D&Q Classics, Part II: Tubby, Volume 1

Posted by on February 2nd, 2011 at 6:24 AM

In the second of a three-part series on classic comic books and strips released by Drawn & Quarterly, Rob looks at Tubby, written and drawn by John Stanley, with additional art by Lloyd White.

Most of John Stanley’s career as a scripter and cartoonist was spent bringing licensed characters to life, fleshing them out for extended comic-book adventures.  By nature, Stanley was a world-builder; he felt the need to introduce various comic foils, friends and antagonists for his central characters.  Part of that, I would guess, was Stanley’s way of giving himself raw material to work with; it’s his way of coming up with the variables for his comics writing formulas.  What’s interesting about Tubby is that he started as a sidekick/foil to the estimable Little Lulu, and was such a dynamic figure that he spawned a spin-off.  The problem with the series and the character is very much the opposite of Stanley’s take on Nancy: Tubby is such a powerful, hilarious and multilayered character that his supporting cast pales in comparison.

Stanley is careful to put Tubby front and center in every story, allowing the situation to bring out a different aspect of his character.  He’s a schemer and a scoundrel, and he is sometimes punished for his naughty deeds.  He’s mocked by rich kid Wilbur and the girl he has a crush on, Gloria, and that duo gets frequent comeuppances.  He’s loved by his own gang of kids (where he’s their clear leader) and hated by the rival West Side boys, and he always manages to either outwit them.  He’s mocked for being fat, poor, lazy and obnoxious but never without consequences.  More than anything, he’s a lovable con man with a wicked sense of humor.  There are times when the character seems so fully-formed that he practically writes himself.

Given that these are simple, gag-driven stories, all of these aspects of his character don’t reveal themselves all at once.  In one story, he’s a sad-sack that we’re rooting for; in another, he’s annoying pest who deserves what he gets.  Of course, these characteristics are true of children in general, who can spring from adorable to diabolical in a span of moments, and Stanley captures the essence of that mix of insecurity and braggadocio common to children, but especially boys.  The problem is that none of the other characters in the book are close to being his equals in terms of dynamism, which means Stanley frequently had to dip into fantasy to up the ante for Tubby’s troubles (much like he did with Oona Goosepimple for Nancy).  Stories that include dream sequences (like a hilarious, ante-upping bit about Tubby growing a moustache) or flat-out science-fiction (like a recurring series of stories involving a tiny alien) are funny and chaotic, but they lose sight of the grounded nature of Tubby’s appeal.

I like Tubby best as a schemer who can outfox any boy but is frequently confounded by girls.  Even when he dresses in drag to “beat up” himself so as to get a reward from various girls he’s tormented, his drag persona gets beaten up by those same girls loyal to their friend!  It’s a tribute to Stanley’s talent as a writer (he only drew the first issue, and the geometric simplicity of his figures is lost a bit when Lloyd White takes over) that the book not only doesn’t succumb to diminishing returns, but rather picks up steam as it proceeds.  Even if Tubby is better suited to act as Little Lulu’s friendly enemy (she’s truly the one character who’s his equal), he’s such a marvelous character and Stanley is so good at spinning yarns for him that this volume wound up as the second-best John Stanley Library entry to date (behind only Thirteen (Going On Eighteen)).

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3 Responses to “D&Q Classics, Part II: Tubby, Volume 1”

  1. [...] powerful, hilarious and multilayered character that his supporting cast pales in comparison”: Rob Clough discusses John Stanley’s Tubby comics in the course of reviewing Drawn and Quarterl…. And I’m linking to it, because I love Tubby Thompkins (I just finished Dark Horse’s [...]

  2. [...] a powerful, hilarious and multilayered character that his supporting cast pales in comparison”: Rob Clough discusses John Stanley’s Tubby comics in the course of reviewing Drawn and Quarterly’…. And I’m linking to it, because I love Tubby Thompkins (I just finished Dark Horse’s Little [...]

  3. [...] (Graphic Novel Reporter) Greg McElhatton on Toys in the Basement (Read About Comics) Rob Clough on vol. 1 of Tubby (The Comics Journal) Michael Buntag on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (NonSensical Words) Travis Jonker [...]