Thursday, June 4, 2009

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: MELVIN MONSTER, VOLUME 1 by John Stanley (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Thanks to the success of Dark Horse's LITTLE LULU volumes, Stanley "stock" is up, and now Montreal-based D&Q is joining the frenzy with the first of a promised series of volumes collecting Stanley's non-LULU works. MELVIN MONSTER dates from the mid-1960s, by which time (1) Stanley was working for a Dell Publishing outfit that had split off from Western Publishing and was attempting to establish itself as a comics-publishing contender; (2) Stanley was drawing, as well as writing, his stories; (3) Stanley was working entirely with characters of his own creation; (4) Stanley's attitude towards the comics industry was rapidly souring (he would quit altogether by the end of the decade). All four factors have a heavy influence on MELVIN, which, while entertaining enough, doesn't quite measure up to Stanley's peerless work with Marge's characters.

At first glance, MELVIN appears to be drawing upon the same zeitgeist that gave rise to such contemporary TV series as The Munsters and The Addams Family. The title character is, after all, a monster and interacts on a fairly regular basis with humans (or, as Melvin calls them, "human beans"). A closer examination, however, suggests that the character of Melvin owes just as large a debt to that of Casper the Friendly Ghost. To the chagrin of his square-shouldered, hulking, overbearing "Baddy" and bandage-wrapped "Mummy," Melvin wants to be as close to a normal boy as one can possibly be in the abnormality-riddled community of "Monsterville." His attempts to actually attend "The Little Black Schoolhouse," as opposed to buying into the "normal" practice of playing hooky -- thereby scandalizing the "teacher" (a dyspeptic witch) on duty -- are particularly funny. Melvin's attitude towards "fitting in" veers between mild defiance and stoic acceptance (e.g., when he agrees to slide down his slide into a "daggerberry bush" without screaming, only to take refuge in a cave after the fact and painfully give forth with the requisite number of "Ow!"s). The family pet, a crocodile named Cleopatra, is perpetually trying to eat him. Even his "guardian demon," who's supposed to protect him from harm, is fairly useless. Given all of the above factors, Melvin is an easy character for whom to root and should make an appealing hero. His milieu, however, is not as well-defined as it ought to be, and much of that is Stanley's fault.

In the absence of the experienced editorial hands that had been employed by Western, Stanley appears to have had some trouble deciding how, exactly, Melvin should relate to the human world, or even how his work should be organized. Issues #1 and #2 consist of single narratives broken into distinctly titled parts (shades of Harvey Comics' 10- and 15-page stories) in which Melvin takes a "detour" into "Humanbeanville" along the way. These stories plainly suggest that humans live in, so to speak, a different dimension than monsters. With issue #3, we get a paradigm shift: the stories are now stand-alone, and Melvin runs into humans as a matter of course (even getting tracked by "monster hunters"). This is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. In both manifestations, the humans (whom Melvin appears to admire on principle) do behave pretty much the same -- namely, like jerks. A rich owner of a "private zoo" wishes to add Melvin to his collection (where are Superman and Lobo when you need them?); several human kids spin Melvin like a top; a rich couple living in a penthouse mock the "riff-raff" below; and, of course, there are the "monster hunters." The adult characters in the LULU stories never came off as badly as this. Creeping cynicism, you suggest? So do I.

Stanley's artwork in MELVIN reflects a comment that I recall him making about Irving Tripp's artwork on LULU (for which Stanley provided scripts and pencil roughs) being overly "static." Stanley's work is much livelier, if a bit inconsistent: the monster characters are very cartoony in appearance, while the humans look as if they've stepped out of a New Yorker cartoon. Melvin straddles these two extremes, being neither realistic-looking nor overly stylized. Again, a better editor might have suggested that Stanley bring the two disparate styles a bit closer together. Occasional misspellings in Stanley's lettering -- plus an awkwardly-placed caption that appears to have been shoehorned in at the last minute -- lend further credence to the theory that Stanley, working on his own, needed more editorial help than when he was part of a creative "team."

Subsequent volumes of the JSL will reprint Stanley's comic-book work on NANCY -- which, it goes without saying, will probably look and "feel" a lot more like LITTLE LULU -- and such additional all-Stanley enterprises as THIRTEEN, GOING ON EIGHTEEN. It will be interesting to see if the theory that I've posited here -- that Stanley was better working with established characters that he could "embellish" than with original creations -- continues to hold true.

2 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

You wrote: “In the absence of the experienced editorial hands that had been employed by Western, Stanley appears to have had some trouble deciding how, exactly, Melvin should relate to the human world, or even how his work should be organized.”

Beyond just Stanley, I think you’ve identified exactly why the Post-Western Publishing Dell Comics Line seemed an overall “lesser” achievement than Western’s Gold Key Comics – especially those of the prime period of 1964-1966.

Stanley – WITH Western’s experienced editorial guidance and WITHOUT same – makes for a great illustration of the differences!

I believe even a Post-Western Dell Comic by Carl Barks would be, at least in some way, diminished from what had come before!

We may never fully appreciate the contributions and achievements of individuals like Chase Craig and company, but DELL circa mid-1962-on must show us SOMETHING!

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Good points. I find it interesting, and not a little suggestive, that Stanley soured on comics only AFTER he ceased working for Western and worked for Dell instead (I think he did go back to do O.G. WHIZ at the very end of his career). Who knows what bad experiences he had dealing with Dell higher-ups. By all accounts, by contrast, Oscar Lebeck, Stanley's main editor at Western (in the New York office), basically let Stanley do what he wanted to do.

Chris