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As in this post, I am honored and pleased to present some completely unpublished, unknown work of John Stanley.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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Clyde Crashcup Christmas: A Rambling Yuletide Epic From 1963

I thought I'd used up all the Christmas-themed Stanley Stories. Hidden in plain sight, perhaps waiting for this moment, was Stanley's last, and longest, Yuletide-themed narrative. It occupies 40% of this uniquely schizoid holiday special, published in late 1963:
This 84-page book was illustrated solely by Bill Williams. The "Alvin" stories, which eat up almost 50 pages,  are obviously not Stanley's work. They're talky, static and witless.  Worst of all, they're written down to a presumed audience of Keane-eyed tiny tots.

The 34-page "Clyde Crashcup" Christmas adventure, with its myriad Stanley stylistic tells, augmented by Williams' lovely cartooning, is a lost bridge between their epic collaboration, Dunc 'n Loo, and Stanley's late auteur work.

Yes, I just did a post on this character. I hope the repetition isn't a bore.  Irving Tripp, and other staff artists, did the finishes on the five issues of the regular Crashcup book. It's a real treat to see Bill Williams' animated, jolly cartoon style applied to these characters and their world.

Williams' artwork makes even the dull "Alvin" segments bearable, despite their absolute lack of narrative interest. When his energy as a draftsman meet's Stanley's as a storyteller, the results are always dynamite.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this story may have been created as a stand-alone 36-page comic book. No attempt is made to cohesively connect it to the "Alvin" sequences. The episodes are shuffled amidst "Alvin" material and kiddie activity pages.

Stanley's other giant-size comics (done with the "Little Lulu" and "Nancy and Sluggo" characters), which can be read elsewhere on this blog, weave subtly inter-related stories. The individual pieces can stand alone. Read together, they're a loose-flowing, understated narrative. Stanley does enough call-backs to prior stories, late in these books, that they emerge as a satisfying whole.

These come too late to have been potential candidates for Dell's Four Color one-shot series. Western Publications had long split off from Dell, into Gold Key Comics. The Four Color series expired with issue 1354, cover-dated April/June 1962. Post-Western Dell published a series of one-shot 84-page giant comics (including Stanley's notorious Tales From The Tomb). For a penny over the price of two newsstand comics, readers got an extra 16 pages of (usually vacuous) content. Such a deal...

As a last hurrah for the Williams-Stanley collaboration, this episodic comics novella has a certain wistful charm.  As with his earlier Christmas comics, Stanley sneaks in some dryly amusing twists of irreverence--a much-needed alternative to the reverential quality of many such episodes. Here goes...

The most amusing moment in this piece occurs in its second chapter. Crashcup envisions Santa Claus as a person meant to take away unwanted things. In a rare moment of connection, Clyde listens to Leonardo, his voice of reason, and has a remarkable reaction, in the form of a Tubby-esque tantrum/rant:

This moment captures the essence of the attitude of John Stanley's favorite character type. The entire page brims over with playful anger, as Crashcup poo-poohs the notion of Santa Claus as a giver of gifts, and not a junk removal service.

In another recurring Stanley theme, a pair of criminal types, played for laughs, rock Crashcup's dreamboat and attempt to harness his redundant inventions for their own profit. These Ivy League thugs are a far cry from the criminals in an early Stanley masterpiece, "Little Lulu Is Taken For A Ride." A comparison of these two stories shows how Stanley's approach and comedic vision changed  from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The 1947 story devotes more on-screen time to the ponderous fumblings of the Laurel and Hardy-esque crooks. They are depicted with more gravity. Despite their quirky personalities, it's evident that they mean business. The criminal element in this Xmas story is more stream-lined and Space Age-oriented. They dress like Madison Avenue junior execs, own a getaway helicopter, and have ambitions to nose in on Santa Claus' business, the better to make it turn a profit.

The bad guys are just as self-deluded as the good guys in John Stanley's world. To remind us of this, one of the two "Baby-Faced Bank Robbers" makes this sublime Tubby-esque utterance:

Williams' cartooning really works with the 1960s vision of John Stanley. Their body of collaborative work is a bright spot in an uncertain age for the American comic book.

I'm struck by the moment, on the second page of chapter 5 ("Polar Problems"), when Crashcup and Leonardo fall from their balloon to what seems like certain death. Crashcup does not attempt to invent a way out of dying. It's a rare moment when the pivotal Stanley character-type is jolted out of their self-immersed reverie, and is unable to function through the lens of their cognitive biases. Thank goodness for that chimney!

Which leads us to another subtle joy of this story--Stanley's depiction of a temperamental Santa Claus. I suppose anyone would be caught off-guard by two men in lab coats dropping down their chimney! The touch of crankiness in Stanley's Santa is a small but divine detail.

Such flourishes, including Crashcup's floridly alliterative speeches and Leonardo's body language, in reaction to Clyde's dithering self-delusion, are present in Stanley's work from his first stories. It's one of his strongest hallmarks as a writer and humorist--these little touches that don't necessarily call attention to themselves. They idly bob on the surfaces of his stories, and if you notice them, you're rewarded for your effort.

Next time, I hope to have something to share with you that I guarantee you've never seen before! Keep checking back here...

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.