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.

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