I must admit that I knew nothing of Little Lulu until Drawn & Quarterly sent me the first volume of its full-colour reissue of her adventures (five are planned). Who is she, this dynamic demon of a little girl? Well, you could say that she is to American readers what Minnie the Minx is to those of us who grew up with the Beano. Like Minnie, she is smart, frequently badly behaved and not much given to following the rules; like Minnie, she is a kind of feminist icon, albeit one who wears a neat red dress and whose hair hangs in old-fashioned ringlets.
Little Lulu can outmanoeuvre any boy, reduce any adult to gobsmacked silence. No wonder, then, that her fans include not only Patti Smith and the poet Eileen Myles, but also Margaret Atwood, who has written the introduction to Little Lulu: Working Girl. (“The eternal problem of the boys’ clubhouse – not being let into it, that is – was treated by Little Lulu, by and large, with a phnuh.”)
Little Lulu, AKA Lulu Moppet, was the creation of Marjorie Henderson Buell, better known as Marge; she made her first appearance in a newspaper in 1935. When Marge stopped working on the strip in 1947, she was replaced by John Stanley, a journeyman comics writer much admired by his peers for his singular wit; he would draw her for the next 14 years and it’s his surreal and subversive stories that are collected here.
Those who like to think of the 50s as a time when women and children were seen rather than heard are in for a surprise in the case of the pugnacious and endlessly resourceful Lulu, whose voice is almost permanently raised and whose raison d’etre is basically to show the boys that girls are just as good as they are. When she falls out with her best friend, Tubby, it’s always he who ends up eating humble pie. When Alvin, the bratty six-year-old she is sometimes required to babysit, has one of his temper tantrums, only Lulu can shut him up, a silence she wins by telling him elaborate stories (Lulu’s way with narrative is one of the things that drew the young Atwood to her).
With her pithy put-downs and her easy way with half-truths, it’s impossible not to warm to Little Lulu, though I like Tubby as well, a boy who will stop at almost nothing in order to bag himself a second dinner. There’s something intensely pleasurable, too, in the way that Stanley uses phonetic spellings and mangled pronunciations for comic effect (“Dear diry, I felt terrible bad in my stummik”); at moments, it made me think of Molesworth.
Most of all, though, I like the yawning gap that exists between children and adults in these strips: they’re pro-child in the best sense, always pitting the open, curious minds of small people against the jaded, rigid outlook of those adults who try (and fail) to marshal them. If you like Charles Schulz and Roald Dahl – and really, who doesn’t? – then this gorgeously produced and very funny book is for you.