Friday, May 20, 2011

John Stanley's Summer Fun

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of John Stanley's Summer Fun (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011).

Drawn & Quarterly might want to be a little careful with these annual collections, lest they explode their carefully-constructed myth about the genius of John Stanley a little earlier than they'd planned. Don't get me wrong; the publisher's John Stanley Library remains a remarkable set of books and I'd like to own more, because when Stanley was on fire, which was most of the time, he was writing or illustrating better kids' comics than anybody else. Stanley's best work in the sixties seemed effortless, just a casual understanding of what made kids and teens tick, and scripts that just bounced with clever and silly gags that followed a logical progression.

There's a great story in this book, the third assembled for the annual Free Comic Book Day event, in which Judy Jr. schemes to steal a sandwich and manipulates her usual target to get it. Every panel just clicks with energy and a zippy irreverence. Even once the reader figures out where the story is going, watching it get there is a guaranteed joy. There are certainly other good stories in this collection as well. Even though you know going in that anything that Tubby tells you about a giant sea monster will either be a dream or a lie, watching the very construction of the story is great fun. Speaking as a sometimes wannabe writer, I'm just amazed at how easy Stanley makes this look.

Sadly, though, it's not all that good. Some of it reminds me, for the first time reading Stanley, of those horrible flat 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoons. You remember all that crap like Huckleberry Hound and all those exactly-the-same cartoons that kept reusing all the same gags from each other? I couldn't stand those things when I was a kid, even though I watched them out of frustration with nothing else being on, and was reminded of them while reading a Choo-Choo Charlie installment about a physics-defying runaway ferris wheel. The absolute worst kind of kids' humor is the sort that relies on impossible things happening and everybody being stupid about them. Nancy and Rollo show up in a story in which Nancy lands on an "island" which is clearly a whale and I don't remember whether she and her summer camp buddies ever figured it out, because I got bored waiting for them.

A lot of this might seem like arbitrary decisions of taste, but I'm not so sure. Nobody's going to agree that Looney Toons were at their best in the 1960s when you had team-ups with Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales; everybody knows that Tom & Jerry were only any good when they were trying to kill each other. The long, crappy decline of Hanna-Barbera didn't merely come because they cut corners for TV animation, but because the scripts were terrible.

It's sad to learn that Stanley was just as capable of everybody else in the period of making eye-rollingly stupid kids' entertainment, but it's also sad to see that Drawn & Quarterly has already started unearthing and publishing some of it. About half this book is uncommonly clever, and about half is like the Gold Key comics that you quickly threw away as a child, wishing that your well-meaning aunt had bought you something with fights and monsters in it. As such, the book is a very poor choice to introduce anybody to Stanley. Recommended only for Stanley completists.

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