Monday, March 1, 2010

Stanley's Most Curious Project: Linda Lark, Student Nurse

The early part of John Stanley's comics career is about innovation. In his 1940s and early '50s comics, Stanley developed a unique, often eccentric visual-verbal lexicon that enabled him to write vividly and sincerely (and to cartoon with gusto).

The latter part is often about following trends. Most of Stanley's post-1955 comics output is designed to align with hot pop-culture resonances--the "kooky monster" fad (Melvin Monster), Dobie Gillis-esque satirical sitcom (Kookie, Dunc 'n' Loo), school-of-Archie teen comics (Thirteen Going on Eighteen), Twilight Zone-like stories of fantasy and fear (Tales From The Tomb, Ghost Stories) and medical dramas-cum-soap operas (Linda Lark).

Linda remains among Stanley's most obscure work. Its highly checkered existence tells us as much about the bellwether nature of publishing as of its era's fads and fashions.

Linda Lark
's first issue, dated October-December 1961, hit the stands alongside the debut of Stanley's Around The Block With Dunc 'n' Loo.

These comics preceded the amoebic split of what had once been "Dell Comics" into Western Printing and Lithographing's independent, newly-christened Gold Key and what remained of the Dell line, as now published and edited in-house by the bewildered Dell itself.

I assume that both comics were original ideas of Stanley's, and not in-house creations. Their creation may have been dictated by Dell's editors, who would desire a newsstand presence in two popular genres.

Both series are riven with Stanley's quirks and fascinations. They share familiar urban settings, sexual tension and the eternal struggle for status. Dunc 'n Loo is driven by a duo of male characters; Linda Lark is--rare for Stanley--built around an ensemble cast of females.

These are the two sides of Little Lulu, Stanley's most successful work in comics. In its first issue, despite some eye-rolling romance-comix cliches, and Stanley's struggle to adapt his brassy comedic writing to a more sober narrative, Linda Lark is a surprisingly solid effort.

It's fascinating to compare it to the "Four Color" one-shot based on the sub-standard newspaper gag cartoon Nellie The Nurse (an excerpt of which can be sampled HERE.

Nellie appeared after Linda's debut. The humor present in Linda is a tamped-down, composed element in the mix. The overall result is an odd inversion of Stanley's usual humor-above-all approach. In this first issue, Stanley tries to maintain a light tone--enough so that it appears the stories are intended to be funny.

Competent but dead "realistic" art takes much of the punch out of the finished product. The Grand Comic-book Database suggests this possible art team:

Pencils: John Tartaglione
Inks: Sal Trapani; Dick Giordano; Frank McLaughlin

In later issues, that maven of Mobland Comix, Vince Colletta, makes an appearance.

Stanley may not have written all eight issues of the series, which underwent two title changes. Again, from the GCBD:

Issue #1 was Linda Lark Student Nurse. Issues #2-5 are confirmed to be Linda Lark Registered Nurse. #5 cover is 'Nurse Linda Lark', indica is 'Linda Lark Registered Nurse'. #6 - 8 are Nurse Linda Lark.

Well, enough pre-show chat. Given the rarity of this comic, I've opted to run the whole thing, sans text fillers, starting with the paperback-novel style painted cover:

A meet-cute scene introduces us to Dr. Allan Mayne and, most significantly, to Linda Lark. She is akin to Lulu Moppet--the straight woman, taking what she says and does seriously, and striving to appear intelligent and in control.

We're also acquainted with Charley Stahk, who serves as a stand-in for both Annie and Tubby. She's the impulsive one, the outspoken, talk-first-think-last figure who is so essential to John Stanley's world.

With her buck teeth and her odd hairstyle, she even resembles Lulu's pal Annie. 

We also get a dose of the sexual/societal head-butting between female characters that would soon become a staple of Thirteen Going On 18.

In a miniature version of Stanley's summer camp giants, the stories in this comic are chapters in a loose overall story-arc.

Things get a bit broader in this second story, with the horny male serial-kisser embarrassing the terribly status-conscious Linda. Comparisons to the antic Nellie the Nurse are inevitable.

Note how the static artwork sucks all the life out of the characters. And dig Linda's two tiers of self-doubt monologue on the next-to-last page!

More typical teen comix elements appear in the third story, altho' it takes a detour into some intense drama, with no humor present.

Stanley lets out some fascinating, dark information about the heroic young Doctor Mayne--enough to give Linda some reasonable doubt of romantic pursuit. (Like Thirteen's similarly-named Paul Vayne, Allan Mayne is a handsome, vague individual--seemingly calm and centered, but with an air of enigma.)

Yet Linda saves the suicidal ex of the doc, and, like Lulu, proves herself a steadfast, reliant individual who takes decisive action.

Her "reward" is embarrassment, via the types of newspapers which only exist in mass media--apparently instant pipelines to the most intimate events of the protagonists' lives. (Among my favorite example of this is the sarcastic TV newscasters in the 1958 movie Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman: they, truly, give the misbegotten main characters no privacy or mercy.)

This story features another Stanley Standard Plot Device [TM]--the Tubby Type's Relative. This figure is typically introduced as a romantic possibility for the protagonist, and typically, as here, turns out to be a nutjob. This figure is, as here, quickly brushed aside for the Dashing Alpha Male character to make a surprise entrance, thus sweeping the protagonist off her feet, sort-of.

In our last two stories, we see more female verbal sparring (commented upon by Charley); a tense sequence of Linda evading what she perceives as the invasive press; and another meet-cute moment, to stoke the readers' appetite for the next issue.

A humorous Charley solo story winds up this issue.

Hooray for eccentric beatniks! And what better way to wrap up one of the esoteric highlights of John Stanley's comix career?

Again, stagnant drawings drain most of the humor from the story. Easy to imagine this drawn by Bill Williams, and bristling with comedic life. Charley's sardonic commentary in the final panel is an apropos finale for this funny-book.

Prominent Stanleyisms here include lots... of... ellipses... in... speech..., aggressive, anti-social male characters, confident Adonis-like alpha males, concerned monologues, status wars, a constant battle of the sexes, and the presence of the Stanley Archetype Trio (Voice of Reason, Tubby Type and Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle) in every story.

Linda Lark, in its first issue, is John Stanley's most successful effort at writing a more-or-less realistic comic book narrative. Humor would be progressively down-played in subsequent issues. As said, I'm not sure that Stanley even wrote the last couple of issues.

This title, like Dunc 'n' Loo, straddled the end of Dell Comics, as it had existed since the 1930s, and its miserable final phase of the 1960s. They were fortunate to have a creator of Stanley's caliber to bridge this shattering transition.

I've been a postin' fool here lately. March promises to be a hectic month for me, so you may not be seeing so much of me here for awhile.

1 comment:

nyrdyv said...

Ya gotta wonder if issues like those depicted here were co-sponsored by Avon. All of the female lips are exactly the same...


Steven G. Willis