Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Last of Little Lulu, pt. 1: selections from issue 132, 1959

1959 was a pivotal year in John Stanley's comics career. He ended a 14-year relationship with Dell's best-selling Little Lulu comics franchise. He moved laterally into a recent Dell acquisition--Ernie Bushmiller's Zen comic strip Nancy. Stanley applied most of his Lulu formulae to the Nancy universe, with the added spin of a genuinely supernatural character (his own creation): Oona Goosepimple.

Most importantly, Stanley's comedic sense took a sharp new direction in '59. The 1950s, for Stanley, had been largely devoted to the calmer, gentler, more internalized world of Lulu, Tubby, et al. He was able to summon some of his wilder humor tendencies in a series of side-projects. You've seen most of them here: Krazy Kat, The Little King, Howdy Doody and Rootie Kazootie.

Stanley's Little King is the only example of his 1950s work that I would consider major--outside of Lulu and Tubby, of course. Slapdash as his other non-Lulu '50s work may be, the seeds of a new comedic sensibility were slowly developed in those quickie side-projects.

The world of Little Lulu is tightly wound and hermetically sealed. Like Chuck Jones' "Road Runner" animated cartoons, Lulu functions on a series of strict rules and formulas. Stanley worked in the manner of other pulp fiction authors of the era.

Lester Dent's Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot formula reveals the methodology that enabled such writers to keep up their tremendous output. Stanley was no exception. He had a series of master story lines for Lulu, and by the end of the 1940s, it was just a matter of plugging in new elements, shuffling the deck of familiar locales and predicaments, and, voila! Story after story could be created.

It is to John Stanley's credit that he sought to augment the rigid formulas with some wild flights of imagination. Otherwise, his Little Lulu would be dull reading. We hate to admit it, but we're hooked by formulas. We like the template--we find comfort in the set-up and its familiarity. This may explain the lasting popularity of Stanley's Lulu--why it continues to hook readers.

But formula on its own leaves no lasting legacy. Without the human touch of the unpredictable, the incongruent and the surprise of twists and tweaks, even the sturdiest formulas lose their sheen in time. I think that John Stanley understood this. He knew that he had a responsibility to write to the formulas--that's what the large Lulu readership wanted and expected. He also knew how to subvert the formulas just enough to keep them fresh and rewarding.

My study of Little Lulu has, until recently, been hampered by my lack of the last few issues that contain Stanley's work. Thanks, in part, to Jon Barli at Rosebud Archives, I have been able to peruse the long-missing issues 132-136 of Lulu. (In fact, thanks to him, I now have a complete run of the Stanley issues in digital form. Bless you, Jon!)

These unaccountably hard-to-find late issues reveal two important things:

  • Stanley was not burned out on Little Lulu, even to the end of his association with the title
  • Western Publishing transitioned another writer into the title while Stanley still worked on it

For years, I've wondered if the error-riddled Overstreet Price Guide had it right in stating that #135 was Stanley's last issue of Little Lulu. They've gotten so much else wrong about Stanley's comics work... but they're almost correct in this case. There is one Stanley-written story in Lulu #136 (the fairy-tale). I have not seen issues 137-139. I don't hold my breath, but it's possible there may be one or two other Stanley left-overs in those issues. I'll know when I finally see 'em...

This is a huge preamble to the meat of today's posting, I realize. But it's important to lay these cards on the table. The myth that Stanley's Lulu, post-1955, is a work in decline is wrong. It is, in fact, thrilling to see how Stanley picks at the iron-clad formulas in the last four years of his Lulu tenure.

Substantial changes, many which you'll see in these late stories, include (yep, more bullet points):

  • the use of typography to depict changes in dialog and sound-effects volume (which can go from a whisper to a full-throated shout)
  • a tendency to fill the panels with verbose word balloons (including multiple balloons and balloons with motile tails)
  • a harder edge to the comedy situations--in general, a more brassy approach to humor
  • a tendency of the characters to have bigger emotions: when they're angry, they're ANGRY

All these aspects point the way to Stanley's comics masterworks of the 1960s.

In a sense, John Stanley had outgrown the world of Little Lulu by 1959. In the 1950s, Stanley tended to tamp down the wilder flights of his humor and imagination in the service of the deeply-established Lulu universe. He became extremely sensitive to the actions and reactions of his characters. The stories are largely driven by character, and not imagination.

Stanley's free-form imagination is confined to the monthly installment of Lulu's improvised fairy-tales, usually told to the excitable brat-next-door, Alvin. These segments were Stanley's playground in the 1950s Lulu comics. Though some argue that the stories are too word-heavy to be considered true comics, the fairy-tales are a lone outpost for Stanley's wilder creative tendencies. Via the discipline of having to write at least 12 of these a year, Stanley found a formula for brilliance.

The tension between the mundane and the far-flung is at the core of Stanley's 1960s work. His late comics are all about their characters seeking refuge from the crippling order of their everyday lives, trying to break free, and failing--usually to the derision of others in their community. That they try, and try again, despite impossible odds, is a strong agent in the bittersweet, sometimes-painful comedy of Stanley's finest work.

Having said all that, I'll present some stories from issue 132 of Little Lulu. As you read them, look for the ways in which Stanley skewers his longstanding formulas.

Stanley had written this story over and over in his Lulu tenure. Note the density of the dialogue--characters reveal much more about who they are and what they want. This will be common in Stanley's 1960s work. As well, note the awkward moment of paralysis that overcomes Tubby and Th' Gang on p.3. Such a moment would be unthinkable in a 1951 Lulu story!

"School Crasher" stars agent-of-chaos Alvin, who wreaks havoc as he seeks a change in status. He destroys school property, bites the teacher, and embarrasses Lulu, Tubby and other "big kids" in his orbit. Lulu's deadpan exit line shows her resignation to the reality of her bratty young charge.

She attempts to stem Alvin's wayward tendencies with yet another on-the-fly fairy-tale in our next selection...

An incident of spanking marks this as a product of the 1950s. That aside, "Ol' Witch Hazel and the Wasted Talent" stands out for its devotion to the cranky, self-deluded character of Witch Hazel, whose manic, desperate actions dominate this very funny, brassy story.

Finally, in an odd late twin of the Peterkin Pottle story I recently posted, Tubby stars in "Strong Kid."

"Strong Kid," of all the stories here, points the way to Stanley's 1960s work like a beacon. The epic levels of self-delusion exhibited by Tubby is the stuff of divine comedy. I love his rant on the top tier of p.2. The inclusion of streamlined stereotyping (the Fifi and Pierre characters) is another quality we see so strongly in the '60s work.

The last tier on p. 7 looks forward to many similar sequences in Dunc 'n' Loo, 13 Going on 18 and Melvin Monster. A more sophisticated touch, and one I don't recall seeing elsewhere in Stanley's work, occurs earlier in the story. We get a strong glimpse inside Tubby's psyche during several panels in which Fifi and Pierre talk in French.

Stanley begins their dialog in French, but then switches to what Tubby hears--"jabber jabber jabber." By giving us this sliver of Tubby's experience, Stanley helps us to further identify with his social dilemma, and the embarrassment and humiliation that trample him at every turn.

I'll return to these final issues through the rest of the summer. I believe it's time to put the belief to rest that Stanley's late Little Lulu is lesser work. I hope that this and subsequent posts on this topic will help cancel out that wrong notion.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Stanley Discovery: Stories From Various "Rootie Kazootie" Comics, 1952-4

Yes, friends, I've uncovered more obscure John Stanley material. I thought "Howdy Doody" was an unlikely source of Stanley comics! Well, here's another early TV Dell spin-off that is clearly our man's handiwork.

"Rootie Kazootie" was, like "Howdy Doody," a early live-action puppet show success. It ran from 1950 to '54. Although phrases from the show, such as "gosharootie," still linger in our lexicon, the program itself is just a vague memory to aging Baby Boomers. (YouTube should have excerpts, if you're really that interested.)

Rootie was popular enough to have a slew of Western Publishing-created merchandise. He also starred in the first issue of Dell's sole 3-D title, imaginatively named 3-D-ell. (FOLLOW-UP: I've just seen this book. It contains no Stanley material. It's made of Viewmaster-style photos of the show's puppets, with crude cut-out SFX. Another one for the recycle bin, alas...)

File these factoids under "Information, Useless." Stanley's involvement with the six Kazootie comics Dell published was apparently shared with other writer/artist creative teams. Stanley's efforts, loaded with tells, have artwork by Dan Gormley (which is, itself, a tell). Three of the six issues were "Four-Color" tryouts.

When "Kazootie"-mania ebbed with the show's cancellation in 1954, so did the Dell funny-books.

Like the Howdy Doody comics, these are not major works. The fact that they exist is a surprise to me. Only this morning did I succumb to curiosity and download the four available scanned issues of Kazootie. I've been down this road many times in the course of my research; obscure Dell title looks promising; download-download-download; peruse; realize contents are lifeless twaddle; move to Recycle Bin; click EMPTY.

This time, it paid off. I repeat--this is not first-rate John Stanley material. There are several thematic ties with Stanley's contemporary work on Little Lulu. Plus, there are these stylistic tells:

  • wild physical action
  • crowd scenes
  • SFX in speech balloons
  • ...ellipses...
  • "Ha! Ha! Ha!" (and, in our first story, the seldom-seen variant 'Henh! Henh!')

And, most importantly, these are narratives that (a) have stakes; (b) are amusing, with literate dialogue; and (c) actually go somewhere, in a satisfying manner.

Rootie is as bland as (if not blander than) Howdy Doody. Stanley does what he can with the material, but the only characters he can really sink his teeth into are the villains, which display many vivid traits of Stanley's Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle archetype.

Here's an untitled story from the third Kazootie comic, "Four-Color" #502, published in 1953.

As with the Howdy Doody comics, a TV puppet is brought to comic-book life--no strings attached. Rootie's "Magic Kazootie," the character's chief gimmick, is nowhere in sight here.

The clubhouse thing is a no-brainer tie-in with the Lulu family comics. The narrative twist of the secret tunnel that leads to the an abandoned mansion is a stronger dose of Stanley's imagination. This type of subconscious, near-nightmare imagery hooks up with such Stanley stories as "The Guest In The Ghost Hotel" (Tubby #7). It also connects with the dozens of "Lulu" and "Tubby" pieces that include abandoned houses, which are usually considered haunted by the kids who prowl through them.

Another Stanley tell occurs on page 8, when the grandfather clock bongs 11 times in a row--with each bong given an exclamation mark. As a writer who loved crowd scenes, Stanley applied the same dynamic to his sound effects. He filled his panels, when needed, with aggressive SFX. Whether they are the jagged-lettered BLANGs, BAMs and KLUNKs that pepper his panels, or the en masse outbursts of people or appliances, Stanley's SFX are in the reader's face, inviting them to feel the noise and accept the frenzy.

Here's another "Rootie" story rooted in the principles of Little Lulu--from the first Four-Color book, #415, from 1952:
The war of the pre-pubescent sexes, cross-dressing, smart girls out-witting smug, cocky boys and frenzied physical comedy distinguish this also-untitled story. The ever-present ellipses and the cruel chorus of "Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!" at story's end also tip the author's hand here.

In another story from these three "Four Color" trial issues, there's a simulacrum of Lulu's feared West Side Boys--the alpha-kid a-holes who exist to create trouble for Tubby and his clubhouse pals. Here's a sample page that shows the rival "Tough Guys Club," with Polka Dottie doing a "Lulu":

Stanley obviously did not reinvent the wheel here. He took formulas that worked for Little Lulu and recycled them to fit this somewhat similar licensed property.

In today's final selection, from the second "Kazootie" (Four-Color #459), Rootie is a real asshole. He's endowed with the Tubby-Type characteristics, to which Polka-Dottie plays the traditional Little Lulu role.

The cramped urban environment of this story is right out of Stanley's Lulu as well.

Fences are a common sight in Stanley's 1950s stories. They exist to keep things away from both protagonists and antagonists, as a means of shelter or transformation, and as a dramatic stakes-raiser. This story offers an intriguing combination of the boys-vs-girls business and the use of a fence as a narrative booster.

Rootie is put through the paces for his Tubby-esque behavior by Polka Dottie, who turns the tables on him, status-wise. Yes, it's Lulu-Lite, but the thematic ties to Stanley's more significant '50s work cannot be denied.

By the end of the 1940s, Stanley's page layouts were typically four tiers, with two panels per tier. The rhythm of his best Little Lulu work belongs to this less open, more snappy presentation.

As noted earlier, the Kazootie comics were clearly sub-divided to a few creative teams. The other creators used unusually airy, open three-tier pages. One of these teams elected to emulate Stanley's fairy-tale format from Little Lulu. In each issue, Rootie tells a story to his dog, Gala-Poochie.

Stanley's eloquent fairy-tales are both remarkable narratives and witty extrapolations on the tropes of story-telling. These faux-fables are heavily moralistic, and take great pains to underline said moral at the conclusion. They are not first-person stories. There is no tongue in cheek; the protagonist is forced to conform to the narrative's moral. There is no playful discrepancy between the narrator's version of the events and what is shown in the panel itself.

It is fascinating to see another comics creator attempt to write like John Stanley--without getting what made Stanley's work so compelling and distinct.

The most solid stories in these comics function as a shadow of the Little Lulu universe. Stanley and the other writers play with the "Magic Kazootie" gimmick, but those stories are typically less fulfilling than the non-fantasy elements of the three stories I've presented here.

Who knows what will turn up next? It's clear that the 1950s were not entirely about "Little Lulu" and "Tubby" for John Stanley.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Art Gallery: John Stanley Paintings, Drawings and Doodles (updated November 2012)

For a change of pace, here is some John Stanley original artwork I've found on Heritage Auctions. The first one is from a current auction. It's a quite sharp and well-drawn piece from the mid-1970s.

Here's the website blurb for this piece:

"John Stanley Little Lulu and Tubby Halloween Fun #6 Cover Re-Creation Original Art (c. 1970s). John Stanley revisits the world of Lulu, Tubby, Witch Hazel, and Little Itch with this fun cover re-creation, taken from a 1957 Dell comic book cover originally finished by Irving Tripp. Stanley added considerable detail missing from Tripp's version, and also added his signature in the lower right corner. The art is in ink and watercolor on illustration board, with an image area of approximately 11" x 15.5". An old overmat was at one point rubber-cemented to the board, and has now been removed, leaving a stain outside of the image area; otherwise, the art is in Excellent condition."

 Here's a larger view, sans rubber-cement staining, of this really nice piece of work.

I thought to look in the closed auctions, and found 10 other pieces of original artwork. Since these will eventually get lost in the shuffle, I thought it would be nice to save them all here:


"John Stanley Marge's Little Lulu #61 Cover Re-Creation Original Art (1989). This colorful re-creation of a 1953 cover scene captures the lighthearted charm and whimsy of John Stanley's fan-favorite work on Little Lulu and Tubby for Dell comics."

"John Stanley Little Lulu and Tubby Painting Original Art (1977). While Marge (Henderson) Buell created Little Lulu as a single-panel cartoon feature for the Saturday Evening Post, it was writer/artist John Stanley who created Lulu's adventures for the Dell comic books. Stanley developed and expanded the personalities of Lulu, Tubby, Alvin, Iggy, Annie, and the rest of the cast. Just as Carl Barks was commissioned by his fans to paint specialty pieces of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, so was John Stanley commissioned to paint fondly-remembered images of Little Lulu and Tubby. The image area of this mixed-media painting is approximately 12.75" x 18", and the art is in Excellent condition. John Stanley has signed the painting at the lower right."

"John Stanley - Little Lulu and Tubby Painting Original Art (1979). 2005 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of the first Little Lulu comic book, Dell's Four Color #74. While Marge (Henderson) Buell created the mischievous moppet as a single-panel cartoon feature for theSaturday Evening Post ten years earlier, it was writer/artist John Stanley who guided Lulu's exploits in the Dell comic books. Stanley developed and expanded the personalities of Lulu, Tubby, Alvin, Iggy, Annie, and the rest of the cast of Meadowville characters. Just as Carl Barks was commissioned by his fans to paint specialty pieces of the Duckburg clan, so was John Stanley commissioned to paint fondly remembered images of Little Lulu and Tubby. In this hilarious scene, Tubby has exceeded the weight limit of the tires of Lulu's tricycle, and blown them out -- Yow! Alvin and Annie also co-star in the upper right. The image area of the mixed-media painting is approximately 10.5" x 15.25". The art is in Excellent condition and John Stanley has signed the painting at the lower right."

"John Stanley Marge's Little Lulu #84 Cover Re-Interpretation Original Art (1992). Not just a re-creation, this terrific cover re-interpretation features an uproarious gag even funnier than the one used for Marge's Little Lulu #84 in 1959. Many comic book fans consider John Stanley on a par with Carl Barks as Dell's two greatest writer/cartoonists. This piece has an image area of 11" x 15.5", and the art is in Excellent condition. Signed and dated in the lower right."

"John Stanley and Lloyd White - Original Cover Art for Tubby #22 (Dell, 1957). This cute cover features Marge's Tubby fishing as a flock of ducks look on expectantly. Haven't we all had that experience? The piece is in good condition with some blue line marks and light soiling, and measures approximately 11" x 14" with an image area approximately 7" x 10". John Stanley contributed the layouts and the concept, while Lloyd White is the pencil and ink artist."

"John Stanley - Little Lulu "Psychic" Preliminary Drawing Original Art (undated) This ink on letter bond drawing may have been done as a preliminary for one of John Stanley's paintings. A note at the bottom reads, "Deja-vu here, Don -- I have the feeling I did this sometime back in the dark (light?) ages -- forget it." The page has an overall size of 8.5" x 11", and the art is in Very Good condition."

"John Stanley - Little Lulu "Spin the Bottle" Preliminary Drawing Original Art (undated) Tubby takes center stage in this ink on letter bond drawing which may have been done as a preliminary for one of John Stanley's paintings.The piece has an overall size of 8.5" x 11", and the art is in Very Good condition."

"John Stanley - Nancy Cover Preliminary Original Art (undated). John Stanley worked on Nancy and Sluggo for Dell and here is a pencil rough for a cover gag. The image area is 8.5" x 11". The art is in Very Good condition and John Stanley signed the art at the lower left."

"John Stanley - Thirteen Going on Eighteen #22 Cover Original Art (Dell, 1967). John Stanley was one of the greatest talents ever to work in comics, and many fans consider him the funniest writer, bar none. His work on Marge's Little LuluNancyThirteen, and Melvin Monstercreated generations of fans. This cover art is somewhat of a rarity in that Stanley has signed the art in the lower right, something that he was rarely allowed to do. The image area measures 10.5" x 12". There is moderate use of white-out for art touch-ups; otherwise the art is in Very Good condition."

"John Stanley - Thirteen #28 Cover Original Art (Dell, 1970). Val and Judy both take credit for the wandering eye of the cute boy in their midst. This charming cover features Thirteen's two leading characters at their most adorable. The art measures 14" x 19" and is in Excellent condition with minor creasing at the corners that does not affect the artwork. A copy of the printed comic is also included."

Of course, we know that this is really the artwork for issue #3's cover, which was reprinted as the book's 28th and last issue... the lucky bidder probably did, too... 

As said, I think it's apt to save these from oblivion. Heritage's back lists also had several non-Stanley items that were listed as being by Stanley. 

POST-SCRIPT: Here's an update with two recently surfaced John Stanley pieces. As this is one of the most popular posts here, I think some updating is in order.

First, here's a sweet Halloween piece, painted on commission in 1977:

Next is a superior photograph of a piece seen earlier in this posting. The vivid colors really stand out in this better image...

UPDATE #2, May 3, 2012: Two more pieces have recently surfaced on HA's site. This 1983 painting, through vigorous/crude, is quite amusing:

And, currently up for auction (until May 10th) is Stanley's much tighter, more classically styled re-creation of the cover to Little Lulu #22. This painting was used for the cover of the 2005 Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide: It can be yours for probably two grand--rubber cement stains and all!

UPDATE, 11/23/12: Here's an adroit 1989 re-creation of the cover of Little Lulu #76...

For comparison's sake, and to show how deeply Stanley submerged his cartooning style while working on the Lulu series, here's the 1954 original...

Stanley's presence as a cartoonist is still strongly felt on the '54 version (especially in the figure of Tubby, and in the two apple cores on the table). The '89 remake, in which Stanley goes off-model to pursue his own joy of cartooning, has much more personality, in my opinion.

I'll keep updating this popular thread as more new pieces emerge!