Friday, December 25, 2009

A Completely Yule-Free Post: "Tom & Jerry" Triple-Header from Our Gang Comics #13, 14 and 15!

Christmas blah blah blah. Yes, it's December 25th. Deck the halls. Silver bells. City sidewalks.

There ya go. That's about as holiday-minded as I can be this year. But I still have a present for you: three (actually) four Stanley Stories from the pages of Our Gang Comics.

These stories, from 1944, show Stanley getting into top gear as a comix writer. He's not yet at the sublime heights of his best Little Lulu work, but he's fearless, playful and, when so motivated, able to bring impressive life and elan to characters and situations that are inherently weak.

Our Gang Comics, circa 1944, was an anthology of Western's three major talents. Walt Kelly provided the book's lovely covers and its titular lead story, filled with the artist's warm, intuitive renderings of the human form, in a civil communion of bigfoot cartoon and quiet semi-realism.

Carl Barks drew the "Barney Bear" series, which, he later claimed, he only did for the money. That may be so, but this early in the run, his stories had a genuine charm. Barks worked out some of the ideas he would present, in far better form, in his flawless late 1940s "Donald Duck" short stories.

Add to that John Stanley, who improved with each story he wrote, and the historical and artistic importance of this title becomes enormous.

If it had been known, before 2008, that Stanley wrote many of these "Tom and Jerry" stories (a discovery to which I can stake my claim, to the best of my knowledge), I think this title would be more closely studied by comix scholars. (Well, I'm giving Stanley's work in the book close scrutiny here, so I suppose that counts.)

My sincere thanks to the kind folks who scanned these rare issues and made them available for those of us who wish to read their contents, and not hold them as fetish-objects.

First up: Our Gang #13. We start a one-page gag rife with Stanleyisms:

The main story is an early instance of a character's intense dream blurring the lines between the conscious and sub-conscious worlds. Stanley's masterpiece in this vein is "The Guest In The Ghost Hotel," which he also illustrated. (This was the first story posted on Stanley Stories, incaseyadidn'tknow.)

In 1944, such a concept was just a plaything to John Stanley. The depths of what he could do with such a rich, complex idea wouldn't dawn on him for at least a few more years.


The presence of rain in a Stanley story is often a transformational device. Here, it becomes a manifestation of what the two mice understand about the world around them.

Given what little he understands, Tuffy's dream is perfectly logical. The rainfall enables the two powerless mice to assume a position of higher status in their limited world.

Most writers would end the story at the moment the dreamer awakes. Stanley chooses to let the narrative roll on for another page. Tuffy is given a jarring assurance that it was, indeed, a dream, and that his and Jerry's status is still just as sketchy as ever.

Worms are a prevalent theme in Stanley's stories for Our Gang #14. First up, here's an unusually brief "Tom and Jerry."

This too-short story shows the two mice engaging with other small creatures--all as sassy and impertinent as themselves. It's too abbreviated to do very much with this compelling theme, but it packs a great deal of brassy comedy into four pages--plus a subdued wartime reference to the housing shortage.

Stanley seldom put topical gags into his stories. While Barks, Kelly and other "kiddie" comix creators loaded their wartime stories with references to gas rationing, civil defense, scrap drives and such, Stanley generally kept the real world at a safe distance. It would only compete with the life-or-death scenarios of "Tom and Jerry."

Bonus feature: Since the TJ story for OG 14 is a mere four pages, Stanley was given the generally lackluster "Johnny Mole" feature to write. He wrote at least one other episode of this series, which was based on a one-shot MGM cartoon created by the Hugh Harman animation unit, towards the end of their stay at the studio.

The cartoon is typical of their output: smothering sentiment dashed with humor, with a traumatic climax that reinforces the none-too-subtle moral of the thing: stick close to home. Johnny Mole is a simpering little dweeb in the cartoon. He didn't offer much to work with, but Stanley tried...

This is a minor effort--one that smacks of, "oh, crap, we got a six-page hole in this issue!" But it's certainly Stanley's work. The kid-talk throughout strongly anticipates the patter of Little Lulu, and the wild physical action is typical of his early work.

Here's the best of all, from Our Gang #15. Stanley's "tics" and more adult themes begin to dominate the series.

Tom is vestigal here--the focus is entirely on the mice, and, in this story's case, a rather jaundiced take on courtship and romance.

This may be the first Stanley story to focus on a romantic rivalry. It sets the tone for countless "Little Lulu" and "Tubby" stories of the 1940s and '50s.

Mabel is a hilariously fickle, self-indulgent character--a gender-reversed proto-Tubby. (She is, tellingly, overweight.)

Mabel's aggressive need for rodent companionship, with any warm body a good candidate, makes a mangled farce of the courtship ritual.

The tea-party sequence of pp. 4-6 is a beautiful comedic mirror of adult interactions, as imitated by children, who see and hear everything adults do, and absorb it without understanding it. (Anyone who's ever heard a three-year old say "sh*t," to a suddenly shocked group of adults, knows what I mean.)

The adult themes and hard-edged, richly detailed humor of this story are pitched way above the heads of the Our Gang Comics demographic. By this time, Stanley already sought to heighten the reading experience of these licensed stories.

This may be my last posting for 2009. If so, I'll see you in the New Year! Take care and keep warm (unless you're in Miami or Las Vegas. In this case, seek air conditioning)!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The First Stanley Story? "Tom & Jerry" from Our Gang Comics #3 (January 1943), plus bonus story from OG #9 (January 1944)

Here is what I believe to be Stanley's first "Tom and Jerry" story, from Our Gang Comics #3, cover-dated January-February 1943.

The first Stanley-written "Andy Panda" story appeared in New Funnies #79, cover-dated September 1943. The "Bugs Bunny" Four-Color one-shot Stanley claims to have written (issue #33), was published in the fall of '43. Thus, this appears to be THE first Stanley story.

Like the earliest stories of Carl Barks, Stanley's maiden efforts, while tentative, have a certain freshness, and vaguely hint at the themes and comedic devices their author would hone to sublimity within a few years' worth of constant writing and publication.

WARNING: Stereotyped Afro-American maid character! I find it odd that the comic book version of "Tom and Jerry" elected to show "Mammy Two Shoes"' face front and center. The MGM cartoons, though often cretinous swill, opted to tastefully (?) show "Mammy" from the calves down. The actress Lillian Randolph, who appeared in It's A Wonderful Life, Roots and The Onion Field, did Mammy's voice in full-bodied "honey chile" style.

Several of the cartoons were censored for TV. In some cases, the scenes with Mammy were re-animated to have a white bobby-soxer incongruously spouting Randolph's down-home patois. In others, June Foray did an equally offensive Irish washerwoman voice that was subbed for Randolph's.

If the cartoons had shown Mammy as these early T&J comic book stories depict her, chances are they'd be buried deep in Ted Turner's vaults.

Chances are these early stories will never see an official reprinting, so read 'em here with the always-helpful American Irony Radar unit tuned in on the "Sins of our Fathers" wavelength...

Sacred Moment In Comix History: The First YOW!

OK, so it's a "YOWEECH!" But it's the first of its genus. I'm not quite OCD enough to tabulate all the YOWs in John Stanley's comix. I'd guess the phrase was uttered at least 2,000 times between 1943 and 1963 in his work.

Tain't much to this first story (just as Barks' first "Donald Duck" 10-pager is no great shakes). The crispness of its telling, and the reliance on dialect--mushmouth for Mammy, kid-talk for the mice--plus a few un-punctuated statements in speech balloons, are the strongest Stanley tells.

Other tells: the use of the word "didie;" Tuffy's distorted hand-in-mouth dialogue on p.3, panel 2.

As well, the streamlined depiction of the two mice, and their outsider status in a dangerous, uncertain universe, bring a faint hue of despair to the otherwise-sunshiny pages of this innocent Dell kiddie komik.

I read the "Tom and Jerry" story in issue #2 of Our Gang, in preparation for this post. It does not feel like John Stanley's work. Thus, I believe this to be where it all began, John Stanley-wise.

One year later, John Stanley has begun to find his voice as a writer. The tiptoed steps of the first story become bolder strides.

This T/J story is impressively better than the one you just read. It's faster-paced, funnier, and has stronger, more well-defined stakes. Well, read it and see for yourself...

Like night and day, these two stories... in just one year of comix, Stanley had incorporated most of his major themes. There is a "Tubby Type" (Tuffy, the diapered mouse), percussive dialogue and sound effects, that familiar sense of despair gnawing at the edges of each panel, colorful, playful language with vivid colloquialisms and much stronger staging.

I quite like the background-free passages on pages 5 and 6 of this story. This staging choice really makes the story all about the characters. In such a small fictive world, this is important.

There is only so much a writer--even a good one--can do with the old cat and mouse routine. Stanley compensates by enriching these simple narratives with a heapin' helpin' of wry dialogue.

Nearly every line out of the three characters' mouths tells us something about their inner world. My personal favorite is Tuffy's utterance on the second page: "Gee, it's fun, being carried like this..."

Most tellingly, "Mammy" is nowhere in sight. The story is just about the survival game, and how the two mice endure it with a sense of humor and plenty o' attitude.

I hope this yuletide-free edition of "Stanley Stories" has proven a refreshing escape from all the holiday hoo-hah.

By the way, my fellow comix fiends, if anyone has issues 13, 15 and 18 of Our Gang, and would be willing to scan their contents for purposes of comix research, please contact me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A John Stanley/Irving Tripp Christmas Story-- from Four Color #1274, 1961

I just learned that the artist of this, and many other stories posted on this blog, Irving Tripp, passed away on November 27, 2009.

Tripp was the most common collaborator of John Stanley. He drew most of the Little Lulu comic books from 1949 on, well past Stanley's tenure on the series.

Thus, this post is dedicated to Mr. Tripp.

Christmas was one of many seasonal themes that informed John Stanley's work. Little Lulu has its fair share of yuletide-themed stories. Many of those are archly funny displays of kiddie toy lust and suburban one-upmanship.

Stanley rarely created a Christmas-for-Christmas'-sake story. This is one of his very few efforts in this vein. Irving Tripp came along, to render this curious, decidedly minor effort in a quasi-Marge Buell style.

Santa Claus Funnies, like DC Comics' Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, was a seasonal series that enjoyed a long run.

Dell's book was a mash-up of various Western staff artists, and stuck to disconnected short stories, all involving the makers and deliverers of gifts (Santa, reindeer, elves) and those waiting at the receiving end (kids, parents).

It was the closest Dell got to publishing religious comix. Santa is a kind of religion. It involves belief in a figure who may or may not exist, and who is a symbol. I'm sure I'm about the millionth person to make this point.

Dell's book enjoyed a 19-year run. Earlier issues are loaded with the cushy, cuddly, fuzzy-wuzzy full-bore Disney-esque artwork of Walt Kelly.

I haven't explored earlier issues for possible Stanley content. This story, "Santa's Return Trip," is clearly John Stanley's work. It will probably go over like gang-busters with your children. This one's for them!

There is some funny verbal stuff in "Santa's Return Trip." Scamper, the over-worked "stock-room elf," has a touch o' the Tubby Type. It's a very soft story. The stakes are surprisingly low. To be honest, Scamper seems pretty replaceable. He would have had an interesting new life as the nameless little girl's living doll.

That's the John Stanley Christmas story I'd like to read! And, who knows--perhaps it's out there, waiting to be rediscovered...