Monday, June 10, 2013

Running on Sheer Chutzpah: Little Lulu Four-Color One-Shot 158, 1947

One thing I must finish on this blog, as it reaches its end, is the remarkable run by John Stanley, Charles Hedinger and others on the one-shot issues of Little Lulu that precede its regular run.

This is the only Lulu one-shot that I own, although my copy is nothing to brag about. It is one of the worst-printed 1940s comics I've ever seen. When colors aren't wretchedly out of register, the black lines are fuzzy, clogged with ink, and otherwise bear all the signs of the end of a print run.

Thank goodness, I'll spare you a look at my version--these are top-drawer scans done by some anonymous kind soul a few years ago.

Many of the scans I've shared here, over the years, have come from such sources. I feel that I've never properly thanked these folks for all their hard, painstaking work in making these rare old comics available for study, reading and sharing (as I have done here with you).

These early Little Lulus suffer terribly when seen in black and white, as I've said before. Their simple contour lines were meant to be filled with the flat pastels and blunt primary colors of 1947 comics. Western's self-printed titles had a color palette all their own. After 1948, they are consistently well-printed comics. From 1943 to '47, buyer beware! Unless you somehow score a copy from the start of a press run, chances are the Dell title of this era will be a blurry, mis-registered mess.

But enough of that. Let's get down to brass knuckles, er, tacks. I usually choose a percentage of the stories in each of these one-shots. This book is so consistently great that I've opted to share the whole thing here today.

This significant issue firmly defines the character of Tubby Tompkins, who dominates three of the stories here--including one of Stanley's masterpieces, "Just A Gigolo." Tubby is a machine fueled on sheer chutzpah, and on an unbreakable self-belief. He and Lulu have a complex friendship. Each believes their role in the relationship is to shepherd and correct the other, as if they'd perish without this unrequested counsel.

This relationship is not yet perfected. Lulu herself is still a work in progress. She's far more passive than the definitive version of the early 1950s. She doesn't yet question things as much as assume that, since things happen a certain way, there must be some good reason for it. She's still compelled to dig deeper, and in this issue, her character makes certain breakthroughs that pave the way to the classic c. 1951 Lulu.

"For President" has no story to speak of. It does capture, with almost documentary effect, the OCD-lite tendencies of children. In the 1946-7 "Lulu" stories, this seems to preoccupy John Stanley. It occasions gentle, charming character-based humor that would soon be removed from the series.

Were this story written in 1954, the stakes would be higher, Lulu's proto-feminist ire raised, and Tubby's scheming and self-grandeur more in the forefront. Here, Lulu is neither Marge's poker-faced imp, or Stanley's solid mid-'50s character.

Spanking (at least, that's what the story's last panel implies) is a park of the dark side of the Little Lulu universe.  Stanley's use of this parental violence as a punchline is coolly disturbing, but it doesn't snuff out the charm of the kids' rambling actions, all justified based on what little they know about the world.

Tubby's tree-chopping has a tell-tale link to a Stanley-drawn 1946 "Woody Woodpecker" story. Here's page from that slightly earlier piece:

The serial use of funny devices by Stanley, Barks, Kelly and other A-game "kids' comics" creators may have been influenced by the quick turnstile of their work's readership. Stanley's re-use of these devices in "Lulu" stories has proven most helpful in my attempt to identify unsigned/uncredited work I believe to be his.

"Takes The Cake" has another connection to a New Funnies story--this time, a simultaneous reference to the common mid-century baked good known as the coffee ring. Both this comic and New Funnies 125 bear publication dates of August, 1947. Here's a page from that comic's "Andy Panda" story, in which its nauseated protagonist shares the kids' low opinion of the coffee ring:

What was a coffee ring? According to the Random House dictionary:
a coffeecake shaped like a ring, plain or fruited, often with a topping of raisins, ground nuts, and icing."

Hmmm--sounds suspiciously like a fruit-cake to me!

Not seen much anymore, this once-popular pastry must have rubbed Stanley the wrong way sometime earlier in the year. So now you know!

That aside, "Takes The Cake" further explores the whimsical world-view of these two little children. Tubby's final, triumphant rejection of adult "common sense" ends this low-key story on a beautiful note. Again, these are not the characters of Lulu and Tubby as would so quickly be set in stone. Stanley seemed especially keen to experiment with the two key characters in these 1947 stories.

The centerpiece of this issue is "Just A Gigolo," which deserves a berth on the list of Stanley's masterpieces. This bittersweet story is Stanley's first elegant treatise on the war between the sexes.

One genuinely feels for Lulu over the course of "Just A Gigolo." Tubby's finance-based attraction/repulsion to her, and her befuddled attempts to fight against his shallow egotism, is somewhat heart-breaking. The sting of real feeling pervades what might otherwise just be another funny comic-book story.

"Just A Gigolo" bears some similarities to one of the only 1940s animated Little Lulu cartoons to include Tubby (as "Fatso"), 1945's Beau Ties, which you can view on YouTube by clicking the link on that there title. The story's resemblance makes me wonder if Stanley saw this cartoon, and was inspired to try a variation on its storyline.

Beau Ties too quickly goes into larger-than-life cartoon action, where "Just A Gigolo" keeps its feet on the ground of recognizable reality. Tubby's betrayal of Lulu and the ur-Gloria blond girl, Dolly, is divinely paid off in his nausea from too many ice cream sodas.

Earlier in the story, on its second and third pages, there is gravity to Lulu's frank discussion of Tubby's hurtful behavior with her startled mother. Though her mother's advice is thoughtful, Lulu warps it to fit her perception of the world.

Both she and Dolly are taken to the cleaners by Tubby. After justice has been served, via castor oil, and Tubby is out of the picture, Dolly and Lulu touchingly become allies. "Just A Gigolo" has one of John Stanley's most perfect endings, and should be in any best-of collection of "Little Lulu," if/when one is created (which I hope happens soon).

By this time, the inclusion of a Lulu-narrated (and composed) fairy tale was de rigeur for the series. "Lulu's Lamp" is this issue's entry.

I've said my piece about the significance and importance of these fairy-tale episodes in Stanley's canon elsewhere on this blog (it's one of the current top ten pieces herein). "Lulu's Lamp" has a couple of small twists to the series' formula.

Lulu's fantasy, on p. 2, of an adult Alvin calling on still-prepubescent Lulu, is a lovely bit of character insight. That Lulu cannot imagine herself an adult gives us a subtle window inside her head.

The story's open-ended finale is both surprise and cop-out. It would appear that Stanley simply ran out of space. The four extra pages he gave "Just A Gigolo" forced him to suddenly end "Lulu's Lamp." The dilemma of the unresolved story is proper food for thought, but it smacks of necessity, rather than invention. This never happens again in Stanley's many "Little Lulu" stories.

I've still got a couple more posts left to do. The hard part remains finding something that merits posting and analysis. But something will come up sooner or later, so please stay tuned...



John W said...

A coffee ring or coffee cake is much more purely cakey than a fruitcake. Around here (New Jersey, in the NYC commuter zone), it’s something you can still find in any bakery.

Frank M. Young said...

That's good to know, John W. It must be a Northeastern tradition. I'm relieved to know it isn't like a fruitcake!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Frank. I really love your blog -- and John Stanley, of course. I couldn't find your email address anywhere (one that actually worked, that is), so I figured I'd post here.I don't know if you've heard about, but there's a new Manga-style Lulu comic being done in Brazil, with teenaged versions of Lulu, Tubby, etc. though Tubby is no longer "Tubby", he's skinny and in a rock band. Very strange stuff. Here's the link:

Thanks for all the great info on Stanley. I haven't had time to spend the days required to catch up on reading it, but after years of wondering about Stanley and his art, this is a wonderful resource. Thanks. Craig Smith

Paul C.Tumey said...

Frank, Thanks for scanning sharing, and shedding insight about these marvelous stories. Off-kilter registration and all, they are a treasure! Pardon me, but I now must run off to a local bakery in search of a coffee ring!