Friday, December 11, 2015

Post-Mortem Post 006: Stanley's Artistic Transition in the Early Little Lulu Comics

I've looked at some of John Stanley's Little Lulu stories so many times that it doesn't seem possible they hold anything left to discover.

The first 10 Lulu comics, published from 1945 to late 1947 in Dell Comics' blanket one-shot 'Four-Color' series, are a fascinating study. The style and themes of the long-running, best-selling Lulu comic book, launched at the start of 1948, were planted in these tryout issues.

John Stanley's three writer/artist issues (FC 74, 97 and 110) contain some of his finest early work. They show a comics creator working at the top of his early game, with promise and assurance in his purview. His take on the Marge Buell characters, which required the conversion of mute gag-panel figures into developed, vocal and interactive characters, took a few years to fully gel.

From the first "Lulu" story, Stanley's wit, and his understanding of what makes comics tick, keeps the work from seeming tentative or fumbling. The Lulu of 1945/6 may act more like Tubby, in his golden era of 1949-54, and less the voice of reason figure she becomes by decade's end, but she is a vivid, engaging character who is successfully different from the Buell iteration.

This work was done with Buell's input and blessing. She supervised, and was pleased with, Stanley's work. In early 1946, Buell might have  assumed that he would work on the series, as artist-writer, in perpetuity. She got another 14 years of comics stories from him, but not in the form she first encountered.
In a recent perusal of actual printed copies of the Four-Color Lulus, I've noticed how John Stanley transitioned away from his artist-writer role of the first three books. Above is an alphabet cobbled together from 1940s comics work that is certified (by others beside myself) as Stanley's, and Stanley's alone.

To Marge Buell's upset (at first), Stanley ceded the hands-on artwork of the still-new "Lulu" stories to the team of Charles Hedinger and Irving Tripp. Michael Barrier details the mild drama behind this change in his fine survey of the Oskar Lebeck-headed Western Publishing, Funnybooks.

It was assumed that Stanley, even early on, used his most typical method of writing comics--with vigorous pencil sketches on foolscap or typing paper, which he sent, via mail, to Western's Poughkeepsie, New York offices. As Barrier reveals, Stanley seldom made in-person visits to the offices, and preferred to work from home. He was not especially close to Tripp, or the other artists involved with Little Lulu.

His hand in these subsequent Lulu Four Colors appears to be more aggressive than historians may have imagined. Though he surrendered the task of the finished artwork, he continued to letter these stories until the last two try-out issues (158 and 165), published in the last half of 1947.

Here is a sample page from FC 115, with Stanley's lettering--and layouts more in line with his way of drawing--in evidence.
The spaciousness of the panels' layout--there is much breathing room in the boys' clubhouse, which appears to be the size of a grocery store--is in line with Stanley's earlier Lulus, and with his other work of 1946/7 in general.

This continues in issue 120. I've never run the very funny story "The Newspaper Business," so here it is. Again, note the wide-open feeling--and Stanley's distinctive lettering:
There is a lot of "air" around Lulu and Tubby in this story. Close-ups are absent, and the staging most often involves full figures, with plenty of background space around them.

This literal distance from the characters belies the closeness Stanley accords them as fictitious beings. Early on, the misconceptions of how the adult world works, by Lulu and Tubby, is a constant source of charming, anarchic humor.

They seem like little children, given the enormity of the space around them. This sense will gradually leave the series as it reaches its great period of 1949-54.

There are, of course, no surviving notes as to who did what--or why. Stanley's lettering in five consecutive Lulu comics (115, 120, 131, 139 and 146) suggests that he may have submitted his work as penciled stories on illustration board, with his lettering and balloons drawn in ink.

Despite a small loss of the impact of his drawing style, Stanley's eye clearly informs this story. Here are sample pages from the next three issues, all with Stanley's lettering:
 from "Lulu is Taken For a Ride," #131
 from "The Hooky Team," #139
 from "The Boy Who Came to Dinner," #146
Stanley puts a slight italic note into his lettering for issue 146. These three pages, though they show Stanley's drawing style absorbed into the work of the Hedinger-Tripp team, still feel like Stanley drew them.

A sea-change occurs with #158, published in August, 1947. Stanley's lettering is gone (this is Hedinger's lettering, I believe) and the more cramped, claustrophobic staging that will run through the first year of the monthly Little Lulu comic, launched with the January, 1948 issue makes its debut here:
Here is a sample page from the last of the 10 Four-Color tryout issues, #165:
The last tier of the page from #158 illustrates what I mean by "cramped and claustrophobic." It's not a huge difference from the earlier issues, but it's noticeable. Perhaps this is due to the speech balloons. They get bigger after Stanley lets go of his role as letterer. That is a likely agent in this smaller, tighter feel.

It's not bad work, by any means, but suddenly the Lulu comics don't look exactly right. This uneasy transition will consume the 1948 stories, and continue until Tripp steps into the majority role as artist in 1949. In that year, the classic look-and-feel of Little Lulu blossoms, and Stanley, Tripp and the other members of Team Lulu enter the series' true golden age--one that will continue at least to the end of 1954.

P.S.: I have recently published a full-color, 8" by 10" trade paperback of some of my favorite essays from this blog, plus a couple of all-new pieces. It's called The Tao of Yow: John Stanley's World, and is available HERE. I suggest you buy copies from the re-sellers, who are simply ordering their own copies of this print-on-demand book and selling it for several dollars less than amazon.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Tao of Yow: John Stanley's World: new book available on

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book on John Stanley.

The Tao of Yow includes revised versions of three of the acclaimed "John Stanley's World" essays from this blog,  alongside four new pieces. All are profusely illustrated in full color with images from printed comics, production materials and rare promotional items that have sat, unseen, for over half a century.

This 154-page, 8 x 10" softcover, professionally bound and printed through the Createspace print-on-demand program, is designed as a companion to my three-volume bibliography of John Stanley's work in comics. Since those books are mostly data, they left little room for the type of material in The Tao of Yow. Given the impermanence of the Web, in which a long-established site or blog can vanish overnight, it seemed like a good idea to commit some of these pieces to the printed page.

Here is the book's table of contents:

The essay on p. 122 offers a first-time-ever full color version of a certain notorious "Little Lulu" story from 1950:

The Tao of Yow: John Stanley's World may be purchased on Amazon at this link. This will, I hope, be the first in a series of books that collect, expand and revise my work on this long-running blog.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Post-Mortem Post 005: The Second Nancy and Sluggo Summer Camp Special

Every so often, I get an e-mail from someone who has read and enjoyed this blog during its heyday. Though I consider Stanley Stories a done deal, I have done an occasional "post-mortem post."

These include material I've recently discovered, or oversights that really ought to be added, the better to make this site an exhaustive reference of the work of John Stanley.

Longtime reader B. Baker wrote recently, and requested that this second and last Nancy and Sluggo summer camp special be posted. It's still summer, so the time seems right.

I've written much about Stanley's Nancy comics elsewhere on this blog. As well, the 1950s and 1960s volumes of my illustrated Stanley comicography (available HERE and HERE on offer basic information on Stanley's creative involvement in this series.

This second 84-page graphic novelette is the lesser of the two Nancy annuals. The 1960 annual is one of Stanley's most satisfying, cohesive longer works. It's arguably the finest of his Nancy run--tense, edgy and amusing, with constant status shifts.

Stanley sleepwalks through much of Nancy, with refreshing pauses when newly-created secondary characters pique his interest. The series' humor is hard-edged and not always appealing. Character relationships are often brutal and loveless. Nancy and her Aunt Fritzi, for example, appear to barely tolerate each other's presence. Their existence together seems the result of an unspoken, half-hearted truce.

Ernie Bushmiller's original template is also troublesome, in this regard. In the Bushmiller world, events occur in one-gag increments. Fritzi's impatience with Nancy was a constant source of quick-laff set-ups. Perhaps Stanley chose to follow that, no questions asked, as it was one of the popular comic strip's backbones. That we see longer sequences, in which Nancy and Fritzi bicker, taunt and belittle each other, brings the laffs to a screeching halt. In these moments, Nancy threatens to become Edward Albee's Comics and Stories.

Sluggo is the character that most sparks Stanley the writer. As a student of social status, with a soft spot for life's underdogs, Sluggo seems to speak to Stanley. He is the lowest of his many low-status figures. He is not self-absorbed or full of hot air, like Little Lulu's Tubby. Nor is he zany and free-wheeling, as in Stanley's version of Woody Woodpecker.

Sluggo seems numbed, resigned to his fate and unable to change anything in his life. He is befriended by Nancy, and other kids, but shares none of their daily comforts. He is, on one hand, a child's fantasy of independence. No parental figures overshadow Sluggo. His next-door neighbors, the McOnions, are negative-image parents. They take some interest in Sluggo's well-being, but any benevolence is shattered by husband Bunion "Bunny" McOnion's schizophrenic mood-swings.

Freedom's price-tag is that Sluggo lives a life of flux. Nothing is certain, nothing stays the same for long, and his well-being/sense of self is in a perpetual state of challenge. It's a good life if you don't weaken!

Mr. McOnion is the most constant figure of threat and doom in Sluggo's life. In the first Nancy annual, Stanley makes his most memorable use of this twisted relationship. The re-match seems redundant here, but its less terrifying turnout suggests that someone might have mentioned to Stanley that he overdid the darkness in that first annual.

Whatever the case, this is still an amusing, if spotty, comic book. Good moments outweigh the bad, and as with the first annual, there seems a spark of life and interest in its contents. Here's the entire book, minus activity pages. Enjoy...

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Frank M. Young on John Stanley in the Drawn + Quarterly Super-Special!

I just received my contributor's copy yet, and I await the opportunity to spend some quality time with Drawn & Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels. Four of its nearly 800 pages contain an original essay I wrote on John Stanley.

This is a phone-cam photo of the first two pages of the piece, which I wrote last fall, right before my life-saving move to Portland, Oregon.

The book appears to offer hours of engrossing reading, in interviews, comics, essays and other good stuff.

The book also reprints selections from Tubby and Thirteen Going on Eighteen, to provide the new-to-Stanley reader with a notion of what I'm talking about here.

After all my work on Stanley, it seems ironic to me that this is my first published piece on the man and his work. Truth told, I'm glad to have waited until 2014 to write this. Working on this blog has helped me to shape an understanding of John Stanley's life and work, and I think this essay is as good as anything I could ever write on the topic.

I have had the pleasure of briefly browsing the book, twice, in stores, and if you care about the state of the art of comics (and I'll bet you do!), this book is a sight-unseen must-buy. I'm truly honored to be a part of this epic celebration.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Post-Mortem Post 004: Three "Heckle and Jeckle" stories, hidden in plain sight

To study and catalog the ephemeral is to constantly face the option that the work is never complete. The historian's version of wash-the-car-and-make-it-rain is publish-and-new-things-will-appear.

As I published the print editions of my three-volume, annotated John Stanley comics bibliography, I had a gut feeling that there was at least one story that had evaded me. Indeed, there were three.

As more is known about the career of John Stanley, our view of his work has changed. No longer is he the infallible writer of Little Lulu, and Lulu alone. I can take some credit in unearthing the breadth of his career, but many of my finds were preceded by others' wild stabs and guesses.

With this new information, some voices now decry Stanley's work--especially his late efforts. Every author has his/her champions and detractors. Stanley's work from 1956 on invites controversy and discord.

Though many admire his late "auteur" comics, Thirteen Going on Eighteen and Melvin Monster, an equal number despise and dismiss those as the "exhausted" efforts of a bright light now burned out.

I agree that Stanley has a burnout period--between 1956 and 1960--but challenge any claims that his post-1960 work is lesser or "exhausted." The late 1950s were a tough time to be John Stanley. He had overstayed his time on Lulu and Tubby, but could not leave either title, due to the need to make a living.

It's telling that he drops his other sideline projects--Krazy Kat and The Little King--in 1956. His writing approaches its lowest ebb in the next few years. The craft of his writing, developed over thousands of published stories, gives his work an unerring, professional gloss. His sense of the absurd was too strong to ever leave his work. Yet the stories of this period have a harsh, mechanical tone, and,  at worst, a grouchy disdain. Much of Stanley's 1957-1960 work feels like it was written by a man with a migraine, or a bad hangover.

There are transcendent moments in this era--the Oona Goosepimple stories in Nancy and Sluggo, and isolated spikes in Lulu and Tubby--and it can't be flippantly dismissed. Nor can it be approached as great material. It is, like much of mainstream comics, the output of a hard-working pro who has fallen out of love with his characters. By the time of his divorce from Little Lulu, Stanley had nothing to give its cast of characters, its familiar settings, its time-honored themes.

The bilateral move to Nancy, which occurred before he was through with Lulu, did nothing to help. I've written plenty about this period elsewhere on this blog, so I won't repeat myself further.

During the Nancy period, John Stanley wrote his last group of funny animal stories for two Dell titles sourced from the Paul Terry studio's animated stars. He wrote stories featuring the old-school wise-asses, Heckle and Jeckle, and some based on newer entities--the neurotic Silly Sidney and the TV-only Deputy Dawg.

Stanley's first Terry stories were tucked away as filler in Dell's continuation of the long-running Adventures of Mighty Mouse comic book. Dell adopted the numbering of Pines' series, which was taken from prior publisher St. John's. They converted the Paul Terry's Comics and Stories title to AoMM.

This title began its run at Timely Comics, as Terry-Toons, and despite a few overlapping/repeated issue numbers, the sequence continued from the Timely title's debut in 1942 to its final Dell incarnation in 1968.

Dell's first sequence, referenced in today's post, continued when Western took its licenses to its new imprint, Gold Key Comics. Sans the "Adventures of," Mighty Mouse continued, with the numbering intact for another five issues, at which time Dell got the Terry license, and published Mighty Mouse where Gold Key left off, until late 1968.

Five publishers, 26 years. Confused? Comics history is full of these tangled trails.

Stanley wrote three witty, energetic "Heckle and Jeckle" stories for issues 146-148 of the Dell AoMM. These are amidst his Nancy and Sluggo issues, and the stories share a like vibe, from vaguely similar designs of secondary characters to a scrappy, highly reflexive wit that recalls the TV sitcom humor of Max Shulman and Nat Hiken.

This suite of three stories is an example of Stanley the steam-engine, blowing off frustration and anxiety with the help of impish, Tubby-esque figures. This personality type--headstrong, quixotic, misinformed but sure of their rightness in all things--is Stanley's archetypal character, and under its aegis he functions best as a comedic writer.

Stanley's hand as artist is strongly felt in these stories. The finishes are by another artist (perhaps Lloyd White?) but the lumpen human figures are instantly recognizable as their author's work. The beat cop, park superintendent and hotel clerk in the last story here, "Illegal Parking," are approximations of McOnion, the passive-aggressive threat monster of Nancy and Sluggo. Said characters also compare with the human figures of the much later O. G. Whiz #1 seen HERE and HERE).

Here are the three H&J stories from this short-lived, whod'a-thunk-to-look-there Dell Adventures of Mighty Mouse, in their publication order.

From AoMM 146:

 from AoMM 147:

 And, from AoMM 148:

Sharp Stanley Stories readers will recall that I once mis-attributed the first two of these stories to a 1969 publication date. All three stories were reprinted by Gold Key in their revived New Terrytoons title at the close of the '60s. The affect of these stories is so close to Stanley's late work--especially O. G. Whiz--that I forgive myself that mis-assumption.

Stanley functioned best when he could free-associate within an unassuming story. With none of the structure--and stricture--of Little Lulu or Nancy, he has a field day making puns, wordplay and verbal witticisms, and diving into the deep end of his pool of frantic physical action. These are, above all else, funny stories, with a playful edge and a bit of bite.

"The Fastest Guns in the West," first and shortest of the three stories, overflows with verbal fireworks. Stanley anticipates the wittiness of Alun Owen's screenplay for the Beatles' first and best film, A Hard Day's Night, in panels such as this:
A three-character story, "Fastest Guns" seems bigger due to its large retinue of aggressive sound effects, and a large amount of over-the-top physical comedy. The remaining stories run two pages longer--a sign that someone up there liked Stanley's work.

The second piece, "Restaurant Business," satirizes a familiar Stanley target: pretentious, high-priced eateries. Like the fine art business and the rich in general, upscale chez-style cafes were an apparent pet peeve of the author. This story contains Stanley's most acidic salvos at what he clearly considered a racket. Striking is this moment, when brighter lighting reveals the horrible flaws and deceptions in their high-priced entrees:
Stanley seldom traffics in social commentary, and his work tends to avoid fads. In these few instances of his Cassandra cries, he smites his target with utter accuracy.

One of my top-five favorite Stanley Moments occurs in this story, when the bouncer, Beef, has pleased the bistro's flustered "manager man" and is rewarded:
"The Restaurant Business" is a fine example of a focused, witty Stanley staying on-task and wringing every available drop of humor from his cast and setting. The somewhat blunt and crude look of the artwork detracts from its complete success, but the sheer river of smarts and satire that guides this story is A-game Stanley.

"Illegal Parking" is a shade less effective, although it's a solid example of Stanley riffing off a vague general theme. The bright banter of Heckle and Jeckle highlights these three stories, and this one leans most heavily on their verbal humor. We're reminded of the characters Bill Bungle and McOnion, from the contemporary Nancy comics, in the story's best moments, which occur in that arena of human comedy, the public park.

Stanley appears to be having fun in all these stories, especially when his twin gadflies are in motion, double-talking their opponents into stupefaction or angling their way out of a crisis. A think-on-his-feet writer, Stanley relished characters of the same ilk.
This sequence offers a vivid distillation of Stanley's Space-Age approach to comedy: loud, broad and expressive, with verbal wit layered beneath the big red SFX.

After this story, Stanley transitioned to Dell's new anthology title for the Terry license, New Terrytoons, with its fourth issue. There, he contributed some decent stories, but none of them reach the comedic heights of these first three efforts. Following the Western/Dell split, in 1962, Stanley wrote no more funny animal comics.

These last pieces circle back to his first published comics work--the funny animal features for New Funnies, Animal Comics and Our Gang Comics. A comparison of that early material with these three pieces shows his startling development as a humorous writer from the 1940s to the late 1950s.