Sunday, July 29, 2012

Another Tip Top Tipple: A Nancy and Two Sluggos (feat. McOnion) from 1959

As is evident from even a quick reading, John Stanley was a bit burned out on Little Lulu in 1959. He had every right to be. Fifteen years of steady work on the series (including the companion title, Tubby) had yielded some 7,270 pages of comics--at least 700 of those also illustrated by him.

Lulu was continued by others, who followed Stanley's example to the letter, but without a vestige of the soul formerly present in the characters.

Someone at Western Publications had the brilliant idea that John Stanley should continue writing stories about kids, based on licensed properties. Having wrested rights to United Feature Syndicate's characters from UFS itself, Dell published a plethora of comics with the characters from Nancy, Peanuts and Captain and the Kids.

They ignored Gus Arriola's Gordo, which might have made a successful comic book transplantation, and apparently avoided Al Capp's Li'l Abner, which was a wise move.

Nancy, as I've written here before, is really just Little Lulu sideways. One can sense John Stanley's frustration in still being asked to churn out stories about kids and the suburbs. A certain anger rises from the base of these stories. This anger breeds a brittle, edgy comedy, often laced with dark impulses, and peppered with open hostility from its adult characters to its children.

On the other hand, Nancy gave Stanley a complete break from the heavy rules and regulations of Little Lulu. Though he was too careworn to run wild with this new property, he did approach it with a certain venomous vigor.

Stanley's Nancy often reads like the comics the cranky middle-aged bachelor down the street would write, if he could be bothered. His Lulu, to the end, displays a sometimes-forced smile on its creator's face. Expectations long-established had to be met, month in, month out, on that title.

There were no such expectations for Nancy. No one had ever tried to fashion a continuing series from Ernie Bushmiller's comic-strip. Well, almost no one: Paul Terry's animation studio licensed the characters for a handful of wartime cartoons. I've never seen any of these, but would like to, if only from morbid curiosity.

More specifically, no one had tried to expand the characters beyond the containers of the daily and Sunday newspaper comic strip. Bushmiller did continuities with the strip into the 1940s, but the characters remained airtight little Buddhas--chess pieces in an unending game of sight gags.

That Stanley was able to extend Bushmiller's characters, and world, beyond the rigid barriers of the syndicated strip, is a remarkable feat. And if an anger often colors these stories, it's a righteous anger. This series was more of the same, for a man who had done the same for so long he earned the right to be sick of it.

A professional to the end, Stanley accepted the challenge with a few muted grumbles and groans, which can be read between the lines in his Nancy material. It was clearly not his heart's desire to create this stuff. A comics career in 1959 meant doing a lot of work that wasn't the creator's ideal choice. Much dreadful crap has been produced this way.

It's remarkable that this work, which by all rights should have been dreadful crap, isn't. Shrill, yes; agitated, yes. But these stories show Stanley's mind in tip-top form, as he attempts to build a better sitcom.

Here are three stories from Dell's Tip Top Comics--about which I've written here in other posts. From issue 218, first up is a particularly brassy "Nancy" story, in which Stanley's ire rises to the surface.

Nancy is a bulldog of a character. She wears a chip on her shoulder with apparent pride. She has aspects of Lulu and Tubby in her ad-hoc makeup. Her determination to make good, in a world that receives her with hostility, is driven by her exquisite personal pride.

Stanley builds a comedic frenzy on the second and third pages, as Nancy becomes desperate to get donation monies, and pursues it in all the wrong ways. It's unusual for a Stanley protagonist to show this kind of oblivious fervor. But, then, Sluggo isn't present.

He received his own sub-series in Tip Top, usually focused on the tense relationship with his borderline-psycho neighbor, McOnion, These stories often read like suspenseful chess matches, with opponents who admire--and despise--one another.

Here are two Sluggo solos, from issues 218 and 219 of Tip Top...

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The confrontational relationship of status-seeking McOnion and pride-free Sluggo creates an edgy, slightly uncomfortable comedy. But the relationship works, and generates its own karmic energy. These encounters are, by far, the most significant and lasting of all Stanley's Nancy material.

There is no real hero, or protagonist, in these stories. Sluggo is too déclassé to care about what anyone thinks of him. He lives in a world of garbage and likes it. What could better rouse the fury of the insecure McOnion?

Yet these two polar opposites manage to co-exist. Their differences cancel each other out. McOnion has  his infinite Edgar Kennedy slow-burns; Sluggo has his rootless joy in an aimless existence. Fate has made them neighbors. Hate becomes tolerance, then circles back on itself.

It's a fascinating dynamic that, I believe, is unique to the American comic book: characters that are neither friends or adversaries, yet whom constantly interact and connect. There's no rivalry, no obvious effort at one-upmanship. It's a bit like seeing two chemicals interact in a science experiment. They repel each other, draw each other closer, then repel again.

Stanley spent two years with these characters, then dropped them to pursue a final clutch of original comic book creations. He had earned the right, many times over, to surpass licensed properties in his comics career. These stories, acrid though they often are, remind us of his skill at taking an outside concept and making it his own.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Scavengers of Snacks and Sexual Status: "Tom and Jerry" from Our Gang 19, 1945

John Stanley co-opted the "Tom and Jerry" feature in Our Gang Comics in 1945. For a few precious stories, he converted it into a vehicle for an emerging, highly distinct and personal style of comic-book storytelling. The results were ahead of their time, and sadly short-lived.

Stanley worked on the series from early 1943, and inherited it from writer Gaylord DuBois with issue 6 of the MGM-themed anthology, Our Gang Comics. Stanley contributed increasingly assured, sharp writing and cartooning to this series until early 1946.

By then, another licensed property--the licensed property of his career--called on his full attention. Little Lulu's growing popularity, as an original Dell comic book series, kept him busy producing 52-page comic books on his own, from script to art to lettering, in a constant series of one-shot editions.

Before Lulu became a regular Dell comic book, Stanley had let go of much of the final rendering. Charles Hedinger came aboard in 1947, to be joined by Irving Tripp sometime in 1948.

It's a pity that Stanley had to abandon "Tom and Jerry"-- he was on the verge of hitting a smart, hip and modern sensibility to comic books. He wouldn't get this vibe back until the early 1960s. Flashes of the razor wit and keen observational comedy of Thirteen Going on Eighteen is seen in some 1945 T&J stories.

This story is a sorta-sequel to one of the great Stanley stories--the T&J episode in Our Gang 15, which is part of this mega-post from a couple Yuletides ago. The focus is almost entirely on the outsider struggles of the mice, Jerry and the diaper-wearing Tuffy. Their hard-won attempts to find food, shelter and societal status are far above and beyond the intentions of the MGM cartoon original.

As Stanley did with licensed properties, he threw away most of the affect of the original, and re-invented the characters, and their world, in a superior comix-only variant.

Stanley's writing and cartooning are finely honed here. It isn't hard to see foreshadows of his '60s art style in this spare, effective cartooning.

Note the colorist's error on the last page, panel 6. Stanley does a cute sorta-follow through of Tom Cat's body from the previous panel. The colorist wrongly assumed that the grass was part of Tom's shaggy coat, and hued it that anise shade. It gives Tom a hunchback look.

The visual and verbal sophistication of this story is startling. This is the equal of Stanley's best Little Lulu work. It is arguably superior--there are higher stakes and a larger world than Lulu's early stories could provide.

The mice are low-status, without any guidance or assistance. In contrast, the suburban kids of Little Lulu are absolute libertines. They must conform to their parents' demands, but they have enormous leeway in the privileges they enjoy--and take for granted.

Jerry and Tuffy must scrounge for every scrap of food they find. They must be constantly wary of the genuine menace of Tom Cat. Their stakes are miles higher than the kids of Little Lulu. The worst they have to fear are truant officer McNabbem, the West Side Gang, or a spanking.

Stanley thrives on this ground-zero setting. In this, as in the story from Our Gang 15, Stanley introduces other mice who share this underground societal status. Giggles, the mindless girl mouse Jerry and Tuffy encounter, is not sexually aggressive, as is Mabel, the femme mouse from that earlier story:

Her absolute ignorance of the world around her, or of its dangers, makes Giggles a perfect foil for Jerry and Tuffy. As in that earlier story, Tuffy assumes the dominant role, which Jerry barely tolerates. Giggles is completely asexual--a significant trait not grokked by Tuffy, who trips on his own cognitive biases as he tries and fails to impress her.

The alleged antagonist, Tom Cat, appears in just 11 of this story's 70 panels. Stanley's interest lies entirely in the world of the mice--and, in particular, on the rich shadings of dysfunction in the friendship of Jerry and Tuffy. 

This is the stuff that gets Stanley going. The dense, playful dialogue of the story's fourth and fifth pages is Stanley at his very best. Every utterance of his characters defines their goals, biases and hopes. They become almost impossibly resonant for the 1945 funnybook page.

A characteristic of Stanley's best work is what I call the "off ending." This approach assiduously avoids the expected, or traditional, note of closure. This story's finale, with Tuffy not bothering to look up from his book, as he delivers a drop-deadpan "Don't be silly," is a stellar example of this device.

(A small thought: who wrote, printed and distributed these mice-size books, such as the one Tuffy reads here? I know we're not supposed to think about such things, but all the same...)

Stanley's cartooning comes close to expressing this abundance of character and wit. He experiments with a brush in this story. The results are better than in the prior issue, which is a masterpiece of technical chaos. Stanley's forte was the precise, flowing line of a nib pen (best seen in his "Jigger and Mooch" stories of 1947, and in the eight-issue run of Tubby he drew from 1952 to '54).

Stanley has trouble with the exaggerated ovals of '40s cartoon character eyes. They usually seem dead from his hand, and it was an obvious struggle for him to get them right. This uncanny quality of the characters' eyes robs this story of some of its overall effect. His establishment of each character's unique traits, via their dialogue, shores up the story sufficiently enough that this art gaffe is not ruinous.

Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories are perhaps his least-known work. They weren't identified as his efforts until I spotted them and studied them, over the past decade. At their best, they point the way to their creator's most sophisticated work, and show that the seeds of this mature style were present early in his distinguished comics career.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"The Little King" Pt. III: Stanley's 1950s Man-Child

In the mid-1950s,  John Stanley was fully occupied with his work on the best-selling Little Lulu and Tubby comic books. The potentially high-pressure demands of the job were tempered by a series of foolproof formulas he concocted for the Lulu stories.

Stanley had a number of sturdy structures at his disposal. By 1955, he could pretty much fill in the blanks of a series of self-generated "Mad-Libs"-style scenarios and produce high-quality comic book stories.

This didn't leave him much room for experimentation. The 1950s were Stanley's most domesticated years as a comics storyteller. And while his Lulu work is uniformly strong, at times one can feel him in creative doldrums.

Little Lulu didn't accommodate all the facets of his storytelling and comedy. For a period of two years, he tempered this with a series of wildly imaginative stories for the satellite book, Tubby, which he wrote and drew.

The energy and focus required by total cartooning was apparently too much for Stanley. He laid down his pen and brush in 1956, not to touch it again until 1963.

Among the few outlets afforded him, in this Lulu-centric phase of his career, were a trio of spirited, delightful one-shot books based on O. Soglow's pantomime newspaper strip The Little King. These comics mark the first faint inklings of John Stanley's 1960s sensibility. He clearly strives for something beyond the Lulu and Tubby stories he produced like a machine.

The Little King is basically Tubby in a royal robe. How this fellow became a monarch is a back-story I'd like to see. The trappings of kingdom bore him silly. He'd rather play marbles, noodle about back roads, or take a nap under a spreading tree, as you'll see in these two stories.

Like Tub, Stanley's Little King is overly fond of his own voice. After being mute all those years in the Soglow version, he must have had pent-up chatter galore. On the first page of today's first offering, note the King's eloquent "Tubby talk," as he bitches about his job, rhapsodizes about the greener grass he sees below, and then talks himself into abandoning his post to, literally, go fly a kite.

This first story is from the first of the three comics, Dell one-shot 494, dated September, 1953. This appeared between issues 5 and 6 of Tubby, which Stanley wrote and cartooned. He worked on this book while also writing the monthly Lulu, and fully creating the quarterly Tubby. Oy, such a workload! He does appear to have genuine fun with these stories.

This story's irregular length (22 pages) is evidence that Stanley just sat down and wrote, letting the narrative play out at whatever pace it demanded. Like Jack Kirby, Stanley was an on-the-fly storyteller. He never pre-planned his work. In more regulated titles such as New Funnies, Our Gang or Lulu, story page counts were more important. Here, it just goes 'til it stops.

The Little King's self-absorbed abhorrence of paperwork, meetings, and the other chores of royalty are often amusing--especially in the story's first page, with the King's brusque "yes, yes, yes..." as he leaves a trail of royal documents, then slams an official door in the face of his envoy, who appears resigned to this working condition.

Like the Soglow original, the King is a man-child somehow placed in a position of ultimate authority. Soglow's panto original lacked the luxury Stanley has here. By giving the King a voice--that of a precocious kid who's wise to the system--Stanley increased the character's potential.

Two earlier animated versions of the Soglow character also reflected these character traits. The low-rent Van Beuren studios released a series of Little King cartoons, some directed by outre animator Jim Tyer. In these sometimes-charming, sometimes-huh?! cartoons, the King remains mute.

One curious 1935 cartoon, Betty Boop and the Little King, gave the monarch a wheezing, whistling lisp of a voice, and a lascivious streak never seen before or after this iteration...

Stanley's Little King is asexual  (and prepubescent) in his interests, desires and ambition. His abandonment of the throne to his kid friend Kit, who then wreaks havoc with the empire's economy, is an arbitrary, childish action.  This selfish, irresponsible move nearly destroys the kingdom--a consequence that never quite dawns on its dotty man-child ruler.

As in much of Stanley's work, these undercurrents do not immediately impress the reader.  The darker stuff lurks quietly, just below the primary-colored surface.

A year later, Stanley wrote a second Little King one-shot. "The Statue," selected from that issue (597, if you must know), shows a substantial change in his comedic and storytelling choices. It reads more like one of his post-Lulu stories--the tone is brassier than Lulu's, the pace faster and the escalating situation comedy more aggressive.

"The Statue" doesn't have the frenzied, trumpeting pace of Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo stories, or his explosive, highly physical sitcomics of the '60s. It is an important transitional story in his career. For the first time, Stanley plays with the game-pieces of comics in a different way. The changes are subtle: he was not yet prepared to paint in broad, bold strokes. Even if careful, these are notable steps forward.

Sculptors become a recurrent source of comedy in Stanley's post-Lulu work. Leonardo Da Granite is not wacky, as is the beatnik sculptor of Kookie, or the desperate chiseler of the Nancy story "Artist's Muddle":

Artists are constant agents of chaos in John Stanley's world. The more highfaluting their aims are, the harder they fall. Da Granite is a humble craftsman, in comparison, but his presence importantly bridges Stanley's past and future.

If Stanley had left Little Lulu at this time, rather than in 1959, he might have refined this new vision of comics humor and storytelling earlier. Lulu arguably arrested Stanley's development in the latter half of the '50s. It never became an obvious millstone. The series was a bento box of familiar scenarios and relationships. Each issue had to be filled a certain way. This process arguably muted his powers as a comics creator.

As a professional, Stanley routinely delivered the goods, and his late run of Lulu, impressively, never becomes mechanical. His 1955-59 work is the most static and unyielding of his career. It's refreshing to find the few loose pieces of flotsam, such at the three Little Kings, which show Stanley thinking outside the bento box.