Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naughty Nurses and Disillusioned Drunks: Stories from Linda Lark, Registered Nurse 2, 1961

PLEASE NOTE: With this post, I'm trying a new way to distribute the comics material on this blog. Please see the notice at the bottom of this post.

The text is full of spoilers, and is intended to be read after you've read the comics material discussed therein.

Please let me know if you like this new format--thanks! Look for this typographical roadsign at the bottom of this post:


After he left Little Lulu, John Stanley attempted to create several new comic-book series for his then-foundering publisher, Dell Comics.

His old alma mater, Western Publications, had split from being the packager of Dell's best-selling comic magazines. They formed Gold Key Comics, and swiftly went downhill (in terms of quality) and uphill (in terms of sales and success).

For reasons yet unknown, Stanley chose to leave Western and produce new material for the struggling, rebuilt-from-scratch Dell imprint.

Stripped of their long-running licensed titles and characters, the new Dell scrambled to get something distinctive on the highly competitive comic book market.

Dell's president, Helen Meyer, was apparently impressed by Stanley's talent. Less hooked was Dell's new comic book editor, veteran cartoonist L. B. Cole. Cole and Stanley apparently did not see eye to eye. I wish I knew more about their relationship; all I do know is that they rubbed one another the wrong way, and that Stanley was, apparently, unhappy with their working relationship.

After a long, nurturing relationship with Western's editor Oskar Lebeck, L. B. Cole must have seemed an ignoble replacement to Stanley. Cole's eccentric comic book work of the 1940s, mostly for skid-row publishers, showed a certain cracked flair.

Above is a typical 1940s cover design by L. B. Cole. His covers inevitably overpower the mediocre innards of these off-brand funny-books. It's too bad this penchant for the unusual didn't translate into an appreciation of Stanley as a person.

Though they locked horns, Cole did allow Stanley to experiment with the comics market. 1961 was a significant year for comics. It saw the full flowering of the return of the super-hero to the comics mainstream. This had been slowly building since 1956,  but the arrival of Jack Kirby (and Stan Lee)'s The Fantastic Four, late in the year, sounded a clarion call for the caped crusader-type.

That said, the marketplace was still malleable enough. War comics still sold well, as did watered-down science-fiction, funny animal, teen humor, romance and licensed-property based projects. Anything had the potential to take off, given the faddish nature of the reading public--and of popular culture in general.

Stanley, via Dell, tried horror comics, beatnik humor, teen humor, and, most improbably, soap-opera. Though leavened with seemingly unavoidable humor, Linda Lark, Registered Nurse was not a genre spoof. Its uneasy mix of daytime-drama and mild comedy made for a fascinating debut issue.

The sensibility is not terribly removed from that of Kookie, Dunc 'n' Loo, or the forthcoming Thirteen Going on Eighteen. The characters' actions--and reactions--are unmistakably Stanley's work. However, the general tone is intended to be at least a bit more serious.

As with Kookie, Linda Lark appears to be a comic magazine written for a slightly older audience. The innuendos and banter between the love-hungry nurses of City Hospital--especially from the explicitly comedic tomboy figure, Charley Stahk--is, if anything, stronger and more intended to amuse. There's less melodrama in this issue. The one potentially dramatic incident--in which yacht-owning non-swimmer Dr. Mayne falls overboard--is immediately snuffed by Stanley's comedic tendencies.

The untitled, three-part story weaves a loose narrative that lets character eccentricities take center stage. As Stanley often does, this story starts in medias res, with Broadway starlet Joyce Wilton wreaking emotional havoc with her constant demands and her I-deserve-better attitude.

Joyce Wilton is a classic Stanley antagonist. Full of herself, and convinced of her entitlement to the best things life can offer, Joyce makes a challenging patient for Linda and the other medicos on call. As Linda finds herself torn between the affections of dashing Doctors Blasko and Mayne, her sidekick, Charley Stahk, acts as a Greek chorus.

This off-duty encounter of Charley and Linda has echoes of similar conversations between Little Lulu and her tomboyish BFF, Annie:

Their banter-filled chat concludes with a beautifully timed, door-slam punctuated exit by Charley, which shows Stanley's wit and precision at its best:

In a how-to lesson in comic comics timing, the first tier ends page 10. The reader must turn the page to get the next tier. That instance of three-dimensional physical change adds to the comedic, character-driven effect of the sequence. It's almost wrong to see these two tiers together like this... but there's no way to do a "page turn" on this blog.

None of this jaunty kibitzing relieves the stress brought on by Wilton's me-first method. Before she can deal with the romantic tension between Wilton and Dr. Blasko, Linda is whisked away to tropical climes by Dr. Mayne and his yacht. (He's the well-to-do doctor, you see, and Blasko is a poor, struggling type.)

Charley is a tough cookie; she arms herself against the world with a plethora of wise-cracks, most of them intended to rankle their recipient. Stanley throws us off-guard, on page 16, with what appears to be a heartfelt revelation from this font of comedic wisdom:

Gotcha! It's a remarkable moment of rug-tugging, and it succeeds because the statement of Charley's, in the last panel, is actually funny--and a little bittersweet.

As with Stanley's horror comics for Dell, the lack of oomph in the artwork somewhat dampens the overall impact. John Tartaglione appears to be artist. I don't know if Stanley wrote these serious comics in the same manner as he's known to have written Little Lulu and Nancy--with vivid, rough drawings and panel breakdowns, pretty much ready to go.

Some of the panels (as in the horror material) are very awkwardly composed; others have moments of surprising grace. The compositions don't read with the certainty of Stanley's humorous 1960s material. It's possible that the artist had greater leeway in building the panels with Stanley's non-cartoon humor efforts.

While the story meanders, with no event that comprises a main narrative focus, its loose threads are impressively gathered in the book's fourth quarter. Dr. Blasko's conscience-clearing explanation, at story's end, leads to a sublime final statement from Nurse Lark--itself seemingly the punchline around which the 26 pages were written:

A recipe for a throwaway genre comic becomes a sharp shuffle of characters, events and atmosphere in John Stanley's hands. As with its first issue, this second Linda Lark shows Stanley ready, willing and able to write comics for an older audience. He rolls his eyes at the plot cliches, right along with the reader, and creates several remarkable sequences of more mature comedic banter--something no other comics writer was doing in the early 1960s.

In, er, stark contrast to the first issue's Charley Stahk solo story, the issue's backup feature is the fascinatingly somber (and self-revealing) "Tramp Doctor." This story strips away the layers of gloss and sparkle that precede it, and leave the reader a bit stunned at the end of their reading experience.

Dr. McCutcheon, the titular figure, is a ship's surgeon with an overt fondness for the bottle. He is, to quote his bartender, "darn good... when you're off the booze," which is seldom. McCutcheon appears to have a drinking problem, which he manages with the rationale of an alcoholic. "I drank, yes," he says to the ship's captain, "but the cases I had to handle, I did... and I made sure I was sober."

Why does McCutcheon drink? It's got to be a good reason, and as he explains...

McCutcheon has tried the captain's patience once too often. He's kicked off the boat on Gorbu, "one of the smallest islands in the Fijis," again according to the well-informed barkeep. McCutcheon reveals a death wish as he toasts his new, unexpected destination:

As McCutcheon quickly learns, Gorbu is a dry island. In the two days he stays there, the good doctor struggles with symptoms of withdrawal, and faces a Vertigo-esque confrontation with the tragic episodes of his past. As in Vertigo, the whole episode is a set-up, meant by the ship's captain to shock the doc into renouncing the bottle--and dealing directly with his bottled-up grief and loss.

"Tramp Doctor" is a fascinatingly frank and casual account of an alcoholic's world. This subject matter would have been impossible in a Comics Code-approved magazine. Because Dell had always set itself above other comics publishers, and avoided the Code altogether, thanks to their ironclad distribution system, they could explore taboo themes. The irony of the situation? They almost never did.

Aside from Stanley's controversial horror comics, and this feature, Dell never pushed the envelope of their freedom. A series about an unrepentant alcoholic--or a character who drinks and is not a comic sot--would have otherwise been verboten at this time.

The Comics Code makes no reference to substance addiction as a no-no, but informs us that "(l)iquor and tobacco advertising is not acceptable." Social drinking was allowable, but serious boozing, except as a subject of comedic derision (the teetering, stuttering drunk) does not exist in comic books from 1955 to 1970.

One wonders if Stanley understood the freedom he had as a comics creator outside the stifling Code. Stanley's matter-of-fact, informed tone in "Tramp Doctor" is more shocking than anything E.C. Comics ever published. There is no strong moral against drink--just the alcoholic's self-pity and self-justifying attitude.

The character's relaxed fatalism is disarming--the last thing in the world we might expect from an early 1960s romance comic book, and a stark window into the self-esteem of the story's creator, himself an alcoholic. Stanley drank (and chain-smoked) to hold chronic depression at bay. So did many other average Americans in those Space Age days before Prozac and depression therapy.

Stanley takes the adage "write what you know" to remarkable lengths in "Tramp Doctor." Nowhere else in his published work does so much of his daily struggle come through. After the souffle of adult comedy and melodrama in the "Linda Lark" story--an example of the entertainer's face Stanley held up to the world in his work--the unapologetic, non-moral tone of "Tramp Doctor" is bracing and deeply moving.

The hint of McCutcheon's salvation, at story's end, rings rather false, even to McCutcheon:

As future "Tramp Doctor" episodes confirm, McCutcheon's struggle with the bottle remains front-and-center in his drifting, aimless life. The feature continued for the book's lifespan, as it changed title, twice more, and lasted into 1963. When the series ended, so did this uncharacteristic (if unselfconscious) slice of four-color confessional.


I'm trying something new today. I've made a PDF file of the entire issue of this comic magazine. Rather than post tedious-to-click-through scans here, why not have the whole funnybook in an easy-to-read form? Voila. Click HERE (or HERE, if you dislike Rapidshare) to download a complete PDF file of this comic book.


Micki said...

Love the pdf format, turning the page is so much more convenient than on your older posts. Although it is psychologically easier to just leave your web page when I'm done reading than to delete the pdf file that has made it safely to my computer. Could you maybe give the pdf files really ugly numerical names?

Thad said...

I like the new format.

The "Tramp Doctor" feature is the closest I've ever seen a Dell comic get to genuine film noir. I don't know why the editors were asleep at the wheel, but I'm glad they were. There's an air of Shirley MacLaine to Charley - I don't know if that was intentional, but it's there.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Thad...
As always, thanks for your insightful comments. Yes, there is an APARTMENT-era MacLaine vibe to the Charley character... I wonder if that was intentional?

"Tramp Doctor" escaped my notice 'til this posting. It's been quite an eye-opener... I agree that it's comics noir. The resigned fatalism is everything shit like SIN CITY is not.

Paul C.Tumey said...

Thank you for your continuing good work on discovering and analyzing the work of John Stanley. This strikes me as a significant find -- especially "Tramp Doctor," which may be the most adult and sophisticated writing in Stanley's comics career. I love the Linda Lark stories, too -- surprisingly. This is the sort of comic I turned my nose up at when I was younger. Glad I'm able to appreciate the tiny bit of excellent work in romance comics, such as this, that scholars like you and John Benson are uncovering. Love that page 16, with the Tiny Curtis zinger.