Those Elusive Four Colors!

by Jon Merrill, (c) 1991

For most fans of Little Lulu and collectors of the comic, the ten Four Color issues in the mid-'40s are almost always the last issues to be obtained, due to their scarcity and price. Now that all of these Four Color issues are about to be made available as reprints to readers in Set I of the "Little Lulu Library" by Another Rainbow, it is now appropriate to examine these comics and determine their place in Little Lulu history.

As a lifetime reader of Little Lulu comics, it is quite likely that the very first one I ever saw as a child was a Four Color one, but the earliest I remember reading Lulu was in 1949 when I was four, probably around the time of LL 12. When the first three Lulu giants came out in 1953 and 1954, which featured reprints of old Four Color Lulu stories, there were several stories that I distinctly remembered having read from the original issues years before.

I subscribed to the Little Lulu comics through the early 1950s, but by the late '50s most of them had been lost or given away. Later on, when I was a teenager trying to re-create my long-lost early Lulu comic collection--this was in 1960--I became aware of the existence of so-called "O.S." issues of comics that at the time numbered up to between 1100 and 1200. Of course, I had no idea what the letters "O.S." stood for, or how many Little Lulu comics had come out before LL 1, an issue I did not own but had figured out must have been dated January-February 1948. Remember, in terms of comic collecting, 1960 is ancient history--more than a decade before the Overstreet "Price Guide." Back then there was no way to easily obtain such information about comics, much less the comics themselves.

Readers of my Little Lulu-oriented fanzine "The Stanley Steamer" are familiar with my saga of locating in November 1960 an extraordinary treasure trove of VF-NM condition comics at three for a dime in an old magazine store in Newark, New Jersey. In this pile of 90 comics (cost: $2.85; value in 1976: $1,560, or 547 times what I paid for them) were a number of low-number Lulus, including LL 1, 2, and 5, all of which I had remembered reading as a child. However, also in this pile was a very funny-looking Little Lulu comic I had never seen before with the title in big yellow block letters and numbered No. 74 O.S. with a date of June 1945. I was rather elated to finally actually have a Lulu comic in the O.S. series, but I probably would have been even more elated had I known at the time that this was indeed the very first Little Lulu comic, now called Four Color 74 in the language of Overstreet.

Over the next few years a couple of other Lulu O.S. issues surfaced and were to join FC 74 in my now almost-complete Lulu collection. But how close was I to being complete? Again, there was no Overstreet "Price Guide" to tell me what I was still lacking. So, in 1965 I wrote to Dell Publishing to ask if they could provide me with a list of all the numbers of the O.S. Lulu comics, so that I could use it as a checklist for my collection. I was surprised and pleased several weeks later to receive answers to two questions I had wondered about for years. The first of these was that there had been a total of ten Lulu O.S. comics: 74 (June 1945), 97 (February 1946), 110 (June 1946), 115 (August 1946), 120 (October 1946), 131 (January 1947), 139 (March 1947), 146 (May 1947), 158 (August 1947), and 165 (October 1947). The second of these finally-answered questions was that the mysterious "O.S. meant "one-shot."

One-Shot? Obviously, what had happened at the publishing company in the late 1940s was that some experimental issues were being put out randomly, presumably to test the market. It worked out that at the very end of 1947, a number of Dell one-shot titles issued only under the "O.S." numbering system up until that point became regularly numbered beginning with #1 in the early months of 1948. Some of these were Popeye, Roy Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, Henry, and--Little Lulu.

These very early one-shot Little Lulu comics were "experimental" in another sense as well. John Stanley's earliest creations seem very different in nature from those of a few years late on; even the characters were not well defined yet compared to what I like to call the "Golden Age" of John Stanley's Lulu. Now, when a Lulu collector talks about the "Golden Age" of Stanley, one may receive a different answer from every single collector depending on his or her opinion, but my own personal designation for this monumental era in Luludom includes approximately the two dozen issues from LL 30 (December 1950) to LL 53 (November 1952), previously published in Sets III and IV of the "Little Lulu Library."

But for now we're not dealing with the early 1950s era of Stanley; we're talking about the early Four Color comics, so I don't want to get off on that....

So, now let's take a closer look and open up that aforementioned mysterious Little Lulu comic with the yellow block letters that began the Four Color series of Lulus: We find there are three stories in FC 74 (June 1945), and the only principal kids in them are Lulu, Tubby, and Alvin. Of course Lulu's mother is in one of the stories too, and Alvin's mother is in another one, but the other child characters we know so well are at this point nonexistent.

The very first John Stanley Little Lulu story which begins FC 74 is the delightful one about Lulu and Tubby attending a birthday party, Tubby dressed as a pirate, and Lulu dressed as an angel, which she hates, until she gets the idea of borrowing Tubby's pirate beard ("I'm an OLD angel....") while they are on their way. Once they have arrived, and after Lulu is seated at the table with the other birthday guests, she discovers that eating cake and ice cream is difficult, if not impossible, with the pesky beard on--so she changes it from a beard to a headband.

The party is hosted by one Elsie Jones, who never appeared again in the comics, even though she bears Alvin's last name and appears to be about his age. There is a kind of Wilbur look-alike in this story also, although his name is Walter.

Lulu and Tubby are likewise the only recognizable children in FC 74's second story, "At the Beach." Note the facial characteristics shown often in the early Lulu comic art: extra rosy cheeks and often with no mouths at all.

Alvin James (not "Jones" as in later comics) is featured in the third story. This particular Alvin is much younger than the one depicted later on, as in this story he is barely able to talk. The notorious Mr. Gripe, the feared neighbor, is introduced in this very first comic. There are some wonderful one-page gags in FC 74 as well, including the unusual 24-panel one right after the angel costume story.

According to the Overstreet "Price Guide," the only Lulu comics for which John Stanley did the inks as well as the pencils were FC 74 and the next one, FC 97 (February 1946). FC 97 was one of the last Four Color Lulus I was able to find (1967), and according to other Lulu collectors who have written in to me at "The Stanley Steamer" over the years, it was difficult for them to find as well.

In FC 97 Lulu "Enters a Contest." Actually, it's a model airplane contest for which Tubby has already signed up. Lulu exerts her contempt for sexual stereotyping on the part of Tubby after she makes the suggestion that she might be able to help him build his airplane. "GIRLS can't make nothin' but FUDGE!" laughs Tubby boldly. Lulu counters right back with "How about Joan of Arc and Madame Curie?" "Well, maybe THEY could make a model airplane--but YOU couldn't!" Of course, Lulu proves that not only can she make a model airplane, but a winning one as well.

Even back in these Four Color Lulus, John Stanley's use of humor--even way above a kid's level--was immediately apparent. I'm sure many other Lulu readers like me have gone back and reread these comics as adults and laughed at something they never knew was funny as a child, e.g., Tubby's use of the word "corpse" instead of "corps." But even as a kid I found it hilarious in "Tubby's Travels" when Tubby leaves a trail of banana peels at ten-foot intervals--plus a pie tin--during his epic runaway roller-skating excursion to Mexico.

Again, there are other kids in FC 97 (they all come swarming onto Lulu's porch in the Christopher the Cat story), but they are still unnamed. But Ol' Man Gripe is back.

It was a big moment for me in August 1969 when I traded five Classics Illustrated comics to a collector in California for a copy of FC 110 (June 1946), my very last Four Color Lulu, which completed my collection up to that time. I of course was familiar with the "Treasure Hunt" story, since it had been reprinted in the Little Lulu on Vacation giant in 1954, but up to that time I had never read "Stuff an' Nonsense," which is unquestionably one of the funniest Lulu stories ever done, full of some of the most ridiculous situations ever experienced by Lulu et al. Lulu borrows Mr. Cartney's old horse named Edgar and brings him home--not only to the house but INTO the house. Meanwhile, who should pay a visit but two women and the local minister, who ring the bell just as Lulu is about to take Edgar outside. "A HORSE answered the doorbell!" explains the Reverend implausibly but truthfully--pinned to the ground by the two unconscious ladies having fainted--to Mrs. Moppet. Surely there are few funnier panels in all of Lulu than the ones of Lulu on Edgar's back racing down the stairs past the bewildered Reverend and his lady constituents--Lulu's dress having been ripped completely off by a jagged edge of her recently smashed bedroom door. Definitely a classic.

In FC 110 we encounter a buddy of Tub's named Willy in the story called "He Can't Hurt Us." Willy's hair changed color and so did his clothes in later years, but this issue marked the very first appearance of a future member of the Fellers.

Also in FC 110 is another significant "first"--the very first story Lulu tells to Alvin. This one is the very strange "Lulu in Distress"--subtitled "A Tragedy." The artwork in this story is some of the funniest ever and is particularly humorous because it depicts exaggeration way beyond the actual words Lulu is actually speaking to Alvin. Because this is the story that was brought into LL 26 in August 1950 at the last minute as a reprint after the "Bogyman" story was censored by the publishers, I had known this story long before I finally found the elusive FC 110.

The Little Lulu comics were obviously catching on in popularity in 1946, because two of the next ten numbered comics in the Dell Four Color series were Lulus. FC 115 (August 1946) has in its first story a rudimentary club (the Junior Paratroopers) and clubhouse (a treehouse, but shaped significantly like the clubhouse we all know). The club has about half a dozen members; one looks like the Willy of the previous comic and one has Eddie's familiar hat, but they are not named Willy and Eddie. Significant also in this first story ("Fights Back with a Club") is the fact that there is a girls' club as well, unique to this story. It even has a name: Lulu's Raiders. Again here, there are bits of humor for older folks as well as we watch Tubby trying very hard to convince the other boys that what they are doing is not kids' play but a real "man's game" ("Let's mosey over there and see!" "Not 'mosey'--reconnoiter!")

Lulu "Tells a Tall Tale" to Alvin in FC 115, very reminiscent of the previous one with the silly panels that have only the vaguest similarity to the words Lulu is actually saying.

"A Problem in Box Tops" is a classic and was another one that was reprinted in one of the early 1950s giants. What kid in this era didn't collect box tops from cereal of one kind or another to receive some prize based on quantity accumulated? This story was very topical, as were so many of Stanley's. Mr. Stanley always seemed to know exactly what was the fad of the day and incorporated it into the Lulu stories--be it cereal box tops, soapbox racers, or Pig Latin.

The legendary Carson's Haunted House made its initial appearance in FC 115. All of us who followed the "Golden Years" of Stanley so closely know that ghosts have played an important part in the Lulu stories over the years; well, this was the very first one about ghosts.

The fifth "one-shot" Lulu and the final one of 1946, FC 120 (October 1946), featured "Tuba Trouble," another finely-tuned example of Stanley's extraordinary sense of the absurd. Note particularly the page of the story where Lulu is alone in her room with the tuba sitting in her doll carriage. The expression of delight at her achievement of her very first note ("Yi! MUSIC!") is so wonderfully and typically Lulu. Another classic page is the auditorium scene; having been a school music teacher for many years, I often recalled that big panel with a private chuckle as I stood up in front of my own school band.

Another future "Feller," Eddie, is introduced in "Tuba Trouble," although he still doesn't have his blue hat. Tubby has his violin in this story also, setting the stage for numerous stories later on about his violin lessons with Professor Cleff.

The story "Indian Uprising" would probably upset some Native Americans in the 1990s, but back in those times such stereotyping was de rigueur and was not considered offensive (have you ever seen the unbelievable African-American stereotyping in the 1940s Paramount Lulu cartoons?). Anyway, the panels of the shopkeeper pulling the mannequin head out of the cabbage bin and putting it on the scales I found riotously funny when I first read the story.

The one-page gag near the end of FC 120 is particularly interesting because we see for the very first time a theme present in many, many Lulu stories over the years--Tubby's jealousy. Tubby comes out of the water at the beach and finds another boy "making eyes" at Lulu and vice versa, and of course he shoos him away. If Lulu weren't wearing a topless bathing suit, we might think these were teenage kids, the way they're acting, but of course we all know that Lulu and Tubby are both seven years old (or thereabouts; see the excellently researched article on Lulu's age by Lulu historian Brad Tenan in Set III, Volume 7 of the "Little Lulu Library"). Lulu solves the problem just fine, however; she merely buries Tubby in the sand and goes off with her new "hunk." Stay tuned for lots of other stories later on in Little Lulu comics involving Tubby's jealousy, once Gloria and Wilbur join the cast.

Tubby and Lulu immediately become kid-like again in the very next gag, however, on the back cover of FC 120 in the wonderful depiction of a hide-and-go-seek game gone wrong.

We move into 1947 and find LL 131 (January 1947). Much has been written over the years about the 21-page epic "Little Lulu Is Taken for a Ride"--the story that begins this comic. It is such a departure from the usual neighborhood-type story in the Little Lulu genre that it is generally regarded as one of the most unusual and well-constructed Lulu stories ever. Moreover, readers of "The Stanley Steamer" and the "Little Lulu Library" are familiar with the fact that this very story provided the ultimate "breakthrough" back in 1985 that enabled Brad Tenan to finally pinpoint Peekskill, New York as Lulu's "home town." Note the route sign at the side of the road on which the getaway car is traveling--that was it.

This was admittedly a difficult story to comprehend as a child--it didn't even seem like a Lulu story at the time. However, it did contain a character named "Gloria" for the first time, although she wasn't yet like the Gloria we all know.

"A One-Man Dog" is a superb early protrayal of the relationships among Lulu, Tubby, and Alvin, and it contains some very interesting and funny panel art. Note particularly the hilarious repetition of the way Alvin carries the dog all the way through the story.

You would have to see "Lulu and the Three Bears" in color and see Lulu as a blonde to capture the full humor of this story, but the bewildered and incredulous expressions of the judges as Lulu parades in front of them to win Miss America are priceless.

"The Hooky Team" in FC 139 (March 1947) at 20 pages is one of the longest Lulu stories ever and is equally memorable, mainly because of the wild explanation of their escapade that Lulu and Tubby provide for their mothers at the end. Hooky is another theme filling many pages of later Little Lulu comics that had its start right here in the "one-shots." What 1940s child did not have a mortal fear of the dreaded local "truant officer"? (Did anyone actully ever SEE a truant officer in real life?)

In "The Big Snow Fight" we meet Johnny Wilkins. Now, Wilkins became Willy's last name eventually, but we are at last beginning to see the evolution of these playmate characters of Lulu and Tubby. Alvin is now properly named Jones, and the relationship between Mr. Moppet and Mr. Jones in this story is coincidentally not unlike the relationship between Carl Barks' Donald Duck and Donald's next-door neighbor named Jones! Moreover, there is one unbelievably funny panel earlier in the story that makes the whole story worth reading, and that is the one in which Lulu's not-so-skinny mother and pop dive on top of Tubby in the snow.

The Lulu storytelling time stories in 1947 continue in the vein of parodies of fairy tales, and this comic has a particularly good one, "Lulu and the Bean Soup."

And Tubby's jealousy rears its ugly head once again on the back page (could that actually be a new character named GLORIA on that page??).

FC 146 (May 1947) was a particularly memorable one for me because of the "Forbidden Fruit" story. In an article I wrote for "The Stanley Steamer" a couple of years ago ("The Case of the Mysterious Drowning Lady"--TSS #42, February 1989), I told in some detail how I was somewhat traumatized as a child by the sight of Lulu almost drowning in this story and how I developed a childhood fixation at age four (perpetually carrying around a paperback book picturing a woman drowning) due to being frightened by those panels. (Of course I had see the drowning panels so long ago that they were buried in my memory, and I had no idea until I was much older that my fixation had actually been the result of a Little Lulu comic!). Aside from that, this is a superbly done story with plenty of humor in the Mr. Gripe theme. Is this also the first Lulu story that showed a TV set? It is fun in the 1990s to read the panel in which Lulu says to Tubby, "Gosh, isn't television a wonderful thing?", and Tubby replies, "Not for us kids it isn't!"

Elsewhere in this comic is the classic story called "The Kid Who Came to Dinner," immortally and thoroughly psychoanalyzed by Larry Gooch in an early issue of "The Stanley Steamer" (TSS #10, October 1983). Some of the funniest material Stanley ever wrote is in this charming tale which takes place almost entirely in the Moppets' dining room (Lulu's mother whispers to Lulu: "It's almost time for dinner. Tell Tubby to go home--politely!" Lulu to Tubby: "My mother says to go home politely."). My mother loved this story as well and often used it when I was a kid as an example of how NOT to act at the dinner table.

The wonderful simplicity of the setting of "Sunday Afternoon" is an interesting vehicle for the friendship of Lulu and Tubby. Their relationship was perhaps even more well-defined in the Four Color Lulus BECAUSE there were no other characters yet--no Fellers, no Annie, no Gloria. Note that "Forbidden Fruit" in the same comic--and to a degree "Rainy Day" also--show the closeness between these two friends.

"Cry Baby," a slight departure for an Alvin storytelling tale, I found frustrating as a child, and I never did like it too much. I imagine it had something to do with the fact that Lulu almost drowned from crying into a bag over her head--remember, I had already had another drowning trauma from this comic having seen it and read it before I truly understood it.

FC 158 (August 1947) contains a very funny story called "Takes the Cake." I always felt sorry for Tubby with all that he went through, starting with putting the footprint on top of the cake. But I also always thought it was funny that after he burned his hand on the stove he could put his WHOLE HAND in his mouth, all five fingers across!

But let's get to "Just a Gigolo," one of the very best stories in all the Lulu Four Color issues. We might just as well cross out "Dolly" in this story and write "Gloria," because this character unquestionably represents the introduction of Gloria into the Lulu comics in looks and in personality. The big switch in this story is that this time it is Lulu who is jealous, for a change. I always thought it interesting that these seven-year-old kids could in one story be part of what Norman Hale called "BGR" (Boy-Girl Rivalry) in his article series in the first year of "The Stanley Steamer" called "She Who Laughs Last." This to me further emphasizes the marvelous way John Stanley handled the material in the Little Lulu comics--to have these kids jump around in character so frequently and so immediately yet so convincingly.

"Lulu's Lamp" is an interesting Alvin storytelling tale in that it contains that intriguing moral dilemma at the end--pretty darn thought-provoking for a small child reader, I must say.

We come now to the tenth and final Four Color Lulu, FC 165 (October 1947), and in it, Tubby the detective solves his first case! Of course he doesn't call himself the Spider yet, but the idea is there. (By the way, do you know why Tubby calls himself the Spider? It's because he spins a web to catch his prey.) Anyway, here we see Tubby as his best--in disguise, and nailing Mr. Moppet in the end. This theme ran all the way through the "Spider" stories in the Lulu comics, and here in "The Case of the Purloined Popover" (one of the all-time great story titles) is where it all started.

"Alvin's Solo Flight" went down in history as the longest Lulu story of all-time--22 pages. (Note that I said the longest Lulu story; there was once a 34-page Tubby story named "Captain Yo-Yo," but in the opinion of this writer, the less said about that story the better.) I wonder how many kids of today have ever seen a coal furnace up close like the one in Lulu's cellar. This story about going to the beach is also an excellent one to show the relationships among Lulu, Tubby, and Alvin; and the sight of Alvin in Mrs. Moppet's bathing suit held up by his ears brings a laugh every time I read the story. Also, now, thanks to Brad Tenan's tireless geographical research, we now know that the beach they go to is at Playland in Rye, New York.

We end our discussion of stories in the Four Color Lulus with the legendary "Never Again." According to Overstreet, this is the famous story in which Lulu "smokes doll hair and has wild hallucinations." Lulu sees a couple of billboards in which smoking a cigaret is protrayed as something actually glamorous (VERY 1940s), and she decides to try it. For lack of anything else available in the house, she cuts some hair off her doll and puts it into her pop's pipe and sets off outside alone to do her nefarious deed. Who knows what that doll hair was made of, but whatever it was, it sent Lulu's head spinning. The very best part of this story is what Lulu does with her eyes at the bottom of the page where she begins to smoke the pipe behind the garage. I have often thought that the story, especially the next few pages after that, would be a good insertion for antidrug literature for kids to show them what in reality happens to drug users' perceptions.

Before we finish our look at the LL Four Colors, be sure to note the gag on the inside back cover of FC 165 which shows the first appearance of Tub actually playing his violin. Consider how many times that theme has been woven into the Lulu literature.

Well, that's about it for the Little Lulu Four Color comics. The next issue was LL 1, a bi-monthly issue dated January-February 1948, and Lulu comics were then numbered consecutively as a regular (or not so regular) series up through LL 268 in 1984.

Now go and enjoy the Four Color era of Little Lulu when Another Rainbow's "Little Lulu Library" Set I comes out. Maybe the neighborhood playmates aren't there yet, but we already see the characters of Lulu on their way to being well defined, both individually and in terms of each other. The evolution has definitely started, and if you spend some time with these stories, you will discover some of the funniest moments ever to come out of the mind of John Stanley.

Happy reading!

 

Note:  An abridged version of this article was published a year later in the Little Lulu Library, Set I, Volume 1, in 1992.

 


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