Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two Stories From The First Little Lulu Comic, 1945: Story and Art by John Stanley

John Stanley's early work on the one-shot issues of Little Lulu has been dealt a bad hand in reprints. Aside from the appearance of one Stanley-drawn "Lulu" in The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, none of these early stories--which amount to over 500 pages of story and art by Stanley--have been accurately reprinted.

Another Rainbow's Little Lulu Library (which was scanned for Dark Horse Comics' black and white Lulu books) opted to crudely trace most of the Stanley-drawn "Lulu" stories, as photostats for them did not exist. These cruddy tracings appeared in Sets I and II of the LLL, which had super-low print runs, and are not worth the big bucks they seem to fetch on the collector's market. They are a vile bastardization of John Stanley's work! (There, I've said it.)

Thus, the reading experience of this sizable chunk of all-Stanley comix is rendered pretty moot. Reading these doggedly traced re-creations is like watching a colorized movie--or a movie with hard-coded Greek subtitles. Technically, it's the movie, but it isn't. The reader is not fully immersed in the work because it's not all there.

The dull, lifeless lines of the tracings leave these rowdy, vigorous stories flat and depressing on the reprinted page.

Since most people (myself included!) cannot afford the original 1945-47 printings of these comics, I have decided to embark on a series of more accurate presentations of this maligned and extremely important John Stanley material.

To that end, here are two stories from the first Lulu "Four-Color" book, with some one-page gags added to the mix. It's nice to see these in color. They were not intended to be read in black-and-white. This, again, does a dis-service to Stanley's work.

Here, for starters, is the very first "Little Lulu" story, written and drawn by Mr. S.
The rowdiness and anarchy of the kids here is striking. This story is very much of a piece with Stanley's early "Tom and Jerry" stories from Our Gang Comics (many examples of which are elsewhere on this blog). The broad, violent physical comedy, the un-punctuated sentences in speech balloons, and the SFX (including a couple glorious YOWs) are strong Stanley "tells."

In fact, by using this artwork as a compass, I now believe that Stanley also did the finished art for at least a couple of the "Tom and Jerry" stories. This post contains a story from Our Gang #15 that seems like 100% Stanley cartooning to me. There are possible others from around this time.

The lettering, which is clearly Stanley's own, is another "tell." He was a superb letterer, and his SFX words have a uniquely vivid pen line.

Lulu is a far cry from the Voice Of Reason goddess she would soon become. She is a stubborn, ill-tempered trouble-maker who takes her own initiative, damn the outcome.

In contrast, Tubby seems meek and mild--although Stanley had already previewed the classic Tubby persona in his New Funnies work, he waited 'til the book's second story, "At the Beach" (reprinted in the Smithsonian tome, easily available at most public libraries) to endow Master Tompkins with the first of his cognitive bias-driven quirks.

The mother's obvious fear of the children, and of their unpredictable, destructive actions, is priceless here. Stanley includes some pantomime sequences within the story. He did scores of wordless gag pages for the Lulu comics, but it's rare to see a showy sequence such as the one on p. 5 of this piece.

This is not the classic "Lulu" world, but it is bracing, beautifully drawn and paced suburban slapstick. The precision of Stanley's cartooning, which often feels hurried, is striking here. All eyes were upon him in the creation of this first "Lulu" comic-book (including those of series creator Marge Buell), and Stanley delivered the goods in both art and story. I can't imagine that drawing those poorly-designed Buell characters over and over again was much fun.

Here are two pantomime gag pages.

The book's third and last story introduces Alvin, the true loose cannon in the Lulu-verse. He is quite different from the character of the best-known 1950s-era stories. Once more, kiddie anarchy rules--with the children unfazed in the eye of their own hurricane.

Yep, Alvin's a hellion--but, in this debut story, there are surprisingly real moments of child behavior. The sequence on p.2, in which Alvin just has to lick the striped barber-pole, and Lulu confesses that she, too, went through that rite of passage, is spot-on.

Again, the lackadaisical reaction of Lulu and Tubby to Alvin's anti-social antics (hey, there's a great comic-book title!) is as funny, if not funnier than, the carnage that ensues.

The story's opening sequence, with Lulu happily maiming her doll, is another example of how different Stanley's take on this character is at the series' outset. The Lulu of, say, 1951 would recoil in horror at the thought of giving one of her dolls the "Kojak" look! Yet this random behavior seems on-the-money and probable. That's why it works--it's not trying to be funny.

A special shout-out goes to the innovative coloring of these stories. Although the achievement of magazine-cartoon wash tones was out of the question for the cruddy four-color press, the Western Publications colorist did his/her best to approximate the look and feel on the funny-book page.

D'joo notice the dropping of the name "Gormley" in this story? Stanley must have been quite fond of cartoonist Dan Gormley in the 1940s. He and Walt Kelly both name-check their colleague in their comic-book work.

Gormley drew in many styles. Here's an example of his "straight" action style from 1941:

As a chaser, here are three more gag-pages from this first issue. Dig that sprightly yet tidy cartooning! The final two gags, which ran on the book's back cover, tie in nicely with their front component. Thoughtful touches such as these make Western's 1940s comics a cut above the rest.

Want to see more of these Stanley-drawn "Lulu" stories? Let me know!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Unseen Stanley, Part 1: Dunc 'n' Loo Offshoots (or Precursors?)

John Stanley's son, Jim, has been in touch with me recently. In the course of our most enjoyable e-mail correspondence, he has offered the first of a series of rare and unpublished John Stanley works.

Today's offerings are completely unknown, and make their world debut here. They are what appears to be daily comic-strip concepts for a Dunc 'n' Loo newspaper feature.

The first two are Loo strips. They would appear to predate the Dell Comics series of 1961-63. I say "appear" because nothing is known about them--even by James himself. I would assume these were worked up before the concept became a Dell Comics series, as the characters would have automatically become Dell's property upon first publication.

Note the highlighted copyright information on the indicia of the first issue of AROUND THE BLOCK WITH DUNC 'N" LOO:

Like "Jigger and Mooch," "Peterkin Pottle" and all the secondary characters John Stanley created for Dell's licensed properties, the Dunc 'n' Loo universe was surrendered to Dell ownership upon first publication. (As happened with Carl Barks, all the new characters created for licensed entities became the property of the overall owner. Thus, Disney owns Gyro Gearloose and Scrooge McDuck, and Universal owns Charlie Chicken and any other recurring new characters invented by Stanley.)

It's possible that Stanley might have developed a newspaper version of Dunc 'n' Loo after the first comics were published. We're in Dead Sea Scrolls territory, info-wise.

These first two strips provide the first ever look at John Stanley drawing the Dunc 'n' Loo cast. This gives us an idea of what his cartoonist/collaborator, Bill Williams, would have worked from when doing the finished comic book art:

These are very funny comic strip concepts. Stanley's roughs are lively and lucid. Although Bill Williams was, by far, the finest cartoonist to finish Stanley's roughs, there's no mistaking the scrappy energy of their creator's pencils.

A subsidiary character of Dunc 'n' Loo was "Li'l Petey" (later, just "Petey"). Like Tubby's "Knotknee," this character was created to satisfy postal regulations for periodicals. These wacky laws demanded that comic magazines had to have a completely unrelated secondary character--they couldn't all be wall-to-wall Superman, Katy Keene or Sam Hill.

Thus, all the text pieces, humor fillers, puzzle pages, etc., that we see in older comic books.

Stanley gave more oomph to his postal-reg creations. "Li'l Petey" explored the more Damon Runyon/O. Henry aspects of Stanley's urban world. At first, he was a ragged, homeless shoe-shine boy, eking out his meager existence in a familiarly harsh Stanley environment.

Here are the first two installments of "Li'l Petey," from Around the Block with Dunc 'n' Loo nos. 1 and 2.

When Petey lost his "Li'l," he became more enfranchised. He played with other kids, dropped the shoe-shine routine, and looked more like a dark-haired "Dennis the Menace" than the ragamuffin of his first conception. Here are representative panels from the "Petey" stories in issues 4 and 8 of  Dunc 'n' Loo.

Was "Petey" originally "Pepe?" Here are two never-before-seen Bill Williams newspaper strips bearing that title. Note that "Pepe" is pasted over the top of the second strip, which is fully finished in ink and wash. The blue wash was provided to give engravers an idea where to place the mechanical Benday dot patterns. Imagine--a cartoonist who didn't have to cut their own Zip-a-Tone!

"Pepe" is unmistakably Latino. This is concurrent with a fad for Hispanic humor in American pop culture, circa 1960-5. Bill Dana's "Jose Jimenez" was a hit on TV, recordings, and even appeared in a Paramount theatrical cartoon.

The strip's title might be an allusion to the rambling all-star Hollywood movie of the same name, which attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the Mexican film comedian Cantinflas in the movie Around the World in 80 Days. An apparent pantomime strip, Stanley and Williams' "Pepe" could not have egregiously capitalized on it's hero's ethnic heritage.

Unlike most of John Stanley's comic-book work, these two strips have contemporary references in them. This would indicate their intention as newspaper comics, aimed at a more adult audience than the Dell material.

Jim Stanley has several more of these "Pepe"s in his possession, and may offer us some more glimpses of this heretofore-unknown work in the future.

As a closer, Jim sent this equally charming (and baffling) strip that may use the "Bridget" character from 1967's Wham-O Giant Book of Comics. She also resembles a "Val Jr."

Whatever its origins, this is a sweet and funny gag. According to James, his dad had a "love-hate relationship with cats." Felines have a fairly high status in Stanley's human-populated stories. A cat was the focal character of Stanley's most haunting and moving horror story, "The Cat That Was Part of the Night," which can be found elsewhere on this site.

Thank you kindly, Jim, for letting the world see these rare glimpses of your father's unpublished work. And don't forget, folks: Jim has a rare piece of original art by his father on eBay this week. You can see a large image of the piece in our previous post.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pottle Poses As Pirate; Puzzles Parents, Peers; Performs Proudly; from Raggedy Ann and Andy 34, 1949--story and art by John Stanley

I've only posted three of these "Peterkin Pottle" stories in almost two years of this blog. I kept thinking I'd run this one already, but a search of the site shows otherwise. (To quote the sketch comedy show Little Britain, "the computer says no.")

I was reminded about Pottle from a recent re-reading of several "Herbie" stories. "Herbie" is the Green Acres of comics--a happy accident that is great despite itself, and which slung some of the most avant-garde images of the 1960s into the mass market.

"Herbie," created by Richard Hughes, staff writer of the slightly sub-standard American Comics Group, and doggedly illustrated by Odgen Whitney, is one of the most genuinely odd mainstream comic book creations. John Stanley's "Peterkin Pottle" is a precursor to "Herbie." That said, I doubt Hughes ever saw the feature during its short run of 1949.

Both features star an overweight, bespectacled outcast who isn't much liked by his peers, parents or authority figures. Unlike Herbie Popnecker, Peterkin Pottle is just an ordinary child, with nothing extraordinary except for his over-active imagination. 

When the world's cruelty is too much to bear, Peterkin retreats into broad, Munchhausen-style daydreams. As I've noted here before, his fantasies are droll parodies of pop-culture cliches. They can be quite violent, with mass murder and nightmare imagery.

Stanley never quite got the hang of "Peterkin Pottle." It was too violent and bleak for kiddie comics, and Stanley vacillated between charming and harsh humor. This, the third story in the series, falls somewhere in the middle. While Pottle is obviously the kickball of the neighborhood boys, he has some security in his friendship with the girl, Pam. She is much harsher towards him in later stories, but here she is an accepting, indulgent figure.

Pirates figure in many of Stanley's Little Lulu and Tubby stories. They are usually figures of fantasy, unlike magicians, who occupy a similarly special berth in Stanley's comic-book universe. They are threatening, uncertain figures, guaranteed to bring chaos into the mix.

Stanley's covers for this series are all winners, despite the mixed lot of the stories they support.

This is a genuinely charming and funny story; it's the best of the seven "Pottles" published. It's ingeniously presented in two acts. The first is a rowdy comedy of child-life, with attention to linguistic detail, strong dialogue and good staging of events. I particularly like the third tier of page three. Its one-two stroke of the kid's smart-ass comment, and the bewilderment of Peterkin's mother, is dead-on.

The story's second episode is the most appealing of Peterkin's daydreams. Stanley frames it sublimely; a drowsy Pottle wanders through moving traffic, sleep-walking through a vivid, lightning-fast reduction of every Warner Brothers pirate movie of the 1940s.

Peterkin is Herbie-like in this fantasy sequence. He's much more egocentric, talkative and flashy than Herbie, but he is effortlessly capable of any feat he wishes to do. Like Herbie, Pottle is recognized and admired by everyone in the story--even the alleged villains.

Although Pottle performs another mass-slaughter (as in the frontier-drama burlesque of issue 33, which I'll run here eventually), his prissy tidiness in stacking the bodies like cordwood, and then wringing blood from his sword, leavens the grimness of the moment with welcome, absurd humor.

It's interesting that Pottle imagines "Lady Pam" as his greatest sea-faring foe ("a worthy opponent"), he holds her in high regard, as in real life. Pottle's affected pirate accent would be an imitation of actor Charles Laughton, I hope.

When Peterkin comes to, roused by honking horns, revving engines and a bellicose street cop, he isn't humiliated. He regains the cool of his fantasy alter-ego at story's end. His eccentric behavior is fully supported by real-life Pam. One hopes they both have a good time at the party.

Stanley's cartooning is a bit rushed here. The vigor adds great energy to the story, but it's still sloppy work. Perhaps Stanley had to work fast, as a rule. Even his 1960s cartooning, while much tighter, often looks like it was done PDQ.

When "Peterkin Pottle" works, as in this story, it's easy to see how good the basic concept was. It's too bad Stanley wasn't given time enough to develop the series--as he was with Thirteen Going On Eighteen. The latter was the luckiest break of his career. A good idea was given enough time to become great.

Had "Pottle" succeeded, Stanley's career path would have changed, and he might not have written his greatest Little Lulu stories. As it stands, "Pottle" is part misfire, part inspiration.