Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cover Story: John Stanley cover art for two issues of 13 Going On 18!

This is a guest post, courtesy of my lifelong friend and comix conspirator Paul Tumey.

His blog, COLE'S COMICS, has really raised the bar on comix criticism and analysis. I encouraged him to blog on Cole, and the results are stunning, in my book.

Paul scouted out the contents of today's posts, via Heritage Auctions' website. If you want to see a LOT of classic comix artwork, gratis, and help yourself to hi-rez scans of same, visit their site. Be prepared to blow a lot of time trolling the ever-changing contents.

Paul was kind enough to provide some smart commentary on these pieces, so I'm going to sit back and let his fingers do the walking (and talking).

First up is the cover art to 13 Going on 18 #18. Paul's notes are below...

"...perhaps most interesting of all is that the white out he originally applied has flaked off, revealing a more gruesome injury on the boy's face. I've included the printed cover for comparison, in which you can see how Stanley (or an editor) softened the expression. In a way, this art is rather emblematic of Stanley in that it is lighthearted and fun in appearance, but scratch the surface of his stories, and you will discover a darker view of life that is even more compelling."


Next is the cover for issue 21. As Paul notes, the gags on both covers center on sports injuries. See his thoughts below...

"As in the art for the cover of issue 18, the joke centers around the boy being roughed up, and his dazed, out of it expression shows that the girl's hectoring is the least of his worries. The joke is the girl's obliviousness. A little dark, when you think of it. The artwork is beautiful, and affords us a rare chance to study Stanley's work in as pure as form as it gets."

If you haven't visited COLE'S COMICS yet, Paul's comments may whet your appetite for more of his writing and analysis.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tubby #1: the Notorious "Captain Yo-Yo"

Before I start today's post: a humble note of thanks to the folks who made thoughtful and immensely helpful donations to this blog, as we faced our darkest hour. I couldn't have made it without your help.

I'm happy to report that the worst appears to be over, and that a light is visible at the end of the tunnel--an opening not too far away.

Thank you so very much. I feel like celebrating, so here's another mega-long post: 36 pages of wall-to-wall comix!


The debut issue of Tubby has an undeserved bad rep in certain corners of Comixville.

For those of us who treasure the subconscious, darker-hued realms of Stanleyland, "Captain Yo-Yo" is a major moment in John Stanley's career.

It was, by far, the most unusual story Stanley had written, with the "Lulu" universe, that had been published. ("The Bogeyman," slated for a 1950 issue ofLulu, but cut due to its intensely nightmarish themes and narrative, would take top honors, had Dell been gutsy enough to publish it.)

The bulk of Stanley's Little Lulu stories have their feet firmly planted on the ground of comix reality. We could exist in this world. (It would be fascinating to see how any of us would be drawn by Irving Tripp.)

Stanley segregated fantasy themes to a regular series of fairy-tales, usually related by Lulu to bratty Ritalin poster-child Alvin.*** [see post-script below]

In these stories, Stanley let his imagination--and his dark side--run rampant. Chaotic, troubling events fill these stories. It's acceptable because these images and narratives come from Lulu's mind, as she improvises these little masterpieces to her largely unappreciative, usually captive audience of one.

Stanley had an affinity for themes of fantasy, horror, science-fiction and the macabre. One-shot stories such as the Andy Panda tale "The Mighty Mites" and the Oswald Rabbit "last flower"/"don't laugh" story (both found elsewhere on this blog) are truly fantastic stories that take place in comix "reality."

Lulu might daydream wild stories, and Tubby might exaggerate the truth in his ego-maniacal braggadocio, but the majority of Stanley's writing for Little Lulu wisely stayed put on a recognizable workaday world.

Tubby represented a clean break from the strictures of the Lulu universe. For one thing, Lulu is never seen in Tub's book.

This sprang from the need for separate "Tubby" stories, sans Lulu, in her monthly title, to qualify for bulk postage under the post office's requirements that periodicals have more than one feature per issue. (I'm greatly simplifying this information, but it's also the reason for those joyless text fillers in 1940s comic books--the ones that read like they were written at gunpoint, during a hostage situation.)

From the start, Stanley used Tubby as a comix laboratory. He was clearly dedicated to the title. He did his first complete art-and-story comix since the late 1940s for issues 2 through 8 of the Tubby book. Given his workload, it's significant that he was moved to do the finished artwork. (It helped that Tub's book was a quarterly for most of its run.)

Here, Irving Tripp, in his only appearance in Tubby, does the book-length art. After Stanley stepped down as writer-artist, Lloyd White replaced him for the remainder of Stanley's time on the title.

White's artwork leaves me cold. He seems to have followed Stanley's layouts to the letter, but his rendering seems amateurish to me. The Tubby stories were an improvement over his work on the Walter Lantz features in New Funnies, circa 1946-8. His work looks flat and rough, and it fails to realize the possibilities of Stanley's writing.

It's great to see Tripp's crisp, precise work on this story. Now, without further adieu, here's "Captain Yo-Yo." Let's regroup after you've read this and ponder the many points of interest herein...

If you've read Stanley's "Peterkin Pottle" stories, you'll recognize "Captain Yo-Yo" as a chip off that old block. As Pottle is an alienating, unappealing character (seemingly on purpose), it's rewarding to see this tall tale formula applied to the more complex, likable Tubby Tompkins.

Tubby, at story's start, is ostracized by his friends. As one, they turn on him and, as often happens in Pottle's stories, take harsh, excessive action against him. Pages 3 through 5 of this story have an intense sense of despair.

Tub slowly but surely freaks out as the enormity of his dilemma takes hold. He's been abandoned by his so-called friends, and left to apparently starve on Pine Tree Island. (One assumes that the distance from island to shore is too far for an overweight kid to safely swim.)

Tubby retreats to a well-known sanctuary: his imagination. Here is where Tubby's character informs the story. Unlike Peterkin Pottle's fantasies (wish-fulfillments of blanket acceptance and admiration, which usually entail mass slaughter of animal and human life), Tubby's daydreams have a moral compass.

Of course, Tubby can down a thick crowd of cut-throats with a few sly extensions of his yo-yo. He holds himself in high regard. But even an ego-maniac has his limits. It's telling that he balks at the concept of being a for-real pirate. Although he clearly loves the colorful tone of adventure in the pirate genre, the idea of pillaging, looting and killing as a way of life doesn't appeal to him.

And why should they? Tubby's desire is to be rightfully recognized as the great, hip, talented, cucumber-cool player he fancies himself. As such, he need not tire himself out committing criminal acts. As the master of all he surveys, the riches of the world ought to be brought to him--on a silver platter.

"Captain Yo-Yo," like Lulu's fairy tales, succeeds as both a vigorous burlesque of genre cliches, and as a detailed reflection of the inner world of its teller. The broadness, while often hilarious, fits a kid's excited, breathless involvement in the here-and-how of a made-up story.

Stanley really gets into the spirit of the story. It's salted with some of the most vigorous, epic action of his writing career. Some of the battle scenes have a Jack Kirby-ish vibe to them--they're over-the-top and brimming with energy.

Stanley has great fun with the vocabulary of comix itself. Priceless are his heightened sound effects, particularly the "SPLASHES!" that accompanies the pirates' mass exodus. I don't think a sound effect has ever been pluralized anywhere else in comix, past or present. Please, someone out there, pluralize your SFX--keep this brilliant quirk alive!

The early issues of Tubby are a fascinating anomaly in Stanley's career. These often book-length stories inhabit a nether reality, neither rooted in the recognizable everyday world of Lulu, or in a stylized, obvious fantasy setting. These vivid, detailed yet spare pieces of storytelling reach an apotheosis in "The Guest In The Ghost Hotel" (the first Stanley story posted on this blog).

That story seamlessly blurs the boundaries of "reality" and "dream" in Stanley's comix world. "Captain Yo-Yo," though born of abandonment and desolation, is a rich slice of Tubby's inner fantasy world. Reading the story is, in effect, seeing the world through Tubby's eyes.

Irving Tripp's art is a revelation here. It's among the very few moments in his Lulu tenure in which he gets to draw non-urban locales--and, at that, scenes of wild adventure. I particularly like his depictions of the sea. There is a genuine spark of life in his artwork here. It appears that he genuinely enjoyed drawing this unusual story.

The early Tubbys gave Stanley a welcome break from the real-world confines of Little Lulu. As such, they provided him with a welcome opportunity to rework the concepts of "Peterkin Pottle," and to wed these storytelling ideas to a genuinely rich and likable character.

As can be seen from other posts, here, of early Tubby material, Stanley was also afforded a rare opportunity to draw his own stories. It's a pity that the book went to a multi-story humor format by issue #10.

Stanley never returned to this tall-tale genre again, outside of the monthly Lulu fairy-tales. It was the comix' sad loss.

*** POST-SCRIPT: This, of course, fails to factor in the "little men from Mars" stories with Tubby. I'm not 100% convinced the little men aren't simply Tubby's wishful thinking, realized in some kind of waking dream. If they are, indeed, real in Tubby's fictive world, my theorizing is for naught.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last of the Kool-Aid: Lulu Summer Camp Experience '58...The Finale!

The thought of summer camp brings to mind very, very weak Kool-Aid. Tinted a faint violet or pink, this stuff tasted more of the waxy cups in which it was served than of any alleged artificial fruit flavor.

Summer camp in the early 1970s was all about nearly-flavorless Kool-Aid. Hence today's title.

These are the final four stories in this magnificent 1958 Little Lulu summer camp giant.

First up today: "Ol' Witch Hazel and the Sneezing Weather-Vane."

This feature, a staple of Stanley's Little Lulu, is regarded as masterful, inventive storytelling in some quarters. Others find fault with the fairy-tale format's extensive narration and lessened use of the comix format.

I consider these fairy-tales often-brilliant, highly creative storytelling. They are a bit text-heavy. I'd imagine modern young readers might be taxed by the lexile challenge Lulu's narration presents.

The ironic understatement of her narration, and the contrast between narrator and scene, as seen by the reader, seems very rich to me. This story, with its decidely manic, agitated cartoonish farce, is quite funny and vivid.

I particularly like the repeated imagery, on the second page, of the townsfolk working hard to earn money to search for the mountain. I also find it humorous that such an obviously visible mountain should prove so difficult to find.

In the feverish, improvised kid-logic that fuels these fairy tales, it makes perfect sense that the patently obvious should remain invisible, and vice-versa. I'm impressed at how consistently Stanley retains the voice of a child storyteller. The temptation to revert to the ironic adult voice would be enormous to most writers.

If you dig these Lulu fairy-tales, you've no doubt had a ball reading this one. If not, at least stop to admire the inspired imagery and the faintly Will Elder-y attention to detail within those cramped panels.

"Wet Cement" is a three-page quickie.

Not much to say here; Stanley is entitled to catch his breath between two fairy-tales.

Tubby is the rare creator of such a story in "The Sea-Monster With the Tired Ears."

Tubby's personality beams through every word of this fairy-tale. This is the only instance I know of in which Tubby regales Alvin with a supposedly pacifying story. Ironically, Lulu provides an unintended punch-line to Tubby's tale.

The self-centered, socially irresponsible male sea monster is a hilarious, albeit unintentional, mirroring of the world-view of its creator. This is, perhaps, Tubby's future as an adult male--to feel beleaguered by the demands of women, and to find solace only in his own intense inner world.

Stanley knew his characters deeply by 1958. It is sad to think that he'd abandon them within a year.

"The Injun Fighters" provides anarchic closure to one of John Stanley's finest hours in comix. At 11 pages, it's the longest story in the book. See you when you're finished reading it!

Abundant with droll humor and high comedy, "The Injun Fighters" captures the chaos of childhood with sharp observational relish. The play's rehearsal, with its many levels of action, is handled with enviable ease by its author.

Real life intrudes upon the cliched play in a manner that rings constantly true. Stanley's cast is so well-defined that humor results from their simply being themselves.

I particularly love the moment in which Tubby gets a little too much into his role, and terrifies Wilbur, who transacts with Alvin in order to save his scalp.

Gran'pa Feeb is mentioned early in the story. As any storyteller knows, if you mention something, you're obliged to bring it on-stage. Feeb's entrance (which is literally on-stage) brings down the curtain on this intended entertainment, and ends another summer camp season in utter calamity and chaos.

I admire Stanley for not repeating the finale of his prior summer camp giant. There is no note of melancholy; no somber farewells to season's end. There's just feathers, water, and a scrambling stage-full of addled kids, trying to escape the clutches of the unmedicated (or, perhaps, hyper-medicated) Gran'pa Feeb.

We close this book with its back cover. I'm impressed that some 1958 kid didn't rip off this back cover and nail it to his or her bedroom wall.

Well, that's enough Little Lulu to hold me for awhile.

I have a request for "Captain Yo-Yo," the first issue of the Lulu spin-off title, Tubby. Among the most controversial stories of Stanley's career, this will be our next post. See you very soon, my friends!