Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Adventures in Africa" from Little Lulu 31, 1951--story AND art by John Stanley

I've gotten some requests to run this story since the excerpt I posted, awhile back, in my essay on John Stanley's cartooning. Sunday morning is always a good time for a Lulu story. Tho' these have been reprinted in Dark Horse's books (while they still keep some of them in print!), few would get the chance to see these stories in their original pulpy-good color.

This story comes from the 31st issue of Little Lulu. For reasons we may never know, Stanley did most of the finished art for this issue. This work looks rushed--it tells a tacit story of 11th-hour effort to meet an urgent deadline.

When compared to Stanley's recent efforts for his series "Jigger and Mooch" and "Peterkin Pottle," the art for this Lulu issue seems crude. That said, there is a great vigor to these hasty lines. They live and leap off the printed page.

Whatever crisis inspired this cartooning also gave Stanley's writing a more edgy quality--a rare sensation in the pages of the mannered, easygoing Little Lulu

This story, which opened the issue, has much in common with the "Peterkin Pottle" series. Lulu's story is a Munchhausen-esque fantasy that also functions as a wild burlesque of assorted mass-media cliches. It's a one-of-a-kind story that defies the usual structure of this sub-series.

This story avoids the fairy-tale tendencies of Lulu's typical improvised stories. Instead, it's a chain of events that constantly raise the stakes of Lulu's perilous situation. (In improv comedy, this is called ODTAA--"one damned thing after another.")

There is no moral in this story--just a rambling, extemporaneous antic comedy of errors that mirrors quite effectively the imagination of an excitable child. The hasty, spiky aspect of Stanley's artwork adds to this effect.

I like that it takes four pages for the story-within-a-story to surface. Again, this may have been an "uh oh! Let's get these pages filled up!" decision, rather than an artistic choice. Whatever the case, the low-comedy dawdling of the first few pages has a disarming effect. "Why," the reader may think, "is this story about kids slipping on ice called 'Adventures in Africa'?"

Reading this story is like being on a slow train that suddenly and unexpectedly picks up speed. It careens from one moment of comedy and threat to another. As noted earlier, it shares the "Peterkin Pottle" ethos of making these moments recognizable burlesques of the tropes 1951 consumers encountered in movies, fiction, TV, plays and other comics.

Stanley's lovely cartoon drawings of animals are a highlight of this story. It's curious that his human figures often seem crude here--yet the animals are drawn with a delightful verve and grace. I think this may have to do with a difficulty Stanley had in mirroring the slick, graceful cartoon art of Irving Tripp, who usually drew these stories.

"Adventures in Africa" is an anomaly in the Little Lulu series. It gives us a rare example to see its creator relaxing, and fiddling with the rigid rules that defined this four-color universe.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Noted Rabbit's Playpal Transformed To Mass of Wild Waterfowl; Comatose Magician Held Responsible For Unwanted Conversion: from New Funnies 124, 1947

Today's offering was kindly scanned and donated by Alan Hutchinson. He, in fact, took the considerable trouble to scan this entire 52-page funnybook, the contents of which have eluded me for years... (read last few words with Peter Lorre-style intensity).

I've posted few of Stanley's "Oswald the Rabbit" stories here. Though it was a secondary series for him, during his five year tenure on New Funnies, he wrote several very good to near-brilliant episodes. This is one of the best in the run.

John Stanley's stories with a magician as its Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle figure summon their creator's most outre leaps and bounds of narrative imagination. Stanley's magicians are often heroes, and sometimes utter dastards. They are the envy and the enemy of Stanley's protagonists--and especially revered figures to his many "Tubby Types."

Here, Stanley's prestidigitator has an unusually ambitious act, which seems to often render him injured and/or conscious. His own tricks quickly exceed his ability to control them. His unfinished feat of illusion leaves an absurd but considerable rift in the Oswald/Toby relationship, as you'll soon see...

Stanley's fantasy-themed stories frequently end on a mind-fudge. The boundaries and "what if"s become blurred and uncertain. This 1947 story offers one of his best "?!?" conclusions.

Oswald is remarkably flexible throughout this crisis. His companion, once a cuddly li'l bear, becomes five separate ducks. He still attempts to carry on the domestic life he's known with this entity. Once converted to a flock of ducks, Toby remains Oswald's friend, but his collectively fowl behavior makes their continued union unfeasible.

Marvo The Great is, apparently, omnipotent. Yet he is highly vulnerable to his own tricks. His entrance as a wild lion earns him a mild concussion. After Toby's transformation, he produces a shotgun and attempts to shoot the ducks--resulting in his comatose condition. (It's chilling to consider that Marvo intends to murder Toby, just for the finale to a grand trick!)

Marvo does deliver the goods. He gives his eager subject, Toby, exactly what he requests. Toby's reply to Marvo's "why a duck" question is hilarious: "I dunno: the freedom of the skys [sic] --flying in "V" formation!"

The story ends on an off-beat--another distinctive "Stanleyism." In this story's case, it's like a piece of music that has one extra measure at the end. (It might continue further, with the duo making an omelet out of the eggs.)

Stanley wrings a great deal of comedy out of the story's events--from the mass-mind of the excited mob awaiting admittance to Marvo's performance, to Marvo paying admission to his own show, to his ill-fated entrance as a wild lion... almost every panel has some kind of pay-off of character-based or situational comedy.

Note the in-joke on the theater's asbestos curtain. "L' Noonan Bleu" is, of course, a tip of the hat to fellow Western staffer Dan Noonan, whose elegant cartooning graced many of the Oskar Lebeck-edited Dell titles of the period.

I'm not certain that Noonan and Stanley ever did a story together. I believe the art, here, is by Dan Gormley. I think Noonan must have written his own material, or only collaborated with Walt Kelly.

My friend and fellow blogologist Paul Tumey recalls seeing a small-press book on the history of Dell Publications many years ago. We've both tried, in vain, to find it. I wonder if said book might have at least some information on Oskar Lebeck's editorial work for Western Publications.

For such an important stable of cartooning talent, Western's story is fuzzy, at best. I wish it were even half as well documented as are the 1940s histories of DC, Marvel, Fawcett, et al. We're fortunate that the stories exist, and that they have, if anything, improved with time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ugh-ly American: John Stanley's First "Woody Woodpecker" Story, New Funnies 86, 1944

A defining moment in John Stanley's comics career, this debut of the regular "Woody Woodpecker" series in Dell's New Funnies allowed our hero to fully indulge his penchant for cognitive bias-driven anti-heroic characters.

Hints of this character were present in Stanley's other comics work of 1943/4. Charlie Chicken in "Andy Panda," all the characters of "Tom and Jerry" and supporting figures in other stories all show signs of this essential Stanley persona.

With Woody, Stanley could, for the first time, devote an entire story to such a protagonist, without putting him/her in the back seat, as the eternal aggravation of a "straight" logic-driven character.

This story solved a problem for Dell. They had flirted with Woody's inclusion in New Funnies since 1942. The staccato-voiced sociopath was a big hit in Universal's Technicolor cartoons, produced by Walt Lantz.

Woody appeared in strictly incidental roles, usually as a gadfly who upset the namby-pamby bunny fun of Oswald the Rabbit, in those dreary pre-Stanley issues of NF.

With Stanley's entrance to NF, Woody still remained in the background--consigned to walk-on parts in others' stories, or gag filler pages of little impact-slash-consequence.

Meanwhile, Woody's on-screen exploits drastically improved, as director James "Shamus" Culhane migrated to the Lantz Studios and revamped the addled bird, with the considerable aid of designer Art Heinemann and animators Emery Hawkins and LaVern Harding, et al.

Though blighted by a sub-par story department, Culhane's Lantz cartoons made the annoying cipher into a compelling, full-bodied lunatic--a force of nature destined to wreak havoc on whomever crossed his path.

Today's story predates the first of Culhane's animated Woody cartoons, The Barber of Seville, by at least three months. The March, 1944 cover date of this comic book would mean it was on the stands around the end of 1943 or in January of '44. The story would have been conceived and produced a month or two before then--this is just a guesstimate--which would roughly place its creation in the fall of 1943.

Woody's originally garish, unappealing look had been refined by Emery Hawkins in a couple of transitional cartoons, such as 1943's The Dizzy Acrobat and Ration Bored--the latter which Hawkins co-directed.

The cartoons were still shaky, uneven things in 1943. Thus, Stanley did another rescue-job on an insubstantial pop-culture icon. He gave Woody a distinguishable personality, as the ugliest of Ugly Americans, and presented him to the world in a story of intense absurdity and dark comedy.

This preview panel should whet your appetite for this early John Stanley classic. PC WARNING: This story contains somewhat-stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans. However, Stanley puts an edge on these tongue-in-cheek depictions, as you'll see when you read the story.

I scanned this story from my copy of the comic, which has a curious quality I've not seen in old funny-books. It appears this copy got soaking wet, but somehow dried in a flat position. The pages are intact, and not brittle. They emit a fine, powdery substance (mold spores, I fear) and have a strange feel to them.

The staples have auroras of rust staining around them. They show up on the pages but, blessedly, do not interfere with the comic book artwork.

I may never remove this comic book from its protective bag again. It will probably be a pouch of varicolored dust in another 20 years.

Woody is a blundering, utterly un-self-aware boor and agent of destruction here. He is also immediately spotted as a lunatic by the extremely patient Native Americans whose reservation he invades. They, at first, fear him, then take pity on him--as one might display for a disabled person--and, finally, tolerate his presence. One wonders how long Woody will remain chief of this tribe. (I'm guessing about one afternoon.)

Like Stanley's finest anti-hero protagonist, Tubby Tompkins, Woody is utterly sure of himself. The vision of the world he sees is radically different from grounded reality. He is convinced that his is the right way, and that he is the master of all he sees and touches.

Woody's statement on p. 6, re the moose hunt--"I hope they only come one at a time, 'cause I only got one arrow"--is a perfect example of what I call "Tubby Talk" in Stanley's comics. It's the cocksure statement of a deeply flawed individual whose self-opinion is pure gold. 

The denouement, in which the moose dies of laughter at the absurd sight of Woody the Injun warrior, is a beautiful moment--among the triumphs of Stanley's whole career as a comics writer. Ditto for the beautiful moment previewed today, in which the witch doctor and the bird find one another just as horrifying.

There is something Carl Barksian about both these moments. But this is a level of humor that Barks would not achieve until the late 1940s, when he began to truly emerge as a great writer.

I don't have the next three issues of New Funnies. I wonder if he equaled this divine level of absurd humor in those next stories. You can see the Woody stories for issues 90 and 94 HERE and HITHER.

Stanley's depiction of Native Americans here is more akin to a comic opera than to the brassy racism of wartime mainstream America. The following stills from Culhane's Barber of Seville show the woodpecker abusing a stereotyped Native American AND a swarthy Italian, in quick succession.

It would take the comic-book version of Woody awhile to catch up to the 1944 re-design of the character. In this first story, Woody still looks like his visually horrid earlier incarnation (seen here in a still from his second, self-titled 1941 carton).

All for now. I'm off to immerse myself in the wonderful world of SFIT! If you're in Seattle, come join me!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Killer, Not Filler--John Stanley's complete "Woody Woodpecker" gag pages of 1947 [updated 9-22-10]

Here is an appropriately red-hued bouquet of 18 comic-book roses from the pen and wit of John Stanley. At least one of these has appeared here before, but most of these are mega-sized scans from my copies of these old funnybooks. I left 'em large so you can savor Stanley's slick, sharp pen line and vivid cartooning.

These were done around the same time of the only New Yorker cartoon Stanley published. They share the elegance and verve of that high-ticket achievement, in both looks and content. They're a marked improvement on the series of full-length stories Stanley wrote and drew in 1945 and '46 issues of New Funnies.

I now feel that Stanley probably didn't ink those "Woody Woodpecker" stories, a few examples of which you can find elsewhere on this blogscape. The pencils are clearly his, but the ink line is lifeless in comparison to these gag pages. They look exactly like his early story-and-art for the Little Lulu one-shots in this regard.

These gag pages, in turn, look more like the "Jigger and Mooch" stories Stanley wrote and drew for Animal Comics--all which are gathered elsewhere on Stanley Stories. Those share the thin, spiky pen-nib line of these shorter pieces.

Stanley contributed these filler pages for 10 issues of New Funnies. He was at the end of his tenure on this title when these pages were created.

Here's the first one Stanley did for New Funnies 121. These ran on the inside front (and, later, back) covers of each issue. The model airplane contest theme figures in several classic Little Lulu stories.

The humanoid dogface characters have a lot in common with Carl Barks' comic book work. Some of the background characters almost look like Barks' art style--almost being the operative word.

Though this pantomime gag is simple and straightforward, the eye appeal of Stanley's cartooning urges the onlooker to linger upon each frame.

Stanley had been drawing Little Lulu regularly for a couple of years, and all that practice really paid off. His cartooning of the later 1940s is among his best.

Issue 122 of New Funnies also contains one Stanley gag page. It's the wildest (and densest) of the entire run. This may be Stanley's finest piece of cartooning in the 1940s. It has strong hints of Milt Gross, blended with School-Of-Tex Avery zaniness. Stanley's cartooning is much stronger and more confident than in the prior issue. Thanks to Ron Limbaugh for supplying this hard to find issue.

Stanley took more chances with a licensed entity, in this single page, than he ever did elsewhere. The contemporary animated Woody was capable of such outbursts, but never with such grave consequences. As a result of his indoor hunting (which is, quite sanely, justified in the second panel) Woody's home is surrounded by armed police. The final silent panel shows him angry, in a strait jacket, and locked in a padded cell. A lot occurred between panels 10 and 11!

No gag pages ran in NF 123. There's almost no Stanley content, period, in that issue. Must have been a deadline crunch somewhere else that month.

Thanks to Alan Hutchinson's generous scan donations, I can share with you Stanley's pair of pages from New Funnies 124:

These pages just get better as they go along. The last one touches on a still-timely bit of American statis: the inertia that surrounds Christmas tree removal. I can still see Xmas decorations (and a few scraggly trees) on display in my neighborhood. (Truth told, I once left an Xmas tree up until Easter. Thus, this is strictly glass house material for me.)

It's a thrill to see Stanley's cartooning get so sharp and ferocious.  The highly varied figures on these two pages dance with life. (The Barksish dogmen are still here; this would be their last appearance in Woody's world. I suppose some black truck came for them in the night.)

The human woman who offers Woody fudge--in a seductive manner, I might add--looks a lot like Barks' contemporary drawings of human beings. 
The first gag page, with Woody's OCD collecting of bottle caps, ties in neatly with the "Andy Panda" story I posted HERE. "Hoarding, compulsive" emerges as a minor theme in the 1947 New Funnies issues.

These next two are not my scans; they're from New Funnies 125.

By this time, the Barksoid dogfaces are 100% replaced by human characters. It's interesting to see Stanley drawing more attractive figures, as he does in the first page here. His human characters tend to be chubby, spindly or child-sized.

Look at how well he draws human feet in that first page, too. As any cartoonist will tell ya, feet--bare feet in particular--are a b!tch to draw. They're rendered in such simple, confident lines here. Stanley must have been feeling pretty engaged and inspired as a cartoonist in 1947. His New Yorker cartoon sale contributed to that vibe, I would guess.

Woody's act of aggression towards the studly lifeguard, in the first gag page, is hilarious. This is a great instance of the Stanley "Tubby type" expressing himself to his oblivious "superiors."

I ran one of the pages from New Funnies 126 in the second "John Stanley's World" post. For completeness' sake, here it is again. You will recognize one panel as part of the collage of the logo for this blog. 

I am proud of Woody's pro-active solution to his sneering asshole neighbor's request.

126's "B" page again recalls the cartoon style of Milt Gross, and the archly exaggerated, angular figures of Tex Avery's 1946-8 MGM cartoons. The scouts at the end could easily fit into an average "Little Lulu" episode.

New Funnies 127's gag pages are both gems--perfect executions of essential Stanley themes and comedic set-ups. I ran a lesser scan of the second one recently, but its morbid visuals and macabre overtones made it a must for re-scanning at a large size.

Stanley's cartooning gets more aggressive and expressive in the last batch of these gag pages. Dig the vibrant poses and great panel compositions of the first page below. Both are from New Funnies 128.

The next two, from New Funnies 129, feature some of the spikiest, most Milt Gross-like cartoon art Stanley ever produced. It's got so much raw life in every line! Tho' his Woody goes dangerously off-model by this time, the verve and snap are a marked improvement over the bland official design.

Look at the final panel of that first page! Wow! That jack in the box is right out of a 1927 Nize Baby page by Milt Gross! Stanley's cartooning style of the '40s is typically so laid-back and naturalistic. It's great to see him pushing the boundaries of cartooniness in these pages.

Stanley's last writing appears in NF 129. His gag pages graced the now-inept monthly for two more issues. Perhaps these were inventory items, done some time before the end of '47.

Here are the two pages for NF 130.

The first of these two is a laugh-out-loud affair, with quite the different angle on the housing market. 2010's Woody would be glad he wasn't saddled with unsellable homes!

Dig the atrocious mis-coloring by the monochromatic production person. Woody's creepy uncolored lower eyelids in the third tier... brrr!

Exhibit B shows the 'pecker's more mischievous side, and ends on a barbed note of feathered frustration.

Issue 131 offers the last of his Woody gag pages. They're both doozies. As with issue 130, the "b" page is just three tiers, to make room for money-saving coupons. Here they are:

Woody's act of shoplifting, in the "A" page, suggests a subtle continuity from the previous issue's "B" page. From realtor to apple thief in just one issue!

The final page in this series offers a Zen approach to comedic problem-solving. It's fitting that this series concludes with Woody living at a Dutch angle--and the happier for it.

These are the last pieces John Stanley did for New Funnies--ending a run of almost five years in this magazine.

Other artists, including Dick Hall and Dan Gormley, continued these magenta-tinted Woody gag pages for some time in New Funnies. Suffice to say they fall short of the standards Stanley set in this short run of brilliant cartooning.

It's taken a year to gather all these pages together. I'm glad to finally present them here. I feel they are significant additions to the works of John Stanley, cartoonist-writer.