Until recently, Our Gang Comics #4, with John Stanley's second published comics story, was only available in a terrible, terrible microfilm scan. This scan (which I gladly moved to my computer's recycle bin) gave the effect of reading this 1943 comic book through heavily silted, possibly contaminated water.
This story is not written by Stanley. The prolific Gaylord DuBois penned thousands of stories for Western Publications, from its early years in the comics industry through its transition from Dell to Gold Key Comics in the 1960s. This was one of his typical early '40s jobs.
Humor and subtlety were not DuBois' fortes. Ideally suited for the fast-moving, near-incoherent Tarzan series, beautifully illustrated by Jesse Marsh and almost impossible to read, DuBois was wise to leave funny animal comics as John Stanley proved himself capable of writing and illustrating.
This story is a nice example of Stanley's most careful, controlled and elegant 1940s cartooning. One cannot read it without imagining how much Stanley might have improved it, had he written it outright.
A Walt Kelly cover is always worth a gander, so here's the public face of this issue of Our Gang:
And the story within...
Once Stanley's cartoon art has been properly savored, the flaws in the script become obvious. The two mice have constant exposition-filled dialogue, thus breaking one of the cardinal rules of great comics writing. It's a visual medium, so show it, don't describe it!
DuBois' script commits another sin: it talks down to its supposed audience of slow-learner tots. The basic concept--that the mice can't abide life inside the house, with Tom tormenting them, and fend for themselves in the outdoors (with stolen treats from the house to fortify them)--has promise, but its dullness becomes stagnant.
The sequence of pp. 37-40, in which the mice talk, talk talk about every step they take to make their home from found objects, is deadly. DuBois, like many writers for children in the 20th century, had the notion that young readers enjoy having every physical detail of an event described at length. More might have been done than the tepid series of events on these eight pages.
It's possible Stanley may have punched up what he could, where he could. One of his early tell-tale tics--sound effects in speech balloons--happens on the story's final page, and Tom's utterance of "SCROWEE!" is an ur-YOW that brings a chuckle to the reader's lips.
Mandy, the black maid, is given textbook Hollywood Negro dis-dem-das dialogue that Stanley also used, later in the series' run (see THIS STORY for an example). Her vocal ramblings are more offensive from DuBois' purview. Like every character in the story, Mandy describes what she's doing, and what she will do, only in the "Ah's gwine to" mushmouth mode of black stereotypes.
Stanley's cartooning is among his slickest. His renditions of Mandy, on p.2 of the story, impress with their deft contours. Stanley's placement of areas of black is spot-on, and his pen and brush lines have real flair.
The coloring for this story has some innovative touches. The red sunburst in the last speech balloon on p.5 is a neat touch that, to my knowledge, was never repeated. Characters cast colored shadows on pp. 2-3--a practice soon abandoned, as the havoc of high-speed presses discouraged such touches.
Once again, I give public thanks to the scanners who have made so much of America's four-color history available to those who simply wish to read or study the work. A decade ago, many important comics remained unscanned--or existed in dreadful microfiche enlargements that are almost worse than NOT having the comics, period. It is easy to become spoiled by the breadth of crisp, source-faithful scans that exist on the Internet. It can't be said often enough that the work of these scanners has made it truly possible to write about comic book history. The work speaks for itself, and is seen in the context of its time, and of other comics creators' stories. The bad mightily outweighs the good, but it's important to see it all to achieve a rounded view of the history of American comics.
NOTE: I recently did one last clean-up/edit of the 1940s volume of my three-book John Stanley comics bibliography. If you've been waiting to purchase this book, now's the time. I'm finally satisfied with all three volumes. Until or unless new data appears, or educated guesses become proven reality, I am done with the books and will let them be.
See you next time--whenever that may be!