Teen Idylls: Thirteen Going On Eighteen

Posted by on February 24th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Drawn & Quarterly; 336 pp., $39.95; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1897299883

In his introduction to the book, series editor and designer Seth noted that Thirteen was in many ways the most personal of John Stanley’s comics series.  In terms of pure structure, there are few cartoonists who can come close to the way Stanley put together a page, a plot and a gag.  There’s a tightness to the very simple plots and characterizations that allowed Stanley to create a wide variety of gags, all variations on a theme as though it were a series of equations.  The balance between the plot and our understanding of the characters was aligned perfectly.  By cutting up each issue into short stories that explicitly labeled who the star or stars of that particular strip was going to be, Stanley gave the reader a certain expectation as to the structure of that given strip.

The structure and plots were always strong.  It took a while for Stanley to develop a cast he was happy with.  The other problem with the early issues of this series (this volume reprints the first nine issues of Thirteen and comes in at a hefty 336 pages)  was the inconsistency of the art.  Tony Tallarico began as the series’ penciler (working with Stanley’s layouts), but his overly fussy, romance-comics style figures were a poor fit for the sort of jokes Stanley was going for.  Stanley himself took over with the third issue, but one can feel the strain of deadlines in his early issues.  His figures look rushed and sloppy, and the coloring looks awful.  There’s a lot of energy on these pages, but it’s obvious that he needed time to figure out what he was doing.

By issue #6 or so, Stanley really started to get rolling.  The series focused around best friends Val (the star of the show) and Judy (a delightfully cruel loudmouth) and their assorted romantic trials and tribulations.  Judy is essentially Lucy Van Pelt as a teenager: a bossy, aggressive girl who can’t get any attention from the opposite sex.  Val is melodramatic to an extreme, creating a rich set of possibilities for deflating her expectations.  Val’s older sister and her next-door neighbor (and friend since toddler age) Billy act as foils for her.  By issue #6, Stanley tossed aside some one-note characters that outlived their usefulness (like the creepy Sticky Stu, who followed Val around everywhere), slimmed down Judy (who was funnier when she wasn’t simply fat) and got both Judy and Val boyfriends.  Of course, Judy got Wilbur, a hilariously lazy guy who knew that Judy couldn’t get any other dates and took full advantage of it.

With the structure of his strip firmly in place, his characters more sharply defined and the whimsical nature of his art setting the stage for stories both humorous and romantic, Stanley was able to craft increasingly convoluted and absurd plots that were still grounded in the basic elements of the title. For example, “A Maiden’s Prayers” saw Val and her boyfriend Paul Vayne out on a picnic date.  Val started freaking out when she remembered that she had carved the initials of another boy into the tree.  What followed was an escalating series of attempts to get him out of there without seeing the initials that were accompanied by reality complying with her wishes.  She “heard” thunder, and it indeed started to rain.  When they sought shelter, it was one where dozens more messages about Val were carved into the wall where they were leaning; Val prayed for lightning to strike it and it did.  Val seems saved until they wind up in a restaurant and Paul sees more messages about Val carved in the seat she’s in.  In just six pages, Stanley took that gag as far as it would go, defying laws of nature for the sake of the joke.

Another common story thread found members of the cast trying to make each other jealous.  Stanley’s best gag with regard to that idea came in “Table For Two,” where Val was freaked out about Paul sitting next to a busty redhead on the beach.  Stanley concludes it with Val pretending to drown next to a handsome guy, Paul coming in and exposing her chicanery as she was on her knees and the reveal that the guy was very short, and finally Paul getting his comeuppance when the redhead stood up and towered over him.  The way the panels were composed and lettered made the gags work; Paul’s mocking laughter and Val’s sputtering in one panel had balloons that filled up the top half of the panel because of the size of the letters.  The next panel, where Paul faced up with the redhead, saw the encounter in the left side of the panel, another huge panel filled with the laughter of everyone else on the beach in the upper right hand corner, and then the smaller figures in the bottom right hand side.

Stanley also started to weave together a loose continuity from story to story within each issue.  Nothing all that complicated, just a few threads connecting a particular bit of heartache or a misunderstanding into the premise of a new strip.  There was one series of stories where Judy told Val about a story she read involving a girl, her impossibly handsome young man, and the fact that he really lived in a ramshackle old house and was in reality old and wrinkled, Val naturally freaked out. When Val realized that Paul had never invited her over to his house, the match-up between her twisted fantasy and reality started to get uncomfortably close.  The reveal of a wrinkled old man in a dilapidated house was one of Stanley’s most outrageous gags, topped only by his convoluted explanation of why an old man was there instead of Paul.  Along the way, Stanley’s depiction of the occasionally good-natured conflict and sniping between Val and her sister Evie, while not integral to the plot, was both funny and emotionally true.

This comic was not meant to be “realistic” in any way.  It’s purely a farce that exploits certain outsized aspects of teenaged girls.  What makes this comic so wonderful is that his protagonists are frequently spoiled, petty, and histrionic—and yet we like them anyway.  Throwing in stories featuring just Judy were a perfect counterpoint to Val’s boy-crazy saga, as Judy is both more intimidating and less desirable than Val.  That was especially true when she was slimmed down, because the only thing in the way of getting dates was her personality.  Playing on the idea of Judy as a more sadistic version of Little Lulu, he created Judy Junior, a younger version of Judy that had no other connection to the Judy in the other set of stories other than her general tubbiness and bossiness.  She tormented a boy named Jimmy Fuzzi, not only bossing him around but expecting him to be grateful for the attention.  Judy Junior rarely got any comeuppance, as Stanley obviously enjoyed seeing her on a rampage in a way that the teenaged version rarely got to enjoy.

I’m especially excited for the second volume of this series, given how volume one finished up.  Stanley’s infusion of teen romance with ingenious gags made this my favorite of his comics, above even his Little Lulu work.  The expressiveness of his characters, the clarity of his storytelling, the simplicity of his art that never devolves into iconic cliches, and above all else, the quality of his gags made this book an enormous pleasure.  It’s one of the rare classic comics collections whose jokes are good enough to make me laugh out loud, and it’s Stanley’s mix of the farcical and the emotionally resonant qualities of his work that make the gags work so well.  Seth’s design here was quite clever, with the iconified heads of Judy & Val leading each new section.  I do wish that they’d at least reprint the covers of the book in a back section if they didn’t want to disrupt the flow from story to story; perhaps that will happen in a future volume.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

One Response to “Teen Idylls: Thirteen Going On Eighteen

  1. WLLilly says:

    OG Whiz ! OG Whiz ! OG Whiz !@^