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.


Unca Jeffy said...

So much great stuff, both Stanley's body of work AND your loving and in-depth analysis of it all.

Myrrpage said...

Thanks. I haven't seen many of the later issues of Lulu. Good to see that Miss Feeny never changed. As usual, I enjoyed your commentary.