Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bucolic Battles, Noxious Neighbors and Sob Sisters: Three Stories from Little Lulu "Four Color" one shot 146, 1947

It's been nearly a year since we continued the series of posts on the early one-shot issues of Marge's Little Lulu, before it was granted its own regular series at the start of 1948. Have crowd, will please!

The previous one-shot, 139, is fully covered on Stanley Stories. You may read "The Hooky Team" HERE, and the other two stories in that issue HERE.

Cover-dated May 1947, this Lulu one-shot was written and penciled by John Stanley. Charles Hedinger, a significant interim artist, did the inked finishes.

Hedinger brings a distinct energy to the table. His Lulu stories have more visual energy than those of Irving Tripp, who would very quickly join Team Lulu. That said, they lack the bristling vigor Stanley's own artwork gave the series. It's a pity Stanley had to cease the finished artwork for Little Lulu.

Without that break, he may not have developed such a sharply focused role as writer, as the series reached its early 1950s peak of all-ages popularity. With a need for consistent high-quality writing, the magazine needed a more focused, in-control Stanley. His presence is just felt enough, through the stagnant-but-effective lens of Tripp's stable, static artwork, to still energize the series.

Stanley's "Little Lulu" stories are typified by their sense of enclosure. The dwellings, streets and buildings--and the suburban vacant lots, such as that which hosts Tubby's boys-only clubhouse, seem small and confined throughout the series.

Today's lead story, "Sunday Afternoon," is a rare occurrence of wide open, rolling and bucolic space in Stanley's Little Lulu. It's also significant as one of the few early LL stories to just feature Lulu and Tubby Tompkins, with no other children or adults to interact with them. Stanley clearly savors the opportunity to have his two main characters spend some quality time together in the great outdoors...

An almost documentary approach distinguishes "Sunday Afternoon" in John Stanley's canon. Seldom do these two characters so truly and completely act like little children. Their off-handed cruelties, and gestures of genuine bonding, ring completely true.

The story is a very simple back-and-forth between Tubby and Lulu. Each attempts to assert their way of thinking--and, in doing so, thwarts the other's effort to achieve a (literally) childishly simple task.

The coda, of Tubby stealing his own mother's roses, is what improv comedians would term a "call back" to a telling incident on the story's first page. Tubby's decision to pick flowers is prompted by the thought that he'll sell them to his mother. This strategy horrifies the always mom-centric Lulu. Tubby's worldly gaze corrupts Lulu's innocent, parent-loving intentions.

That she doesn't know, and Tubby doesn't reveal, that these are his mom's flowers, is a prime example of a Stanley character taking a ride on the ol' karma wheel. His eventual punishment, which occurs off-page and post-story, is keenly felt all the same.

For younger readers, who may wonder who Betty Grable was, here's one of her iconic pin-up photos from the 1940s:

Grable was perhaps the most sexually desired female in 1940s America. If a woman was attractive, she was slangily referred to as an "able Grable." Grable was in the stable of 20th Century Fox Studios, and appeared in dozens of films from 1929 to 1955, including many musicals, a Preston Sturges comedy, and the proto-film noir I Wake Up Screaming. So now you know!

That pop-culture factoid achieved, onto today's second story. "Forbidden Fruit" is significant for the introduction of two themes that would become increasingly important to Stanley's 1950s Lulu. More on that after the story...

"Forbidden Fruit" is a surprisingly tense, moment-to-moment narrative. Incidents of sublime black comedy pepper its pages. The sequence on pp. 8-10, in which Tubby causes a flood, destroys several expensive things, and endangers Lulu's life as she seemingly chokes on a ping-pong ball, is beautifully timed. Each move seems casual, unconscious and utterly borne of Tubby's self-absorbed, inverted world-view.

We're warned of Tubby's self-focus at story's start. Mid-sentence, Tub blathers away about the picture-perfect achievements of his coming years. Lulu's lack of attention suggests that she's heard this spiel often enough to be able to tune it out. 

The presence of television--making its debut in the world of Stanley's Little Lulu--creates a delightful side-track in the suspenseful events of "Forbidden Fruit." 

Stanley generally avoided references to topical events in Lulu's pages. By 1947, television was enough of a national curiosity that it merited an appearance. It makes sense that isolated Mr. Gripe would own a TV set. As he has no family, and none of the attendant financial obligations, he could afford this still-experimental luxury item.

Before 1950, a TV set was an ostentatious purchase for the average joe. TV appears in a few more "Lulu" stories, but is never a major element. Its place in Gripe's home offers some sociological depth to his character.

Mr. Gripe's presence is another this significant first appearance of an important secondary figure in Little Lulu--the eccentric loner neighbor. This figure, most notoriously seen in the Tubby back-up story "Hide and Seek," from Little Lulu 79, is verbally, and often physically, violent towards children. The Gripes and Kranks of Stanley's world are a troubling presence.

Gripe is more compassionate than later incarnations of this type. He performs CPR on Lulu and retrieves the pent-up ping pong ball. The children have ruined his home, without realizing their actions, and Gripe is slow to notice the destruction. One imagines the off-story sequence in which he discovers his smashed TV set.

It's amusing that the story's colorist opted to make Gripe's set a color TV. Commercially produced color TV sets weren't introduced 'til 1953. Network color programming began, sporadically, the next year, but most American homes had black and white sets until at least the end of the 1960s. (My home stayed black-and-white until 1976, much to my teenage embarrassment.)

It isn't a Little Lulu comic unless it has a fairy-tale sequence, and here's one of the more creative early pieces in this Stanley genre, "Crybaby."

For those used to Witch Hazel, and the standard story-book vibe of the 1950s-era "Lulu" fairy-tales, early pieces, such as "Crybaby," may come as a surprise. Lulu's improvised story never strays from recognizable reality--as interpreted by a seven year-old kid.

Despite its escalating and clever comedy, "Crybaby" climaxes in a scene of violent child discipline. In 1947, whaling the tar out of disobedient kids was common parental practice. There was nothing unusual about its presence in this, and many other "Lulu" stories. It was SOP for child-rearing. Even Dr. Spock condoned it until the later 1950s. 

Pop Culture Reference #2: Mrs. Miniver was a 1942 Hollywood movie, made at MGM Studios, and starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. A narrative about a wartime English family who deals with Nazi air-raids, bomb shelters and food rationing, it might have made an interesting tale for Alvin--especially in Lulu's regurgitated, misunderstood version.

For a chaser, here are the three pantomime gag pages of this issue. While Stanley is primarily known for his verbal wit, and fine dialogue, he was also an effective humorist without words. These pages provide a link to the origins of the character. They are, in essence, improvements on the single-panel silent gag cartoons that Marge Buell created before Stanley, in essence, took over the character and made her a vessel for his increasingly talky comedy of manners.

1 comment:

Mestiere said...

I had read Forbidden Fruit in black and white so I never knew Mr. Gripe's TV was in color. The disturbed loner neighbor, always male, is so common in Stanley's writing that I wonder if he was based on someone real. Stanley's neighborhood might have been scary.