Friday, September 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #262: Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" by John Stanley & Tony Tallarico

The world of American comics has been tilted in favor of artists for decades now, for obvious reasons. It's a visual medium, dominated by the appeal to the eye, and the history of comics is almost entirely the history of artists -- even such well-known writers as Alan Moore and Brian Michael Bendis started off drawing their own stories, and writers who never drew, such as Bill Finger, are exceptionally rare. (Artists who write -- or vice versa, if you want to think of it the other way; what I think of as pure cartoonists -- aren't rare at all; in strip cartoons, they're the overwhelming majority.)

I'm a words guy; I come from the lands of words-on-paper, and I tend to look at comics in terms of story rather than art. So I've got a definite bias in favor of the writer, and I tend to be happy with projects that focus on comics writers. But sometimes even that can go too far.

Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" is part of Drawn & Quarterly's "John Stanley Library," a multi-year project to collect the comics written by Stanley (and sometimes drawn by him) across various humor genres and licensed characters from the 1940s through the 1960s. This book collects the first nine issues of the title series, towards the end of Stanley's comics career, as Dell was trying to get in on some of the Archie business with their own teen comic. And only buried deeply in the appreciative introduction by the cartoonist Seth (also the book's designer) will you discover that the first two issues here were actually drawn by Tony Tallarico -- the focus is entirely on Stanley as a writer, and the fact that he drew the next seven issues is similarly not given much attention.

Now, Stanley's own art is vastly better for this series than Tallarico was: anyone looking at these pages can see that. Stanley's work is loose, energetic, just a hair to the cartoony side to sell the physical comedy and full of closely examined and slightly exaggerated body language. Tallarico was, instead, a little too precise and a little too specific: his characters looked thirteen in a way Stanley's didn't. So Stanley's work is definitely the best in the book, and the bulk of the book -- but that doesn't excuse almost completely ignoring Tallarico's work.

I have to admit that I haven't been on the Stanley bandwagon up to this point: I read two volumes of his Melvin Monster (another '60s series, this time as Dell tried to jump on the Addams Family/Munsters bandwagon) and found them thin, and looked at the first collection of his Nancy comic books and found it couldn't compare, in my mind, to Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller's strip work. So I came into this book pretty skeptical.

Seth's introduction claims a lot for Stanley and this series -- he calls it "surely Stanley's last comic book masterpiece,"and goes on to analyze a lot of the elements of the stories here. He notes that it starts a bit shakily -- not just the mismatch of Tallarico's art, but a sense that Stanley was writing his way into these characters -- and he's absolutely right. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say "masterpiece," but once Thirteen establishes its characters and gets going, it's a manic, hilarious collection of wonderfully told stories about a bunch of teen oddballs, with great dialogue and quirkily interesting situations.

It's both conventional and oddball: focusing on the friendship of two teen girls, but making them individual and spiky. Val is the conventionally pretty one, an overly dramatic blonde who's crazy about boys and has a complicated relationship -- half brotherly, half fallback boyfriend --with the kid next door, Billy. Judy, her best friend, is grumpy, mean, gossipy, and vindictive -- and she also starts off the series seriously overweight, and even after she unexplainedly slims down she remains less attractive as a person than Val, stuck with the equally oddball Wilbur as her default boyfriend.

Smart comedy knows that flawed characters are funnier, and Stanley is a very smart comedian with this series: every character is a collection of bad behaviors, unrealistic expectations, and strange quirks, and he bounces them off each other again and again, almost like an experimenter carefully varying his initial conditions in a study. Thirteen gets wickedly funny once Stanley starts drawing his own scripts: it's full of the humor of upset assumptions, foiled plans, and manic energy.

If you haven't clicked with Stanley before, this would be a good book to try: it worked for me in ways other Stanley works haven't. (I also hear good things about his Little Lulu stories, which are the bulk of his career: I had a few collections of those before the flood, but they got destroyed before they got read.) This is a series about two teenage girls, and tightly focused on a few people and a few stock situations, yes -- but tight focus can be great for comedy, and that proves true here. Thirteen is only of interest in people who have ever been in love, have ever had friends and siblings, ever had to deal with other people with different ideas -- it's only about all of us, and only wickedly, amazingly, wonderfully funny.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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