Friday, March 25, 2011

"Adventures of Tom:" Stanley's Other Fractured Feline, from Our Gang Comics 49 and 50

I am sad to say that I'm exhausting my reserves of John Stanley material! It is a reminder of how much of his work is currently back in print--the entirety of his Little Lulu (except for the six giant-size specials of the '50s), a good deal of Tubby, all of Melvin Monster and, eventually, the remainder of Stanley's post-Lulu humorous comics.

The only open territory is the 1940s and '50s material that doesn't feature Marge Buell's properties. There's still some of that to go. That will involve some serious scanning on my part.

For today, here are two delightfully perverse stories from the "Adventures of Tom" series in Dell's Our Gang Comics. These are the last two Stanley wrote, from his short second term as the writer of "Tom and Jerry" and this feature, in 1948. (Many of Stanley's stories from this second run are posted on the blog now, including this alarming double-feature.)

By this time, John Stanley was dialed into the character of Little Lulu's Tubby Tompkins--easily the most complex and compelling figure in his comics work. Tubby's self-delusional personality, and his refusal to face reality or conform to societal expectations, rubbed off handsomely on Tom Cat. For the first and only time in the character's long mass media career, Tom was endowed with a neurotic, believable persona in these Stanley-written stories.

Tom is a hapless soul, and could benefit from some intense therapy sessions. But, like Stanley's colorful losers, he is fascinating. He does the wrongest things with the highest fervor and we sit back and watch it happen, unable to change the flawed course of his behavior.

Much like Tubby Tompkins, Tom is obsessed with an unobtainable romantic partner. Toots, a svelte white cat seen in some of the MGM animated cartoons, has him constantly crawling on his knees, in a mode of unending humiliation and torment over someone he'll never really have. He's cut short by a better-off rival, Bob Cat, who is clearly making more money than Tom, is a snappier dresser (Tom chooses to "go native" in his grey-and-white birthday suit) and a far more aggressive asshole.

In Stanley's world, the Bob Cats always get the girl. The Toms are doomed to dream and make repeated failed attempts at a prize they'll never, ever win. Does this keep them from making this conquest their life's goal? You, of course, know the answer to this question.

From OGC #49:

Tom's low social status, his cruel treatment by Toots and Bob Cat, and his near-death-by-drowning experience make this a particularly disturbing story. In anticipation of Stanley's more distanced, omniscient tone of his 1960s comics, Tom is adrift and helpless in a world that really doesn't want him around.

His poverty forces him to cut corners in his doomed romantic quest. We see him hitch a non-paying ride on a streetcar (clearly not the first time he's done this, given his familiarity with the position).  More sadly, we watch him squeeze under the beachside dressing room in order to avoid the 50 cent entry fee.

Tom's almost-death scene, which occurs on pp. 4 and 5, is as intense as Stanley's horror comics of the 1960s. As he struggles to hold his breath, his tail entombed in a giant oyster shell, his mind plays out probability scenarios in which Toots and Bob are married, have children, and have clearly forgotten about Tom. Tom's enormous ego saves his life. He can't stand these thoughts, and they upset him enough to not succumb to the sleep in the deep.

This sequence, which ends with an ignoble Tom emerging from the sea, the huge oyster trailing behind him, is downright grim. He is greeted with contempt by Toots and Bob. Yes, he finds a huge pearl inside the oyster. And, yes, Toots is swayed by Tom's sudden wealth. But do you honestly think anything good will come of this?

Tom resolves to play it cooler towards Toots, as he hitches another non-paying ride home, but the writing's on the wall. We don't see the scenes that follow, but we can imagine them. Pure cartoon noir: Tom wines and dines Toots until his money runs out. When he's poor again, Toots rebounds to Bob, and Tom is again an agitated outsider.

And there's more! This remarkable (and final) "Adventures of Tom" story brings Tom's rich cognitive biases to the fore. Again, his ego drives his actions in this story, aided by his enormous fantasy life, which blurs the lines of reality for the poor addled feline.

This is another disquieting story. Some of Stanley's wittiest writing graces its dialog. Tom's "Tubby Talk" reinforces his characteristic belief that he is right in all things, and that it's obvious everyone should regard him as a brilliant, charismatic being.

Stanley shows us the dichotomy between Tom's deluded self-image and the harsh reality of his life. He prepares for an abysmally failed chat with his would-be GF, Toots, as he bubbles over with optimism, self-assurance and wit.

The call fails, and he flies into a rage. His resolve to become a hermit is simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking. Tom's inventory of his "chattel" is one of the most sublime moments in the John Stanley catalog.

His waking dream of revival, 40 years in the future, pushes the envelope of Tom's character and motivation. He sees himself almost half a century hence--bearded, toothless and cackling. He, of course, has to look up Toots, who is older, fatter, and, of course, married to Bob Cat. Tom gets an eyeful of Toots' shapely daughter and makes a Larry David-worthy decision. If you strike out with the mother, why not go for her daughter?

This is a perverse stroke of Tom's hyperbolic imagination. Of course, Tom's fantasies play out exactly like his real life. He wakes from his dream, again enraged, and returns to the real world for more suffering. The story ends on a characteristic off-note--while the conclusion is funny, it seems incomplete. Given how fragmented and frustrating poor Tom's life is, this finis is appropriate.

I don't know if Stanley knew this would be his last "Adventures of Tom" story, or if he cared. These last two installments, among the darkest of Stanley's pre-1960 work, are bracing chapters in a troubled, unhappy comic-book existence. His Tom, as I've commented before, is far more sympathetic and interesting than the Hanna-Barbera version. I can't imagine anyone allowing a modern-day cartoon character to be reshaped so darkly and carefully as is John Stanley's Tom Cat.

Well, now to get back to writing some Wacky Packages gags...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Koupla Kokonino Konvulsions: stories from Krazy Kat #548, 1955

It's been a while since we looked in on John Stanley's version of Krazy Kat. Thus, here are three stories (and a cover) from one of the mid-1950s one-shot KKs. These were published in Dell's "Four Color" series--a 1300+ issue run that proves the utter validity of Sturgeon's Law as refers to funny-books.

I detect some of Stanley's hand in the finished artwork of these stories--perhaps it's just the influence of his layouts, more strongly felt than usual, in the final versions.

In this later run of Krazy Kat, Stanley embellished the original love-hate triangle created by originator George Herriman. One notable change: Krazy, him/herself, has become more of a loose cannon than in the 1951/2 run. He/she often competes with Ignatz Mouse for the "Tubby Type" role in these stories.

Ignatz still triumphs as the Tubbiest of the lot, but in having two unpredictable figures playing against a staunch authority figure (Offissa Pupp), Stanley gives himself more license for character-driven comedy.

Here's the cover...

Today's first selection explores a typical Krazy Kat situation: the constant imprisonment of the anarchy-minded Ignatz, for crimes of brick-hurling. We also see aspects of Ignatz' relationship with his primo victim/enabler, Krazy. This comic-book Sid and Nancy romance is barely tolerated by Pupp, who realizes he is ultimately unable to run interference in this love-hate affair of cat and mouse...

In this second run of Krazy Kat, Stanley has relaxed into the characters, and is more confident about adding personal touches to a forbiddingly private world. John Stanley was of the right age to have been enormously affected by George Herriman's original version. To hip readers of the 1920s and '30s, Herriman was the comics' godsend. To the average reader, Krazy Kat was a migraine source--best skipped en route to "Tillie the Toiler."

Walt Kelly's Pogo attracted a similarly adoring, fervent fan base in the 1950s. Kelly's work made a bigger impact on The Average Joe, circa 1952, than Herriman's did in its prime.

While comics scholars and more adventurous readers still see plenty to love in the work of Herriman and Kelly, the average reader of 2011 is hard-pressed to find a point of entry into either man's work. Both creators' intensely playful use of phonetic language does not scan well in an increasingly less literate world. Kelly's contemporary political references, especially in the 1950s daily strips, while enlightening for those who know history, can be baffling to uninformed newcomers.

By 1955, Stanley had fully honed his sensibilities as a writer and storyteller. In the 1951/2 Krazy Kat, Stanley handles the characters timidly, as if they might bruise easily. A few years later, he more forcefully blends his ideas with Herriman's creations. His wordplay dominates these later KK stories--in a way that, coincidentally, ties them with Kelly's contemporary Pogo.

Kelly and Stanley were colleagues, and obviously admired each other's work. I think Stanley was trying to do a Pogo with these Krazy Kat stories--not an imitation, but an attempt to connect rich elements in a similar manner.

Back to the comics: Ignatz attempts to enter the world of commerce, with vexatious results, in this untitled solo story.

Like Stanley's version of Woody Woodpecker, Ignatz is an agitated outsider. His attempts to mesh with the everyday world end in frustration and disappointment. Here, the mouse is victimized by various species--he forgot to remember that his clientele tends to be predatorial!

His only potential paying customers--the elephants--freak out due to that old elephant-fears-mouse business. Even stalwart authority figure Offisa Pupp refuses to pay a dime for an apple.

Ignatz admits defeat soberly, without a temper-tantrum or other destructive urges. One genuinely feels sorry for him, at story's end.

I've saved the best for last. Anytime a John Stanley story involves a creative act, such as painting, poetry or sculpting, an odd reflex kicks in. His creators are typically suspect figures--and their admirers and financiers deluded, decadent fools.

The naive, sweet-natured Krazy defies Stanley's general attitude towards artists. His/her creative impulse is applauded and supported by the self-important Pupp. Krazy's kreative kwalities are only thwarted by the jealous, resentful Ignatz--who simply can't stand for the kat's attention to stray from him for too long.

The disastrous unveiling of a sculpture is a repeated comic trope in Stanley's work. It was, apparently, a moment he savored in his stories. The unveiling of a comatose Pupp-as-statue elicits a genuine YOW! from Ignatz.

While Stanley does not condemn the artist as a phony in this story, he gets comic mileage from the piece of art itself being deceptive. Krazy's cheerful myopia allows him/her to mistake the KO'd, prone Pupp as her handiwork. Pupp makes the most of his shock-value unveiling, and nabs his usual suspect in the resulting fracas.

It's a clever touch, but the story's last page again reinforces Stanley's apparent belief that artists--and their admirers--are absurd. Stanley made a living from his own relentless creativity and problem-solving. It seems odd that he had such an apparent axe to grind about artists and their world.

This situation shows up far too often in John Stanley's work--from start to finish in his career--to be a coincidence. Is this some kind of self-hatred, creeping into his work?

John Stanley isn't around to answer this question. The dark side of his work stems, I believe, from this apparent self-loathing. Stanley was dismissive of his efforts, in the one or two interviews of his that I've read. Although his muse came through for him like clockwork, he seemed not to have much faith in it.

In a August, 1965 interview for his local paper, the Peekskill, New York Evening Star, Stanley, then hard at work on his auteur series Thirteen Going on Eighteen and Melvin Monster, confessed to reporter Dorothy Krumeich:

Right from the beginning, I always felt ‘I can’t do another’ at the completion of every book—there never seemed to be an idea left in me.

Stanley's best work appears almost effortless. Like Harvey Kurtzman's artwork, it appears spontaneous to the spectator, and does not betray the blood, sweat and tears that went into its creation. Was creativity a constant struggle for John Stanley? If so, it was a battle he successfully fought for 25 years.

Stanley was a heavy smoker and drinker. His son, James, in an interview for Alter-Ego magazine in 2005, matter-of-factly states: "He suffered from depression and alcoholism." Jim Stanley speaks more about his father's state of mind in this fascinating and honest interview. Both this and the 1965 newspaper piece on John Stanley can be found in issue 54 of Alter-Ego magazine.

This is a sobering note on which to end this posting. We know so little of John Stanley the person. His work leaves behind apparent, tantalizing clues that it did not come easily to its creator. Creativity can often be a difficult, demanding process, as any writer, artist or musician can tell you. The golden moments, when one seems to be merely the messenger of inspiration, are gruesomely outweighed by uncertainty, confusion and those sad moments of I-got-nothin'.

We are fortunate that John Stanley could consistently set his demons aside to write, and sometimes illustrate, transcendent comics stories. Knowing that they apparently did not come easily to their creator gives us more to savor and appreciate about the work itself.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Post #200: Bird, Rabbit Enter American Work-Force, Encounter Hostility, Arrogance; Woodpecker Defects From Cruelty of Streetcar Operation; Rabbit's Job Imploded

Here we are at post #200 for Stanley Stories. I've written some 100,000 words of chit-chat, criticism and insight in the prior 199 posts. I've also featured 303 complete stories to date.

The statistician in me wanted to know how all this fascinating data. I'll risk boring you with some factoids. I've even prepared a column chart!

[Feel free to skip this part if your personal risk of being bored is too intense. There are two 10-page stories at the end of this accountancy!]

Stanley Stories Stats:

From left to right on our primitive graph:
LITTLE LULU (LL) leads with 79 complete stories. I was surprised at how many Lulus were here, but, as I've run pieces from all of the 100-page giants, including several complete issues, that big number makes sense.

TUBBY comes in second place with 36 stories, followed by NANCY & SLUGGO (32), TOM & JERRY (18 stories), Stanley's horror stories (17) and ANDY PANDA (14 stories). Those are the Top 6 subjects of posting on this blog.

WOODY WOODPECKER leads the second wave with 10 stories (one which includes 18 one-pagers drawn by our hero). DUNC 'n' LOO, which I've kinda held off on, as Drawn + Quarterly will eventually publish in beautiful hardcover form, is represented with 8 stories.

HOWDY DOODY, JIGGER & MOOCH and CHRISTMAS STORIES (asst'd) are tied at 7 stories.

PETERKIN POTTLE and OSWALD RABBIT have 6 stories apiece herein.

RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY, LINDA LARK and NEW TERRYTOONS (asst'd):5 stories per.

O.G. WHIZ, LITTLE KING and KRAZY KAT have 4 stories each here.


MELVIN MONSTER, ALVIN (from LITTLE LULU), FUZZY & WUZZY*, BLACKIE THE LAMB and FLIP & DIP have each been represented by--you guessed it!--1 story.

The * means that these stories may not be Stanley's work, but they're here all the same. This goes without question for the Stan Lee-authored "Little Lizzie" stories I posted in a fit of pique sometime last year.


For this special bicentenary post, we return to the first days of Stanley Stories--long before it was a blog!

Today's first story is a rescan and re-post of the very first Stanley story I ever presented, back about 2001, on the old, long-gone first incarnation of the site. This was the story that first made me aware of the work of John Stanley.

My first Stanley exposure was via a pile of mid-1940s issues of Walter Lantz New Funnies in the early 1980s. As a starving college student (hungry for both food and comics), I purchased a pile of 1945-7 issues of New Funnies from a long-gone side-street comic book and paperback shop in Tallahassee, Florida. They were cheap--a buck or two each. I didn't expect much from them. The shock-value of the "Li'l Eight Ball" stories, and the surprised reaction of friends and colleagues to them, was my initial attraction to these funny-books.

Then I sat down and read the things. I became aware that two or more creative teams supplied each issue's contents. Furthermore, all but one of them sucked. The "Andy Panda," "Woody Woodpecker" and "Oswald Rabbit" stories, especially from 1946 on, were genuinely good--funny, literate and surprising in their narrative stakes.

I wouldn't connect these stories with Stanley until a decade later, when I'd read enough of his Little Lulu work to realize these were indeed his efforts. The story you're about to read, from NF #120, was the clincher. Its black comedy, grungy urban settings and unexpected, slightly moving finale were clearly of John Stanley's hand.

Stanley's stories run in themes. A theme of his New Funnies stories is the characters' usually failed pursuit of jobs. As I scanned the story you're about to read, a quick browse of the preceding issue offered another job-failure story. (There are several such stories in the 1946 and '47 issues of New Funnies.)

Jobs and job growth are in the news these days. The general consensus is that things are getting better. I hope it's true--our economy needs all the help it can get. Perhaps the playful, perverse nature of these two stories will help things along.

In today's first feature, outsider Woody Woodpecker becomes a streetcar conductor. It's a job best suited for gleeful sadists and misanthropes. Our bird is indeed odd, but he's got a heart--a fatal flaw in this brutal business...

I don't know if Stanley lived in Manhattan in 1947. According to his son, James **, Stanley and his family lived in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. The story you've just read reveals a cynicism towards public transportation--black comedy worthy of Roald Dahl.

Woody, at story's start, is an agitated outsider, his status unsecured. This hire is a big moment in his fragmented life. Stanley plays Woody's tension for satirical humor. His words and body language parody the melodrama of every WWII Air Force movie ever made, past, present or future. In a key moment, the bird makes a naked confession to us:

The military genre parody continues on the next four pages. Woody easily passes through the red tape of signing up. He then meets his mentor, a beefy, nameless Alan Hale Jr. type with homicidal tendencies. His cognitive bias is that the passengers are potential agents of harm.

He preps the 'pecker to expect physical and emotional abuse from the streetcar riders. The opposite proves true. Nameless Mentor gets off on the physical/psychological torment of his passengers. He takes great pride in his work--note the sublime middle tier of p.8, in which he brags about the sharp timing of his enmity--and passes the torch of torture to his new charge.

Woody has reservations about this line of work; it just isn't in his makeup to be intentionally cruel to others. Here is where Stanley's hand most deeply touches this story. His Woody is the polar opposite of the brassy, aggressive animated cartoon version. He has a conscience, is humble, and considers the impact of his words and deeds on others.

In Stanley's cruel urban landscape, this brands Woody as a loser, albeit with a heart of gold. Woody is unable to zoom past stops, mangle his riders, or refuse their requests.

On the story's final page, Woody loses control of the street car, and creates a new, nicer career for himself. The silent final frame is both funny and touching. Woody has passed through--and surpassed--the careless cruelty of the world around him, and found a niche he can, indeed, scratch.

John Stanley's Working continues with an "Oswald the Rabbit" story from NF 119. Oswald is more connected to the mainstream than Woody Woodpecker. He has a home, a domestic partner, and a cheerier disposition. At story's start, he's on his way to the first day of a new occupation...

Oswald jauntily makes the best of a job others might find humiliating. His cheerful march through Stanley's mean streets, clad in a tuxedo and walking on stilts, makes him a moving target for abuse--both intentional and accidental.

Oswald remains passive; the events happen to him, and he doesn't make pains to prevent or halt them. He finds a quarter; while he retrieves it, a man lazily picks his pocket. Oswald's Tubby-like reaction to the theft bears repeating:

He arouses the ire of a beat cop, who sees Os as an agent of chaos--which he, quite unwittingly, is. Whereas Woody is more of an alienated adult, Oswald is a man-child. He follows his whims, even when they take him into awkward places.

In a vivid comedic set-piece, Oswald uses his heightened status to sneak a free peek at a ball game. A clamber of street kids scramble up his stilt-legs to partake, and Os is bludgeoned, pawed and badly shaken for his trouble.

An innocent phone call turns Oswald into a cheery fugitive. He makes a crucial mistake: he figures he'll be safest amidst the crowds of downtown. "There's a feeling of security here," he says, more to reassure himself than to inform the reader.

Oswald escapes with his life, and his sunny outlook, at story's end. It's clear that this first day on the job is also the last, but our furry hero is none the worse for the wear. Not quite a happy ending, this finale suggests that Oswald is as deluded as any other Stanley character. Even when things aren't right, and mounting evidence proves this point. his characters choose to look on the bright side.

These, like Stanley's other "working" stories, tell us that to take a job is to risk one's status (if not one's life), and to supremely test one's personal ethics and will. Anyone who's ever held a job would have to agree this is true, to some extent. I could tell you stories--anyone could as well. Most of us also have positive job stories, too, and thank goodness for that. We all want to do something that helps us prosper, but also gives us something to do that we like. Work, for many, is a necessary evil. It pays the bills, but it also takes a toll on our collective soul.

This is a silent but commonly held belief about the world of employment. Rarely is it expressed forthrightly in popular culture. Mike Judge's brilliant film, Office Space, which has echoes of Stanley's viewpoint and comedic tendencies, may be the single finest articulation of the futility of the American workplace in pop culture. It's fascinating to see this message in Stanley's work of the 1940s--at a moment in time when America was approaching one of its most prosperous, worker-friendly eras.

May your work week be unlike Woody's or Oswald's--if, indeed, you are among America's employed! See you soon with post #201...

(** PS to Jim Stanley: if you're reading this, I hope all is well with you...)