Little Lulu--The Comic Strip and Comic Book

Some years ago a new group in the comics field came into being called The Friends of Lulu, a national organization devoted to getting more girls and women involved in comic books. The group's stated purpose is to promote and encourage female readership, as well as professional participation, in the comics industry. But why "Lulu"? I would venture to guess the following reasons: Little Lulu features a self-assured, intelligent little girl as its star in a male dominated comic strip world. The strip's creator is a woman in field dominated by male creators. And last but not least, Little Lulu is truly delightful.

A treat for anyone who enjoys good humor, the feisty Lulu Moppet first appeared in June 1935 as a single-panel gag strip created by Marge Henderson Buell. Marge, as she signed her published work, had enjoyed a long career of doing one-panel gags and illustrations leading up to a pre-Christmas offer of work for The Saturday Evening Post. What the Post needed was a final cartoon for its back page, a traditional spot that was vacated when Carl Anderson's mute kid Henry had left for a run as a King Features syndicated strip.

Marge had already worked for the Post over nine years (as well as Collier's, Life, and Judge) and more than proved her worth as a replacement for Anderson with Little Lulu. Her debut panel, on January 5 1935, shows flower girl Lulu munching bananas in a wedding procession as the hapless bride and groom slide helplessly on her discarded peels.

Marjorie Lyman Henderson was born in Philadelphia in 1904. In a Saturday Evening Post essay she once wrote "My artistic career began in a big way at the age of eight, when I painted a calf red. Then, at about ten, I discovered that I could keep myself in Irish potatoes by drawing paper dolls and selling them to friends at a penny a sheet. That financial success, plus a brisk Christmas-card business the next year, convinced me that an artistic career was just the thing for a young girl. Easy money and something you could do in your spare time. Have since found out I was wrong on both counts."

Whether or not working on working on Little Lulu was easy money or easy work, the strip was a success. So much so that Marge's creation gained a starring role in eight short cartoons for Famous Studios (some, like Bored of Education and Musical Lulu, are still available in VHS). The first of these aired in 1943, and although there were other Lulu cartoons made by other studios in the fifties and sixties, many cartoon aficionados consider Famous Studio's Lulus, often featuring dream sequences and fantasys, the best of the lot. More recently, 52 half-hour episodes, The Little Lulu Show, were produced for Home Box Office by CINAR Films Incorporated.

Little Lulu's success as an animated cartoon character, as well as her becoming the advertising spokes-girl for Kleenix tissues, had the unexpected result of her being dropped from the Post page. Evidently, through inexplicable reasoning we can only guess at, the Post managers were reluctant to continue with a character popular in another genre. (It seems strange nowadays when "comics to film" is normal and desirable.) Not that this odd decision spelled Lulu's end of life in the panels; at about the same time Western Publishing Company had purchased the rights to run Little Lulu in its Dell Four Color and Color Comics specials. Lulu debuted in Four Color #74, 1945, the first of ten one-shots.

Marge kept creator control rights over Dell's Little Lulu but another artist was to follow her vision on the series, John Stanley. Born in 1914, little is known about his early career save that he had contributed a number of strips to Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Magazine,and that he was a frequent New Yorkercartoonist. Although Marge had the freedom of veto, Stanley was given the freedom to develop his own story lines, working up scripts in storyboard form, which were then turned over to Irv Tripp who produced the simpler, more cartoony style most commonly associated with Lulu Moppet.

While Marge's Post cartoons were mainly aimed at adults, Dell wanted a comic that was aimed at children and in this Stanley succeeded admirably. A second change was Lulu's personality; in the Post she was something of a scamp, putting an IOU in the church collection plate or going into a flower show with a basket and scissors. But Stanley preferred to depict Lulu as smart, not smart-alecky, and invented a supporting cast of less sensible youthful characters to embroil her in endless comic crises. A main theme was boy vs. girl situations, often instigated by Lulu's pal Tubby Tompkins. Tubby's schemes would often backfire, and Lulu would invariably bail him out.

For all the rivalry, Tubby and his gang, Iggy, Eddie, and Willy, were Lulu's friends. Two other neighborhood kids weren't; the wealthy, haughty Wilbur Van Snobbe and the vain and gold-digging little Gloria, always plotting nasty pranks to play on the other neighborhood kids. Although Stanley's Little Lulu was never preachy, there was a gentle underlying theme of morality running through his stories, with the importance of friendship and kindness winning out over selfish wealth and snobbery.

In 1962 Western left Dell to affiliate with Gold Key Comics. Stanley went on to draw and write for a number of other books, including Thirteen,a comic aimed at teens, and Melvin Monster(1965-66), also doing storyboarding for TV cartoons. O.G. Whiz, a 1971 title about the boy president of a toy factory, was to be his last job in the comics field. After working for some years as the head of a silk-screening department, he died in 1993.

The Stanley run on Little Lulu lasted for 14 years and 267 issues, and most comics historians would agree that their work was a classic in the area of children's comics. Years later, Russ Cochran's Gemstone Publishing issued bound hardcover volumes of the Dell books, which are still available today.

Little Lulu as a comic book finally came to an end in 1984. It also ran as a syndicated comic strip from 1955 to 1967, first by Woody Kimbrell (who also worked on the Little Lulu Gold Book series with Al White), and then (for its last six years) scripted by Del Connell, with art by Roger Armstrong and Randy Henderson.
 

--Steve Stiles