Everybody's Favorite Juvenile Feminist:
She's 7 Years Old and 70 Years Young!
I have no use for "political correctness"--make no mistake about that--but I've always (as a boy and as a man) found something irresistible in the "Girls are smart" theme as used in children's media. One place it's done very well is on Cinar's "Little Lulu Show" which started in 1995, with Lulu voiced by Tracey Ullman. They've made 52 half-hour shows, each containing three 7-minute Lulu cartoons plus a few minor extras. I wasn't paying attention then, having no spare time for TV, but I assumed that they were new stories; as to whether they were good or bad, I assumed nothing, of course.
However, Classic Media recently released two DVD's, distributed by Sony Wonder, each having five complete LL shows (the first ten shows, in fact). I bought them and was delighted to find that all of the 30 stories they contain were taken right out of the original Little Lulu comic books of the 1940's and 50's. They used the stories unchanged, except for minor adaptations in the wording. It's no ripoff--the credits do say "in association with Western Publishing".
But, as I feared, they didn't credit John Stanley--the original writer. They didn't have to, since he was paid for his work by Western and was never credited at all. He had died in 1993, not long before the new show debuted--not that he would have gotten any money from it, but at least he might have lived to see his own stories on TV; it's a pity he didn't. Further irony, there were Little Lulu animated cartoons in the 1940's too; but Stanley had no hand in them, and next to his masterpieces they were far inferior, being mere "formula" fairy-tales similar to those of Little Audrey.
Lulu goes back to 1935, when Marge Buell--a woman cartoonist--began drawing her in a magazine. Over the following decades, Lulu became the subject of children's books, games, puzzles, coloring books, activity books, greeting cards, dolls, and countless other merchandise items, while starring in the above-mentioned 40's cartoons and a 50's-60's syndicated newspaper strip, as well as advertisements for Kleenex.
But in the meantime, starting in 1945, Stanley wrote something like 800 to 900 stories of her in the comic books--the only medium, until Cinar's recent cartoons, in which Lulu showed herself as a "complete" girl. A child with a heart of gold and a brilliant mind which she was always ready to use in defense of herself or anyone else who was wronged or in trouble. It wasn't all about girls against boys--Lulu had nothing against boys and would help them too; she just didn't let them walk all over girls. Similarly, she had nothing against adults but might take on and outwit a particular adult if it was called for.
Compared with the present, that was a period of what you'd call "extreme sexism". Women were considered dumb, they couldn't get decent jobs, and so on. And yet, at the same time, the "smart girls/stupid boys" story was a tidbit loved by children everywhere, boys included. I guess children just knew that society's male-superior model was artificial, and that the real world was much closer to that of Lulu's (and their own) streets and playgrounds than to the "theoretical world" shown to them by the other media and by the schools.
Lulu and her associated characters (Annie, Tubby, Willy, Eddie, Iggy, Gloria, Wilbur, and Alvin) live in a suburban setting, with plenty of woods, streams, vacant lots, parks, lakes, and so on. The boys' clubhouse is a little wooden shack standing alone in a lot between a road and the woods--the kind of private retreat that so many kids today have never known. The town is unnamed (though they've called it Elmridge on the TV show). However, in the 1980's, when I was corresponding with certain comic scholars, some of them figured out from clues in the comic books (highway route signs and such) that the model for Lulu's home town was Peekskill, about 40 miles from New York City. Looking in and around Peekskill, they then found all the sites and landmarks regularly seen and mentioned in the Lulu stories.
In all--counting various series and special issues of all kinds--about 350 comic books starring Lulu and her friends were published over a 40-year period, including some by other writers; Stanley did the regular Lulu issues until about 1961. His "golden period"--when Lulu was at her best--was from about 1949 through 1954. Most of the stories that Cinar used were from that period, so they're 50 to 55 years old; if your parents don't remember them, your grandparents might! Among the 156 cartoons they made, I've recognized 83 as his stories; the rest came from their own writers. And, though you can usually tell that the cartoons weren't made long ago--they put in new lines here and there, sometimes with present-day references--they are faithful to the original comic books in the way they depict the characters and their surroundings. They try to preserve Lulu in a 1930's setting, out of respect for her 70-year-old "roots", just as Stanley did.
For example, some of the old clothing styles look strange today and are thus a hint that some other time period is involved, for viewers who don't at first know it. Some of the boys wear old kinds of hats and pants. The dresses, such as were sometimes worn by little girls long ago, are very short and stiff, sticking out sideways. That's why you see their panties frequently--nothing else is meant by it! (Note that the other characters never show any reaction.) And that was true in those comic books, too. Lulu had two "signatures"--her brains and her panties--and she signed every comic page with both of them. Take either one away, and she wouldn't be Lulu any more.
The buildings and stores also look old-fashioned. Similarly with dialogue, there are some old expressions in it--the group of boys on Lulu's street are called "the fellers," and a rival group is called "the West Side boys." The characters have primitive telephones, movie projectors with film, and "record players" that you wind up with a crank.
And when things are bought and sold, the prices tend to be too low for our time; in one cartoon, the "fellers" build an elaborate setup to stage a trick show, and then "make money" by charging other kids five cents to see it. Today, that would be a good way to LOSE money. Kids sell lemonade on the street for two cents; the "record players" sell for five dollars. (Those Lulu comic books were ten cents!) In one story, Lulu and Annie ask a teenage boy if he wants his sidewalk shoveled for a quarter, and he says "If I had a quarter I wouldn't be hangin' around HERE!" (In those days you could get into the movies for a quarter--and stay there all day.) For the TV show, Cinar sometimes raised the prices; they made the lemonade 15 cents, and the snow shoveling a dollar.
Through this past-era world romps Lulu, smarter than anyone else in town, taking on the whole world and twisting it around her little finger, "doing what you gotta do to survive"--but with a deep, strong sense of justice and fairness; not doing wrong, not hurting anyone unless they really deserve it, and always using her brains to help others too if they need it. A superhero without having any super-powers or needing them. No fantasy, no science fiction. Lulu's adventures are things that COULD really happen. That's their charm!
The fact that these 50-plus-year-old stories could be a hit for a new generation only proves--if it needed any further proof now--that they ring true to the juvenile ear, just as they did in the comic books so long ago. Maybe the Little Lulu Show's success was what it took to prove Stanley's genius; he was finally inducted into the Comics Hall of Fame in 2004.
Note: I first wrote this for the "Comic Readers" website, where it can be viewed--with illustrations, episode synopses, and two whole transcripts--at: