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.


Prof. Grewbeard said...

i like it fine!

Paul C.Tumey said...

Clyde Crashcup for President! I agree... Stanley's coasting on these, but even Stanley at 50% is great comics. Thanks for sharing. Leonardo for Vice President!!!