Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stolen Snacks, Balloon Boys and Hallucinations: the last Little Lulu one-shot, 1947

As has been evident for the last year-plus, this blog is winding down. I've said pretty much all I have to say on John Stanley, short of a larger study, such as a book.

But with no visible interest in the publication of a book on Stanley, this blog is the testament of my years of thought and detective work. Perhaps Michael Barrier's forthcoming study of the Oskar Lebeck-edited Dell Comics, Funnybooks, will change this apparent apathy. Time will tell.

To complete a series on this blog, here are the three stories that comprise the final one-shot Little Lulu comic book (#165 in the Dell Four Color series), with a publication date of October 1947.

This issue would be followed quickly by the first official bi-monthly edition of Marge's Little Lulu. That short launch time speaks to the popularity of the Lulu one-shots. Carl Barks (and other artists) did 25 Donald Duck one-shots before Dell committed to a regular numbered series, four years later.

The Disney character was, arguably, a more potent commercial property than Marge Buell's magazine cartoons, but the decisions of publishers, then as now, remain a mystery.

Team Lulu is in great shape throughout this last trial issue. Charles Hedinger provides finishes to Stanley's script/pencils. John Stanley's understanding of the character of Tubby comes into sharp focus in the first two stories. All that remains is the entrance of artist Irving Tripp to complete the winning formula.

I have come to admire Charles Hedinger's work. He translated the feeling of Stanley's characters more efficiently and expressively than Tripp. There is something rawer and more real to Hedinger's work. Tripp tends to soften and sedate the comedic impact of Stanley's writing.

The pleasant contours of Tripp's work, and its crisp economy, is what we think of when we consider Little Lulu. Like Carl Stallings' music for the Warner Brothers cartoons, it was that last needed touch to finalize the formula of a highly popular (and profitable) mass-media entertainment.

Something was lost from Lulu with the departure of Hedinger. He is in fine form in this issue's three stories.

Opening the issue is a classic example of a constant LL formula, "The Case of the Purloined Popovers."

Stanley's focused and crystalline characterizations here show an assurance and confidence that were necessary to make a bi-monthly (soon monthly) Lulu a reality. Stanley would recycle the basic story of "Purloined Popover" over 100 times in his tenure on Little Lulu. As with Tripp's artwork, this is the story-type we think of when the phrase "Little Lulu" is mentioned. 

I would like to nominate this as one of the funniest single panels in the entire run of Little Lulu:

"Alvin's Solo Flight," at 22 pages, is the longest "Little Lulu" story. This was the last chance Stanley had to play with such a large canvas until his remarkable series of book-length Tubby pieces in the early 1950s.

Again, it's a Lulu story-type that would be revisited often by Stanley. By this time, it was already a Lulu trope. Here it is, in livid color:

In a 2010 post, I referenced a curious 1961 animated cartoon that adapts this story. "Alvin's Solo Flight" is a first-class example of John Stanley the spontaneous storyteller. With length no issue, he rambles from tight-knit incident to surprising outbreak, and the story's drive and energy are unpredictable.

There is much to savor here. Lulu and Tubby's adoption of parental roles, and their mimicry of the condescension and nescience of those figures, is beautifully written and woven into the fabric of the piece.

This Tubby is less quixotic, and more self-aggrandizing, than the c. 1950 version. His acts of greediness, presumption and bossiness are often priceless. This is the Tubby of "The Kid Who Came to Dinner," a "Four Color" gem from earlier in 1947. Something was lost when the more aggressive edges of Tubby's persona were softened. They had to be, to make him a more sympathetic figure in a sustainable series.

The beach, like the public park, is a key setting in the world of Stanley's Little Lulu (and much of his other work).  It is a ground zero for human interaction, and a showcase for the foibles of young and old. Getting outdoors always brings life to Stanley's stories. "Alvin's Solo Flight" is a masterful piece of work. It's a pity that the regular-series Lulu so rarely gave him the chance to go beyond 10-12 pages per story.

The last piece in this last one-shot "Lulu" is seldom discussed. "Never Again" is a pantomime of hedonism gone wrong. A great wordsmith, John Stanley also excelled at expressing volumes about his characters, and their world, without one line of dialogue:

 "Never Again" is pure comics, and a sophisticated presentation in its social satire. Most notably, it lacks a moral message. Lulu is not likely to smoke doll hair again, but there's no Buster Brown-like swearing off... just nausea and weakness.

The freeform hallucination sequence (pp. 5-8) is breathtaking in its imaginative comedy and its audacity. Stanley's hand as artist is most deeply felt in this piece. Hedinger simply finishes Stanley's innovative, playful sketches. Irv Tripp would have taken the life out of this story, so we're fortunate that it appears at this time in the Lulu chronology.

We close with the one-page gag (again, an pantomime) that ends the original comic book:
As my colleague Thad Komorowski has commented, this page captures a child's mindset brilliantly.

John Stanley was on the brink of a career-defining series with this final one-shot issue. Little did he, or anyone involved, know that this would lead to another 12 years, and thousands of pages, of  "Little Lulu" stories.

With this entry, I feel that Stanley Stories, the blog, has come to a satisfactory close. That said, I will likely post here on occasion, as whim or opportunity dictates. But all good things must come to an end, and after six years and over 250 posts, I think it's time to bring down the curtain.

The work I've done here has, I hope, meant something to the world of comics, and helped readers better understand the complex, rich and rewarding efforts of the man who was mainstream comics' greatest writer. I hope that, someday, I will be given the opportunity to do a book on John Stanley's life and work. Despite the importance of his work, and its lasting impact on comics, there is still no market for such a book. These are difficult times, though, and not likely to get any better.

Thank you for your interest in Stanley Stories. I hope it will continue to inform, entertain and inspire readers around the world.


Mestiere said...

That is some decompressed storytelling compared to Stanley's tighter, more text heavy later work.

The hair of Lulu's doll seems to have contained some DMT!

Thanks for the years of entertaining us for free with your time and effort. I appreciate it. Good Luck!

BK said...

Thanks for this. Some of the most thoughtful writing about Stanley anywhere.

Shamus said...

How odd that I just discovered this blog a few weeks after you have retired it. It's a bounty of information on one of my favourite characters since I was a child reading the Gold key Digest's that reprinted Lulu stories in the 1970s.
I know very little of John Stanley so this is a treasure trove for me. Thank You!

Tim said...

I, too, just discovered this blog as a result of a Google search for John Stanley. I knew John in the early '70's when he was working as a silk screen printer. He was one of the most fascinating people I have ever known. I recall him telling me about the tremendous stress of producing a comic story every two weeks, especially when he was doing the drawing and the writing. He said it was "a young man's game" and he just couldn't continue to produce on a schedule. His prodigious wit constantly entertained me and often it was spiced with some bitterness toward the publishing industry. It was a privilege to know him.

Frank M. Young said...

Tim, would you be willing to do an interview with me about your memories of knowing and working with John Stanley? It would be of extraordinary help in filling in this period of his life. Please contact me at -- thank you! Frank Young