Saturday, September 29, 2012

Of Mice and Mensch: Woody The Exterminator, from New Funnies 115, September 1946

One of the small rewards of Dell Comics scholarship is in spotting the myriad in-jokes and self-references in which the creators indulged themselves.

The writers and artists of Oskar Lebeck's Western Publishing staff delighted in putting one another's names--and caricatures--all over their comic-book stories.

These references, given the general lack of documentation available at present, have become the only way we have to determine who's who in the Western world.

Michael Barrier has been exploring this phenomenon in his on-going research for an upcoming book on Lebeck and his genial comics empire--a book I can't wait to read.

In this ongoing post, he discusses and notes incidents of in-jokes in the Lebeck-edited comics--of which Walter Lantz New Funnies was a prominent monthly. He mis-identified today's story as being from an early 1946 issue of the magazine. It's from the September, 1946 issue of New Funnies, which is late in the John Stanley-driven era of the series.

At this time, Stanley was well-connected with the Lantz characters. He particularly took a shine to the idiot-savant outsider, Woody Woodpecker. As I've noted before, the foundation for his greatest character--Tubby Tompkins in Little Lulu--was built in these earlier Woody stories.

By the time this story appeared, Stanley had written and drawn four Little Lulu one-shot comics, with a fifth to appear one month later. He hadn't yet clearly defined the personae of Lulu. Ironically, the 1946 Woody Woodpecker acts more like Tubby than the 1946 Tubby. By the end of the 1940s, Stanley had Tubby's rich, misguided-yet-sympathetic personality down in stone.

Back to the matter of in-house references: in the fourth post on this blog, I ran a 1947 "Woody" story with caricatures of John Stanley, Dan Noonan, and the pipe-smoking Mo (Moe) Gollub.

Dan Noonan is referenced by name  in the fifth panel, and from this caricature, one can assume he had a weak jawline. I haven't seen any photographs of Noonan (yet), so this is my closest clue to how he looked.

Stanley and Walt Kelly dropped Noonan's name constantly in their mid-1940s comics. It's a funny, W. C. Fields-ish name, aside from the in-house joshing.

Stanley had caricatured Gollub about a year earlier, at the conclusion of the story featured today. Gollub is a cog in the slowly-creaking karma wheel of Woody's self-assured stumble dance through life.

The shared use of staff caricatures gives the 1940s Lebeck-edited comics a charming solidarity. It suggests a group of creators who enjoyed each other's company and talents. Walt Kelly may have brought this loving caricature tradition from the Walt Disney studios. A thousand volumes could be published of staff caricatures--some gentle, some malicious/libelous, but all in rowdy 1940s fun.

Like Carl Barks' 10-page "Donald Duck" stories, Stanley's "Woody" shorts often show him in an unusual job--private eye, fight trainer, fireman, or exterminator--in which he is apparently established. Despite his colossal self-regard, he is blind to the flaws in his cognitive biases, and gets led by the nose for our reading amusement.

Unlike Barks' duck, Stanley's woodpecker never senses his own shortcomings. He is not the type to lock himself in the hall closet to brood. A happy agent of chaos, he bounces off roadblocks, usually to his own detriment, and soldiers on.

POP CULTURE NOTE: This panel may seem a non sequitur to 2012 readers:

The Thurber-esque matron makes a reference to a well-loved movie role by light comedic/dramatic actor Don Ameche, as inventor Alexander Graham Bell:

Apparently, this 1938 movie made quite an impact on American pop-culture. This gag was used many times on radio comedies, and probably in other comic strips. To this day, "Don Ameche" remains a slang term for the telephone.

Although Ameche appeared in nearly 100 movies and TV shows, including 1985's Cocoon and the zero-budget screwball gem It's In The Bag (1945), his seminal early role rang a bell that resounded for the rest of his life--and gave John Stanley a charming piece of character comedy for this story. Woody's assignation of the role of Eli Whitney to Ameche salvages an otherwise-routine popcult joke.

The puffy Thurber-ish human figures in Stanley's 1946 stories are another tell of his hand as creator. Although he didn't ordinarily draw such figures, the stories he scripted for New Funnies are full of these lumpen masses. This may actually be a side-effect of his having to imitate Marge Buell's cartoon style for the early Little Lulu one-shots.

This nine-page story in posted in PDF form for reading (HERE) or downloading (HERE.) Enjoy!


Unknown said...

Thanks for catching my error on that date, Frank--I don't know how that happened, since I have the comic book and the date is correct in my notes from it, but, in any case, I'll fix it.

Byron Marshall said...

Re Bell and Don Ameche:

It was after I watched the A G Bell movie in darkest Cambridge in the late 1960s that it inspired another one of the toy movies I never quite made.

These stories read like comic books and maybe I should draw them up.

We decided to film "The Story of Reinforced Concrete". The plot relayed the saga of an incorrigible inventor's (note apostrophe) attempt to perfect concrete. Scenes followed scenes of poured concrete only temporarily becoming solid; the concrete reverted to mush. This included sidewalks in which pedestrians disappeared up to their ankles, shoulders, toupees. (note lack of apostrophe.) Finally our desperate Don-Ameche-like hero went to a see a shrink, Mr. Sigmoid Froid, who provided the answer: REINFORCEMENT. This rang the Bell.

Now with the secret of reinforcement, concrete was a practical building material, and to the rejoicing of his girlfriend, Millie Thrush (we gather a structural problem has been plaguing their relationship as well) the inventor builds a giant reinforced concrete architectural monstrosity, the Administrative Building of a local multinational university. (Giant reinforced concrete monstrosities were the rage of the day in Cambridge, MA, usually decorated with anemic purple and green 40 foot plastic rectangles as "decorations". ) The plot takes an Ayn Rand turn, though this multi-story building is no fountainhead. By a scheduling mistake, the reinforcing rods are not installed. Just as the city fathers and university bigwigs somewhere up on the highest floor cut the ribbon, the towering tons of concrete superstructure turn to mush. Our hero and his gal manage to surf to safety on a plastic decorative panel as the mush pours down Massachusetts Avenue, sweeping students, children and housewives out into Boston Harbor. (There is a Carl Barks element here as well.) Sadder and not much wiser, our hero reflects at the end that he will remember to use the reinforcement next time. We are left with the hope that he will at least get it up for Thrush.

Filming this proved a challenge for even the most intrepid Super Eight fanatic. I did create a model of the giant university building out of tutti-frutti ice cream, and beamed bright power lamps down on it to make it melt.

We also filmed the hero standing on ice that broke through so he was left standing in water; after he stood there for a reaction shot it turned out I had no film in the camera, and he refused to cooperate for the rest of the film.

Other Toy Films included "Lorna Dune", a mash-up of "Woman of the Dunes" and Jane Eyre; the ever popular (at the time) parody of 2001 (it included the invention of golf); a film about the great blackout and earthquake (we shook a step ladder); and a spy movie featuring tin pans.


ps everyone get The Carter Family graphic novel. It is Astounding.