Picture Books 003: John Stanley, THIRTEEN GOING ON EIGHTEEN

Drawn & Quarterly · 1963-64

I'm not ordinarily a big fan of repeating names like this — when shuffling a playlist I get annoyed if two songs by the same artist show up twice in ten songs — but this arrived in the mail two days after I turned in my thoughts on Melvin Monster, and I devoured it immediately, so I might as well talk about it.

I think I first read the title Thirteen Going On Eighteen in one of Trina Robbins' many books on girls' comics; for whatever reason, the fulsome praise Robbins poured on the comic stuck with me, and I added the title to the mental list I kept when scrounging happily in back issue bins and dusty longboxes, lo these ten years and more agone. In the back of a bottom shelf of random Dell, Gold Key, and Valiant (there are always Valiant) comics in a huge vaultlike shrine to its now-deceased owner's pop-culture obsessions, I found a handful of issues; my memory suggests that I only bought one the first go-round, either because they were expensive (that is, upwards of two dollars) or because I wasn't sure I'd like it and had a lot of other stuff I wanted to check out too. Anyway, I definitely remember sitting in my car racking up minutes on the parking meter afterwards, slipping that issue (I think it was #22, but I'm not digging through my own longboxes to check) out of its mylar bag (gosh, remember mylar bags? all my comics purchases nowadays have spines) and reading it through in one delicious gulp.

Which is exactly how I read this big slab of fake newsprint, in one sitting, my smile getting bigger as the comic I knew struggled out of its first halting drawn-by-some-other-guy issues and into the whip-smart, manic, bitchy, and surreal series it was for the most glorious run in teen comics history, twenty issues and out. My collector's impulse is sporadic and lazy; I'd only read about half the material in the book before, but it's been years since I revisited it and it's better than I remembered, and I remembered it as my favorite comic book series ever.

I talked about Stanley's strengths as a cartoonist and writer last time, but I want to emphasize again my conviction that there has rarely been a better cartoonist in terms of pacing, structure, and dialogue, especially in stories this ephemeral and fleeting. Thirteen Going On Eighteen is a "teen comic" in the vein of Archie or Marvel's Patsy Walker, but thanks to Stanley's loose, cartoony art and down-to-earth, sarcastic wit it's neither as visually glamorous nor as goofily brain-dead as teen comics nearly always are. Val and Judy are supposed to be thirteen, and though after a bit they simply occupy the generalized "eternal teenager" zone of Archie, they're never sexualized in the way that Betty and Veronica nearly always were from Dan DeCarlo on down: Stanley is too true to his own comic vision of frustration and ineptitude for that. His characters are fully-rounded comic creations: delusional, irritable, quick to fight and forgive, self-dramatizing, and manipulative in ways that leave the blank, unmotivated conflict-followed-by-bonhomie of the Archie universe in the dust.

As series editor and designer Seth puts it in his introduction: "Can you imagine Reggie sitting in his room alone? What would he be thinking?" Whatever the scriptwriter needed him to be thinking to advance whatever ridiculous plot he's involved in, of course; but when Stanley's Val or Judy sits alone and thinks, it's both psychologically true and funny all through.

It would be nearly impossible for me to oversell the quality of this work. The only complaint I can make is that since this volume collects the first nine issues it doesn't cover the series' peak yet, but it's good all the way through. And I suppose if you have something against teen comics, or comic books period, or unambitious situation comedy in general, you might dislike it. But as someone who has attempted to put brush to paper, wrestled with issues of pacing and rapid-fire dialogue, and accidentally knocked over inkstands, blotting out hours of work at a go -- that is, as someone who's tried to be a cartoonist — John Stanley is an inspiration, a standard to live up to, and a hero. I read him in the same way a studio musician might listen to jazz: for the sheer pleasure of seeing it all so competently done.

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