Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From New Funnies 121, 1947: Rogue Woodpecker Goes Out On Limb, Becomes Tree Surgeon; Opens Branch Office; Surprises Nurse

Here is the "Woody Woodpecker" story that immediately followed the "Andy Panda" episode I ran the other day. While the "Andy" story is a textbook example of Stanley's character types, and of his early skills as a comix creator, this "Woody" story is a playful eccentricity.

Like Carl Barks' version of Donald Duck, John Stanley's Woody Woodpecker burns through many occupations--usually in utter failure. Stanley's Woody, being even more of a creature of impulse, often gets himself into terrible crises, or causes scenes of utter chaos, when he attempts to make his way in the world.

Here's a curious, charming story in which Woody excels at a niche job, has a good social relationship with others in his world, and shows utter mastery of his skillset.

Stanley seems to have enjoyed himself in writing this story. It's bright, playful, loopy and bedecked with various Stanleyisms--including one of his most blood-curdling YOWs.

Here is an example of the light side dominant in a Stanley story. Dark elements decorate the narrative, but they don't drive it. Yet it isn't cutesy or feeble.

Doctors are generally on a par with antique dealers, art dealers, psychiatrists and the wealthy in John Stanley's world--fit only as subjects of lampoonery. Stanley plays this episodic, character-driven story as a light farce.

Satiric references to melodramatic radio serials and movies of the "Calling Dr. Kildare" persuasion fill this story. Certainly, the notion of unstable Woody being a successful practitioner is inherently funny.

Yet Woody is a success, throughout this story. He demonstrates a good plant-side manner, takes his work seriously, and adroitly solves others' arboreal troubles. He's even empathic enough to take the soused tree back to his office, fulfilling his punny promise to Miss Purkle, his smart-aleck nurse.

Some of Stanley's antipathy towards doctors comes through in the last panel of page three. His opinion of the medical trade improved during the 1950s. Doctors are depicted in Little Lulu as more high-status characters who do good for the world.

Stanley's comix stories are often surprisingly literate. While he seldom indulges in George Carlson or Dr. Seussian wordplay, he writes with a keen sense of the music of words. His dialogues never seem forced, and typically reinforce the world-views and manias of his characters.

He handles expository dialogue especially well--no mean feat in the often-telegraphed manner of 1940s and '50s comix writing. I appreciate his conscious efforts to keep his dialogue active and uncluttered.

I offer this story for its stark contrast to my prior post. It's as light as Tubby's "Hide 'n' Seek" is pitch-black.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tubby in "Hide 'n' Seek," from Little Lulu #79: Junior Detective Drives Sociopathic Loner to Destruction Spree

One reason for the modern-day appeal of John Stanley's Little Lulu: it has almost no objectionable old-school biases. Aside from a few gentle ethnic stereotypes (Irish cops, Italian grocers, and perhaps an Asian or two), Lulu's world is largely free of America's pop-culture skeletons-in-closet.

It is, like The Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry, a kind of Anglo-Saxon fantasy world, in which non-Caucasians are hinted at, but usually relegated to the background. They're never depicted as subservient or demeaning characters; they just don't exist, for the most part.

Such carefully orchestrated universes were comfort-food entertainment for post-war America. They seem, to me, to be a last desperate grasp at the idylls and ideals of pre-WW I American life--the final, faint traces of which could be felt in the background of post-war USA, especially in more rural, isolated areas.

Lulu is deemed safe reading for 21st century kids. To judge by what I've seen, these kids eat Lulu up with a fork and spoon and want seconds and thirds.

There is one gray area in Stanley's post-war Utopia that hangs darkly over modern parents: the depictions of physical discipline towards child characters by adults. I've spoken with several parents who mention that they have issues with the episodes of spanking that were stock parental activity in 1940s and '50s domestic life. (Spankings continued to be in wide use through the early 1970s, and perhaps later.)

Violent physical discipline is now taboo, and considered "trailer trash" behavior. (For shocking modern-day public displays of child-whipping, steel yourself and enter any Wal-Mart for as long as you can stand being there. 30 seconds usually does it for me.)

This aspect of Stanley's work is in the Dark Side. It is usually dealt with between parent and child. The threat of physical punishment is a stakes-raiser in many a Lulu story.

By the standards of their era, these punishments were acceptable. Now that parenting is more a negotiational act than a physical one, scenes of spanking have to be explained when Lulu is read by hipper kids in more hep households.

I was spanked as a kid. It left emotional scars, and a general distrust of the unpredictable whims of adults. I am glad to see that the majority of parents absolutely refrain from physical punishments, and favor negotiation or the use of consequences (i.e., "Stop hitting the wall with the croquet mallet now, or no more "SpongeBob" for the next week!").

Another physical threat exists for children in John Stanley's world: the alienated, sociopathic loner. This character is, sometimes, married (e.g., McOnion in Nancy and Sluggo), but typically lives alone, in a poorly-kept house, and has a name like "McGripe," "Krank" or "Grouch."

This presence is a fixture in post-war American pop culture. Perhaps the Kranks and McGripes were always there; maybe they were shell-shocked victims of wartime violence. Whatever the case, these off-kilter individuals usually lurk in the backgrounds of all sitcoms, domestic-themed comix, popular fiction and movies, well into the 1970s.

They are usually depicted as buffoons--barely tolerated misfits on the margins of "normal" society. They are talked about, subjects of gossip and speculation, but they are allowed to live on the edges of the suburban world.

Here is a particularly creepy manifestation of this alienated loner-type--an ultimate TTO figure in the John Stanley universe. In this "Tubby" episode, the chips are stacked high against our anti-hero. The co-dependent TTO team of Wilbur and Gloria goad Tubby into an intense, dark encounter with "Ol' Mister Grump" in the story "Hide 'n' Seek."

The core of this story's dark comedy is Mr. Grump's single-minded destruction of his home. This startling feat is watched with great amusement by his "normal" neighbors, who continue to gawk as Grump is led away by The Authorities. (His non-sequitur exit line is, indeed, a comic gem.)

Stanley lulls us with a deceptive beginning. Tubby, deep in the self-role of TV-show private eye, entertains us as he calls for his lunch to be brought up to his room, and as he insults his mother about her physical looks. This is Tub in his prime--led by the nose by a fantasy that real life cannot, and will not, validate.

Tubby is dared to encounter Mr. Grump, whom Gloria fears so much she avoids walking by his home. Wilbur asks her why she's afraid of this "harmless" loner:

And, being the right bastard he is, Wilbur lays a quite dangerous trap for Tubby--one guaranteed to puncture his PI fantasy and place him in a high-stakes situation, where real physical harm could affect him.

Grump is more of a physical threat than McOnion. He wields a leather belt--that icon of mid-century childhood fear--and seems determined to thrash the daylights out of Tub.

He confronts and pursues Tubby through the warrens of his home, as his unreasonable rage builds to a dark crescendo. Frustrated, Grump finds release via the destruction of his home.

Something is Wrong-with-a-capital-W with Grump. The same applies to Sluggo's neighor-nemesis, McOnion. McO is all talk (and walk)--he verbally threatens a doom that never materializes.

Grump wants to cause malice. In this story, buried in an ordinary issue of Little Lulu, Stanley lets loose some of the darkest writing and characterization of his career.

Stanley was usually more cautious---and controlled-- in his authorship of Lulu. Perhaps he understood that this was a high-stakes venture: it was based on a popular, iconic cartoon character, done under the loose supervision of its less-talented creator, Marge Buell, and one of Dell Comics' big monthly sellers.

Thus, Stanley was less likely to take risks with this title. "Hide 'n' Seek" is a rare moment when his self-editor slips, and a startling amount of dark bubbles up to the sunny surfaces of Lulu-land.

The story's final frame, aside from the colorful babble of Grump, contains an adult authority figure who chastises the onlookers for their rubbernecking:

This seems to validate Grump's rage-fueled spree. Of course a guy might do this, when these damned nosey kids are around!


Among the fascinations of John Stanley's work, for me, is the regulation of dark and light. There is often great tension in his work around this black-and-white disparity. "Hide 'n' Seek" represents a sort of comix exorcism--and one that got past the editors and out, in its undiluted form, to the Great American Readin' Public.

Stanley's 1960s works -- Melvin Monster, 13 Going On 18 -- are celebrated for their unremitting darkness. Quite honestly, nothing in either of those titles comes close to the pitch-blackness of "Hide 'n' Seek."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

John Stanley's World, pt. 1: Stylistic Signatures--Three Notable Character Archetypes

This is the first in a series of more in-depth essays that I'm calling "John Stanley's World." This is a break from the traditional "Stanley Stories" format of a single story and some focused commentary on said story.

I'd like to identify and explore some of the distinctive themes that make John Stanley's work worth our care and consideration. Consider these pieces as rough drafts for a possible larger work I hope to write someday.

I hope to do pieces like this fairly often from now on. Here's hoping this is of some interest and value.

John Stanley's Three Archetypes: An Introduction

John Stanley rarely signed his comics work. His most successful and well-known project, Little Lulu, was essentially anonymous--as were Carl Barks' contemporary efforts with Donald Duck and other licensed Walt Disney characters.

Stanley was given credit--just once--in issue #49 of Little Lulu.
(That's a better deal than Barks got--his name NEVER appeared in any of the Dell comic magazines he created.)

Thus, John Stanley, in his almost 30-year stint as a comic book writer and artist, developed a set of stylistic "signatures"-- motifs, quirks and pet topics that now help comics scholars ID his work.

Many of these "Stanleyisms" were expertly copied by his peers at Western Publications, the creative house that produced Dell Comics titles from the 1930s to 1962.

Particularly from the early 1950s on, Stanley's approach became the basis for an unofficial Western house style of writing. Frantic physical action, brassy SFX and other elements of Stanley's comic style became much-used, albeit usually without grace or understanding, by other writers.

Thus, such stalwart "Stanleyisms" as his mantra-like "YOW!" and "Ha! Ha! Ha!" are not always a guarantee that a comics story is from his hand. It appears that Western's editors absolutely encouraged their other New York-based writers to emulate Stanley's mannerisms and style. Either that, or these other creators were inspired by Stanley's example, and sought to bring some of his energy to their own work.

While this muddies the waters for 21st-century comix scholars, there are still unmistakable elements of John Stanley's work--aspects that no other writer could adequately mimic.

Stanley's stories are typically built on melancholy. This is often an undertone to stories that are, essentially, positive and engaging. Yet this sensation is present in almost every comic book story Stanley created. It is an acknowledgment of the darkness and despair of life. Stanley confronted life's sadness unflinchingly in his comics work.

At times, the darkness of his work can be overwhelming. At its best, Stanley's comics work balances light and dark with supple grace. This is at the heart of his writing and intelligence. I don't think any other Western staffers comprehended this aspect of his work--certainly not to the point of synthesizing and emulating it in their own stories.

John Stanley was drawn to three character archetypes. These are present from his first comics work to his last. The middle character in this "holy trinity" is Stanley's central focus in all his stories. It is the character that sparked his imagination, time and again, and enabled him to spin infinite variants on a handful of simple, central themes. This character walks the fine line between light and dark--between hero and heavy.

This character I call The Tubby Type, or TT for short. Tubby Tompkins, the exquisitely flawed, self-consumed anti-hero of Stanley's Little Lulu, is also his finest achievement as a comics creator. TTs appear in Stanley's work consistently before, during and after his 14-year tenure on Little Lulu. TTs are the single strongest "tell" that a story is from Stanley's hand.

When other writers took on Little Lulu in 1959, Tubby remained a central character in the series. The finer shadings of his character flaws quickly vanished, and he reverted to the diluted stock figure of his pre-Stanley incarnation.

It's tempting to dive deeper into The Tubby Type. I must first identify the two balancing archetypes. For without them, Stanley's TTs would be unguided missiles of anti-social behavior. They would merely be antagonistic pests--not flawed, compelling anti-heroes.

On the left of TT is The [Usually Thwarted] Voice Of Reason--hereafter, VOR. This is a role of great responsibility, and requires patience, perseverance and a quick wit.

The Tubby Type needs the Voice Of Reason, like the ego needs the id. These two characters complete one another. They give one another a constant motivation for being.

Without the careening, impulsive actions of the TT, the VOR is merely a goody two-shoes type. He or she has nothing to monitor--no resistance to spur their intelligent, logical actions. And, as noted earlier, without the VOR, the TT is just a mechanical pest--a mosquito in random search of fresh blood.

To the right of the TT is the Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle--TTO henceforth. This character has many guises. He or she may be a genuinely dark-hearted meddler who takes a special delight in aggravating crisis situations created by the TT.

As well, TTOs can also be rigid figures of authority, caught up in their tasks to a monomanic level, or aggressors who live to cause (usually physical) conflicts with both TTs and VORs.

TTOs are more than mere stock "heavies" in Stanley's world. They provide a resistance that both the TT and the VOR must react to and transcend. They cause problems that always have higher stakes than anything done by the other archetypes.

Their behavior is typically malicious or endangering. It is a reminder of the dark side of John Stanley's universe. TTOs are always present in some form in Stanley's stories.

Now that I've identified these three major Stanley archetypes, I'll listsome Stanley characters, as they come to mind, that represent the triad.

VOR: Andy Panda, Oswald Rabbit, Little Lulu, her parents, Tubby Tompkins' parents, Annie and Miss Feeny (from Little Lulu), Dunc (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Jigger, Jerry Mouse (from "Tom and Jerry"), Judy and Val(from 13 Going on 18), Nancy, O. G. Whiz, Melvin Monster, Leonardo (from Clyde Crashcup),

TT: Tubby Tompkins, Alvin (from Little Lulu), Woody Woodpecker, Charlie Chicken (from "Andy Panda"). Toby Bear (from "Oswald"), Judy and Val (from 13 Going on 18), Peterkin Pottle, Tuffy Mouse (from "Tom and Jerry"), Gran'pa Feeb (from Tubby), Mooch (from "Jigger"), Loo (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Ignatz (from Krazy Kat), Clyde Crashcup, Melvin Monster

TTO: McNabbem, the truant officer, Wilbur, Gloria, the East Side Gang, Witch Hazel, Li'l Itch and The Little Men From Mars (from Little Lulu), Tom Cat (from "Tom and Jerry"), Spike, Rollo, and McOnion (from Nancy and Sluggo), Buddy (from Dunc 'n' Loo), Judy, Val and Judy Junior (from 13 Going on 18), Baddy, Cleopatra, and Miss McGargoyle (from Melvin Monster), Thutnose (from O. G. Whiz), Officer Pupp (from Krazy Kat)

Hmm--interesting! There are more TTOs in Stanley's work than any other archetype. I could list a long string of one-off TTOs from Stanley's work--usually present in longer narratives. Yet TTOs are rarely the central figure of his narratives.

Stanley's main focus figure is almost always a TT, with a VOR to attempt to keep them in check. These characters are Stanley's yin and yang.

John Stanley certainly did not summon these figures out of the void. They are stock players of Western drama. They have served countless other writers, dramatists and comedians well for centuries.

It is John Stanley's spin on these easily recognizable archetypes that brings individuality and originality to his work. Other comics writers have used these same archetypes, but rarely with comparable clarity and depth.

Some Stanley characters embody more than one of these archetype traits. Stanley frequently creates comedy from the cognitive biases of his characters.

All TTs are ruled by their cognitive biases. They live by a series of highly personalized rules and regulations. TTs sincerely believe in these rules, which seem obviously and fatally flawed to others. Their lives and actions are based around these biases, which typically put them into crisis and discord with the world around them.

These biases are seductive. They can pull the most rational mind into their web. Thus, a VOR character like Lulu Moppet is, at times, possessed of cognitive biases--usually when induced by the persuasions of a TT; another VOR figure, Miss Feeny, can, if need be, take on aspects of the TTO, when viewed through the bias-lens of Tubby and his clubhouse pals.

On rare occasions, utter TTOs such as Wilbur Van Snobbe become sympathetic figures, as demanded by certain narrative moments. They typically revert to their bad behavior in their next appearance.

Judy and Val, from Stanley's 13 Going On 18, cycle through the roles of VOR, TT and TTO to one another. The tension of this series is largely achieved via the unpredictability of these characters. They are as likely to be vicious as kind, with no reliable pattern or anchor for their behavior.

Melvin Monster, as you may have noted, is both a VOR and a TT. He is both the lone voice of reason in the dark, anarchic environs of Monsterville and its most self-deluded resident.

Melvin refuses to accept the awful reality that surrounds him, and retreats into a false belief that he can actually make his world better via counter-intuitive behavior. There is something heartbreaking about Melvin's dilemma. He is neither hero or anti-hero; he's an abused child.

There are "hard" and "soft" TTOs. The sociopathic Mr. McOnion and the East Side Gang are examples of "hard" TTOs; The Little Men From Mars, Gloria and Officer Pupp are "soft" versions of this archetype. The latter are catalysts in raising stakes and getting VORs and TTs in trouble, but they generally lack true malice.

Stanley's characters, like mankind in general, are changeable, flexible and multi-faceted. Although I can pigeon-hole them into types and groups, they are inconsistent in their behavior. This keeps them constantly fresh and compelling to us. We think we've got their number; to a certain extent, we do. But they have surprises for us that prevent their becoming stale and mechanical.

From his first comic book story, the "Andy Panda" episode in New Funnies #79, Stanley establishes the comedic conflicts (and symbiotic relationships) of TTs and VORs. (You can read this first Stanley Story HERE.

Charlie Chicken, Stanley's first TT figure, is symbolically hatched by Andy, the author's premiere VOR. Andy's reason for hatching Charlie is to make money. He reads a magazine ad that promises: RAISE CHICKENS AND EARN BIG MONEY!

He is sent one egg, from which Charlie hatches. Charlie is, from birth, contrary and stubborn. He has a chip on his shoulder, with no clear reason for his discontent. He is more like the trouble-making animated cartoon characters of the early '40s. They didn't need motivation; they existed to complicate gentler lives.

Charlie, in this first story, is a crude character, compared to Stanley's subsequent TTs. Right out of the egg, he clearly views the world through his own eccentric lens.

Without Charlie, Andy is a neutered goody two-shoes type (much as he was in the Walter Lantz animated cartoons of the 1940s). Through the 50-odd "Andy Panda" stories Stanley wrote from 1943 to '48, we see the development of this yin-yang dynamic. Charlie becomes less bombastic and more the true TT. He does things in a way that make perfect sense to him; he can't understand why Andy is so often flustered and challenged by his decisions--which are, to him, perfectly balanced and rational.

The Andy-Charlie relationship is at its most sublime and compelling in New Funnies #121 (March, 1947 issue). This story depicts the symbiotic link of need that sparks Stanley's TT and VOR dyads.

It's not a stretch to imagine this as a Little Lulu story. Although Tubby and Lulu lack the more adult abilities of Andy and Charlie, the story's stake-raising events occur because the TT--Charlie--can't overcome his OCD-fueled need to collect things.

The VOR--Andy--in a vain attempt to keep life calm, indulges Charlie and tries to encourage and guide him. He just digs them both into a ever-deepening hole.

This story shows John Stanley's growing sophistication as a writer. By 1947, he was able to explore subtle relationship dynamics, while delivering engaging mainstream material. This skill would be honed to apotheosis in the monthly Little Lulu magazine, which debuted a few months after the publication of this Andy Panda story.

In this story, Charlie is led by his biases to do illegal, anti-social things. His actions wear at Andy's everyman civility. Charlie takes his biases too far, and Andy, despite his disapproval, is inducted into helping his TT friend.

The sequence in which they drive by night, along a perilous, muddy road, and are stopped by a police officer, is a sort of comic-book Hitchcock moment. Stanley expertly plays on the fear and tension of the situation.

As the reader, we are put in the VOR seat in Stanley's work. We prefer rationality and caution in our everyday lives. Thus, we identify with Andy, Lulu and Stanley's other VOR figures.

But a part of us also wishes we could be the TT character. We get fulfillment from seeing these anarchic, self-driven Don Quixotes get themselves deeper and deeper into chaos, simply because they won't say "Uncle" to the contrary whims of the world around them.

By placing Andy in peril, as Charlie's accomplice, Stanley twists the knife of the unexpected into the reader. This is a unique experience in the "funny animal" genre of the 1940s. It plays on both our primal, childhood-based fears, and, as adults, on our distaste for anti-social behavior.

Little Lulu works on this dual basis, too. Children read it and have one experience; adults find other levels of reaction and understanding. In its day, Lulu was read by kids and grown-ups alike. This may explain its demographic-breaking all-ages appeal.

Back to today's story: In one beautiful karmic stroke, while Andy helps Charlie replace the stolen cannon, it goes off. The red-hot cannonball smashes through the roof and floor of his home.

Because of this, Charlie receives his only punishment--a burned hand from his child-like attempt to touch the still-glowing cannonball.

Andy keeps his cool, but he realizes that he has failed as Charlie's Voice Of Reason. He goes to the bank and buys a new sack of pennies. Better to keep his unpredictable companion occupied with OCD-enriched counting pleasures than to risk another flight of destructive fancy!


Carl Barks was the other major Dell creator who approached Stanley's depth of character. His Donald is a fascinatingly flawed, beautifully realized being. Like Stanley's adaptations of licensed figures, Barks' Donald is superior to his official motion-picture counterpart.

Yet Barks chose to ping-pong Donald around Stanley's triad of archetypes. Ditto for his use of the identical nephews, Huey. Dewey and Louie. These characters could be righteously rational one month, and endangeringly anarchic the next.

It's a different approach to similar disciplines. Barks and Stanley produced consistently intelligent, interesting work that rewards its readers. Both creators trafficked in the thrilling collision of dark and light.

Yet their work has little overlap. Each man had a different vision for where comics could go. Both were given a quarter of a century to explore their byways via mass-produced, popular and successful mainstream comic magazines.

I have come to prefer John Stanley to Carl Barks, as both a creator and a story-teller. Stanley's work and his world-view have become more profound to me, as both it and I have aged. Barks, as much as I like and respect his work, has not.

End of sidebar. Thank you for your kind indulgence as I think out loud.

Next time I get the bug to write one of these essays, I think I'll explore the nature of Stanley's TTO characters. I'm genuinely struck by how many there are, and how varied their characters and motivations seem to me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stanley's New Yorker cartoon: A Second [MUCH Closer] Look

Thanks to Tom Devlin, the generous and extra-swell editor of Drawn + Quarterly's John Stanley Library, we are afforded a very welcome super-sized look at John Stanley's 3/15/1947 New Yorker cartoon.

The teensy, lo-rez version I recently ran is a sad joke--a travesty of Stanley's work. Here, we can savor Stanley's sophisticated pen-line and distinctive cartooning style at a generous, revealing king-size.

But first, the genuinely clever and well-designed cover of the 3/15/47 issue. It's not Stanley's work, but it might help you find the issue, should you ever come across a horde of vintage New Yorkers in a bookshop or antique mall:

And now, the cartoon itself. In its original appearance, it was split into 2/3 and 1/3, and run on two pages. I've left the first page as is, but cropped out the article section that filled most of the second page. Have a look at this beautiful work...

The grace of Stanley's handiwork is obscured in the Complete New Yorker Cartoons' pint-size reproduction. His confident contour pen lines fairly sing as they describe the volume and form of their figures and settings.

Those familiar with Stanley's cartooning for Little Lulu, New Funnies and Animal Comics will recognize his human characters. Stanley's comic book stories were drawn with a bolder, simpler line than he uses for this piece. (This may be caused by the cheap, high-speed funnybook printing process, which wasn't always hi-fi to the original artwork.)

I particularly like Stanley's decision to let pen lines invade boundaries of volume and form. The lines that run from the characters' pants legs into their overcoats is very much of its era, technique-wise. Contemporary cartoons by Vip, Hank Ketcham, Sam Cobean and other successful magazine artists also affected a deceptively loose pen line.

I've read that this developed from the cartoonists' submitted rough versions of their cartoon gags. Editors liked the freeness of their more relaxed preliminary drawings, and encouraged them to adapt this looseness to their finished art.

This style ran rampant in post-war commercial art, especially through the 1950s. A study of paperback book covers in the 1950s shows a trend that moves away from tight, photo-realist painting styles to sketchy, loose, freer styles of drawing and painting.

This off-the-cuff technique belies the masterful artistic skill that many post-war commercial artists possessed. It did bring a freshness to traditionally earth-bound, representative styles in print and advertising work. This style reached an unfortunate nadir in the 1960s and early '70s--as did many post-war stylistics that had been run into the ground via repetition and dilution.

Stanley's cartooning style owes a bit to James Thurber's. I don't know if Stanley considered Thurber a major influence, but his 1940s work is essentially a tighter, more solid variant on that unmistakable style.

I also see a bit of similarity to Charles Schulz's 1940s cartooning. The faces of the figures, and the pen line, are close to Schulz's way of rendering. Of course, there's no way Stanley could have seen Schulz's early work. It's more of a zeitgeist thing, as many post-war cartoonists sought to work in this visually pleasing manner.

Seeing this lone New Yorker cartoon in high-resolution and large size makes me mourn Stanley's lack of similar efforts. It was a gain for the comic book world, and to us, as readers and admirers of Stanley's storytelling brilliance.

To be honest, I'm glad that we have the hundreds of rich, detailed, satisfying comic book stories, rather than a similar lot of magazine gag cartoons. It would have, on one hand, been a waste of Stanley's great narrative and comedic gifts.

On the other, Stanley would have made more money as a New Yorker cartoonist and gag-writer. He would have been able to sign his name to his work, and receive public acclaim.


With the next post, I'm going to make a departure from the Stanley Stories formula. It may take some extra time, but I hope the end results will meet with your interest and approval. 'Til then, thanks for dropping by once again...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Clyde Crashcup #1, 1963: Our Hero Phones It In, While Passing Time Before Final Spate of Comix Masterworks

In recent posts, we examined the curious horror comix of John Stanley. They were created as Dell struggled to reinvent itself as a viable force in the comix biz--despite Gold Key, the rechristened Western/K.K. Publications, having made off with all the licensed properties and the better artists.

Dell was left with John Stanley, a major talent who was equally at a crossroads. He'd found anonymous success writing, laying out and sometimes drawing other people's characters, for nearly 20 years.

In this time, Stanley had tried to create and sustain a couple of original comix creations (Peterkin Pottle, Jigger and Mooch) but saw them both quickly die.

It was evident that Stanley had the ability to do this on a larger, more successful scale, as his pal Walt Kelly had done with "Pogo Possum"-- a Dell Comics debut that was, by 1962, an internationally celebrated major syndicated newspaper comic strip.

With the gifted, expressive cartoonist Bill Williams, Stanley tried again, in 1961--right before the Dell/Gold Key rift-- with a picaresque urban sitcom, initially titled Around The Block, but soon changed to Dunc 'n' Loo.

This eight-issue series is among John Stanley's finest comix work. It is my personal favorite of all his original creations. If you're a new reader to this blog, use the Search function to find some selections from this series in earlier posts.

That the series lasted for eight quarterly issues says that it must have sold at least decently. Most unknown new titles failed after two or three issues.

On its own, Dell tried hard to regain its footing. They acquired new licensed properties, as quickly and randomly as they could sign the contracts. By this time, they had characters from the emergent limited-animation TV cartoons to consider.

They wisely acquired the entities of Ross Bagdasarian's popular The Alvin Show. Spin-offs of songwriter Bagdasarian's novely pop hits, under the alias of "David Seville," Alvin and his chipmunk brethren briefly tickled the collective American fancy in the early-to-mid 1960s.

The TV cartoons were of better quality than the thuggish output of Hanna-Barbera, but far less witty than Jay Ward's visually primitive Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Among The Alvin Show's sub-features was "Clyde Crashcup," an eccentric would-be inventor, whose shtick was inventing things that already existed. Talk about your cognitive bias issues! Here was a character concept seemingly tailored to Stanley's interests as a writer and comedian.

Crashcup is a sort of grown-up Tubby Tompkins or Peterkin Pottle. Despite the cautious whisperings of his voice-of-reason sidekick, Leonardo, Clyde refuses to accept that his ideas have already been thought out and seen to fruition. Time and again, he is driven to do things the hard way, just to prove that he can do it.

Dell bravely launched a Clyde Crashcup title, which lasted five issues, and entrusted it to Stanley. The end results seem a bit off to me. Perhaps Stanley was still dispirited from the debacle of his 1962 horror comix.

Dunc 'n' Loo's final issue was yet to be published when the first Crashcup appeared. Was the writing on the wall for Stanley's superb original concept? Whatever the reason, Stanley's Creatometer is set to "MEDIUM" here.

The three stories presented here, from the title's debut issue, teem with Stanley themes and -isms. Missing is the dynamic drive, the bustling, roughhousing urban wit that distinguishes Stanley's best work of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Clyde Crashcup Invents The Cow

Clyde Crashcup Invents The Desert Island

Clyde Crashcup Invents The Broom

I have no data to back this up, but I begin to suspect that the villain of the piece may be editor L. B. Cole. He edited the horror comix and other Stanley-penned projects from Dell's awkward transitional era.

Cole's editorial hand pressed down hard on Stanley. This must have frustrated the author. With Western, Stanley was given free berth to flex his comedic muscles and write dense, rich stories, usually full of melancholy and macabre themes. Little Lulu was among Dell/Western's bread and butter titles. They weren't about to mess with a winning formula.

[SIDEBAR: I'm still uncertain why Stanley left Little Lulu in 1959. This is where comix history fails us. No one thought to ask these questions while Stanley was still around to answer them. If Stanley was sick of writing LL, why did he immediately take over Nancy and Sluggo, which was basically Lulu Redux, and write it with such vigor and commitment for the next few years?

Did Dell's editors feel that Lulu was, by 1959, a finely-oiled comix machine that any writer and artist could take over? Stanley's successors tried their hardest to ape his writing, comedic style, timing and comix vocabulary. Their work was clearly patterned on what Stanley did with the series, in the 14 years he ran it.

I wish I knew the answer. End of sidebar.]

Staples of Stanley storytelling-- cramped urban environs, pirates, witches, invasive landlords, cognitive biases, frenzied physical action, SFX in balloons, balloons with motile tales, vivid onomatopoeia--abound in these comix. Yet the end results seem diluted and dis-spirited. Perhaps Cole's hand was too heavy for Stanley's work. Perhaps this was just a paycheck project, done without much TLC.

These remain appealing stories--of much higher quality than Dell's other creators--but they seem tame and timid, in the wake of Dunc 'n Loo, and following Stanley's bravura run on Nancy and Sluggo. One can see glimmers of Stanley's cartooning style in some of the character poses--including the Little Lulu perennial of upraised, smiling faces:

The cow in the first story is unmistakably Stanley's design. Compare it to the animals in his later Choo-Choo Charlie stories (see link elsewhere amongst the posts.)

The witch at the end of "Broom" is a double for Lulu's Witch Hazel:

I have a feeling that Stanley's scripts, as turned in, were a lot more vivid and appealing than the pale finished stories. I am still exploring the early post-rift Dell titles for other possible Stanley material. These comix are works of corporate turmoil and indifference--confused moves from a vulnerable former giant of the comix world. While clouded beneath heavy editorial hands, there may be more undiscovered works of John Stanley hiding in their forgotten pages.