To honor the indolent spirit of children’s comics, I didn’t do my homework. This new collection of Little Lulu follows by a decade a series of John Stanley reprints that showed off the cartoonist’s range as a cartoonist of humor comics for kids. This included Nancy comics, which I imagine cannot be that different from these Little Lulu comics, but I have not read. These new volumes are not designed by Seth, and so feel more approachable. They are hardcovers a kid can sink their teeth into, how literally depends on the age of the kid. Let’s take pleasure in the idyll the work suggests.
These comics are fun, and not in an obnoxious way. Jokes come often, but the setups and their punchlines are spread over a number of pages, rather than follow each other immediately. It never feels like John Stanley is aiming for a punchline to fall regularly at the end of a page or tier of panels. Jokes are free to vary in size, from the offhanded bit of character work to larger chaotic set pieces. The kids find their fun, their author finds the jokes. They mill about, they gallivant. The pace ebbs and flows. A representative excerpt would cover a page or two. Stanley’s stories do not miniaturize, because they themselves are an expansion from Marjorie Buell’s gag cartoons where the character originated, into a wider context. The heart of his work are stories that range in length from seven to twenty pages. While there are one-page strips free of dialogue interspersed for a change of pace,I don’t find these particularly interesting or funny particularly, though they do provide lessons to the reader in how to read silent comic sequences.
The child that is a budding cartoonist can learn much from the simplicity of John Stanley’s storytelling. All emotions conveyed with a minimum of lines, reactions manifest in the glyph of an eyebrow, as the characters move gracefully, in round shapes. This simplicity is both easy for children to understand and speaks to how children themselves are, how transparently undisguised emotion displays itself upon their faces. A child can tell when Lulu or Tubby is happy, upset, surprised, pleased with themselves, or disappointed as easily as a teacher can tell the same things in school-age students. That the characters are children makes their comedic flaws forgivable, while adults with these children’s personalities would be insufferable. Tubby is oblivious and entitled, but inherently innocent. Lulu is proud and fussy, which is admirable enough even as it provides a source of laughs. The designs of the characters capture their essence: The tiny hat Tubby wears is ridiculous, in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with his personality, even though an actual child would never be able to keep such a thing on his head, even if he were to have many of the same traits.
The kids live in a world that is recognizable and understood, though similarly pared down. They go to the beach or the park, and run around their houses. These are not the adventures of the Carl Barks Donald Duck comics Dell was publishing around the same time that Fantagraphics is reprinting now. There’s no racism to apologize for, which makes the included editorial notes at the end of the book unnecessary, though they’re still here. They cite inaccurate page numbers when they’re referring to specific stories, and while this is a forgivable byproduct of last-minute editorial resequencing, it does make the feature fail as a table of contents, which would've been useful. They do inform the reader a few of the stories here establish storytelling formulas that will continue to be used in future volumes, which it's promised will improve as the cartoonist develops. The formulas cited are good and promising ones that deserve to be milked for all their laughs. Tubby dressing up as a detective to prove Lulu is innocent of something she’s accused of, and accusing her dad of secretly being a career criminal? Yes, brilliant. Margaret Atwood’s intro says she was inspired growing up by the stories where Lulu retells and parodies fairy tales to a younger child she babysits. That’s another promising comedic premise that begins here, though at the risk of seeming anti-intellectual, I don’t really think a comparison to Scheherezade is necessary.
If it’s hyperbole, it is not unprecedented. I think, fairly often, about this thing someone said on the Comics Journal Message Board once: That comics snobs are the funniest and most ridiculous snobs because our platonic ideal of the high point of the medium is old Little Lulu comics. This assertion seems supported by the fact that when Alan Moore was a guest voice on The Simpsons, he sang the Little Lulu theme song. These comics were an acknowledged influence on the Hernandez brothers. I’m not of the generation that has these comics as part of their DNA, but that is probably to my detriment. There is no reason to think that today’s generation of kids would not be well-served by reading these delightful works, or that their parents would not enjoy the act of reading them to them.