Sunday, February 9, 2014
One of the few "Tom and Jerry" stories not already featured here, it's written and drawn by Stanley, who also did his highly distinctive lettering.
Throughout John Stanley's comics career, he did good stories and bad ones. In the latter, he either wasn't having a good day, was racing against the deadline clock, or just didn't care.
More of these stories exist than we'd like to believe. They are part and parcel of the commercial comics business.
Mainstream print is slapdash and panicky by its very nature. Ultimately, what matters most is that something is on every page of a newspaper, magazine or book. That content doesn't have to be good. It just has to be.
This comic book has a publication date of May-June,1944. At this time, Stanley's workload also included the Walter Lantz-themed monthly, New Funnies, for which Stanley wrote and drew 27 additional pages of material. The following month, Stanley picked up some of the Famous Studios-based cartoon characters for another Dell anthology, Animal Comics. That added another 16 pages to his extant workload.
Stanley continued to crank out at least 24 pages of story and art material a month through 1945. When he added the occasional one-shot special, part of Dell's "Four Color" series (which would include the first several issues of Marge's Little Lulu), that workload could double.
Small wonder that, now and then, a story would fail to reach its potential. Stanley's worst efforts are still better than the "best" output of the West Coast branch of Western Publications. Knowing the heights of which Stanley was capable, it's depressing to read his more hasty, tossed-off pieces. Every comics creator had them, and it came with the territory.
This six-page "Tom and Jerry" story falls in the better-than-average range. Of no great consequences, it's salvaged by its peppy verbal wit, the appealing gadfly personalities of the mice, Tom's arrogant self-entitlement, and Stanley's developing but attractive comics artwork.
2014 will see few postings here on Stanley Stories. The blog will remain alive, if a bit malnourished, and I thank you for continuing to peruse it as it enters its sixth year.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
You can also buy it, bundled with the earlier 1940s Stanley bibliography, for six dollars. To do so, choose this button:
These files will be sent to you via WeTransfer.com, which offers high-speed downloads that work well. I had been using Rapidshare, but since Internet Explorer users and many Mac users have problems with them, I've abandoned that option. You'll receive your files as soon as I get word of your payment! Please be sure you have a correct e-mail address so I can send the files to you PDQ!
This link will sit here, above newer posts, until at least the end of the year. Thus, I won't have to run sales-pitches into the body of the regular posts. Please enjoy the other posts on this blog, and if you're interested to know more about the artist and his work, these resources are available. Thanks!
Monday, November 25, 2013
Dressmaker's Dummy Leads Teenage Pals Into Hitchcockian Screwball Nightmare: 31-page story from Henry Aldrich 4, 1951
The richest vein I've struck is in the early 1950s title Henry Aldrich, which Stanley wrote for his most talented collaborator, the cartoonist Bill Williams.
As Stanley entered his most beloved period on the best-selling Marge's Little Lulu title, and just before he took up cartooning again for the eclectic Marge's Tubby spinoff, he wrote several issues of this teenage analog to Lulu and Tubby.
Stanley's Aldrich material is often surprisingly sophisticated, and the book's unusual format allowed him to experiment with story lengths. Today's offering is one of Stanley's longest regular-issue narratives: 31 pages of unfolding comedic mayhem, tinged with black humor and featuring two protagonists who never quite understand why their actions have such a strong effect on the world around them.
The untitled story's highly innocuous kitchen scene, at its start, doesn't reveal one iota of the manic escalation that hits Henry and his best bud, Homer, like the proverbial dresser-drawer-full-of-bricks...
A seasoned reader of John Stanley's Thirteen Going on Eighteen can find much to savor in this untitled story. Like the recently posted "Homer Brown" stories, this piece shows that Stanley's 1960s comedic style did not just spring out of the ether. The highly controlled world of "Little Lulu" didn't leave Stanley much breathing room. Events too wild, morbid or off-kilter wouldn't work in the "Lulu" arena.
This story was written before Stanley's remarkable series of book-length stories for the Marge's Tubby comic book. Though Stanley had written (and sometimes drawn) several longer narratives by 1950, when this story was created, he had seldom reached this level of sophistication. "Lulu Takes A Ride," from 1947, comes closest to achieving this story's sublime, patient and measured comedic escalation.
The story harkens back to two significant Stanley pieces from the New Funnies monthly anthology. This Andy Panda story from 1947 (buried within a longer, more general post) has a remarkably similar sequence in which the two protagonists attempt to return a stolen cannon by car.
This Woody Woodpecker story, also from '47, is built around assumptive misunderstanding of an innocent act that seems sinister. It, too, calls in the police, including... well, read the post and see for yourself.
Alert readers will notice the reference to Kohlkutz, the butcher--who also appears in many "Little Lulu" stories. Stanley was evidently very fond of this W. C. Fields-esque name.
Stanley had the opportunity to revisit narrative and comedic ideas time and again in the world of comic books. These mass-produced, disposable pamphlets, forgotten by most as soon as they reached their sell-by date, had a huge turnover in their readership. A good idea was most definitely worth repeating, or re-exploring.
Several such strains of a theme approached, retried, refined and perfected occur in John Stanley's work. This is one of the most spectacular realizations of a solid comedic idea in all of comics.
Stanley, at his best, keeps small, absurd ideas moving through the flow of his story. In this case, it's the boys' remembrance of a horrible fruit punch drink, made by Homer using cider vinegar. That incident keeps bobbing to the surface of the story, as Henry and Homer get enmeshed in a town-wide crisis that ends with a massive police stand-off, guns at the ready, in their own backyard:
This comedic apotheosis had no place in Little Lulu's world. It is the type of moment that modern licensed-property holders have in their worst, wake-up-screaming-and-sweaty nightmares. No corporate entity would allow their properties to be held at bay with riot guns! The freedom of neglect that Stanley, and other Western Publishing creators, enjoyed with their licensed charges, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s enabled them to make bold choices, and to introduce ideas that were far richer and more complex than the official version of Henry Aldrich, Woody Woodpecker, Howdy Doody, etc., etc.
Stanley was the only Western creator to take full advantage of this freedom, and this story is one of the richest fruits of such anonymous labor. That he also had 52 pages to fill any way he chose, with little editorial interference, allowed him to, at whim, write out a story to its natural length. This could have been a 10-page story, stripped to the essence of its plot. With 31 pages, Stanley and Williams can indulge themselves in non-essential but dazzling touches. Incidental characters who'd have no more than a "YOW" in a shorter story get to exchange significant dialogue (e..g, the napping department store employee with the mannequins; the spinster women who call the police near story's end).
The reward of this story is its leisure. It builds slowly and inexorably from a stock premise, invests it with character and stakes, and lets it come to a boil. Were Henry and Homer not so concerned about their social status, none of the events of this remarkable story would have taken place. Because their egos, and their misguided perceptions of the world, inform their thoughts and deeds, they take the hard way; their misfortune and growing confusion allows a level of character richness seldom seen in mid-20th-century comics.
John Stanley's Henry Aldrich stories are perhaps the best hidden gems of his prolific career. They are subtle, smart and understated in all the right places, and zany when zany is most needed. They're written with the same control as Stanley's concurrent "Little Lulu" stories, but they get to explore different places than most mainstream comics of their era.
Friday, October 11, 2013
As time has gone by, my study of this series' early issues has gradually revealed much more of Stanley's input than I first realized.
Stanley wrote the entirety of the first two issues of Henry, skipped the third, and returned with the fourth. The skipped third issue threw me off for a few years. I finally sat down and carefully read these comics.
To my pleasant surprise, Stanley's work appears through at least the 11th issue. I'm still going over the last half of the 22-issue run.
These stories, which are often quite long and detailed, are a fascinating precursor of Stanley's 1960s work on the series Dunc 'n Loo (also with Bill Williams) and 13 Going on 18. They show that these concepts did not appear out of the blue, for their creator, in the early 1960s.
The dawn of the 1950s saw an uneasy transition in John Stanley's writing. He repressed, consciously or not, the wilder extremes of his comedic sensibility. The frantic, everywhere-at-once affect of his 1940s work was suddenly muted.
This was, I believe, a result of his duties as the creative light of the Marge's Little Lulu titles. His greatest success as a comics-maker, Lulu brought with it a certain sense of reserve.
Lulu was a big property, and more TLC and painstaking were required for the series than, arguably, for any other of the comics produced by Western Publishing for Dell.
Lulu had a creative team, as seen in this one-time-only credit listing, from the pages of the comic's 49th issue:
As the main provider of content, Stanley had a remarkable amount of license. Though broad physical comedy occurs constantly in the early '50s Little Lulu, it is played dryly. The static look of Irving Tripp's artwork seems to be one important agent in this change of tone. Tripp could downplay wild action (as seen in the fifth panel of the gag page above) and make it seem as matter-of-fact as a yawn or a walk.
Though no evidence exists to support this, it feels as though editorial concerns may have influenced the toned-down feel of these still-superb stories. The Lulu pieces of 1950-1954 may be John Stanley's most-liked and best-regarded work. High-functioning, smart and loaded with compelling details of personality, setting and mood, these stories are consistently truly great work.
That same tamped-down, highly controlled sensibility flavors the contemporary Henry Aldrich stories. Though they contain constant moments of social embarrassment and personal humiliation, as found in the later, more loose-limbed Dunc and 13, their affect is calm and more subtly played.
Another theory: the failure of his late 1940s original comics creations, Peterkin Pottle and Jigger and Mooch, both bleak, dark visions of the world, might still have smarted in Stanley's memory. Perhaps he took away from those failures the idea to tone things down in his work.
Stanley never abandoned his pet themes, which, by their very nature, are dark--social struggles, status shifts, failures to fit in with the regular world, the corrupting nature of wealth. In the first half of the 1950s, he found ways to present this material without drawing much attention to it.
These themes drive John Stanley's work. Their presence, and Stanley's distinctive use of them, have been helpful in identifying stories that are, or may be, his.
Loss of status is one of the linchpins of John Stanley's world. Stanley was comics' supreme essayer of the rise and fall of status. It is the coin of his characters' realm. Who they are, and how they exist, are governed almost entirely by their social and personal status.
Stanley used status, and its gain and loss, as grounds for high comedy, low comedy, and moments of surprising compassion. His investment in his characters, on this level, is one thing that makes his work so good.
Stanley gained mastery of comedic status-shifting in his early 1950s work. It becomes the basis for all his future work. In the 1960s, status is treated in broader strokes, with a more forte tone and tempo. It still runs the world of all Stanley's characters, and drives every story he writes--even the eccentric horror and fantasy pieces of Ghost Stories and Tales From the Tomb.
One of Stanley's most protracted and painful status wars was fought in the back pages of 13 Going on Eighteen. The series' "Judy Junior" stories, which I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, are deliberate, genuinely existential tournaments of human will and the right to dignity. Each day of Jimmy Fuzzi's life is a suburban battle-of-wills to retain what little dignity and standing he possesses.
It is fascinating to find an precedent to "Judy Junior" in the backup feature for Henry Aldrich, "Homer." For three inspired stories, Stanley and Williams created a priceless set-up. Homer Brown, best friend of Henry Aldrich, is the steady date of Agnes. To see Agnes, he must encounter her little brother, Edgar. This pre-pubescent wheeler-dealer traffics in money and status.
Edgar is a genuine threat to Homer's well-being. He is, seemingly, completely amoral, and thus unpredictable. Homer is no Einstein, and what wits he does possess are compromised by his feelings for Agnes. Thus, each time he visits his girlfriend, a psychic Hawaiian Punch awaits, in Edgar's cold-hearted, cold-cash schemes.
Stanley visited this bullet-proof scenario three times, and then abandoned it. Here is this sublime trifecta of Homer vs. Edgar pieces. The first, and shortest, is from Henry Aldrich #6...
Edgar is one of Stanley's most destructive trouble figures. Like Judy Junior, of over a decade later, he seems shorn of conscience, good will towards others, and anything else that would describe a well-integrated member of society.
When he dissolves Homer's hat in a vat of foul chemicals, he simply swipes his father's chapeau, and then presents Homer with a bill for his services. The story ends with some lingering threads. There will, surely, be a scene the next time Homer calls on Agnes. Edgar feels nothing for this future hell he's created. He has his 26 cents, and a higher status than his sister's boyfriend.
The next round of Edgar v. Homer occurs in Aldrich #7:
Edgar brings Homer down to his level of dog-eat-dog survival. Homer is forced to steal from Edgar's piggy bank, in a move that further lowers his status, even though his actions can be justified in some ways. At his best, Stanley shows us moments in the lives of his characters that are simultaneous victories and defeats. This is among the most ignoble episodes in all his work.
Homer appears to have forgiven Edgar, in the interval between this story and next, published in Henry the 8th. Edgar reveals himself a master of low-ball antics. He brings Homer a world of anxiety and deflation--and makes him pay for it!
Homer sets himself up for a world of anguish from the moment he greets Edgar on the street, at story's start. Homer's attempt to make piece with his little tormentor creates a contract that Edgar can--and will--use against him, in an escalating comedy of misinformation.
In the final tier of page 5, Edgar's sociopathy is brilliantly portrayed for dark comedy:
Homer is correct to envision Edgar boiling in oil at story's end. This is, alas, the end of their battle royale. The next issue's story downplays their relationship, and even has them playing marble with concentrated food pills at story's end. The chain of events that leads to that finale is quite clever, but the tension is gone from this dark relationship.
Again, it feels like editorial input may have caused this change of plans. In its three-story arc, the status war of Homer and Edgar is an unknown moment of brilliance in John Stanley's career. There are other worthy stories in the first several issues of Henry Aldrich, and I'll share more here in the future.