Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's A Wonderful Strip

Tuesday Comic Strip Day.

I have shown and confessed my appreciation for and fascination with the work of Stan Lee here before. Although he was never the innovator the media have made him out to be, he was a remarkable man and a driven and sometimes inspired writer. Lately, his reputation has suffered somewhat of a backlash for his and other's claims that he created the Marvel Universe. His distractors usually start out by proving he isn't much of a writer by pointing to his many failures before he started working with Jack Kirby. This trend is a disservice to comic book and comic strip history, as he has created several things worth noting in both areas. His comic book work in the early fifties is not nearly as bad as it is made out to be by some. And in some cases, his stories are better written than those of his peers. Especially when he gave himself one page more than those other writers got. His 1956/7 Mad magazine imitation Snafu is not only very funny, iy has some of the best John Severin and Joe Maneely art you have ever seen. If Stan was good at anything, it was picking the right artist for the job and writring to his strengths. The same goes for his'forgotten' strip, Willie Lumpkin, which he did with Dan deCarlo. Lee had worked with deCarlo for many years on the 'dumb girl' books. DeCarlo's sexy girls and Lee dumb puns were a winning combination. For Willie Lumpkin they revived the dumb jokes, but weren't able to include the sexy girls, which may explain why it only lasted 15 month. Yeah, 15 months, not 'just over a year' or 'not even a year' as most biographies claim. As I said, the disdain poured over Lee's work has not done comic strip history a service.

I could and should write a larger article about this strip some day, but let me stick to the highlights here. Willie Lumpkin was started when Stan Lee read Mel Lazerus' new and modern strip Miss Peach an thought 'I can do that'. That though was the impetus to many of his projects, it seems. Miss Peach was not only drawn in a vigourously modern style, it also featured a new kind of gag. The strip was only one panel and the dialogue 'traveled' from one character to the next, until the last one gave the punchline. Stan Lee decided to try that principle for himself , probably when DeCarlo asked him to come up with something. Their first concept was about a cop on a street corner. A perfect fit for the Miss Peach style. People walking by on the street would have said stuff and Barney, the cop, would have been given the last word on his street corner. A great way for Stan Lee to practice what he was best at - people coming back with a witty reply to whatever was said. This way he could write the thing without looking for gags. They would just come to him.

Unfortunately, Barney was deemed to much of a big city figure, so Lee and DeCarlo moved the whole operation to a small town and instead of a street corner cop, they created a postman. He works outside as well, doesn't he? And he has a position of authority, hasn't he? Unfortunately, this didn't really work out. The whole one panel and traveling dialogue with comment idea was skipped after a few months and Lee and DeCarlo tried to make it into a more normal strip. Unfortunately, they didn't have a supporting cast for Willie, who was designed to be an outsider commenting on the people walking by. If he had been Clacy, the city street cop, it may have been more natural for there to be new people to comment on every day. But now he had a main character living in a small town. He had to know the people there and we would have to get to know them as well. But that woud mean Lee would have to abandon his plan of creating a format where he could just introduce any subject he wanted and make a joke about it. Instead he needed to create characters and have the humor come from them.

He tried with a family and for a short period, the strip started looking and reading like Hi and Lois. He also created a cast of co-workers for Willie, which were okay. But it was to late. The strip had lost too many papers. After 15 months it ended in april 1961 and Stan Lee had to think of some other way to try and get out of that dead end comic writing job of his...

But more about that later. Here are the first few strips from december 1959. When this strip was reprinted by Lee in some of the Marvel books, he always left out these early ones, which show the Miss Peach influence. Stylisticly it is interesting as well. Dan deCarlo's style before this looks a lot more like his style after this. So he may have been trying something new here, although I am not quite sure what it was. Unfortunately, I haven't got the Sundays for this period. Those that I have (and have shown earlier) show both deCarlo and Lee at their best. I hope one day someone will do a book of all of these. I couldn't think of a better reason to write my full article.

Mybe I'll even get to meet my hero, Stan Lee. Who, without my consciously knowing, has his 88th birthday today. Happy birthday Stan. May you stay as young as you appear.


Brett Koth said...

In the 12/10 strip at the right end of the bar, that sure looks like Arthur (or his head, anyway) from the Miss Peach strip!

Wonderful samples!

The Seditionist said...

I'm with you Ger. Given the volume of work during the Timely and Atlas years, and given his impeccable taste in artists and nearly so in storytelling, not too mention the Marvel Age, Lee is clearly one of the great comic book editors. For roughly the billionth time, the Lee/Kirby/Ditko gestalt is historic, and one of those 1+1=3 situations.

As a writer, what's interesting and somewhat overlooked is that he was in fact a second rate superhero writer (I mean including plotting -- as a scripter he's one of the greats). He was, however, a terrific humor writer and good soap opera-type writer -- which served him well. Even when he hacked it out, the scripting was still above average.

So he takes undue credit. Big deal. Some of it's ego, some is, well, crypto-legal. But as someone or other repeatedly has said: The work speaks for itself. 'Nuff said.