Friday, May 27, 2011

John Stanley's World, Pt. V: The Search for Stanley's Cartooning

John Stanley had an impressive amount of cartooning and comic book work published in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. With two exceptions that I know of--his New Yorker cartoon of 1947* and the lone issue of Marge's Little Lulu (#49, published in 1952) that credited him and his staff--none of it is signed. Stanley's signature first appears--in comic books--on the cover of Thirteen Going on Eighteen #12, dated August-October 1964:

By using Stanley's known cartooning as a guideline, I have been able to determine his hand as a cartoonist in a great deal of other material. Stanley's linework and lettering are the two most helpful tells for me.

Of the two, his lettering is the most distinctive. Stanley was something of a chameleon as an artist. He mostly did his best to emulate the house style of the various licensed characters he handled. This conformation didn't come easily to him.

In his Little Lulu stories, and in some of the "Woody Woodpecker" pieces he drew for New Funnies, Stanley deadens his line, and surrenders a great deal of his personality as a cartoonist. The end-results are professional, but they lack the energy of his best cartooning.

(There are numerous examples of his cartooning work elsewhere on this blog. Use the SEARCH tool to locate them, if you're interested.)

Stanley absorbed much of Marge Buell's style into his mid-1940s cartooning. He seems to have tried his hardest to make good on Lulu. This effort paid off, at the expense of his expressiveness as a cartoonist. The lumpen human figures and stiff lines of his 1946/7 "Woody Woodpecker" stories are extremely close to his Lulu work. Ditto for the humans and urban settings of his original "Jigger and Mooch" series.

Before the stiffness of Lulu set in, Stanley created some remarkable cartooning in the pages of New Funnies and Our Gang Comics. My study of these early efforts, using his distinctive lettering as a compass, has revealed several stories in these titles as being written and drawn by Stanley.

We also have his Little Lulu and Tubby covers, with their bold, vivid brush lines, as a visual guide. Stanley drew many covers for Western Publications, before, during and after his 15 years on Little Lulu. Here is one example, from issue 98 of New Funnies, cover-dated April 1945:

This is a superb example of his pre-Lulu cartooning. Its sharp, buoyant brush lines, vigorous characters and strong, simple design are striking and highly effective. (Stanley didn't draw the character mug-shots to the left, but that's his lettering on the "Walter Lantz" signature.)

Stanley was a great comics letterer, especially in the 1940s. Here's a sample from the "Tom and Jerry" story he wrote and drew for Our Gang Comics #15, 1944:

Strong lettering skills were de rigeur for cartoonists and illustrators in the 1940s. Other strong letterer/artists who worked for Western at the time included Carl Barks, Walt Kelly and Frank Thomas. These three artists consistently produced work so visually distinctive that their lettering, while a tell, is a moot provenance.

In his cartooning work of the mid-1940s, Stanley seemed to strive to NOT stand out as a stylist. While his artwork has an undeniable character and energy, as seen in the above two examples, it only exists to serve the story.

The one notable exception is his work for the Raggedy Ann and Andy title, in the late 1940s. His original series "Peterkin Pottle," and his stories with the titular characters, are rendered in a loose, vivid brush line that seems much influenced by the postwar UPA/cartoon modern style. These two series are utterly unlike his other comic book stories in their uncontrolled, playful artwork.

I have recently identified several stories in 1944/5 issues of New Funnies and Our Gang Comics as being drawn by Stanley. In those titles, and in Animal Comics, are other stories that Stanley didn't ink, but clearly lettered.

This "Woody Woodpecker" story, from New Funnies #98, is a superb example of his low-profile, highly effective comics art, and is a fine showcase for his expressive lettering skills:

The Walter Lantz cartoon studio, in Hollywood, must have seen and liked this story. They produced an Andy Panda cartoon, The Wacky Weed, directed by Dick Lundy and released on December 16, 1946, that's quite similar to the plot and gags of this piece. The recurring bit with the weed strangling the flower is straight out of this story.

The cipher-like Panda is less effective in the role of harried Voice Of Reason. Stanley's ur-Tubby Woodpecker is a richer choice for this simple, lively humorous narrative. Woody's desperate attempts to cling to the margins of the respectable world make his stakes higher than the contented, dialed-in suburbanite of the Lundy cartoon.

Stanley conveys Woody's frantic angst in aggressive, highly amusing cartoon poses, each line infused with life. His visual take on the woodpecker is closer-than-average to the contemporary animated cartoons. (He does an even finer job of matching the screen Woody in his story for New Funnies #93, which is here.) Stanley was on a roll before the demands of Little Lulu tamped down his vibrance as a comics artist.

Don't get me wrong--his work on the series is fine. I feel he consciously hemmed himself in, in order to please Marge Buell and cinch his position on the series. This spiky vitality wasn't absent from his other work--particularly in the 18 one-page Woody gag fillers he did for New Funnies in 1947 and '48. (You can peruse these spirited, exciting pieces here...)

Some of that former liveliness returns in his work on the satellite Tubby title, in the early 1950s, and in a scattering of stories he drew for Little Lulu in the same decade. These 1950s stories form a fascinating bridge from his pre-Lulu work to his important 1960s auteur efforts, especially Thirteen Going on Eighteen, which contains his finest mature work as a cartoonist.

I believe I've uncovered all of John Stanley's 1940s work for Western Publications (save for five or six New Funnies issues yet to surface). A more thorough examination of these stories may reveal more pieces Stanley illustrated during his on-the-job training as a comics storyteller AND artist.
*: I'm not convinced the cartoon of the 3/15/47 issue--viewable here--was his only published work for the magazine. File under "Awaiting Further Research." I hope to be able to do some research in the New Yorker archives, if/when I get a book going on John Stanley's life and work.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

For Art-Lovers Everywhere: "The Hooky Team," from Little Lulu Four-Color 139, 1947

I did gigantic scans of this, one of John Stanley's longer Little Lulu stories, for the Jon Haddock art exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, which opens May 21st. Lucky patrons-of-the-arts in Scottsdale will enjoy seeing these scans adorning gallery walls, alongside other John Stanley stories, and works by Basil Wolverton, Rory Hayes, Fred Guardineer and others.

For those of us who aren't in Arizona (myself included!) I dedicate this post.

These scans are substantially smaller than the ones I provided for SMoCA, but they're still hi-rez, and have that unbeatable blend of pulpy, aged paper and off-center high-speed printing.

Most modern-day Lulu-philes will only have read this story in pallid black-and-white. Enjoy the textural goodness of 1947 newsprint, and savor one of Stanley's funniest early "Little Lulu" stories.

This is high-functioning, character-enriched situation comedy, which benefits from John Stanley's gentler, more thoughtful approach of his later 1940s work. The Stanley of the 1950s seldom did such relaxed, ambling stories. As well, his tendency to give the humor a more brassy, aggressive slant resulted in shorter stories.

Stanley, here, is on the verge of defining the characters of Lulu and Tubby. They're still more kid-like than the final versions, which would emerge by 1950. All the rules and regulations which would soon govern the series aren't yet present. For example, Lulu freely enters Tubby's club house, which is not yet sanctioned a no-girl zone.

Their personalities, rather than the story's narrative events, run the show here. Stanley indulges his enjoyment in the characters of Lulu and Tubby. Thus, "The Hooky Team" is a suite of leisurely set-pieces. My favorite is the Tubby-led sequence on pp. 14-17. As with Stanley's version of Jerry and Tuffy Mouse, from "Tom and Jerry," the adult world is still one of mystery and exploration. His impulse to answer the Moppets' phone, in the guise of a stereotyped English butler, is a keenly achieved moment of character comedy.

The kids' destruction of adult property, usually without a clue of their actions' affect on adults, is an early Lulu device that was dropped as the characters got more distinct--and smarter. Lulu and Tubby's transformation of women's high-heel shoes into viable footwear is among the funnier examples of this soon-discarded Stanley strategy.

Stanley enjoyed the off-beat ending. He didn't employ this device constantly. It's used to great effect at this story's conclusion. In such endings, Stanley assumed that his audience were smart readers, and gave them the benefit of the doubt.

That's all I've got for this story. I wish the SMoCA a successful, well-attended show. If you're in Scottsdale, or nearby, go see it!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Whistling in the Graveyard: "Woody Woodpecker," from New Funnies 118, 1947

Here's a so-so "Woody Woodpecker" story, from John Stanley's most active period on the New Funnies title.

Before we begin, I'd like to share with you an image from the back cover of this 1947 funnybook. '47 subscribers to New Funnies received a sub-standard picture of Andy Panda, suitable for framing, and 100 of these delightfully casual lickem-stickem labels:

I love how the characters just stand there, doing nothing. Their gaze suggests that they're watching a fascinating event that we don't get to see. Nowadays, they'd have to engage in visual multi-tasking--throwing a Frisbee while texting, or eating a hot dog while skateboarding. (And, of course, Li'l Eight Ball, and his disproportionally freakish feet, would be literally out of the picture...)

That diversion (and catchy image to attract new readers) out of the way, here's today's story. There are my scans.  Because I didn't have access to Photoshop, I had to leave 'em their amber tone of ancient newsprint. If nothing else,these scans offer a solid replica of reading the actual funnybook.

This untitled story has a schizophrenic structure. It begins as a domestic comedy of frustrations, and ends as a spook-show, populated with typical Stanley graveyard-humor tells. Woody acts Tubbishly throughout. No one would choose this as an example of John Stanley's best work. But even his detritus has some value. Read 'n' see...

This story shows the merits and flaws of Stanley's spontaneous story-telling. I'm sure that he had no idea the story would shift locales from apartment building to graveyard as he started writing and sketching.

That improvised approach lends a giddy air to the events, tho' they lack the more solid base of a carefully plotted narrative. But a more tightly planned story might not have the remarkable ending of this piece. Indeed, those last two panels save this story. They reinforce the random-Dada aspect of Stanley's Woodpecker. He is a creature of impulse, coasting from whim to whim, not much caring where these abrupt decisions take him.

Stanley was fond of the comically portentous figures seen in this story from p.4 on. The bearded character turns up in several of his 1944-47 stories. They remind me of R. Taylor's 1920s Canadian comic-strip, The Mystery Men, which I doubt John Stanley ever saw:

Taylor later became a successful cartoonist for The New Yorker and Playboy. Stanley briefly cracked the New Yorker market, but apparently abandoned it (file under "Research, Further"). Taylor's creepy saucer-plate eyed characters were popular enough to be compiled in hardcover in the 1940s.

The cartooning in this 1947 story is fluent and pleasing. The artist (Dan Gormley, I guess) took pains to make Woody look more like his on-screen version. It's graceful, appealing cartoon art, in which Stanley's hand is less evident that usual.

Stanley returned to the graveyard locale many times in his classic run of Little Lulu and Tubby stories. Stanley's graveyards all look alike, with those cliff-like raised plots and rounded purple-grey tombstones. Background elements are as much as Stanley "tell" as the chompfs and yows.

Next time, you'll see one of Stanley's longest stories, and how it ties into a contemporary art exhibit! Check back on May 21st for the full story...