Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Four Color Comics #1304, 1 of 2

This is from March-May 1962.

Dell humor comics have always appealed to me not only as a reader but as an influence on my own work. Minimal stories usually in ten pages or less on a symmetrical grid. Even the most hacked-out, mediocre fare is still more entertaining than anything being put out today, and any random forgettable comic from them had a higher circulation with all casual readers under twelve than pretty much every comic currently collected. The casual reader is practically extinct.

Artists at Western (Dell and then Gold Key when there was a schism in the mid-60s and then Whitman again in the 70s) never signed their work, mainly because most were licensed properties attributed to a particular entity, for example a child was to think all comics of Disney characters were written and drawn by Walt Disney himself. Most of the artists didn't care, it was just a job to them and they were meant to be thrown out as soon as they were read. Few artists stand out and/or have had their work catalogued. Carl Barks is probably the most popular Dell artist, his style almost immediately recognizable, especially next to the artists he was leagues above.

One artist that stands out and never got his due while he was alive was John Stanley. He did a handful of his own creations but mostly did other properties that made up most of Dell's comics. Usually not the finished artist, but the “auteur” with artists working faithfully from his breakdowns. Most famously he did Little Lulu as well as Nancy and Sluggo, and though these were strips he adapted, he created universes for them as Barks did with Donald Duck.

Stanley's work isn't always easy to identify positively and there was never a complete record of what he did. His family didn't keep a record. It usually has to be guessed. There are a few Stanley-”isms” he did throughout most of his career to go by. Often someone ends up in the dark and you just see black panels with their eyes (the artists must have looked forward to these stories, getting paid to not draw anything). When someone screams or cries you see them looking up into the air and sporting crescent-shaped mouths. Probably the most common John Stanley motif is the word “YOW!” in a big balloon with block letters. Dell comics had no ads and one-page strips on the inside and back covers. Instead of a comics code symbol, they had a “pledge to parents”, a block of text to assure their wholesomeness, and Stanley was one of the only artists not to have it interrupt the flow of a strip.

It's often hard to tell if something's by him since he worked on so many different things for Dell, further complicated by editors using his layouts as a blueprint for their books, and using his collaborators. On top of that, not only is there not a comprehensive list of John Stanley's work, there isn't one for Dell either. Their flagship series, Four Color Comics, a tryout for later series for them, had a weird numbering system. I guess it was chronological, but have no idea what the frequency was, and towards the end some numbers are missing.

NELLIE THE NURSE was a one-panel strip by Larry “Kaz” Katzman, not to be confused with this Kaz or this one. Seeing this comic showed all the signs of John Stanley. It was a Dell comic with his rhythm and while using his style of storytelling, the art style was still faithful to the source being adapted. It was done at the same time as other series he was doing for them, as well as the nurse theme he used in one of his later rare “serious” strips. When I wonder about these things, I ask Frank Young, a comics writer and scholar who's the foremost John Stanley expert I know. He's written a few books on Stanley and is often a consultant when publishers do collections of his work. It was indeed Stanley. Not at his prime but his work nonetheless.


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