February 1, 2010

Golden Age Artist Spotlight -- John Stanley

Like Carl Barks, John Stanley might not have known the breadth and width of his influence on potentially millions of boys and girls, as well as those who appreciate a perfectly scripted and story-boarded ten-page story (with finished art by Irving Tripp in many cases).  Stanley created wonderful stories involving Little Lulu (and Tubby) from 1945 to 1959.  Frequently overlooked, but never forgotten, John Stanley leaves a legacy of hundreds of stories and pictures that continue to entertain and amuse.

A native of the New York Hudson Valley, Stanley attended art school in NYC. Afterward he began working at Max Fleischer's studio as an opaquer and eventually in-betweening. He left in 1935 to work for Hal Horne contributing artwork to the then just starting Mickey Mouse Magazine. From there he went to work on Disney merchandise art for Kay Kamen, while selling gag cartoons to various magazines (including the The New Yorker). In this period (1935-37), Stanley attended classes in lithography at the Art Students League of New York. Stanley then started working as a freelancer out of the east coast office of Western Publishing under editor Oskar Lebeck. In this period Stanley did stories for a range of characters, including Bugs Bunny, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, along with his own creations such as Peterkin Pottle and Jigg & Mooch.

But it was Little Lulu that would more or less define his career.   Stanley had one meeting with Lulu creator Marjorie Henderson Buell (known professionally as Marge) before doing the first issue to discuss the background of the character.  Stanley drew the initial Lulu Four Color one shots but once a regular series began in 1948, Irving Tripp assumed the job of translating Stanley's sketch scripts into finished art. But Stanley continued to do the covers, several of which are presented below. 

Also like Carl Barks, Stanley inherited someone else's character then built a universe around them.  Under Marge, Little Lulu was a solitary star, operating in single gag panels in The Saturday Evening Post.  Presumably based on Stanley's former residence in Peekskill, N.Y.,  Stanley instead created a whole town of foils, adversaries and allies for Lulu.   Tubby, Iggy, Annie, Alvin, The Spider (Tubby's detective alter ego), Mr. and Mrs. Moppet,  Truant Officer McNabbem, Witch Hazel and Little Itch, and many more.  

I love Stanley stories for two simple reasons:  structure and characterization.   Each story had a delineated beginning, middle and end.  I.e., Lulu would encounter a problem or issue, attempt to resolve it or alternatively avoid it, and prior to a nifty and often witty resolution, all hell would generally break loose.  Wordplay, slapstick, satire, morality tale, and mystery were all incorporated in various ways.   But in the end, Stanley's kids talked like kids.  The mannerisms and reactions of the children to each other and their situations were remarkably true-to-life, inasmuch a comic strip will allow them to be.   In particular, Stanley illuminated gender differences in humorous ways.   The boys had their "no girls allowed" club and thumbed their noses at the girls with impunity, but Lulu generally gave them their comeuppance in a pretty humiliating and public way.  To Stanley's boys, girls like Little Lulu could be momentarily tricked or defeated, but they were also mysterious, unpredictable and dangerous.   Pretty much like real life.  Dark Horse has produced an 18 volume set containing John Stanley's stories, and they're very well done.

Drawn & Quarterly is currently producing excellent hard-cover editions of John Stanley's non-Lulu stories, including Nancy & Sluggo, Melvin the Monster and Thirteen "Going on Eighteen."  A list of D & Q volumes within the John Stanley Library is available here

Enjoy the covers!


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