Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Funnies Teachings: It's A Scary World Out There!

One of the key messages in John Stanley's world is this: the world is a scary place. Funny things may happen, triumphs may be scored, losses bettered, statuses and faces saved... but one never knows what's going to happen--or why.

This element, also familiar to readers of Carl Barks' comics, gives these so-called "kiddie comics" an edge seriously lacking in much of what passes for comics, period.

This message doesn't require the walking dead, heavy artillery, secret origins or super-powers... to experience the same, the reader only needs to open his or her front door, best foot forward, and step out into the world.

Culled from two issues of Walter Lantz New Funnies (113 and 120), this special "Scary World" edition of Stanley Stories features three stories, and is available as a .CBR file >>>HERE. <<< If you're not hep to the CBR revolution, just rename the file as an .RAR extension, crack it open, and read that-a-way.

In mainstream comics of the 1940s, particularly those published after the war, this message is common-place. The war made the world a walking, talking mass of PTSD. Good Americans that we are, we shrugged our shoulders, pretended to laugh it off, and fixed ourselves another stiff drink.

What else could you do? We had the H-bomb, they had the A-bomb; food, clothing and housing shortages remained from the war. On the upside: the economy was good, and the American worker entered the cushiest, most carefree era of his/her existence. Life's little ups and downs could really frazzle a fella, if he stopped to think about it.

Nah--let's not, and say we did. And so the American populace soldiered on through the worst anxieties of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. But the naked nerve-endings of those suppressed fears spill out all over their mass media.

John Stanley was a popular architect of this tread lightly and look o'er ye shoulder school of thought. Over and over, a message comes through in his stories: ya just can't win. Though subdued (as were many of Stanley's more personal feelings) in the best-selling pages of Marge's Little Lulu, the message was still there, a couple of layers down. We are all Tubby, and our occasional victories are forever leavened by a dozen small defeats. Smile while you can, 'cos the West Side Gang is waitin' around the corner.

These three New Funnies stories explore a different slice of post-war anxiety pie. Please do download and read the stories before going much further, unless you're hooked on spoilers.

In our first (and gravest) piece, our barely-functioning woodpecker sits in the upholstered comfort of his home, reading a yet-unidentified story/poem, similar in title to one of Walt Whitman's ground-breaking poems, yet authored by "McAdam."

Woody is at his most affluent in this most heart-breaking story. He's the 1946 equivalent of a Trader Joe's shopper... living comfortably, yet slightly beyond his means and with a blind eye to the realities of the world outside his window.

His pickled onions, caviar and truffles packed in a bindlestiff, the bird takes a taxi to the city limits, convinced that romance, joy and freedom await him. He's immediately sized up, and robbed, by two members of Stanley's hobo army (seen in Little Lulu and other Stanley efforts of the era).

Tied to a tree, and penniless, Woody is rescued by a circus worker, who revives the bird's Technicolor dreams of "Adventure! Excitement!" He's put to work peeling spuds. While he whittles, he dreams:

After this comic-poignant page, he's put to work on-stage as the passive assistant to a knife-thrower and a Native American archer. Then, after a stint (at gunpoint) inside the lion's cage, and an aerial voyage a la cannon, the bird again meets his tramp victimizers.

In anyone else's world, this would be the moment of victory. Woody gets back his stolen dough, but only for a few seconds. His final fate, at story's end, is one of the blackest moments in the q.v. of John Stanley.

How did 1946 kids, who inhaled such comic book stories, absorb these negative life-lessons? Or was this just "funny stuff" to them--that someone could be so stupid and ill-starred to lose his money, home and status? Perhaps, in affluent post-war America, such a fate was unthinkable to the enlarged, cushy middle class. There were people living outside the margins of society, making grass soup, if you will, in 1946, but they were far off-camera in the official family portrait of American life.


Stanley's version of Andy Panda represents the more well-adjusted, socially connected and mild-mannered world of middle-class entitlement.

Andy and his bromance partner Charlie Chicken never seem to do without. They may tangle with gangsters, ghosts, mad scientists and homicidal maniacs, from time to time, but at the end of the day, the meat's on the table, there's a good book waiting by the big ol' overstuffed armchair, and there's a nice double-feature showing at the movie theatre right down the block.

Thus, Andy and Charlie are excellent foils for the unexpected shortages of The Good Life that seem to have plagued middle-class 1947 America. Much comedy is mined, in this New Funnies period, from food, housing and clothing shortages.

Stanley obviously saw great humor in this situation. Innocent foils, dreaming of a new suit, a warm apartment, or steak "with all the trimmin's" would find none of these creature comforts. A businessman set to make an important speech has only a gaudy Hawaiian shirt to wear; men grow elderly on waiting lists for a new sedan; an ambulance nervously delivers grade-D meat cuts to a frenzied, clawing public.

There are echoes of Milt Gross' Count Screwloose in such Stanley stories, but with a post-war edge. No longer is it an easy life in America. Butchers rent out their meat hooks for pay-by-the-hour hat and coat storage, and watch flies die of starvation on their dusty cutting blocks. The suffrage of the war still lingers to decade's end.

Andy and Charlie are driven to hunt for meat, beginning with a sublime moment:

Their hunting attempts result in the possible injury of a bridle horse, the annoyance of a bear, physical harm to Charlie and, finally, to a rabbit. Our heroes can't bring themselves to consume this accidentally-caught game, and rush it to a vet's operating room.

The rabbit lives, and, with promises to send the recovering bunny "fruit and flowers every day," the pair returns home to the likely dinner of many an average joe, 1947 model:

In an eerie parallel to the earlier "Woody" story, this final panel shows both resignation and contentment, as the protagonist fixes a meal that is far below their initial expectation.


Even when there's a warm home to sleep in, and food on the table, Stanley's borrowed protagonists still face trauma every time they leave their homes. In this same issue of New Funnies, housemates Oswald Rabbit and Toby Bear fall afoul of a publicity agent's wet dream.

As often happens to Stanley's Oswald and Toby, the threat is sexual in nature. Toby's obsession with wispy, anemic Hollywood starlet Sally Simper causes social embarassment--and aggressive female response--for the easy-going hare.

In a series of events that recalls the screwball build-ups of Preston Sturges, asexual Oswald, via a series of insinuating newspaper articles, becomes the object of lust for crazed bobby-soxers, while Toby passively tries to get in on the action:

In Sturges' fashion, every effort expended by Oswald to right the misunderstanding worsens the situation. In disguise as a rheumatic oldster, Oswald becomes the sexual prey of the blue-haired set:

The story ends with the hero's retreat to a dark, dusty place, in the hope that the episode will just fizzle out.
Toby brings the topic of food into the story's last panel... thank you, Toby, for doing so. Now all three stories are tied in a Gordian knot of post-war anxiety. That knot would eventually be cut in the youth revolution of the 1960s, in which now-adult age former New Funnies readers would break the veil of anxiety with a libertine pursuit of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

With such profound messages of despair and tension in their childhood mass-media, is it any wonder that these grown readers would choose any avenue of escape? I don't know whether to curse John Stanley or thank him. He, and many other producers of post-was mass media, laid the path brick by brick, panel by panel, page by page.

1 comment:

Mestiere said...

Thanks for making the stories available in CBR files.

Woody sure was living large in that first story. Those four bucks in taxi fair would be about 47 dollars in today's money.