And Then I Read: MELVIN MONSTER Vol. 1

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Images © John Stanley Estate.

John Stanley is best known for his years of work on the LITTLE LULU comic, first as writer and artist, later as writer and layout man. I may have read a few of those, but if so they didn’t stick with me. Another comic he worked on did, though: NANCY AND SLUGGO, in particular some stories involving Nancy’s weird friend Oona, sort of an Addams Family character. These comics featuring MELVIN MONSTER, published in 1965, were ones I’d never seen, and being largely unfamiliar with Stanley’s work, I thought I’d give them a try. Volume 1 reprints the first three issues in a handsome oversized hardcover, larger than the original comics, and on much better quality paper.

Melvin, as it turns out, is a classic “opposites” story and setting, where everything is the opposite of what you’d expect. He’s a young boy monster living in a world of monsters. His parents, Mummy (an actual mummy) and Baddy and their pet crocodile encourage Melvin to be bad, truant and scary, but he longs to be good and go to school. Everyone either wants to punish him or make fun of him for this, and all the story elements are reversed in that way. It’s very similar to the Bizarro stories in Superman comics, which began just a few years earlier in 1958, but were popular in the early 1960s. In those stories, Bizarro wanted to do everything the opposite of Superman, and so on. Melvin’s visit to human lands in the first issue makes a double twist, as normal people expect him to act like a monster since he looks like one, and are baffled when he acts nicer and is more polite than they are.

The stories are mildly amusing, but I didn’t find much in them laugh-out-loud funny. The reversal joke gets tired pretty quickly, as I also found with the Bizarro stories. Stanley does have a much better ear for dialogue and comic timing than the writers of Bizarro, and that makes the stories work despite the one-note theme. I can’t say I’m impressed with this book, I wouldn’t call these comics classics, but they’re reasonably entertaining.

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Drawn & Quarterly, or perhaps the book’s designer Seth, made some interesting choices in reproducing these old comics. Having no original art or printing film to work from, they needed to scan the old comics, page by page. Rather than try to brighten them up digitally, they’ve kept the scans very much in a raw state, and extended the old comics paper color out to the edges of the book, so the effect is like reading a vintage comic whose paper has started to tan a bit with age, and the colors remain muted, as they were on the original.

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This is not a bad way to go, but I wish the scans were clearer. Everything is slightly blurry—not enough to interfere with reading enjoyment, but definitely missing the crispness of the black ink lines that would have been visible on the original comics. I think this was done on purpose to blur out the original dot screens on the colors, and perhaps they liked that look better, but I’d have preferred to see it in focus, color dots and all.

In all, I liked this but didn’t love it. If you’re already a John Stanley fan, I’m sure this book will suit you. Others may want to read a sampling before deciding. Mildly recommended.

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