Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: NANCY Vol. 1 by John Stanley and Dan Gormley (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

To start on an ominous note: a number of people appear to have the wrong idea about the issue numbers and dates for this volume. The title page says that the book contains stories from Dell NANCY #146-150 (1957-58). In searching out appropriate screen grabs for the blog post, however, I found an electronic copy of the first story, "Oona Goosepimple," complete with original Dell indicia -- and guess what, it first appeared in NANCY #162 (April 1959). Wikipedia, and the estimable Don Markstein, come closer than D&Q, but they miss the target as well, with each citing NANCY #166 as the site of Oona's debut. So both the Internet and the "dead tree peddlers" struck out in this case.

Actually, the first appearance of the Wednesday Addams-like Oona highlights an important point about Stanley's approach to Ernie Bushmiller's characters. Having pretty much burned out on LITTLE LULU, Stanley was probably delighted to put a new set of "Lulu-esque" characters through their paces. The fact that Nancy, Sluggo, and company were well-established figures in a popular, long-running comic strip, however, must have given the creator some pause. Lulu, who began her career as a pantomime character in gag cartoons, had had plenty of room for development when Stanley began to flesh out her neighborhood. Nancy and Sluggo may have had shallow, uninspired personalities, but Stanley must have felt that he needed to hew to them, at least for a while, as he settled down to his task. One can therefore regard the eccentric Oona's appearance as something of a "sowing of the wind" with an eye towards reaping a later "whirlwind" of story possibilities. The rest of the early stories in this collection are fairly unremarkable, making Oona -- a black-clad girl with beady eyes who gives everyone around her a case of nerves and lives in a spooky house with a surprise (usually of the nasty variety) around every corner -- stand out all the more starkly.

Once Stanley gets his feet under him, he begins to pull Nancy and Sluggo in directions the unimaginative Bushmiller would never have contemplated (though Dan Gormley's art, if a bit more unpredictable than Bushmiller's, does give the comics the same stodgy look as the comic strip). You can see it coming when Stanley devotes an entire one-page gag to sending up Liberace in the person of "La Plunke," an impresario with a rhinestone-studded piano. For panel after panel, Nancy makes bitchy comments about La Plunke's talents, or lack thereof, climaxing by claiming that La Plunke, and not his piano, should be "hung" when she sees the latter getting lowered out of the stage door. Nancy's remarks scandalize her Aunt Fritzi a bit, which seems only right, as Nancy's relationship with her aunt is a lot more abrasive than Lulu's with her parents. Perhaps Stanley thought that Fritzi's not being Nancy's mother gave him a bit more leeway. Likewise, after treating Sluggo as a generic boy character in earlier stories, Stanley takes Bushmiller's notion of Sluggo as a "dead-end kid" and runs with it. In "Lower Education," Nancy forces Sluggo to go to school but thinks better of it after Sluggo starts fantasizing about using his education to become President. She ultimately convinces the janitor to keep Sluggo in the basement and have him sweep floors. Tubby may have played hooky on occasion, but the existence of parental figures in the LITTLE LULU "universe" wouldn't have allowed for this sort of a cynical resolution.

Stanley's innovations in handling the NANCY characters didn't prevent him from borrowing liberally from the LULU "template." Rich kid Rollo Haveall is basically Wilbur van Snobbe, take two, while the crook Bill Bungle (aka Bill Bungler, aka Bill Bumble -- perhaps Bill's incompetence was catching) reflects Stanley's apparent delight in using an adult figure who is hopelessly inept at his supposed specialty, a la the truant officer Mr. McNabbem in the LULU stories. If the NANCY stories -- even at their best -- fall a little short of the quality of the LULU oeuvre, then one reason may be the lack of a strong "bench" of supporting players. In the stories collected here, at least, Nancy has no "girl sidekick" to compare with Lulu's Annie; eager though Oona is to make friends and do things with Nancy, she's essentially a walk-on oddball. Likewise, the annoying neighbor kid Pee Wee isn't nearly as memorable (or annoying) as Alvin of "Story Telling Time" fame. Given the raw materials that he had to work with, however, Stanley's NANCY tales are unexpectedly fun and entertaining.

The last page of this volume has a picture of John Stanley (in the company of his editor Oscar LeBeck, Dan Gormley, and other worthies at Western's New York office) and a brief biography -- which just happens to be the same one that appeared at the end of the earlier MELVIN MONSTER collection. What this Library really needs is a volume-by-volume, bit-by-bit biography of Stanley in the manner of the articles that appeared in Another Rainbow's LITTLE LULU LIBRARY. As long as Fantagraphics keeps reprinting the same two-page Charles Schulz bio in THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, though, I guess it would be hypocritical of me to complain about D&Q dropping the ball.

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