John Stanley Notebook
by Jeet Heer
Thursday, March 18, 2010
And below are some excerpts from my John Stanley notebook:
Stanley as Lulu. Month after month, Lulu had to improvise a story to please that pesky small-fry Alvin. Lulu was adept at spinning out burlesque yarns featuring stock characters – poor girls, kings, witches — and coming up with new scenarios for them to enact. Wasn’t Lulu’s plight the same as Stanley’s? He was on a story tread mill, he had to keep running to make the kids happy, there was no let up or relief for nearly thirty years.
Mummy as Enabler. Is it too much to see Melvin Monster as an allegory about child abuse? Melvin’s always under the threat of violence, sometimes death itself. His chief persecutor is his father, Baddy. The name says it all: Baddy equals bad daddy (a pun related to Blake’s nickname for the God of organized religion: Nobodaddy). Melvin’s mother, Mummy, is all wrapped up in the Egyptian manner. That means she has no eyes to see what is happening. She turns a blind eye to Melvin’s situation. That’s the way it often is with abusive families: one parent is violent, the other a blinkered or self-deceived enabler.
Ma and Dad. In Stanley’s stories when a kid is trouble there is only one person to cry for: “Ma!” Fathers are either violent (Baddy) or ineffectual and subject to suspicion (Mr. Moppet).
The Arc of Stanley’s Career. With Stanley’s peers – Kurtzman, Barks, Eisner, Kirby – we have a sense of the trajectory of their careers, the ups and downs, what the major works were as well as the artistic dead-ends (i.e., Kurtzman’s Little Annie Fanny). With Stanley we’re only now, thanks to the reprints from various publishers and the plethora of online stories as well as the excellent analysis of Frank Young, getting a sense of what his career was like. But we’re still mostly working in the dark, hazarding guesses. Little Lulu and Tubby stand out as his major work, and I’d say Thirteen Going on Eighteen is a close second.
Part of the difficulty of evaluating Stanley’s career is he maintained a consistently high quality, with very few drops. Unlike Barks, we can’t pinpoint what the good years of Stanley were (1949-1954 in the case of Barks, especially with the 10 pagers in Walt Disney Comics and Stories). Some Stanley stories are outstanding (“Five Little Babies” from Little Lulu #38, available in the Spiegelman/Mouly Toon Treasury is probably his single greatest work). And some of the work is inferior – I’m not a fan of most of the Nancy stories which seem haphazard and lackadaisical (except when they feature Oona Goosepimple). And around issue 94 of Lulu he seemed to lose heart, at least for a little bit. But the rest of the work has an even keel that is both admirable and a bit off-putting (at least if you are a critic; it’s great for readers). It’s hard to point to any group of stories and say, “Here is the core of Stanley.”
Stanley’s M.O.: Stanley had a consistent method which was to look at an existing genre and ask, “how would this look if it were done right.” Thus he looked at teen comics and came up with Dunc & Loo, as well as Thirteen Going on Eighteen (or as I call it, “Betty and Veronica done by an intelligent writer”). Stanley looked at horror and came up with Ghost Stories and Tales from the Tomb, at the monster craze and came up with Melvin Monster, at Richie Rich and came up with O.G. Whiz. This would argue for the modesty of his goals. Stanley was a journeyman cartoonist.
Journeyman. If Stanley were just a “journeyman” cartoonist, he was the greatest journeyman cartoonist who ever lived. He brought to perfection a type of modest, anonymous, professional cartooning, something that has disappeared from the world.
Hard to Parody. Evidence of Stanley’s modest craft can be seen in how hard he is to parody, compared to such visual showmen as Eisner or Kirby. Even as towering a cartoonist as Justin Green couldn’t do it. Green did a Lulu parody for Bijou Funnies which wasn’t very good at all, and is actually much more dated than Stanley’s work. Howard Cruse’s Lulu parody is also weak tea. The great exception is R. Sikoryak’s mash-up of Hawthorne with the Stanley/Tripp Lulu. The great merit of Sikoryak’s work, aside from his perfect as usually visual imitation, is that the plot of The Scarlett Letter does indeed echo the guilt-and-suspicion family psychodrama of Stanley’s stories where Tubby is a detective.
The Class War. Stanley’s people are middling types, threatened on one side by the rich (Wilbur Van Snobbe in the Lulu stories) and on the other side by violent plebes (the West Side Boys). This middling position makes their lives precarious. They have a fear of falling into the proletarian class but also resentment towards the snooty rich.
Humor and Horror. Humor and Horror are closely aligned in Stanley’s work. The horror stories of the early 1960s are only slightly more earnest variations of the tales Lulu would tell Alvin. The great Tubby story “The Guest in the Ghost Hotel” (available in the Toon Treasury) could, with a minor change of key, be a horror story. Laughter is always a way of warding off unease.
Like a Dream. Douglas Glover: “The best novels are like dreams. They come out of the silence of the page like a dream…Like dreams, novels are available to interpretation; the best novels have a central luminous mystery at their core, which tempts generations upon generations of critics and readers to find new structures and meanings beyond the surface of the words.” (From Branko Gorjup’s White Gloves of the Doorman: The Works of Leon Rooke, page. 244). Many of Stanley’s stories have a dream logic to them, stories where characters find themselves inappropriately dressed or half-naked in public places (“Five Little Babies” or a Thirteen story where Val sleepwalks through the city), stories where characters try to get to school on time or meet another deadline but are constantly delayed by unexpected events, stories where unlikely embarrasing events keep escalating. Stanley must have had a rich dream life, and he wrote like a dream.
Progeny. Who are Stanley’s artistic heirs? Crumb. Seth. Carol Tyler. Justin Green. Lynn Johnston. Howard Cruse. Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert Hernandez. Kevin Huizenga. Maybe Lynda Barry – I’m not absolutely sure. She’s too young to have read Stanley’s Lulu but maybe she read some of his 1960s work. All in all, a worthy tribe.
Stanley motifs. A few recurring things: days at the beach, rainy days, umbrellas, rowboats, screaming.
Recurring character types. Catchers and collectors (dog catchers, butterfly collectors, monster collectors, truant officers); bewitching girls who are probably no good for you (Oona Goosepimple, Little Horror, Gloria); fat kids; snooty rich people.