Thursday, August 23, 2012

Comics Within Comics: John Stanley's Little Lulu Fairy Tale Meta-Stories

The hundreds of spontaneous fairy-tales that occur in John Stanley's Little Lulu offered their creator a constant, reliable escape route from formula.

These playful comics-within-comics were, themselves, among Stanley's successful recipes for writing a popular monthly comic magazine.

When the two stories presented here today first appeared in print, in two consecutive 1951 issues of Marge's Little Lulu, the title was among the best-selling newsstand publications in America. Stanley was in a position of great potential pressure. He created stories that children and adults read in equal measure, and on completely different planes of enjoyment.

The responsibility might have psyched out anyone who stopped to think about it. Most likely, John Stanley was simply too busy with the work to take stock of his position. Lulu, by dint of its high circulation, was potentially as influential a magazine as Life, Time or The Saturday Evening Post. As a comic book, it, by no means, stood to change public opinion, or address crucial modern issues, as did those slick magazines. But it was as widely read, and its readership depended on its creative team to deliver the goods, month in, month out.

By 1951, Stanley's Lulu rests on a series of narrative fill-in-the-blank situations. There are rarely any substantial surprises or big changes in its stories. Significant new characters are seldom introduced; everything stays the same, reassuringly, issue after issue.

This was a recipe for hackwork. The miracle of Stanley's Lulu is that it is one of comics' few genuinely renewable resources. From the wry malapropisms of the text feature Lulus Diry to the fractured fairy tales of today's post, Stanley's work on Little Lulu seldom departs from its short list of themes. Despite this set-up, the inner workings of each story make some small but significant twist or variation. Themes are richly mined for every possible switcheroo, substitution or inversion.

In some circles of comics academia, the Little Lulu fairy-tale stories are considered inferior to the body of John Stanley's other work. Why? They're too wordy, some say, and the constant narration takes them out of being pure comics. I respectfully disagree. Not only are these pure comics--they're comics within comics!

Here are some examples of comics that aren't really comics. There should be no surprises here:

Pretty drawings galore, line-work and color, and a narrative, all situated within ruled boxes. (Not to mention Tarzan's impressive mullet.) Comics, right? They were published in newspaper comic sections, and they did contain something that compelled readers to return on a weekly basis.

Yet these picture-stories lack the one defining tool that makes comics comics.

Part of the distinct recipe of comics is the speech or thought balloon. It is a narrative device unique to the form. The creation of this tool, in the 19th century, gave comics the one thing that set them apart from prose, paintings, plays, movies, video games, TV shows and any other visual-verbal container for a flowing narrative.

Much can be said about comics' ability to refract, expand and reshuffle time--something the form does more adroitly than any other medium. Novels, movies and plays thrive on flashbacks, but they require an often burdensome set-up--one that has been a self-parodic device for decades.

John Stanley was aware of the cliche aspects of narration, flashbacks and other pop narrative tools. He wryly plays with these devices in all his comics. Their ongoing apotheosis occurs in the Lulu fairy-tales. At regular intervals, Stanley used this best-selling magazine as a forum for his most playful tendencies as a storyteller.

These stories kept him centered through his 14 year tenure on Little Lulu. They offer a constant, flowing journey to and from the cluster of story tropes at Lulu's foundation. They offer 21st century comics creators an object lesson in how to tell a story. They remind us how many viewpoints, biases and angles we have to relate any narrative, from the mundane to the mythological.

Here are two of Stanley's finest fairy-tale creations, from issues 33 and 34 of Marge's Little Lulu. You may have read these in the black-and-white reprint versions, but take a moment to read them as they were originally presented...

"Very Little Lulu" amounts to a realistic nightmare. In her self-narrated story, Lulu anticipates Richard Matheson's existential 1956 science-fiction masterwork The Shrinking Man (made as a genuinely poetic movie by director Jack Arnold in 1957). Though her first reaction to the crisis is a good ol' boo-hoo-hoo meltdown, she quickly recovers, and soldiers on, despite the new struggles she must face.

As we do in our dreams, Lulu accepts the change and adapts to it. And, as in Matheson's book, published five years later, an encounter with a cat dominates the narrative. In Lulu's case, the cat is an ally: "Ol' Harry, a stray cat I used to give a saucer of milk to... when Mother wasn't looking!"

Animal conflict is replaced with empathy, and the potential threat provides a return to Lulu's home. "Very Little Lulu" operates on what little Little Lulu knows about the ways of the world. Her story is both a parenting device (its notion that rainfall causes child shrinkage is there only to dissuade Alvin's impulses) and a revelation of how she sees the world as a child.

This micro-world is both dangerous and safe. She reacts to it with the fear and awe of a genuine child, but absorbs and copes with it believably. This event is not a gateway to unending Hollywood fantasy. It's a problem that appears to be the shape of her life, from that moment on. The normalcy of her reactions and efforts are remarkably realistic, given the inherent playfulness of the story's genre.

In its mood and themes, this story is a revisit of one of Stanley's late "Tom and Jerry" pieces. It shows Stanley's awareness of continuing themes in his work, and of his thrift as a storyteller. Why beat one's brains out, in search of fantastic new concepts, when much can be mined out of single ideas, such as this? A comparison of these two stories reveals much about John Stanley's MO as a mainstream storyteller.

Stanley's fairy tales routinely burlesqued the more established works on their genre. Issue 34's "Lulu Van Winkle" is a prime example of this bent. Its rigid structure immediately reminds us of the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen. Stanley rubs that structure rawly against itself, with remarkable results:

"Lulu Van Winkle" is a prime example of how Stanley framed these fairy-tales in the reality of the series' world.  What occurs before and after the interstory tells us much about that world. The unpredictable, anti-social behavior of neighbor-brat Alvin explains itself.

Privacy, personal space and propriety are not in his database. It's this lack of social decorum, and its constant terms of negotiation, that impel Lulu to invent her stories. They're acts of desperation, dispensed with a poker face.

Alvin is the figurative man-on-the-ledge, and Lulu the crisis negotiator. Hers is an exhausting role in a dysfunctional relationship. It requires intense effort and spontaneity, with little or no reward for her action. Alvin is likely to dismiss Lulu's story as hogwash (if, as in this case, the episode is pure fantasy), or be completely unchanged in his disruptive behavior (if Lulu's tale has an obvious moral).

The unspoken tragicomic final flourish of these stories is that Alvin remains basically unaltered by Lulu's intense, sincere effort as a storyteller. If John Stanley viewed his Little Lulu audience with cynicism, these stories could be read as tacit screw-yous. But because his presence seems sincere, professional and wise, we are allowed to appreciate Lulu's obvious skill as a tale-spinner, despite the lack of success her stories have with her demographic-of-one.

As with "Very Little Lulu," this story reveals much about how Lulu sees the world, and what, of that, she really understands. In her eyes, when a man's axe handle is broken, he becomes an invalid. When a little girl sleeps for 20 years, she will grow a beard. This tier offers us some insight to her view of adult tempers:

The exquisitely funny tantrum, in that last panel, falls outside the traditions of fairy tales, and says much about how children stoically navigate the quirks of their elders. The story is much richer for the inclusion of this miniature s#it-fit.

Finally, this story reveals the subtlety of John Stanley's moments of social commentary. He was loath to date his stories with topical references, but here he comments wryly on the postwar housing boom, and how it changed the landscape of America:

The composition of this panel draws further on its narrator's experience. The sparseness of the landscape, and the suggestion of "millions and millions of little houses," expresses its teller's overwhelm. For child readers, such imagery was a gentle way to reflect back the changes they saw daily. For adults, it was a knowing nudge-in-the-ribs.

This one excerpt demonstrates how Stanley's Little Lulu was all things to its varied readership. Although Americans of 1951 likely took Stanley's monthly expertise for granted, we can clearly see, 61 years later, how very much is packed into these stories--on the surface and between their lines.

Thanks to Paul Tumey for encouraging me to write this essay.


Mestiere said...

Thanks for publishing this interesting essay.

Paul C.Tumey said...

norsran 723So glad you wrote this excellent essay, Frank! To my mind, the pre-Witch Hazel Alvin stories are among my top favorite comics. As you point out so well, there is a lot going on underneath the surface in these seemingly innocuous stories. If the Lulu stories are a codified secret guidebook in growing up, the Alvin fairy tales are the appendix to the guidebook which lays out how the real world works.

I also admire these tales for the stream-of-consciousness play in them. This is a rare example of a master creator in work-for-hire comics being brave enough to let his mind free-associate, and often the results are dreamlike and beautiful. As for the abundant narration, Stanley actually makes it work very well, since the images are often wry counterpoints to Lulu's highly subjective version. It's as if the words are Lulu's but the images are Alvin's. It's cognitive bias at its finest -- the essence of humor, as you taught me, Frank.