Friday, July 21, 2017

Post-Mortem Post 009: The Sweetie Pie Conundrum

As I've studied the output of Western Publications, and tried to determine which of their published comic book stories are the work of John Stanley, I've had my doubts about several pieces. Most of them I've included, with my reservations noted, in the three-book, decade-specific bibliographies I have self-published, and which are available on amazon.com.

The gag cartoonist and animation creator Sam Henderson brought to my attention two issues from Dell Comics' one-shot series, known to collectors and historians as "Four Color Comics." The books were based, as were almost all the Four Colors, on a popular culture property. 

Nadine Seltzer's newspaper comic panel Sweetie Pie was one of several imitations of Hank Ketcham's popular Dennis the Menace, which debuted in 1951. Seltzer's feature was syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association, which offered its clients--mostly urban evening dailies and small-town papers--a package of comics, columns and features, which they were free to use as needed. The panel ran from 1954 to 1967, but is rarely found in client newspapers which seemed to use most, or all, of the NEA allotment.

Drawn with an attempt to achieve the elided elegance of Ketcham's cartooning, Sweetie Pie suffered from the main flaw of its inspiration source: a grating main character and a general mood of anger and violence. None of these brat-kid strips from the 1950s have aged well. Seltzer's derivative strip was popular enough in its day to be twice collected in paperback books, and twice in original comic book series.

The Ajax-Farrell imprint, best known for its nightmarish, bizarre horror titles, edited by the enigmatic Ruth Roche, released two all-original Sweetie Pie comic books in 1955 and '56. They were clearly based on the Dennis the Menace comic books published by Standard/Pines, which began in 1953. 

The two paperback collections were published in 1955 and 1957, concurrent with the Ajax-Farrell comic books. Four-ish years later, with the panel cartoon among the lower ranks of syndicated comics, Dell's pair of Sweetie Pies saw print. The first issue, #1185, has a publication date of May-July 1961. The follow-up, #1241, has a November 1961/January 1962 date. 

These two books coincide with John Stanley's last few Nancy and Sluggo comics for Dell. Like those comics, the Sweetie Pies were drawn by Dan Gormley, in a style not far from his take on Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. The stories feel like John Stanley's work, with elements of his Nancy and later Little Lulu stories. Yet there's something off about them. If they're Stanley's work, they are diluted, sedated stuff. They're quieter than Stanley's work of the period, which was given to much flailing of arms, shouting and dashing about.

Stanley's comics got louder from 1956 on, with characters using their outdoor voices at top volume. From Marge's Little Lulu #101, 1956:
And, more appropriate to this post, a sample page from the first issue of Around the Block with Dunc 'n Loo, which saw print around the time of the first Sweetie Pie:
There is some variance in volume in the following stories--and other touches familiar to Stanley's 1950s and early '60s work. Here is a selection of stories from the two Dell Sweetie Pie comics. See what you think:
"Clothes Make the Dummy" uses a story gimmick John Stanley made hay with in two stories--a long story from Henry Aldrich #4 and a short story from Marge's Little Lulu #11, 1949.
Its mistaken-identity angle--with the disguised dressmaker's dummy confused with "Shiek Aboo from Abool-Bool"--is in line with the sitcom frolics of Dunc 'n' Loo or Kookie, two original Stanley series from this period.

Sweetie Pie and Lester are almost interchangable with Nancy and Sluggo, or a blander version of Little Lulu and Tubby. Sweetie Pie is something like the earliest Stanley version of Lulu--a mischief-maker and know-it-all. As those qualities rubbed off on the Tubby character, by 1949, Stanley made Lulu a fully recognizable and more complex being.

Like some of Stanley's lesser 1950s jobs, the story feels more-or-less like the man's work, but lacks the fire and wit that informs his best material.

Two stories from the second Sweetie Pie continue this vibe.

"Pitcher's Plight" could be the work of the late Jack Mendelsohn, whose wit and fondness for wordplay complements John Stanley's. That's just a wild guess. Its theme of a character fixated on one trait or profession, to the befuddlement (and endangerment) of others, is a plot device Stanley used many times in his career. The story is amusing, but something doesn't gel.

"The Eyes Have It" is more in line with Stanley's work of this period in its use of a brassy, oversized adversary-- the Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle persona that I discuss in this 2009 essay. In both stories, the character of Sweetie Pie sits between Stanley's Lulu and Nancy. She is more a mischief-maker than post-1948 Lulu and has the blunt unlikability of his Nancy. She's an improvement on Seltzer's one-note mayhem tot. If this isn't Stanley's work, it's someone who followed his lead, and took a licensed property, threw out 95% of the character's shtick and reimagined the entity and its world.

Panels such as these two, taken from other stories, would cause a casual reader to think "John Stanley:"
These two books could be the work of another writer doing their best impression of John Stanley, or Stanley at a lower ebb, trying to make a living in a business that would soon chew him up and spit him out. In either case, the pair of Sweetie Pies are a small conundrum stuck in an obscure corner of comic book history.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Post-Mortem Post 008: New Stanley Material Discovered--Oswald the Rabbit Four Color 39, 1944

In all my years of research, I somehow overlooked this early 1944 one-shot, which is now important as containing John Stanley's first two long-form stories. This is a terrible quality scan, suitable for reading, but that's about it.

With beautiful cartooning by Lloyd White, the pun-filled main story, "Easterland," is a larval early effort, but full of Stanley tells, such as slurred language/slang, dubious authority figures, quietly absurd humor (the plight of the elderly rabbit at story's start; the out-of-control jelly bean factory and its buried inventor; the little piece of hard candy that imitates train whistles, etc.)

Stanley would include similar stories in his much-loved Little Lulu series, from 1946 on, as told by Lulu to her hellion-brat neighbor, Alvin. With this, Stanley's first fairy-tale, we see the glimmers of a street-smart, reactive retreat from the sugary tendencies of the fairy story. His humor throws a cold bucket of water on the genre, as did Tex Avery's cartoons such as Red Hot Riding Hood, Cinderella Meets Fella and A Bear's Tale.

Here is the whole issue. I will need to revise my 1940s comicography book now! I knew this would happen someday...

Easterland...

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Post-Mortem Post 007: Wait And They Shall Scan--a VERY Early Stanley Story from Our Gang Comics 4, 1943

As odds and ends surface, which is occasional here, I continue to post new things, even though this blog is officially kaput.

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!

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.