Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Drawn & Quarterly is one of the best comics-publishing outfits around. They're classy and sophisticated -- us schmucks down in the USA think that has something to do with being headquartered in Francophone, urbane Montreal, but they'd probably be smart and savvy even in Oshkosh -- and do a lot of both interesting historical reprints and modern works from European and North American creators. Their book design is also generally very sharp: the artist Seth has been doing all or most of it for a number of years, and has given especially their reprint projects a crisp, eye-catching look. (Look to your immediate right: isn't that a great cover?
But the most important thing a book cover needs to do is tell you what it is and who did it. And the book in front of me today seems to say it's Nancy by John Stanley. (That's according to the cover.) The title page, more expansively, calls it Nancy: From the Comic Strip by Ernie Bushmiller: Collected from Issue 146 to Issue 150 of the Dell Comic Book Series: 1957-58: The John Stanley Library and has similarly detailed credits: script and layout by John Stanley, finished art by Dan Gormley, edited by Rebecca Rosen. And there's a comic-book style indicia, on the first story page, that claims this is Nancy, Vol. 1, which finally tells us one of the most important things we wanted to know: where does this fall in the "John Stanley Library," or in the reprinting of the "Dell Comic Book Series?"
Perhaps the assumption was that the set of Bushmiller and Stanley fans was large enough that no civilians would be needed, anyway -- that every single person who might be interested in this book would already know what it is, where it falls in the Stanley oevure, and how badly they want it. Considering that I found this copy in a public library six years after it was published, that would not be a good or supportable assumption. It would not have damaged the book design in any way to get a classy, sophisticated "Volume One"somewhere on the cover, and if I were the marketer when this book was being published, I'd have pushed to make the author credit "The John Stanley Library" to unify the whole series -- yes, the design does a lot of that, but people read books, so the words are also important.
Once you finally find this book and get inside, you do get a lot of good, fun, zippy comics -- originally for kids, yes, but not limited just to them -- featuring Ernie Bushmiller's famous character and her friends. Stanley expands that world in his stories, as he needed to: Bushmiller was a minimalist, always in pursuit of a tighter gag for his four panels, while Stanley is writing dozen-page comics that need to have stories and action and funny stuff in every panel. So the first story introduces Oona Goosepimple, a creepy little girl who bears a lot less debt to Charles Addams than you'd expect, and Stanley goes on from there, ringing his own changes on the Bushmiller standards and making them work in longer stories.
(Fanatical devotees of Antick Musings will be surprised, since I was much more negative about this book when I read it in 2010. But I hadn't really clicked with Stanley's work at that point -- I still haven't gotten around to his Little Lulu comics, generally considered his best stuff -- and I was coming off two volumes of Melvin Monster, which were deeply uninspired. Since then, I've enjoyed Stanley's Thirteen "Going On Eighteen," a madcap mid-60s teen comic, so maybe I'm more in tune with his humor.)
This time around, I was particularly struck by Stanley's dialogue, which is pointed, almost spiky -- his people don't just say things, they verbally spar with each other, yelling or cajoling or whining or grumping or demanding, and the dialogue is both funny in itself and moves the stories forward. The art is still standard mid-century funnybook, but it's all rendered cleanly to let the gags work without interference. (Although I will keep grumping about the pages with their age-faded look; that's an affectation, to show off to the original readers how very old this stuff is now, and it's at best a distraction and at worst an obstacle for new, younger readers.)
So I'll contradict five-years-ago me, and say that it's entirely possible to be both Team Bushmiller and Team Stanley: they're different kinds of cartoonists, aiming for different effects in mediums that aren't as similar as they look. I still probably fall on the Bushmiller side most of the time, but there's a lot to love in Stanley as well.