Monday, February 23, 2009

Yow! A Stanley Surprise from Our Gang Comics #47, 1947

The thing that really hooks me about John Stanley's work: there's so much of it, and it's hiding between the cracks of comix history.

I half-heartedly peruse various Dell Comics titles from 1946-1956, in search of tell-tale story elements... quirks... themes... that signify a Stanley Story.

Much of this time is wasted--but perhaps none of it is in vain. When I discover a story such as the one you're about to read, all that dutiful perusing pays off.

I had no idea that John Stanley returned to writing "Tom and Jerry" in 1947/8. It makes sense, and solves a mystery. Stanley abruptly left his four-year tenure on Dell's New Funnies title in 1947. How did he manage it?

His long-term gig in Little Lulu was established by this time--it seemed clear that Lulu was going to get her own title.

By 1947, Stanley often wrote 32 pages of content, per issue, on New Funnies. It represented a substantial loss of income for him to leave that title.

In 1946 and '47, Stanley seemed determined to establish himself as a writer-cartoonist. He illustrated several "Woody Woodpecker" stories for New Funnies, and began his "Jigger and Mooch" series for Animal Comics. He would try once more with "Peterkin Pottle," for Raggedy Ann and Andy in '48 and '49.

During this period, Stanley had at least one cartoon published in The New Yorker. A cartoonist could hardly do better; that's as upscale as it gets. I've recently learned that Stanley may have also written some gags for other New Yorker cartoonists. Next time I get to New York, I'm going to research this further.

It could be that the work on The New Yorker bolstered Stanley's income. I'm sure they paid much better than Dell. Even the writing of gag concepts probably gave Stanley more $$$ than his work on a 10-page comic-book story.

Drawing his own stories gave Stanley some pleasure and satisfaction, I'm sure. His work at Dell had often been indelicately rendered by staff artists--some great, some bad, most of them merely competent.

Stanley's Thurber-inspired cartooning style, with strong elements of 1940s animation, became slick via his '46-'49 comic book work. I still haven't seen his New Yorker cartoon, but thanks to Jeet Heer, I've learned its publication date. I'll find the thing and post it here ASAP.

Stanley had the smarts and the skill to make it as a magazine cartoonist. Perhaps he preferred the relative freedom of the Dell titles. They gave him a large playpen, with seemingly stern rules that were seldom enforced.

Furthermore, by assuming the responsibility of the monthly Little Lulu book in 1948, Stanley became a great storyteller. LL gave Stanley the discipline and the sheer experience that he needed to refine his art, take risks, and develop the already-strong techniques and narrative ideas he had already shown to the world.

This remarkable story comes from 1947. I assume that Stanley picked up the "Tom and Jerry"-related features from Our Gang Comics to make up for the loss of the steady New Funnies gig. He had written T&J from 1942 to '46, and had established his take on the licensed characters.

Yesterday, I posted two 1945/6 T&J stories. They're fine pieces. They suffer somewhat from the cramped wartime format, when Dell's 64-page comix went, without warning, from 60 to 52 to 36 pages, as paper allotments permitted.

All of Dell's auteur cartoonists suffered from this crunch. Carl Barks, Dan Noonan, Walt Kelly and others were forced to abandon the spacious, sunny, open feel of their earlier work, and compress stories into relentless 12-panel grids, reminiscent of the Fox Comics titles of 1939.

Some of these stories were obviously cut-and-paste reductions of longer stories. Some of Barks' short "Donald Duck" stories bear obvious evidence of a hasty reformat.

Dell stuck with the four-tier format for most of their humorous titles after the wartime restrictions eased. Their comics still veered between 52 and 36 pages, so it made sense to stick to this more flexible format.

I think these wartime rigors also helped hone Stanley's skills. By 1947, his writing had a new sharpness and compactness.

The difference between the story you're about to read, and those I posted yesterday, is striking.

Stanley completely dispenses with Tom Cat in this 10-page story. He takes risks with his self-imposed T&J format by making Jerry, ordinarily the voice of reason, more prone to taking chances.

We're in the urban Anywhere of Stanley's Little Lulu stories. And, better yet, Stanley uses one of his pet LL devices--little wind-up mechanical men. In the John Stanley universe, there is always a sweaty, disreputable street vendor, his display case hastily opened on a side-street, his little wind-up men on temporary display, until a cop, munching a stolen banana, puts a stop to his free enterprise.

I think this story's use of the wind-up men pre-dates any appearances in Little Lulu--tho' I could be wrong. This could be one of those birth-of-a-notion stories.

Regardless, this is a beautiful story, rife with vital Stanley themes and peppered with his lovely use of language. The business with the raindrops, towards the story's end, achieves a kind of comixmatic poetry. I was tickled pink to spot this story, and am equally giddy to share it with you.

There are more, too! They'll show up here. And now, I shall, pardon the pun, wind up my spiel and raise the curtains...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mice With Cigars And Money: "Tom and Jerry" from Our Gang Comics nos. 20 and 21, 1945/6

Here's a break from posting LITTLE LULU and TUBBY stuff. I know they're crowd-pleasers. The real purpose of this blog, to me, is to restore to public attention some of the lesser-known stories John Stanley wrote (and sometimes drew) for various Dell/Western/Gold Key comics in his three-decade career in comix.

Today's double-header offers two Stanley stories you probably haven't read. To boot, they were drawn by Stanley, too, and show where his cartooning might have gone, had LULU not overtaken his duties as a comics creator.

These two stories, from consecutive issues of OG, come at the close of Stanley's first run on the T&J strip. They were written in 1945, right at the time Stanley wrote his first issues of Little Lulu.

As said in my previous post on Stanley's T&J stories, Stanley significantly improved the concept of the original MGM cartoons. Always a champion of the underdog, he shifted the comic book series' focus on the two mice, Jerry and diaper-wearing Tuffy. (As Jerry and Tuffy are the same size, why Tuffy wears diapers is an utter mystery. Perhaps he had poor bladder control. That's my best guess.)

The mice attempt to make sense of the human world. All its trinkets and gadgets both baffle and intrigue them. Tom, the cat, is more a minor nuisance to them than the carnivorous monster of the animated cartoons.

Furthermore, Stanley lets all three characters talk, and gives them distinctive personalities. Jerry is an ersatz authority figure, all logic and composure--that is, until he's deeply inducted into Tuffy's latest fascination. Tuffy is all impulse; like Charlie Chicken in the Andy Panda feature, Tuffy exists to get straight-laced Jerry into conflict.

The mice share a more childlike, gentle attitude towards all they encounter, with some street-wise 'tude mixed in.

Tom is an important pre-Tubby figure, similar to Stanley's interpretation of Woody Woodpecker. He bears the Stanley trademrk of the self-assured, self-deluded eccentric who's convinced that his version of how the world works is the correct--and only--one.

In these last couple of stories, Stanley selects two vivid topics: money and smoking.

In the first story, the rodents' discovery of a nickel causes a literal invasion of Tom's life. The cat makes no attempt to pursue or provoke the mice. He's just doing what cats generally do when nothing's up: napping.

"This is a dangerous undertaking" Jerry comments, with a characteristic lack of punctuation. Nonetheless, the mice prowl through the cat's innards, and convince him that he's facing death. All for a lousy nickel.

Issue 21's story is an unsung Stanley masterwork of the mid-1940s. This is an example of the terribly un-PC story that any modern-day comix publisher, TV animation exec, or control-freak legislator would rail against at length.

While it isn't exactly a pro-smoking story, the use of tobacco by these reader-identification figures is, shall we say, casual. Stanley hilariously riffs on this touchy topic, and brings screwball fantasy elements into the mix.

The story ends with a beautiful off-beat "grace note." Stanley excelled at bringing things to a close in unconventional ways.

Gotta love the "KAFF KIFF KUFF KOFF KEFF" on page one, as well.

These stories show strong evidence of Stanley's layout designs. I have no idea who did the finishes. They're functional, if not exciting.

While the artist is no Harvey Eisenberg, he is far, far, far better than the rank amateur who took over the series after Stanley left.

Stanley returned to write both "Tom & Jerry" and its companion feature, "Adventures of Tom," for a few issues in 1947 and '48. These stories are choice, and completely unknown to Stanley scholars (I just spotted them a few minutes ago, while trolling through some of the later issues in my scattered run of issues). I'll post another pair of them next time.

Enjoy this little-known gem. Me, I'm gettin' a fresh cup of coffee. This damned hangover isn't going away easily. But that, as they say, is another story...

Mice With Cigars And Money: "Tom and Jerry" from Our Gang Comics nos. 20 and 21, 1946

Friday, February 13, 2009

The rest of Little Lulu 95: fairy-tales and Tubby tension

As promised, friends, here is the rest of this fine issue of Little Lulu.

First, the cover, 'cos everyone likes covers...

"Ol' Witch Hazel and the Goblin with the Tender Toes," by its long-winded title, prepares us for a fairy-tale full of verbiage and wordplay.

Some think less of Stanley's fairy-tales than his regular stories. They are very wordy. They're actually considered to be too hard for modern-day kids to read.

While Stanley does go off into Al Feldstein-land with his rich captions, let us consider the virtues of this, and its fellow fairy-tale stories. They gave John Stanley a regular excuse to go off the rails, and play with genres and themes that would have been taboo in the structure of the "normal" LULU stories.

Stanley never hesitates to bring something sinister into these stories: the stakes are high, and supernatural elements are the norm. He got busted the one time he tried to incorporate these aspects into a "regular" LULU story--"The Bogeyman," which was slated for issue #26 of the series, but sat unprinted 'til the 1980s.

Yes, these stories have a lot of words. But they still succeed as lively comix. They aren't wooden prose-fests like, say, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant--nor are they as literal as Feldstein's prosaic captions for his EC stories.

[Example given: the drawing shows a man standing before a bureau, knotting his tie. CAPTION: "You're knotting your tie, John Simpson. You're tying the old Windsor knot... pushing the silky fabric over, around and through...creating a knot...a knot as tight as the one in your gut...a gut that's filled with fear... tension... hatred...tie that knot, John Simpson... then look for your keys!"
DIALOGUE: Guess I'll finish tying this tie...]

Stanley's captions always add to the reading experience. The reader gets some subtle humor, usually from the discrepancy between the narrator's version of the events, and the "real" version, as seen in the frame below his/her account.

There is a dreadful, unapt pun at story's end. In the later 1950s, our hero developed an unhealthy fondness for such groaners. The one that ends this story would make even Rocky and Bullwinkle consider suicide...

Here's this issue's "Tubby" story. Art is by TUBBY artist and sometimes LULU pinch-hitter Lloyd White. His cartooning is, as ever, crude but full of feeling. "A Brave Deed" is prime Tubby. Driven by his insecurity, Tub slaps together a half-baked scheme to raise his status. It collapses, then miraculously succeeds. But high status proves ever-elusive to Tubby. For all his trouble, he's literally left hanging at story's end.

Once again, looka how much happens in just five pages. The timing is just right, and there are some nifty touches. I love the moment when Tubby's forged letter is read, in cursive, complete with spelling errors.

Lloyd White's version of Tubby looks weird to me. Especially when Tub is angry, he looks like a middle-aged man whose head was grafted onto a midget's body. White seems to have stuck to Stanley's sketched layouts much more than did Irving Tripp. These stories make me wish Stanley had done the finishes on the "Tubby" stories himself.

To end our excursion, a vaudeville-style "chaser"... ba-da-DUMP! >tinggggggg< Have yourself a happy Friday the 13th!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A balm for Tubby anxiety everywhere...

Just to restore some calm here...

There has not been any official announcement from Dark Horse (that I know of) about the TUBBY reprints.

Any project such as this takes a lot of time to set up... from rights negotiations to the search for photostats, original art, and other reproduction sources; then comes book design, editorial content, and other necessary decisions.

I wish it were as easy as: "hey! Cool old comix! Let's reprint 'em!" Having worked as a writer and editor for decades, I know all too well the stasis that is part of the publishing field.

I have only heard about the TUBBY books through the grapevine, via my connections in the comix publishing biz. They tend to hear about new titles and trends a long time before they become public.

If you're wracked with anxiety over the appearance of these TUBBY volumes, why not write Dark Horse and get info from them? Let me know what you find out!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More LLL (Later Little Lulu): three from #95

Here's another trifecta of super Little Lulu stories from 1956.

Just one issue after delivering the devastating "Two Foots Is Feet," John Stanley continued to mine the rich "parents-bewildered-by-children" vein. In our first story today, "The Bawlplayers," we get an 'in' on how Lulu's parents are hip to the manipulations and bargaining that are their child's only currency.

Tubby, of course, is in on the adults' 'in,' and has his own set of fool-proof counter-manipulations. He acts as a crying coach for Lulu. His evaluations and feedback are hilarious: a grand example of the transfer of adult characteristics to kid characters.

The story also makes use of Dell Comics' unique, limited color palette. As noted in prior posts, Dell (Western, rather; see Michael's comment below, with a helpful link] printed their own comics, and hewed to a very austere set of colors. Their very pink red, murky violets and bricks and eye-piercing flat yellows are like no others in funnybook history.

This story's subtle in-jokes about color are a delightful extra touch to a short story already bursting with great ideas. Look at how much Stanley achieves in five pages!

"The Sick Tree" mines another common Lulu theme: the girls' ability to thoroughly outwit the boys. By 1956, Stanley had already done this sort of story, oh, 40 or 50 times. His capacity for getting mileage out of the most overworked comix tropes is a lesson for every writer.

In this story's case, by having the boys' mischief impinge upon Mr. Moppet, Stanley raises the stakes of this-type story. He even inverts the potential threat of Lulu getting a spanking from her pop.

Alvin provides a brilliant offbeat coda to this exceptional Lulu story.

"Big Bite" was the opening story of this issue. I decided to move it to third place--not for any lack of quality. It's such a perverse variant on the Lulu-Tubby-food dynamic that it deserves to be the final course of today's comix snack.

Tubby's dependance upon Lulu for extra foodstuffs is the stuff of comedic legend. Like Sgt. Bilko and a scam, the prospect of ill-gotten food proves irresistible, time and again, for Tubby. He seemingly lets his status plummet while trying to work his manipulative wiles--all for a 10 cent ice-cream cone.

As with "Bawlplayers," we see Stanley expand his arsenal of hilarious vocal excalamations. What happens to the final ice-cream cone causes some wonderful physical contortions as well.

These stories, which are masterful in their economy of plot, characterization and theme, literally speak for themselves. I'll post the remaining two stories from this fine, fine, super-fine issue next time around!