The latest release in Drawn and Quarterly’s John Stanley Library line is closer to Melvin Monster than Nancy in that it collects a short-lived original series, rather than a popular series based on a preexisting character.
It’s unlike either in that it pulls back from the world of children a bit to focus on teenagers. Given the age of those teenagers—it’s right there in the title—that may not be a huge difference, but Stanley is tackling slightly more mature subject matter than in his better known Little Lulu and Nancy work: Romance, crushes, status awareness, fitting in and so forth.
It also means Stanley here has older, more adult characters to draw, and it’s a pleasure to see his quick, confident, concisely-placed strokes applied to the longer, lither forms of the teenagers. Thinking back on all the Little Lulu comics I’ve read, I’m having trouble thinking of any tall or skinny characters, as everyone in Lulu’s world—the older kids, the majority of the adults—have a soft roundness about him.
Here many of the characters are gangly and long-limbed, perfect figures for much of the running around and explosive histrionics they engage in.
The introduction by Stanley fan and Stanley Library designer Seth sings the praises of the characters much better than I can, so I won’t bother to attempt it here. Instead, I’ll simply quote him:
I like Archie comics quite a bit and own hundreds of issues of Archie and its various spin off titles. I can even tell you which years are the good years (1959 to ’65, incidentally) but I have to say, these characters are weak ciphers when compared with Stanley’s lively creations. Val, Judy, Wilbur, etc.—these are not complex characters y any stretch of the imagination, yet they have an inner life lacking in the Archie gang. Can you, for one second, imagine Reggie alone in his room? What would he be thinking? It’s not very exciting, is it? You would not say the same thing about Val (of Thirteen). You would have no trouble imagining any of Stanley’s teens and their private worlds…In just twenty-five issues of Thirteen, I have a deeper sense of these characters as people than in the hundreds of Archies I’ve read.
…Stanley so ably breathed life into them that they seem to exist outside of the crumbling yellow pages of these old comic books. There’s a moment when characters become deep enough that they are no longer ‘Lines on paper.’ A wonderful alchemy occurs where they seem to continue living even after you close the book.
Seth feels Stanley’s Thirteen teens are among those comics character to achieve that independent life, and I’m not about to argue. That achievement seems all the more remarkable given how short-lived Thirteen was. It ran for just 29 issues, though the last four of those were reprint material.
So who were these characters?
The main ones are friends/rivals Val and Judy. Val is a somewhat vain, slim blond with a seventeen-year-old sister named Evie. Judy is a big, brash girl with the appetite and strength of a stereotypical big girl of the time, both of which she retains even when she mysteriously sheds a hundred or so pounds to more closely resemble Val between issues.
Val’s main love interests are Billy, the literal boy next door whom she grew up with and expects to always worship her, whether she’s seeing someone else or not, and the wonderfully named Paul Vayne. Judy is stuck with Wilbur, a boy she detests and who doesn’t seem all that crazy about her either, but neither of them can do any better.
Stanley has so well-realized these characters that they’re an awful lot like real teenagers. In other words, I don’t really like any of them. They’re all almost sociopathically self-centered and selfish, casually cruel to one another and certainly more fun to read about than to share a house with.
All of these kids are preferable to Judy Junior, however. While Thirteen is mostly devoted to strips of various lengths featuring either Val, Judy or Val and Judy, there’s another feature which never really interacts with the others—Judy Junior. She’s a little girl, and has the haircut and round shape of the teenage Judy, but it’s never made clear if this is her as a child, or her little sister, or her future daughter or just some unpleasant little girl who shares her name.
Judy is a bully who is always picking on a little boy named Jimmy Fuzzi, whom she always refers to by his full name (She calls his mother “Mrs. Jimmy Fuzzi’s Mother”). This feature retains the pleasures of much of Stanley’s kids comics work, but damn is Judy Junior a horrible little monster. I didn’t even really enjoy reading these strips, she was so unpleasant, although I can stare at the artwork in them all day.
Of all of the old Stanley work I’ve read so far, which is a lot easier for me than it must have been for Seth, given that Dark Horse and Drawn and Quarterly have been working so hard to make sure so much of it is easily available in collected form, this is perhaps my favorite, in large part because it’s so different than Nancy and Lulu and even Melvin, and yet still has the pleasant charm, endless variations on a few familiar joke plots, and lovely simplified but amazingly expressive artwork that makes a John Stanley comic a John Stanley comic.