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#230 (Vol. 2 #2): THE DARK LULU SAGA

depIn my childhood I ignored Little Lulu comics: since a little girl was the title character, I probably assumed they were for little girls, and not me. But as a middle-aged adult I became increasingly aware that Little Lulu comic book stories by the the late writer/artist John Stanley (1914-1993) were considered classics.

I am starting out my relaunch of “Comics in Context” by reviewing some of the stories in The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, selected and edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, and published by Harry N. Abrams’ ComicArts imprint. In their introduction, Spiegelman and Mouly praise Stanley as “one of [Uncle Scrooge's creator Carl] Barks’ few equals as a comics storyteller.” Since I greatly admire Barks’ work (I’ll get to him in the near future), it’s long past time I paid attention to Stanley, so let’s start with his work in this collection.

Little Lulu was created by cartoonist Marge Henderson Buell for a series of gag cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post from 1935 to 1944. An enormous success, Lulu starred in animated cartoons produced by Paramount’s Famous Studios from 1943 to 1948. When Little Lulu got her own comic book series in 1945, Stanley wrote and drew the stories, creating most of the supporting cast. Several years later, he began collaborating with artist Irving Tripp (who just passed away in December 2009 at the age of 88). Stanley continued to write the stories and did sketches of the panels, and then Tripp did the final artwork. (Mark Evanier explains in his Tripp obituary that it is unclear how closely Tripp followed Stanley’s layouts. Stanley continued working on Little Lulu until 1961.

depI must say I was startled by the Stanley stories in Classic Children’s Comics. Take the first one in the collection, “Five Little Babies,” by Stanley and Tripp from Marge’s Little Lulu #38 (1951). (As usual, I hereby issue a spoiler warning, since my critical essays discuss stories in detail.) Snotty rich kid Wilbur Van Snobbe is boasting to Tubby and other boys about his supposed irresistible appeal to girls. He claims that he could even get the feisty Lulu (who, as the other boys point out, hates him) “to do anything I wanted,” and, getting carried away, declares that he could make her follow him around on her hands and knees as if she were a dog. Wilbur makes a bargain with the boys that if he can actually get Lulu to do this, they will admit him to their club. Stanley leaves it to his young readers to note his subtle ironies. Although Wilbur started out in this story by playing a trick on Tubby and the other boys, and boasts how all girls are attracted to him, he is probably actually rather lonely, since he really wants to be a part of Tubby’s club. Moreover, although Tubby and his pals do not believe Lulu will do what Wilbur wants, none of these boys seems to think there is anything wrong in Wilbur getting girls to humiliate themselves; in fact, they are all quite amused by the idea. (When we are shown their clubhouse a few pages later, it bears the graffiti “No Girls Allowed.”) So much for Wilbur’s self-proclaimed image as a ladies’ man: he really doesn’t seem to think of girls as more than status symbols he can manipulate.

Tricksters, successful or otherwise, abound in this collection. Wilbur tricks Lulu by playing on her sympathies, pretending to be upset because his dog is lost. When Lulu kindly overlooks her dislike of Wilbur and offers to help, he persuades her to pretend to be another dog on his lash, in the hope that his real dog will get jealous and return. (Wilbur’s scenario may indicate further how distorted his view of affection between people-or between a person and pet–is, seeing it in terms of angry jealousy.) So, somewhat reluctantly, Lulu ends up crawling on her hands and knees, wearing a dog collar, being led on a leash by a boy, and even holding a ball in her teeth, interfering with her ability to talk.

This is staged as comedy in a supposedly innocent children’s comic. But you can tell from my description that this is also a rather disturbing image, if you bother to look past the light, comedic outward tone of the dialogue and art. If Lulu and Wilbur were adults, the sexual implications would be plain.

Tubby and his pals watch, initially with deadpan expressions, and then explode in disbelief. The boys seem angry when Wilbur shows up at their clubhouse to demand they honor their promise to make him a member. But, significantly, they don’t condemn him for humiliating Lulu, either. what seems more important to Tubby and company is their own power struggle with Wilbur: they resist acknowledging that he was able to back up his boast. “Lulu’s just crazy, period,” says Tubby: he prefers demeaning Lulu’s sanity. Ultimately, they admit Wilbur to their club.

Then Lulu’s friend Annie berates her for letting “them” humiliate her–pointedly, she blames all the boys, not just Wilbur–and reveals how she was tricked. So Lulu, infuriated, concocts a scheme to get even, making Annie her accomplice. Significantly, after her initial burst of anger, Lulu smiles while she carries out her plot, telling Annie, “we’re going to have some fun.” She can balance the scales without succumbing to hatred.

At first her scheme seems rather conventional: while Tubby, Wilbur and the other boys go skinny-dipping, Lulu and Annie steal their clothes. But then Lulu’s plan is revealed as more elaborate: claiming not to know who the thief was, Lulu brings the boys something to wear–diapers–and tells them to hide in a toy wagon under a blanket and she will pull them wagon to their homes. The boys naively comply, but Lulu instead pulls the wagon into the center of town, and then shoves it down a hill.

At the bottom of the hill, other kids pull up one end of the blanket, see the boys’ bare feet, and leap to the conclusion that it’s “a whole wagon load of feet!” That’s a rather macabre image–a wagon full of severed feet–and an enormous crowd–possibly everyone in town–gathers around the wagon for the grand unveiling by a policeman: he pulls off the blanket, revealing the five boys, naked except for diapers, in a sort of human pyramid.

So Lulu has just humiliated her humiliators, and topped them by exposing them in front of a far wider group of spectators. The diapers infantilize Tubby and company, symbolically reducing them to babies (hence the story’s title). But again, beneath the comedy, there’s an element of sexual humiliation here, due to the near-nudity; if the boys were adults, drawn in a less cartoony style, that would be more evident. Indeed, in the post-9/11 era, a human pyramid of (nearly) naked males might remind readers of a rather infamous image.

Pointedly, Stanley shows that this humiliation does not open the boys; eyes to their own misogyny. In fact, they are bewildered as to why she would pull such a prank on them, as if they still see nothing wrong with what they did to her: “She’s just mean, that’s all!” says Tubby.

Now, I’m not complaining about the subtexts in this story; rather, I think they are what make it so strong. Stanley puts potentially disturbing things in this story, but by using children as his characters, presenting it in a “cartoony” visual style, and keeping the overall tone of the storytelling light, he makes the misogyny and humiliations funny and palatable.

It strikes me that what Stanley is doing is not that different from the tellers of classic fairy tales, which may contain potential and actual violence, and the threat of death, and yet, because moral balance is achieved at the end, are regarded as proper fare for young children. that even teaches them important lessons. So Stanley’s “Five Little Babies” becomes a pop fable warning against misogyny, pride, overreaching, and even the dangers of naive trust.

depI am also struck by Stanley’s pacing. For example, he could have easily cut from Wilbur’s first encounter with the boys to his conversation with Lulu, without taking the time and space to show him going home to fetch the collar and leash in between these two events. The action in this story is continuous, without any editing, as if this were a film sequence done all in one take. It’s decompressed storytelling done right, since Stanley keeps the action going throughout. Nor is there a narrator, interposing himself between the readers and the characters. It’s as if the readers is watching it all happen for real, without a break or pause, right in front of them; this must be part of the appeal of Stanley’s stories for children.

Note that after Lulu and Annie steal the boys’ clothes, they lie back and wait for the boys to discover their clothes are gone and to react. Lulu makes a point of cautioning, we’ll wait just a little while longer, Annie!”: Lulu wants the boys’ panic to reach a particular level before she intervenes. Now she is the master trickster in the story, who knows that timing is everything, just as a master comedian does–or a master storyteller like Stanley.

The next Lulu story in the collection is “Two Foots Is Feet!” by Stanley and Tripp from Marge’s Little Lulu #94 (1956). In it a loudly complaining little boy named Alvin Jones forces his company on Lulu. But they soon bond over their mutual recognition that any word, if one thinks long enough about it, seems like a nonsensical jumble of letters. Soon they are repeating the words “foot” and “feet” over and over in uncontrollable fits of laughter.

What is particularly interesting here is the adults’ reaction. They don’t get the joke, and Lulu’s father complains that they are making too much “noise.” Unable to quiet them, Lulu’s father picks them up and dumps them inside the house of Mr. Jones, Alvin’s father. Mr. Jones doesn’t like all this laughing either, picks the kids up, and brings them back to Lulu’s father’s house. For a page and a half the two fathers go back and forth, each trying to hand over the two kids–including his own child–to the other. The emotions between the two fathers grow so great that Mr. Jones tackles Lulu’s father, who has to warn him, “Look out, Jones! You’ll hurt the kids!” But soon the two fathers are locked in physical combat, while the two kids obliviously and merrily keep on laughing away.

So here we have a story about two fathers who are trying to get rid of their own children, an ominous subject. But Lulu and Alvin’s constant laughter makes it a comedy: they are too happy to have their feelings hurt by their fathers’ insensitivity.

Tubby is the star of the next Stanley story in this book, “The Guest in the Ghost-House” from Marge’s Tubby #7 (1954), written and entirely drawn by Stanley. (Despite the comic’s title, it was Stanley who created Tubby.) Heading to a swamp to catch frogs, Tubby says, “Anybody who’d step in that quicksand should have his head examined!” Tubby proceeds to violate his own rule, leading to disaster: he begins sinking into the quicksand. He yells for help over and over, night falls, and by midnight, he is nearly wholly submerged: “It’s… almost up to my nose!” In other words, he is on the brink of death!

But at midnight instead of going down into the quicksand, Tubby finds himself going up, as if he were on an elevator. He discovers he is standing atop a house rising out of the quicksand at the witching hour. Going inside through a window, Tubby says the air inside is cold and damp “l-like a tomb!” It appears that he is making a metaphorical descent into the underworld, and indeed, the house proves to be a hotel populated by ghosts.

Here Stanley strikes a balance between humor and terror. The ghosts, which he draws with even more cartoonish stylization than Tubby and other human characters, look funny rather than ghastly. They behave like ordinary staffers and guests at an ordinary hotel, who just happen to be dead. They act more friendly than frightening, but they nonetheless say things in their matter-of-fact way that terrify Tubby. The desk clerk asks Tubby to sign the register, noting that “Once you sign the register, you will become a ghost. And Mr. Frite has ways of making you sign the register.” When Tubby tells Mr. Frite, who is apparently the hotel manager, that he refuses to sign, Mr., Frite calmly introduces Tubby to Feer, a living furnace with a face, who chews a piece of coal in his mouth. Mr. Frite repeatedly hints that he will feed Tubby to Feer if Tubby persists in refusing to sign the register. Faced with the prospect of being devoured. Tubby gives in, and, wailing, signs the register. Like a kindly parent, Mr. Frite assures him that the process of turning into a ghost is “painless,” and the desk clerk observes, “Getting vaccinated is much worse.”

None of this reassures Tubby. Though Stanley draws him to look funny as he bawls with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, Tubby’s terror and anguish are clear. This is a haunted house comedy that forces Tubby–and the reader–to confront his own mortality. The house has again sunk beneath the quicksand, as if Tubby has been buried alive. As Tubby sits alone in his hotel room, the narration in a caption tells us, “By the light of the flickering candle, Tub waits in terror for the change to overcome him,” his transition from life to death. That doesn’t seem funny at all, does it? Death here may mean transformation into a ghost rather than oblivion, but it still seems surprisingly real for a comic for children.

Tubby falls asleep and awakens in utter darkness, in which only his eyes are visible, as if his body had ceased to exist. But then the moon illuminates his face. Miraculously, he has been saved: the house has risen, and as it begins sinking yet again, Tubby escapes. Once again he is up to his neck in quicksand, but this time he is found and rescued.

I wonder how I would have reacted to this story had I read it as a young boy. As an adult I can distance myself from the story and concentrate on its humorous aspects. But for a child, would it have seemed disturbing, even frightening, like a nightmare set down on paper? I suspect that Stanley’s humor would have appealed to my younger self. But I think that I would have also found the darkness in this tale intriguingly eerie. Readers would identify with Tubby, and he escapes and survives at the end, but I think that the story’s evocations of real fears of isolation, helplessness and death would have stayed with me. If you ever wondered what a horror story appropriate for young children would be like, this is it. Once again, Stanley constructs comedy around a core of darkness.

So is this a standard modus operandi for Stanley, or do Spiegelman and Mouly just prefer Lulu and Tubby stories that have these dark subtexts?

The Classic Children’s Comics collection also includes a story written and drawn by Stanley that has nothing to do with the Luluverse: “Mice Business” from Melvin Monster #3 (1965). I’d never heard of this character, Stanley’s own creation, before. From the date I’d make a guess that this series might have been inspired by The Munsters and The Addams Family on television: two shows about spooky families, one of which–The Munsters–was made up of characters who resembled classic movie monsters. But whereas their two father figures–Herman Munster, who looked like Frankenstein’s Monster, and Gomez Addams–were both quite affable, young Melvin Monster’s enormous, monstrous father clearly has anger management issues. Melvin calls his daddy “Baddy,” and Baddy is continually angry, shouting at everyone, clearly intimidating his son in this story. Baddy roars with rage; at one point his fury is so great that it literally raises the roof of their house. Baddy is a caricature of the fearsome parent.

In the collection’s introduction, Spiegelman and Mouly write that in this tale Stanley “manages to build sympathetic comedy around something as genuinely horrific as child abuse.” That may be something of an overstatement, since Baddy does not physically harm young Melvin. But it is easy to imagine that Baddy is just a few steps away from lashing out at his son. At one point in this story he angrily rips apart a wall of the house. Melvin reports in the story that Baddy used him to plug up a mouse hole.

On the other hand, Melvin’s Mummy looks like an ordinary 1960s housewife whose face happens to be wrapped in bandages–like a mummy. So in effect she is faceless, and that seems symbolically appropriate for this quiet mother in a household dominated by this aggressive, raging father.

In the story Melvin says he is afraid to go into the mouse hole after the mice. Baddy roars at him, insisting he go in: “Are you a mouse or a monster?” frightening the boy further. Baddy is a caricature of raging machismo, insisting that his son live up to his insane standard of behavior.

Ultimately, Baddy, ripping apart that wall, goes in after the mouse himself, only to discover the mouse is bigger than he is (and he is also a French chef, as if in anticipation of Pixar’s Ratatouille). Like a typical bully, Baddy is thus cowed into submission.

Thus this story seems founded on a child’s wish fulfillment fantasy of finding someone big and strong enough to stand up to an oppressive parent. Maybe the fact that it’s a mouse, a small creature that has grown to great size, means it’s subconsciously a metaphor for a child growing into an adult strong enough to stand up to his patents.

This story seems to confirm that it is a recurring motif in John Stanley’s comics work: to shine a light of comedy to dispel the very real fears among the children who made up his audience.

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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