Saturday, May 19, 2012

Looking For "Tub" In All The Wrong Places: Proto-Tubby Stories from Our Gang Comics 15, 1945 and New Funnies 107, 1946

While working on my just-released bibliography of John Stanley's 1940s comic book work, I gave every non-Little Lulu Stanley story from that decade another look. I re-appraised a couple of pieces I had previously passed by. That they share a plot theme--a kid's desire to go toboggan-riding--struck me as more... than... coincidence... Thus, these two stories comprise today's post.

I've written before about Stanley's comedic archetypes. None are stronger, nor more present throughout his work, than the character I call "the Tubby type." This character is a Rosetta stone for determining whether an obscure story is--or isn't--John Stanley's work.

This archetype's mulish determination, blended with rose-colored self-regard, allows him/her to fearlessly step forward into scenarios of potential humiliation, ostracization and belittlement. Blinded by their usually flawed assumption that they're unerringly right, Stanley's Tubbies typically succeed. Not without some emotional scars, but they do win in the end.

Their victories are relevant to our daily lives. We seldom outright win, or outright lose, in personal events with high stakes. It's usually a muddled mix of the two. This, too, is the "win" scenario for Stanley's Tubbies.

Their societal rewards, always fleeting, exist just long enough to further convince these Tubbies that they're on the right track. Their stubbornness is often the agent of success.

A brief diversion: notable comics predecessors to Stanley's "Tubby Type" are the richly detailed characters of Major Hoople and Judge Puffle, from Gene Ahern's long-running features Our Boarding House and Room and Board. I've come to wonder if Ahern was an influence on John Stanley as a comedic writer.

The two share a bent for dryly absurd humor. Both also excel at escalation-comedy which always ricochets off the quirks and shortcomings of their eccentric characters. Ahern, if anything, was comics' closest equivalent to the comedic vision of  W. C. Fields. Both men shared a penchant for quirky domestic humor--tempered with unexpected doses of the surreal/absurd. As well, both Ahern and Fields wasted no time making their focus figures likable or heroic.

Stanley shows us the errant sides of his Tubby Types--indeed, that's the most interesting thing he sees in them. They suffer ridicule, but are tolerated, if not adored, by their more stable companions.

Ahern's Quixotic figures suffer a far worse fate than Stanley's. They are openly mocked by friends and family. They consider themselves learned men of the world, but are clearly regarded, at best, as dubious company by their neighbors and acquaintances. What might be heartbreaking theater-of-cruelty humor is salved, in Ahern's work, by these characters' unerring self-belief.

Ahern also used the phrase "CHOFF" to denote the joy of eating, as seen in this microfilm-derived panel from a 1952 Room and Board episode:

Paul Tumey found the Ahern CHOFF, which came as a surprise. I know of no other cartoonist who used this device. "YOW!" is widely used, throughout the history of comics. It can't truly be called John Stanley's property. "CHOFF," until recently, I considered Stanley turf. Stanley first used this bit of onomatopoeia in 1944. I haven't read enough of Ahern's work to determine the date of his first "CHOFF." Aren't you glad someone, in this cold hard world, thinks about these things?

Little of Gene Ahern's picaresque work has been reprinted. His comics are ripe for revival. Like the work of W. C. Fields, they may be funnier now than they were 60 to 80 years ago.

You can read more about Gene Ahern--and sample many of his fascinating comics--at my friend Paul Tumey's new blog, The Masters of Screwball Comics.

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Today's pair of (admittedly obscure) stories feature strong examples of Stanley's use of the Tubby type outside of Little Lulu. Each stars a marginal animation character whose life in comic books far outlasted their time on-screen.

We'll start with the most contentious figure in John Stanley's career--Li'l Eight Ball. Though Eight Ball's three screen appearances occurred in 1939, the character was kept alive in the pages of Dell's New Funnies for almost another decade. The reason, most likely, was to fill up the pages of the monthly anthology. Another Lantz non-starter, Homer Pigeon, outlived his screen version by many years in New Funnies, as did Oswald the Rabbit, whom Lantz pretty much abandoned in the late 1930s, but revived for a final, abortive 1943 cartoon.

The treatment of the Eight Ball character, in New Funnies, exemplifies the awkward transition of racial stereotypes before, during and immediately after World War II. African-American stereotypes intensified right after the war's end, just as they did in the years after World War I.

Oskar Lebeck's staff of comics creators struggled with Eight Ball in the mid-1940s. I have no knowledge of the racial beliefs of Lebeck or his staff. We know that Walt Kelly had strong liberal leanings in his newspaper Pogo strip, but little of this appears in his Lebeck work. His early "Albert the Alligator" material also features stereotyped African-American characters. In contrast, his low-key, long-running "Our Gang" feature has a black character (Buckwheat) who is on equal standing with his peers.

As this 1944 page from Our Gang Comics 14 shows, Kelly's Buckwheat is slightly more realistic than (though just as grotesquely caricatured as) Eight Ball. The warmth and whimsy of Kelly's work went a long way towards softening the blow, but the sting of racial reduction is still felt.

Buckwheat was the first to gradually shed his hesh mah mouf dialogue; it's gone from the strip by 1945. Kelly kept Buckwheat in the "Our Gang" cast until issue 44, in 1948, when he disappears, without comment, from the strip's cast.

Such caricatures were part and parcel of mainstream American media throughout the 20th century. For a late example of racial reduction, one has to go no further than Ron Howard's 1986 "comedy" Gung Ho. Subservient Asians, larcenous Gypsies and mono-syllabic Native Americans remained in mass media (and, in some cases, still linger) long after the minstrel-show African American finally disappeared from the horizon.

Even in the racially-challenged 1940s, Eight Ball was clearly something of an embarrassment to Lebeck's creators. His rural, sub-Joel Chandler Harris mush-mouthed earlier episodes gave way to more modern, urban settings. Gradually, the minstrel-show dialect vanished from the strip, although Eight Ball's nightmarish visage never changed. By 1946, Eight Ball (and the other, lighter-skinned African-American characters in the feature) talked the same as the Caucasians--and the "white" funny animals--in New Funnies.

Eight Ball still talks in minstrel show das-dem-dese in this early 1946 episode, but his blackness ceases to be otherwise noted. Perhaps Lebeck's staff (Stanley included) thought this might help make the character less of a shame magnet. A visual re-design of the character was probably out of the question by this point.

It's hard to get past the surface in these stories, but there are rewards. Eight Ball's stubborn tenacity to succeed, despite impossible odds, elevates this story above its obvious, cringe-worthy elements.

The layout of that last page is unfortunate, but that darned Statement of Ownership had to go somewhere...

Change Eight Ball to Tubby, replace the mush-mouth dialect with Tub's Caucasian kid-talk, and this could pass for a circa-1952 Little Lulu back-up feature. The piecemeal aspect of these Lebeck anthology comics is painfully evident here. Besides having to work around that obnoxious rectangle on the last page, the story seems to want to go longer. The sub-plot of the businessman McGargle, forced to wear the Hawaiian shirt to his board meeting, would have been catnip to Stanley, given more pages. The Tubby-figure's unexpected acclaim at the ski jump contest would have been nullified, or dampened, by the outcome of the McGargle incident.

This carelessness reveals the lack of interest held in the Eight Ball character by Stanley and his colleagues. The magazine's other black hole, "Homer Pigeon," was usually farmed out to West Coast cartoonist Vive Risto, but "Eight Ball" continued to be produced through Lebeck's New York office. It was clearly a chore for whomever had to produce the feature. When "Eight Ball" was dropped in 1947, due to protests from Greenwich Village grade school children, Lebeck's staff might have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.

Stanley occasionally wrote the adventures of Johnny Mole, an absolutely non-controversial cartoon schmo. Johnny, star of a one-shot 1941 MGM cartoon, was revived as filler for the back pages of Our Gang Comics. It was, frankly, more than he deserved. A few of his stories were written by John Stanley, including this 1945 piece. Also set in a wintry world of snow and sleds, it succeeds via its non-entity protagonist's unusually stubborn determination to go "bellywhomping," rather than help his parents with necessary snow removal:

This isn't much of a story--again, Lebeck's staffers clearly thought little of these minor back-ups. But moments of the essential spirit of the Tubby character peer through, especially in this priceless monologue from the story's third page:

The self-determination, against impossible odds, the retreat into inaction and the realization that the original goal will be lost if something isn't done quickly--this is the essence of  the Tubby type at work. These four panels, with their static staging, energized by the Quixotic ramblings of a misled character, are unmistakably the work of John Stanley.

Neither of these stories are highlights of Stanley's q.v., but they show that the Tubby archetype was important to their creator, and often the guiding force of his work in the 1940s. Stanley would perfect the Tubby character by 1950, in stories such as "The Gourmet" (Little Lulu 5) and "Great Day" (LL 23)--both readable elsewhere on this blog.

If you'd like to learn more about the early years of John Stanley's comic book work, consider a purchase of my 1940s Stanley bibliography:

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1940s John Stanley
bibliography for $2.99 USD,
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mr ed said...

Frank, I've got all (or close) of Ahern's dailies from 1928 on up. Out of curiosity I just went quickly through 1928 and 1929 and could not find a "choff" in sight. This may be because in none of the strips is anyone shown eating, not even when the Major is in Paris for a couple of months. Patrick Ford

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Patrick...

Thanks for your reply. I think Ahern's CHOFF appeared in the 1940s, in ROOM AND BOARD. I haven't seen any occurrences in his run on OUR BOARDING HOUSE. I just read the year of 1927, and nary a CHOFF was seen.

mr ed said...

Frank, As you have probably noticed many of the characters in Ahern's strips smoke, and there is a fair bit of coughing. This is always notated as "KAFF KAFF" slightly similar to "CHOFF" in a way. I'll glance through some Ahern from the '40s.
A thin version of the "Tubby Type" would be Andy Gump.
I have a personal example of how Tubby will prevail. My daughter has been reading Stanley since she was seven. She still reads him now at age twelve, and will reread stories often. She has always disliked Tubby, and when she was seven and eight she would actually not read Tubby's dialogue. Now suddenly just a few weeks ago she told me she likes Tubby, she likes Tubby better than Lulu, and she thinks Tubby is smarter than Lulu. Patrick Ford

Frank M. Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank M. Young said...

Let's try again...

Thanks for the anecdote about your daughter, Patrick. Deliberately not reading Tubby's dialogue... wow!

As for Ahern's boarding houses... I'm sure the air quality in them is extremely compromised by all that cigar and cigarette smoke... my eyes water at the very thought. I'd hate to get on the bad side of either Clyde or Mack, too... they are unforgiving nay-sayers!

mr ed said...

You mentioning Clyde and Mack reminds me to bring up the other proto-Tubby in Ahern's strip; a kid character named Alvin. Alvin is a bit more like the industrious "good" Tubby Stanley sometimes uses. Much like Barks' "good" Donald Stanley sometimes shows us a remarkably energetic Tubby. An example I just looked at showed the Major buying a boxed (contents unknown) lot from a warehouse. When it turns out to be clothes-pins Alvin offers to take the clothes-pins and sell them reimbursing the Major, and keeping any profit for himself. As it turns out Alvin makes ten times what the Major had bid and assumed was a bad investment.