, too:

"Strange Girl" is more in line with the classic period of Thirteen. The longest story in this final issue, it has the most complex character interactions, and the closest thing to high narrative stakes, as we know them in Stanley's fictive world.

It is more satisfying to read that opening story as a closer. It makes up for the flyweight quality of the other stories. "Strange Girl" is Stanley's final burst of inspiration at the end of a long series.

I look forward to D+Q's second volume of the Thirteen series. Having these brilliant stories restored to currency will be a great gift to the comics-reading world.

Monday, July 11, 2011

From Our Gang Comics #18: Food and Fear in "Tom and Jerry"

I thought I'd posted all the "Tom and Jerry" stories written (and sometimes drawn) by John Stanley. This one was still waiting rediscovery. It's a relief--I am seriously low on new material to post, after three years and over 200 posts.

This isn't the post I wanted it to be. While I've been recovering from appendicitis, I've viewed the first seasons of writer-director Nat Hiken's two brilliant early TV sitcoms, Sgt. Bilko and Car 54, Where Are You? Dozens of times, I was struck by the similarities of Hiken's and John Stanley's work. They truly seem to come from the same comedic channel.

To do this post idea justice, I'll have to prepare several video excerpts from these two programs. The first seasons of both programs are readily available on legitimate DVDs. Those curious to explore this territory on their own are directed to those DVD releases, which are available from Netflix, I believe.

For now, here's another example of Stanley's low-key, high-stakes sitcomics via this obscure, rushed-looking entry in the "Tom and Jerry" series.

This particular issue of Our Gang Comics, with a cover date of July-August 1945, is from the late doldrums of World War II. Like several Dell titles of the era, this one was suddenly conflated to 36 pages from the usual 52. Existing stories were crudely re-formatted to fit on less pages.

This story appears to have been created for the more cramped page-count. Its artwork is particularly slap-dash. Traces of Stanley's layout drawings peep through here and there. The artist's energetic, loose brush-based style brings much energy to the pages. (It looks like it may be Otto Feuer doing these chores--what do you think, Thad K?)

Despite some reckless rendering that betrays the story's hasty production, its five pages of crowded, claustrophobic panels are full of Stanley's trenchant wit. Its theme of hunger and the existential search for food is a common Stanley subject.

There's a lot of chit-chat in this story. Stanley's rapid-fire banter is the saving grace of this minor episode. As is typical of this series, Stanley is more interested in the relationship of Jerry and Tuffy, the mice, and only brings Tom Cat in when it's time to raise the narrative stakes.

The Tubby-like attitude of Tom is particularly noticeable in this story. Tom's self-congratulatory chatter is genuinely amusing. He's not the cardboard villain of the MGM theatrical cartoons. He is a grade-A asshole, but his deluded high state of self-regard redeems him.

The interactions of Jerry and Tuffy, in the story's first three pages, are typically sharp. This verbal tennis would serve Stanley well in his later Little Lulu stories and, particularly, in the masterful writing of Thirteen Going on Eighteen in the 1960s.

The story peters out peculiarly in its last tier. That final panel is an enigma. I have no idea what's going on, or what the import of it is. Perhaps I'm just missing something.

Admirers of Stanley's pet phrases will enjoy the multiple CHOFFs and CHOMPFs that grace page two. The search for food quickly turns dangerous in Stanley's 1940s stories. Those in need of nourishment may become another character's entree or appetizer.

Though the back-and-forth dialogue of the two mice is deft and amusing, a certain grimness lays just beneath its surface. As in Stanley's later 1940s series, "Jigger and Mooch," the outsider characters (the mice) must go through a lot of trouble to keep alive and fed.

Stanley would refine this concept in Little Lulu, via the frequent hunger (and soliloquies on this state) of Tubby Tompkins. Tubby's broad character helps leaven the fear-factor of hunger considerably. We never worry that Tub will starve. In one of Stanley's greatest stories, "The Gourmet," Tubby shows his mastery of hunger, and his ability to manipulate adults.

Stanley's mice lead a much less secure existence. It makes them compelling characters, but the sadness of their plight always hangs in the air around them.