Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Panda, Chicken Visit Land Down Under After Passive-Aggressive Outburst; Woodpecker Plays PI, Is Fall Guy For Evil Rich: two from New Funnies 112, 1946

I'm just coming off a long, complex coloring project for another artist-writer's graphic novel. This hasn't given me much time to think about ol' Stanley Stories. In my absence, the blog continues to thrive, with a strong daily readership.

With almost 250 posts on this blog, there's already plenty to read, but here's something old, something new...

1946/7 saw the end of John Stanley's work on the New Funnies title. Having begun his 15-year association with Marge's Little Lulu by then, Stanley had also honed his storytelling and humor skills. There was still much refinement to do, as today's stories show in abundance.

Lulu changed Stanley--arguably for the better, but at a price. Certain creative and comedic tendencies, tamped down by the requirements of the Lulu-verse, would disappear entirely from his work, not to resurface until the early 1960s.

Thus, most of John Stanley's work of the 1950s is compromised in some way--despite its high quality. The energy of "Little Lulu" is strait-jacketed, when compared to his work before and after the series. It suits the characters and material beautifully, but it does not appear to have been Stanley's natural inclination as a humorist and narratist.

As the 1950s Little Lulu material is Stanley's most successful and well-loved work, it creates a wide dichotomy. Is Stanley better when he is more restrained? Or is the pell-mell, impulsive Stanley of the work outside Lulu preferable? The latter includes his remarkable run on the 1960s title Thirteen Going on Eighteen, which many regard as Stanley's finest achievement in comics.

Truly a question for the ages (for the 130 of us out there who care about such things)...

Today's offerings are far more modest than either Lulu or Thirteen. They are lesser pieces from the developmental years of a creative career. They're also instantly recognizable as the work of the man who created those two bipolar masterworks.

The first story is part of a half-assed attempt to inject educational material into the "Andy Panda" feature. For four installments in '46, the feature was called "... and the Magic Library," which certainly must have been the idea of someone else in Oskar Lebeck's talent pool.

Similar to Little Lulu's ritual fairy-tales, the "Magic Library" stories open with a vaudeville-like narrative frame before getting down to business. Thank heavens Stanley didn't submit to the namby-pamby tendencies this mini-series might suggest... it's one thing to leap into an encyclopedia and have a vigorous adventure. It's another to make that "educational" section rowdy and entertaining.

Thus, no actual enriching information is conveyed to the reader. This, perhaps, is why the feature perished so quickly.

Here's the first part of today's double-feature...

Before any discussion of this story, I want to ponder the events of the story's third page. It contains an exquisite outbreak of emotional violence that is among Stanley's most jarring moments. Andy has a right to be annoyed by Charlie's noisome outbursts with toy and trombone. The page's final tier, with Andy's flip from psychotic ranter to Chipper Self, Usual is like a slap in the face.

This one-time outburst seems to have been an over-expressed humorous idea. Its intensity is as freakish as the violent actions of Mr. Grump in the unforgettable "Tubby" story "Hide and Seek" (Little Lulu 79). It's not alone in John Stanley's work. Overly intense expressions of violent intent, usually short and percussive, are one of the characteristics of his writing, throughout his comics career.

As that outburst subsides, the story gets to its main conceit. Andy and Charlie's fantasy of adventure and tourism in Australia is almost instantly deflated by the intrusion of their personalities. In this remarkably non-educational story, our heroes are rendered unconscious en route; one of them is too weak to walk when they arrive, and both run afoul of meat-eating marsupials.

According to Wikipedia, "Different species of kangaroos have different diets, although all are strict herbivores." Stanley either didn't know that fact, or chose to ignore it in order to create a conflict situation.

Seen through the naïve lens of the child-like Andy and Charlie, such a notion seems charmingly apt. Their existential non-adventure reads like a light version of one of Lulu's made-up fairy tales.

It also has much in common with some of the stories Carl Barks created, across the country, at the same time. In some of these Barks stories, Donald Duck is similarly non-heroic, more a puppet of fate than a determinist adventurer. And, as with Stanley, this is a trait seen in Barks' stories of the 1940s and 1960s, but seldom in the 1950s (which was also, arguably, Barks' most important and popular decade as a comics creator).

Barks returns to this notion that Donald is a powerless plaything in his 1960s ten-page stories. Find a copy of The Comics Journal 140, from 1991, to read my thoughts on these late Barks short stories.

Woody Woodpecker, in Stanley's hands, also has ties to Barks' Donald. Like the Duck, he is a frustrated careerist, forever in search of a line of work at which he can succeed. Woody lacks the suburban respectability of Barks' duck. He's a cigar-smoking, seedy loner who lives in cheap boarding houses and is usually down-and-out.

Given Woody's inherent noir tendencies, the role of private detective seems a natural for him. But, in John Stanley's world, the more determination put into an event, the less likely it is to succeed. Philip Marlowe never had the deck stacked against him like the bird does in this bittersweet episode...

There is some of Tubby's future behavior in PI Woody, but the woodpecker is clearly an adult, and highly suspect at that.

The story is, for Stanley, rather poorly conceived. It supports his statement that he made up his stories as he went along:

...I just hoped for the best, that's all. I never gave too much thought to anything in stories. I just wrote the stories; that's it.

This statement, so self-effacing as to seem disingenuous, must be taken with some extra NaCl. While improvisation and whim clearly shaped much of Stanley's work, there is often a complexity to his overall story arcs that suggests some big-picture thought.

This story lacks a central reason for why its events happen. Why does the nameless rich man hire Woody to watch his young daughter? No possible danger, such as kidnapping, is mentioned--usually the first thing a client puts on the table in such a genre story.

Woody is downtrodden, and often seems to feel the world is out to get him. Here, everyone's role is to thwart and denigrate him. His wealthy client is bafflingly vague about why he has hired Woody; beat cop Clancy has the bird pegged as a stalker/child molester; the girl he's hired to protect does him physical harm. His client delivers the final, crushing blow to the bird's sleuthing career.

Is this just sloppy writing? Stanley sometimes coasted on his sheer wit, while burning through pages without any real gain. Here, his dialogue is razor-sharp and funny, but the story itself is a meandering mess. 

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery," as James Joyce, a person you never thought you'd see quoted here, once said. Indeed, we can learn as much from John Stanley's failures as his successes. It's instructive to see such stories, in which the process of Stanley's work is laid bare by its shoddy narrative.

The story's layouts are unusually awkward, as well. This panel ignores the rule of thirds with a vengeance:

Several other panels in the story are crudely designed. The lack of TLC here suggests either indifference to the work or an almost-blown deadline. The effect is like seeing the tip of a boom mike in a movie, or camera failure during a live TV broadcast. Seeing the flaws in a usually seamless medium can, indeed, be educational. It's a reminder of how crucial those seams are to mass-media communication.


Thad said...

The Andy story is merely pedestrian, but the Woody story is certainly a bit of a horrific clusterphuck, and the genuine product of a disinterested artist. Stanley really needed to hone his narrative skills through trial and error in the 40s, compared to Barks, who was always a conscientious craftsman. Even in Barks's weaker, blander and, yes, stupider stories, there is a meticulousness that makes sure nothing is amiss logically.

Barks would have had a panel or two showing the guy enraged that Woody is "endangering" his daughter, justifying the shift in behavior. Stanley probably would have too, if in a bit more openly biting manner than Barks would have, if he actually cared about tailoring a Woody Woodpecker story. In so many of these Lantz and MGM stories, Stanley clearly did not give a shit. It was just a job, and he clearly was chomping at the bit to save his skills for more Lulu stories in this period. He was always a great writer, so of course gems and strong parallels to later works will spring up. But I think he really needed to escape the environment of working with a gumbo of animal characters to hit his stride with humanoids.

I think that "it was just a job" mentality is in Barks's work too, which makes the richness in those stories even more eternal than the works of those who always took themselves too seriously. I'd actually be interested in reading that 60s Barks article of yours. They are an interesting clump of stories, a bit more jagged and jaded than classic Barks, which is probably why they were seldom reprinted.

Frank M. Young said...

Hi Thad,

Thank you for your bracing honesty. I am probably more forgiving of Stanley's poorer work than I might be. But I think presenting the dross here, aside the better pieces, is an acknowledgment of their (lack of) quality.

Stanley was a far less even writer than Barks, but he took far more chances than Barks. That is their main difference. Barks always played it safe, colored inside the lines, and did things the "right" way. Within those strictures, he did a great deal.

Stanley was held accountable for those strictures with "Little Lulu," which was probably a good thing for him. That he sheds those self-imposed rules, upon leaving "Lulu," and returns to the ragtag ferocity of his '40s work in the '60s, says much about what he wanted to accomplish as a comics creator.

As always, your comments are enriching to this blog. Thanks again!