Friday, July 20, 2012

Scavengers of Snacks and Sexual Status: "Tom and Jerry" from Our Gang 19, 1945

John Stanley co-opted the "Tom and Jerry" feature in Our Gang Comics in 1945. For a few precious stories, he converted it into a vehicle for an emerging, highly distinct and personal style of comic-book storytelling. The results were ahead of their time, and sadly short-lived.

Stanley worked on the series from early 1943, and inherited it from writer Gaylord DuBois with issue 6 of the MGM-themed anthology, Our Gang Comics. Stanley contributed increasingly assured, sharp writing and cartooning to this series until early 1946.

By then, another licensed property--the licensed property of his career--called on his full attention. Little Lulu's growing popularity, as an original Dell comic book series, kept him busy producing 52-page comic books on his own, from script to art to lettering, in a constant series of one-shot editions.

Before Lulu became a regular Dell comic book, Stanley had let go of much of the final rendering. Charles Hedinger came aboard in 1947, to be joined by Irving Tripp sometime in 1948.

It's a pity that Stanley had to abandon "Tom and Jerry"-- he was on the verge of hitting a smart, hip and modern sensibility to comic books. He wouldn't get this vibe back until the early 1960s. Flashes of the razor wit and keen observational comedy of Thirteen Going on Eighteen is seen in some 1945 T&J stories.

This story is a sorta-sequel to one of the great Stanley stories--the T&J episode in Our Gang 15, which is part of this mega-post from a couple Yuletides ago. The focus is almost entirely on the outsider struggles of the mice, Jerry and the diaper-wearing Tuffy. Their hard-won attempts to find food, shelter and societal status are far above and beyond the intentions of the MGM cartoon original.

As Stanley did with licensed properties, he threw away most of the affect of the original, and re-invented the characters, and their world, in a superior comix-only variant.

Stanley's writing and cartooning are finely honed here. It isn't hard to see foreshadows of his '60s art style in this spare, effective cartooning.

Note the colorist's error on the last page, panel 6. Stanley does a cute sorta-follow through of Tom Cat's body from the previous panel. The colorist wrongly assumed that the grass was part of Tom's shaggy coat, and hued it that anise shade. It gives Tom a hunchback look.

The visual and verbal sophistication of this story is startling. This is the equal of Stanley's best Little Lulu work. It is arguably superior--there are higher stakes and a larger world than Lulu's early stories could provide.

The mice are low-status, without any guidance or assistance. In contrast, the suburban kids of Little Lulu are absolute libertines. They must conform to their parents' demands, but they have enormous leeway in the privileges they enjoy--and take for granted.

Jerry and Tuffy must scrounge for every scrap of food they find. They must be constantly wary of the genuine menace of Tom Cat. Their stakes are miles higher than the kids of Little Lulu. The worst they have to fear are truant officer McNabbem, the West Side Gang, or a spanking.

Stanley thrives on this ground-zero setting. In this, as in the story from Our Gang 15, Stanley introduces other mice who share this underground societal status. Giggles, the mindless girl mouse Jerry and Tuffy encounter, is not sexually aggressive, as is Mabel, the femme mouse from that earlier story:

Her absolute ignorance of the world around her, or of its dangers, makes Giggles a perfect foil for Jerry and Tuffy. As in that earlier story, Tuffy assumes the dominant role, which Jerry barely tolerates. Giggles is completely asexual--a significant trait not grokked by Tuffy, who trips on his own cognitive biases as he tries and fails to impress her.

The alleged antagonist, Tom Cat, appears in just 11 of this story's 70 panels. Stanley's interest lies entirely in the world of the mice--and, in particular, on the rich shadings of dysfunction in the friendship of Jerry and Tuffy. 

This is the stuff that gets Stanley going. The dense, playful dialogue of the story's fourth and fifth pages is Stanley at his very best. Every utterance of his characters defines their goals, biases and hopes. They become almost impossibly resonant for the 1945 funnybook page.

A characteristic of Stanley's best work is what I call the "off ending." This approach assiduously avoids the expected, or traditional, note of closure. This story's finale, with Tuffy not bothering to look up from his book, as he delivers a drop-deadpan "Don't be silly," is a stellar example of this device.

(A small thought: who wrote, printed and distributed these mice-size books, such as the one Tuffy reads here? I know we're not supposed to think about such things, but all the same...)

Stanley's cartooning comes close to expressing this abundance of character and wit. He experiments with a brush in this story. The results are better than in the prior issue, which is a masterpiece of technical chaos. Stanley's forte was the precise, flowing line of a nib pen (best seen in his "Jigger and Mooch" stories of 1947, and in the eight-issue run of Tubby he drew from 1952 to '54).

Stanley has trouble with the exaggerated ovals of '40s cartoon character eyes. They usually seem dead from his hand, and it was an obvious struggle for him to get them right. This uncanny quality of the characters' eyes robs this story of some of its overall effect. His establishment of each character's unique traits, via their dialogue, shores up the story sufficiently enough that this art gaffe is not ruinous.

Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories are perhaps his least-known work. They weren't identified as his efforts until I spotted them and studied them, over the past decade. At their best, they point the way to their creator's most sophisticated work, and show that the seeds of this mature style were present early in his distinguished comics career.


Thad said...

Page 5 - That's a cockblock if I ever saw one. All too human and all too familiar.

I do like the cartooning, and have gotten over my aversion to the use of the Jasper & Jinx models for the characters in the mid-40s, but Stanley really could have done a better job differentiating Jerry and Tuffy in these stories. They're almost interchangeable, save the diaper. I know he's got to work with what he's given, since THE MILKY WAIF wasn't deep into production until this comic came out, but they're even the same size - it's not like he was a novice and couldn't draw that conclusion himself without a modelsheet. It makes things very unclear when we see the mice from the waist up.

The writing, though, is flawless. Snappy, cynical, and satisfying.

Frank M. Young said...

Thad, it's always a gift to get a comment by you on this blog.

It's surprising how non-current the Dell versions of cartoon characters were, so often, in the 1940s. Tom and Jerry didn't really get to looking like their familiar screen selves until around 1947... same for Woody Woodpecker. And Western never got Daffy Duck looking right in comics.

I think Stanley wanted Jerry and Tuffy to be interchangeable. Their relative age was unimportant. The vital thing was that they were underground survivors in a giant, often hostile world, where very little made sense. I agree that Tuffy could have been a little smaller.

The characters are rivals and equals in Stanley's version. The age difference thing doesn't exist. Tuffy just wears a diaper because... uh... he likes them?

Glad you agree that the story, itself, is first-rate. I wish Stanley had been able to continue this series another year or so. When he came back, later in the '40s, this specific vibe wasn't there. I think "Lulu" took it away from him for a long time.

Thad said...

I read a quote from Walter Lantz saying that they based the screen Woody 1950s and onward on how he looked in the comic books; apparently Lantz thought the comb was more appealing. It certainly makes the character easier to draw and more suitable for the limited animation style Lantz would specialize in. For a period of no greater than five years, Phil DeLara captured Daffy Duck perfectly, having been an animator at Warners for so long.

My problem, though, is that Stanley definitely isn't writing the mice as interchangeable. Jerry is clearly older and more worldweary and nowhere near as naive and spunky as Tuffy in these stories. The coloring isn't his fault, but a little variation in the design would have went a long way. Stanley is a fine cartoonist, but he doesn't quite have it all together for T&J.