Thursday, December 13, 2012

Prime-Time Sitcom(ix): issue 10 of John Stanley's Thirteen Going on Eighteen

NOTE: As with some recent posts, the stories referred to in this piece are available for download or online reading HERE or  HERE. Please read the comics material before reading the following text, as it's laced with spoilers. They're not great scans, and not my own, but they're adequate for reading until something better comes along.

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Drawn + Quarterly's John Stanley Library--and its intended complete reprinting of the Thirteen Going on Eighteen series--seems to be on hiatus. Given the iffy nature of the traditional book market, which will never die but is in a state of transition, D+Q's pause is entirely understandable.

Their first volume of Thirteen, which I reviewed here, ends just as the series enters its finest period.

As with all Stanley's work, even the lesser material yields something of value. Thirteen takes its sweet time getting into high gear. It's unthinkable of a mainstream comics creator in 2012 (outside of the graphic novel arena) to dawdle for two or three years and casually but diligently get his/her act together. Once Stanley hits the sweet spot in Thirteen--around issue seven--the payoff is phenomenal.

Therefore, I feel comfortable posting material from this series here. If D+Q continues their project, you'll enjoy reading much, much better scans of these stories, in a more pleasing and permanent form. These scans, bless their hearts, are like watching a bad print of a public domain movie. For this, I apologize.

John Stanley is comfortably at the helm of this series with its tenth issue. As was his standard, and preference, he had spent nearly two years getting familiar with the cast of characters, their relationships, and the world around them. The eighth issue to feature his cartooning, he is equally settled in as artist and writer.

This, and the following five or six issues of the title, are among comics' finest, most acute and intuitive  narratives about adolescence. They show us two sides of the Stanley coin: showboating, Nat Hiken-esque situation comedy, glib, brassy and impeccably timed, and a startlingly frank, vivid look at the fragile, ever-changing emotional word of a teenage girl.

In theory, these elements are at complete odds. One cannot sensitively explore the inner world of a character's quirks, phobias, cognitive biases and fears while also playing them for boffo laffs. Yet that is what John Stanley achieves with the middle-period run of TGOE (a finger-saving acronym, if you don't object).

The character of Val stands with Little Lulu's Tubby Tompkins as Stanley's most fully realized figure. Both characters seem to have a life outside of the banners, balloons and boxes of their comic book world. Both are fearless in their self-determination, warriors of status, dignity and respect, and both are oblivious to how the rest of the world sees them.

Tub and Val are both empowered and helpless because of their status. Tubby is a single-digit kid, under the thumb of a large chain of adult command--from his parents to McNabbem, the truant officer.Yet he figures prominently in the playground politics of his neighborhood. Whether he's admired or detested, Tub gets a reaction from his peers.

Val's mother is seen in a few early stories, and is a benign, indulgent presence. She soon vanishes from the series. Val's father is never seen, and I don't believe he's even mentioned in passing.

Val's older sister, Evie, assumes the parental authority role as the series matures. She also functions as the Lulu to Val's Tubby. She is the voice of reason, the mirror that quietly reflects a truth, over and over, despite Val's refusal to see it.

This is the quintessential John Stanley character relationship. Each of Stanley's significant comics series contains this archetypal duo. In some cases, the "Tubby" of the pair is less excitable, and the "Lulu" a little looser. But the dynamic is at the core of Stanley's interest as a writer and storyteller.

Evie figures prominently in the first two chapters of this loose novella, "Zombie in the Family" and "Little Match Girl." In these two pieces, we learn a lot about how the two sisters function--and dysfunction. Evie has a saint's patience in enduring the constant mood-swings of hormone-crazed, status-seeking, boy-obsessed Val.

Presumably, Evie has been through this phase herself, and knows what to expect. She navigates Val's tantrums, over-reactions and anxiety attacks with understanding and calm. Evie is what we all hope our parental figures are like, as we reach maturity. Alas, the trial of raising a teenager is enough to test anyone's sanity, and our progenitors don't always react with the cucumber cool and assurance that Evie accords Val.

We, the readers, have the joy of watching Val flail through her emotional roller-coaster ride. We cringe at the things that hit too close to home, and laugh at the extremes which Stanley so keenly plays for high-gloss laughs.

"Zombie in the Family" also features Judy, Val's extra voice of reason figure. Judy is of equal status to Val--they're both wrapped up in the same world of emotion, status and hormones. Like Val, Judy is on the edge of being an outsider. Both girls strive mightily to play the teenager game; both are too strong-willed and stubborn to do it with sincerity and full investment.

Val uses Judy to mimic her relationship with sister Evie. Val assumes that she's the smarter, more stable and more attractive of the two, and passes surprisingly harsh judgment on her BFF, as seen in this excerpt:

Judy has made a religion of dating the difficult, twerpy Wilbur--a fussy, lazy and utterly un-desirable soul who rates his pork-pie hat more highly than his girlfriend. Her union with Wilbur is a sham-relationship that exposes the world of teenage dating for a farce.

Val fares somewhat better in the teen world. At this point in the series, she still dates the handsome, affable and well-off Paul Vayne, while stuck in a continual flirt-cycle with the boy next door, Billy Wilkins.

Like Dobie Gillis and Zelda Gilroy, in Max Shulman's Stanley-esque sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Val and Billy are genetically destined to be together. Until the day they give into fate, they are content to play with each other's feelings in a way that invites mutually rebellious behavior.

Val's stock in trade is pushing people too far. Her relationships with Paul and Judy are in constant peril. In this issue's suite of stories, Val harangues Judy about not being attractive--a word repeated for Hiken-esque comedic impact--and bullies her into a horrid hairstyle experiment. Less enmeshed friendships would immediately end over such a brutal incident, but Val and Judy soldier on.

Val repeats a behavioral moment from earlier in the series, in which she finds humor in a tense, unhappy situation, blurts, and then realizes the error of her ways:


Informed that Val's beau, Paul Vayne, called while she was mutilating her BFF's hairstyle, Val over-reacts in a manner that Larry David might admire:


Stanley's in rare form as a comedian on this page. Val's distracted pause, and entreaty to Billy, have sharp timing--a rhythm that is handed down from creator to reader.

I've commented before on the relationship of Stanley's later work with that of the 1960s underground comix scene. It's hard to read this page without thinking of Gilbert Shelton, R. Crumb or Justin Green in their prime. Though Stanley had no access to the freedom of expression these younger artists enjoyed, he tapped into their desire to put more information about characters, relationships and outcomes on the comics page.

It fascinates me that, working alone, this melancholy alcoholic middle-aged man, creating comics meant for a young adult audience, hit on this same raw richness.

Val's conscience persists, and she snaps out of her zombie state to make amends with Judy. This sends her out into the snow (like rain, a poetic device in Stanley's world) and into the lives of a choice late incarnation of the author's Evil Rich characters:


Somewhat like the George Harrison episode in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, an innocent protagonist wanders into the lives of complete strangers, living in a different world, makes a brief, lasting impression, and wanders off again.

As with Lester's movie, there's no narrative demand for this vignette, but the piece, as a whole, is richer for its inclusion. Stanley's sharply drawn characters barely escape caricature here, thanks to his skill as a writer of comedic dialogue, as seen here:


The issue's loose suite of stories never quite recovers from this fascinating bump in the road. But its inclusion at all is a thing of wonder. This is precisely the kind of off-topic material that would have gotten cut in most other mainstream comic books of the 1960s.

Despite Stanley's apparently unhappy relationship with editor L. B. Cole, he was allowed to do what he felt like. Whether this was borne of indifference or indulgence isn't known, but moments such as these help to distinguish Stanley's TGOE from all other teen humor comics, past and present.

Though the main story winds down, after this haunting incident, Stanley picks up the pace for two final, unrelated stories. A four-page Judy solo piece crams in a graphic novel's worth of intense physical action and social mayhem. Best to read "Disarmed" on its own frantic merits.

The grace note of TGOE was the ongoing theatre-of-cruelty called "Judy Junior." This existential inversion of the childhood world of Little Lulu is among Stanley's most acerbic, bracing work.

The essence of "Judy Junior" seems to be a message from creator to reader: "See? You survived the horrors of early childhood!  Remember how horrible it was?"

Never has such a frightening pall been cast on the seemingly innocent pre-school "days of wonder." "Judy Junior" seems a sort of revenge on the constraints Stanley lived with during his work on Lulu. The brazen, self-righteous cruelty of Judy Junior towards the thin, timid Jimmy Fuzzi makes the worst of Tubby Tompkins' actions seem mild and, well, childish.

"A Clean Sweep" is an apparently self-prescribed cathartic for all the snow stories of Stanley's Little Lulu. In those Lulu stories, Stanley strongly delineated the playground jungle of boy-girl relationships--but with a restraint from their worst possible tendencies. Ultimately, the antics in LL are all good clean fun.

"Judy Junior" suggests Little Lulu as re-imagined by Herschell Gordon Lewis. While there is, of course, no blood or gore, the same threat of imminent harm hangs over these stories, as it does in Lewis' primitive, unsettling '60s horror flicks.

Just as there is no hope for most of HGL's unfortunate victim-protagonists, there is no hope for the happy childhood of Jimmy Fuzzi. Each day means another upending encounter with the apparently uncontrolled, unmonitored sadist who proclaims Fuzzi "my good friend." With friends like Judy Junior, enemies are a mere afterthought.

If this savaging of Lulu was unconscious, on Stanley's part, a sense of venom still pervades these pages.

An entire book of "Judy Junior" would be nearly unbearable. In four-page chunks, this series opens the cellar door to the darkest impulses of John Stanley's world. Bluntly stated, the weak will not survive. The best they can do is to curry favor with the strong, and cringe in anticipation of the next sh!tstorm. A veneer of clever dialogue and showy physical comedy does nothing to dispel this gloom.

How did 1960s readers shake off this comics voodoo? Yet apparently no one complained, and Stanley was never asked to stop "Judy Junior." For this we can be both grateful and worried. This blend of feelings, in reaction to Stanley's TGOE, is what distinguishes it from all other young adult humor comics. It provides us with a large, worrisome window into Stanley's psyche.

I hope that Drawn + Quarterly can continue their John Stanley Library in some form. These stories, with their dense, often difficult emotions and actions, have much to offer 21st century readers, as they blur the lines of what a "kid's comic" is supposed to be.

4 comments:

mr ed said...

Yeah, I have a fanatical Stanley fan daughter who is now 13, and she has been asking for volume two of this ever since the first one came out.

Patrick Ford

Chris Barat said...

I really do hope that D&Q brings out a follow up to that first THIRTEEN volume. I enjoyed it immensely.

Chris Barat

Thad said...

An excellent, highly satirical and stylized view of teenage femininity - almost like Calvin & Hobbes aimed at older girls. Though like C&H, Thirteen Going on Eighteen is embraceable for everyone. Thanks loads for the scans, now I need to buy the D+Q collection (it's amazing that it exists) and find the other back issues.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

I have a later issue in my collection of this comic and will blog about it soon enough!