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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

 

Leave It To Lulu

Can I give you some comics-buying advice?

Two years ago at ComicCon, I bought a scuffed copy of the first Dark Horse Little Lulu reprint collection at a remainder table. I was vaguely aware of the character, I knew it had placed on The Comics Journal's Top 100 English-Language Comics of the 20th Century (#59 to be precise, just behind Charles Aadams New Yorker cartoons and just ahead of Alley Oop.) But I had never read the strip.

Well, I instantly fell in love with it, much as I had with James Kochalka comics at the ComicCon two years before that. It's one of those discoveries that renews my interest in comics and makes me a happier person. The strip, based on a character originated by Marjorie Henderson Buell for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935, is perfectly realized in comic book form by John Stanley and Irving Tripp. The cartooning is a simple, economical delight, the comic pacing is impeccable and the situations are often unexpectedly absurd, even when the strip engages in one of its many formulas--Mr. McNabbem the truant officer chases Lulu; Lulu has to tell the little brat Alvin a story to keep him from being naughty; Lulu is falsely accused by her mother of a minor crime and Tubby steps in to prove that Lulu's father is the culprit; a war of the sexes between Tubby's gang and the neighborhood girls; etc. Within these basic frameworks the stories often have a stream-of-consciousness quality, a bit reminiscent of Crockett Johnson. Much more recently, Kochalka's sublime Peanut Butter & Jeremy comics tap into the same vein. Almost all continuing comics, with Krazy kat as their patron saint, base much of their appeal upon the joys to be found in slight variations to set themes and characters. Superman has fought monsters, plugged volcanoes, smacked up Luthor literally thousands of times, but all a reader needs is the slightest of twists on Superman's use of powers to feel satisfied that he got a new story. Stanley plays this game between the boundaries of comfortable expectations and happy little surprises like few other writers I've come across in commercial comics.

Dark Horse has released collections on a bimonthly schedule, and is now up to 11 volumes (with a 12th scheduled for Oct. 4), each containing about 200 pages of comics in black and white. Amazingly, the work is as good, if not better in vol. 11 as it was in Vol. 1--an exception to R. Crumb's comment--I'm paraphrasing from a faulty memory here--that only the first year of a strip is ever any good. And there are still at least 9 years worth of Stanley stories left to be collected. (Between this and the Peanuts reprints, I'll need more bookshelves.)

I know I've mentioned Little Lulu before. But now Dark Horse has released the Little Lulu Color Special, collecting some of the best work from throughout Stanley/Tripp's run in full color. As good as the bimonthlies have been, this is something else altogether. I've always thought that the black and white reproduction has done a great job of highlighting Stanley's layouts and Tripp's finished cartoons, and placing the emphasis on the stories. But the vibrant color Dark Horse has used here just brings the stories to life. Here's a sample page:

Sorry for the scan size, but you should be able to get the idea. This is one of the least cluttered comics of all time, and a prime example of what Scott McCloud means by "amplification through simplification" in cartooning. I like to think latter-day Steve Ditko would appreciate the execution of this comic. A(lvin) = A(lvin).

Oh yes, the advice: buy all of this. Now that's it's here, the overview provided by the color special is the best place to start. But really, any of the Dark Horse collections are just as much worth it, and will make you and your kids just as happy.

Comments:
"A(lvin) = A(lvin)" made me laugh out loud like a complete lunatic.

John Stanley's successor on Little Lulu was a fellow named Arnold Drake. I remember how astonished I was to see a credited Lulu story by Drake and realize that the guy who created the Doom Patrol and the Guardians of the Galaxy was equally at home with this. (Mind you, at the time I didn't know of his humor work for DC.) If Dark Horse continues past the end of the Stanley run, it might be interesting to see how the later stuff stands up in comparison.
 
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