Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Clyde Crashcup Christmas: A Rambling Yuletide Epic From 1963

I thought I'd used up all the Christmas-themed Stanley Stories. Hidden in plain sight, perhaps waiting for this moment, was Stanley's last, and longest, Yuletide-themed narrative. It occupies 40% of this uniquely schizoid holiday special, published in late 1963:
This 84-page book was illustrated solely by Bill Williams. The "Alvin" stories, which eat up almost 50 pages,  are obviously not Stanley's work. They're talky, static and witless.  Worst of all, they're written down to a presumed audience of Keane-eyed tiny tots.

The 34-page "Clyde Crashcup" Christmas adventure, with its myriad Stanley stylistic tells, augmented by Williams' lovely cartooning, is a lost bridge between their epic collaboration, Dunc 'n Loo, and Stanley's late auteur work.

Yes, I just did a post on this character. I hope the repetition isn't a bore.  Irving Tripp, and other staff artists, did the finishes on the five issues of the regular Crashcup book. It's a real treat to see Bill Williams' animated, jolly cartoon style applied to these characters and their world.

Williams' artwork makes even the dull "Alvin" segments bearable, despite their absolute lack of narrative interest. When his energy as a draftsman meet's Stanley's as a storyteller, the results are always dynamite.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this story may have been created as a stand-alone 36-page comic book. No attempt is made to cohesively connect it to the "Alvin" sequences. The episodes are shuffled amidst "Alvin" material and kiddie activity pages.

Stanley's other giant-size comics (done with the "Little Lulu" and "Nancy and Sluggo" characters), which can be read elsewhere on this blog, weave subtly inter-related stories. The individual pieces can stand alone. Read together, they're a loose-flowing, understated narrative. Stanley does enough call-backs to prior stories, late in these books, that they emerge as a satisfying whole.

These come too late to have been potential candidates for Dell's Four Color one-shot series. Western Publications had long split off from Dell, into Gold Key Comics. The Four Color series expired with issue 1354, cover-dated April/June 1962. Post-Western Dell published a series of one-shot 84-page giant comics (including Stanley's notorious Tales From The Tomb). For a penny over the price of two newsstand comics, readers got an extra 16 pages of (usually vacuous) content. Such a deal...

As a last hurrah for the Williams-Stanley collaboration, this episodic comics novella has a certain wistful charm.  As with his earlier Christmas comics, Stanley sneaks in some dryly amusing twists of irreverence--a much-needed alternative to the reverential quality of many such episodes. Here goes...

The most amusing moment in this piece occurs in its second chapter. Crashcup envisions Santa Claus as a person meant to take away unwanted things. In a rare moment of connection, Clyde listens to Leonardo, his voice of reason, and has a remarkable reaction, in the form of a Tubby-esque tantrum/rant:

This moment captures the essence of the attitude of John Stanley's favorite character type. The entire page brims over with playful anger, as Crashcup poo-poohs the notion of Santa Claus as a giver of gifts, and not a junk removal service.

In another recurring Stanley theme, a pair of criminal types, played for laughs, rock Crashcup's dreamboat and attempt to harness his redundant inventions for their own profit. These Ivy League thugs are a far cry from the criminals in an early Stanley masterpiece, "Little Lulu Is Taken For A Ride." A comparison of these two stories shows how Stanley's approach and comedic vision changed  from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The 1947 story devotes more on-screen time to the ponderous fumblings of the Laurel and Hardy-esque crooks. They are depicted with more gravity. Despite their quirky personalities, it's evident that they mean business. The criminal element in this Xmas story is more stream-lined and Space Age-oriented. They dress like Madison Avenue junior execs, own a getaway helicopter, and have ambitions to nose in on Santa Claus' business, the better to make it turn a profit.

The bad guys are just as self-deluded as the good guys in John Stanley's world. To remind us of this, one of the two "Baby-Faced Bank Robbers" makes this sublime Tubby-esque utterance:

Williams' cartooning really works with the 1960s vision of John Stanley. Their body of collaborative work is a bright spot in an uncertain age for the American comic book.

I'm struck by the moment, on the second page of chapter 5 ("Polar Problems"), when Crashcup and Leonardo fall from their balloon to what seems like certain death. Crashcup does not attempt to invent a way out of dying. It's a rare moment when the pivotal Stanley character-type is jolted out of their self-immersed reverie, and is unable to function through the lens of their cognitive biases. Thank goodness for that chimney!

Which leads us to another subtle joy of this story--Stanley's depiction of a temperamental Santa Claus. I suppose anyone would be caught off-guard by two men in lab coats dropping down their chimney! The touch of crankiness in Stanley's Santa is a small but divine detail.

Such flourishes, including Crashcup's floridly alliterative speeches and Leonardo's body language, in reaction to Clyde's dithering self-delusion, are present in Stanley's work from his first stories. It's one of his strongest hallmarks as a writer and humorist--these little touches that don't necessarily call attention to themselves. They idly bob on the surfaces of his stories, and if you notice them, you're rewarded for your effort.

Next time, I hope to have something to share with you that I guarantee you've never seen before! Keep checking back here...

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