I’m starting to feel the time squeeze of a busy fall schedule. The books are backing up. I’m under a lot of pressure right now as I am on my final auto-renewal of many of these books. I will update with further developments on this important breaking story as they become available. For now, please remain calm. Note to self: has anyone written a thriller novel about reading novels?
The Mill on the Floss, George Elliot: I don’t know what made Henry James and George Elliot attractive to me when discussed in The Novel, A Biography by Schmidt, and not Dickens or Thackeray, but so far I haven’t regretted a page of either.
Elliot has a real feel for regional culture and the class dynamics of the early Industrial Revolution, though it’s much slower reading than James thanks to the rural Midlands patois, which then and even now, constitutes almost a foreign language to middle American eyes and ears. It’s a fascinating tale, being a portrait of English attitudes on class and gender as the Industrial Revolution gathers full steam, and the patriarchal economy we still see today constrains women’s lives. It’s only 20 years or so before James, and worlds apart in class dynamics, but the heroines fight the same existential battle. It has a compelling autobiographical edge to it, giving a universality to Elliot’s own struggles to publish and find happiness as a woman in the arts.
Giving Life to Little Lulu, Bill Schelly: I’m very excited about this one, as there’s not much Lulu scholarship. The Library did not disappoint on this as they ordered two copies as soon as it came out. I’ll be returning to it often, I’m sure. There actually isn’t a ton of info and documentation on John Stanley’s life and art (see below), but the author does a good job with what there is. The discussion of key issues was useful, though a more detailed close reading of one or two stand outs could really have added not only bulk, but critical heft.
Still, it’s far from a superficial survey. The illustrations in the coffee table-sized book were great, too. Aside: I was soon digging in the closet for my small collection of Lulu comics, and when I found a few of the later collections at the comics shop for cover price, I snapped them up. They’re going on the web for at least twice that, I discovered. Expect a screed eventually about the lack of a proper, literary bookstore-style comic book store in this city, but the traditional direct market comic book “megastore” here is so superhero fan-boy obsessed that everything else is an afterthought to them. When you do find something interesting, they often don’t realize that there is an actual demand for it. I wound up with a bargain.
Schelley follows Stanley’s career after Lulu, too, when with varying degrees of success, he sought new challenges and took on teen comics and even horror, and even a hybrid called Melvin the Monster. I discovered Stanley’s Lulu in reprints on a family summer vacation years after he’d left the title. We were given quarters to spend at the comics rack at the state park store when they wanted to keep us quiet and couldn’t take us on hikes or canoe rides. Magical stories for those long magical summer weeks that I, like many kids always remembered and returned to as an adult. Only this time, the return was not as disappointing as other nostalgic memories. Stanley, a comic genius, labored most of his life in obscurity, and died just as his unique talent was finally being discovered, which often happens in the under-appreciated art form of comics.This is a beautiful, though limited book, but it’s the only game in town for Lulu devotees.
Marge’s Little Lulu, John Stanley: Dell Comics licensed the character from her creator, Marge Buell, and immediately assigned it to young Disney Studios vet Stanley. They are so different in quality from the mindless pap that comics were already shoveling out for kids, that Stanley, though uncredited, became legendary when the kids (who eventually know when you are feeding them pap! Stop feeding them pap.) grew up and formed the beginnings of the comic-con fan culture in the 70’s. By then he was embittered, like most comics artists of the era, and had left the industry.
The earliest ones (1946-1949) are the most uproarious, with laugh-out-loud visual slapstick that derived not from an adult’s simplistic, unconsidered idea of what children should read, but from simple situations based on how children really are. Thus, the comedy builds in a very realistic way that speaks as much to adults as it does to kids. Stanley’s comic pacing rarely fails him, once he gets the set-up right.
It helps that Lulu as Stanley writes her is a real firecracker. This is the age of Rosie the Riveter, before the xenophobic, conservative retrenchment of the conformist 50’s, though even in the context of Barbara Stanwick and other self reliant female icons of the era, Lulu stands out.
In her first story, we meet Lulu, clearly not happy with a pretty angel costume her mother has made her for a children’s party. When her pal Tubby shows up and begins to laugh at her in it, she literally “leans in” nose to nose with him and asks, “How’d you like a poke in the snoot”? Lulu tends to get not bitter, but even. Her solution? She takes Tubby’s beard from his pirate costume and adds it to her own. From there, the clever gags escalate. The kids play spin the bottle, and Lulu insists on claiming a kiss, beard and all, from a balking boy. Eventually she triumphs her way, winning at “Pin-the Tail-on-the-Donkey” after a blindfolded gallivant through downtown traffic.
By the 50’s Stanley was relying less on clever sight gags and slapstick humor and more on situations and character; he almost never resorts to formula and hack work, and explores the variations on an idea to the fullest. Lulu’s sense of what boys, especially the exquisitely self-involved Tubby, can be expected to do helps her to triumph in many unexpected ways, and her recurring triumphs against the “no girls allowed” fellers club are not only satisfying as metaphor, but classic comic turn abouts. She’s not afraid to take a back seat in the narrative, sometimes, as when Tubby becomes The Spider, a detective who always suspects Lulu’s dad, and is almost always right, though he seldom knows why, and creates chaos proving it. Many women will recognize his overbearing, entitled incompetence from their own work spaces.
Stanley quit while still at peak after 135 or so Lulus. It’s enough to keep one busy reading and laughing out loud for years, though one wonders what might have been had his talent been recognized and rewarded. Many women will be familiar with this question, as well.
I’ve joked before that Little Lulu must be the most widely read feminist writing of the ultra conformist 50’s, but I suspect I’m actually right. Stanley was no activist. He was a simple family man, and struggled with alcohol and depression, but his sense of fairness and perhaps his life as an obscure underdog gave him the empathy to create a great character that happened to be a clever, assertive female. Do yourself a favor and grab some of Dark Horse Comics’ collected Little Lulu trade PBs.
Ganzfeld 5, Dan Nadel. Spectacular anthology of early Manga and later Ft. Thunder school Canadian artists (“Japanada!” is this issue’s theme), with again (like issue 6) a disappointingly hands-off approach to critical interpretation, compared to earlier issues. But a fun ‘get’, especially as a local buy ( Kilgore’s, I like to support the locals when I can, and am trying to avoid Amazon whenever possible)) and especially at slightly cheaper than online. It doesn’t take much to make me happy these days.
Everything I learn about early Manga brings home how innovative and original it can be. Shigeru Sugiura is one of the standouts in the Japan side of Japanada. His early 80’s 3 pagers here evoke the psychedelic surrealism of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. A graphic artist, Keiichi Tanaami, is also an eye opener, possibly from the same era, though undated in the Ganzfeld’s slack editing. Amy Lockhart’s cartoon-brut “Dizzler”, from Canada’s Fort Thunder-inspired Nog a Dod anthology is a highlight as well. This is a great anthology that often highlights ways comics and art intersect. My disappointment in the lack of consistent comics criticism aside, each issue is a revelation.
Wonder Woman, A Celebration of 75 Years: Obligatory DC tribute/ movie tie-in, with samplings from each heavily ret-conned era in the character’s very mercurial career. Marston, her originator whose fondness for both female supremacy and bondage subsequent creators, whether feminist or retrograde, have tip-toed gingerly around, and Perez are standouts, but so, surprisingly, is Denny O’Neill’s much-reviled iChing period, criticized for taking away WW’s powers at the dawn of Second Wave feminism by Gloria Steinem (she is said to have influenced then-boyfriend and DC Comics owner Steve Ross to restore them).
Nonetheless, they do often hold up well as simple comics stories, as opposed to those assigned the task of “scrubbing” the character later. Robert Kanigher contributes an absurd Comics Code era ‘marriage scheme’ story, a typically bizarre alternate universe Wonder Girl story in which WW coexists as mother figure to her own younger selves, and an utterly shambolic mess in his return after O’Neill in the 70’s. After Perez revives Marston’s classicism, comes the “Bad Girl” era of the 90’s, with Wonder Woman falling prey to its emblematic “brokeback” style, featuring mannerist drawings in impossibly static poses meant to display both tits ‘n’ ass for the fan boys. Most of these later stories are unreadable, and I didn’t.
Zonzo, Joan Cornella: Horribly funny in the cartoon-brut style of cute characters doing vaguely offensive things, but without the multi-layered absurdist wit of a Bret VandeBroucke or Benedikt Kaltenborn. Thus it lacks real depth, but is an artist to watch.
The Roses of Berlin, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: McNeill’s gorgeous, dark Steampunk world building cannot rescue Moore’s Victorian retro-futurist adventure heroes from these dreary plots. Why all the carnage?