Friday, January 22, 2010

Little Lulu subverts some shit

Along with the duck comics, my dad had a bunch of Little Lulu comics when he was a kid, so I read those too. They didn't strike me as deeply as Barks' work (obviously), but I enjoyed them pretty well. So lately I've been looking through one of the LL trade paperbacks that Dark Horse is putting out these days. It's kind of a mixed bag--some of them are nothing special, but some of them are quite entertaining, presenting a view of childhood that, if somewhat warped, is still probably more accurate and less sentimental than most such depictions. Sometimes it's a little TOO mean, actually. But I've been enjoying them more than not.

And sometimes the stories get REALLY weird and--I would say--subversive. There was a recurring feature where Lulu would tell stories to her younger, hyperactive neighbor Alvin to calm him down for a while. Allow me to summarize one of these stories that I just read--and note that I am not exaggerating anything for comic effect here. This is how it goes:

There is an extremely rich girl named Ivy (who looks like Gloria, the Luluverse's spoiled rich girl). She has all kinds of servants and never has to get out of bed--they bring her everything she wants, as well as things that she DOESN'T want, such as priceless Chinese vases, which they smash with mallets for her amusement. However, amusement quickly turns to ennui, and Ivy longs for something that she can't have.

Then, there's a poor girl, Marigold, who looks like Lulu. "Marigold was very kind and thoughtful," we learn. However, this is no ordinary thoughtfulness: it's more along the lines of the sort of self-abnegation you'd expect from your Christian saint who intentionally contracts leprosy so as to more efficiently mortify her body. "Oh, a mud puddle!" a passing girl exclaims. "I'll get my shoes all muddy!" Avoiding this puddle would be a matter of walking a few steps to either side, but instead, Marigold lies face-down in the puddle and the girl walks over her. Marigold's own behavior is complemented by the cheerful way that everyone else is happy to exploit the hell out of her with no compensation--so she pushes a guy's car so he doesn't have to drive it and waste gasoline, and she carries an enormous safe for a couple of burly builders who look on and become quite affronted when she pauses for a moment. Why does she do all this? "Because she had a heart of gold," we are informed.

When Ivy hears about this, she decides she desperately wants that heart of gold. She throws a tantrum and orders her servants to get it for her. After discussing various strategies for murdering Marigold (with unseemly relish, I might add), the butler comes up with the more gentile idea of fashioning a brass doorknob into a heart and giving that to Ivy. Ivy is satisfied for a while, but then wants to know what the heart is really worth. So, she purchases a jeweler for thirty quadrillion and two dollars and gets him to assess it. She's royally pissed to find that it's not the real thing, so she fires all her servants and gets out of bed for the first time in her life to do the job herself. She dresses in a Jack-the-Ripper-ish costume (for unknown reasons, since she makes no attempt to disguise who she is or what she's after) and goes after Marigold.

Marigold is happy to sacrifice her heart, but asks that Ivy wait until she's done her good deeds for the day. So she follows Marigold around and watches her "mow peoples' lawns, mind peoples' babies, take very old people across streets, take very young people across streets, take middle-aged people across streets, save people from drowning, take pussycats out of wells, paint steeples, help kids earn their way into the circus, put out fires, pick up with a piece of chewing gum and string 40,000 pennies that somebody dropped in a cellar grating, help people on with their coats, help people off with their rubbers [no juvenile sniggering, you], return lost hats, purses, umbrellas, dogs, cats, parrots, and people."

Now Marigold is half-dead but happy. "Gosh, if only I could be happy like that," thinks Ivy. Just one last thing to do: she's going to help a boy who needs a tooth pulled by having one of her teeth pulled instead. But Ivy insists on taking on this task herself! And afterwards, she doesn't need Marigold's heart of gold, because she has one of her own. The end.

In outline, this would be the most preachy, anodyne story about the value of helping others imaginable, but the way it's told makes a mockery of the entire concept. In a completely straight-faced way, it takes the concept of selfless service to the outer reaches of absurdity, and Ivy's allegedly redemptive sacrifice is nonsensical. If this is teaching Our Children anything, it sure isn't wholesome family values. The author, John Stanley, reminds me a bit of Roald Dahl, another writer not timid about messing with kids' heads--only Stanley may be even more subversive, since his work was pretty firmly marketed as blandly family-friendly entertainment. I find it rather delightful.


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