Friday, October 11, 2013

"Homer"-- A Fascinating Forecast of John Stanley's 1960s Work, One Decade Early

I have posted examples of John Stanley's work on the early 1950s series Henry Aldrich here in the past.

As time has gone by, my study of this series' early issues has gradually revealed much more of Stanley's input than I first realized.

Stanley wrote the entirety of the first two issues of Henry, skipped the third, and returned with the fourth. The skipped third issue threw me off for a few years. I finally sat down and carefully read these comics.

To my pleasant surprise, Stanley's work appears through at least the 11th issue. I'm still going over the last half of the 22-issue run.

These stories, which are often quite long and detailed, are a fascinating precursor of Stanley's 1960s work on the series Dunc 'n Loo (also with Bill Williams) and 13 Going on 18. They show that these concepts did not appear out of the blue, for their creator, in the early 1960s.

The dawn of the 1950s saw an uneasy transition in John Stanley's writing. He repressed, consciously or not, the wilder extremes of his comedic sensibility. The frantic, everywhere-at-once affect of his 1940s work was suddenly muted.

This was, I believe, a result of his duties as the creative light of the Marge's Little Lulu titles. His greatest success as a comics-maker, Lulu brought with it a certain sense of reserve.

Lulu was a big property, and more TLC and painstaking were required for the series than, arguably, for any other of the comics produced by Western Publishing for Dell.

Lulu had a creative team, as seen in this one-time-only credit listing, from the pages of the comic's 49th issue:
There are uncredited contributors to the magazine (such as editors and proof-readers). Little Lulu was not a one-man band, although the entire team's work depended on what John Stanley brought to the table, month after month.

As the main provider of content, Stanley had a remarkable amount of license. Though broad physical comedy occurs constantly in the early '50s Little Lulu, it is played dryly. The static look of Irving Tripp's artwork seems to be one important agent in this change of tone. Tripp could downplay wild action (as seen in the fifth panel of the gag page above) and make it seem as matter-of-fact as a yawn or a walk.

Though no evidence exists to support this, it feels as though editorial concerns may have influenced the toned-down feel of these still-superb stories. The Lulu pieces of 1950-1954 may be John Stanley's most-liked and best-regarded work. High-functioning, smart and loaded with compelling details of personality, setting and mood, these stories are consistently truly great work.

That same tamped-down, highly controlled sensibility flavors the contemporary Henry Aldrich stories. Though they contain constant moments of social embarrassment and personal humiliation, as found in the later, more loose-limbed Dunc and 13, their affect is calm and more subtly played.

Another theory: the failure of his late 1940s original comics creations, Peterkin Pottle and Jigger and Mooch, both bleak, dark visions of the world, might still have smarted in Stanley's memory. Perhaps he took away from those failures the idea to tone things down in his work.

Stanley never abandoned his pet themes, which, by their very nature, are dark--social struggles, status shifts, failures to fit in with the regular world, the corrupting nature of wealth. In the first half of the 1950s, he found ways to present this material without drawing much attention to it.

These themes drive John Stanley's work. Their presence, and Stanley's distinctive use of them, have been helpful in identifying stories that are, or may be, his.

Loss of status is one of the linchpins of John Stanley's world. Stanley was comics' supreme essayer of the rise and fall of status. It is the coin of his characters' realm. Who they are, and how they exist, are governed almost entirely by their social and personal status.

Stanley used status, and its gain and loss, as grounds for high comedy, low comedy, and moments of surprising compassion. His investment in his characters, on this level, is one thing that makes his work so good.

Stanley gained mastery of comedic status-shifting in his early 1950s work. It becomes the basis for all his future work. In the 1960s, status is treated in broader strokes, with a more forte tone and tempo. It still runs the world of all Stanley's characters, and drives every story he writes--even the eccentric horror and fantasy pieces of Ghost Stories and Tales From the Tomb.

One of Stanley's most protracted and painful status wars was fought in the back pages of 13 Going on Eighteen. The series' "Judy Junior" stories, which I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, are deliberate, genuinely existential tournaments of human will and the right to dignity. Each day of Jimmy Fuzzi's life is a suburban battle-of-wills to retain what little dignity and standing he possesses.

It is fascinating to find an precedent to "Judy Junior" in the backup feature for Henry Aldrich, "Homer." For three inspired stories, Stanley and Williams created a priceless set-up. Homer Brown, best friend of Henry Aldrich, is the steady date of Agnes. To see Agnes, he must encounter her little brother, Edgar. This pre-pubescent wheeler-dealer traffics in money and status.

Edgar is a genuine threat to Homer's well-being. He is, seemingly, completely amoral, and thus unpredictable. Homer is no Einstein, and what wits he does possess are compromised by his feelings for Agnes. Thus, each time he visits his girlfriend, a psychic Hawaiian Punch awaits, in Edgar's cold-hearted, cold-cash schemes.

Stanley visited this bullet-proof scenario three times, and then abandoned it. Here is this sublime trifecta of Homer vs. Edgar pieces. The first, and shortest, is from Henry Aldrich #6...

Edgar is one of Stanley's most destructive trouble figures. Like Judy Junior, of over a decade later, he seems shorn of conscience, good will towards others, and anything else that would describe a well-integrated member of society.

When he dissolves Homer's hat in a vat of foul chemicals, he simply swipes his father's chapeau, and then presents Homer with a bill for his services. The story ends with some lingering threads. There will, surely, be a scene the next time Homer calls on Agnes. Edgar feels nothing for this future hell he's created. He has his 26 cents, and a higher status than his sister's boyfriend.

The next round of Edgar v. Homer occurs in Aldrich #7:

Edgar brings Homer down to his level of dog-eat-dog survival. Homer is forced to steal from Edgar's piggy bank, in a move that further lowers his status, even though his actions can be justified in some ways. At his best, Stanley shows us moments in the lives of his characters that are simultaneous victories and defeats. This is among the most ignoble episodes in all his work.

Homer appears to have forgiven Edgar, in the interval between this story and next, published in Henry the 8th. Edgar reveals himself a master of low-ball antics. He brings Homer a world of anxiety and deflation--and makes him pay for it!

Homer sets himself up for a world of anguish from the moment he greets Edgar on the street, at story's start. Homer's attempt to make piece with his little tormentor creates a contract that Edgar can--and will--use against him, in an escalating comedy of misinformation.

In the final tier of page 5, Edgar's sociopathy is brilliantly portrayed for dark comedy:

Homer is correct to envision Edgar boiling in oil at story's end. This is, alas, the end of their battle royale. The next issue's story downplays their relationship, and even has them playing marble with concentrated food pills at story's end. The chain of events that leads to that finale is quite clever, but the tension is gone from this dark relationship.

Again, it feels like editorial input may have caused this change of plans. In its three-story arc, the status war of Homer and Edgar is an unknown moment of brilliance in John Stanley's career. There are other worthy stories in the first several issues of Henry Aldrich, and I'll share more here in the future.

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