Friday, September 10, 2010

Comics Review: LITTLE LULU'S PAL TUBBY: THE CASTAWAY AND OTHER STORIES by John Stanley (Dark Horse Publishing, 2010)

In my comments on Dark Horse's LITTLE LULU reprint volumes, I've frequently speculated about moments at which John Stanley seemed restless with the characters and ready to move on to something else. The formulaic formatting of the stories and the suburban "same-itude" of the settings must have palled on even as imaginative a creator as Stanley at some point. In 1952, thanks to Dell's decision to introduce comics headlining Lulu's rotund buddy Tubby as part of the FOUR COLOR series, Stanley was tossed something of a creative lifeline to stave off any encroaching boredom. After four successful FOUR COLOR appearances, Tubby got his own eponymous stand-alone title, which lasted a total of 49 issues. Stanley took full advantage of the new "sandbox" to try his hand at some book-length stories. Even better, after Irving Tripp helped him out on the first issue ("Captain Yo-Yo," FOUR COLOR #381, March 1952), Stanley got to write and draw each of the next eight issues, in one of his few artistic gigs during the 1950s. The result is a delightful reading experience that displays Stanley's storytelling powers at "full extension" and gives the doings a little extra frisson by virtue of their being depicted in Stanley's loose, sketchy, magazine-cartoon-like style.

In these first half-dozen TUBBY issues, Stanley plays with the notion of unbridled fantasy in a way that he never did outside of the tightly constrained limits of the "Alvin Story Telling Time Tales" in LITTLE LULU. He does give himself "outs" of sorts -- Tubby's adventures as a pirate with a lethal yo-yo and as an "Indian fighter" (and yes, in case you were wondering, Dark Horse prefixes the latter with the annoyingly smug, we-know-better-than-this-today disclaimer) turn out to be dreams -- but what about "Tubby's Secret Weapon," in which Tub's horrific violin-playing causes a group of tiny Martians to shanghai the boy with the hopes of getting him to fork over a potential cosmos-conquering cudgel? Stanley leaves us no escape hatch to explain away the little greenies as the result of slumber or a plate of tainted food; Tubby and Gloria (who functions as Tubby's love/hate interest) must be rescued from the top of the "Umpire State Building" at story's end. Several other tales straddle the gap between "real" fantasy and "imaginary" fantasy, with Tubby stumbling into trouble despite himself (e.g., in "The Bank Robber," he gets mixed up with a bunch of midget crooks by innocently helping their "prank" robbery because he thinks they're kids in cowboy costume). In all instances, Stanley appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Stanley continued to write TUBBY for other artists until late in the title's life, but I have to wonder how his later work on LULU would have been different had he continued to have an artistic, as well as literary, outlet for these wilder flights of fancy. Or perhaps the workload would have been simply too much for him. In any event, these are stories worth owning.

1 comment:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Seems like you're reading quite a bit into that two-line disclaimer on "The Indian Fighter," which struck me as nothing more than a bit of pro forma ass-covering. I'm actually a big fan of Dark Horse's attitude here, which I take to have been something along the lines of "Huh. The racial attitudes here are kind of dubious. Someone might be offended. Oh well, whatever; let's just slap a quick warning on that sucker, and then we can all go home early." This attitude seems a LOT healthier than the one that's led to the endless, angst-ridden contortions that Disney constantly embroils itself in. Just imagine--if the books actually become a reality--the sort of self-flagellating introductions you can expect to see on the Fantagraphics MM compilations. The one in Tubby here seems about as mild as you can get.

(I thought the story itself was one of the weaker parts of the volume, though not particularly because of the depiction of the Indians--I was, however, interested in the fact that when Tubby dyes himself with berries, his skin isn't even remotely the same color as theirs, and yet they're instantly fooled--was the original printing like this? Is someone trying to make some kind of statement?)