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Book and Comic Reviews

(4/18/05)

A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus' Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart and Michael Patrick Allen (Sentinel). As one-volume histories of the United States go, this one fully measures up to another of my favorites, Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. However, reading some of the reviews of the book on Amazon.com, I can see that the authors' explicit purpose of countering Howard Zinn's Marxist interpretation of American history, A People's History of the United States, has backfired to some extent. Schweikart and Allen openly declare their intention of writing a history of America that emphasizes its "overwhelmingly positive contributions to civilization" – and, unlike Zinn, they do try to give the book a scholarly sheen with plenty of footnotes – but this "built-in bias" has doomed them to being dismissed by many people right off the bat. It's unfortunate, because there's plenty of fodder here for legitimate discussion and debate. As one might expect in a tome that "accentuates the positive" and generally takes a conservative tack, the Founding Fathers, Ronald Reagan, business entrepreneurs of various types, and Abraham Lincoln all come off well, while FDR, JFK, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton take a pounding. Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt get saddled with more blame than is customarily attributed to them for assisting in the growth of "big government," the gradual development of which serves as the book's "negative throughline." Libertarians will loudly disagree with the book's interpretation of the Civil War as being overwhelmingly about slavery and only tangentially about "states' rights." To their credit, the authors pay plenty of attention to the slavery issue, minority rights, and other black marks on America's cosmic score sheet, but they also emphasize the country's ability to ultimately deal with its problems and do not pretend that no progress has been made. There are several dreary stretches (mostly dealing with economic issues) and the writing seems to become a little rushed as we approach the last 25 years, but overall, this book is well-worth anyone's time and effort.

What Were They Thinking (The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History) David Hofstede (Nicky's take):  Without giving too much away, I can safely say that this book was extremely funny.  Most of his choices are no brainers but he has a unique way of describing the events in detail.  Some of these I never heard of such as Wife vs. Secretary and Quark and others, I wish I had the opportunity to see (The Star Wars Holiday Special).  He really killed me with his "impersonation" of Shatner doing "Rocketman" at the Sci-Fi Awards.  I was very much amused (to Chris' dismay) over the Roger Ramjet mention.  See archives - Movie Reviews - to quote myself, "What the heck were they thinking."  And, unlike Darva Conger, the millionaire marrying phoney, I actually served in the war zone during the first Gulf War.  I have my Bob Hope U.S.O. show picks to prove it not to mention a dozen or so scars and a nervous tick or two.

(4/25/05)

Donald Duck and Friends #327 (May 2005).  Undoubtedly, this is among the worst releases in Gemstone's brief history.  The glorious slapstick cover by Daniel Branca (RIP) is just about the only thing worth salvaging from the wreckage.  In the leadoff slot, Carl Barks' 1944 Duck story "Kite Weather," squeezed from ten pages down to eight in its initial printing because of the wartime paper shortages, is subjected to a scissors-and-paste treatment in a gallant effort to restore the original look of the story.  I'd appreciate the effort a bit more if this story were actually worth reprinting.  It's one of Unca Carl's worst WDC&S efforts, built around the exceptionally annoying premise that Donald and the Nephews will resort to any means necessary to prevent a girl from winning a local kite-flying contest.  Not that I'm a raving, Alan Alda-style male feminist or anything, but this epic has aged about as well as a wartime-vintage can of Spam.  Donald Markstein and Jasper Madsen's Mickey story "Mysteries of Ancient Egypt" is better, but not by much, with Minnie cast in an especially irritating iteration of her occasional "I've got to learn that lowbrow Mickey some culture!" persona.  Finally, in Gorm Transgaard and Marcal's "The Giant From Outer Space" (Notice? Even the titles of the stories in this issue are lame!), Donald is forced to serve as a slave on an alien planet in order to pay off a legal debt owed to some teeny-tiny Ducks.  Memories of the Barks Uncle $crooge story "Micro-Ducks from Outer Space" come quickly to mind, only these pocket-sized paddlefeet have little of the charm of Barks' aliens.  

Mickey Mouse and Friends #276 (May 2005).  Most of this issue is given over to a reprint of the 1955 Mickey adventure "The Sign of the Squid," drawn by Paul Murry.  Murry wasn't quite at his peak when he penned this seagoing treasure-hunt affair – this is particularly noticeable in his models for the supporting characters – but the plot is solid enough, and this tale is as good an example of any of Murry's ability to breathe vigor into Goofy and the Eisenhower-era "Bing Crosby" version of Mickey.  The middle story "Pop Goes the Art," by Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard, is another reprint from the mid-60s Disney Overseas Studio series that introduced Donald's cousin Fethry Duck to (mostly) European readers.  Kinney's clever dialogue puts this one over for me, despite my considerable dislike of Hubbard's lumpy, stringy artistic interpretation of Donald.  "Muffler's Muff," the ending three-pager starring Goofy, is best left unread while one skips to the letter column.  (Why no date credits for the reprints, Gemstone?  Where the heck is that archival editor when you need him??  [Just kidding, David!]) 
 
What Were They Thinking?  The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History by David Hofstede (Back Stage Books).   (Chris' Take) Like Nicky, I enjoyed this well-written book – with some reservations.  Some of the entries seem more like philosophical disagreements with certain TV trends (e.g., the corporate-sponsorship craze and the numerous attempts to create TV series from famous and not-so-famous movie franchises) than specific moments in time that one can point to and intone, "Now THAT's dumb!"  More troublesome to me were the large number of errors that I spotted in the entries where I had some background knowledge of my own about the series.  Case in point: the entry on the Lost in Space episode "The Great Vegetable Rebellion."  The retelling of the ep's plot isn't the problem.  The first two paragraphs of the entry, however, contain multiple errors about the background and fundamental details of the series.  For the record: The Robinson family lifted off in 1997, not 1977; they were traveling to Alpha Centauri, not Alpha Centurai; and the comic title Space Family Robinson was not produced by Disney (though Carl Barks did suggest an idea like it long before the actual comic book made its debut).  I can only wonder how many other major-league boners -- ones which I lack the expertise to discern -- are sprinkled betwixt the humorous anecdotes and bemused descriptions in which Hofstede specializes.  It's still a fun read, but caveat emptor and all that.

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(4/3/05)

 Donald Duck Adventures #11 (April 2005).  This pocket-sized magazine has maintained high standards since its inception, so this issue's contents come as something of a disappointment.  "Something" is a relative term, of course, as even the worst of these three long tales contains an unexpected treat.  The Donald Duck story "The Eye of Ra" packs every imaginable cliché about "Egyptian adventure" into its panels and features a cop-out ending to boot, but it does provide the perpetually put-upon Donald with a rare chance to interact with a capable, attractive female ally in an adventure setting.  Daisy, of course, would hardly qualify on the "capable" score (except insofar as she's capable of rubbing her longtime "boyfriend" the wrong way).  In "Ra," Don's paired with the pretty webfooted archaeologist Dezzi Digger.  The duo have to foil an attempt to snare a priceless gem that will lead to the grandest unlocated treasure-tomb in Egypt.  Don has his moments of clumsiness around Dezzi, but the two ducks share a spirit of genuine cooperation and mutual trust that is pleasant to see in any setting, even a contrived one.  The Mickey tale "The Mouse in the Iron Mask" is just as silly without the intriguing one-shot visiting character, unless you count an annoying, "innocently" destructive niece of Minnie's with an equally annoying catchphrase borrowed from (if you can believe it) the British King George III.  The concluding tale, "Weird Science" by Dave Rawson and Recchi, is by far the best of this lot, pitting Gyro Gearloose – or, more accurately, three versions of Gyro from different moments in time – against Magica De Spell, who pits all her witchly wiles against Gyro's new defense system for Scrooge's Money Bin.  The tale features the forced cleverness of all "time-paradox" tales, but Gyro has rarely gotten a chance to shine in a story of this extended length, and he manages to foil Magica in his own off-kilter way.

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Movie Reviews

(4/05)

Lost in Space Volume 3, Part One (Fox Video).  I didn't buy the DVD sets of the first two seasons of this fondly remembered series, but I've always regarded the third season as by far the best and the one really worth keeping in full.  It's in what 60s TV used to trumpet as "full color" (whatever happened to that phrase, anyway??); it has the space family Robinson, their Robot, and Dr. Smith traveling all over the galaxy, rather than sticking them on a Fox back lot and leaving them at the mercy of "visiting aliens" of varying degrees of silliness; and it balances the adventurous aspects of the show's first season with the campy zaniness of the second, making for the show's most satisfying combination of elements.  The eps are reproduced well for the most part, though the soundtrack snaps off or lowers its pitch at certain times.  The "extras" mostly consist of a collection of the "Lost in Space Memories" interstitial segments from the show's run on the Sci-Fi Channel.  Hokey, juvenile, and scientifically obtuse it may be, but the show has an undeniable "Heart" appeal.  Humans traveling to outer space in the year 20-whenever are just as likely to act like the greedy Dr. Smith as they are the stalwart Robinson family, so it's entirely fitting that the Robinsons are perpetually forgiving the conniving Smith for his many transgressions.  We're all in this (universe) together, after all…

The Incredibles 2-disc DVD (Disney/ Pixar).  Nicky and I loved this movie in the theater, and we love it still.  But be warned: despite director Brad Bird's declaration of his great love for "special features" on DVDs, the second disc in this set is somewhat disappointing.  Lots of blah-blah about "how we make them move," some forced clowning by the director and animators, and a bizarre "video diary" by Sarah Vowell, the voice of Violet Parr…  surely they could have done something more, well, unique for this groundbreaking film.  The movie is good enough, however, to atone for the oversights.      

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