Saturday, April 30, 2011

Famous Funnies: An Early Stanley Trifecta from Animal Comics 10, 1944

As John Stanley learned comics writing on the job, he took on several licensed properties. Among them were a suite of characters from the newly-formed Famous Studios' attempt at a Technicolor roster of animation stars.

Famous (formerly the Fleischer Studios) tried hard to create a hit in their early, lavish Noveltoons. None of the characters really stuck, save for the Brooklyn-voiced Herman Mouse. The cartoons themselves are curiously compelling, and show a certain promise never quite fulfilled.

Western Publications apparently got a one-year lease on the rights to the Famous "stars." They plopped them into the random mix of Dell's Animal Comics, which played host to Walt Kelly's "Albert the Alligator" (later Pogo) and, in its last issues, to an early John Stanley comic-book original, "Jigger and Mooch."

Stanley cut his comics-writing teeth on the Famous characters, alongside MGM's "Tom and Jerry" and Walter Lantz's "Andy Panda," "Woody Woodpecker" and "Oswald the Rabbit." Here, he formulated his writing style, sense of dramatic narrative stakes, and first played with the three archetypal characters that dominate his finest work.

These Famous-derived stories were completed by moonlighting Famous animators. While they're hardly masterworks, they're of interest as examples of Stanley's early work and emergent sensibilities as a writer and cartoonist.

A helpful tool for identifying these Famous Studios-employed artists is the Nedor funny-animal title Ha-Ha Comics. Several Fleischer/Famous staffers have signed work in the early issues of this magazine--including Jim Tyer, who designed the title's distinctive logo. Thanks to recent access to the first seven issues (via the remarkable Digital Comics Museum), Thad Komorowski and I have been able to put some names to the art of these three stories.

Stanley appears to have lettered the first of today's three stories--all from a single issue of Animal Comics. I didn't spot any artist signature, but the layouts are recognizable as Stanley's work. Who knows? It appears that he had some hand in the finished artwork. I'd wager the inker was Bill Hudson.

This "Hector" story, easily the best of today's offerings, is infused with knockabout low comedy and jaunty chatter. It contains many examples of Stanley's windmill motion, lots of loud SFX and one well-placed YOW. Its dialogue is crisp and witty; Stanley seems to have enjoyed writing this story.

"Blackie Lamb" never really registered with movie audiences. This blatant Bugs Bunny knockoff has a certain horrifying wise-ass charm. Stanley's few stories with this character show more interest in the villain, Wolfie, than in the ostensible protagonists. This is a weak story, but Wolfie's self-absorbed musings show us an early glimpse into the "Tubby Type." Thad K. has IDd the artist as Gordon Sheehan.

In the manner of Carl Barks' earliest "Donald Duck" short stories, this ain't much to write home about. More vivid physical comedy keeps the pace lively, and, as said, Wolfie's desperate ramblings and ravings are always of interest.

Stanley lettered this story, as well. The artwork doesn't reveal as much of his input as does the "Hector" story.

The last, and shortest, of today's offerings riffs off one of Famous' most accomplished and atmospheric one-shot Noveltoons. 1944's Cilly Goose. Thanks to the doings of Thad Komorowski, you can see this little masterpiece HERE.

Western did a few "Cilly" stories, at least one of them written and drawn by Walt Kelly, who inherited the Famous characters once Stanley had either tired of them or was otherwise forced to remove them from his workload.

This story, according to Thad K., is inked by Otto Feuer--later a mainstay of DC's generally lack-luster funny animal titles.

This four-page story doesn't amount to much, but the anxiety of its title character, as she attempts to transport her goose-fruit to market, and to grapple with common superstitions, is at least peppy. It has that unmistakable "Uh oh! Four pages still open! An' we go to press tomorrow morning!" feel to it. Stanley also lettered this story. It looks remarkably like the "Hector" story, so I'll wager that he laid it out as well.

This is a one-pager's worth of material s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into four.

Via stories such as these, John Stanley learned how to write for comics. His enthusiasm often outweighs his ability in these early pieces, but the potential that would come to fruition by 1945 is already visible.

Friday, April 22, 2011

From a Minor Story, a Major Change: "Andy Panda and the Police Pup," Four Color one-shot 216, 1949

We begin today's post with some accidental Pop Art. This image, taken from the back cover of a 1949 comic magazine, contains a printing flaw that evokes mid-1960s Andy Warhol. Suitable for framing, no?

As the barrel of available Stanley Stories gets scraped clean, lesser pieces, such as today's presentation, surface. "Andy Panda and the Police Pup" is noteworthy as the final John Stanley long-form story sourced from the Walter Lantz characters. By the time this one-shot was published, in late 1948 (it's dated 2/49), Stanley had otherwise severed his connection with the Lantz characters.

Stanley learned the tools of writing comic book narratives via these licensed properties. This genial, loopy story--a pulpy adventure with tongue jammed visibly in cheek--is an apt farewell to a couple of the characters with which Stanley honed his craft.

"The Police Pup" was on the newsstands alongside Stanley's ill-fated original series "Peterkin Pottle," which premiered in the January, 1949 issue of Dell's Raggedy Ann and Andy anthology. This story has a similar spoofing of genre conventions. It also has a thematic link with Stanley's 1947 comics-noir, "Lulu Is Taken For A Ride."

Stanley's prior Andy Panda one-shot, "The Mighty Mites," is among his strongest book-length narratives. This shares a little of that story's high-stakes drama, but Stanley is more interested in deflating standard pulp-fiction thrills than sustaining them.

Dan Gormley's vivid, spirited cartooning helps "The Police Pup" along. Look for a reference to another Dell Dan--a name Stanley fondly dropped, with regularity, in his late '40s work.

A comparison of this story with Stanley's earlier Andy Panda one-shot "The Mad Dog Mystery" reveals his changes as a writer and comedian in four short years. That is, once you reach page 19 or so.

The first half of this story is, quite frankly, poor work. The setting of the waterfront hoodlum hideout recalls "Mad Dog Mystery" and other early Stanley efforts. The decision to give Presto, the pup, the power of exposition, via thought balloons, is a real cheat. It's uncharacteristic of Stanley's writing. (The baffling, wacko comics edited by Mort Weisinger for DC's Superman titles, in the late '50s and early '60s, would also use this narrative trope--to alarming and amusing extremes.)

[NOTE: The following is supposition--there is no basis in known fact for any of this.] Did Stanley step in and finish another, lesser, writer's script? Or was our man having a bad day when he began this script? At this time, he had earned the right to be sick of the Lantz characters, and might have been eager to distance himself from them. He was trying to establish himself as a writer-cartoonist, a creator of innovative, original series--not a faceless servant of other people's properties. [End of supposition.]

Whatever the case may be (and we'll never know for certain), by page 19, something clicks. Suddenly, it lives and breathes as a John Stanley story. It's infused with broad comedy, absurd humor, and a higher level of energy. There are a few Stanley tells in the earlier pages--but those could have been retro-fitted in eleventh-hour haste. As with his spoofs on pop culture clich├ęs in "Peterkin Pottle," he refuses to abide by the rules at this crucial halfway point.

This is a significant shift for Stanley, and marks an important change in direction for him. Earlier long-form stories, such as "Mad Dog" and the yet-to-be-presented-here "The City of Ice" (1946) take themselves much more seriously, a la similar stories written and drawn by Carl Barks, on the West Coast, for Dell's Donald Duck one-shots.

Though still a lesser story, "Police Pup" has moments of inspired nonsense: the mass of squarish, clumsy cops (one named Noonan, of course); Charlie Chicken's contortive attempts to plug the bullet holes in the boat; Presto's repeated reconnaissance missions to the criminals' hide-out to steal a rifle and ammunition; and, most memorably, the loquacious, poetry-spouting pelicans whom Andy shoots down at the story's frantic climax.

This last half is rife with classic Stanleyisms (windmill motions, ha! ha! ha!, SFX in speech balloons, loud SFX in general). These also suggest a shift from phoning it in to owning the material.

From this point on, Stanley's long-form MO would pursue inherent comedy and absurdism, rather than play along with genre formulas. The seven Peterkin Pottle stories Stanley created in 1948/9 were vital in assuring this change of habit. Having savaged adventure-story banalities (Western, super-hero, caveman, pirate, et al), via this series, it was harder to go back to the old ways.

Stanley plays it more-or-less straight in the 1952 Tubby story "The Bank Robber," which he also illustrated. Two issues later, with "Tubby's Secret Weapon," Stanley achieves a perfect balance of genre thrills and absurd comedy. Shortly thereafter, Stanley abandoned this traditional long-form narrative.

With the Little Lulu and Nancy and Sluggo summer camp specials, starting in 1957, he created a fresh  approach to telling a longer story. Loose chapters, composed of incidental moments, layered together to casually present the longest narratives of Stanley's career. (Those stories are posted here, but you're going to have to find them on your own!)

John Stanley was the master of the short-form comics story. No one wrote them with more intelligence, impact and insight. His longer pieces took him out of this comfort zone. In them, he sometimes rambles or loses his way. In a 1976 interview, Stanley admitted that he made up his stories as he wrote them, with no planned ending in mind.

As this lesser story demonstrates, this approach sometimes misled him. It is fascinating to see Stanley regain his composure, after a lackluster start, and drive this story to a farcical, bright conclusion.