Friday, December 10, 2010

Two Stories From the Second Little Lulu Comic: Art and Story by John Stanley

I see that this post is the most popular one ever to appear on Stanley Stories. It gets more hits than anything else on here. Well, give the people what they want, sez I.

The only story left from the first "Lulu" comic was reprinted in The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, seminal tome from 1981 that can be had for peanuts on

Time to move on to #2. The pair of stories I've selected today both are animal-themed. Both also show much more of John Stanley's fine cartooning style than the prior issue.

These aren't hi-grade scans. It's better to read these in color, as originally published, rather than try the pallid traced versions of the Another Rainbow and Dark Horse reprints. Those suck the life and soul out of Stanley's deft drawings.

Exhibit A, "...has family trouble," is among Stanley's rare cat-centric pieces. With this still-larval version of Lulu as his protagonist, Stanley captures the innocence and curiosity of childhood in a way the series would quickly avoid.

This story is an upbeat twin to a dark, disturbing "Li'l Eight-Ball" story Stanley wrote for New Funnies #101, also published in 1945. A sense of melancholy informs this story, too, but it's played for a much gentler effect.

This is as close to genuinely charming as John Stanley gets. Still, since it is a Stanley story, there is one moment of violent (but amusing) discord:
This encounter is unlikely to better socialize Mr. Gripe. This is the first appearance of a sinister social archetype of Little Lulu's world: the seriously anti-social, violence-prone loner, who typically has a Dickensian name like "Krank," "Gruff," "McGrouch," et al.

Mr. Gripe is on the gentlest end of this anti-social spectrum. To experience the Stanley Sociopath at his darkest and scariest, read this.

As well, this story offers two protagonists--Lulu and Christopher the cat. Christopher's inner monologue adds another level to the narrative. We are privy to her thoughts about Lulu and the other "pink ones," which is played for rich humor.

As is often the case in Stanley's world, the least empowered character is the wisest. Lulu's mother is oblivious to the kittens' need to still be with their mother. Christopher, who knows best, ingeniously retrieves her offspring.

Lulu and the cat trauma-bond in the ninth frame of p.7, in an echo of the "Li'l Eight-Ball" story's scenes of crying. However, Christopher is just playing; she's in charge of the situation 100%.

Stanley's feline drawings have great charm. I have a feeling that Stanley was a "cat person."

A couple of pantomime gag pages...

and then Lulu and Tubby "Goes On a Picnic." (Bad grammar is intentional.)

A tightly composed piece with conscious pay-offs, "Picnic" is connected to the prior story. Tubby's brag that he "almost killed a cat" with his toy bow-and-arrow reminds us of "...has family problems."

We see early signs of Tubby's self-absorption; it doesn't really occur to him that it was the Jensen's Groceries delivery truck that nearly did in the feline. At story's end it is the Jensen's truck that delivers Lulu and Tubby from their sylvan escapade and allows them to finally have their picnic.

The relationship of Lulu and Tubby is rather primitive, by later "Lulu" standards, in this story. The two kids are much more childlike here--antagonistic and stubborn, given to whims and acting out. Hints of Tub's future Quixotean self are already evident.

It's Lulu's terser, less expressive persona that makes the major difference. She is not the kidult she would be in 1950. She is closer to Marge Buell's imp than to the classic John Stanley version.

Stanley puts Lulu and Tub through some very funny slapstick paces here, and milks much humor from their bickering and over- or under-reaction to stakes-raising events.

We see more Stanley animals in "Picnic." Their presence, over these two stories, shows how much at odds Stanley's own drawing style was with the Marge Buell look and feel. All the human figures look stiff, awkward and generally unappealing. Stanley was a long way from making these characters work, visually, on his own terms.

Not to say that these are poor drawings, by any means. They're full of life, and Stanley does what he can to infuse them with character. His true colors emerge in the drawings of animals, in both these stories. Some hints of his masterful 1960s cartooning can be seen in those brief moments. His backgrounds, though simple, express a strong sense of space and depth.

It must have been frustrating for Stanley to work with Buell's primitive designs in these early Little Lulu one-shots, but he does his best, and the results, while stiff, are workable.

In Stanley's cartooning, the drawings are always humbly in service of the story. Stanley possessed one of the least distracting cartoon styles. It's just solid, unassuming line work, the better to sell his narratives--which, after all, is why we read his stories.


Anonymous said...

how large would an original John Stanley comic page be?

I heard Carl Barks did a 4 row page on 20x30", but I can't tell if Stanley's working smaller here.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Mark,
Great question! You know, I don't think any of John Stanley's original pages survive... at least, I have never seen anything but some of his 1960s covers for sale on Heritage Auctions.

I would guess that Stanley worked larger than publication size--twice up was the typical size for original artwork in comic books.

I'd love to see some of his earlier originals. I wonder what happened to them? Anyone out there know something I don't?

Gabriel said...

Love your remarks on these LL early works by Stanley, Frank!
He was a brush master indeed. But I've always enjoyed these pen-style finished works (you know, Tom & jerry, Jigger, Bridget, etc). They're constantly calling for subtlety.
Certainly characters look stiff, but Stanley gets the most being deliberately naive and funny at the same time, and his economy on panel backgrounds are pure mastery lessons of cartooning. Love the part where Tubby and Lulu carry the basket together to climb the hill. It's pure slapstick, almost I can see this scene animated! "The drawings are always humbly in service of the story" should be the right definition of Cartooning.

I've never thought of Tubby as a Quixotean type though. Unlike Don Quixote, Tubby doesn't look to need a Sancho Panza to explain himself to the world. Quixote and Sancho Panza, like other Cervantes characters, grow up as they chat and so gain their own meaning. Whereas Tubby emerges as a world in and of himself, a world that usually wolfs down the others. He's born solipsist, a monologuist. In this sense he looks to me much more Shakesperean (a Hamlet with some Falstaff drops in the cocktail).

Hope this makes sense! You know english is not my language, but I thought "there's no harm in trying".

Thanks for keeping this wonderful blog up with such a wonderful comments!

Frank M. Young said...

Gabriel, thank you for your insights--they are beautifully stated.
The Quixotean connection, in my thoughts, is in Tubby's tendency to charge forward into a situation impulsively, often without his knowing what awaits him. This is more common in the very early "Lulu" stories.
By the end of the 1940s, Tubby is, indeed, as you describe, a Shakespearian figure. That's a fine insight--mind if I use than in my book?
Your comments, like your artwork, speak very well. They are always appreciated.

Gabriel said...

"mind if I use than in my book?"
Of course not, Frank! You flatter me greatly just thinking that it's a thought of some value to you.
Thanks for your compliments!
I hope to read your book in a near future! Cant's wait, actually...

Thad said...

Many cartoonists and cartoon fans seem to be cat people- it's something I've just noticed. Thanks for posting these scans, I enjoy seeing them with the original art for a change!