Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we're looking at the career of a Golden Age artist who's undergone a bit of a rediscovery and renaissance lately, John Stanley.
Why he's important
Besides being a masterful storyteller, John Stanley is an important reminder that the history of the American comics industry, particularly its Golden Age, is made up of more than superheroes and EC horror titles. There was a diverse amount of material being published that aimed to appeal to a variety of interests and ages (relatively speaking). Most of it, of course, was dreck, but in Stanley's case craftsmanship and an eagerness to entertain won out. Though he usually dealt with licensed, G-rated material, Stanley refused to hack anything out. His stories are always tightly constructed affairs, filled with memorable characters and a dry, almost macabre, wit that keeps the material from becoming too saccharine.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Stanley is how little his work has aged. It remains as witty, imaginative and fall on the floor funny as it must have seemed to young readers back in the 1950s and '60s. Stanley's comics are that rare beast that can be appreciated by both adults and children -- our house is frequently filled with discussions of our favorite Lulu stories for example. Bottom line: he's just plain fun to read.
Where to start
Even though he didn't create the character, Stanley is best associated with Little Lulu. As good as Marjorie Henderson Buell's original cartoons are (and they are very good), Stanley took the character into the realm of the greatness, adding his own unique cast and spinning seemingly endless inspired variations on only a few basic themes (Lulu gets revenge on Tubby and the mean neighborhood boys, Tubby plays detective, Lulu tells little kid Alvin a story). Dark Horse has done an excellent job of reprinting these seminal stories and have 25 volumes in print as of this writing. That can seem like a frightening amount of reading to even the eager reader, so I would recommend neophytes start with the Little Lulu Color Special. While it's not exactly a "greatest hits" collection, it does have a number of great stories including "Pieces of Eight," "The Fuzzythingus Poopi," and "The Case of the Mysterious Nose," and is a good enough sampler to give you an idea of what lies ahead.
From there you should read
The rest of Dark Horse's Little Lulu series is the obvious next step. I'd recommend reading them in order. The first couple of volumes have fallen out of print, but Dark Horse has made up for that by bundling them together and re-releasing them as "Giant-Sized" editions.
If you find your Lulu love increasing with each volume, you may want to also check out the Tubby comics, as the character proved popular enough to merit his own spin-off comic. You have a choice in this particular regard, as both Dark Horse and Drawn & Quarterly have been repackaging these old comics. The D&Q volume is the more handsomely produced and the art looks a bit cleaner, but the Dark Horse version is cheaper, the colors are a bit brighter (or, depending on your point of view, more garish) and the first volume includes stories that aren't in the D&Q collection. It's really a matter of preference.
In the 1960s, Stanley produced a number of original creations for Dell, many of which Drawn & Quarterly is in the process of reprinting. The best of these is easily Thirteen Going on Eighteen (one volume out so far) a great slapstick teen romp that manages to outdo Archie both in terms of characterization and humor. The series is also notable as it's one of the few of Stanley's comics that features his original art, as he usually only did layouts, with folks like Lulu artist Irving Tripp providing the final drawings.
Stanley's other great work from this period would be Melvin Monster (two volumes out with a third soon on the way) a hilarious little take (perhaps even parody) of the monster craze going on at the time, which stars a beleaguered little boy monster who only wishes to do good. Much of the humor comes from the characters behaving in the exact opposite fashion of traditional social norms (the schoolteacher doesn't want kids in her class, etc.) which manages to give a bit of poignancy and edge to the comic, at least in regards to the amount of neglect and abuse poor Melvin routinely suffers through.
In addition to Lulu, Stanley wrote a number of licensed comics, including one based off of Ernie Brushmiller's classic strip, Nancy (two volumes out so far). Faced with the choice of how to translate Brushmiller's minimalist gag work to comic book sized epics, Stanley decided to turn it into a slightly modified version of Lulu's world. Nancy becomes a less agressive Lulu, Sluggo is a more slovenly verison of Tubby, and so forth. The stories are entertaining enough, but only reach true inspiration whenever Nancy's playmate Oona Goosepimple shows up. Whenever Nancy visits this very strange girl who lives in a haunted house that even Charles Addams would find daunting, the stories take a surreal turn that show Stanley at his most inventive.
Hopefully D&Q plans to reprint some of Stanley's other '60s work, including Kookie and Dunc & Lou, in the near future, but in the meantime, you can read samples of those stories, and lots more via the internet, particularly the great Stanley Stories blog. The site offers a good deal of thoughtful appreciation of Stanley's work and methods, and frequently posts stories he did based on other licenses, like Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and even Howdy Doody.
While he is known mostly for humor, Stanley did try his hand at a few horror stories, two of which are collected in Art in Time, Dan Nadel's anthology of interesting, forgotten or just plain odd comics work. What makes these stories worth checking out is how Stanley avoids the typical shocks and gore of the day in favor of slowly building suspense and tension, particularly in the masterful "Crazy Quilt."
This is one of those rare instances in Comics College history where I honestly can't think of a single work of Stanley's that isn't worth reading. While no doubt Stanley has his nadirs, none of them exist in print at the moment. Even at his most mediocre, Stanley is still leagues above just about every single one of his contemporaries.
Next month: Seth