Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Casual Calamity Cubed: Three Stories From New Funnies 116, 1946

New Funnies was the most spontaneous and slapdash of the comics edited by Oskar Lebeck for Dell Publications. Its bar was set quite low. Quality of story and art material wavers dramatically from issue to issue.

In 1946 and '47, the title was a place for John Stanley to blow off steam, as he prepared for what he didn't yet realize was a 15-year run on Little Lulu. His story (and art) for that series is impeccable. Perhaps because the licensed property was of a higher status (and its creator was initially looking over the collective Lebeck shoulder), Stanley's Lulu is tighter, less risky and more grounded than any of his other work in comics.

While under close watch on the early Little Lulu one-shot issues (most of which you'll find elsewhere on this blog), Stanley catered to his chaotic, more off-the-cuff impulses in New Funnies. He did some of his best--and worst--work for the series.

At their finest, these stories are freewheeling, very funny and full of a street-wise charm, In their low points, they reveal their creator's burn-outs, hangovers or crunched-deadline hackwork. New Funnies was clearly not a high priority on either Dell's or Lebeck's agenda.

Offered today are Stanley's 31 pages of story for issue 116 of New Funnies, cover-dated October, 1946. I've isolated these three stories in a CBR file that you may download HERE. (If you don't like the CBR format, just rename the extension to RAR and open it with WinRar or other, similar programs).

Spoilers abound in the text that follows. Those who read the following without reading the stories themselves are living far too dangerously for their own good.

Stanley is in better-than-average form in these three stories. They clearly illustrate his often-expressed philosophy that the outside world is a dangerous place, and that we protagonists are chess-pieces in the hands of unseen fate. Sometimes we're moved to exciting places and sometimes we're stale-mated (and check-mated) by random events.

"Andy Panda" exquisitely details a waking nightmare in post-WW II America. As Stanley points out constantly in his 1946/7 stories, victorious post-war America was still a promised land full of vexing shortages.

Stanley hits this note so often, in this year, that it seems autobiographical. In the New Funnies world, everything from pajamas to hot dogs are scarce. Their appearance incites riot-like behavior in the most passive people. Anyone who desires the most commonplace things--pieces of the entitled American Dream--is guaranteed a harrowing experience.

We're tipped off to this problem in a subtle way: clothes are so scarce that Charlie Chicken, Andy's soul-mate, earns pocket change by renting Andy's one good suit. Its last renter left it covered with barbecue grease. "I charged him 20 cents extra in damages," Charlie says, in feeble self-defense.

In a Tubby-like burst of self-belief, Charlie concocts an acidic "spot remover" from his chemistry set, and destroys the garment. Here, Andy's worries begin. We see him rehearsing a speech for the Ladies' Club in his sleep--a violent narrative out of a pulp magazine, and as such, hardly suitable for his genteel audience.

The speech itself doesn't rattle Andy, but being reduced to his pajamas does. Naively he sends Charlie out to buy a new suit. This leads to the delightfully barbed sequence, from pp. 3-5, in which it's made clear that clothes make gold look common in this world. The only suit left for purchase is so gaudy that, in Charlie's words, "Andy wouldn't even wear that in Miami!"

Andy is forced out on the street in his PJs, in a vain search for clothes that are "...conservative! Not zoot!" For our younger readers, a bit of historical info: zoot suits were the 1940s equivalent of those shiny track suits that rappers wear. Gaudy, exaggerated clothing, zoot suits were scorned by the Andy Pandas of their day, who favored the more respectable but equally absurd dress wear of post-war America, which included ridiculously short neckties and wide lapels.

Andy's quest for clothed dignity pushes him further into the epicenter of embarrassment. Because he's so blandly conformist, Stanley rakes him over the coals. He rejects a Hamlet outfit at a costume shop, loses his pajama pants, and is forced to rent the only stock left in the place--a horse outfit.

Ironically, Andy's frantic costume-bound performance (in which he's chased by a lazy beat cop whose horse he and Charlie startled) goes over big with the Ladies' Club. This Preston Sturges-ish slapstick finale adds comic irony to the finale:  all the fuss and bother Andy and Charlie went through ultimately didn't amount to anything.

In the "Oswald Rabbit" story, trouble comes knocking via special delivery. A sarcastic, plump messenger brings Todo, a sentient "cannibal plant," to Oswald and Toby. It's the dying gift of Os' rich Uncle Rios, who appears to have been a recent meal of Todo's.

Oswald and Toby are a duller shadow of Andy Panda and his poultry partner. Thus, something worse has to happen to them. Todo takes over the household. He attempts to eat Oswald, but rejects him as unsavory. They attempt to give him a ham sandwich, extended on a broom. Todo eats the broomstick and the jar of mustard.

He smokes cigars and flicks the ashes on the carpet--a move that finally angers Oswald and Toby. The emphasis is now far away from the possibility of Todo eating the rabbit or bear--this is not Chew Chew Baby, the deeply disturbing 1958 animated cartoon.

Todo exists only to annoy these two docile domestics. After Toby's deep-fried cooking nearly kills Todo, he literally turns a new leaf, and falls in love with a rose growing in the backyard. He still poses a menace to neighborhood cats, but, at story's end, has mellowed (somewhat).

A lightweight piece, this "Oswald" story has some subtle, dry moments of black humor, but one gets the sense that Stanley dislikes the characters, and is most interested in tormenting them. The story is funnier and smarter than it has any right to be.

"Woody Woodpecker" delays its namesake's entrance, and the casual calamity the bird brings to others, until its second page.

Stanley felt warmest towards Woody, and usually saved his best material for the anti-social bird. (Woody's most delayed entrance occurs in this story, which features in-joke caricatures of Stanley and artists Mo Gollub and Dan Noonan.)

Woody passively enters the waterfront setting, in search of cheap seafood. He is crowned with a mass of wriggling live eels. He runs, Hydra-like, down the cobbled street, and into a tavern, where the seagoin' toughs empty out at the sight of him.

It just happens that a "cross-eyed, red-headed woodpecker brings more hard luck than anything," according to a piece of sailor superstition I didn't know about. Armed with this new status as a social threat, Woody has fun being a pariah. He causes a blackjack-wielding shanghai-er to attempt hara-kari when he's trapped in a blind alley.

Woody frisks the presumed corpse, finds the guy's wallet, and good-naturedly carries him back to the S. S. Rustbottom--to the horror of the ship's captain. He and his crew jump ship, as Woody enjoys a good horse-laugh.

Left alone to man the wheel, Woody attempts to drive cross-town, to catch a trolley car--a more down-to-earth form of transportation he trusts best. He collides the ship with a bridge, sneaks aboard a jostled trolley in the chaos, and is quickly evicted as a non-paying rider. Booted off the car, he shrugs his shoulders with an "Oh, well!"

All in a day's work for this woodpecker. This simple story is a wonder of narrative purpose. Woody moves in one direction, never stopping to think about the consequences of his actions, or, more importantly, where he's going. This underdog relishes the chance to wreak havoc, but quickly forgets the whole set-up.

The story is a thin excuse for casual calamity of the streetwise, of-the-fly nature that distinguishes New Funnies, the ragtag underdog of the Oskar Lebeck offices. The near-improvisational feel of these three stories, though often sloppily executed, is a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that Dell Comics weren't always dull comics.

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