[29 July 2010]
Lovers of mid-century comics need no introduction to John Stanley. Best known for his work on the iconic Little Lulu series during the ‘50s, Stanley’s output included a very dark version of Raggedy Anne and Andy in the late-‘30s. Before he left comics in the late-‘60s, Stanley contributed stories and art for some of the most famous American comic strips, including Nancy and Sluggo, Little King and Woody Woodpecker. He also became a regular for teen comics, including Thirteen Going on Eighteen.
Drawn and Quarterly started to issue the work of John Stanley in hardback form in 2009. This first volume collects materials from the 1965 Melvin Monster series of Dell comics. Aficionados of the comic form will be delighted with this beautifully bound collection.
Even if you haven’t previously been a fan of the form, the collection’s title character will quickly win your sympathies. Its not so easy being Melvin Monster. Living in Monsterland with his Baddy and Mummy and their pet alligator Cleopatra, Melvin dreams of a place where he doesn’t get in trouble for being good. Damon his guardian demon is no help, as his mission is to endanger Melvin at every turn.
Stanley brought to Melvin Monster his characteristic ability to write in the idiom of kids but adults discovering this collection will find plenty to intrigue them. Melvin Monsters’ send-up of American family values sometimes takes a bitingly satirical turn. In Monsterland, Mummy and Baddy may complain that there is not enough crime and violence on TV, but Melvin’s trip to Human Being Land convinces him that the grass is not greener. Melvin expects to find a place where “everybody is nice and kind.” He finds, of course, just the opposite. The one human willing to help him is revealed as the villain, “I.Q.”, who wants Melvin for his private zoo of abnormal creatures.
The sources for Stanley’s inspiration are manifold. Melvin Monster appeared at the heart of the American “monster kid phenomenon”, a cultural moment when pre-adolescents and teens became fascinated with the classic Universal monsters. Driven by Forest Ackerman’s enormously popular Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the monster kids fell in love with Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein. They could watch these creatures of the night over and over again as local TV stations played Universal’s “Shock Theatre” and “Son of Shock” film packages.
Melvin Monster contains a number of references to the classic monsters so beloved by this generation. Although his Baddy is proud of his son for having nightmares, a dream of “angry villagers with torches” scares even his monstrous father. The work of cartoonist Charles Addams, and its television incarnation as The Addams Family is also in the background. Between 1964 and 1966, the television series drew on monster mania to create a bizarrely paranormal family with literal monster kids. Melvin’s twisted adventures would have been immediately recognizable to the many young fans of the show.
Melvin Monster is also informed by the cultural shifts of the ‘60s. This is the generation that had learned not to trust its parents. This theme had slowly begun to appear in the ‘50s. In Little Lulu, the title character’s parents are present but her mother often accuses her of breaking or losing something. Invariably, it turns out that the crisis is actually the fault of Lulu’s bumbling father. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts made parents entirely absent.
The adults of Melvin’s world, be they monsters or humans, are equally unreliable and endanger Melvin by their greed and silliness. These representations had powerful resonance for kids who came of age in Nixon’s America.
Melvin Monster is the perfect way to discover or rediscover the work of Stanley. Drawn and Quarterly’s high production standards have created a collector’s treat and will make you eager for more volumes yet to come.