I could do a story-by-story analysis of his work, but that might kill all the joy of reading Stanley's comics for others. I believe that any reader curious about John Stanley can quickly gain a sense of who he was, and what his work was about, via the nearly 250 posts extant on this blog.
Here's something a bit more far-reaching than usual for this blog. This would be at home at one of my other comics criticism blogs, Comic Book Attic, which Paul Tumey and I occasionally revive.
Though his name was unknown to readers until the 1960s. Stanley was, certainly, a celebrity within the industry of the American comic book. His longstanding success as the writer/base artist of Marge's Little Lulu (which was a regular top 20 bestseller on US newsstands) made him a comics figure to watch--and emulate.
When the words "emulate" and "comics" are used in the same sentence, the company that would, one day, be Marvel Comics, springs instantly to mind. Timely-Atlas-Marvel built its publishing empire on borrowed ideas. To be fair, so did the rest of the comic book industry in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. If Company A published a popular title, Companies B-Z rushed out their simulacra ASAP, to get their chunk of coin while the gettin' was good.
In the post-war comics market, in which super-heroes were marginalized and genre comics such as crime, romance, war and funny animal were in, competitors did pulpy battle on America's newsstands. Martin Goodman's publishing empire, of which comics were one small but lucrative slice, led the field in providing ready-made imitations of any cresting trend.
Goodman's editor-writer Stanley Leiber closely watched the comics market and kept a large staff of artists (and freelancers) busy in post-war America with his copycat versions of others' innovations. To be fair once again, Lee did a certain amount of innovation. He began a line of short-story horror and fantasy comics just before the more celebrated Entertaining Comics (EC) inaugurated their line in 1950.
|Marvel Tales 93, cover-dated August 1949,|
was one of the first horror-fantasy short
story anthology comics
Lee's gift, in this aspect, was to (a) spot a trend before it crested and (b) channel its basic superficial aspects to the very edge of plagiarism. He did this constantly during the post-war boom period of the American comic book. This hustler spirit kept Goodman's comics line alive during the devastating industry implosion of the late 1950s.
Stan Lee was obviously aware of John Stanley's work and career. I have no evidence that the two men met, but they were undoubtedly on each others' professional radar.
The first evidence of Stan Lee's Stanley fixation was Little Lizzie, which premiered in spring 1949. I posted about Lizzie three years ago in THIS POST. Drawn by David Gantz, the title was an odd farrago of Stanley's early Little Lulu and Ernie Bushmiller's newspaper comic strip Nancy, which had just entered its peak creative period.
In an interview posted on the invaluable Timely-Atlas reference site More Than Heroes, David Gantz charitably described the series as "...a Little Lulu takeoff." He also credits writer Kin Platt as a possible author. Lee's touch is evident in the stories, which include characters named "Lumpkin," which was a pet name of the author.
The first run of Little Lizzie lasted five issues. Its curious format made it appear to be sourced from a newspaper comic strip, and it does not read well as a result.
A few months before the end of its run, a curious story appeared in one of Timely-Atlas-Marvel's many romance comic books. "Blind Date!," published in Girl Comics #2 (cover-dated January 1950) features a fictional character named John Stanley, who looks remarkably like the real-life comics creator. The story is no great shakes, but here it is, for curiosity's sake:
The Grand Comic Book Database suggests that this story was inked by Joe Kubert. The website is wrong more often than it's right, but there does appear to be Kubert's distinct touch in its bland-but-crisp finishes.
"Blind Date!"'s sole fascination is the strong visual resemblance of its fictional Stanley to the real-life version.
Though generically rendered, the story's Stanley has the dashing figure and wavy dark hair of the real-life person. In other scenes of "Blind Date!" the resemblance is stronger. John Stanley somewhat resembled film actor Fred McMurray and modern comedian Norm McDonald. (The latter would be my first call for the John Stanley bio-pic that will never, ever be filmed.)
The story is a trivial detour, as a work of its own merit. It's more significant as one of string of emulations and curious coincidences that pepper the post-war Timely-Atlas output. Prowling through their comics of this era, one finds such things unexpectedly strewn, like a dead mouse left on your doorstep by a cat.
Stanley and Stan Lee would again intersect in 1953, when Little Lulu was at its arguable series peak.A thoroughly established, best-selling title, it was ripe for a second plunder. Lee enlisted the talented artist Howard Post to draw the series. As he had done with Harvey Kurtzman, and the equally-shameless Blondie rip-off, Rusty, Lee apparently instructed Post to make the revived Little Lizzie look as close to its "inspiration" as possible.
Speaking of which, while we're so aggressively off-topic, here is one of the Kurtzman "Rusty" stories:
Harvey Kurtzman, one of the most influential and game-changing creators of the post-war comics scene, was a considerably greater talent than Howard Post. Both men, under the instruction of Lee, created painfully obvious imitations of iconic comics figures. The experience could not have been pleasant.
It was, however, an ignominy upon which American comic books were built. To single Stan Lee out is a bit like picking one of the wooden ducks at a fairground target-shooting game. Every publisher did this, and continues to do so.
Even John Stanley and Carl Barks worked within this system--on a higher level. Both men built comics careers on the backs of licensed properties. The basic characters and worlds of "Donald Duck" and "Little Lulu" had been established, and made publicly popular, before Barks and Stanley created their similiar-yet-unique comics equivalents.
Both men made significant alterations to these high-profile licensed characters--add-ons and changes that no modern corporate lawyers would allow. "Lulu" was one in a long series of licensed properties in John Stanley's career. His comics career began with licensed properties--he first worked on the pre-comics title Mickey Mouse Magazine--and continued through 1964 with his last such project, a comic book based on the animated TV character Clyde Crashcup.
Stanley's attempts to create original comic book series were failures until 1961, when he began a six-year run on the teen humor series Thirteen Going on Eighteen. This title was Stanley's only long-lasting original comic book.
Carl Barks attempted to develop original comic book features, but never got one off the ground. Their peer, Walt Kelly, created a hit series, "Pogo Possum," took it with him when he left comic books in the late 1940s--and then licensed it back to Dell in the early 1950s.
This must have been a confounding turn of events for Barks and Stanley. Nonetheless, both men did remarkable, innovative work within the perimeters of established characters and concepts. That they were allowed a freedom unthinkable to today's work-for-hire cartoonists--to redefine main characters, introduce significant new figures, and to take these hot properties in directions alien to their regular appearances--is nothing short of a miracle.
No miracles were in Howard Post's corner with Little Lizzie. I hope the work he did on this series helped pay his light bills and put food on his table.
Here's the cover of the first issue of the revived Lizzie, aside the September, 1953 issue of Little Lulu. The two comics would have inhabited newsstands side-by-side. A child not yet savvy could easily be fooled by the fake:
Post made some small attempt to give his imitations some visual variety. Post's natural brush-line, which suggests Walt Kelly*, creates a pretty perfect knock-off of Stanley's cover images.
The interior stories smack of Stan Lee's hand. As with his replicas of Harvey Kurtzman's EC war pieces, Lee's version of John Stanley is a facile, superficial rip-off, with all of the broad strokes and none of the character, charm or creativity of its apparent source. Post does a professional job illustrating these pieces, but, as the Rusty experience was for Kurtzman, Lizzie may have been a depressing chapter in Post's career (which included a animation director position at Paramount's Famous Studios in the 1960s).
Here are three stories, just out of morbid fascination...
The mere existence of Little Lizzie, in its two incarnations, is proof of John Stanley's contemporary impact on his comic book peers.
As well, it's one of many curious detours found in the study of the 1950s Timely-Atlas comic book line. These dime pamphlets, forgotten as soon as they were published, speak to the very nature of American popular culture. The tail is never far away from the snake's mouth--in movies, TV, fiction, non-fiction, video games and comics. The snake's compulsion to swallow his tail has, perhaps, never been stronger.
Next time, we'll have a for-real, all John Stanley post. Thanks for reading this.
* Howard Post did a number of Walt Kelly imitations for DC Comics in the late 1940s; several of them appeared in the late issues of its longest-running anthology, More Fun Comics.