Saturday, May 19, 2012

Looking For "Tub" In All The Wrong Places: Proto-Tubby Stories from Our Gang Comics 15, 1945 and New Funnies 107, 1946

While working on my just-released bibliography of John Stanley's 1940s comic book work, I gave every non-Little Lulu Stanley story from that decade another look. I re-appraised a couple of pieces I had previously passed by. That they share a plot theme--a kid's desire to go toboggan-riding--struck me as more... than... coincidence... Thus, these two stories comprise today's post.

I've written before about Stanley's comedic archetypes. None are stronger, nor more present throughout his work, than the character I call "the Tubby type." This character is a Rosetta stone for determining whether an obscure story is--or isn't--John Stanley's work.

This archetype's mulish determination, blended with rose-colored self-regard, allows him/her to fearlessly step forward into scenarios of potential humiliation, ostracization and belittlement. Blinded by their usually flawed assumption that they're unerringly right, Stanley's Tubbies typically succeed. Not without some emotional scars, but they do win in the end.

Their victories are relevant to our daily lives. We seldom outright win, or outright lose, in personal events with high stakes. It's usually a muddled mix of the two. This, too, is the "win" scenario for Stanley's Tubbies.

Their societal rewards, always fleeting, exist just long enough to further convince these Tubbies that they're on the right track. Their stubbornness is often the agent of success.

A brief diversion: notable comics predecessors to Stanley's "Tubby Type" are the richly detailed characters of Major Hoople and Judge Puffle, from Gene Ahern's long-running features Our Boarding House and Room and Board. I've come to wonder if Ahern was an influence on John Stanley as a comedic writer.

The two share a bent for dryly absurd humor. Both also excel at escalation-comedy which always ricochets off the quirks and shortcomings of their eccentric characters. Ahern, if anything, was comics' closest equivalent to the comedic vision of  W. C. Fields. Both men shared a penchant for quirky domestic humor--tempered with unexpected doses of the surreal/absurd. As well, both Ahern and Fields wasted no time making their focus figures likable or heroic.

Stanley shows us the errant sides of his Tubby Types--indeed, that's the most interesting thing he sees in them. They suffer ridicule, but are tolerated, if not adored, by their more stable companions.

Ahern's Quixotic figures suffer a far worse fate than Stanley's. They are openly mocked by friends and family. They consider themselves learned men of the world, but are clearly regarded, at best, as dubious company by their neighbors and acquaintances. What might be heartbreaking theater-of-cruelty humor is salved, in Ahern's work, by these characters' unerring self-belief.

Ahern also used the phrase "CHOFF" to denote the joy of eating, as seen in this microfilm-derived panel from a 1952 Room and Board episode:

Paul Tumey found the Ahern CHOFF, which came as a surprise. I know of no other cartoonist who used this device. "YOW!" is widely used, throughout the history of comics. It can't truly be called John Stanley's property. "CHOFF," until recently, I considered Stanley turf. Stanley first used this bit of onomatopoeia in 1944. I haven't read enough of Ahern's work to determine the date of his first "CHOFF." Aren't you glad someone, in this cold hard world, thinks about these things?

Little of Gene Ahern's picaresque work has been reprinted. His comics are ripe for revival. Like the work of W. C. Fields, they may be funnier now than they were 60 to 80 years ago.

You can read more about Gene Ahern--and sample many of his fascinating comics--at my friend Paul Tumey's new blog, The Masters of Screwball Comics.

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Today's pair of (admittedly obscure) stories feature strong examples of Stanley's use of the Tubby type outside of Little Lulu. Each stars a marginal animation character whose life in comic books far outlasted their time on-screen.

We'll start with the most contentious figure in John Stanley's career--Li'l Eight Ball. Though Eight Ball's three screen appearances occurred in 1939, the character was kept alive in the pages of Dell's New Funnies for almost another decade. The reason, most likely, was to fill up the pages of the monthly anthology. Another Lantz non-starter, Homer Pigeon, outlived his screen version by many years in New Funnies, as did Oswald the Rabbit, whom Lantz pretty much abandoned in the late 1930s, but revived for a final, abortive 1943 cartoon.

The treatment of the Eight Ball character, in New Funnies, exemplifies the awkward transition of racial stereotypes before, during and immediately after World War II. African-American stereotypes intensified right after the war's end, just as they did in the years after World War I.

Oskar Lebeck's staff of comics creators struggled with Eight Ball in the mid-1940s. I have no knowledge of the racial beliefs of Lebeck or his staff. We know that Walt Kelly had strong liberal leanings in his newspaper Pogo strip, but little of this appears in his Lebeck work. His early "Albert the Alligator" material also features stereotyped African-American characters. In contrast, his low-key, long-running "Our Gang" feature has a black character (Buckwheat) who is on equal standing with his peers.

As this 1944 page from Our Gang Comics 14 shows, Kelly's Buckwheat is slightly more realistic than (though just as grotesquely caricatured as) Eight Ball. The warmth and whimsy of Kelly's work went a long way towards softening the blow, but the sting of racial reduction is still felt.

Buckwheat was the first to gradually shed his hesh mah mouf dialogue; it's gone from the strip by 1945. Kelly kept Buckwheat in the "Our Gang" cast until issue 44, in 1948, when he disappears, without comment, from the strip's cast.

Such caricatures were part and parcel of mainstream American media throughout the 20th century. For a late example of racial reduction, one has to go no further than Ron Howard's 1986 "comedy" Gung Ho. Subservient Asians, larcenous Gypsies and mono-syllabic Native Americans remained in mass media (and, in some cases, still linger) long after the minstrel-show African American finally disappeared from the horizon.

Even in the racially-challenged 1940s, Eight Ball was clearly something of an embarrassment to Lebeck's creators. His rural, sub-Joel Chandler Harris mush-mouthed earlier episodes gave way to more modern, urban settings. Gradually, the minstrel-show dialect vanished from the strip, although Eight Ball's nightmarish visage never changed. By 1946, Eight Ball (and the other, lighter-skinned African-American characters in the feature) talked the same as the Caucasians--and the "white" funny animals--in New Funnies.

Eight Ball still talks in minstrel show das-dem-dese in this early 1946 episode, but his blackness ceases to be otherwise noted. Perhaps Lebeck's staff (Stanley included) thought this might help make the character less of a shame magnet. A visual re-design of the character was probably out of the question by this point.

It's hard to get past the surface in these stories, but there are rewards. Eight Ball's stubborn tenacity to succeed, despite impossible odds, elevates this story above its obvious, cringe-worthy elements.

The layout of that last page is unfortunate, but that darned Statement of Ownership had to go somewhere...

Change Eight Ball to Tubby, replace the mush-mouth dialect with Tub's Caucasian kid-talk, and this could pass for a circa-1952 Little Lulu back-up feature. The piecemeal aspect of these Lebeck anthology comics is painfully evident here. Besides having to work around that obnoxious rectangle on the last page, the story seems to want to go longer. The sub-plot of the businessman McGargle, forced to wear the Hawaiian shirt to his board meeting, would have been catnip to Stanley, given more pages. The Tubby-figure's unexpected acclaim at the ski jump contest would have been nullified, or dampened, by the outcome of the McGargle incident.

This carelessness reveals the lack of interest held in the Eight Ball character by Stanley and his colleagues. The magazine's other black hole, "Homer Pigeon," was usually farmed out to West Coast cartoonist Vive Risto, but "Eight Ball" continued to be produced through Lebeck's New York office. It was clearly a chore for whomever had to produce the feature. When "Eight Ball" was dropped in 1947, due to protests from Greenwich Village grade school children, Lebeck's staff might have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.

Stanley occasionally wrote the adventures of Johnny Mole, an absolutely non-controversial cartoon schmo. Johnny, star of a one-shot 1941 MGM cartoon, was revived as filler for the back pages of Our Gang Comics. It was, frankly, more than he deserved. A few of his stories were written by John Stanley, including this 1945 piece. Also set in a wintry world of snow and sleds, it succeeds via its non-entity protagonist's unusually stubborn determination to go "bellywhomping," rather than help his parents with necessary snow removal:

This isn't much of a story--again, Lebeck's staffers clearly thought little of these minor back-ups. But moments of the essential spirit of the Tubby character peer through, especially in this priceless monologue from the story's third page:

The self-determination, against impossible odds, the retreat into inaction and the realization that the original goal will be lost if something isn't done quickly--this is the essence of  the Tubby type at work. These four panels, with their static staging, energized by the Quixotic ramblings of a misled character, are unmistakably the work of John Stanley.

Neither of these stories are highlights of Stanley's q.v., but they show that the Tubby archetype was important to their creator, and often the guiding force of his work in the 1940s. Stanley would perfect the Tubby character by 1950, in stories such as "The Gourmet" (Little Lulu 5) and "Great Day" (LL 23)--both readable elsewhere on this blog.

If you'd like to learn more about the early years of John Stanley's comic book work, consider a purchase of my 1940s Stanley bibliography:

To buy your copy of the
1940s John Stanley
bibliography for $2.99 USD,
click the BUY NOW button!

Monday, May 14, 2012

John Stanley: the 1940s Bibliography--illustrated and annotated!

I have finally completed a bibliography of John Stanley's comic book work in the 1940s--from his first efforts as a comic book storyteller to the runaway success of the monthly Marge's Little Lulu title, following an almost three-year trial run as a series of one-shot comics.

This 88-page document, available for $2.99 and delivered via download as a PDF, contains a chronological listing of John Stanley's comics work, with thumbnails of all covers, synopses of stories, page counts, their position in each magazine, and notes about many of the stories. Most stories contain a hyperlink to this blog, enabling your quick access to that story's relevant posting.

As I explain in the introduction, with an absence of documented verification, I've used known examples of Stanley's cartoon art and lettering to identify many of the pieces in this bibliography. There are several I have reasonable doubts about, and I discuss these in the footnotes.

My hope for this booklet is to open a larger dialog about John Stanley's work. If this happens, I'll be delighted. It's about time we looked beyond Little Lulu and saw Stanley's work as a cohesive whole.

As a thank-you for purchasing this document, included is a 33-page comics supplement. This contains four complete stories from 1943 to '49 that are not featured on this blog (and will probably never run here), plus several of Stanley's charming cover illustrations for New Funnies.

I do not claim that this is the definitive work on John Stanley's 1940s efforts, but I feel it is a strong start to a serious study of the crucial origins of his comic book artistry. This booklet represents a lot of work on my part, and I hope it's helpful to your scholarship and understanding of John Stanley's work.

This bibliography will only be available here on the Stanley Stories blog.

To buy your copy of the
1940s John Stanley
bibliography for $2.99 USD, click the
BUY NOW button!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Poison Salads, Anyone? "Andy Panda" from New Funnies 88, 1944: story, lettering and some art by John Stanley

Here is the third in a series of rare early John Stanley stories scanned for our enjoyment by Michael Barrier, who kindly helped me complete my archive of Stanley stories with his brave efforts.

This is a significant story in Stanley's career. For the first time, we see him really getting his act together as a writer of narratives that have humor, character and stakes.

From this moment on, John Stanley's work routinely combines these three important agents. His stories have a clear narrative arc, laced with conflicts, escalations and a denouement that ties everything together with skill and wit.

Perhaps it was the added assignment of "Woody Woodpecker" that spurred Stanley into a higher bracket of comics storytelling. Certainly, the 'pecker offered him his first really forceful, wild-card pawn for the comics chessboard. He clearly needed a playful, edgy figure to push him past the kiddie doldrums that might otherwise have suffocated his earliest work.

This story features Stanley's first original comics creation (in his 10th appearance), Charlie Chicken. Charlie is Stanley's first wild-card. Stanley didn't know what to do with him until around this time. He clearly was needed, to enliven the otherwise dull doings of the namby-pamby panda. 

The cover to this issue offers a rare instance of an image that concretely connects to the story inside. In general, early comic book covers were event-free posters to grab the eye of the casual browser.

It was an innovative touch, especially for Western's regular comics titles. Their one-shots, more reasonably, had to mirror the innards, as those were typically book-length narratives.

Trainspotters Dept.: A few other New Funnies covers, from Stanley's run on the title, preface the inner contents. His first, for issue 79, perfectly introduces his clean-sweep debut on "Andy Panda." Issue 93's cover painfully previews the dental-themed story waiting just inside the cover. The most humorous and charming cover-mirror is issue 121's, which is available elsewhere in the vast holdings of this blog.

This is Stanley's cartooning, from stem to stern, including the hand lettering. Interesting to note that Stanley worked with every character on this cover--although he didn't touch "Raggedy Ann and Andy" until the later 1940s.

And now, today's story, which begins on the inside front cover, in a wartime paper-saving move...

This story, along with the concurrent "Hector the Henpecked Rooster" piece in Animal Comics #9 (cover-dated June-July, 1944), introduced one of John Stanley's major tells as a writer and cartoonist--a pair of sound effects that depict the joy of consumption...

To be honest, I haven't done an inventory of all the John Stanley pieces prior to the June 1944 publishing date, so I may be wrong here. It's still a significant and simultaneous use of one of his major comics innovations. These two sounds so perfectly convey the eager act of eating. CHOFF would become the SFX mantra of Little Lulu's Tubby Tompkins...

...and move to the front of the Stanley Sound Effects queue in the early 1960s...

This 1944 story picks up considerable speed on its fourth page, with a clever and very funny use of repeated dialogue:
Stanley's allowance of his antagonists to mirror the thoughts and desires of his protagonists is a major narrative move. This concept will coalesce in the 1950s issues of Little Lulu. Therein, the boundary between hero and heel is often blurry, just as in everyday life.

Charlie's solution to the insect problem, after a near-fatal salad episode, also prefigures the child-logic of Little Lulu. This is the fix Lulu or Tubby might have invented to deal with this problem--just make a second garden, stick a sign marking it as for the insects--trouble begone!

This non-condescending use of child-logic is one of the prime ingredients of Stanley's Little Lulu. It's perhaps the main reason why his Lulu stories still engage young readers. They suffer, as did mid-century kids, from the supposition of adults. It's liberating to see the natural logic of children, based upon what they know of the world, change a situation for the better.

Note that Andy does not reject, mock or otherwise deep-six Charlie's naive solution. Though this event is clearly intended as a punch-line for the story, it creates a sense of resonance with the reader. Few comics aimed at kids cared to do this in 1944. In this story, Stanley hit on an essential of his storytelling style. It would take Little Lulu to cure him of a tendency to meander. By 1948, Stanley knows where he's going, and this skillful confidence pushes his work into a long period of greatness.

Stanley's crisp cartooning on the cover piece is lessened, inside the book, by another, unidentified hand. Stanley's vibrant lettering, and occasional flashes of his spiky, vivid cartoon style, peek through the mystery assistant's inks. It's sometimes painful to see Stanley's work weighted down by other hands, but it says much about his cartooning that its personality can still push through the haze.