Over at the Inkstuds radio program I spent a very enriching hour talking with Gail Singer and Frank Young about the work of John Stanley, the journeyman cartoonist who wrote the great Little Lulu comic book series of the 1940s and 1950s.
One of the impressive things about Stanley’s work is that his characters do seem real, as witness the way Frank and Gail could easily talk at length about the personalities of Lulu and her friends.
At one point Gail asked what Lulu would be like if she grew up and suggested that she might have become Barbara Amiel, the conservative journalist who married Conrad Black, Lord of Crossharbour and convicted felon.
Frank and I demurred from this idea. Lulu seems much smarter than Amiel (a.ka. Lady Black of Crossharbour). Lulu is also kinder and more civic-minded, and in general much more of an authentic human being, although she is only made of pen and ink. Still, Gail’s notion was suggestive in one direction.
If Lulu isn’t quite like Amiel, it is true that there are similarities between Lulu’s best male friend Tubby Tompkins and Conrad Black. Both Black and Tubby can be described as romantic egoists who try to bend reality to their wills, often with disastrous results. Just as Tubby likes to play detective, Black likes to imagine himself as a great military leader such as Napoleon. Tubby, a pre-teen boy, is fond of toy soldiers, as is Lord Black, who remains somewhat boyish even behind bars.
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.)