by KC Carlson
I must have read Melvin Monster #1 30 or 40 times as a kid. I’m not really sure why I bought it, as by then I was deeply into superhero comics and leaving the “kid stuff” behind. But there was something very odd about the cover: a monstrous green boy with a pointed head and a Moe Howard haircut swallowing a toy train after resetting the train tracks to actually run down his throat, while a normal-looking kid looked on in horror. Something made me pick it up and start flipping through it.
I got a few pages into the issue before I got the “Hey kid, this ain’t a library!” holler from the clerk. There I met Melvin’s father (Baddy), a big, tall, purple dude who looked vaguely like Frankenstein’s monster – except with Fred Flintstone’s head – and arms that extended down to his ankles. Later, I found out that Baddy snacks on golf clubs, a trait we share. His mom actually was a Mummy, albeit one who wore a house dress and apron and had cute orange hair. On page three, Melvin was almost eaten by his pet alligator, Cleopatra. On page five, Melvin is talked into walking out of his upper-floor window, winding up buried to his eyes in the ground below, by his Guardian Demon — a tinkerbell-sized orange demon with bat wings, a pitchfork, and an attitude.
I now HAD to buy this book.
After reading it – a lot – I was really glad that I did. There was something subversively charming about it, although I’m fairly sure I didn’t use language like that back then. Back then it was just “really cool!”
Later on, I realized that it was this comic, not any superhero book, which actually inspired my own attempt at a comic book story, on typing paper with colored markers. Sadly, about a page and a half later, I realized that I had no business ever trying to draw anything again. But by then I was also higher than a kite from the marker fumes. Maybe the two things were related… I never tried drawing again, but there are a few early allegedly humorous short stories tucked away in my files that are… odd. In looking at them after all these years, it was clear that they were largely inspired by the twisted logic and cleverly fractured speech patterns of John Stanley – the writer and artist of Melvin Monster who is probably better known as the main writer of most of the Little Lulu comic books.
Stanley’s work and career is not well known to much of the general public and is long overdue for examination. Melvin Monster (Vol. 1) is the first volume in what one hopes will be a long and successful series of The John Stanley Library. Published by Drawn and Quarterly, this first volume is quite smart-looking and, of course, a fantastic, mind-altering read. Subsequent volumes in the series will include Stanley’s “teenage” strips: Thirteen (Going On Eighteen), Around the Block With Dunc and Loo, and Kookie, as well as the other six issues of Melvin Monster. Stanley also wrote a long run on the Nancy (and Nancy & Sluggo) comic book, which will also be collected by D&Q. And Stanley’s Little Lulu work is on display in Dark Horse’s long-running reprint series of that classic comic book. Looking for a place to start? I recommend the Little Lulu Color Special, which has a number of great stories.
I never saw any further issues of Melvin Monster after #1 when I was a kid (which probably led to its cancellation if it was having distribution problems), so the subsequent issues are new to me – and eagerly awaited! These stories are wonderful gems of both visual and verbal humor, tortured logic, running jokes (that actually pay off!), fascinating and memorable characters, and some of the worst parenting skills ever on display in a comic supposedly aimed at kids. Like all truly great “kids lit” (like the Wizard of Oz), it ain’t really great unless it scares you a little bit. Melvin Monster is definitely one for creeping you out from time to time – although not in ways that you think it would. It’s filled with monsters, witches, creatures, and other ghoulish things that you would think would be the source of discomfort. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. It’s the humans (from Humanbeanville) and Melvin’s folks (and pet) who are the ones to watch out for. Exactly how kids would think. Stanley was a genius.
Don’t miss Melvin Monster. Your comic book life will be less fulfilling without him.
Unfortunately, the book has a couple of shortcomings. None are really serious enough to prevent you from purchasing, but they are somewhat disappointing nonetheless. Except for a couple of short blurbs (mostly on a sticker on the back cover, which makes it feel as if it was an afterthought), there is very little in the way of documenting these stories or Stanley himself. Perhaps this is a choice on the part of the compilers to let the work stand on its own, but this seems an unusual choice for a series that purports to bring more public attention to Stanley and many of his not-as-well-known works. There are any number of qualified comics scholars or enthused and inspired artists in the field who could have provided a lively essay on either the artist or the work.
One of those enthused and inspired artists – Seth – has designed the book, and a gorgeous design it is. However, it’s a bit too much Seth and not-so-much John Stanley, so it feels like the two sensibilities are somewhat at odds with each other. Matter of taste, I guess. It really is a fine modern-looking design.
A glaring omission is the non-inclusion of the Stanley-drawn and -designed covers for the comics – a very bad lapse, as these were some of the very few works during his long career that Stanley was able to actually sign.
The comics are printed from scans of the original comics, so you get the “feel” of reading an old comic book (yellowed pages, warts-and-all original printing flaws) without being worried that the book will crumble into dust in your hands. I kind of like this and don’t really mind the occasional artifact. But here it looks like one of the issues was scanned from a damaged (perhaps waterlogged) original copy, so some of the pages are a bit darker and “dirtier” than others. I think that when you go with this kind of scanning reproduction, you have to take what you can get, and this doesn’t particularly bother me, but some may be unhappy if they were looking for pristine reproduction. Although I will say that I hope D&Q are at least trying to find “nice” copies for reproduction, as the series isn’t that hard to find on the collector market.
Also, I’ve seen a few folks complaining about the cover price. I’m not really in that camp. Sure, I would have liked there to be more than three issues in the book, mostly because I instantly wanted to read more. But when you consider nowadays that three standard format issues of (fill in the blank) will set you back $12 (or more for some small press books), getting bent out of shape about a very nicely designed, full color hardcover book – with much better reading material – for $20 (cheaper at Westfield!) really isn’t much of an argument to me.
I’m eagerly awaiting more in The John Stanley Library. Hope you are too!
For more on John Stanley and his work, check out Frank M. Young’s excellent Stanley Stories blog. His review of this book is much more in-depth than mine (though our opinions on the book’s shortcomings are remarkably similar). He should have written an essay for the D&Q book. Hopefully they will tap him for a subsequent volume.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.
The cover to Melvin Monster #1 comics from the Grand Comic Book Database.