Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nihilists in blackface: "Tom And Jerry" from OUR GANG COMICS #17, 1944

I feel pretty sure that I'm the first person to notice that John Stanley wrote the "Tom & Jerry" feature for Our Gang Comics. He first wrote the strip in issue #2, and continued it until around issue 22.

As with his other licensed-property adaptations, Stanley created a superior version. His take on T&J was not analagous to the real thing. This is for the best.

Despite their lush animation and incredibly good scores by the brilliant composer/conductor Scott Bradley, the "classic" 1940s Tom and Jerry cartoons mostly strike me as LCD chase-cartoon thuggery.

Stanley brought his sympathy for the world's outsiders to this series. Jerry and the diapered Tuffy Mouse are the foci of this strip. The world is seen through their eyes.

They rarely leave the suburban home they inhabit. (One rare trek outdoors takes them to the backyard, and a misadventure in a chicken coop.)

Here, they inspect the house's playroom, which they note they've visited before. It's a significant outing for them. Not only do they risk an encounter with predatory Tom Cat--they leave their world for an exploration of a larger universe that doesn't make complete sense.

This is an apt interpretation of a young child's view of the adult world. By giving the mice the curiosity and innocence of a tot, Stanley effortlessly gave his younger readers a strong identification figure (two of 'em, to be precise).

I dislike the cats-are-evil school of cartoon thinking. When Eubie, my dear departed orange tabby pal, was around, if ever I watched an old animated cartoon with a negative depiction of a cat, I'd apologize--sometimes in my flawless vocal imitation of film writer Leonard Maltin (who is the unofficial Caucasian Apologist for 20th century America). I feel that cats have gotten a raw deal in American pop culture. Can they help if it they're predators at heart?

The screen Tom is a murderous cipher. As usual, Stanley gives his bad guys some extra shading that makes them more complex and interesting. Tom's inability to quite keep up with the mice's nimble thinking makes him sympathetic, too.

This story was very much a product of wartime thinking. Note two things:

a) the mice resort to blackface, and fake "yassuh" accents, in a vain attempt to fool Tom. They do succeed in playing a nihilistic mind-game with him (previewed in the teaser panel above).

Stanley didn't do blackface humor often, but he DID do it. Even Dr. Seuss did it, back in the day.

It took until the mid-1960s for pop culture to fully rid itself of the google-eyed, thick-lipped, "gwine" and "dass rite, bawse" Negro caricature. The last occurence of it I've seen is comics is in a 1958 sequence of the sub-par Captain and the Kids comic strip. In movies, 1964's Z-grade classic The Horror of Party Beach offers what may be filmdom's last pre-Ironic Age (1991-present) "black mammy" stereotype.

b) Stanley ends this story with a downright subversive use of the American flag. [Tom's cursing is the subversive part, BTW.] It's a small touch, but one that floored me as I read over this story.

Note also references to Poughkeepsie, which was Stanley's town of residence in the 1940s. Along with references to Noonan, Grogan, and Croton-on-the-Hudson, this is a '40s Stanley "tell."

Whomever did the finishes was a fine cartoonist--UNLIKE the artless brute who took over the feature after Stanley left it. Not until Harvey Eisenberg introduced his matchless cartooning flair, later in the '40s, would the strip look good again.

This anonymous artist has a nimble pen-line, and imbues the characters with zest and life. I'd love to learn who these Dell staff cartoonists were. I imagine this information exists somewhere. It wouldn't surprise me if it were lost to time. Who, back in the 1940s, thought anyone would care at all about comic-books 60 years in the future?

Had this artist known that a 45-year old comics scholar would praise his/her work in the year 2008, I imagine said pen-pusher would have guffawed heartily as they refreshed their Esterbrook pen nib with fragrant india ink.


Thad said...

I don't really know what to say. Certainly the comics have more interesting ideas than Bill and Joe came up with, but the art doesn't really send me at all (sorry) until Eisenberg starts drawing the strip. It's only then that I feel that the shorts missed out on a lot being confined to the bullshit 'pantomime.'

Frank M. Young said...

Hey Thad... I always welcome your comments! I coulda been clearer in my post... I consider Eisenberg to be one of the best animation-style cartoonists period. His work is certainly superior to the person who drew this 1944 story.

If you have seen any of the stories in this series between Stanley and Eisenberg, this artist will start to look really, really good to you.
Dell's anonymous artists delivered solid, unpretentious work. You must admit this artist has a strong, clean line. He also is pretty good at staging.

The only place he flops is in the panel where Tom salutes and curses. It's odd that he chooses to crop part of Tom out of the frame.

Thad said...

The art's alright. Definitely above the hack that picked up inbetween you talk about, I agree. But it doesn't dig deep into my cartoon freak soul like a few other artists do.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Funny you had to bring up "Horror of Party Beach" here, I recall thinking how rather cringe-worthy the maid's use in that film was (at least they didn't re-dub her voice too like they did with the lead chick).

Really something looking back on comics like these and finding them as enjoyable today as they were then.