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 amazon.com) 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.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The John Stanley Comics Bibliographies: Don't Forget About 'em!

Just a reminder that Frank M. Young has just published a three volume bibliography of the comics work of John Stanley, the mastermind of Dell Comics' Little Lulu series from 1945 to 1959. These volumes offer a total of 470 pages of information and images.

Based on years of research, these three volumes purport to chronicle every comic book story John Stanley wrote (and sometimes drew). The cover of every comic book listed is reproduced in color, as are sample pages from stories, in-house ads and original art.

Here are some sample spreads from the three volumes:


Click on each image to enlarge it. Each book is 8 x 10 inches, professionally printed and bound in matte-finish softcover. Each book offers bonus materials. The 1940s and '60s books contain a selection of rare John Stanley stories--none of them ever presented here on  Stanley Stories. Large images of Stanley's distinctive cover drawings grace the 1940s and 1950s books.

These books are the definitive resource for a study and appreciation of the work of John Stanley. They can be purchased from amazon.com.

For the 1940s edition, click HERE.

For the 1950s edition, click HERE.

For the 1960s edition, click HERE.

You can look inside all three books on amazon, where they're affordably priced. Take a look! These could make a perfect holiday gift for the comics lover in your life--or for yourself!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Post-Mortem Post 003: The Fine Art of Comics Pantomime, with Little Lulu and Company

John Stanley was a great storyteller. His ability to spin multiple variations on a number of stock plots, and bring something fresh to the table each time, is downright enviable.

At the core of his storytelling skill is a sardonic, droll sense of humor. Stanley often indulged in slapstick on the comics page, and did it well. His true gift was an understated, subtle comedy, deeply rooted in the myriad flaws and quirks of characters he made his own and knew like his own children.

In my recent updating and book publication of the three-part John Stanley Comics Bibliography (see links at foot of post), I've been reminded of the grace and charm of his pantomime one-page gags in early issues of Little Lulu. These were in line with Marge Buell's original vision of the character. They expanded beyond Marge's one-panel chuckles, as did Stanley with all the characters he grandfathered over from the Buell version.

Stanley's "Lulu" and "Tubby" stories are dominated by talk. Traditionally, the author offered a great deal of character information from how his comic figures act, react and think. At his best, Stanley can make pages of dialogue riveting. His love of language, and his word-smithing, are evident in each line he wrote for the hundreds of thousands of speech balloons he filled.

A constant of Stanley's Lulu and Tubby work are one-page pantomime pieces. These items, usually landfill in poorly-planned comic magazines, were treated as equals to the longer, dialogue-driven stories by their creator. There is no sense of haste or waste in these pages. As with the text feature, Lulus Diry, these apparent fillers are as rich and rewarding as any other components of the series.

Stanley did another string of impressive one-page pieces for the magazine New Funnies, featuring his rendition of Woody Woodpecker. Those may be read HERE. The "Woody" pages, drawn by Stanley, traffic in the typical sassy dialogue exchanges of his longer stories. The Lulu pages are almost exclusively mute, and require the reader's utmost attention to small details. Their rhythm, flow and structure are striking. They're often laugh-out-loud funny, and offer a taste of Stanley's driest wit.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite panto pages from early issues of Little Lulu. Spend some time with them and you'll be rewarded...

two pages from Little Lulu one-shot #110
two pages from Little Lulu one-shot #120
two pages from Little Lulu one-shot #97
two pages from Little Lulu one-shot #115
Little Lulu one-shot #131
two pages from Little Lulu one-shot #139
Little Lulu one-shot #146
Little Lulu one-shot #158
two pages from Little Lulu #1
three pages from Little Lulu #2
Little Lulu #3
Little Lulu #4
Little Lulu #6
Little Lulu #8
Little Lulu #13
John Stanley's hand as cartoonist is keenly felt in the earlier pages. This sheaf of 23 pages offers a quick look at the visual evolution of Lulu, from Stanley's cartooning to Charles Hedinger's to Irving Tripp's.

Stanley entertained an ambition to be a magazine gag cartoonist. He had one cartoon published in the New Yorker in 1947. Roughs exist for several other well-executed gag cartoons, but I don't think any others were published in his lifetime.

As Lulu became more formula-bound, the gag pages acquired a more mechanical flavor. By 1955, they are more filler than inspiration. That said, Stanley wrote one of his most inspired single page strips late in the Lulu game, for issue #94:
___________________________________________

To learn more about my just-published complete John Stanley comics bibliography, please click HERE. The books are available on amazon.com and createspace.com. These lavishly illustrated books are a great holiday gift idea for the comics-loving person in your life...