Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Post of 2010: Potty Humor and Animal Conflict...two very early "Tom and Jerry" stories (Our Gang Comics 6 and 7, 1943)

Here are the last two really early Stanley stories I have on hand. I could swear I've already posted today's first story. It's memorable, and you'll soon notice why. An exhaustive search of the Stanley Stories site showed no evidence of it anywhere. I fully acknowledge that I may have missed it. If so, please excuse my oblivious state of mind.

This first story, from Our Gang Comics #6, brims with Stanley's distinct energy, comedy and sound effects. It also features what may be the comics' first unabridged view of the American bathroom--complete with a visible toilet which prominently features in the action.

The commode was a big no-no in mainstream media. Animated cartoons made before the Production Code show us glimpses of it, as do feature films such as King Vidor's The Crowd (1928). The loo was something that existed, and was a part of every American's daily life. It simply wasn't shown in our mass entertainments. Not too often, anyway...

Did you notice the box of "Kelly's Liver Pills" in the first panel of p.3? Western's comics creators were unanimously fond of dropping one another's names in their stories. Kelly, Carl Barks, Dan Noonan and Stanley are the most frequently referenced.

Much of the charm of Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories occurs when the mice Jerry and Tuffy explore the mystifying world of mankind. Their cat-like curiosity brings them to the bathroom, where they encounter a sentient electric razor (an image reminiscent of Chuck Jones' 1939 cartoon Naughty But Mice), the tub, sink, various perfumes, powders and potions and, finally, the verboten commode.

Toilets were the thing people didn't talk about in popular culture. To this day, movies, TV and popular fiction assiduously avoid showing this common everyday item. Think of it: when was the last time the hero of a TV show stopped to relieve himself in a restroom? 

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shocked 1960s audiences with its dead-on, confrontational views of a hotel commode (a device that figures prominently in one of the movie's plot points, as it does in this T&J story). The sight of a commode in post-Production Code movies are tangential and fleeting.

Perhaps out of naivete, Stanley gives us fearless toilet comedy in this story. The commode's lid is conveniently removed--the better for the mice to frolic around its innards.

This is one of the funniest and broadest of Stanley's early works. Even tho' the shock value of the potty has long worn off, the bathroom antics of the mice are genuinely ticklish. Stanley SFX trainspotters will relish the unique occurrence of "UFFLE!" on p. 4.

As I've noted elsewhere, there is a strong tie between Stanley's earliest comics work (1943-46) and his most realized, mature material of the 1960s. A major agent in Stanley's mature work is the fearless incorporation of broad, knockabout physical humor. Stanley got away from physical comedy in the most high-profile portion of his career, the Lulu Years (1947-1959).

There is a great deal of physical comedy in Little Lulu, but it's much tighter and more reined-in than the wild, limb-thrashing business we see here, and, later, in Dunc 'n Loo and Thirteen Going On Eighteen.

Those who eschew Stanley's early works might rankle at this statement, but it's true. This very brassy physical farce-comedy is the meat and potatoes of Stanley's late, mature work. The main difference is the issue of narrative stakes.

The 1960s Stanley was a seasoned comics writer who understood the intricacies of status, action and reaction and the plot-point pyramid. He used these tools as their master.

In 1943, the stakes are much lower. In a life and death scenario, none of the characters take their roles really seriously. Jerry and Tuffy don't really fear being caught and eaten by Tom. Tom is an a-hole aggressor who gets his kicks toying with the mice, while striving, in vain, to retain a higher status in the household. The stereotyped Mammy maid holds the upper hand. Hers is the power to shoo them all away or tolerate/ignore them.

Stanley's comedy--and its vivid energy--carry his early stories. From the start, he was a very witty writer--more so than Barks, and certainly Kelly's equal, if not occasionally his superior.

Stanley's next T&J story continues in this vibrant, humorous bent. This story contains one of the first occurrences of a Stanleyism: spots-before-the-eyes. These occur time and again in his later work, to connote dizziness, confusion, stunned silence or sickness.

Both these stories include some of Stanley's earliest YOWs.

Rare references to current events occur in this story. In the last panel of p.3, Tom quips, "I don't need any ration coupons to eat you guys!" Jerry's smart-crack in the succeeding panel is lost to 2010 (or 2011) readers. Even I, seasoned viewer of wartime Warner Brothers cartoons, didn't understand the significance of Jerry's retort.

You can read 1943 a letter at this blog that mentions the no. 17 rationing coupon, and tells that it was for the purchase of leather shoes.

In another, more fatalistic wartime reference, on p.4, the mice mistake a wooden toy soldier for an Allied front for their predator: "WE'RE SUNK! Tom's got the U. S. Marines on his side..." This offers a hint of the rodents' self-acknowledged status as societal outsiders. I'm sure that effect was not consciously intended by Stanley when he wrote this story.

The repetitive staging seen here is one of Stanley's most-used storytelling devices. As seen in the sequence of p.4, panels 5-6 and p.5, panels 1-2, the fixed viewpoint serves the comedy by heightening the futility of the tethered rodents' efforts.

Throughout the story, fixed viewpoints sustain comedy sequences. This is another strong tie to Stanley's mature work. Once again, the 1943 Stanley uses this device with some authority, but is clearly still learning the ropes of comics. The 1963 Stanley would use the fixed viewpoint to highlight his characters' failures, embarrassments, emotional shifts and status gains/losses.

It is fascinating to me to see that the young Stanley had access to the same tools that would so distinguish his late, most masterful work. Stanley grew into them, and made them an essential element of his storytelling, rather than expressive garnishes to rowdy, bright farces.

My Febreze-activated coughing and sneezing has increased during my work on this post. I'll celebrate the New Year with NyQuil. I hope you toast 2011's arrival with a more pleasant beverage, and that this new year brings us all more pleasing results than did '10.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stanley Shards from various Dell Christmas comics, 1950-1960

Western Publications' comics editor, Oskar Lebeck, had an apparent ambition to transcend the rough-house action and slapstick that filled most Dell comics. In the 1940s, he pursued a line of gentler, slightly more literary fare, aimed at the market's youngest readers.

Walt Kelly wrote and drew some of the earlier examples of this Lebeck trend, including Dell's Fairy Tale Parade series and some "Four Color" one shots such as Christmas With Mother Goose. Kelly made this genre work without seeming treacly or condescending. Dan Noonan, a cartoonist whose '40s work is a ringer for Kelly's tighter cartooning, also created toddler-set comics that didn't patronize their audience.

A great deal of these kinder, gentler comics now seem faintly patronizing and extremely dull. Much of them are not actually comics, per se, but stories with illustrations, songs, plays and other material. Though they're called "funnies" and "comics," they're more accurately children's storybooks or activity books slumming on the funnybook rack.

They were well-intentioned, and their creation was no doubt a challenge to all who participated.

As the author of a first-grade reading level book, I am familiar with the experience. I finally arrived on a winning formula--I wrote all sentences as if they were spoken by Lennie, from John Steinbeck's tragicomedy Of Mice and Men. That created an editor-pleasing ideal lexile level, although I had the urge to add "George" to the end of every sentence.

The worst tendencies in writing for the very young is to under-estimate their smarts. Children are much sharper than most adults would like to admit. Though they don't necessarily understand the nuances of adult life and interactions, they catch everything. Every kid I know appreciates having their intelligence respected and gently challenged. If they notice condescension, they usually reject the work in question, and move onto something better.

My inner child frequently rolls his eyes at much of Dell's "for the wee ones" comics. Thank goodness that John Stanley participated in this trend.

He never received any credit for his work in Dell's toddler line--unlike other Team Lebeck stalwarts such as Kelly, Noonan, Frank Thomas, Morris Gollub and Tony Rivera.

Indeed, Lebeck's atypically generous credits are the only way it's been possible to put names to some of these artists. Here are two examples from a comic-storybook, authored by Lebeck, that appeared in Dell's one-shot series in 1950:

Stanley's work in this vein appeared in Animal Comics, Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Christmas comics Dell published, either as stand-alone series or as part of the "Four Color" line.

Here is obvious evidence of Stanley's work in the Christmas comics--done in the very loose brush style of his contemporary Little Lulu covers, from Santa Claus Funnies FC 361, published in 1951:

Last holiday season, I ran this story from a 1961 Santa Claus Funnies. At that time, I hadn't examined the other issues of this annual book, nor of its partner, Frosty the Snowman.

Closer scrutiny of these titles reveals several stories which I can confidently attribute to John Stanley. They are dialed-down Stanley, to be sure. His tell-tale character quirks, sound effects and other tip-offs are evident. As well, unlike the other stories in these books, they are funny, entertaining and have decent narrative stakes.

These are stories you can share with your kids. They may be a few notches below Stanley's Little Lulu work, but they have something in common with those better-known, more iconic stories.

I don't have too many more of these surprises left in my trick bag. I've just about exhausted all the obscure back-roads of Dell's comics line. I'm happy to share these minor-but-charming pieces with you.

From the November, 1950 edition of Santa Claus Funnies come two stories which appear to be written by Stanley.

In our first offering, "Teddy Bear in Toyland," illustrated by Mel Crawford, notice the genuinely anti-social antagonist, who is very smitten with his cognitive biases, and the cinematic timing of the action sequences (which are tricked out with vivid, often funny sound effects).

Tiger Cat's aggressive agenda distinguishes this story. He's just a little too into his personal delusions, and too fervent about carrying them out. There's also some gentle fun-poking at the wide-eyed cutesy world of fairy-tales.

Also from the November, 1950 SCF is the slightly zany, droll "Santa's Christmas Presents." I believe the artist to be Mo Gollub.

Aggressive SFX, including a tell-tale bonging clock, almost-incongruous slapstick, and the elf Blinkey's grouchy, self-absorbed persona signify "Santa's Christmas Presents" as Stanley's work.

A similarly self-deluded elf dominates "Christmas in November," a piece from the 1954 edition of Santa Claus Funnies. The dialogue is curiously strained in spots, but the story's innate comedy still comes through clearly.

Rufus' insistence that his bad eyesight isn't an issue brings a touch of the Tubby TypeTM to "Christmas in November." Rufus gets his comeuppance, and the one thing he truly needs, in the story's amusing finale. Without his misbehavior, and his stubborn insistence that he is unerringly right, this story would have little to recommend it.

We now leap to the end of the 1950s, with this manic piece from the December, 1960 Santa Claus Funnies. With spiky artwork by Fred Fredericks, "Santa's Problem" feels like an out-take from New Terrytoons.

"Santa's Problem" features a deluded team of Tubby-types. The three reckless, inept polar bears invite themselves inside Santa's workshop, and amusingly destroy everything they encounter. Wise Santa averts economic ruin by enlisting the bears' spazzy playful nature to "test" potential gifts. I suspect those rainbow-hued sleds will soon be kindling, but it's the thought that counts.

"A Surprise For Santa," from the same edition, appears to be drawn by Tony Rivera, a name I've just discovered. Slowly but surely, more Dell puzzle pieces emerge from the black hole of history.

The squatter mice provide this otherwise-meager story with an identifiable Stanley kick. Otherwise, this is cheerful filler.

For our holiday chaser, here's a story from the Frosty the Snowman book of December, 1961--the end times for Dell's connection with Western Publications. The cover's sherbet jollity doesn't reveal the internal tensions that Dell and Western faced in this darkest hour.

"Frosted Frosty" is drawn by longtime Stanley collaborator Lloyd White. As the Frosty character has a touch of the Tubby self-delusion, the lumpen quality of White's art seems apt here.

Static, repeated images and in-your-face SFX are tells of Stanley's hand in this agreeably silly story.

None of these are stories on the level of "Five Little Babies," "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" or the best of Stanley's 1960s work. They weren't meant to be masterpieces. They helped enliven holiday anthologies which were truly team efforts.

They provide a window into Stanley's gentler side, as he consciously wrote holiday stories for younger readers.

Stanley couldn't avoid writing humorous situations, or building up the narrative stakes for reader interest, in any of these stories. That they are genuinely amusing, and sometimes archly surprising, is no small feat.

See you in 2011! May your holidays be festive, peaceful and not at all tense.