Friday, January 24, 2014

Peachy Post

Tuesday Comic Strip Day

I never said Stan Lee was an innovator. I like his work, maybe even more so than others do, but he was at his best when he took someone else's ideas and gave them his own spin. The one time that didn't work was with the comic strip he made with Dan DeCarlo in the early sixties. He had worked with Dan for more than a decade on various funny strips, most of which featured pretty girls. In the late fifties Stan and Dan developed several comic strip ideas together. Both of them developed a couple on their own as well (or in Stan's case, with other artists) but what they decided to do together had nothing to do with pretty girls. It was to be an urban, sophisticated strip about a street corner cop in New York. Bill Morrison showed one in his book on the life ad work of Dan DeCarlo a couple of years ago and he told me privately that he has another. This strip showed a cop on a street corner reacting to whatever was going on in the street - all in one long panel, with Barney having the last word. The first few months of Willie Lumpkin followed the same form, with the small town postman taking the place of a big town cop. After that Stan tried to turn the strip into a small town family strip, but with out the set-up and reaction construction and the big town sensibilities it didn't really click. He tried several approaches, which in itself might have been part of the reason the strip failed to become a hit. For months it turned into a family strip about a commuter, which gave Dan DeCarl the opportunity to draw a pretty suburban house wive but ended up looking like Blondie as drawn by Dik Browne. I think the strip hit it's stride when Stan decided to focus on the work environment of poor Willie Lumpkin, giving him an angry boss and a bumbling young protege. But it was all too little, too late and the strip died in May 1961, still one and a half years after it started. You can't say they didn't give it a try.

I have always thought that Stan Lee must have been inspired by Mel Lazerus' Miss Peach, which used a similar one panel trick. This style suited Stan, because his best work as a writer has always been when he was reacting - to a set-up or a situation or even an image. I also thought I had come up with this notion all by myself, until I found this quote from Alter Ego recently added to the Wikipedia page for Willie Lumpkin.

"Mel Lazarus had done a strip called Miss Peach, which used not panels but one long panel instead. I liked that idea very much, so when Harold Anderson, the head of Publishers Syndicate, asked me to do a strip, I came up with Barney's Beat, which was about a New York City cop and all the characters on his patrol who he'd meet every day and there would be a gag. I did some samples with Dan DeCarlo, and I thought it was wonderful. Harold said it was too "big city-ish" and they're not going to care for it in the small towns because they don't have cops on a beat out there. He wanted something that would appeal to the hinterland, something bucolic. He said, "You know what I want, Stan? I want a mailman! A friendly little mailman in a small town." I don't remember if I came up with the name Lumpkin or he did, but I hated it. I think I came up with the name as a joke and he said, "Yeah, that's it! Good idea!""

To compare, follow the label to the early samples of Willie Lumpkin. Or simply enjoy the urban humor of Mel Lazerus.

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