Monday, January 31, 2011

Nancy and Sluggo Summer Camp special, 1960, Pt. 1: Serial Stalking, Addled Adults and Confused Kids

I've held off on using much material from John Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo comics, in deference to Drawn + Quarterly's ongoing series. It'll likely be awhile before they reprint the two summer camp specials of 1960 and 1961.

Thus, given the drying up of usable non-Little Lulu material I have, necessity commands that I mete out this 80-page giant for your reading and perusing pleasure.

This special comic book served as a gateway for the release of some of John Stanley's inner darkness. Said darkness bubbles up in the latter run of Little Lulu (the story "Hide and Seek," featured elsewhere on this blog, is a potent example).

The careful contrast of dark and light is the cornerstone of John Stanley's vision. At the end of the 1950s, the dark began to overwhelm the lighter aspects of his work. It seems inevitable that comic book creators' bitterness leaked into their work, as the years piled up. It happened to Jack Cole and Carl Barks, two other major creative forces of the American comic book. Their later work impresses--and depresses--with its glum, dimmed tone.

In Barks' case, it seemed to be 60-something crankiness. His 1960s stories cast an increasingly jaundiced, cynical eye on a changing, modernized world. Barks scowls at Space-Age America's fads and fancies, and declares most of it piffle.

In Cole's case, as my friend and colleague Paul Tumey has surmised, it might have been shame and feelings of personal inadequacy--the sense that nearly 20 years spent in comics may have been a squandering of his creative life-force.

We shall never know for certain what motivated Cole to the bleak themes and actions of his last years. Barring yet-undiscovered data, we may also never know for certain what changed Stanley's world-view at the close of the 1950s.

Stanley became less concerned with character, and more with cause and effect, in his post-Lulu comics. This is especially evident in his Nancy and Sluggo stories. The characters are almost completely shorn of defining characteristics. They're less characters than icons, symbols, or game-pieces.

Indeed, their stories read like chess matches. The storytelling passion that informs the best years of Stanley's Lulu is now cooled. An omniscient, indifferent hand moves the pieces around the "board" of the pages and panels. The moves and counter-moves of the game-pieces are still archly comedic. This is a masterful hand--one with experience and confidence. The personal connection is minimal.

Yet this wise guiding hand is not cynical. Perhaps Stanley decided to streamline his process. Streamlining and ease of efforts were goals of the Space Age mindset. The 19th century of America business had been all about doing big things the hard way. The post-war attitude was all about comfort, ease of use and not breaking a sweat.

In this push-button, spray-can age, the less effort expended, the better the product. Stanley does not break a sweat in his Nancy and Sluggo stories. Neither does he phone them in. In this first segment of the 1960 summer camp special, the Space-Age push-button approach dominates--as does a more reflexive, brassy comedic sense...

These books' inside front covers were illustrated contents pages that read like the pre-credits teasers of '50s TV shows. These panels are not direct lifts from the stories inside. They're bouillon cube moments that sometimes conflate events. All the major themes of Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo are highlighted on this black-and-white intro page.

As with the Little Lulu summer camp specials, this book is a suite of short, inter-connected stories. They cut back and forth to different sub-plots which, as the final teaser panel above notes, converge.

The most interesting character in Stanley's Nancy universe is Sluggo. He is the sort-of Tubby to Nancy's quasi-Lulu. Yet Sluggo is far more the outsider than the eccentric but socially connected Tubby.

Sluggo has no parents, no relatives, and no means of visible support. He lives on his own in a ramshackle (abandoned?) house, its lawn strewn with junkyard tidbits, its inside squalorous.

Sluggo's dilemma is known to all, and although he has some societal acceptance, he's still left to fend for himself. He is an abandoned soul just trying to cope.

In both the N&S summer camp specials, Sluggo is excluded from the woodsy ritual. As all his friends joyously prepare for their summer of sylvan fun, Sluggo faces a summer alone and further abandoned...

Desperate and hopeful, Sluggo tries to impress the powers-that-be, and to thus win a free ticket to summer-camp fun. His efforts to succeed incur the wrath of one of Stanley's most frightening characters, the sociopathic hair-trigger Mr. McOnion. Run, Sluggo, run!

The creeping, inexorable and passionless pursuit of Sluggo by McOnion is deeply disturbing stuff. It's clearly supposed to be funny. Its nightmarish quality (relentless pursuit, in which the pursued never escapes or gets ahead) is as vivid as the subconscious mind-fudgery of Stanley's "horror comics" of 1961-62.

Meanwhile, we encounter the other sociopathic anti-star of the N&S universe, Rollo Haveall. Rollo is easily the most malicious of Stanley's "evil rich" characters. He outdoes the worst excesses of Little Lulu's rich kid Wilbur, via his own dispassionate agenda.

Wilbur van Snobbe can be an a-hole, but he does have human feelings. Via his conflicts with Lulu and her friends, Wilbur occasionally cottons to the idea that humanity trumps material wealth. Rollo is a robotic blend of Richie Rich and Hitler Youth. Wealth automatically entitles him to do whatever he wants. He doesn't question his motives; he has been bred for superiority. If anyone is harmed, money will hush them up.

There's no joy in Rollo's antics. At first, his droll indifference to humanity earns some shock-value chuckles. But extended exposure to his toxic persona proves as disturbing as McOnion's slow... plodding... death march.

Stanley's most imaginative decoration to the N&S world was the other-worldly Oona Goosepimple. This Charles Addams-esque monster-child anticipates the "funny horror" craze of the mid-1960s, which included the popular TV series The Munsters and The Addams Family and John Stanley's original creation for comics, Melvin Monster.

Like Lulu's improvised fairy-stories, Oona was a release-valve for the formulaic constraints of this licensed property. It gave Stanley a place to express himself, and a forum for free-form thinking. His Nancy books perk up noticeably when they focus upon Oona and her inexplicable, topsy-turvy universe.

Note that the artist on this one story is not Dan Gormley. The pen line is looser and spikier. I'm not sure who illustrated "Oona Takes the Subway..." Tony Tallarico, possibly...?

We then return to the recognizable world for some campground shenanigans. Another Stanley invention, the gluttonous Eadie, appears.

We end this first installment with the pursuit of Sluggo by McOnion. His emotionally neutral affect is particularly disturbing here--as are his multiple-personality mood swings. This is Child Abuse 101, presented as zany Space-Age fun!

 to be continued...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Narrative Stakes 101--Two Early Stories With the ODTTA Template

John Stanley's early comics efforts give us a fascinating window into the development of a gifted storyteller. His 1942-1947 work, in which he developed an unmistakable approach to comics narrative, has its ups and downs.

Until Little Lulu came into his life, in 1945, Stanley simply didn't have material--or characters--that gave him room for growth. He achieved brilliant moments in his early "Tom and Jerry" and "Woody Woodpecker" stories, to be sure. One has to look no further than this story, or the final story in this mega-post, to see evidence of his early raw skill as a storyteller.

Stanley, by his own admission, simply made up his stories as he wrote. By 1949, he was so tuned into his cast of Little Lulu that he could generate stories via this method with seeming lack of effort.

In taking on Little Lulu, Stanley tamped down his more antic tendencies. His work of 1945 and 1950 is like night and day. The wild qualities of '45 are completely subdued in '50. This restraint reaped him long-term benefits. At its best, Stanley's Little Lulu is writing of literary quality. It is all things to all readers.

Children enjoy the stories as spirited tales of comic one-upmanship that also advocate for the intelligence and determination of their demographic. Adults can groove to the deeply wrought characterizations, the compulsions and ethics (or lack thereof) of the series' cast members, and on Stanley's sheer wit as a comedian and storyteller.

Though Stanley sacrificed his heartier tendencies as a comedian to establish the world of Little Lulu, by the mid-1950s, he was once again in touch with his more hard-edged comedy.

After a transitory period, in which his work tends to be shrill, with less attention paid to character, Stanley rebounded at the dawn of the 1960s. His late masterwork, Thirteen Going on Eighteen, weds the brassy slapstick of his earliest work with the fine attention to characterization that so distinguished Little Lulu.

One of Stanley's favored formulas was the ODTAA scenario. This stands for One Damned Thing After Another, and is the bedrock of improvisational comedy. One seemingly insignificant action causes a reaction, and soon a snowball of narrative rolls and rumbles to a (ideally) high-impact conclusion. It's a fine venue for comedic writing--if the author doesn't anticipate the chain of events, it will likely be refreshing for his audience.

Stanley wasn't alone in his embrace of the ODTAA scenario. Carl Barks, a far more methodical, cautious storyteller, used this template for many of his monthly, 10-page "Donald Duck" stories of the 1940s and '50s.

To a risk-taking author like Stanley, the ODTAA style could occasionally result in a mis-fire. In his early comics work, Stanley's stories sometimes miss opportunities, and sometimes write themselves into a corner, which results in an abrupt or weak conclusion.

Comic-book writing was a paid schoolroom. There was not time to dote upon work, or study it in reflection. The next month's stories were due, and the next month's after that...

Today's offerings are two examples of this on-the-fly storytelling. While neither of them are great stories, they show Stanley in his development as mainstream comics' finest writer. His embrace of the ODTAA method is cheerfully evident.

In today's first story, from New Funnies #95, written in late 1944, the seemingly innocent purchase of a box of popcorn leads to adventure, persecution and transcendence for Andy Panda and his fowl friend, Charlie.

Stanley is at his most Barksian here. Like Barks, Stanley sought to debunk fairy-tales and wishful thinking. Although Andy is wise to chuck the "magic ring" at story's end, it's most likely that the chain of events in this story would have happened to he and Charlie regardless.

By the purchase of a box of popcorn, Andy and Charlie become playthings of fate. Fate gives them good breaks and bad. In a precursor to Stanley's comics noir, "Little Lulu is Taken for a Ride," the childish animals come close to meeting their maker.

In the story's hasty, somewhat sloppy conclusion, Stanley ties up loose ends just in time. With another page or two, Stanley could have wrapped up this chain of coincidences in far more satisfying fashion.

Today's second feature is from Our Gang Comics #12, cover-dated July-August 1944. This slightly earlier story blends the ODTAA style with one of Stanley's most persistent motifs--wealthy characters who use their money to manipulate and harm others.

Here, minor MGM cartoon entity Johnny Mole is the passive victim/beneficiary of the blustery, well-off Mr. Skunk, whose oblivious golfing threatens our hero's myopic well-being:

Mr. Skunk's belief that money solves all problems--and Johnny's eager buy-in on this little cognitive bias--distinguishes this filler story. Every payment Johnny receives invites more physical abuse. Mr. Skunk's guilt is temporary at best, and salved by a cash payout. While he is aware that he has hurt Johnny, he dodges any responsibility via his wallet.

This arrogant, self-centered (dare I say, Tubby-like) attitude bankrupts him, and causes him to abandon this leisure game of the rich. Though battered and abused, Johnny Mole considers himself the winner of this encounter. He has a fistful of dollars and golf clubs, broken in rage, by Mr. Skunk, that are "just my size!"

This comedy of cause and effect would serve Stanley well in his finest years on Little Lulu. As well, it fuels later notable works such as Dunc 'n' Loo, Nancy and Sluggo and Thirteen Going on Eighteen. In dues-paying early work, such as these two pieces, John Stanley learned on the job, and developed skills that soon paid off handsomely.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Deep Doody: More of John Stanley's Howdy Doody comics, 1949/50

Happy '11 to you all. For our first 2011 post, here are some more stories from Dell's Howdy Doody comic book. I've finally acquired the missing issues in the book's long run. Early and late issues are full of John Stanley material.

At the time, Howdy was as big a pop culture property--bigger, possibly--than Marge Buell's "Little Lulu." He was arguably the first big celebrity of the TV age. Dell's comic book was the format's first TV adaptation. Turning TV into funnybooks continues to be profitable, well into this 21st century of ours.

By this time, Stanley had developed a more controlled, sophisticated approach to comics with the Lulu series. Those stories are the most disciplined, reined-in work of his career. He did very well by the disciplines of Lulu, and created character-rich, clear and satisfying narratives.

Stanley's antic side had not died away. In his side projects of the 1950s, he kept his wilder tendencies in good shape. The broader, louder, more violent material that was mostly out of place in Little Lulu runs rampant in his other '50s work.

At the close of the 1950s, Stanley joined this brassier part of his creative persona with the more upscale tendencies of Lulu and set the stage for his most assured, risk-taking work of the 1960s.

As usual for a new Stanley project, this first issue of Doody is uncertain but spirited. Stanley may have worked closely with Bob Smith, the host/owner of the "Doody" franchise, on this premiere book.

Stanley's unfamiliarity with the characters hinders his work.  He uses tried-and-true story formulas to find his way into the "Doody" universe, with mixed results.

The book's opening story is a prime example of seat-of-the-pants storytelling. Stanley tended to improvise his stories, with no sense of where they would end up. This story is a cheerful example of his ODTAA (One Damned Thing After Another) story style.

Howdy has a Tubby moment on p.2, when he squanders an entire day watching a steam-shovel in action. His reaction to the end of the operator's workday, in panel seven of that page, is quite amusing. The Tubby-Type compulsion to fixate has made an entire day pass in a blur.

In best Tubby-Type fashion, Howdy panics in the last panel, and on the top half of p.3, before a series of escalating events helps him belatedly achieve his goal.

Sheer chaos garners much better results for Howdy--he becomes a figure of public adulation and he's rewarded by his superior, Mister Bluster. Had Howdy not zoned out on the steam-shovel action, and spent his day papering the city, the endgame might not have been so profitable!

Stanley's love of crowd scenes shows its hand on pps. 3 and 6. The arrangement and body language of the long-shots at the bottom of p. 3 are typical of Stanley's 1940s and '50s work.

For "Howdy and the Pirates," the debut issue's longest story, Stanley returned to the knockabout comedy-adventure of his longer Andy Panda and Oswald Rabbit stories of the mid-1940s. This story also prefaces the first "Tubby" solo story, "Captain Yo-Yo," minus much of the 1952 story's playfulness and wit.

Stanley's villains typically take up more space than his protagonists. This story's modern day pirates are large, picaresque figures who pose a genuine threat to our trio of de facto heroes.

After several pages of spirited, knockabout farce, peppered with "YOW"s and "Ha! Ha! Ha!"s, this story peters out on its last page. The Scooby-Doo ending is a real cop-out. Perhaps Stanley wrote himself out, and just wanted to wrap it up and get it done.

The most peculiar member of the Howdy Doody troupe was the whatizzit critter Flub-a-Dub. Thanks to the photo-filled covers and inner covers of early Doody issues, I can show you what the real puppet looked like. Here, you can also see Bob Smith and another Doody character who figures in the following story, Clarabell the mute clown:

Though he had yet to get a grasp on the admittedly limited possibilities of the Doody troupe, Stanley immediately seized on Flub-a-Dub's gadfly/outsider persona. This is the classic John Stanley anti-hero, and right away he's drawn to the bizarre beast-thing's possibilities for comedic chaos and stakes-raising.

The cop on p.2 looks much like Stanley's drawing style of the 1950s, as do some of the other incidental human figures. Otherwise, this is a pretty basic, uninspired story that's distinguished by its energy and Flub-a-Dub's a-hole actions.

Stanley soon shared the Doody duties with other writers. He contributed a substantial amount of work to the series, which lasted 38 issues, plus some one-shot follow-ups.

At the risk of overkill, here's a story from the fifth Doody issue. It stars Howdy's nebbish-sidekick, Dilly Dally, in the sort of waking nightmare that distinguishes some of Stanley's better 1950s stories:

Again, this is not masterpiece stuff. The accelerating repercussions of poor Dilly's attempt to loaf and nap, culminating in the vivid freakout of p. 7, show Stanley's hand quite strongly.

Chances are, Stanley wasn't particularly invested in the work, as he seemed to be with Little Lulu and Tubby. Nonetheless, his telltale themes and images run through these stories. Thus, they still stand out after 60 years--long after the original Howdy Doody and Co. have largely perished from the national consciousness.