Thursday, June 9, 2011

More Early Stanley Cartooning: Two Stories (and cover) from New Funnies 92, 1944

This 1944 issue of New Funnies has eluded me for years. Thanks to a complex series of events, I finally have it.
To my delight, it has two of John Stanley's most flat-out funny 1940s stories.

As well, its cover (seen, in inset version, to your immediate left) and its "Woody Woodpecker" story
are drawn by Stanley. The WW story is, to my best knowledge, the first strip in the series Stanley both wrote and drew. (I'm still missing issues 87, 88 and 89 of New Funnies, and, for all I know, Stanley may have some early artwork in those. Time will tell, as ever.)

Stanley's vivid, spiky pen line and his more streamlined approach to cartoon art make his work a pleasure to look at--and to read.

This post is an extension of my prior entry--it again focuses on the 1940s comic book art of John Stanley. These two stories also showcase his skill as a comics comedian. Stanley's knack, even in 1944, lay in heaping stakes-raising situations atop one another. This house of cards proves shaky shelter for his befuddled protagonists. Their uncertainty and discomfort feed into the growing dilemma, and fan the flames of Stanley's four-color comedy.

Stanley's approach to character is also streamlined. His best characters have less subtle shadings than, say, Carl Barks' ducks. Stanley was never prone to moments of reflection, as in this famous sequence from Barks' 1949 story, "Luck of the North"
Stanley's characters tend to lead such rich inner lives--or are intensely focused on managing the path of those self-centered "Tubby types"--that they have little time or space for such quiet reflection.

In general, Stanley's characters are slaves to his narrative whims. Things happen because they're there. Things happen TO Barks' characters--his narrative sense is much more built on coincidence and the random whims of fate.

Stanley's characters almost always WANT something specific. This desire--usually Quixotic, at best--drives them into the narrative. Barks' characters are goal-oriented, and often desire a certain state, or thing. Barks' sense of story and comedy often takes them AWAY from their goal. The comedic tension of his best stories involves their frustration at not attaining their ideals or intended ambitions.

Much more can be said about the Barks vs. Stanley topic. I'm sure that what little I've said here will irk some readers; so be it.

Up first is a very funny "Andy Panda" story. The finished art and lettering are not Stanley's. The finishes look much like some of the Stanley-written work for Animal Comics, at the same time in 1944. The inker sticks very close to Stanley's layouts.

Early in this series, Stanley didn't hesitate to swap the roles of Andy Panda and his domestic partner, Charlie Chicken. Here, Andy is the impulsive chaos-causer, and Charlie the woebegone voice of reason. This welcome trade-off creates some hard-edged screwball comedy. Read 'n' enjoy!

Andy and Charlie leave a trail of destruction in their combined wake. Their obliviousness to the cause-and-effect arc of their actions--and their good-natured attitudes--are worthy of several strong belly-laughs.

Andy's decision to attend the baking contest in drag, while a necessary stakes-raising plot wrinkle, throws another screwball element into an already heady mix. Their destruction of a streetcar (always  a talisman of narrative complexity in Stanley's world) with their anti-cake is among the funniest moments in all Stanley's work. That Andy is dressed in high heels and a Carmen Miranda hat, while all hell breaks loose, and that he retains his momma garb at story's end, adds further shadings of absurd humor.

In the end, these agents of chaos come out winners. No recriminations for their reckless actions--it's cash and acclaim for the cross-dressing bear and his faithful, bemused poultry pal. The absolute lack of morality in Stanley's 1940s work (save for a few moments in his early Little Lulu stories) is refreshing. It gives his work a modernity that makes it still fresh and readable, almost 70 years after its creation.

I've saved the best for last. This beautifully cartooned "Woody Woodpecker" story seizes the comedic potential of the character far better than any of his contemporary animated cartoons. As in the Walter Lantz cartoon shorts, Woody is an agent provocateur, all too ready to grind an ax if someone or something offends him.

In Stanley's hands, this potentially abrasive character earns our sympathy, even as he wreaks havoc in an escalating war of wills with a pragmatic park employee. The urban public park, with its un-comfy benches, forbidden flower beds and fountains, rolling hills, winding paths and fluffy trees, is a familiar stage setting of John Stanley's world. This park turns up time and again in his Little Lulu and Tubby stories. It's an open backdrop for the rollicking chaos of this six-page story.

Again, hard-edged comedy drives this story--Woody's ass-prodding on page one, his anarchic alteration of the sign on page two, and, of course, his desecration of the statue of James J. Twaddle. Woody's a-hole tendencies get the best of him, and he goes too far. His silent, story-closing humiliation seems apt.

Stanley's cartooning seethes with energy here. His characters are constantly in frantic motion, and their poses and body language add a great deal to the story's effect. What could have easily been six pages of knockabout filler brims with comedic life. The more angular, stylized tendencies of Stanley's cartooning are on attractive display here--the Twaddle statue, for example, and the more propulsive running poses of the woodpecker.

Had Stanley focused more on being a cartoonist, we might not have the body of Little Lulu stories--the cornerstone of his reputation as one of comics' finest writers, past, present or future. The literature of comics would be the worse for the lack of Lulu. The published examples of his 1940s cartooning are skillful and expressive, and show a potential that would not be fully realized for another 20 years.

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