Stanley's work in New Funnies and Our Gang Comics, in 1943 and '44, helped him assimilate the vibes of his talented peers at Western Publications. It also gave him a crash course in establishing a voice as a comedic writer.
Little Lulu, from 1945 to 1959, showed an immediate, ongoing sophistication of his distinct comics/storytelling process. In these 14 years, he achieved sublime highs in narrative stakes, compelling characterizations, and the dangerous dance of light and dark that is the heart of his work.
After a few uncertain-ish experiments in the early 1960s, Stanley emerged as a full auteur cartoonist, creating three distinct original series--Dunc 'n Loo (a collaboration with the brilliant Bill Williams), Thirteen Going on Eighteen and Melvin Monster.
That's the Cliff Notes version of Stanley's career. There are many more details, and aspects of Stanley's work, in the overall arc of his time as a comics creator. Each period builds on the one(s) before it, and masterfully incorporates narrative themes and approaches from past work, while honing it in the present.
Stanley's earliest work is well worth studying for its larval versions of the themes that define his mature output. To his credit, Stanley never wrote down to his presumed audience. Nor did his esteemed peers Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Dan Noonan and editor-writer Oskar Lebeck.
In the years of 1943-49, their efforts for Western, published by Dell, were textbook examples of how to create successful mainstream comics that impressed and complemented their readers. It was a constant learning process for all parties involved. The quality of their collective output strengthens from year to year. Thus, a Carl Barks story from 1948 is likely far tighter and more compelling than one from 1943. The ritual application of the tools and themes of comic-book storytelling gave these talented creators a constant arc of improvement.
Digging backwards, as we 21st-century readers can easily do, it becomes apparent that the earlier work, while sometimes sloppier and less apt, does contain the same kernels of personality and inspiration that informs the later, more mature work. Missed opportunities and 11th-hour crises aside, there is always something to appreciate in John Stanley's early work.
Contemporary readers (save the addled few who saved back issues of their favorite comics) could not trace this growth back to its roots. Nor, in all probability, did they care to. Comics were part of the Great American Horn O' Plenty, alongside radio shows, motion pictures, newspapers, magazines, novels and plays--fodder for daily entertainment; filler for wayward hours. No one intended for any of this to have permanence. It was created to sell, be consumed, and left in its wake by the next, newest iterations.
The average 1943 film director would have laughed out loud at the concept of a "director's commentary." Similarly, the average syndicated cartoonist likely didn't think beyond their next deadline, nor imagine that anyone would consider their work something of lasting value.
This lack of permanence, I think, relaxed the best of these mass-market creators and allowed them to confidently, constantly produce work that both appealed, in the dollars-and-cents sense, and contained a hint of who they were as human beings.
That spark of self is what we respond to, when we encounter these works in 2011. It can be a self-aware, somewhat arrogant self (Al Capp, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder), an intentionally experimental self (Will Eisner, Edgar G. Ulmer), or a self so unaware of itself that it exposes the darkest corners of its creators' persona (Chester Gould, Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Gray, Jack Cole).
The lack of self is what makes MGM musicals, B-Westerns, et al, so damned uninteresting to our eyes.** Then, as now, the majority of mass-market material was crap. No amount of nostalgia can disguise this. Some of it is bearable crap; most of it is depressing, if not downright suicide-inducing!
That a movie, book or comics piece from 70 years ago can still speak to us at all, with any currency and vitality, is remarkable. Although we, the American Public, continue to wolf down new mass entertainments, we have trained ourselves to recognize the threads from the past that still reach us, or have the power to reach us, if we stop, look and listen.
This is all a big build-up to a rather average early John Stanley work. Thank you for indulging me while I think out loud.
The most fascinating aspect of this fair-to-middlin' "Andy Panda" story is never directly addressed by characters or creator. It's something we're really not supposed to think about. More about this after our feature attraction.
This was the first John Stanley story to utilize the four-tier page--soon to define his style as a comics storyteller. New Funnies was the first of the Dell titles to slenderize, due to wartime paper shortages. Page counts, through 1945, would ricochet from 60 to 52 to 36 pages, with no consistency. The four-tier page was an effective compromise: it gave Western's staff a chance to create rich stories in less space.
It was the best thing that ever happened to Stanley--and to Carl Barks. Both men found their rhythms as storytellers with that extra per-page tier. After the war ended, and America wallowed in its surplus of luxury, Stanley and Barks stuck with that four-tier format and achieved greatness as comics creators.
Stanley is still finding his vibe with this story. 1944 was an erratic year for him. He did not go from strength to strength. He often follows a near-brilliant story with a gormless one, and misses several compelling story opportunities. He finds his way in and out of high-stakes narrative situations, sometimes without the apparent understanding of what he's doing.
By 1946, high stakes are the keystone of his skill as a storyteller--and this understanding only gets sharper and clearer over the following decade. By 1956, Stanley is utterly in control of narrative stakes, and they seep into his stories organically. They also help to define the quirks and triumphs of his more detailed, richly delineated characters.
Stanley's narrative energy, in this issue, went into the first long-form "Woody Woodpecker" story, a more accomplished, decidely un-PC but absurdly funny piece. At this time, Stanley hadn't yet fully committed to making Andy's co-star, Charlie Chicken, a full-blown "Tubby Type" (or ASS). Andy and Charlie swap the roles of screwball in the 1943/4 stories. This adds to the hit-and-miss quality of these early entries.
Once Stanley made Andy the long-suffering Voice Of Reason, and Charlie the Aggressive/Alienated Status-Seeker, he was able to write a brace of near-brilliant stories in 1946 and '47.
Back to the fascinating subtext alluded to earlier... twice in Stanley's 1944 stories, he has chicken characters eating chicken. In a "Hector the Henpecked Rooster" story, we see the browbeating wife tuck into a large plate of scrambled eggs. In this story, Charlie Chicken has prepared sandwiches as a contingency plan for Andy's bad cooking.
The contents of these sandwiches are revealed by a thieving, self-centered squirrel who makes with some prehistoric "Tubby talk" while editing the contents:
I suppose this is one of those things we're not supposed to think about, when reading funny animal comix. Barks' duck characters frequently eat chicken and turkey, but never dine on their own flesh. Twice, in Stanley's 1944 comics, chickens commit casual cannibalism.
I'm sure this was unconscious, and not intended to raise red flags. It's just one of those creepy comic book moments that seemingly invite the reader to lose his-her suspension of disbelief and exclaim a bewildered "hunh?"
Stanley's cartooning dominates this story less than other 1944 "Panda" episodes. His hand is clearly evident in the story's lettering. To borrow a technique of Jack Kirby blogger Harry Mendryk, I have assembled a 1940s John Stanley alphabet, from the "Woody Woodpecker" one-pagers he wrote and drew in 1947/48. The look and feel of the lettering in this, and other 1944/45 stories, is identical to the characters of this assembled alphabet:
Someday soon, I'll assemble a complementary 1960s Stanley alphabet.
This story's brush rendering suggests the finishing hand of another artist. Stanley clearly wrote, penciled and lettered these 10 pages. The body language of Charlie Chicken reveals Stanley's input as an artist here. Stanley's figures are never static, even when standing still. Like his lettering, Stanley's characters have great verve and vitality--even when his early stories fail to completely hit their marks.
**--I can always count on Thad K. to call me out on vague statements. This is one of them, and one I feel needs appending. While I am, by and large, immune to the charm of the Arthur Freed musicals, it wasn't those, in particular, I meant to evoke. I was talking more like Maisie Goes To Rio or other unambitious, formulaic filler material.
As for Westerns, I'm a Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth man. I enjoy John Ford's Westerns, to be sure, but I prefer the rawer, higher stakes of Boetticher's work. By "B Westerns," I refer to the churned-out Gene Autry/Roy Rogers/Hopalong Cassidy pictures of the '40s--all more or less identical; all made with an aversion to personality, aside from the box office-enriching presence of their stars. These movies were the template for TV at its most mundane; same ol' same ol', dependably issued on schedule. There might as well have been a border collie in the director's chair, for all the impersonality of the movies themselves.