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!


JM said...

I've been looking at Jon Merrill's guide to Lulu stories for a while, and I found out some of the unspecified writers 'swiped' some of Stanley's works. For example, 'It Pays to Advertise' from issue 137 is swiped from Stanley's story 'Sandwich Boys' in issue 72. By the way, that toy gun advertisement, with the comic - was that a story you missed or was it part of the advertisement?

Frank M. Young said...

The top part of the page is a filler gag. Believe me, you were spared nothing... all comics content in this issue is presented.

Chris Barat said...


What is your take on Arnold Drake's work on LITTLE LULU after Stanley left the title?

Chris Barat

Frank M. Young said...

Chris, I honestly haven't read Arnold Drake's LULU stories. I like his other work, so I can't help but imagine that Drake brought something of value to LITTLE LULU. I need to figure out which issues he wrote, and track some of them down... after I get moved, that is! Urgh...

comicsnstories said...

If you can provide me with issue numbers, I may be able to give you scans.

Frank M. Young said...

This link lists at least some of the LULUs written by Drake. I'd guess that he wrote the issues in-between the big gaps in their research work...

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Thanks for this post! Dark Horse just reprinted #135 as the last issue included in their most recent Little Lulu volume. After reading five thousand or so pages of these reprints, I could tell right away that most of it wasn't by him, and I was desperate to go online and find out what went wrong.

Jeez, it's a depressing issue to read. Now there's no "new" Stanley Lulu stories for me to read (unless DH reprints the supplemental material). And it's sad to see just how quickly it all went to hell once Stanley left.

The Overdue Book story is lame and unfunny. I was genuinely upset by how badly The Photographer and the untitled sweater story misrepresent Lulu's character. In both these stories Lulu is flat-out mean-spirited; Stanley's Lulu never deliberately hurts anyone except when they deserve it. Just as bad, Lulu "loses" at the end of the Photographer; the worst Stanley's Lulu ever managed was a draw.

Even the art was off. Look at those tight close-up panels, with no background, in the Overdue Book.

At least there's the Alvin-story story, which has some good, unmistakable Stanley moments. I love Lulu's three-panel reversal near the start, and Alvin's characteristic obnoxiousness at the end.

One question, though: are you sure the four-page silent story is by Stanley? Granted, the pantomime is fairly well-done, and the characters are mostly authentic. But it seems much too long for a Stanley silent-gag, more like the sort of thing he would do in a single page of 14+ panels. Alvin's proportion is all wrong in the bottom-left panel of the first page--he looks as big as Lulu! And Lulu's angry reaction at the end seems too strong to me. Maybe Stanley was only responsible for part of this bit?

Frank M. Young said...

Thank you for your in-depth comments and response to this post. This last issue is a heart-breaker, and your comments offer a poignant summation of its reading experience.
The pantomime story being Stanley's work is only an educated guess on my part. I'm prepared to be wrong on this and other of my edu-guesses. Since there's no ledgers to go by, and since Stanley barely remembered most of the work he did (according to his son Jim), my guesses are determined by my familiarity with his writing style, and with his tendencies as a storyteller, which vary from year to year.
I mostly judge it to be Stanley's by the fact that it's actually well-written and engaging. As for the weird proportions of the drawing, that could be the sign of a partial re-write of the story... as said, we lack any hard data on who did what in these stories.
I wish there was more certainty in my statements. Not having records has impelled me to study Stanley's work and understand how he wrote and staged his comics work. My hope is that I'm reasonably right in my assessments of this material.