Saturday, July 14, 2012

"The Little King" Pt. III: Stanley's 1950s Man-Child

In the mid-1950s,  John Stanley was fully occupied with his work on the best-selling Little Lulu and Tubby comic books. The potentially high-pressure demands of the job were tempered by a series of foolproof formulas he concocted for the Lulu stories.

Stanley had a number of sturdy structures at his disposal. By 1955, he could pretty much fill in the blanks of a series of self-generated "Mad-Libs"-style scenarios and produce high-quality comic book stories.

This didn't leave him much room for experimentation. The 1950s were Stanley's most domesticated years as a comics storyteller. And while his Lulu work is uniformly strong, at times one can feel him in creative doldrums.

Little Lulu didn't accommodate all the facets of his storytelling and comedy. For a period of two years, he tempered this with a series of wildly imaginative stories for the satellite book, Tubby, which he wrote and drew.

The energy and focus required by total cartooning was apparently too much for Stanley. He laid down his pen and brush in 1956, not to touch it again until 1963.

Among the few outlets afforded him, in this Lulu-centric phase of his career, were a trio of spirited, delightful one-shot books based on O. Soglow's pantomime newspaper strip The Little King. These comics mark the first faint inklings of John Stanley's 1960s sensibility. He clearly strives for something beyond the Lulu and Tubby stories he produced like a machine.

The Little King is basically Tubby in a royal robe. How this fellow became a monarch is a back-story I'd like to see. The trappings of kingdom bore him silly. He'd rather play marbles, noodle about back roads, or take a nap under a spreading tree, as you'll see in these two stories.

Like Tub, Stanley's Little King is overly fond of his own voice. After being mute all those years in the Soglow version, he must have had pent-up chatter galore. On the first page of today's first offering, note the King's eloquent "Tubby talk," as he bitches about his job, rhapsodizes about the greener grass he sees below, and then talks himself into abandoning his post to, literally, go fly a kite.

This first story is from the first of the three comics, Dell one-shot 494, dated September, 1953. This appeared between issues 5 and 6 of Tubby, which Stanley wrote and cartooned. He worked on this book while also writing the monthly Lulu, and fully creating the quarterly Tubby. Oy, such a workload! He does appear to have genuine fun with these stories.

This story's irregular length (22 pages) is evidence that Stanley just sat down and wrote, letting the narrative play out at whatever pace it demanded. Like Jack Kirby, Stanley was an on-the-fly storyteller. He never pre-planned his work. In more regulated titles such as New Funnies, Our Gang or Lulu, story page counts were more important. Here, it just goes 'til it stops.

The Little King's self-absorbed abhorrence of paperwork, meetings, and the other chores of royalty are often amusing--especially in the story's first page, with the King's brusque "yes, yes, yes..." as he leaves a trail of royal documents, then slams an official door in the face of his envoy, who appears resigned to this working condition.

Like the Soglow original, the King is a man-child somehow placed in a position of ultimate authority. Soglow's panto original lacked the luxury Stanley has here. By giving the King a voice--that of a precocious kid who's wise to the system--Stanley increased the character's potential.

Two earlier animated versions of the Soglow character also reflected these character traits. The low-rent Van Beuren studios released a series of Little King cartoons, some directed by outre animator Jim Tyer. In these sometimes-charming, sometimes-huh?! cartoons, the King remains mute.

One curious 1935 cartoon, Betty Boop and the Little King, gave the monarch a wheezing, whistling lisp of a voice, and a lascivious streak never seen before or after this iteration...

Stanley's Little King is asexual  (and prepubescent) in his interests, desires and ambition. His abandonment of the throne to his kid friend Kit, who then wreaks havoc with the empire's economy, is an arbitrary, childish action.  This selfish, irresponsible move nearly destroys the kingdom--a consequence that never quite dawns on its dotty man-child ruler.

As in much of Stanley's work, these undercurrents do not immediately impress the reader.  The darker stuff lurks quietly, just below the primary-colored surface.

A year later, Stanley wrote a second Little King one-shot. "The Statue," selected from that issue (597, if you must know), shows a substantial change in his comedic and storytelling choices. It reads more like one of his post-Lulu stories--the tone is brassier than Lulu's, the pace faster and the escalating situation comedy more aggressive.

"The Statue" doesn't have the frenzied, trumpeting pace of Stanley's Nancy and Sluggo stories, or his explosive, highly physical sitcomics of the '60s. It is an important transitional story in his career. For the first time, Stanley plays with the game-pieces of comics in a different way. The changes are subtle: he was not yet prepared to paint in broad, bold strokes. Even if careful, these are notable steps forward.

Sculptors become a recurrent source of comedy in Stanley's post-Lulu work. Leonardo Da Granite is not wacky, as is the beatnik sculptor of Kookie, or the desperate chiseler of the Nancy story "Artist's Muddle":

Artists are constant agents of chaos in John Stanley's world. The more highfaluting their aims are, the harder they fall. Da Granite is a humble craftsman, in comparison, but his presence importantly bridges Stanley's past and future.

If Stanley had left Little Lulu at this time, rather than in 1959, he might have refined this new vision of comics humor and storytelling earlier. Lulu arguably arrested Stanley's development in the latter half of the '50s. It never became an obvious millstone. The series was a bento box of familiar scenarios and relationships. Each issue had to be filled a certain way. This process arguably muted his powers as a comics creator.

As a professional, Stanley routinely delivered the goods, and his late run of Lulu, impressively, never becomes mechanical. His 1955-59 work is the most static and unyielding of his career. It's refreshing to find the few loose pieces of flotsam, such at the three Little Kings, which show Stanley thinking outside the bento box.

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