Monday, June 11, 2012

For Safiyyah: A Pair of Nice, Long “Little Lulu” Stories from 1947 (via Four-Color one-shot 139)

I am occasionally made aware of younger readers of Stanley Stories. Recently, I got this nice e-mail from reader Safiyaah Khan:

As I’ve said before here, we take requests. I’m glad to offer two more vintage “Little Lulu” stories, from the seventh trial issue of the comic, prior to its becoming a regular book at the start of 1948. This issue’s lead story, the sublime “The Hooky Team,” was run here in this 2011 post. Here, for Safiyaah, are the other two stories.

These are longer-than-usual “Lulu” stories. In the previous one-shot issue (most of which has been “reprinted” elsewhere on the blog), Stanley delivered one of his longest and greatest stories, the comic-noir “Little Lulu Is Taken for a Ride.” While neither of today’s pair are quite that long, they’re both of a substantial page count.

Since it’s hot as Heck over most of the USA, here’s a refreshingly cool story. “The Big Snow Fight” was John Stanley’s first snow-as-weapon story for Little Lulu. It’s prefigured by a “Woody Woodpecker” story from 1945, which you can read here. As you’ll see, this story is about something more subtle—and daring—than snowball war:

“The Big Snow Fight” is two stories in one. On the surface, there’s the snow battle between Lulu and Tubby and Johnny Wilkins and “his gang,” which eventually includes brat-next-door Alvin Jones. This is merely a duck-blind for the real narrative. A surprisingly complex and witty analysis of domestic life pitfalls, “Snow Fight” focuses on the growing aggravations of George Moppet—and on Tubby’s knowing interpretation of this family’s life.

The father is a moving target—as Lulu notes, “no matter WHICH way you throw a snowball, you’re SURE to hit POP!” Just by being in-frame, George Moppet is “it”—whether by intention, fate or random activity.

Tubby is an apparent connoisseur of domestic violence. In the story’s remarkable fourth page, his interpretation of a behind-closed-doors argument between husband and wife is disturbing to the Moppet family—even in this more violence-prone era:

The edgy nature of the scene that follows—in which the Moppet parents tackle Tubby and keep him at bay before he can spread rumors of family abuse—is handled with great subtlety, which is all the more remarkable that it happens in a 1947 all-ages comic book.

Stanley had a knack for skipping the middle scenes of a larger action. Between the last panel on page four and the first on page five, Lulu’s parents have mollified this potential town crier with sandwiches and milk. Mother Moppet, in a final check on the safety of her social status, hesitantly asks, in imitation of 1930s bandleader Ted Lewis, “Is everybody happy?”

Tubby can’t resist shattering the calm. His invitation to shovel the snowy sidewalk—for an inflated price—rekindles the tendency of this social group to squabble. The latent irony in the story’s title becomes clearer by this time. The “fight” has nothing to do with the three pages of snowball-lobbing between the kids. It’s in reference to the motile disagreements and interpretations that Lulu, Tubby, and Lulu’s parents lose themselves in as a group.

Their bickering and bargaining has a very real feeling, and Stanley lets it occur at a leisurely pace. Before things get too Harold Pinter-esque, the adult males descend into a parody of their children. They pelt one another with snowballs and insults. The climax, on the last panel of page 14, is a brutally funny inversion of adult and child behavior, with Father Jones hiding behind his wife as he orders George Moppet off of his premises.

As in the animal world, the female is left to mend the shambles made by males. Lulu’s mother, finding her spouse and child dead to the world in the wake of their snowy warfare, is left with the hard work of re-shoveling the snow, in the story’s appropriately silent close.

“The Big Snow Fight” achieves a level of sophistication unusual for even John Stanley. Rarely would the parents play such an active role in Lulu’s stories—and simply be themselves. Their barely disguised bewilderment in their roles as parents brings an unusual vulnerable quality to a medium allegedly just for kids.

The hand of artist Charles Hedinger is now evident in the Little Lulu stories. Hedinger joined Team Lulu with this seventh one-shot book. His more constrained, cramped figures differ noticeably from Stanley’s. To get a better sense of what Hedinger brought to the table, take a look at this signed one-page strip from a 1948 issue of Our Gang Comics. 

Hedinger would help define the look of Little Lulu—a style that would soon be perfected by Irving Tripp.  Hedinger helped to transition John Stanley off the actual cartooning on the series. Stanley’s hand is still strongly felt via his layout-scripts. Stanley returned to the art chores on Little Lulu, on at least two occasions, in the 1950s. He, of course, drew the covers of the magazine until the end of the 1950s.

The next facet of today’s double-header is one of Lulu’s early improvised fairy tales. “Lulu and the Bean Soup” accomplishes some skilled shattering of the fourth wall, as it serves up a witty, playful mangling of an overly-familiar public domain narrative.

Stanley’s hand as cartoonist is far more evident in “Bean Soup.” If Hedinger had any role in the finished art, it’s minor. This would be Stanley's last piece of full cartooning on Little Lulu for four years. As usual, the awkward construction of the Marge Buell-style characters hampers the spirit of his work, but he invests some of the minor figures with tell-tale signs that he was there.

As narrator and protagonist, Lulu considers knowledge of “Jack and the Beanstalk” common-place. As events take place in the story, she operates from the privileged position of an insider. The sale of the cow, on page five of the story, has Lulu refusing $5000.00 in lieu of the alleged magic beans that are the agent of change.

Lulu’s mother takes a pragmatic approach to the transaction, and makes soup from the beans. This skewers the conventions of the story, and causes Lulu the protagonist a new kind of trouble, as the bean soup seemingly covers the globe. Lulu wittily refers to her long voyage as being “at soup.”

By the time she encounters the story’s giant, the narrative has gone too far south. There’s no point in even pretending things will continue normally. No castle is ever visited (at least, on-panel). The giant’s onerous task is to eat all the bean soup. The top half of the story’s final page contains another witty visual metaphor, with the landscape becoming an organic soup bowl.

The wrap-up seems hasty, but Stanley ends the story on a characteristic off-note, with a punch line that will eventually become a series standard: that easily distracted Alvin seldom listens to Lulu’s stories. There’s too much else of interest in the world around him. At thirteen pages, “Bean Soup” has a leisurely pace, even if Stanley almost writes himself into a corner at the end.

After the social intricacies of “The Big Snow War,” Stanley might be forgiven for rushing the conclusion to this otherwise clever deflation of a fairy-tale cliché.

For a chaser, here are two elaborate one-page gags.

Stanley and his collaborators certainly gave 1947 readers value for money. “Big Business,” the first page, crams a remarkable 24 panels into its pantomime joke. The subtle changes from panel to panel heighten the humor of what might have otherwise been a simple filler.

I hope you enjoyed these two stories, Safiyaah—and ditto for everyone else!


Elliot said...

Terrific pair of Lulus this time, especially THE BIG SNOW FIGHT. I've always been partial to Lulu stories involving atmospheric disturbances--Stanley had a great, evocative way of handling scenes with heavy rain, but his snow stories were even better. Growing up in Michigan, I knew snow, and no other comic artist captured that unique quality of a snowy landscape, both urban and suburban, better than John Stanley. And as long as you're taking requests, here are a couple: THE EXPLORERS (from #66, a cool snow story) and, from FC-165, the notorious doll hair tale!

Frank M. Young said...

Thanks for your comments, as always, Elliot. I'll definitely do the doll hair story, as part of the LL four-color postings. I agree that THE EXPLORERS is a great LL story, too!