Picture Books 002: John Stanley, MELVIN MONSTER

Drawn & Quarterly · 1965

John Stanley is one of the greatest pure cartoonists in history, a man who could both draw funny things and draw things funny, with a loose, bold line that was perfect for the squalid, ugly reproduction of comic books in the days when they cost a dime and their natural state was rolled up and sticking out of some kid's back pocket.

This gorgeous archival volume reprinting the first three issues of Stanley's goofy sendup of the 60s monster craze feels a bit overdone, given the grubby whiz-bang-rimshot of its contents. Which isn't to say that Stanley was a mediocrity; even this, the least of his 60s work on his own (the holy grail for Stanley fans, the complete Thirteen Going On Eighteen, has its first volume due out this week, and I'm dropping my no-new-purchases rule to score a copy), is admirably zany, zipping from punchline to punchline without stopping for breath. I'd read two-thirds of the book before, since I own two of the original issues; but the entire thing was still a joy to swallow in a single-sitting gulp, a model of pacing that any cartoonist who wants to create the illusion of continuous action would do well to study.

I called it a sendup of the 60s monster craze, but it feels more like a sendup of the sendups. It takes the comedy-of-inversion of The Addams Family and The Munsters to its logical conclusion: rather than loving little Melvin, his monster parents hate him and want to kill him; the family's pet crocodile tries to eat him at every turn; the neighbors hate him because he doesn't throw rocks through their windows; and so forth. It's an opportunity for Stanley, who could be extremely perceptive about the deception and compromise endemic to human community (you have read some Little Lulu, right?), to create a wholly amoral world, in which Melvin wanders around as a holy fool, utterly indestructible and too innocent (or stupid) to see anything except in the best light possible.

Or if you don't want to think of it as a meditation on free-market capitalism proceeding in its logical way to anarchy (no institution in the monsters' world is reliable, least of all the "guardian demon" system which functions mostly as a plot device), you can just laugh at the jokes. And there are lots of them, though really only the ones that proceed from character and action work; unless you're a small child and lines like "I can't boolieve my ears" are screamingly funny. This stuff was after all aimed at small children. But even the page containing that horrible pun ends with the merciless thrashing of a character who can boolieve his ears (because they're huge); the world of Melvin Monster is satisfyingly violent, and I could buy an argument that it was an outlet for Stanley to at last get out some of his darker, more boyish impulses after a decade of (not particularly girly) comics for little girls.

Like I said, Melvin Monster is the least of Stanley's great 60s comics. He was better at straight humor than at satire — Melvin's satirical adventures keep getting interrupted by flights of sheer lunacy — and in another life he could have made an excellent sitcom writer, if sitcoms were ever as personal and singular as comic books at their best can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment