YOW! Two Generations of Kids Comics

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As the graphic novel aisle at the local bookstore swells with indistinguishable manga and high-end hardbacks, discerning children and the adults who care for them may wonder what happened to all the good kids comics. Though buried a bit, they can still be found. Two recent releases, the "Little Lulu" reprints series from Dark Horse comics, and Nickelodeon Magazine's all-comics special, present two strong options. Comparing the two makes for some interesting lessons in what endures and what changes in the world of kid's comics.

For a lesson in what lasts in kids comics, you can do no better than Little Lulu. Created by Marjorie Henderson Buelle, who signed her work as "Marge," Lulu started in 1935 as a series of wordless gag panels in the "Saturday Evening Post." By the mid-1940s Lulu had expanded into animated cartoons and been licensed as the mascot for Kleenex tissues (which she remained associated with for 15 years). Dell comics created a series around the character in 1945, which continued until 1984. Of those, the first 197 issues (till 1970) were written and laid out by John Stanley and illustrated and lettered by Irving Tripp. The very definition of "delightful," the work of Stanley/Tripp represents one of the greatest achievements of all-ages cartooning.

Though Lulu's adventures influenced the entire baby boomer generation of underground comix artists, the works have been mostly unavailable to new generations until now. This outrageous absence has finally been rectified now that Dark Horse has committed to reprinting the series as competitively priced $10 black and white paperbacks collections. Volume two of the projected 17 books, which appear bi-monthly and will reprint all the comics through issue #85, has just been released. For the same price as a manga book, "Little Lulu" draws you into a world that remains as funny and fresh as it was fifty years ago. The main characters, Lulu, a highly spirited girl who frequently bests the "fellers" and their boys-only club, Tubby, the endlessly pratfalling, rotund would-be detective, and Alvin the brat who demands that Lulu tell him stories, form a comedic ensemble cast matched only by the likes of the Peanuts gang.

Lulu gives Tubby a wolloping

Though the short stories take place exclusively in the all-white, middle-class milieu that was typical of such entertainments at the time, Lulu's stories feel timeless rather than dated. If anything the success of "Little Lulu" derives from its minimized universe. John Stanley excels at creating absurdly funny situations out of the simplest devices. One silly story involves the repeated swapping of a stuffed, mounted fish back and forth in exchange for a present for Lulu's pop, a genuine civil war cannonball, a present he has no interest in anyway. The sharp writing often takes you by surprise. The "Bank Robbery" strip has Lulu convinced that Tubby is spending her ill-gotten piggy bank money on Gloria, her rival. After assaulting him with a doll, she discovers her money and apologizes for the mistake, but follows up with slap to Tubby's face. "That's for going out with Gloria," she says, turning away.

Just as Stanley works miracles with a limited cast and setting, Irving Tripp pulls big laughs out of minimal backgrounds, no shading and the simplest of character designs. He does this chiefly through character expression. Though the faces are comprised of a few dots and lines, the range of emotion is rather astounding. Most famous are the expressions of distress or surprise whose accompanying exclamations - BAW! WAH! YOW! -- have become as iconic to comix as sweat beads and stink lines. Together, the Stanley/Tripp team formed one of the longest, most productive relationships in comic's history. Kids should not be without at least one volume.

Though Little Lulu has been hard to find, "Nickelodeon Magazine" has almost secretly been funding new kids comics. Though usually unavailable in comics shops, since its inception in 1993, the cable-network affiliated monthly has been commissioning many of alternative comix' most interesting artists to fill its back pages. Why they have yet to collect the best of these works into a full book is beyond me, but at least they have finally issued a short compilation in magazine form as part of the their "Nick Mag Presents" series (58 pages; $5). Available where the magazine is sold, the issue includes full color contributions from the likes of Craig Thompson ("Blankets"), James Kochalka ("The Sketchbook Diaries") and even underground veteran Bobby London.

Comparing the Nick Mag comics issue with "Little Lulu" reveals some interesting similarities and differences. The use of licensed characters is one thing the two share. I'll admit to having a knee-jerk negative reaction at seeing Spongebob Squarepants and Jimmy Neutron, two characters who started on the Nickelodeon TV network, with their own strips. Synergistic marketing makes me queasy. But it's easy to forget that Lulu was already a star of other media and advertising campaigns at the time of her comic book appearance. What the creators do with the characters matters most, as proven by Lulu's classic stories.

One very noticeable difference between the two books is the vastly increased level of visual sophistication in kid's comics. Where "Little Lulu," and most every kid's comic of the time, maintains a strict grid structure for a layout, and simplified, "cute" characters, the Nick Mag comics explode with a variety of visual styles. Craig Thompson's "Juanita and Clem" strip takes the reader's eye on a roundabout, tour of the entire page as Clem, a frog-like creature in a purple suit, searches for water to pour over Juanita's flowers. Scott McCloud, who's seminal book "Understanding Comics" attempts to define comics and how we read them, contributes a two page strip on how comics can be about anything and take many forms. It's an empowering piece, and completely upsets the order of Little Lulu's day.

Of course the one thing that remains consistent over the years of kids comics is their focus on humor, though the styles have changed. Where "Little Lulu" derives its humor from situational comedy, the Nick Mag strips clearly exhibit the lasting influence of "Mad" (which first appeared in 1953) and its distanced take on very nature of things like "Little Lulu." Perhaps the funniest piece in Nick Mag's special comics issue is Michael Kupperman's "Worst Comic Book Heroes That Never Existed," a gallery that includes Citober, the invisible, silent robot whose adventures were "mostly people saying 'Hey, where's Citober.'" The change of kid's humor comics from the concrete (e.g. Tubby falls down) to conceptual represents the change in our culture from one of primary experience to one of mediated experience. In this case, it is notable that the "Little Lulu" series remains the funnier and more moving, in its way, of the two books.

"Little Lulu" should not be missed by anyone of any age who enjoys classic cartoon comedy. The ensemble cast as written by John Stanley and masterfully rendered by Irving Tripp evoke as many "HAW!"s today as they did when they first sat in racks at the soda shop. The Nick Mag special comics edition may not be as lasting but still has humor and a good heart. Hopefully it will serve as an example for Nickelodeon to collect more of their comics work, under the guidance of a strong editor, into what could be a major anthology for both children and adults.