Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Stanley's World, Pt. III: How Stanley's Comedic Sense is Still Relevant

I recently had a conversation with my graphic novel partner, David Lasky, about trends in mass-media comedy that have rewritten the rules, over the last decade or so.

We discussed TV series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, The IT Crowd (which I have not yet seen) and The Sarah Silverman Program. These programs are driven by the richly detailed eccentricities and shortcomings of their mega-flawed protagonists. Add to this list the works of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, three mainstream American network programs, and the post-Dada assault to the senses that is Tim and Eric: Awesome Show! Great Job!

Most significantly, these shows refute the tradition of the sitcom--i.e., that comedy is manufactured from a series of escalating events that stock characters must react to, rather mechanically. This new wave of comedy, like John Stanley's, depends on viewer familiarity with characters, and with their quirks.

I'm going to assume that you, the reader, have seen these programs. They're mostly aired on pay channels, although they're also available on DVD (which is how I usually see them). is a convenient way to catch some of them online. I consider these programs a significant movement in mass-media comedy.

The so-called protagonists (anti-heroes, the lot of them) of these programs never pass up an opportunity to make themselves look horrible. Larry David, the focus character of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is the "Tubby Type" gone dangerously wrong, with the full abilities of a functioning adult. His character acts almost entirely on impulse, fueled by a boatload of cognitive biases, which justify his highly-disputable self-righteousness.

Larry, like Stanley's "Tubby types," sees himself as an affable fellow who's always in the know, and on the right track. In his own eyes, he does no wrong. He's a stubborn, argumentative figure, prone to instant conflicts with friends, family, his wife, hired help, and strangers on the street.

Sarah Silverman confronts awkward topics, usually associated with maudlin after-school specials, and basks in the toxic fallout of her epically bad decisions. Like Tubby, she's held in an uncertain regard by her peers, who chastise her for her mis-steps but ultimately support her, despite her pariah status.

Watching David, Silverman and Rhys Darby (of Flight of the Conchords) go through their rituals of debasement and humiliation is excruciating/amusing. (New word: excrusing?) The real comedic gold is that these highly, deeply flawed anti-heroes NEVER take responsibility--or even get--the impact of their own, socially aberrant behavior.

They're fascinating figures--I hesitate to use the word "likable," but they are. They're never quite victors or villains. They capture the most erratic aspects of human behavior, and provide a catharsis. We watch them make the worst, most reckless decisions imaginable, suffer the consequences of their choices, and emerge from the seeming trauma unscathed, no life lessons learned or morals wrought. Their taboo behavior offers us a release from the rigors and responsibilities of societal life.

The characters portrayed by Ricky Gervais in the UK version of The Office and Extras bring a dark layer of misanthropy to the table. His portrayals of David Brent and Andy Millman push viewer comfort levels well past the danger zone.

They are petty individuals--failed bullies who operate from a false belief that they are better than everyone else. They fall harder, and debase themselves more intensely, as a result. They, too, ritually fail to get the message.

In the case of Gervais' bleak creations, the effect is more akin to viewing a dreadful railway accident. A bad situation becomes exponentially worse, fueled by one errant decision after another. The passive spectator is left gaping as this brutalized figure picks himself up from the charred debris of his own doing and acts as if nothing's happened.

Steve Carell has tried hard to develop his own take on this genuinely unlikable character in the US version of The Office. While early episodes of this series have a lion's share of sphincter-tightening moments, Carell has turned his Michael Scott into a kinder, gentler Tubby-type--an out-of-control kid with no clue of the impact of his actions, which seem entirely just and apt in his own eyes.

To make the US Office work, over the course of six seasons, Carell's character has been made somewhat likable. He may make the viewer's intestines curdle, as he grabs the tarnished halo of humiliation with gusto. Scott is a harmless doofus, compared to Gervais' arrogant, selfish and narcissistic David Brent.

An Office spin-off, Parks and Recreation, features often-stunning turns of humiliation comedy from the likes of Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman. Tina Fey's 30 Rock, though more of a meta-parody of sitcom cliches, often weaves debasement comedy into its scenarios. It manages to be a successful, far sharper live-action cousin to The Simpsons, which racked up its fair share of humiliation comedy in its earlier seasons.

This school of comedy is not new. One has to look no further than the works of W. C. Fields and Bob and Ray to see "classic" comedians who depended on misanthropy, inept decisions and social mis-steps to generate their highly effective humor. Woody Allen once trafficked in this desolate school of comedy, in his self-described "early, funny films."

John Stanley's comedy is rooted in this theater of societal humiliation. While I doubt that most (if any) of these modern comedians are familiar with Little Lulu and other Stanley works, there is an unmistakable correlation. This is especially true of Stanley's 1960s series, Thirteen Going On Eighteen, in which anti-heroine Val continually invites--and endures--one embarrassment and torment after another.

Consult this goldmine of comedy and you'll see that these edgy modern icons have a lot in common with John Stanley's self-deluded "Tubby types." Silverman, David, Gervais and Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric) seem particularly hep to this comedic jive. The worse they can make themselves look, and the bigger the stakes, the deeper the tragicomic rewards.

These comedians are taking humiliation far, far past Stanley's most extreme examples. But it's fascinating that this school of comedy draws from the same inexhaustible well of cognitive bias-enriched characters.

Since Tubby Tompkins is, arguably, Stanley's finest manifestation of this character, let's dial up a "Tubby" story for this post.

In fact, here's two stories. First up: the Tubby masterwork "Great Day," from Little Lulu #23, 1950. Apologies for the crap scans. I cleaned them up, but there wasn't much to work with.

Tub is dead-set on being accepted into the fraternity of truck drivers. That is his agenda for eating at the Sunset Diner. Unluckily for him (but great for us), these working-class heroes are a little mean-spirited. They torment Tubby with heapin' helpings of hearty chow--just to see how much this portly kid can pack away.

Tubby suffers mightily on his "great day." He's stuffed so full of food he can't walk. His fainting spell on a public street makes an embarrassing social scene that involves many onlookers--and an ambulance.

Yet Tubby ultimately feels his $1.50 has been well spent--and, in a beautiful coda, plans to save for his next visit to the Sunset Diner. Apparently he's able to forget his intense misfortune quickly.

Here's "Dinner at the Diner," a remake of the 1950 story, from the latest Stanley Lulu I've seen (#131, from 1959). This was four issues before Stanley's exit. Thousands of "Lulu" and "Tubby" pages had been created in those nine years. Small wonder that Stanley (like Barks, at the late stage of his comix career) returned to earlier work for story fodder.

"Dinner at the Diner," crammed into half the space of "Great Day," suffers from its conflation. The truck drivers aren't malicious here. They don't wager on how much Tub can pack away. They're awed bystanders, as Tubby choffs his way through a mountain of chow.

The story's twist ending is a liability. It allows Tubby to shrug off the consequences of his gluttony. He suffers no ritual humiliation. He, instead, leaves the Sunset Diner feeling he's pulled a fast one on Al, the long-suffering short-order cook. There are no stakes to "Dinner at the Diner."

It's fascinating to me that Stanley would avoid the opportunity to hurl Tub into the chasms of social embarrassment--especially given the pitfalls and indignities awaiting Thirteen's Val, Loo of Dunc 'n Loo and Melvin Monster.

These two stories demonstrate how Stanley's approach changed in nine years. The Stanley of 1950 is much more in love with a leisurely pace--of taking his sweet time to let things play out to their fullest extent. The '59 model chooses punctual, strident comedy and a far faster tempo--with a little tug of the carpet at story's end.

I might have made more persuasive selections from the later Thirteen Going on Eighteen here. As those are being handsomely reprinted by Drawn + Quarterly, readers can troll the pages of the first volume (as of this writing) at their leisure, and catalog their many moments of epic humiliation comedy.

This theater-of-cruelty humor, interwoven with genuine affection for his characters, is one of many elements that makes John Stanley's comedy still effective and relevant, 40 to 60 years after the first publication of his work. While he certainly didn't invent this style of humor, he brought a beautiful spin to it--one that changed over time. He has an indisputable link to modern practitioners of this dark, sublime branch of comedy.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sexually Naive Rabbit, Bear Pursued By Aggressive Female at Fun-Fair; Idyll Turns To Nightmare: "Oswald The Rabbit," New Funnies 118. 1946

I hope I'm not over-doing the 1940s funny animal stuff on this blog. As it represents (a) a substantial chunk of John Stanley's 1940s work and (b) is not likely to be extensively reprinted [if all] anytime soon, I feel it merits study here.

As well, it's fascinating to see Stanley work out some of his major themes in these anonymous licensed-character pieces. No one had high expectations for these stories. The editors had standards, to be sure, and exercised them. But, bottom line: this was a business. Someone had to fill the pages of these monthly comic books.

1940s New York was filled with comic book publishers. Many of them didn't give a hoot about what went on the pages of their publications. The actual stories were just a bothersome fact of life--a means to the end. If the writers and cartoonists shared this cynicism, and many apparently did, the end result was lifeless crud. It's why most so-called "golden age" comic book stories are so depressing and un-involving to 21st century readers.

We are fortunate that talented individuals such as Stanley, Carl Barks, Dan Noonan and Walt Kelly were the "someones" at Western/Dell. Because they enjoyed their work, and gave a s*** about what went on the pages (a concern shared and fostered by their editor, Oskar Lebeck), these stories surprise us, 60+ years later, with their intelligence and playfulness.

Today's offering was almost picked at random. I flipped through my stash of Stanley comix, in search of something different to post here. This story reached out and tagged me "it." This was, perhaps, due to its similarity to another 1940s Stanley funny animal piece with an overweight, sexually aggressive female character, which was the final of four stories in this Xmas post. 

Stanley's funny animal stories generally feature sexually neutral male protagonists, who share a joyful domestic relationship--in which homestead, car and bed are their mutual property. Nothing deeper can be read into these relationships. They're childlike and innocent--even tho' the characters often display an incongruously adult sense of sarcasm and materialism (i.e., they desire cars, clothes and home appliances, rather than toys and cookies).

Stanley's "Oswald Rabbit" stories often push the boundaries of these seemingly neutral relationships. There seems to be a more intense connection between cuddly Oswald and his equally-plush buddy, Toby Bear than with Stanley's other odd couples.

Aspects of this intensely physical closeness surface in a few stories.  Most notable is Stanley's 1945 masterpiece, "The Secret Six," in which the characters' relationship gets quite physical--by kids' comic book standards.

This story, from a late 1946 issue of New Funnies, shows the duo in a state of pre-pubescent confusion. Their carefree trip to an amusement park becomes an awkward, nightmarish exercise in social chaos.

What's funniest about this story is that nothing really happens in it, story-wise. The protagonists are put through physical paces in the story's climax (which reminds me of the finale of the 1950 film noir classic Woman on the Run). Otherwise, they just shamble along, with no goal, save for Toby's determination to not eat the wooden sticks of the apples-on-sticks he craves.

The female character is much less aggressive than Mabel, the mouse in that "Tom & Jerry" story I referenced earlier. She just happens to be there, and finds our heroes a convenient receptacle for her mis-guided affection. In Stanley's comedic world, these characters keep showing up, once they're established. They exist solely to cause problems for the protagonists.

In this case, Oswald and Toby allow themselves to be drawn in, out of childish curiosity. Toby has no idea what he's doing, or why he should even be doing it. Oswald acts as the voice of reason, but it's clear that his is also the viewpoint of a child. Neither of these fuzzly neuters know what they're getting into.

Later, the un-named woman reveals something of her inner world, when she cries out "Oh, I'm ALL alone!" (Aren't we all, at times, dearie?) As well, Stanley lets out one of his rare winks at the reader in this panel:

Like Carl Barks, John Stanley seldom trafficked in these fourth-wall busting moments. He seems to have gotten them out of his system in the 1940s. In a throwaway story like this, there are no great stakes to salvage, so why not reach out to the reader with a friendly little noodge?

Page 4 of the story is an early instance of Stanley's time-saving, usually narratively clever black panel routine. He would lean on this routine heavily in his Little Lulu comics. To his credit, he uses these cheater sequences to impart subtle comedic info to his readers. I'm sure the artists appreciated this opportunity to zone out at the drawing board, with the radio on, brushing in fragrant black ink to the accompaniment of a rattling metal fan.

This is an example of Stanley at his most average and unambitious--just having fun with someone else's characters, and finding a reasonably smart and amusing way to fill up nine pages in a monthly comic book. Unlike the pages of, say, a DC funny-animal book, these are still worth reading and studying, 64 years later.

POST-SCRIPT: I have had a number of attempted spam comments in recent weeks. Please don't waste time trying to sneak spam past me. I only post "clean" comments--ones that have actual human content in them. If you're just trying to get some spam generated, fugeddaboutit-- it's wasted effort. To repeat--I only accept comments with actual content. Got it?

Thanks to the people who do leave real comments here--they are greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From New Funnies 93, 1944: Multi-Skilled Dentist, All-Powerful Truant Officer Threaten, Cajole Panda, Chicken, Woodpecker; Dentist Charges Self for Services Rendered

Long time, no post. To remedy my untenable absence, here's a double-dip from a particularly good early issue of John Stanley's run on New Funnies.

Dell Comics' covers usually had little to do with the innards they contained--with the exception of their adventure-themed one-shot stories. Here's an atypical story-themed cover, to start things off right:

Here's the cover story. It's a warm-up for today's second feature, which I consider among John Stanley's best early stories. Why such unusually bright, strong colors on the first page? It was printed on the inside cover of the book--wartime paper-saving measures. I wish comic books had all been printed this way, cover to cover...

This is an extremely funny and witty story, with a quality typical of Stanley's earliest comics works. There are no real stakes to this story, beyond the prospect of Andy Panda losing teeth that don't need to be pulled.

The screwy dentist, Dr. Kiddem, seems benignly, matter-of-factly loco. One too many crown inlays may have sent this scion of medical respectability over the edge. Ditto for his supportive, chipper nurse, Miss Killigin.

Dr. Kiddem is just a poor choice--one of countless faux pas made, with the best of intentions, by Charlie Chicken.  Despite his evident insanity, he's a thorough medico. Note that, when he accidentally pulls three of his own teeth, he makes sure that he bills himself for the work.

John Stanley would soon make bolder choices, and raise the stakes of his stories whenever possible. This early effort is an example of pure screwball comedy, without the tinge of darkness that surely would have colored this story, were it written even two years later.

And now for the piece de resistance--a story old-timers may remember from the original incarnation of this blog, back when it was a primitive but sincere website. (Of course, now blogs are supposed to be old-hat, relics left in the dust by Facebook and Twitter, two popular sites I have little use for. Guess I'm just a Luddite after all!)

This Woody Woodpecker story is in my John Stanley Top Ten. It's beautifully cartooned by the author, as well. For once, the character is completely on-model with the contemporary Walter Lantz cartoons. The funnybook Woody was often ugly-looking, and he so resembled the screen version.

This story anticipates so many major Stanley themes--and presents them with vigor and intensity--that I consider it an important piece in Stanley's development. Here is the proto-Tubby character: the egocentric, self-righteous, rebellious man-child that is most typically John Stanley's focus character. Here, too, is the Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle--a literally nightmarish heavy who bears the bird genuine ill will.

I wonder if Stanley saw and liked "Tex" Avery's MGM animated cartoons. This untitled story bears the probable influence of Avery's 1943 cartoon, Dumb-hounded, which introduced the phlegmatic anti-hero who would eventually be named Droopy.

It's actually closer in spirit to the more intense, paranoiac Avery follow-up, 1946's Northwest Hounded Police. In both cartoons, the retiring, inert Droopy turns up in relentless pursuit of a panicky wolf, who escapes from prison but finds himself in an ever-restrictive nightmare. Everywhere he goes, no matter what he does, the underwhelming Droopy finds him, and confronts him without affect or aggression.

Here's some screenshots from Dumb-hounded:

As in Avery's animated cartoons, the settings change constantly, at rapid pace, and are tableaux of pop-culture cliches, shot through with horror. All are creations of Woody's addled imagination. He is chagrined by the actual Ketchem. Unlike McNabbem, the similar enemy of Little Lulu's Tubby Tompkins, Ketchem is a non-threatening wuss. McNabbem appears capable of causing the Lulu cast physical and emotional harm; he blessedly lacks the cunning to fulfill his brutal potential.

Within the same issue of a comic magazine, we can see Stanley go from harmless screwball antics to high-stakes, horror-laced black comedy. Both styles of humor are handled expertly. While the first story is merely funny and entertaining, the second has a bit of recoil. It's hard to forget its scrambling sense of inescapable terror, blended with deadpan satires of pop-culture tropes.

Stanley would only get better at achieving this blend of horror and humor. It's revealing to see this early,assured synthesis of dark and light.