Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween Hoo-Hah: "The Spook Tree," from Little Lulu 34, 1951

Apologies for the lack of postings here lately. In part, it's because I'm busy promoting one graphic novel and, with my friend and collaborator David Lasky, trying to finish the other, much bigger one.
As well, it's getting harder to find new material of interest, without resorting to the obvious. But resort I shall, today.

I'm sure many Stanley Stories followers have a modicum of patience for the more obscure material I present here. What the people want is more Little Lulu. Although her complete works have been reprinted, Lulu's pre-1955 stories have yet to be presented in accurate color versions. Like Harvey Kurtzman's self-drawn stories for EC Comics, Stanley and Irving Tripp's Lulu needs color to be complete.

I was recently gifted with super-hi-rez scans of "The Spook Tree," which is among the best of John Stanley's many stories with supernatural themes. Since it's Halloween and all (and since I've exhausted the available stores of horror-themed Stanley comix), it's time to put this one on display.

To read this story in color--even crappy high-speed press Dell Comics color--is preferable to seeing it in brutal black and white.

"The Spook Tree" is the rare Stanley supernatural piece that doesn't try to blur the boundaries of consciousness. Unlike "The Guest in the Ghost Hotel" or the untitled "Li'l Eight Ball" story from New Funnies #101, "Spook Tree" is, like one of Lulu's on-the-fly fairy tales, framed and contained.

Lulu's dream reflects her own social biases--that Tubby thinks only of himself, and that he patronizes Lulu, whom he thinks "hasn't got any sense." It includes a great deal of personal anguish. Twice, Lulu emits the wail of the lost and disconnected in John Stanley's world:

BAW! is the anti-YOW! These three-letter words convey the polarity of experiences in John Stanley's world. YOW can connote joy, anger, fear, surprise, irony, and other emotions. BAW is the banshee call when all is lost.

Both words were an established part of comics' vocabulary before Stanley used them. In his stories--particularly the Little Lulu pieces of the 1950s--these two simple words are the ultimate signifiers of his characters' well-being (or lack of same).

Stanley's most affecting use of BAW is in that "Li'l Eight-Ball" story from 1945:

As I commented in 2009, this is one of the most forlorn tiers in comic-book history. In the context of the story, it imbues the stereotyped Eight-Ball with raw, real feelings of sorrow. Due to the racial stereotyping, it's an awkward moment, viewed in a 21st-century perspective. But intense vibes of sadness come from these two panels.

The coloring of "The Spook Tree" is as harsh and flat as Lulu's self-fulfilling dream-fate. Earlier issues of LL with night scenes chose a softer, more atmospheric palette, as in this excerpt from issue #26:

The starker affect of the colors in "Spook Tree," whether intentional or not, support the jarring, edgy turns of the narrative.

Page Four uses a linear technique unique to this story. In panels three to six, radial black lines, with a yellow undercoat on plain pulp paper suggest the disorienting harshness of a street lamp on a dark night. The lines, connected to a sun-like disc of yellow, have a condemning quality.

As with most of her made-up fables, this fantasia seems self-punishing. In her waking state, Lulu is a sort-of authority figure. She accepts a great deal of responsibility, and enforces a kind of playground jurisdiction with her friends. She is called on to keep Tubby and Alvin in line (often by their parents) and speaks up when she sees them misbehave.

With the aid of her friend Annie, she often thwarts Tubby's elaborate schemes. In landmark stories such as "Five Little Babies" (LL #38), she subjects Tub and his clubhouse pals to epic public humiliation. Perhaps her role as victim, cast-out and put-upon, in her self-spun stories, are her tacit way of balancing her wheel of kiddie karma.

Little Lulu, though rooted in a recognizable, workaday reality, often excurses into the supernatural. Many of these instances occur in Lulu's improvised stories, or in her dreams (see "The Throw Rug", in issue #64, for another striking variant of this theme). "Haunted houses" recur in both dream and non-dream stories, with the children's imagination (and willingness to be scared) the crux of most instances.

Just beneath the benign surface of Little Lulu is the message that the world is a potentially frightening, harmful place. This notion, because it is real, carries more weight than the ghosts, goblins or spooks of Stanley's harmless fantasy sequences. This sense informs all of Stanley's work, and becomes more pronounced--and almost unbearable--in his Nancy and Melvin Monster stories.

In Little Lulu, this sense of unease, seldom stated outright, governs the stories, and gives them a gravity unlike any other mainstream American comic books. It's so deeply woven into the stories' fabric that it often flies below our radar. To notice this sense of unease is to read Little Lulu in an entirely new way.

The balance of light and dark is pitch-perfect in the Lulu stories of 1950-1955. It's easy to take these stories for granted. They lack flaws, and never rustle the reader's suspension of disbelief. By peeking under their entertaining surface, we see how complex these stories really are--and why they remain as potent in 2011 as they were in 1951--the year "The Spook Tree" was first published.


SPECIAL THANKS to Thomas H. Buchanan, who tipped me off on how to disable Blogger's lightbox display. Now you can view the pages of each story without that annoying hassle. If you have a blog on this system, and are bugged by the lightbox, here's all you need to do.

In Dashboard mode, choose the 'Settings' tab. Then choose the 'Formatting' sub-tab. On the list of options in Formatting, change the lightbox setting to 'no'.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Art Gallery II--Luluzinha e Bolinha: A South American Sidebar

This is not a "Little Lulu" blog--a fact that ought to be obvious by now.
This post is a rare excursion into the Lulu character, rather than the content of John Stanley's work.

I recently discovered some images and information about Brazilian reprints of John Stanley's "Lulu" and "Tubby" stories. They were apparently successful, and kept Stanley's work in the public eye long after it was gone in America.

Thanks to Kelly Shane for forwarding me this image. It asks more questions than it answers.

Note all of the John Stanley-created secondary and tertiary characters--including some that were seldom-used after the late 1950s (Gran'pa Feeb, for example).

The placement of these characters in balloons--many which don't seem to be tied to anything--adds to the Weird Factor.  Tubby's deep suntan is another item of concern...

The title tune of the LP was something of a pop hit in Brazil in 1966. It can be found on YouTube [EARWORM WARNING: It's that type of horrid sing-songy kiddie record sound that will haunt your brain, despite your best efforts to fight it off. If you think you can handle it, seek it out. Otherwise, stay sane and safe...].

The evident popularity of the Stanley-created Little Lulu world in Brazil was further confirmed by the internet. Long-running Luluzinha and Bolinha comics reprinted Stanley written-and-drawn material. (Bolinha is a endearing diminutive of "ball" in Portuguese, just as Luluzinha is, obviously, what it is.

Paul Tumey, the go-to guy for Jack Cole information and critical writing, was present at this discovery. He turned up a Brazilian version of eBay, where many vintage copies of BraziLulu product could be found.  For wont of a meatier topic, here's another art gallery. In no particular order...

The cover to Little Lulu #77, and its Brazilian reprint. Note how the latter eliminates the all-important info in the red arrow. Dig, too, how the Brazil version favored the old-school, thicker LL logo, which the American version abandoned with issue 72.

LL 95, with its Brazilian reprint (note the curious Comics Code knockoff--a fate the American originals side-stepped).

The cover to Little Lulu 45, with its Brazilian version. Note the different cropping of the two editions.

The most interesting items in our exhibit are two Brazilian versions of Tubby #10. The editors musta really loved this cover, as they created an alternate version where Alvin is replaced by Lulu! The second one is quite obviously light-boxed, with its dead traced lines.

Tubby #22: this cover ties with our prior Art Gallery installment. Here's an image of the original art by Stanley and Lloyd White, from that favorite post...

The cover to Marge's Tubby #5 (the first issue of the regular run, and you-know-what...

Tubby #6 and its S.A. twin...

Dangerously close to the end of John Stanley's tenure on Tubby is this cover from #34 and its gĂȘmeo... 

One example of the interior pages surfaced--from a Brazilian reprint of "The Hungry Goblin," among the best of John Stanley's Lulu-babysits-Tub stories. Above is the final page from its original American printing (LL 93) and the translated reprint. I didn't think comics could be colored less appealingly than 1950s Dells, but this Luluzinha sample page proves me wrong.
And that's all I've got! NOSSA!