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Graphic Novel Friday: Seth, John Stanley, and The Best American Comics Criticism

The Best American Comics Criticism isn't entirely true to its title. For example, not all of the contributors are American (notably Alan Moore), and not all of it is criticism--see the transcribed conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Daniel Clowes (!). But the book is a worthwhile resource: a go-to supply of top-notch comics writing, split into five sections: “History,” “Fans,” “Appraisals,” “Reviews,” and “Interviews.” Naysayers exist, though, and publisher Fantagraphics bravely hosted a roundtable on the book over at The Comics Journal, the lengthy results of which are must-reads.

A few weekends ago, I read cartoonist Seth’s piece in BACC, entitled “John Stanley’s Teen Trilogy,” which is an updated version of the original essay first published in 2001. Seth is the writer and illustrator behind George Sprott: (1894-1975), one of our picks for Best Comics of 2009, among several other great works, and the designer of Fantagraphics’ Peanuts collections. I was fairly ignorant of John Stanley’s catalog, having read Little Lulu and Nancy a few times but never registered the connection. As it turns out, there is a wealth of material from the man, and what better way to get acquainted than a 20-page essay?

Seth covers a wide swath of books from Stanley, but what struck me most was his unabashed love for a 1960s “teen comic” called Thirteen Going on Eighteen, written and illustrated by John Stanley.

“To prepare for the writing of this article, I reread all 26 issues of Thirteen and it was a good experience…It begins weakly, builds to competence, then to inspired competence and finally the strip takes on a life of its own where it sparkles with the same sort of brilliance that Little Lulu did…I was laughing out loud and remembering why I so thoroughly love this comic. I really do.”

Sold! I immediately sought out Thirteen Going on Eighteen, which is newly published by Drawn and Quarterly as part of The John Stanley Library--all volumes designed by Seth, of course. I am happy to say that the book, which collects the first nine issues, lives up to the hype.

Thirteen follows Val and Judy, two young friends, Val’s older sister Evie, and a slew of would-be and would-not-be suitors and crushes. Imagine Betty and Veronica if they had actual personalities rather than two-dimensional traits not too far beyond mannequins (and I say this having read and loved many Betty & Veronica digests). Val and Judy are true friends. “They mock-betray one another and snip behind each others’ backs--but there is a genuine love between them….”

Val is the blonde, hopelessly boy-crazy and self-centered in the most teenage of ways. During a bad rainstorm, Val seeks shelter in the doorway of a nearby shop, but she is unable to leave without an umbrella for fear of ruining her hair, her clothes, and well, everything.

“Will it ever let up,” she asks no one and then immediately ramps to: “Do I have to spend the rest of my life in this miserable doorway?” This type of hyper-drama is typical of both Val and Judy, who can turn from happy hysterics to doomsday woes in the span of two panels.

The brunette, Judy, starts off as the overweight sidekick, who handles the barbs aimed at her size with unusual ease. In one scene, Val asks Evie for help in finding a gift to cheer up Judy.

“I want to bring her something nice, but I don’t know what!”

Evie suggests, “Flowers are the usual thing…,” but Val is quick to roll her eyes and make a joke at the expense of her friend:

“Too bad there aren’t edible flowers…”

Ouch. My favorite moment is in that same panel, when Evie exits the scene and casually looks over her shoulder as she says, “How about a cauliflower?”

This is the first page of the collection. Within the span of five panels, Stanley has already established the personalities of two characters: Val (the caring but cruel teenager) and Evie (the clever and aloof older sibling). As Seth notes, Judy soon sheds the extra pounds for reasons that are never addressed, and while a few of the easier gags are therefore cut short, the series benefits from dropping the obvious foil and giving Judy a personality removed from her weight.

I do disagree with Seth on one point, however. He is an obvious Stanley acolyte: “I’m a genuine fan of his clear, loose, brushwork and his sparse use of background detail.” Yet, the first two issues feature an artistic collaboration between Stanley and the unknown Tony Tallarico. Seth minces no words in his assessment of this dilution of Stanley’s contributions.

“This artist [Tallarico] is so incompatible that he effectively kills every gag…it’s as if everything is poured in concrete. It’s horribly stiff and dead…I feel bad knowing his name because I still can’t find a single nice thing to say about his work here.”

I opened the book expecting to slog through a few pages before I got to the issues that were 100% Stanley, but I really liked the collaboration. Tallarico’s work now looks very retrospective and dated in a nostalgic way. Evie is every bit the prim prom queen, while Val is expressive and elvish. Once Stanley takes over, yes, I can see the improvement and appeal, but it does lose some of the softness in favor of a much more kinetic angularity. No matter where your opinion lies, though, the stories only get better from there.

These nine issues are handsomely sewn into a sturdy hardcover, featuring Seth’s trademark fonts and simple cover image. This is the heftiest of all the volumes in The John Stanley Library and it is priced higher than the rest. But it’s worth it. The pages are never garishly remastered but remain faithful to the originals, with an occasional blurring of colors or lines. It feels like these pages were saved just in time and now carefully kept on sturdy stock. I read it over the course of a week and would have loved to crack the next nine issues if they were available. Seth fans will note that his aforementioned essay is condensed into the front matter of this first volume--it’s kept to the section devoted to Thirteen, whereas the full piece in BACC focuses in far greater detail on Stanley’s body of work.

Other volumes in The John Stanley Library include Nancy, Tubby, and Melvin Monster, the last of which I plan to start next. I'm not sure I ever would have stumbled across these if not for Seth and The Best American Comics Criticism.

--Alex

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