REVIEWS

Marge’s Little Lulu: Working Girl

Scrooge McDuck. Dennis the Menace. Sugar and Spike. Little Archie. Clifford. Scribbly. Each one a certified jewel in the crown of Golden Age Kids’ Comics. But while most of these Hall of Famers are still revered to this day, none of them sparkle as brightly as pint-sized troublemaker Little Lulu. Some 75 years after Lulu Moppet elbowed her way onto comic book racks, she continues to set a bad example for kids everywhere with her misadventures being studied, discussed, debated, written about, and read by comics fans of all ages.

The numbers tell the tale of her enduring popularity: tens of millions of Lulu comics were sold during her 1950s heyday, and since then more than 380 issues of Lulu’s comic book stories have been reprinted in nearly 60 volumes – which now include a new, long-awaited reprint series from Drawn & Quarterly.

So how did the irrepressible little girl in the red dress become such an industry heavyweight?

Originally created in 1935 by Marjorie Buell as a stand-in for the outgoing feature Henry, Little Lulu debuted as a wordless single-panel comic in the Saturday Evening Post and quickly proved to be a bigger hit than the mute bald kid she replaced. Sensing a sure thing, Buell spun Lulu off into lucrative endorsements, animated cartoons, and the then-flourishing comic book market.

In May 1945 the first two Little Lulu comics stories debuted in the pages of Dell Comics’ Four Color #74. Written and drawn by native New Yorker and relative comics newcomer John Stanley, the stories—an untitled yarn featuring Lulu and her pal Tubby and the stone-cold classic “At the Beach”—effectively reinvented Lulu’s universe, giving her a voice and breathing new life into what had been a one-paneled, one-dimensional world.

Stanley’s genius here was two-fold: by conjuring a rambling and realistic comic book world for Lulu and her gang to occupy, he created a perfect canvas for his signature concoction of chaos, comedy, and reckless abandon. It wasn’t long before Stanley’s stories had established a new highwater mark. In the 1950s, Lulu (and Stanley’s companion series Marge’s Tubby) regularly topped the industry’s best-seller list, with print runs of more than one-million copies per issue.

Stanley’s tenure on Lulu lasted until 1959, after which he affixed his imprimatur on a number of other enduring kid’s comics, including Nancy and Sluggo, Melvin Monster, and Thirteen (Going on Eighteen) before leaving the industry behind in 1970. But as great as these titles were, there’s no arguing that his comics legacy was forged by his 14-year run on Lulu.

It’s a legacy that has been preserved--and worshipped--by fans and publishers ever since. In 1985, a year after the last of the original Little Lulu comic ceased publication, we were gifted with the Little Lulu Library, an ambitious series from Another Rainbow that reprinted 101 Lulu comics by Stanley and artist Irving Tripp. Aimed at adult readers, 18 of these over-sized red hardcovers were published (mostly in black-and-white) each one replete with articles and background material, generating a whole new generation of fans which included young cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth.

In 2004, Dark Horse Comics resurrected Lulu and her gang for a series of smaller, more affordable softcovers designed for young readers: devoid of background material, these volumes were focused purely on the stories. By the time Dark Horse was finished seven years later, they had published nearly 40 volumes including a number of full-color specials.

Which brings us to the latest Lulu launch, Marge’s Little Lulu: Working Girl, a 312-page whopper of a hardcover from Drawn and Quarterly. The first in a planned six-volume series, the book is a welcome addition to the family: all two-pounds eight-ounces of it is in full-color and it comes swaddled in an introduction by Lifetime Lulu Fan Club member Margaret Atwood and an essay by comics scholar, blogger (and TCJ contributor) Frank Young.

But as welcome as Working Girl is, its arrival likely begs the question for many classic comics fans: is it necessary?

Despite nearly 60 volumes of reprints over the past 35 years, Drawn and Quarterly clearly thinks the market can bear more Lulu. The publisher put significant effort into this first volume, which was released in late 2019 following several years spent securing reprint rights. Format-wise, this volume lands in a sweet-spot between all previous publisher’s efforts. Approximating the dimensions of a comic-book, Working Girl is significantly smaller than Another Rainbow’s books, while slightly bigger and sturdier than Dark Horse’s output. In short: more reader friendly, easier to fit on your bookshelf, and engineered to tolerate the often-savage reading habits of children.

As noted, the book also boasts the literary prestige of Atwood which I assume was intended to invite new readers to the fold, and the comics credibility of Young, whose thoughtful and thorough essay deserved better placement, not to mention better proof-reading (all of his indexed references are off by a few pages). 

It’s harder to quibble about the stories, which Young and his co-editor Tom Devlin have clearly taken the time to curate carefully. The stories here represent the best from the first 16 Little Lulu comic books (spanning the first three years of the title) which should be enough to satisfy long-time Lulu aficionados and newbies alike.  

It kicks off with the very first Lulu comic book story (one of only a handful that were written and drawn by Stanley) which follows Lulu and Tubby as they go to a costume party, and includes a near-perfect sight gag: Tubby dressed as a pirate, and Lulu as an unhappy angel. From there the hits just keep coming: the aforementioned “At The Beach” (Lulu and Tubby torment a well-intentioned cop and lifeguard); “Mountain Climbing” (in which Tubby and Lulu scale the outside of an apartment building); “The Gourmet” (a Tubby masterpiece that sees the young foodie shamelessly mooch a meal from a  couple at a fancy restaurant), and the title track “Working Girl,” a solo wordless Lulu adventure that includes more laughs in six pages than most comics can muster in 32.

Reading all of these stories in a row for the first time in a while, it’s striking how relevant and timely they are despite being published three-quarters of a century ago. In each of her stories Lulu comes across as confident, smart, resourceful, and is committed to showing the boys around her (usually the arrogant, narcissistic and yet likable Tubby) that she can do anything they can do. As Atwood argues in her introduction, Little Lulu might be the first truly feminist funny book.

In addition to the stories, the editors have thrown in some bonus features for Stanley completists. These include covers (each drawn and inked by Stanley) and a couple of “Lulus Diary” prose features, a rare example of a comic book writer taking the time and effort to elevate the lowly two-page text filler into something approaching art.

Speaking of art, keen-eyed readers will notice that the reproduction on these stories—which were scanned from original comic books—differs from previous Lulu reprints. 

According to Young, when Another Rainbow was preparing their series in the 1980s they faced a dilemma: practically no photostats of the black-and-white line art, and only a handful of original Lulu art, existed for the early run of Stanley Lulus. With digital scanning technology not yet fully evolved, the publishers decided to hire non-professional artists to trace over printed comic book pages on a light-box. (Dark Horse would later use the same traced art in their reprints).

A page from the Little Lulu: Working Girl, John Stanley, Drawn & Quarterly

The same page created by the "lightbox" method described in this article.

Young, who runs the Stanley Stories blog, has called the printed results “a ghastly simulation of the real thing” and “a vile bastardization of John Stanley's work.”

Young and Devlin endeavored to correct this "Original Sin" of Lulu comics, settling on scans of the original comics, an approach previously seen in Seth’s John Stanley Library, a series by D&Q that reprinted the artist’s non-Lulu kid’s comics.

As Young explained in an email “Our goal was to restore those early stories to a more sympathetic and accurate version. It's not as perfect as photostats would be, but it preserves the stories and artwork as they were published.”

Given the limitations D&Q was faced with, this seems the only reasonable and respectful solution. And it’s reassuring to know that I’m experiencing these early Stanley stories the way the artist intended them.

But if I’m being honest, I didn’t notice the differences in the art until Young pointed it out to me. And while I appreciate the authentic feel the approach brings to the pages in Working Girl, it’s worth noting that it comes with imperfections as well: off-register colors, those “echoes” of art on the opposing page, and some odd choices made by the original colorist (Lulu and Tubby’s perpetually rosy cheeks took me a while to get used to.)

But if you’re willing to accept these idiosyncrasies, Working Girl is a reverently produced treat for comic book lovers of all ages. These full-color comics feel as fun and fresh as ever, and for those of us who can’t afford the original issues are as close as possible to an authentic Lulu experience.

Taken as a whole, Working Girl feels to me like definitive Lulu. A comic book Criterion Collection edition that true Lulu fans have been waiting years for, and that the notoriously self-deprecating Stanley himself would be proud of.

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8 Responses to Marge’s Little Lulu: Working Girl

  1. Jones says:

    Sheesh, I had no idea about the tracing shenanigans behind the DH reprints. Still totally worth it as an affordable kid-friendly format. My daughter has read the absolute shit out of my copies (and between Lulu and Donald Duck, probably has a pretty good sense of how to structure an 8-10 page gag strip); the first words she could read were the quintessential Stanleyisms “BAW” and “WAH”

  2. Frog Foreskin says:

    “…the publishers decided to hire non-professional artists to trace over printed comic book pages on a light-box.”

    What in hell does “non-professional artists” mean?

    Interns?

    The person who delivered the coffee?

    Cecilia Giménez?

    Or does it mean a non-COMICS artist?

    What a weirdly worded phrasing.

  3. Brad Mackay says:

    Jones, same here. I have the LLL books and the DH ones, the latter of which my kids prefer. They are ragged as hell! BUt are well-loved for sure. Lulu and her gang rule in my household. My youngest has even started to call my wife “Mother”, as they do in Stanley’s stories.

  4. Frog Foreskin, I’m just paraphrasing Frank Young here. I’m assuming he meant amateur artists; i.e., someone who wasn’t making money off of their art.

  5. Jones says:

    Ha, my daughter did that too for a while. At least she never called me ‘Pop’, perhaps because I’m not a hardened criminal constantly undone by the Spider (who they call the Spider because he etc.)

  6. Tom Peirce says:

    One thing of interest to me is how these were never translated into French; after all French is a second language in most of Canada and a first in Quebec. A business person must have realized there was no market among french speakers, but why? Also – the tone of this review is a bit snarky, which I attribute to jealousy on the part of Fantagraphics that they were too flatfooted to do this themselves?

  7. Brad M Mackay says:

    Jones, i would die and go to heaven if my kids called me Pop!

  8. Brad M Mackay says:

    Tom Peirce, My guess is that since Canada was not an officially bilingual country until the mid 1960s, that Lulu simply never caught on among Francophones.
    I’m not sure what part of my review you consider mildly snarky (i just review ’em as a i reads ’em), but I can assure that Fanta had nothing to do with it. I say this because I don’t work for Fantagraphics; i’m just a freelancer who loves Lulu!

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