Little Lulu Versus Donald Duck

A page from John Stanley’s Melvin Monster series.


There are not many cartoonists who have claims to greatness; perhaps a dozen or a score. Of this elite group, the least known to the general public and most underrated even by the cartooning cognoscenti is John Stanley (1914-1993). To the extent that he’s remembered at all, Stanley is known as the writer for the Little Lulu comic book series published Dell Comics. Stanley worked on the series from 1945 till around 1961 but during his long tenure at Dell worked on many other titles, ranging from characters created by others (Tubby, Nancy, Andy Panda) as well as characters he himself invented (the horror-spoof Melvin Monster, as well as teen comics like Dunc and Loo, Thirteen, and Kookie).


Fortunately we seem to be going through a small John Stanley renaissance right now. Dark Horse has released an 18-volume series reprinting the first decade of his Little Lulu work while Drawn and Quarterly has announced a new series that will reprint the books where Stanley worked on his own characters (Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo and the other teen books). The Drawn and Quarterly series is especially exciting because this work is among Stanley’s best and the series as a whole will be designed by longtime Stanley admirer Seth (Seth’s graphic novel Wimbledon Green contains an extended homage to Stanley.)


For the uninitiated, one way to describe Stanley’s work is to compare him to his celebrated peer Carl Barks (1901-2000), who worked for Dell comics during roughly the same period as Stanley. Like Stanley, Barks mainly worked on other peoples characters (most famously Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) but also managed to come up with is own cast as well (Uncle Scrooge and the many other denizens of Duckburg came from Barks). Working within the constraints of children’s comics Barks and Stanley both managed to do stories that were surprisingly sophisticated, even sly and satirical.


But having read both Barks and Stanley, I’ve come to a heretical conclusion: that Stanley was a much greater writer than Barks. Compared to Stanley, Bark’s characters had a very narrow emotional register: Donald is capable of anger, shame, frustration and ambition; his three nephews are occasionally disobedient but mostly models of competence; Uncle Scrooge is a miser redeemed by his passionate attachment to what he’s earned. The more minor characters operate out of an even smaller behavioral range: Gladstone Gander’s laziness, for example.


At first glance, it might seem that the Little Lulu cast is suffers from a similar problem: Lulu is a do gooding busy-body; Tubby a showboat who loves attention; Alvin an annoying pest. Yet as you read more of the stories, you start noticing that there are all sorts of emotional shadings that make these characters more complicated. For example, for all their bickering Tubby and Lulu really are friends and enjoy each others company. They miss each other when separated. Nobody in the Barks universe seems to have this sort of affection: the nephews worry about Donald when he’s in trouble, but don’t really seem to care for him or need him. To use economic language, everyone in Barks is a profit-maximizer, out to better themselves (either by gaining riches like Scrooge or Junior Woodchuck merit badges like the nephews).


The nephews in Barks don’t seem like real kids at all: they are super-competent (much more-so than Donald) and have few fears. By contrast, the Stanley kids have some of the real anxieties that are common to all children: the nervousness that comes from living in a universe controlled by bigger, more capricious creatures (adults). I’ve been particularly struck by the stories where Lulu or Tubby have nightmares: Stanley had a genuine knack for unfolding the crazy, inexorable logic of dreams, where one embarrassing situation piles on another until you feel completely humiliated.


Finally, Stanley was smart about gender in way that Barks doesn’t even approach. Many of the Lulu stories involve a long-running feud between the girls and boys of the neighborhood. The bluster of the boys as they try to preserve their masculine enclave (“No girls allowed”) is mocked with a nice light touch. But the boys, especially Tubby who dreams of being a ladies man, also want to be admired by the girls, giving the stories an added ironic edge. By contrast, in Barks the women tend to be either harpies, hags, sex-pots or gold diggers. (Grandma Duck is a little more gentle, but only because of her age). In a nutshell, Barks shared in the larger cultures anxiety about feminine power whereas Stanley critiqued the fear of girls. Lulu was something of a proto-feminist, as my friend Gail Singer once argued, and much admired by prepubescent girls in the 1940s and 1950s for her spiritedness and independence.


For all these reasons, I’d say Stanley was a better writer than Barks. The one area where Barks has an edge is in the art. Stanley usually wrote and the the initial layouts for his stories, but had other artists do the finished pencils and inks. Drawing his own stories, Barks’ pictures had an expressive sparkle that the Lulu stories lack. But this complaint isn’t true of all of Stanley’s work. When Stanley was drawing his own work, as in Melvin Monster, the cartooning really took off.


John Stanley is due for a major reappraisal and I think the new Drawn and Quarterly reprints will make many readers newly appreciate this great cartoonist.


10 thoughts on “Little Lulu Versus Donald Duck

  1. Hi Jeet,
    You had to expect some kind of response to this essay! I think you’re seriously short-changing the sophistication of Barks’ writing. I’m not saying you’re totally in the wrong about Stanley’s qualities vis-à-vis Barks — I haven’t read enough Stanley to say — but it seems clear to me that you’re judging Barks on Stanley’s premises and not his own.

    First of all, Barks’ (male) characters are much more sophisticated than you say. Donald, for example, is a kind of gestalt entity who contains a dizzying range of character traits and potentialities that nevertheless always seem consistent with his core humanity. No, anxiety is not predominant, but he has so many other compelling qualities as a literary character — and the combination of hubristic ambition and deep-seated conscience makes him gloriously involving. Scrooge is an ideal projection of humanity, fundamentally decent, but too mired his failings to ever make him fully transcend the deep loneliness that is his (probably self-inflicted) condition.

    I could go on about where you’re wrong about Huey, Dewey and Louie, Gladstone, even Magica de Spell (Barks’ one really interesting female character), etc., but will stop here in the interest of briefness. My main objection to your description of Barks’ characters and the basic tone of his stories is your assertion that “everyone in Barks is a profit-maximizer, out to better themselves”. This is deeply, deeply wrong. The central conflict in Barks’ universe is the opposition between the (seeming?) absurdity of life and the fundamental decency and humanity of his characters. And humanity tends to carry the day, but only just so.

    Also, your description that “The one area where Barks has an edge is in the art” made me smile. That’s a pretty damn important edge in my book…

    But thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking essay. What I’ve read of Stanley (a chunk of Little Lulu) I didn’t find lied up to the hype, but your essay here has certainly made we want to take a second look!



  2. Matthias,
    Thanks for the very intelligent response. I’ll have to re-read Barks with what you said in mind.

  3. An intriguing essay, although I can’t help feel that your attempt to compare the two artists–tempting as it is–may be a flawed enterprise, since Barks and John Stanley have much less in common than one might assume.

    Sure, both created lasting art in the margins of accepted media: comics, after all, were viewed as the poor stepchildren of kid’s literature during the era Barks and Stanley toiled in the medium. And, of course, both artists excelled at writing and designing –and, in Carl’s case, drawing and inking– superior illustrated stories for children that won wide followings beyond the toddler set. I’ll grant that the fact that each artist worked in semi-obscurity for the same publisher, during the same historical period — each of them creating stories that are widely acknowledged for their wit, humor and sophistication — makes further comparisons of the two all but irresistible. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with drawing such comparisons if it tickles the faculties and causes us to reassess and appreciate the works of either. But, beyond that, I find it difficult to draw any kind of objective side by side assessment of the two artists’ work, since their drawing style, the major themes they explored, and –for want of a better term — their literary approach to their respective works was actually quite dissimilar.

    Where I can make a useful comparison is in the response that the work of each draws from my daughter, Elizabeth, who, at eight years old, is probably pretty close to the median target age for which that each artists’ work was originally marketed. Through the luxury of Another Rainbow and Dark Horse reprint editions, I’ve been able to introduce my youngster to the works of each creator. Over the past four or five years, she’s probably read, or had read to her, the entire run of Barks’ Disney output, and perhaps a third or more of John Stanley’s Little Lulu canon. So, I think it’s safe to say she’s probably more familiar with–and appreciative of–of the works of these two artists than most eight year olds. And by the not insignificant measure of an eight year old’s response to the work of both artists, I’d have to say they come very close to a draw.

    Elizabeth loves Lulu and Donald both, and, by extension, loves and appreciates the timeless appeal of Barks and Stanley almost equally. In fact, she prefers to read stories from her Donald Duck and Little Lulu libraries over just about anything I’ve thrown her way. The only exceptions may be the Sugar & Spike tales written and drawn by the equally brilliant Sheldon Mayer, and the exceptional run of Dennis the Menace comics drawn by Al Wiseman in the mid 50s through the 1960s.

    Actually, to digress, either of those two very worthy strips (by creators who are probably even less read and understood by modern comics readers than even John Stanley,) are much easier to compare to John Stanley’s work, since both Dennis and Sugar & Spike exist in a literary landscape that’s far closer to the small town suburban world of Lulu than anything Barks ever drew.

    But, really, to limit the discussion to writer/illustrators, Stanley, Barks and Sheldon Mayer all charm, inspire and engage my daughter in a way that little else in the popular culture can match. At the risk of really throwing the limits of this critical debate into uncharted territory, I’d venture that the only work I’ve seen my daughter respond to with the kind of instant identification and appreciation that she brings to the works of Barks, Mayer and Stanley, was not a comic book at all, but a movie: John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which she saw for the first time about two months ago, and which left a surprisingly idelible impression.

    I realize that bringing John Ford into the equation throws this discussion into a far different realm. But, strange as it seems, I’d be willing to argue that Carl Barks may actually have more in common with John Ford than John Stanley anyway.

  4. I believe Carl Barks was a fan of John Ford’s films, actually… The Great Steamboat Race was supposedly partly inspired by Steamboat Round the Bend, a Ford comedy starring Will Rogers, while Barks also wrote a story called How Green was My Lettuce.

    Interesting to bring the two of them up just as the new Indiana Jones movies about to come out, as Raiders of the Lost Ark had action sequences that paid homage to both Ford and Barks…

    Bit of a tangent, sorry, but I would say Uncle Scrooge as Barks developed him is a much more complex and conflicted character than you describe him.

  5. I don’t have a strong opinion as to who’s “better” since I love both creators, but this proposition seems to use only one aspect of “what makes a great writer” in making that assessment.
    Even if it’s true that a wider range of character complexity exists in one writer, that’s not all there is to great writing; there’s originality, story creation, the ability to take a plot and make it come alive, the creation of a narrative that involves the reader’s attention, and probably quite a few other things I’m overlooking.
    I don’t think enough evidence has been presented to conclude that one was “a much greater writer” than the other. I deeply love Stanley’s work but has he ever taken us to the Seven Cities of Cibola? Has he ever come up with a story line as amazing as the Bottle Cap story?
    I think once a certain level of greatness is reached, it becomes pointless to argue who’s “better,” let alone “much greater.”

  6. I, too, prefer Stanley to Barks as far as writing goes. But, as Jim Gray, points out, the requirements of their work were quite different. For one thing, it is my impression that Stanley had to turn out a lot more stories, several per issue, than did Barks who had one of the few comic titles devoted to a single story per issue. So, naturally, there would be less complex storylines. (Though I DO recall one Tubby on Mars story that occupied an entire issue.) Too, with so many stories to be turned out, we can’t expect them all to be gems. Considering that he was writing for, ostensibly, little kids, I think it’s surprising that so many of them are still enjoyable now that I’m an adult. In fact, I don’t think I fully appreciated them as a child. And I find they are eagerly embraced by girls of today, perhaps because of the feminist quality noted.

    As to Carl Barks’ storytelling, I, for one, believe he was equalled by his successor Don Rosa in that department, if not in illustration, though Rosa’s style has a quality that can be appreciated for its own unique merits, to me suggesting a synthesis of Carl Barks and Basil Wolverton.

  7. “Dark Horse has released an 18-volume series reprinting the first decade of his Little Lulu work”

    Good to hear. Wonder how Barks’ family is doing royalty-wise.


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