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.


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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Panda, Chicken Visit Land Down Under After Passive-Aggressive Outburst; Woodpecker Plays PI, Is Fall Guy For Evil Rich: two from New Funnies 112, 1946

I'm just coming off a long, complex coloring project for another artist-writer's graphic novel. This hasn't given me much time to think about ol' Stanley Stories. In my absence, the blog continues to thrive, with a strong daily readership.

With almost 250 posts on this blog, there's already plenty to read, but here's something old, something new...

1946/7 saw the end of John Stanley's work on the New Funnies title. Having begun his 15-year association with Marge's Little Lulu by then, Stanley had also honed his storytelling and humor skills. There was still much refinement to do, as today's stories show in abundance.

Lulu changed Stanley--arguably for the better, but at a price. Certain creative and comedic tendencies, tamped down by the requirements of the Lulu-verse, would disappear entirely from his work, not to resurface until the early 1960s.

Thus, most of John Stanley's work of the 1950s is compromised in some way--despite its high quality. The energy of "Little Lulu" is strait-jacketed, when compared to his work before and after the series. It suits the characters and material beautifully, but it does not appear to have been Stanley's natural inclination as a humorist and narratist.

As the 1950s Little Lulu material is Stanley's most successful and well-loved work, it creates a wide dichotomy. Is Stanley better when he is more restrained? Or is the pell-mell, impulsive Stanley of the work outside Lulu preferable? The latter includes his remarkable run on the 1960s title Thirteen Going on Eighteen, which many regard as Stanley's finest achievement in comics.

Truly a question for the ages (for the 130 of us out there who care about such things)...

Today's offerings are far more modest than either Lulu or Thirteen. They are lesser pieces from the developmental years of a creative career. They're also instantly recognizable as the work of the man who created those two bipolar masterworks.

The first story is part of a half-assed attempt to inject educational material into the "Andy Panda" feature. For four installments in '46, the feature was called "... and the Magic Library," which certainly must have been the idea of someone else in Oskar Lebeck's talent pool.

Similar to Little Lulu's ritual fairy-tales, the "Magic Library" stories open with a vaudeville-like narrative frame before getting down to business. Thank heavens Stanley didn't submit to the namby-pamby tendencies this mini-series might suggest... it's one thing to leap into an encyclopedia and have a vigorous adventure. It's another to make that "educational" section rowdy and entertaining.

Thus, no actual enriching information is conveyed to the reader. This, perhaps, is why the feature perished so quickly.

Here's the first part of today's double-feature...

Before any discussion of this story, I want to ponder the events of the story's third page. It contains an exquisite outbreak of emotional violence that is among Stanley's most jarring moments. Andy has a right to be annoyed by Charlie's noisome outbursts with toy and trombone. The page's final tier, with Andy's flip from psychotic ranter to Chipper Self, Usual is like a slap in the face.

This one-time outburst seems to have been an over-expressed humorous idea. Its intensity is as freakish as the violent actions of Mr. Grump in the unforgettable "Tubby" story "Hide and Seek" (Little Lulu 79). It's not alone in John Stanley's work. Overly intense expressions of violent intent, usually short and percussive, are one of the characteristics of his writing, throughout his comics career.

As that outburst subsides, the story gets to its main conceit. Andy and Charlie's fantasy of adventure and tourism in Australia is almost instantly deflated by the intrusion of their personalities. In this remarkably non-educational story, our heroes are rendered unconscious en route; one of them is too weak to walk when they arrive, and both run afoul of meat-eating marsupials.

According to Wikipedia, "Different species of kangaroos have different diets, although all are strict herbivores." Stanley either didn't know that fact, or chose to ignore it in order to create a conflict situation.

Seen through the naïve lens of the child-like Andy and Charlie, such a notion seems charmingly apt. Their existential non-adventure reads like a light version of one of Lulu's made-up fairy tales.

It also has much in common with some of the stories Carl Barks created, across the country, at the same time. In some of these Barks stories, Donald Duck is similarly non-heroic, more a puppet of fate than a determinist adventurer. And, as with Stanley, this is a trait seen in Barks' stories of the 1940s and 1960s, but seldom in the 1950s (which was also, arguably, Barks' most important and popular decade as a comics creator).

Barks returns to this notion that Donald is a powerless plaything in his 1960s ten-page stories. Find a copy of The Comics Journal 140, from 1991, to read my thoughts on these late Barks short stories.

Woody Woodpecker, in Stanley's hands, also has ties to Barks' Donald. Like the Duck, he is a frustrated careerist, forever in search of a line of work at which he can succeed. Woody lacks the suburban respectability of Barks' duck. He's a cigar-smoking, seedy loner who lives in cheap boarding houses and is usually down-and-out.

Given Woody's inherent noir tendencies, the role of private detective seems a natural for him. But, in John Stanley's world, the more determination put into an event, the less likely it is to succeed. Philip Marlowe never had the deck stacked against him like the bird does in this bittersweet episode...

There is some of Tubby's future behavior in PI Woody, but the woodpecker is clearly an adult, and highly suspect at that.

The story is, for Stanley, rather poorly conceived. It supports his statement that he made up his stories as he went along:

...I just hoped for the best, that's all. I never gave too much thought to anything in stories. I just wrote the stories; that's it.

This statement, so self-effacing as to seem disingenuous, must be taken with some extra NaCl. While improvisation and whim clearly shaped much of Stanley's work, there is often a complexity to his overall story arcs that suggests some big-picture thought.

This story lacks a central reason for why its events happen. Why does the nameless rich man hire Woody to watch his young daughter? No possible danger, such as kidnapping, is mentioned--usually the first thing a client puts on the table in such a genre story.

Woody is downtrodden, and often seems to feel the world is out to get him. Here, everyone's role is to thwart and denigrate him. His wealthy client is bafflingly vague about why he has hired Woody; beat cop Clancy has the bird pegged as a stalker/child molester; the girl he's hired to protect does him physical harm. His client delivers the final, crushing blow to the bird's sleuthing career.

Is this just sloppy writing? Stanley sometimes coasted on his sheer wit, while burning through pages without any real gain. Here, his dialogue is razor-sharp and funny, but the story itself is a meandering mess. 

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery," as James Joyce, a person you never thought you'd see quoted here, once said. Indeed, we can learn as much from John Stanley's failures as his successes. It's instructive to see such stories, in which the process of Stanley's work is laid bare by its shoddy narrative.

The story's layouts are unusually awkward, as well. This panel ignores the rule of thirds with a vengeance:

Several other panels in the story are crudely designed. The lack of TLC here suggests either indifference to the work or an almost-blown deadline. The effect is like seeing the tip of a boom mike in a movie, or camera failure during a live TV broadcast. Seeing the flaws in a usually seamless medium can, indeed, be educational. It's a reminder of how crucial those seams are to mass-media communication.