Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

"Angel and the Ape" &
"Stanley and His Monster"

The Foglioverse

by Michael Hutchison and Nicolas Juzda

Phil Foglio's 1990s Mini-Series

Humor series have, sadly, fallen by the wayside. Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew lasted a respectable 20 issues, and since then there hasn't been a successful funnybook. Vext and the much-overlooked The Heckler were both strangled in their cribs. Major Bummer and 'Mazing Man managed to hold out for a year. The only successful humor book of the late 80s and 90s would possibly be Justice League International under Keith Giffen, if you overlook the fact that it was marketed as a superhero book with an established name.

DC Comics, and comics in general, have shied away from humor books. They dwindled away to nothing around the same time that DC stopped publishing war, sci-fi, western and anything else besides superhero books. Indeed, even the attempted humor books have been superhero titles in nature: Heckler, Major Bummer, 'Mazing Man, Hero Hotline and Captain Carrot being prime examples.

The two real exceptions were both mini-series by writer/artist Phil Foglio: "Angel and the Ape" (1990) and "Stanley and His Monster" (1993). Angel was a title firmly set in the DC Universe, while Stanley's only ties to the DCU were through, if you can believe it, continuity from the Vertigo title Sandman. Judging by their existence in every quarter bin in America, I'm guessing that the minis didn't do that well. Phil Foglio even parodies the dismal future of humor titles on the cover of Stanley... #1!

Nic and I decided to each review our favorite mini-series. The one thing we could agree on is that DC should offer these as cheap TPBs...separately or combined as a Foglio extravaganza. Perhaps a humor book does better as a packaged one-shot, given that they don't rely on earth-shaking plots to get the reader to pick up the next issue?

Angel and the Ape

review by Michael Hutchison

Angel and the Ape manages to resurrect not one but TWO mediocre humor titles from the 1960s and reinvent them as modern character comedies that are vastly superior to the originals.

Well, perhaps I shouldn't say that. I've never read the original "Angel and the Ape", I only know that it bombed after seven issues during an era where humor books weren't a hard sell. Since my thesis here is that the sales figures for Foglio's minis aren't an accurate judge of quality, I will reserve judgment on that series for the same reason. But I can tell you that "The Inferior Five" was a failure due to its basic concept.

This is not my own assessment, although I wish I could say I came up with it. The comic magazine "Amazing Heroes" once ran a very astute analysis of the series. The problem is that a superteam called "Inferior Five" where a clumsy guy is called Awkwardman and an airhead calls herself Dumb Bunny is not funny. If it was called "Invincible Five" and it featured a superteam totally unable to live up to their high-minded monickers, it would be funnier. (Still a one-joke concept, but more jokes could be mined from it.) As a better example of humor, Dumb Bunny's real name is "Athena", the same as the goddess of Wisdom.

In issue #1, Private Detective Angel O'Day tells her partner Sam that she has to meet her half-sister, Athena. No, I didn't make the connection. Angel and Athena have lunch together, and we get flashbacks to their childhood. We see their father, an explorer who married a superheroine from a lost tribe of underworld Amazons (really) and fathered Athena. Later, on an African safari, his other daughter Angel met Sam, her future partner in the detective agency.

Athena's clearly a very lonely woman. Her sister usually shuns her...probably because the witty, capable and tough detective feels no connection to the dizzy blonde aside from familial obligations...and she doesn't date out of fear that she will crush any man with her Amazonian strength during an intimate moment. That's why Athena wants to date Sam, an idea which shocks Angel. Angel protests that they could never have sex, and Athena says, "I'm not having sex now!" Athena's not interested in Sam sexually, she just wants companionship...and if she gave the big ape a hug, it wouldn't hurt him.

Oh. Did I mention that Sam Simian is a talking ape? No? Well, he is. He wandered away from Gorilla City. Sam is a kind, decent chap who's so far from the image of a brutish beast that it's hard to believe he's related to Gorilla Grodd. All Sam wants to do is live in the city with his friend Angel and help her on her cases while he pursues his dream of being a cartoonist. Sam has a strange experience where suddenly everyone else on the street becomes an ape. This is the only hint of the actual plot that I'm going to give you, because I want you to read the story, but it definitely involves Grodd!

The real fun in the series is with Angel and Athena. I wish I could say that it has nothing to do with the way Phil Foglio can draw cartoonish women who are way sexier than the cast of Baywatch combined. There is that, sure. No denying it. But what's great is the way Phil writes women. Foglio's Angel is everything you want a heroine to be. Sassy and tough, capable and brave, witty and very intelligent. His Athena is perhaps a bit light in the brains department, but that is completely overshadowed by her big heart and her kindness. You can't help but feel for the gal who's cursed by her genes.

If there's one thing I like about this mini-series, it's the way Phil Foglio takes such disparate elements of the DCU as Gorilla Grodd, Angel and the Ape, the Inferior Five and even the Guardians of the Universe and crafts a tale that flows well as a cohesive, coherent plot.

This is a humor book, and I'm glad that the humor derives from character, sharp dialogue and some funny situations. (The old Inferior Five style of humor was more akin to Mad Magazine.) However, there are also dramatic moments (one that's even horrifying), and I felt that Phil Foglio really had the material and the right atmosphere to turn "Angel and the Ape" into a fun ongoing series if the sales had warranted it.

Sadly, the sales weren't there, and "Angel and the Ape" vanished for a decade. It has recently reappeared as a very unfunny Vertigo series by He-Who-Debases-Everything-He-Encounters, Howard Chaykin. In it, Sam Simian doesn't talk and Angel unfortunately does only to rattle off double entendre names of strippers as the only attempt at humor in the book. "Angel and the Ape" needed to be a Mature Readers book just so Angel can make cracks about having sex at age 14?

The ironic thing is that Phil Foglio can "work blue" (I'm referring here to the capital-A Adult books he's done) and didn't need to in order to make Angel and the Ape a thoroughly funny and entertaining read.

Stanley and His Monster: Three Revivals

review by Nicolas Juzda

At the dawn of the Silver Age of comics, super-hero books had not yet attained the near omnipresence that they currently enjoy. DC was busy publishing, among other things, war comics, western comics, science fiction comics, and humour comics.

One of its humour comics was Stanley And His Monster. The series had begun as a comic entitled The Fox And The Crow, but the popularity of Stanley and the monster pushed the animal characters out of their own title.

Stanley Dover was a small boy who befriended a large pink monster and retained him as a pet. The boy's parents were convinced that his new "dog" was imaginary, and though early stories allowed this possibility it was later made pretty clear that the monster was real.

The original Stanley And His Monster comics are seldom reprinted. DC's early-80s digests seem to be the only consistent source, but it's possible they have turned up elsewhere.

My limited selection of stories has convinced me that the series, while not totally lacking charm, is not really meant for any but the youngest readers. The characterization and plotting is simplistic, and it lacks the true humour and insight of its contemporary Sugar And Spike.

Time passed, and Stanley And His Monster ran its course. It began to resort to gimmicks and the addition of new characters who could not help but detract from the formula. These included a leprechaun and, though I haven't seen it first-hand, the monster's son, who came complete with generation gap ideological clashes that must have gone completely over the heads of readers whose resentment towards their parents was more likely based on an early bedtime or denied dessert than social issues.

In the end, Stanley And His Monster was cancelled.

For most comic book series, that would have ended the matter. For a lucky few, a revival might await in the distant future. For Stanley And His Monster, though, there were several twists in store.

The first of those arrived courtesy of Phil Foglio. Best known these days for his work on the What's New With Phil And Dixie strips in Dragon Magazine and XXXenophile, Foglio's reputation within mainstream fandom is somewhat limited.

That's a shame, because his DC work was always good, and on this occasion flat-out brilliant.

His revival began in the pages of Secret Origins #49. By necessity, the story is brief, since it shares the standard length issue with three other tales. But in it are the seeds of greater things sown.

Right from the first page, the reader is introduced to the bizarre juxtapositions that will form the basis for Foglio's Stanley And His Monster. The Lords Of Hell, most familiar through their appearances in Sandman and John Constantine: Hellblazer appear, but instead of the realistic looks that they normally bear, they are in a cartoony style. And that's just the start of the surprises. For there is a problem in the Realm Infernal; a demon has become good.

Exiled to Earth to have his illusions shattered (a nice joke in and of itself), the nameless demon befriends young Stanley, and the story ends. Like the original Hawkworld mini-series, the intention may have been to do a "quiet" retcon, slipping a new origin in before the established canon.

This tale is unfortunately not all that funny. There are a few good lines here and there, and the reader may certainly get a chuckle or two, but the story seems constrained somehow. Perhaps Foglio lacked space, or was not yet fully attuned to his subject matter.

What is present is the idea that would become the basis for Foglio's return to the concept: the juxtaposition of the most serious and evil elements of the DC Universe with a light-hearted and optimistic approach and cartoony art style.

Secret Origins featured stories about many forgotten characters who immediately returned to obscurity, but this one was different, and shortly thereafter a four issue mini-series appeared featuring Stanley And His Monster.

Again written and drawn by Phil Foglio, this was a hilarious comic. I highly recommend it.

Once again taking his cue from the dark magical titles, this story begins in the wake of the Sandman story arc "Season Of Mists" and follows heavily on its concepts. This conceit may have been what doomed Foglio's take to semi-obscurity, but for those readers who are simultaneously familiar with Neil Gaiman's opus and open to something completely opposite in tone, it is a combination that is brilliant. Nothing could be further from Morpheus' saga than this, but it is nevertheless a completely natural and even logical extension of it.

With Hell "now under new management" in the wake of "Seasons Of Mist", the new rulers find out a demon has gone astray (they almost miss finding out during their role call, since he is after all "the nameless demon"). Unaware of the reason for this, they attempt to recapture the errant monster.

The demon in question, meanwhile, is helping his friend Stanley arrange the construction of a treehouse. This is what the first issue is about, and it proves that even without the deeper concepts and guest stars and such that will come later, Foglio knows how to entertain. We are reintroduced to the characters, and see them engage in some "typical" childhood adventuring. It all sounds very mundane, I'm sure, but it is livened up by the vivid characterization of Stanley, the monster, and even Stanley's parents, as well as the clever dialogue, and the omnipresent sight gags.

Oh, and Morpheus himself makes a cameo, though in the guise of the Golden Age Sandman, after Stanley's dreams have become so extravagant that they have caused the realm of Dream to go over budget. Stanley, Morpheus tells us, will be dreaming about the ocean for the next several weeks, as there is a lot of footage of it in stock.

Things pick up speed in the second issue, as we are introduced to Ambrose Bierce (a John Constantine knock-off who keeps getting mistaken for said Hellblazer) and Nyx, the demoness who was sent to retrieve the monster and, not coincidentally, his ex-girlfriend.

The humour is still present, even as the plot becomes more serious. Just as John Constantine's informants always meet bizarre ends, we have Bierce's source meeting a hideous death by squirrel (off-panel), but the crowd's reaction ("Is John Constantine here?") counterbalances it. There is a vicious beating of the monster, but we also have Nyx trying to be "subtle" by pretending to be a human... not knowing that society has changed in the last few hundred years. Her puritan disguise and dialogue are an obvious joke, but there's a subtler one as well; her claim that her horse threw a shoe echoes Bierce's infiltration of Stanley's house by saying his car broke down. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the end, Nyx is sent back to Hell, but in her wake comes the revelation to Stanley's parents of the monster. They eventually accept this fact, and more hijinx ensue as they all attempt to adjust to the addition of the monster to the family's life. The monster and Stanley's mother even have an interesting conversation on how the residents of the DC Universe remain fundamentally unaffected by the strangeness around them. Things are going fine. Until, that is, the angels now in charge of Hell show up to grab the monster personally.

Finally, Stanley must follow his friend into Hell, and it is that issue, the fourth, that provides the most truly astounding literary fodder. For Hell in the DC Universe reflects the views of its prisoners and visitors. Thus, Hell is to Stanley exactly what he thinks it is.

Among other things, this allows Bierce to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that both aids and hinders the boy. Stanley takes "everything he will need" into Hell. Thus, there is nothing in Hell that he cannot defeat with his supplies, because he has everything he will need. But conversely he cannot leave until he has used them each, because what he has is everything that he will need. It's an interesting concept deftly handled. Not bad for a humour comic, huh?

The other subject that this allows to be explored is the nature of the fiction that we are reading. Hell becomes a series of humourous obstacles to be overcome through the heroes' cleverness, because that is the narrative that Stanley believes in. Nyx disavows evil and declares a renewed love for the monster, because Stanley has been conditioned to expect that such things are what is supposed to happen. In effect, Stanley stands in for the reader, and the narrative thus becomes a conscious mirror of our expectations.

It is an approach that the comic series had hinted at earlier in the series. The first comic's cover is dominated by a "grim and gritty" version of Stanley and the monster, but closer inspection reveals that this is the vision of an editor even as a blonde man (presumably Foglio) pitches his light-hearted take. The second issue makes reference to the "one coincidence" every good story is allowed, and the treatment of Bierce is full of an understanding of the nature of cliched characters. The third contains the aforementioned conversation about how the citizens of the DC Universe remain unjaded by its wonders and horrors; the monster's explanation that it is because people like being surprised is, in effect, saying they enjoy being an audience.

Foglio's approach is not simply parody. It is a mature understanding of the medium and genre; he gives us what we want while making us think about why we want it.

As I said, not bad for a humour comic, huh?

The Phantom Stranger also makes an appearance in the final issue, and his solemnity makes him a perfect source for comedy. He is not treated with disrespect; he's just in a situation that he is not equipped to deal with. His standard introduction ("I am... a stranger") is simply not the approach to take with a child ("I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," Stanley insists). This ability to find humour without compromising established characters and situations is another of Foglio's strengths.

Finally, the story ends with the revelation that the monster is the first demon ever to turn to good, and thus a key figure in the history of the universe. For of all Hell's denizens, only the demons had seemed completely and unrepentantly evil, and if even they can turn to good then eventually (or so it appears) everyone and everything will one day be redeemed. The monster, we are told, is the first, but shall not be the last, and already Nyx has begun to turn to good (though, Stanley's sense of what is dramatically appropriate having lost its power by this point, she remains with a way to go).

Oh, and Hell has a sign in it saying, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." You have to love that.

So, Foglio managed to use Stanley And His Monster to explore the nature of narrative expectations, to find the humour implicit in even the most serious of stories, to present an idea (as far as I know, a totally original one) of truly cosmic scope, and to present some very funny jokes.

Sadly, he never returned to the characters after that, and DC has been so remiss as to neglect to reprint it in Trade Paperback form. Really, slap a "Sandman Presents..." label on the cover and it'd sell like hotcakes. I'd buy two copies myself, I promise.

Stanley's monster appeared in a cameo in an issue of Guy Gardner: Warrior that featured almost every DC Universe character as a guest at the opening of Guy's bar. This version resembles quite closely Foglio's, and is apparently intended to be that character.

Chuck Dixon's three issue mini-series The Conjurors was an Elseworlds story. Elseworlds occur outside of the mainstream DC Universe, and this one was set in a world where magic was omnipresent and science was considered bizarre. Various minor DC characters associated in some way with magic appeared. Jennifer Morgan from Warlord, Brother Power, Klarion, and several others were used as protagonists, mostly altered nearly beyond recognition. Stanley and his monster were also present, but in a version that differed markedly from previous ones.

For one thing, this Stanley was much older than his predecessors. He appeared to be in his mid-teens. For another, this monster, despite some resemblance to his previous form, had a tougher look, suggesting that he might actually have been scary if you met him in real life.

Little of the concept of Stanley And His Monster was retained beyond the most basic: a boy who has befriended a nameless monster.

This Elseworlds tale is noteworthy for present purposes only because it demonstrates again that the concept has managed to survive somehow.

Finally, we have the most recent appearance of Stanley and his monster, in the current Green Arrow series by Kevin Smith. There will be spoilers in this commentary.

Early in the title's run, Green Arrow finds himself in the care of an elderly man named Stanley Dover. Meanwhile, children in the city are turning up dead, and the familiar silhouette of the monster is seen in the sewers, longing for the boy who has left him. The horrific implication appears to be something along the lines of Stanley having abandoned the monster and it then having killed the other boys as part of some bizarre effort to replace him. I no longer recall exactly what conclusion I was inclined to leap to when first I read the story arc, but whatever it was I was wrong.

For the Stanley Dover in question is actually a demon worshipper who accidentally bonded a good demon to his grandson. That boy is also named Stanley and is presumably the true heir to the mantle of the earlier boys, having befriended the demon and perhaps gone on various untold adventures with his pet monster.

The elder Stanley eventually found out about his grandson's pet, but it escaped him. The man then locked the boy in a prison in his basement and subjected him to various torments (including watching the murders of the dead boys) in the hopes that his pain would draw out the monster.

Eventually, Green Arrow intervenes, as does the monster. It erases the younger Stanley's memory of these events, and eats the evil old Stanley.

The "Quiver" arc in Green Arrow was consistently enjoyable, and even the use of Stanley and his monster proved to be a good idea in terms of Oliver Queen's revival. Smith was able to pull off a surprising trick, using many fantastic and bizarre elements in an outlandish story that nevertheless did not compromise the down-to-Earth nature of its protagonist. Stanley and his monster were hardly stranger guest stars than the people Green Arrow met during his brief tour of heaven.

However, I find that this approach did compromise the integrity of Stanley and his monster. The concept of the characters depends upon a certain innocence. Even when the monster was a former resident of Hell, he remained a non-threatening and even protective figure. And it was Stanley's innocence that allowed him to triumph over Hell itself to save his friend.

It seems then improper to have the monster eat people and Stanley suffer through terrible degradation.

It is doubly annoying when one considers that Smith has dropped Foglio's tone and themes but retained several of his ideas. The monster as a good demon is one such idea. Another is the idea of tying the characters to the Sandman mythos; the prison in which Stanley was held was based on the one used to imprison Dream for decades prior to the events of Sandman #1, both by the creative team in homage to Gaiman's story and by the elder Stanley Dover in imitation of the magician who succeeded in entrapping one of the Endless themselves with it.

That cover to Foglio's first issue has proven sadly prophetic. I wonder if he would appreciate the irony.

Incidentally, if the elder Stanley has the last name Dover, then the younger Stanley shouldn't, since he is the maternal grandfather. His daughter Sheila (the traditional name for Stanley's mother was retained) might have his last name, but unless she happened to marry a man who shared it, her son would normally not.

What is the appeal of Stanley And His Monster? What allows it to be periodically revived, by such disparate writers as Foglio, Dixon, and Smith?

Perhaps it is that the idea of a boy and his monster is easily compatible with the other weirdness that is the DC Universe. A pet demon is almost a superpower, after all.

Or possibly it was simply interesting enough to be memorable but not good enough to be sacrosanct. Some of its contemporaries have simply been forgotten; others, like Sugar And Spike are too highly regarded to be casually invoked. Stanley And His Monster occupies a middle ground.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But one thing is certain. Whatever shortcomings those decades old comics about a boy and his friendly pet monster have, they must have done something right.

 

is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan and runs the only EM fan site. He lives in Rochester, MN.
AIM: Fanzinger
ICQ: 70101007

Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
AIM name: nwjuzda

 
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