John Stanley

I’ve always been aware of John Stanley, the comic book writer and artist best known for his classic Little Lulu stories (drawn by Irving Tripp). But until recently, I had no idea that any of Stanley’s work had been adapted to animation. Apparently two of Stanley’s Lulu stories were adapted (quite poorly and without credit) by Paramount’s cartoon studio in 1961 and ’62. Frank Young, on his excellent blog Stanley Stories, has compared the animated films to the original comics stories, showing up how poorly Seymour Kneitel understood comic timing while at the same time, showcasing how funny Stanley’s original source material was – and still is.

Here is Frog’s Legs (embed below), the second Paramount release from ’62, and Young’s post reprinting the original comic story for comparison.

Young also dissects the first cartoon, Alvin’s Solo Flight. It was through Young’s blog that I discovered Stanley also wrote hilarious stories for Tom & Jerry, Raggedy Ann, Andy Panda and other Western comics titles.

Animation director Yvette Kaplan (Beavis and Butt-head) not only grew up reading Stanley’s stories, but his influence has inspired her storytelling talents and her career as an animation director. I asked her to explain her passion for John Stanley’s comics and what animators can learn from his work. She responded with the following essay:

When I was a kid, nine, ten, eleven, I loved reading comics. “Archie” mainly, as the luncheonette down the block had a rack reliably filled with them. Betty was my fave. Sure, Veronica was rich and pretty enough, but I didn’t get her at all. How could I, growing up in working class Bensonhurst, Brooklyn? Couldn’t Archie see how great Betty was? Apparently not. Clearly, Archie was a jerk.

I liked Betty so much that I once even dreamt she had her own comic book! I was sad when I woke up and realized the dream wasn’t real. But guess what? Within weeks of having that dream, it came true! Betty suddenly had her own comic called ”Betty and Me.” I was amazed! Thrilled! But… if truth be told, I was bummed: my secret was out. I was jealous! She wasn’t ”my” Betty anymore. She was –(gasp!)– popular! So what did she need with me?

Happily, miraculously, the pain of my loss was eased when I found another comic that I loved even more. Starring (could it be?) another blond! She, and the comic book itself, was so funny it made me laugh out loud, and I found myself searching the comic racks day after day in hopes of more — usually in vain. This comic was scarce, not omnipresent like the Archie bunch. “Do you have any new Thirteen Going On Eighteen comics?” I’d ask Murray, the owner of the luncheonette. “What?” he’d bellow. I’d say it again louder; “Thirteen Going On Eighteen!” “What the heck is that?” he’d mutter. “Get an Archie.” But I was hooked. Having no other choice, I was content to read my few precious copies over and over and over, and soon I knew every panel, every line, and every crazy, energetic, life filled drawing by heart. Dog eared, worn down and shamefully cover- less, While a pile of Archie’s languished in a shopping bag in the back of a closet in my mother’s apartment, I’ve kept my Thirteen Going On Eighteen’s with me for my whole life; through high school, college, marriage, motherhood, 3 houses, divorce, and a cross country move. Over the years I managed to collect a few more issues — thanks to a dear comic-collector friend of mine who tracked them down. But it wasn’t easy, since hardly anyone seemed to know they ever existed. This was surprising especially since my comic-collector friend told me they were drawn by a famous cartoonist named John or Stanley something, I didn’t pay much attention at the time. Because I didn’t really mind that nobody knew about it. Not one bit. Because for all these years, all these wild, loud, crazy, funny, larger than life characters; Val and Judy, Evie, Billy, Wilbur, Judy Jr. and Jimmy Fuzzi have been unpopular, undiscovered and absolutely perfect. They’ve been my little secret. Until now.

I knew it was coming. With the recent publications of the other wonderful John Stanley collections, Melvin Monster, Nancy and Little Lulu, it was clear that the world would soon know about his somehow hitherto unacknowledged masterpiece, my beloved Thirteen Going On Eighteen. And the truth is, I’m delighted. Happily, I’ve finally matured enough to be able to share.

I first became aware that I had a knack for comedy timing in 1993 when I started directing on Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead series for MTV. Luckily for me, I had been reading John Stanley’s brilliant, and insanely funny, Thirteen Going On Eighteen for years. I have no doubt whatsoever that I learned, or more accurately, absorbed the essence of comedy timing from inhaling pages just like these:


Judy has convinced Wilbur that she just fed him his ratty old hat for dinner.

Note the:

Big reactions

Expressive poses

Unexpected pauses

Rapid mood swings

and–

Lots of yelling

As far as I’m concerned, Wilbur stopping in the midst of his agony to stare pensively at a motorcycle is comedy timing at it’s best. A single panel, that’s all. He doesn’t notice it as he passes, doesn’t turn around and go back. We don’t see him stop, he’s just there. (cue the soundtrack of your choice; sometimes I hear a soft whistling, sometimes crickets, sometimes muzak) And then he’s screaming his head off again a panel later. Ah, the beauty of manic behavior!


And in this one, Judy has just informed Val that she saw Val’s boyfriend Billy with her dreaded rival Janie Kilboy. Cool as ever, Val feigns indifference, but then…

Note the:

Thinking characters with an unedited inner life

Zen-like self-obsession and commitment to a cause
Surprise

Flailing limbs

Oblivious bystanders

Gratuitous violence

And lots of yelling


And on the very next page of the same story (above), Val’s search for Billy and Janie Kilboy; one of the funniest, most effective and definitely most economical time passage I have ever seen:

Note the:

Instantly understood body language

Obsessive, compulsive behavior

Deadpan expressions

Periods of relative inactivity

The surreal and the downright silly

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more, lots more. Thank you John Stanley, from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know what I’d have done without you and your wonderful cast of delusional egotists. And to everyone else out there, those who already know and especially those who don’t, I welcome you to fall in love with my favorite comic book of all time.

We recommend all three volumes of Drawn and Quarterly’s excellent hard bound John Stanley Library: Nancy, Melvin Monster and Thirteen Going On Eighteen.


  • J Lee

    The sad thing is that Kneitel & crew did understand timing when they did the pre-Stanley Little Lulus made from 1943-48, and then let it go about the time they dropped Lulu in favor of Little Audrey. The other odd/weird/sad thing is that the last two Audreys the studio did, “Fishing Tackler” and “Dawg Gone”, were probably closer in spirit to the type of cartoons Famous/Paramount did with Lulu in the 1940s, where the best ones pitted her against some adult male authority figure, so it’s not as though they had completely forgotten how to do those types of cartoons (in most of the Audrey cartoons of the late 40s and early 50s, she pretty much is a hopeless narcoleptic who falls into another dream adventure within 90 seconds of the opening titles, something the Famous crew kept under control with Lulu).

    Since Marjorie Buell gets production co-credit and copyright on “Alvin’s Solo Flight”, it may have been that to get the rights to the character again, Kneitel and Paramount had to do the cartoons her way, which meant the adaption of the Stanley stories, which were less slapstick and more whimsical than what Famous had done (having actual kids voices in the cartoons also didn’t help, because it sounds like they’re reading a script). Maybe if Myron Waldman — who specialized in these types of ‘cute’ cartoons — were still at the studio as head animator then instead of working for Hal Seeger, the results might have been a notch or two higher.

  • http://www.bigblogcomics.com/ Mykal Banta

    Jerry: Thanks for highlighting the wonderful work of John Stanley and the great collections from Drawn & Quarterly. Stanley was an incredible cartoonist and a seemingly inexhaustible well of ideas. I am continually amazed at his output. Man, what a panel architect.

  • dronon

    There was also a Japanese animated TV series based on Little Lulu in the late 1970s. I watched a couple of episodes in French that were being broadcast out of Montreal… But if any of the episodes were faithful adaptations of the original comic or of John Stanley’s work, I have no idea. It’ll always stick in my mind as the first cartoon that made me realize as a child that some cartoons were foreign; that cultural visual iconography could be noticeably different.

  • Shmorky

    I’ve always been a fan. Thanks for highlighting this stuff!

  • http://mayersononanimation.blogspot.com Mark Mayerson

    Yvette, I enjoyed your essay.

  • http://www.myspace.com/pilsnerspicks Pilsner Panther

    I’ll second J Lee in defending Seymour Kneitel. How can anyone say that he had “a poor understanding of comic timing,” when he animated and co-directed so many of the greatest Fleischer Popeyes?

    What I think was going on with these Little Lulu cartoons was that the staff was hamstrung by Parmount’s increasingly low budgets, and that Little Lulu isn’t a very engaging character to begin with. The real star (such as he is) here is Tubby, while Lulu really doesn’t have much to do other than stand around and comment on what he’s doing.

    What’s sad is to see the names of Fleischer veterans like Kneitel, Nick Tafuri, and I. Klein in the credits of such unimaginative, bargain-basement cartoons. By this time, they were just crankin’ em out for the paycheck, riding the creaky old train to the end of the line (which was the next stop) and it shows.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Here’s a taste of the Little Lulu anime mentioned before!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98PUdBNt3u0

  • Paul Penna

    If nothing else, these three words will tell you you’re reading John Stanley:

    YOW!
    Wooof!
    Choff!

    and we have them all in the second Thirteen Going On Eighteen panel.

  • captainmurphy

    Wow, I had only seen the Lulu cartoons before Stanley did the comics, which I figured were whipped up from situations in Marges single panel gag cartoons (was Lulu dong ads for Kleenex around this time?)

    With that previous history, I can’t be sure if that much attention was paid to Stanleys story for layouts and storyboards- they may have only gone on vocal script, and their previous model designs.

    I really enjoyed the look of the LuLu cartoons that were on HBO or such, as voiced by Tracey Ullman, at least at getting the line weight of Tripps drawings.

  • yvette kaplan

    Thanks Mark. I meant to write it for a long time. Finally nudged by the wonderful compilation. : )

  • http://stanleystories.blogspot.com Frank M. Young

    Thanks for the very kind plug of my STANLEY STORIES blog, Jerry! I really enjoyed reading this post… Yvette Kaplan’s insights are pure gold!

    To Paul Penna: YOW, though a Stanley mantra, is not an instant guarantee that an un-identified comic book story is actually BY John Stanley.

    Western Publications apparently encouraged their other humor creators to emulate Stanley’s tricks, especially from the early 1950s onward. There are many deceptive Dell comics out there that, on the surface, appear to be Stanley’s work…

    until one starts to read them, and realizes that they suck. Yvette identifies some key traits of Stanley’s work–things I call “Stanleyisms” on my blog–and these are always a sure indicator that a story is Stanley’s work.

    Even the lousiest staff artist at Western could not completely kill these tell-tale quirks.

  • Kevin Wollenweber

    Yvette Kaplan peaked my interest in this series of comic books, and here, again, is an interesting concept for a live action movie. Surely, the entire premise of the LULU cartoon included in this post would have made a great visual for a live action movie, perhaps because it smacks of something that the OUR GANG kids in the Hal Roach days would get involved in–remember a short called “PUPS IS PUPS”? The kids were always wanting to get involved when it could include some of the farm animals. But I liked Yvette’s descriptions of the 13 GOING ON 18 comics, and I wish there were corresponding cartoons, although perhaps, in this case, the timing from panel to panel, as Yvette points out, is perfect as you read from panel to panel, but it wouldn’t translate well to the moving image. Sure sounded like it would be fun, though, because I like the challenge of bringing human comic characters to the big screen as live figures. The joy is when you find a kid cast that could really bring that cartoonish feel to their acting. “MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE” almost had that cartoonish silliness at times, and that was perhaps the one thing that pulled me in, aside from the They Might Be Giants-penned theme.

  • B. Baker

    Outstanding essay, Yvette. Beautifully observed. One of the best things I’ve read in weeks.

  • http://11dayswithjamesspader.tumblr.com Jesse Benjamin

    Hey just wanted to mention that after reading this post, I had to go out and get the Thirteen (Going on Eighteen) collection. I am sincerely SHOCKED at how genuinely funny it is. Like, actually, laugh out loud, has better timing, better pacing, wittier and more concise dialogue than most sitcoms on TV. And of course, the acting in it is just out of this world. Thanks so much for enlightening me, this collection is outstanding.

  • http://yeldarb.deviantart.com Mr. Semaj

    The last time I’ve seen Alvin’s Solo Flight was when it aired on Nickelodeon’s Wienerville back in 1993!

  • yvette kaplan

    Wow, thank you Frank, and thank you B. Baker. I’m flattered, honored and very much smiling. : ) And Kevin, very glad I helped pique your interest. And I assure you that Stanley’s work would translate beautifully to film. My vote tho–would definitely be for animation!

  • http://www.markmcdermott.com Mark McDermott

    First time seeing the Stanley-derived Paramount Lulu’s. I’m nowhere near an expert, but I enjoyed much the obvious call backs to what was clearly a Stanley-type story. The question of casting kids to read kid characters goes back how far? Is this as early as it was attempted for what was expected to be a regular series? Obviously, that later Charlie Brown specials showed you could get decent acting out of a kid crew, but you had to replace them every few specials.

  • Gerard de Souza

    Yow!

  • http://hitchcockandme.wordpress.com/ Bonzodog

    The HBO animated Lulu series (the one with the voice of Tracey Ullman) also adapted some Stanley material – without credit, of course. At least it was reasonably competent!

  • http://www.impko.com David Burd

    Thanks, Yvette. Bringing “Thirteen Going On Eighteen” to the public’s attention has been long overdue. Glad I could play a part it in.