[10 August 2009]
In 1965 America was awash in comic monsters. On CBS Fred Gwynne, Yvonne De Carlo and Al Lewis were camping it up on The Munsters, while their ABC rivals The Addams Family featured John Astin, Carolyn Jones and Jackie Coogan in a series based on the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Boris Karloff performed Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s novelty song “The Monster Mash” on Shindig! and cartoonist John Stanley, best known for his work on Dell’s Little Lulu comics, produced the comic Melvin Monster which featured a little monster boy who is a disappointment to his parents because he want to be good.
Melvin Monster is definitely a kid’s comic: there’s nothing subtle about the bad puns and simple gags which are its very life blood, nor does Stanley’s art display any great sophistication (he was better known as a scripter). But it’s fun for adults as well: Melvin Monster offers a chance to be a kid again for a few hours, to be delighted by silly jokes and enjoy Melvin’s relentless good cheer as he makes his way through an obstacle course of hazards, from a pet crocodile who sees him as lunch to a parents who send him into a cellar from which no one has ever returned. Of course Melvin does return: this is the kind of comic where you understand from the beginning that nothing really bad will ever happen
But Melvin Monster is more than just a series of gags. Melvin lives in an inverted universe where parents complain about television programs which don’t include enough crime and violence and kids worry that Melvin will give their neighborhood a good reputation. This setup offers Stanley a chance to satirize contemporary society without seeming heavy-handed. Melvin is a nonconformist who wonders why he’s expected to be like everyone else in Monsterville, but instead of expressing his individuality by becoming a juvenile delinquent he does so by being a respectful kid who wants to go to school and do lots of homework.
Melvin’s parents Mummy and Baddy are satirical takes on standard-issue parents from 1960’s popular culture. Mummy looks like a cross between Jane Jetson and Laura Petrie, complete with an exaggerated feminine figure and helmet hair, except that she’s completed covered in bandages like the kind of mummies you see in museums (or in movies starring Boris Karloff). This doesn’t keep her from fulfilling the traditional female role (no women’s liberation in this comic!) which includes cooking, keeping house and deferring to her husband. Baddy is a simple-minded monster who chews up tables and wall plaster when he’s not consuming enormous platters of eggs, and is prone to fly into rages when he doesn’t immediately get his way.
Melvin escapes to Human Being Land (also referred to as “Humanbeanville”) several times, and is always disappointed by what he finds there. He thinks humans are always nice and kind to each other, unlike monsters—until an impatient pedestrian knocks him down a manhole, a fat lady hits him with her purse and kids turn him into a spinning top. Melvin is then rescued by a Milburn Drysdale-like character (complete with a carnation in the buttonhole of his pinstriped suit) whose real purpose is to capture Melvin for his private zoo. In a later episode, a wealthy couple sunbathing in their rooftop garden amuse themselves reading about crime victims. However the man is interrupted in mid-gloat—“How I enjoy hearing about the misfortunes of the riff-raff down on the streets! It makes me appreciate more the peace, quiet and security of our penthouse paradise“—by the arrival of two robbers in a helicopter.
You can have fun spotting the references to monster culture throughout Melvin Monster. In the first issue Melvin wakes up from a nightmare that “A crazy bunch of humans with torches were chasing me through a swamp-“ which you will recognize as the fate of Frankenstein’s monster. And Melvin is awakened each morning by a hand which reaches out of the wall next to his bed, rather like Thing T. Thing from The Addams Family but with more hair.
Melvin Monsteris the first in a series of Drawn & Quarterly volumes which will present much of John Stanley’s work. Handsomely designed and edited by Seth in an 8.25” x 10.75” hardcover volume, it contains two series of five stories each, plus several one-page bonus comics.