Review by Frank Plowright
It’s been years since any significant new Little Lulu material was published, yet Marge Henderson Buell’s creation sustains a following, largely due to comics produced by John Stanley rather than her own wordless gag strips.
Stanley began writing and drawing more structured adventures from 1945, taking Lulu’s already established problem-solving ability, broadening the cast, and cementing a reputation for innovation and quality. Show his work, and that produced in collaboration with Irving Tripp from 1948, to today’s younger children and it appeals just as firmly as it did to their contemporaries from the 1940s until the 1950s ended. Lulu’s indomitable personality plays a large part. In an era when women’s voices were rarely heard, Lulu had no truck with the idea she wasn’t equal in every respect to Tubby and his mates, outwitting them thoroughly and creatively time and again. For the 1940s readers it must have been an empowering experience.
Working Girl is the first of five planned volumes providing a comprehensive Best Of choice, accompanied by authoritative commentary from Frank M. Young after the stories themselves. The entirety of Stanley’s first two Little Lulu comics opens the collection, before skipping for a more selective choice. These stories last saw print in slightly greater than pocket sized black and white editions from Dark Horse, available in My Dinner With Lulu, Sunday Afternoon and Lulu in the Doghouse, and while the restored period style colour is more authentic, it adds little else. The admirable economy of Stanley’s art plain doesn’t need it. He didn’t settle on the distinctive character designs immediately, and Working Girl shows their progression while also revealing how Stanley also refined his ability to tell an engaging story. Those early attempts lack the spark distinguishing the better material, an example being Stanley hitting on the idea of Lulu telling stories to calm the anarchic Alvin, but not yet achieving the later surreal intensity. Here she tells wacky versions of fairy tales instead of creating her own stories.
Thankfully, although stopping just short of the golden era’s beginnings, there’s plenty of quality proving the long-lasting appeal. Stanley conceived what became mainstay scenarios gradually, so Lulu’s only foil here is Tubby, also an icon, entirely lacking any concern about his weight or nickname, and forever scheming for more food or larger portions, as seen on the sample art. The first of his many appearances as Tubby the Detective (not yet the Spider), complete with ridiculous disguise, sets the tone for a frequent joy, and from the start Stanley established the convention of Lulu’s father Mr. Moppet always being the culprit.
Stanley intuitively knew what readers wanted to see, and that’s primarily children getting the better of adults, and girls wanting to see their counterpart getting the better of boys. Presumably there was never any thought on Stanley’s part that his stories could also appeal to young boys. Lulu’s ingenuity and tenaciousness are exemplary, and when Tubby’s about slapstick is also on the menu. Stanley also reflects children’s personalities, curious and selfish. Tubby may occasionally help Lulu out, but as Young points out, it’s never from altruism.
Unfortunately Young’s page references are all a little out, but collectors will appreciate the inclusion of a few single page strips never before reprinted, yet this shouldn’t be a series just for collectors. This comic-sized collection ought to be placed in the grubby little hands of children who read to let them discover a joyful world of creativity for themselves. The series continues with The Fuzzythingus Poopi.