Sunday, August 29, 2010

I think this is Stanley's work: from Henry Aldrich 7, 1951

As I dig deeper in the largely un-documented history of John Stanley's comics writing, I find a fair share of near-misses and wanna-bes.
Here and there I get clues. In an interview published in one of the Little Lulu Library sets, artist Irving Tripp mentions one Charlie Hedinger, who he credits with penciling the early issues of Little Lulu that Tripp worked on.
Tripp guesstimates that he came on board in "possibly the late 1940s." Furthermore, he states that Hedinger transitioned to a writer position in "I would say mid- or late 1950s."
Tripp provides no hard facts and no exact dates. He stayed with Little Lulu long after John Stanley's departure in 1959 (which he remembers as "what must have been the middle 1950s").
Long before Stanley's exit, Tripp took on the entire art workload for Lulu. This leaves Charlie Hedinger as a possible suspect for the mysterious "near-Stanley" stories that I've discussed and occasionally presented on this blog. Tripp also mentions the writer Carl Hubbel, who co-wrote stories with his wife, Virginia.
Thanks to information from comics history scholar Steven Rowe, I've learned that Hedinger's name is mis-spelled throughout the published interview as "Heddinger."  The Grand Comic Book Database offers THIS information on Charles Hedinger. They list only 10 credits, including one story apiece for Popular Comics, New Funnies and Our Gang Comics. (These, certainly, cannot be his only published works!) He is not named in this one-time listing of the Little Lulu personnel.
For today, let's enjoy the stylish, accomplished and truly comic artwork of Bill Williams--the single best cartoonist who ever worked with John Stanley. This story, the lead strip in the 7th Henry Aldrich comic book, smacks of John Stanley's touch. It strongly resembles one of Stanley's early 1960s Dunc 'n' Loo stories--and not just for Williams' essential input. The basic situation (hero is saddled with extremely difficult un-socialized wild-card; squirms in discomfort as oddball is too stubborn to be placated; chaos ensues) is a time-tested Stanley Scenario.
Other tells include sound effects in speech balloons, "fixed camera" sequences, silent sequences, wild physical action, crowd scenes and graphically playful/aggressive sound effects.
Read it and draw your own conclusions:

This is a funny, vivid story, with most of the humor rooted in each character's distinct personality, and its attendant quirks. The staging seems akin to Stanley's approach, as does the lack of chemistry between Henry and Jessica. They are two unlike beings forced upon each other, as with Little Lulu's Tubby and his mini-me relation, Chubby.
The story's circular ending, complete with a the-end that happens on an off-beat, further seem to point in Stanley's direction.
As ever, your two cents are quite valuable to me. Drop me a note and let me know what you think.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Enslavement, Torment and Other Hot Topics; Two More Stanley "Tom and Jerry" stories

We've done the Little Lulu thing to death recently. I know it's a fan favorite--and rightfully so. (In fact, each time I do a multi-part Lulu sequence, I experience a growth in the Stanley Stories fanbase, which I much appreciate.)

For those in search of the less-known--of those untraveled byroads--here are a pair of "Tom and Jerry" stories from John Stanley's second run on Dell's Our Gang Comics in 1948.

These stories form a bridge from his New Funnies material to his long tenure on Little Lulu. They contain themes familiar to both bodies of work--the slapstick comedy and violent situations of the former, and the character quirks and more restrained, down-to-earth feel of the latter.

Today's first offering, from issue 45, is a solo "Tom Cat" story in which our feline hero offers himself to Toots, his Gloria-esque love interest, as her personal slave. Like Tubby, Tom fashions a costume to go with this self-appointed role. Debasement and humiliation galore occurs herein...

It's not much of stretch to imagine this as a "Tubby" story--with Wilbur and Gloria instead of Toots and Bob Cat. Tom, like Tubby, is utterly self-convinced. His ideas seem brilliant and comprehensive--to himself only. To tools like Toots and Bob, Tom is a schlep out of step with their worldly concerns. (Indeed, here Tom is more concerned with comma placement than with the real-life ramifications of his eccentric ideas.)

Tom shows a touch of self-doubt as he approaches Toots' home with his gift of indentured servitude. In the sequence that begins with p.2's last panel and continues, painfully, across the top half of p.3, Tom vulnerably offers himself to the other felines' condescending scorn and mockery. (Note the "fixed camera" set-up in these seven panels. Stanley often used this technique to build the humor of a situation. We see a comedic, usually abusive, situation unfold through this unflinching eye.)

Bob Cat is one of Stanley's Evil Rich. A user and abuser by nature, he immediately takes Tom's offer with glee, and works our anti-hero ragged.

Unlike Tubby, Tom becomes resentful and rebellious. It's surprising that he goes berserk at story's end. He metes out Stanley's favorite punishment--spanking--to Toots at story's end, giving her one ass-whack for each of her 17 years.

Stanley also uses kisses as punishment from time to time in his Little Lulu stories. Tom adds a forced aggressive kiss as a cherry on this sundae of physical abuse. He exits stage left the self-satisfied victor. He dons his absurd turban to Toots' love-struck sighs. Tom has proven himself a more aggressive a-hole than effete Bob Cat could ever pretend to be.

A universe of perverse behaviors lurk in this six-page story. The characters' actions and attitudes remind me of the epic humiliation comedies found in Thirteen Going on Eighteen. It is fascinating to see these themes evident in Stanley's work of the late 1940s.

As a chaser,  here is the lead "Tom and Jerry" story from issue 46. This story is more in line with Stanley's typical New Funnies slapstick/mind-fudge combo. It transcends the pitiful limitations of the Hanna-Barbera animated original. Within its broad low comedy trappings lurk some subtle and beautifully timed humor.

Perverse situations pile up in this cat-and-mouse story. Tom's genuine desire to eat and kill the two mice gives the slapstick of this story higher-than-normal stakes. Tom is an angry, ill-tempered aggressor here--with just a touch of the Tubby Type.

Unlike the Tom of the first story, this version has no vulnerability. He is even stubbornly sure of his own stupidity (p.8, panel 2).

To be fair, the mice are not peaceniks. Although they escape the living-popsicle route, the goldfish does not. Jerry and Tuffy carry the fish's frozen body around and use it as a cane and as a slapstick device. Their final act--tossing the fish in Tom's milk--is another act of cruelty.

As in the MGM cartoons, the mice inflict much more physical pain on Tom than vice versa. Dressed as Native Americans, they stalk the cat and wage a two-pronged attack on his tongue and rear. Humiliated and wounded, poor Tom staggers to his comfort zone--the milk dish--to soothe his aches and pains. Of course, the "Siamese fighting fish," rightfully angered by the discomfort he's endured, makes a vicious bee-line for that pink, plump tongue.

Stanley delights in showing us the moment before or after a violent or otherwise significant action. He ends several stories this way. This is one of the more vibrant examples of this narrative choice. Note that Tom's final speech balloon has no punctuation. This is a stylistic throwback to his earliest comics work.

Also note the sound effect in a speech balloon on p.1, and the unique YOW variant, "WYOW!" on p. 10.

I'm still living on the fly, but I'll try to keep up with my posts here. I miss doing them when time and circumstance don't permit. Thanks, as ever, for dropping by!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Last of The Last Of Little Lulu, pt. 4: issue 135, 1959

Here's the finale of our multi-part series on the final four issues of John Stanley's Little Lulu. These scans are graciously provided by our friend at Rosebud Archives, Jon Barli.

Little did the faithful followers of Lulu in 1959 know that this issue would be the last of its kind.Western would continue Little Lulu into the mid-1980s, with other artists and writers (among them Arnold Drake, creator of the DC Comics series The Doom Patrol and the outrageous 1964 SF/horror film The Flesh Eaters) and artist Hy Eisman.

Lulu would more or less look and feel the same for the next several years. Like an amnesiac, or a victim of Alzheimer's syndrome, the post-Stanley Lulu would go through its long-established, instinctual motions, with none of the charm, wisdom or humor that characterized John Stanley's 14-year tenure.

As this issue is unaccountably rare, I've chosen to present all the comics content. WARNING: Only the second (silent) story, and the next-to-last story, are clearly the product of John Stanley. The others have the limp-noodle quality that would plague the series from 1960 onward.

At the end of this uninterrupted flow of stories, I'll add my customary two cents' worth. Enjoy the last of the wine, friends...

"The Overdue Book" and "The Photographer" are written by someone who's much too stiff and formal for their own good. Pedantic dialogue, flat characterizations, piss-poor motivation and shoddy narrative stakes make for heart-breaking reading matter. I think that even the most average 1959 Lulu reader would have noticed the flaccid debacle of these stories.

Stanley's four-page pantomime story, tucked between these two aberrant wrecks, is basically filler. Unlike the word-heavy, flat narratives it's sandwiched between, it conveys the strong individual personalities of Lulu, Alvin and Tubby without words. Stanley was to grow increasingly verbose in the 1960s. This is among his last wordless pieces.

The two-page filler that precedes "Alvin, Spare That Family Tree!" is an inept, lop-sided thing. Its first page is in pantomime. The second page's shift to dialogue is jarring. Add to that the lame-ass gag finale, which is insulting in a thuggish, one-dimensional way...urgh.

Thank heavens the next story is written by Stanley. "Alvin, Spare That Family Tree!" is the last of Stanley's numerous free-form fairy tales for Little Lulu. (He may have outlined or plotted the fairy-tales for the next couple of issues. They have great concepts, but are badly written and botched affairs overall.)

The scrappiness, personality and playfulness of this story are a breath of fresh air after the lumbering non-entities of "The Photographer" and "The Overdue Book." Stanley left his stylistic mark on these pages: crowd scenes, SFX in speech balloons, two YOWs and one "Ha, ha." (Note how the unknown writer of the non-Stanley material phrases his laughter as "Ha-ha-ha" or "Ho-ho-ho.")

One beautiful moment on page one shows Stanley's hand as strongly as any of the above-listed "earmuffs." Lulu, fascinated by a family reunion in Alvin's yard, tries to keep to herself, and not snoop. But curiosity gets the better of her. In the fifth panel, we see her halfway out of her bedroom window. She says to herself a simple "Gosh." 

That "Gosh," coupled with the unusual faceless view of Lulu, has great comic impact. It also acts as a metaphoric shorthand for Lulu's love-hate relationship with Alvin. He drives her nuts, but she feels responsible for somehow taming him and inducting him into "normal" society.

I've never discussed those "Lulu's Diry" text pages. The earlier ones are pretty great. I don't know if Stanley wrote those. One of these days, I'll select some of the best and do a feature on them here.

The untitled "Tubby" story, not by Stanley, provides a depressing curtain-ringer to what is perhaps the finest sustained run in the history of American comic books. The unknown writer repeats the errors of his/her earlier stories. Exposition-heavy dialogue takes all the punch out of the inherently humorous situation. 

Tubby is merely brash and confident here. He is not the self-absorbed, slightly nutty ego-maniac we know from Stanley's quintessential version. To read this, and the other non-Stanley pieces in this issue, is to appreciate the fine shadings of character and motivation that are easy to take for granted. 

I don't know if John Stanley had any kind of attachment to Little Lulu, or if it was just a form of steady work. I'd like to think it was, indeed, a labor of love--one of those rare occasions when a creator's passion and talent are rewarded with mainstream success and, if possible, financial success. 

The hundreds of Little Lulu and Tubby stories John Stanley wrote are too intelligent, too thorough, too deftly shaded and plotted, too full of life and wit to be mere work-for-hire performances.  

I apologize for putting you through the effort of reading the non-Stanley material in this issue. I believe it says more about the heart and soul of John Stanley's work to see his final Lulu work in contrast with the fecal matter that surrounds it.

Speaking of such, here's the final nail in the Little Lulu coffin... real dreamy, indeed! Hand me that all-plastic F-500 Fury...

See you again soon. Enjoy what's left of this peculiar summer!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is This Stanley's Work? "Fuzzy and Wuzzy," from Our Gang Comics #58, May 1949

Mark Kausler and Ed Buchman sent me these scans. They wondered if this could be a John Stanley story. As I'm still searching for "unknown" pieces from the late 1940s and early 1950s, I'm grateful to have possible items brought to my attention. Thanks once again, Mark, for sharing rare material--and going to the trouble of scanning it!

This story is very close in feel to the Krazy Kat, Howdy Doody and Rootie Kazootie material I've posted here. Like those stories, it is lesser work. It lacks the core investment of Stanley's Little Lulu and Tubby material.

That said, the characterizations are strong and distinct, their interactions are amusing, and the simple story does not meander, but moves in confident strides.

It's drawn by Dan Gormley, and gorgeous funny-animal cartoon art it is. One odd thing about this story is that it's set up in three-tier pages. Stanley preferred four-tier pages, and after 1947, we seldom, if ever, see him stray from that format.

"Fuzzy and Wuzzy" were comic book creations affixed to a minor MGM cartoon property, Barney Bear. They never appeared in any of the lumbering fella's fair-to-middling MGM cartoons. They were, I think, attempts to make the Huey, Dewey and Louie angle strike twice. The attachment of nutty "nephews" to an adult licensed property was typical of this era.

Carl Barks made this formula work by making Donald's three nephews smarter, more resourceful and more logical than their older parental figure. Western/Dell imitations such as this and Woody Woodpecker's "Knothead and Splinter" served only to relieve the star characters of needing a strong personality. Barney, Woody and other licensed entities became armchair-sitting, newspaper-reading suburban Blahmen, either befuddled or patronizingly amused by their young charges' wacky-nutty antics.

Enough yak yak from me. Here's the story...

Not the greatest comic book story ever made... but one with several significant Stanley 'tells' (or, as one reader has suggested they be called, 'earmuffs'):

  • frantic physical action (throughout)
  • slightly delusional behavior
  • strong visual spotting of sound effects
  • one YOW!
  • one instance of Ha! Ha! Ha! (8x)
  • one instance of spots-before-eyes
  • one instance of windmill action

If this is Stanley's work, it's a stylistic throwback to his New Funnies material of the mid-1940s. It's apt that Dan Gormley illustrated this piece--that furthers the similarity. It also harkens back to an earlier Stanley stint on Our Gang. His "Tom and Jerry" stories focused more on the two mice, Jerry and Tuffy, and their ongoing bewilderment with the world of human beings.

Fuzzy and Wuzzy are much like Jerry and Tuffy. One is a bit of a loose cannon, fearless to explore the unknown. The other is more uptight, cautionary and reserved. Both are naive and unaccustomed to their surroundings--from whence springeth the comedy.

The stakes are lower than usual here. There is no authority figure to answer to--just the call to adventure and the solution of hunger.

Theory Dept.: there is the possibility that this is the work of another person, who was either heavily influenced by John Stanley's writing, or asked to emulate the overall style, since it was popular and it sold comic books. I still have this suspicion, entirely unfounded, in the back of my mind.

Comic books were a business, first and foremost, and an art-form only to a handful of divinely deluded souls in the 1940s. Like movies, automobiles and appliances, comic books were meant to sell and make money. Therefore, a winning recipe or formula was rife for imitation.

The Western Publications history is largely unknown. Most, if not all of those who were involved in its heyday are long gone. I stress that this is just supposition on my part.

Another likelihood is that Stanley needed money, and that he dashed these lesser stories off to supplement his income from Little Lulu. They were very likely forgotten as quickly as they were written. No one thought some middle-aged nutjob would pore over them 50-60 years later. They're not bad stories... they just don't have much invested in them. Stanley saved his best ideas--and writing--for the Lulu titles.

At best, these minor stories of the 1950s are amusing and coherent--which cannot be said about most of Western's output.

I'd love to know what you think about this and the other stories in the "Is This Stanley's Work?" series.