Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: THIRTEEN "GOING ON EIGHTEEN" Vol. 1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Drawn & Quarterly has already done well enough by John Stanley with its fine collections of the creator's work on Dell's NANCY and MELVIN MONSTER. What those earlier volumes (especially the latter) lacked was a sense of perspective for those of us who are still catching up with Stanley's LITTLE LULU work and want to know how, exactly, these lesser-known efforts compare with that justly celebrated series. For its third (and thickest) STANLEY LIBRARY offering, D&Q makes up for past omissions by fronting the first nine issues of THIRTEEN "GOING ON EIGHTEEN" -- by far, Stanley's most successful original creation -- with an essay by cartoonist and graphic designer Seth, who ranks this 1960s series among the best "mainstream" comics ever produced. As things turned out, I would have liked the collection under any circumstances, but I appreciate Seth's pointing out how THIRTEEN ties in with themes inherent in Stanley's earlier work. (Frank Young, in his fine review of the collection at his Stanley Stories Blog, provides additional insights for those who are interested.)

I've never been a big fan of "teenage" comics, but THIRTEEN already ranks as one of my two favorites of that genre, along with Harvey's BUNNY. Those familiar with both will probably laugh, but I'm serious. I like BUNNY, that well-meaning and completely addle-pated Valentine to the groovy, ginchy late 60s, precisely because it's so truly bizarre. (That, plus the fact that uncredited artist Hy Eisman, bless him, didn't fall into the trap of ripping off ARCHIE character designs, as Tower, Marvel, and DC so conspicuously did during that same period.) THIRTEEN, by contrast, is much more down-to-earth and believable, tracing as it does the lives and loves of a pair of occasionally lovable, occasionally aggravating teenage girls. Stereotyping of the ARCHIE variety is nowhere to be seen, though I'm sure Stanley must have received some pressure from the folks at Dell to compete directly with the Riverdale behemoth.

Stanley takes a while to get into a groove with Val and Judy, his teen stars. Issues #1-#2 of THIRTEEN, drawn by Tony Tallarico, are easily the weakest of the nine reproduced here. The gags aren't great, and Tallarico -- an artist about whom I've literally never heard a kind word -- draws petite blond Val and chunky brunette Judy as though they're somewhere around 11 or 12. Stanley himself takes over the drawing chores with #3, and the extra burden, oddly enough, appears to have liberated him a bit. Funny supporting characters begin to appear -- Judy's annoying boyfriend-for-lack-of-a-better-alternative Wilbur, an equally slothful loser named Charlie -- and Val's next-door neighbor Billy, who rotates between the roles of "good friend" and fallback date option, develops a wickedly impish sense of humor. Frenetic action and controlled hysteria of the LULU variety become a standard ingredient of most plots. Reminiscent of LULU, as well, is the book's decidedly distaff-friendly perspective (no big surprise, given that teenage girls were the target audience). Val may be a "drama queen" -- her occasional bouts of weeping and wailing on her bed are hilarious -- and Judy a bit mean-spirited, but they shine in contrast to the totem-like Paul Vayne (a "dreamboat" who becomes Val's first semi-serious steady), the calculatedly "kooky" Billy, and the utterly hopeless Wilbur and Charlie. To be sure, everyone has good and bad moments in these pages, but the girls -- including Val's older sister Evie, who sometimes functions as goad, sometimes as sounding-board, for her flightier younger sister -- come off better most of the time. Sometimes too much better, as I'll explain below.

THIRTEEN is very much a work powered by the "gas fumes" of the 1950s -- to the extent that one critic of these stories goes all postmodern on us and describe the comic as "a clear example of the concept of 'cultural hegemony.'" That in itself is a reason for me to enjoy the series; though the title's first issue appeared in 1961, it radiates that 50s sense of cultural contentment that drives the Left so crazy about any era over which it does not hold hegemony. Don't be fooled by the well-groomed setting, though. In this title, Stanley has some rather raw things to say about the quest for love, suggesting that, while unrequited love may be painful, requited love may be just as harsh. Val's relationship with Paul Vayne ends up causing no small amount of stress; she worries about losing him and is not a little nervous about what her relationship with Paul might do to her tie with Billy. Judy, less attractive than Val even after she suddenly drops a few dozen pounds, is desperate for the "right guy" but winds up settling for Wilbur, an oaf who refuses to pay for Judy on dates and insists on wearing a filthy hat everywhere he goes. Even Evie gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop when her steady throws her over (and we don't even get to see it "live"). Sure, some may carp that Val and Judy care more about impressing boys than they do about maximizing their career options or "finding their voices," but the former is where the "funny" is, no matter what era you're living in.

As with most Stanley collections I've read, the collective effect of reading Stanley stories is more significant than the impact of any one story. I do have some favorites in this collection, though. "A Maiden's Prayer" finds Val trying to enjoy a picnic with Paul Vayne even as she desperately tries to steer him away from trees, walls, and any other places where "Val and [fill in the blank]" carvings are present. We do get an odd moment when lightning strikes a shelter where Paul and Val are hiding from the rain. The way Stanley depicts the accident, the duo are lucky to have survived unscathed! Next thing you know, turkeys will start flying (yes, Mr. Stanley, I remember well that goof from a LULU story). The stories in which Val tries to dodge the unwanted attentions of a bespectacled "admirer" named "Sticky Stu" bring back wistful memories of a time when I, myself, was enamored with a high-school classmate and always had to be around her. I'd like to think that I was better company than the poker-faced Stu, however.

THIRTEEN does have one feature that I don't care for at all. Thanks to those strange postal regulations that gifted us with GYRO GEARLOOSE backup features in UNCLE $CROOGE and GOOFY quickies in DONALD DUCK, the title concludes every issue with a brief story starring Judy Junior (who looks like a younger, shorter, and even chunkier Judy) and a little boy, Jimmy Fuzzi. I've read those GYRO and GOOFY stories, however, and Judy Junior is no Gyro or Goofy. What she is is a painfully pushy, overbearing brat whose apparent sole purpose in life is to make Jimmy miserable. Sure, Stanley wanted to make the girls the star characters of the title, but this is going too far. Seth claims that he could read a "whole book" of these supposedly hilarious tales. They may work for him, but, for me, they simply seem cruel -- like an endless string of Lucy-pulls-the-football-away-from-Charlie-Brown gags without the pathos (and infrequency) that made those PEANUTS gags memorable (and tolerable). At least in LULU stories, put-upon characters generally get a chance for revenge; Jimmy almost never does. To make matters worse, the characters constantly refer to one another by name, a gambit which gets to be like Chinese water torture after a while. Stanley's LULU stories had an edge to them; the JUDY JUNIOR tales hone that edge down to razor-sharpness and then ask you to perch on same. I'll pass.

In his Introduction, Seth comments that Stanley wasn't greatly affected by the oncoming post-Camelot cultural tsunami in later issues of THIRTEEN, apart from an occasional Beatles reference. But then, Stanley's comics always seem to take place at a certain remove from the topical concerns of the real world -- all the better for Stanley to concentrate on his plots and characterizations. The fact that he can make this approach work in a quasi-realistic comic like this one is a considerable tribute to his talents. I'm definitely on board for future collections of this title -- and, if Dark Horse or someone else would only agree to publish the collected BUNNY, my "teen comics dream," such as it is, would be complete.

1 comment:

GeoX said...

I know this is a kind of meaningless sidepoint, but I don't see that the concept of cultural hegemony is especially postmodern--certainly, it predates the advent of postmodern theory by quite a bit.