Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stanley Does "Doody"--Infuses Stale Puppet, Sidekicks With Energy (Selections from Howdy Doody 4 and 7, 1950/1)

This is the last place I'd ever think to look for John Stanley material. Yet here it is. Stanley certainly kept busy in the 1940s and '50s.
As Howdy Doody was among the most popular early television series, it made sense to merchandise the daylights out of it--including a Dell comic magazine that ran 38 issues.

The Overstreet Price Guide claims this was the first comic book based on a TV series. As the show was broadcast live from NBC's New York facilities, it makes sense that the comic book version would be assembled and created in The Big Apple as well.

Like Marjorie Buell, Little Lulu's creator, "Buffalo" Bob Smith, host and originator of the Doody phenomenon was protective of his creations. I don't know if Smith exercised the same initial hands-on participation in the Dell Doody comic, but its East Coast roots might suggest a close-to-home attitude by all parties concerned.

At this time, Stanley's writing had lost a bit of its edge. This is evident in his Little Lulu comics of 1949 and 1950. The end of the 1940s is a transitional phase for John Stanley, in which he perhaps sought to step away from the frantic antics that typify his earlier work.

Perhaps also influenced by the mellower aspects of Marge Buell's Lulu universe, in which slapstick is a rarity, Stanley has a period of almost eerie calm in his work of this period--particularly the comics published in 1950. (A prime example of this hushed Stanley mood is the first issue of Henry Aldrich, from '50. It plays like Thirteen Going On 18 on heavy sedatives.)

The urge to create wild physical comedy, adorned with gaudy SFX and excitable dialogue, still manifests in Stanley's non-Lulu work. Alongside his Krazy Kat comics of 1951/2, the Howdy Doody stories are lesser works that brim with manic energy.

The brassy verbal humor of the later 1950s is nowhere in sight. These Doody comics may have been consciously written for a younger audience. They're not as smart, nor as subtle, as Lulu or the first Henry Aldrich comic. They abound with Stanley "tells."

Consider this sequence, from the opening of the first story in Howdy Doody #4:
"Howdy... I'm worried..." Right there is the odd essence of John Stanley's writing. The expression of darker emotions, coupled with the dramatic pause of the ellipses...

In the Dell version, Doody is not a marionette; nor are his cohorts. They're living beings who engage in mundane and fantastic adventures, with predictably mixed results. Stanley seems less interested in his protagonists, Howdy and Dilly Dally, and more invested in the second-stringers, such as Clarabell the clown, the apoplectic Mister Bluster and, most vividly, the what-the-hell-is-it called Flub-a-Dub.

Stanley endows FAD (I'm not going to type that name over and over!) with some strong Tubby Type characteristics. Two FAD stories, from issues 4 and 7 of the series, show the same self-centered world-view, the cognitive bias-driven agenda, and the inability of the TT to recognize him/her/itself as eccentric, out of step with the rhythm of the regular world.

The secondary figures are usually free of the constrictions imposed upon the stars. Here's where Stanley cuts loose and has some fun with yet another licensed property...

This could be a New Funnies story from a few years earlier. FAD falls someplace between Stanley's Woody Woodpecker and Tubby in its combo of aggression and self-absorption. Yet, because of the close-knit nature of the Doody cast, FAD is not a pariah (rather like Tubby). FAD is an interesting variant on the Stanley "Tubby Type."

Issue 7's FAD story brings aboard the entire Doody cast for a frenzied snow fight-cum-status battle.

This antic story teems with energy, in a situation familiar to any reader of Little Lulu or Tubby.

Ditto for this "Dilly Dally" story, also from Doody #7.

"Service with a Smile" uses a standard Stanley set-up: well-intentioned doofus is entrusted with the management of an important business. Said doofus seemingly effs up every chance to succeed, as event piles atop calamitous event. The totality of the failures adds up to an ironic twist of positive fate. Underdog comes out smelling like roses, to the consternation of the gelded authority figure who is the catalyst of the chain of events.

Stanley uses this plot in several of his Walter Lantz-character stories, and in the Little Lulu titles. (This plot shows up in one of his last LL stories of 1959. I'll soon run a special series here called "The Last of Stanley's 'Lulu,' featuring highlights from the final four issues of his long run on the series.)

* * *

This hardly seems the proper place to say this, but I'm still stunned by the recent passing of Harvey Pekar. I recently spoke to Harvey, about a month ago, in which I conducted a 90-minute interview with him. This may be the final interview he gave. This interview was conducted for an upcoming column I hope to do for an internet comics website in which I discuss, with comics creators, how they do their work.

Pekar spoke with frankness about the low pay he received for his work, and seemed, in general, resigned to non-retirement, as he felt he had to produce work in volume, rather than pieces of high quality, to pay the bills.

These were sobering comments about the comics industry. I'm not sure they're appropriate for the column--or, if, indeed, it's tasteful to run the interview any longer. This blog, certainly, is not the forum for the interview. I haven't transcribed it yet.

Given Pekar's passing, and his tremendous importance to the development of the comics form towards more honest, real material, I think it's of some value. Jury's still out on this, but I hope to offer it to the world sometime soon.

Harvey Pekar was a unique writer, intellect and personality. As many others have said, via his stories, I felt like I knew him personally. I can't say that about too many comics creators. 


Unca Jeffy said...

treasures are hidden where you least expect them.
Great find!

Gabriel said...

Your latest posts are just awesome, Frank. You're on top form!
This find will provide me hours of fun. Was Stanley involved in more issues of this series?

Further to your work-in-progress website, count me a potential reader. Beautiful words remembering Pekar have been said all around, yours are among them for sure.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Gabriel...

you flatter me, kind sir!

I only have a couple of the early issues of HOWDY DOODY. I would guess that Stanley wrote them through 1950, and perhaps into '51--when the KRAZY KAT comic books begin.

Issues 4, 7 and 8 have Stanley material in them. Safe bet that numbers 1-3, 5-6 and 9-11 have Stanley work as well.

Anyone got these missing issues on hand?