Sunday, January 31, 2010

Devil-May-Care Dolls Consume Poison Mushrooms, Die, Go To Imperfect Heaven: from Raggedy Ann and Andy 36, 1949

Thanks to Kim Scarborough for providing scans of the two Stanley-filled Raggedy Ann and Andy comics I needed. There's plenty to post in these two issues (35 and 36). Today's story struck me as a prime example of the darker edges of John Stanley's worldview.

It appears that Stanley illustrated this story, and the other Raggedy Ann stories he did in 1949. The loopy looseness of the brush-drawn figures and background seem of a piece with his Peterkin Pottle stories.

Stanley puts these mild-mannered dolls through hellish scenarios in these 1949 stories. One might assume he disliked doing this series, and took it out on the cuddly-wuddly characters. Whatever the case, Stanley's Raggedy stories are the creepiest, most compelling comic book versions of this ever-popular licensed property.

If a pair of sentient rag dolls can said to be alive, they can also theoretically die. Stanley explores this deep-dark absurd "what if" in this unforgettable story... well, read it and judge for yourself...

Heaven does not seem very accessible (or pleasant) a place in this story. Droll humor mingles with darkest themes of death and displacement. The Raggedys' innocence as they discover they're dead is both delightful and heart-breaking.

How did John Stanley get away with this story? It's so sophisticated, visually vibrant, and full of such intense themes and imagery that it's likely to have scared the bejeezus out of the average 1949 tot. Scenes of peril and life-threats are common in Stanley's q.v. The outright death and resurrection of star characters is another thing entirely.

I just had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Drawn + Quarterly's superb Thirteen Going on Eighteen reprints (a review of which is forthcoming here). Having read this story while studying that seminal 1960s material, I see many correlations with Stanley's 1940s and '50s work.

This story, as with all of Stanley's "Raggedy" stories, is enough to refute the theory that his 1940s work is entirely tentative and larval. This is as strong, and lasting, a story as any of Stanley's 1960s auteur work.

Stanley had yet to develop his "loving contempt" approach towards his characters (I'll expound more on this concept in the Thirteen book review). Here, he has plenty of room to make light of the dolls' empty-headed innocence, and of their lack of understanding, like a little child, of cause and effect or consequences.

Yet there is nothing namby-pamby or half-formed about this story. It is as sharp and surprising as the '60s material. While cruelty galore is heaped upon the dolls, it's not as harsh as the cruelties of "Peterkin Pottle" (whose main figure never comes within shouting distance of fatality, even in his wildest fantasias--in which he commonly slaughters scores of others).

As with the Tubby masterpiece, "The Guest In The Ghost Hotel" (also drawn by Stanley),  the lines between fantasy and reality (even in a universe where walking, talking dolls are a given) are beautifully blurred. At story's end, it's revealed that the dolls came perilously close to death--and that their misadventures would appear to be a hallucination induced by the mushrooms.

Yet, as with "Ghost Hotel," the dream-events are depicted in such a vivid, present-tense manner that story's end leaves the reader uncertain. Did or didn't it happen? No questions like these can truly be answered. The mystery of these stories gives them a great strength, and leaves them lingering in the reader's thoughts.

I have a pile of work this week--some for my various book projects, some which will eventually result in some hands-on income--so I may not be able to post for the next few days. I have much to share with you, and I'm eager about upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mice Encounter Enchanted Top Hat; Torment Aggressive Feline (And Selves): "Tom and Jerry" from Our Gang Comics 50, 1948

I keep digging, and "new" John Stanley stories keep appearing!

I found three 1948 issues of Our Gang Comics with one or two Stanley pieces in each issue. This would seem to confirm that Our Gang offered a temporary way-station for our hero after he quit or lost his five-year berth on Dell's New Funnies title.

By 1948's end, Stanley was locked into writing and de facto-drawing the then bi-monthly, eventually 12-times-a-year-plus-giant-specials Little Lulu book, which would soon become among Dell/Western's best sellers.

The bulk of Stanley's late Our Gang pieces are decidedly so-so. Stanley still kept the series' slant on the two mice, Jerry and diaper-clad Tuffy.

The following story is among the better late OG efforts. It was illustrated by Harvey Eisenberg, a skilled stylist who usually had crap scripts. Its theme of a magician's hats ties it to many a classic Little Lulu and Tubby story--and, as well, to his first major one-shot story for Dell's "Four Color" series, "Andy Panda and the Magic Hat," which you can read HERE.

Stanleyisms galore, one moment of genuine brilliance (page four, first two tiers) and unexpected, curious finale: Stanley did not phone in this 10-page story. It's not as sharp as his contemporary Little Lulu writing, but much of that has to do with the limited returns on the basic T&J concept.

Stanley did write one genuinely brilliant story on this late OG run (read it HITHER.) It's telling that this superb story has not hide nor hair of Tom Cat.

Stanley's interest was in the mice--in exploring their childlike relationship with an oversized adult world and its many random objects, in Tuffy's obsession with wearing and curating his collection of diapers, and in the ground-zero game of survival they play each day of their lives.

Stanley did have some fun with Tom's Tubby-esque, self-deluded character in a series of "Adventures of Tom" stories for OG. I ran one of them several months ago. I've already given you two links to prior posts, so you'll have to find this one on your own (that is, if you're interested.) He never seemed interested in making Tom a more interesting character in the T'n'J stories.

Tom displays some Tubby-esque flashes of self-absorption, self-importance and narcissism in Stanley's hands, but in most of his stories for this series (present one included), Tom is just a stock Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle figure, without much embellishing or refinement.

It brings Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories down a notch or two from his best writing for New Funnies or Lulu (or from the two original series he wrote and drew in the late 1940s, "Peterkin Pottle" and "Jigger and Mooch.")

The device of the magician's hat, and its many unpredictable eruptions and stake-raisings, infuses this story with some welcome imaginative humor. The mice's requests for cheese and shower are a flash-forward to Stanley's harder-edged, more sitcom-flavored writing of the late 1950s and early '60s.

This was Stanley's final Tom and Jerry story. Harvey Eisenberg took over the series with the next issue. I wish Eisenberg and Stanley had collaborated more than on these late OG efforts. Eisenberg's gorgeous cartoon art would have bolstered Stanley's work considerably.

(Pity poor Eisenberg the mechanical, crude scripts he had to illustrate for the post-Stanley run of "Tom and Jerry." It's perfect proof that superb artwork can't rescue a poor script.)

This issue hit the stands while Little Lulu #5 was on sale.  That issue contains one of Stanley's early Lulu masterpieces, the "Tubby" story, "The Gourmet."

Lulu went monthly with issue 7, which would indicate the book's sales were strong, But it also meant that Stanley had the responsibility of creating 36 pages of content 12 times a year. Thus, his other comic book work drops off for a few years.

I believe his next non-Lulu project would be the ill-fated Krazy Kat title. But, as said at the start of today's post, I keep digging, and new Stanley Stories keep showing up. I hope this will rewarding formula will continue...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Peterkin Pottle vs. Jungle Tropes: from Raggedy Ann & Andy #37, 1948

Here's another of the seven Peterkin Pottle stories John Stanley wrote and drew in 1948.

The series wasn't successful, although Western Publishing and Dell Comics gave it a fighting chance. It's the first consistent occurrence of The Stanley Darkness in Stanley's work. Darkness creeps around the edges of most of John Stanley's comix.

This original concept, about an alienated, disliked, self-absorbed junior Baron Munchhausen, is strong. Each of the seven stories has at least a moment of brilliance. Yet Peterkin is a rather cold, unlikable character.

In contrast, Tubby Tompkins, who is also a self-absorbed outsider figure, is likable. Tub has self-confidence--in ridiculous excess. He believes in himself as the center of the universe. Because he is so sure of himself, Tubby shrugs off the hostilities of the world around him. In his mind's eye, he is always right, and it's the fault of the less hep world around him that it--and its inhabitants--don't immediately get how great and right he is.

Peterkin is unconfident, diffident and isolated--the sad-sack kid everyone recalls from their grade-school experience. He's the one who sat by himself on the school bus, who ate his lunch alone, whose interactions with fellow children were usually negative and harmful.

Young Pottle's salvation is his retreat into tragicomic fantasies that reflect a distorted burlesque version of the cliched movies, adventure fiction, newspaper funnies, radio shows and, yes, comic books that were the entertainment currency of postwar American kids.

His daydreams are often disturbing: full of violence, threat, and a reflection of the indifference others show him in his waking life. Peterkin shrugs off holocausts as they occur around him.

He comes to each time, and too soon realizes he's still the same sad schlumpf, a punching-bag for his bored social superiors...a kid trapped in a life that thoroughly sucks.

The early Pottle stories are almost unbearably painful. This ties them to Stanley's later Thirteen Going On Eighteen and Melvin Monster stories. By the 1960s, Stanley had let The Darkness become his primary compass as a creator. This curious mixture of brassy, razor-sharp situation comedy and the dangerous worlds in which his figures reside can be a similarly discomfiting experience.

This dance of dark and light is the primary fascination of John Stanley's work. His strengths as a storyteller seem hard-wired into this eternal contrast of misery and joy. At his best, Stanley mingles these opposites with seeming effortlessness.

This is the next-to-last Pottle story. By this time, it would appear that Stanley realized he'd painted his creation into too dark a corner. Thus, the world around Peterkin seems somewhat softer and kinder here.

Though Peterkin is still a sitting duck for his fellow young males, the girl, Pam, is affectionate, sincere and engaging towards him. It gives us, the readers, a feeling that there may be hope for this poor inward kid after all...

Stanley's covers for the "Pottle" issues of Raggedy Ann and Andy are among his sharpest cartooning of all. Bold, decisive brush-strokes give his figures a Walt Kelly/Dan Noonan-esque quality.

As well, we get to see Peterkin colored with standard Caucasian flesh tone, rather than the fishbelly-white stylization of the inner pages. I'm not saying the color choices of the stories are wrong. They seem to be calculated to give this series an air of otherness.

This scan comes from a tattered, world-worn copy of the comic. It would appear this particular issue was much enjoyed by its readers of over half a century ago...

Here's a clearer (tho' much more high-contrast) version of the cover, from the Grand Comic-book Database's website.

And now, the story...

Although Pam's kindness to Peterkin somewhat softens this story, there is still a great deal of cruelty in this story. It's two-way cruelty. First is the torment inflicted upon Pottle by the "reg'lar fellers" with the slingshot-fired rock-to-the-tush. Pottle loses his coke-bottle specs, and interprets the blurred shapes around him as jungle animals and landscapes.

These, alas, include a late occurrence of the big-lipped stereotyped native African. While the characters are intended as parodies of jungle-movie cliches, and not informed with bias or cruelty, they are jarring.

Ditto for the festival of violence to wild animals: meant as a satire of the excesses of pop culture, but delivered with a sharper edge than expected.

Stanley's rendering of animals is among the joys of his cartooning. The hybrid of 1940s Hollywood animation style and his crabbed Thurber-esque body construction is beautiful.

This story also has an occurrence of quicksand--a favorite nightmarish stakes-raiser in John Stanley's fictive universe. Pottle's clever escape from the goo is Tubby-like in its self-assured success. Peterkin is more active and aggressive than usual in this story's fantasy sequence. 

Stanley's cartooning style of the later 1940s was in flux. I like the quality of his cartoon art, from its earliest examples to the final works of the 1960s. That said, some of his 1940s work suffers from Stanley's use of the awkward, poorly designed character styles of Marge Buell. If Stanley's early Little Lulu and Woody Woodpecker art looks ugly to some, consider the style this work was filtered through.

Peterkin Pottle and Jigg and Mooch are laudable attempts to break free of this confining cartoon style. The looseness and vibrancy of Stanley's Pottle artwork is striking. The landscapes of this story are beautifully realized, with economy of line and an impressive understanding of contour lines. This piece is among my favorite of all his comic art.

In this issue is another of Stanley's "Raggedy Ann and Andy" stories. While not as pluperfect freaky as the one I posted awhile back, it's certainly worthy of inclusion here, and will appear on this blog in good time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tubby in "The West Side Guys Get Skunked," from Tubby #5, 1953--story and artwork by John Stanley

The day will come when I exhaust all the comix written and drawn by John Stanley--that is, those that aren't currently in reprint status by our fine friends at Drawn + Quarterly!

I hear tell that they may publish the overlooked and under-rated Tubby series. If this is true, it's cause for joy! I find Dark Horse's scan/reprints of the color Little Lulus to be an eyesore. (Ditto for all their other scan-scourced reprint projects.)

In an attempt to downplay the age of the stories, DH chooses to pump up the brightness/contrast controls. This removes the amber hues of the half-century-old newsprint--at the expense of visual pleasure. The comix look harsh and uninviting. As well, they print 'em on slick paper--another roadblock to full enjoyment.

Yes, I am delighted that the later issues of Lulu are back in print! I'm glad to see them in color. BUT... it could be done much better.

Tubby is an important series in the Stanley canon. Aside from the obvious reasons--the series focuses on Stanley's most significant and fully-realized anti-hero figure--Tubby is a gateway to Stanley's 1960s work. Here, he experimented with the darker themes and character relationships that would come to full fruition in Dunc 'n' Loo, Melvin Monster and Thirteen Going On Eighteen.

These are often achieved in baby steps, but they happen most often in the pages of Tubby. Published quarterly at first, the title became the repository of John Stanley's only published cartooning work of the 1950s. As has been noted here before, Stanley was inspired to draw issues 2 through 9 in their entirety. That's 288 pages of rich, inspired comix art.

The contents of Tubby are little-known to most Lulu fans. You can find a few other posts on this series elsewhere in this blog. Stanley indulged in a series of exotic, unconventional book-length adventure stories, again unique to his 1950s work, in issues 2-4 and 6.

With the fifth Tubby, Stanley broke the pattern. The book's lead story, which I'll feature here soon, is a rather un-PC burlesque of Western adventure tropes. Perhaps it ended sooner than its creator expected. The back-up story, presented here today, is as close to Little Lulu territory as Stanley's Tubby gets.

Its settings are akin to the suburban idyll of Lulu, and it features the fearsome West Side Gang, in one of their only Stanley-drawn appearances. Another Lulu icon, the rich sociopath Wilbur Van Snobbe, figures in the story's stake-raising plot.

The simple beauty of Stanley's cartooning is a joy to behold. Much as I admire Irving Tripp's artwork, Stanley's has more oomph, and consistently achieves more with less.

The John Stanley Theatre Of Cruelty is in full swing here. Galvanized by Wilbur Van Snobbe, the heartless, cruel scion of wealth, both good and bad guys gang up on poor Tubby. Our young anti-hero undergoes psychological-physical torment worthy of an R. Lee Ermey.

When your alleged friends force you to dress in drag (with mohair sofa stuffing for a wig) and enter enemy territory, your day is already not going well.

The mind-fudgery the West Side Guys inflict on Tubby reminds me of a scene from one of the few genuine horror movies I've ever seen: Jack Webb's The D.I. This 1957 chiller contains a similar sequence in which D.I./A-hole Webb forces his platoon to search for the corpse of a sand flea in a vast, tangled field--at night.

This would be MY worst nightmare. Tubby's forced crocheting of a substitute spider-web, while comically absurd, is a similarly wearisome, thankless task. His Pyrrhic victory over the West Siders--via the clever sleight-of-hand with the captured skunk--is a weak triumph, when compared to the mass of $h!t he must endure.

Tub seldom gives more than he gets. Thus, it's easy to like him, and to identify with his comic/horrific plights. Whether pursued by sociopathic, spanking-crazed loners, forced to endure endless violin lessons, or being badgered by Gloria, Wilbur, the West Side Guys and his so-called friends, Tub's life is full of risks and emotional land-mines.

Tubby endures. He'd make a good crisis counselor or hostage negotiator. I'd like to think that he grew up to such a career--one in which his problem solving skills AND his extreme egotism would work for him, and not deliver constant kicks to the shins.

NOTICE: You will note a PayPal donation button now added to Stanley Stories. After a lengthy struggle with both PayPal and Yahoo mail, I've successfully revived my PayPal account. (It's a loooooooooong story, folks...)

If you enjoy this blog, and can spare some $$$, please donate to Stanley Stories! Your kind donations will enable us to better serve you in 2010--and beyond!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Famous Studios louses up Stanley's "Lulu:" Frog's Legs [1962]

Before John Stanley established his superior versions of Marge Buell's Little Lulu characters, New York-based animators Famous Studios (formerly the Fleischer Brothers' company) brought her to the screen.

Their series of Lulu animated shorts ran from 1943 to 1948. They made 26 cartoons. Some are quite good, if you are willing to accept their extremely scaled-down version of Lulu, and can abide a world in which Tubby is called "Fatso."

Famous lost the licensing rights to Buell's characters in 1948. In Lulu's place, they created the truly unbearable Little Audrey. Thad Komorowski, youthful animation historian, has aptly described the Audrey cartoons as being " funny as AIDS or nuclear war."

At their best (such as the frenetic 1946 short, Bargain-Counter Attack), the 1940s Famous Studios Little Lulu shorts succeed, in spite of missing the boat on how to make the most of the themes and characters. It remained for John Stanley to flesh out Buell's stick figures, and give them compelling, distinct personalities. The cartoon series' theme song, however, stayed alive, and was pleasantly recorded by modern jazz pianist Bill Evans on his Verve album Trio '64.

In the late 1950s, Famous Studios sold the rights to all their series characters (which included Casper the Friendly Ghost, Herman and Katnip, Baby Huey, Buzzy the Crow and the dreaded Audrey) to Harvey Comics. By this time, they were renamed Paramount Cartoon Studios. At this time, they also ended a long series of cartoon adaptations of E. C. Segar's Popeye the Sailor. This series began with the Fleischers, in 1933, and lasted 'til 1957.

This brilliant career-move left them with no recognizable characters. This was a blessing in disguise. Paramount/Famous' series cartoons had gotten steadily more mechanical, and less interesting, in the 1950s. Their forte was in a series of edgy, bleak one-shot cartoons--the best of which were written by Irv Spector. These "Noveltoons" and "Modern Madcaps" are among the starkest, creepiest animated cartoons ever made. (If you don't believe me, watch THIS!)

Paramount/Famous struggled on into the late 1960s. They were one of several studios who contracted with King Features Syndicate to crank out a series of suicide-inducing TV cartoons, based on the syndicate's newspaper comic strip characters. Believe me, you don't want to put yourself through any of their Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith or Krazy Kat cartoons! (To say nothing of the made-for-TV Popeyes of this period, which appear to have been made by schizophrenics for manic-depressives...)

Like Dell Comics, Famous Studios' meat and potatoes had been doing licensed adaptations. It made sense for them to fish around and find another hot property to bring to the screen--be it small or big. Thus, they returned to the past. One of their graspings-at-straw was to revive the Little Lulu cartoon series. Two were made; both are adaptations of John Stanley stories.

These appear to have been made for TV consumption. Paramount elected to release the Lulu cartoons theatrically.

I have not been able to view the first of the two 1960s "Lulu" cartoons, Alvin's Solo Flight. I assume it is based on Stanley's story, of the same name, that appeared in the final one-shot "Four Color" Little Lulu (#165).

"Frog's Legs" is based on the John Stanley story "Froglegs," from Lulu #21, 1950. Here's the original version:

Here's the heartbreakingly poor cartoon version:

The cartoon follows Stanley's published story rather slavishly. It would appear that the Paramount/Famous staffers used the comic book as an ersatz storyboard.

You'll note that no story credit is given on this cartoon. This would indicate that they did just use a copy of the story in lieu of sketching it out schematically. This might have been part of the cost-saving appeal of doing these adaptations. No story team needed--just transfer the comic book panels to animation!

Much is lost in translation. The original story is a charming piece of Stanley sitcomix. It doesn't blow a wild note, or challenge the medium of funnybooks in any big way. It's just a good story, with solid characterizations, an amusing situation, and a riotous comedic denouement.

The cartoon deletes the episode of the camouflaged raft, which, with director Seymour Kneitel's maddeningly even pacing, would only slow things down further. Otherwise, the cartoon follows Stanley's story almost verbatim. Eliminated, tellingly, are the more colorful and Tubby-centric bits of dialogue, such as his enraged call for the restaurant's manager, amidst the chaos of panicky diners and agitated frogs.

They make one major change to the ending--instead of Lulu responding to Tubby's plan with righteous anger, she is surprised, and then chuckles.

Part of the flaws of the animated Frog's Legs lie in the cheapness of the animation.

By the ate 1950s, Paramount/Famous had abandoned the flowing full classic animation styles, as had most other studios, for a simpler, more stylized kind of post-UPA movement.

If you watched Chew Chew Baby, you saw a more inspired example of Paramount/Famous' stylized limited animation. Broad poses that avoid subtle in-beween animation, strong character design and better choices of extreme poses work wonderfully well in that cartoon.

Here, all the life has been beaten out of a reasonably good story, from the flaccid voice-work to the blah pacing. The animation has no spark to it. Not that a frenzy of movement was needed, or would be fitting. Lulu is a bland cipher here. In the 1940s cartoons, she was a bit of a hellion.

The characters of Tubby and Lulu seem heavily medicated in Frog's Legs. The reader of Stanley's version is compelled to see what they do--and why they do it. In the animated version, the kids don't act or think in any vivid way. It's pretty obvious that Paramount's cartoonists just didn't grok the charm of Stanley's writing or characterization.

Chalk up another X on the Lost Opportunities chart!

The two Famous cartoons wouldn't be the last time John Stanley's Lulu was animated. Japan's Nippon Animation studio did a 26-episode Lulu series in 1976. These were dubbed into English and briefly shown here in 1978. They're currently quite hard to see. I don't know if any of the Nippon episodes keyed off Stanley's stories.

A HBO series of the 1990s, produced by Canada's Cinar animation studio, used several classic Stanley stories as the basis for its episodes. UK comedienne Tracey Ullman supplied Lulu's voice in its run of 52 half-hour shows.

Cinar treated the original texts with a bit more reverence than did Paramount, but they tinkered with story details. The series was well-received by the general public.

It says much for the quality of Stanley's Little Lulu that its static, page-bound images resound with more life than any of the animated incarnations. Frog's Legs is a curiosity piece, and a valuable how-not-to lesson in turning comix into animated cartoons.

P.S. Thanks to Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew for offering a superior print of "Frog's Legs" for this post. He's also provided access to the other Famous/Paramount Lulutoon, Alvin's Solo Flight. This cartoon fares better in comparison with the original comic-book story, so check it out, too, if you're digging through the past posts on this here blog.