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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Comics Review

Uncle $crooge #374 (February 2008).  Another delayed release, but no real harm done, since the only overt reference to a "Valentine's Day" theme is a four-page Gyro Gearloose story buried in the bowels of the issue.  Some may want to hold out for Gladstone Gander's ill-fated romance in Pat and Carol McGreal and Massimo Fecchi's opening story, "A Gal for Gladstone."  Magica De Spell, who became Daisy's doppelganger in an all-too-similar story not so long ago, preys on the ego-stuffed gander this time around – first leeching away his luck and causing what Gladdy un-ironically terms "my normally over-inflated self-esteem" to plummet from penthouse to basement, then assuming the guise of Matilda, a "simple, honest, true-blue maid," and winning his heart.  Previously dissed by Scrooge as a flighty playboy who doesn't merit the "choice assignments" given to doltish but down-to-Earth Donald, Gladdy quickly perks up and discovers a whole new strain of luck-free happiness.  Scrooge, for his part, is pleased to offer the newly-"centered" Gladstone a job.  Meanwhile, the disguised Magica, much to her surprise, begins to have feelings for Gladdy, complicating – and ultimately foiling, albeit indirectly – her aim to exploit the gander's access to Scrooge's Money Bin and the Old #1 Dime.  None of this will be surprising to anyone who remembers Magica's gradual turn towards domesticity while in the guise of Daisy.  The copycat aspect is only the smallest of the story's numerous problems.  For one thing, Gladstone's vaunted luck should have kept him from being affected by Magica's magic in the first place – though, to be fair, the DuckTales episode "Dime Enough for Luck" made the same mistake.  Magica/Matilda's sudden realization of her affection for Gladstone comes much too quickly and easily to be readily believable; since this story was originally meant for a pocket-book appearance, why not extend it by a few pages and ramp up the pathos and emotion a bit?  At the climax, when the smitten Mag/Mat is forced to choose between saving a falling Gladstone and snatching the dime, the normally cold-blooded sorceress (who, you may recall, was perfectly willing to let Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L live out the rest of their lives in the bodies of pigs in Carl Barks' "Oddball Odyssey") folds like a cheap paper fan, frantically de-hexing the gander and then vamoosing without even a feeble attempt to snatch Old #1.  It would have been far better had Magica expressed in-character disgust and/or cynicism at the role she had taken it upon herself to play, then gradually changed her mind… though, come to think of it, that would have made the tale even more akin to the earlier Daisy "role-playing game."  Some magnificent art by Fecchi and a few legitimately touching scenes between Gladstone and Magica/ Matilda save the story from being a total loss.  Still, this is an atypically ill-plotted, poorly- thought-out story from the normally reliable McGreals.

Scrooge and his love (at least in her own mind) Brigitta MacBridge take the stage next in Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Cesar Ferioli's "Rainbow Raiders."  (The title lettering seems eerily reminiscent of a soon-to-be-disinterred movie franchise.)  Toting a machine that can mine gold from rainbows – Brigitta says she got it "from an inventor friend," which suggests that Gyro may soon have some local competition on his hands – the "annoying business lady" (as Don Karnage might put it) talks a reluctant Scrooge into forming a rainbow-rustling partnership.  In 'bow-filled Rainbow Valley, Scrooge naturally overdoes a good thing, sucking rainbows out of the sky right and left – and then blows a gasket when he learns that the gold output per busted 'bow amounts to a mere pittance.  Accusing Brigitta of concocting a plot to have him spend time with her and indulge her "idiotic romantic fantasies," Scrooge leaves MacBridge stranded, only to change his mind after a lurking crook (who looks exactly like the careless camper who caused the forest fire in Barks' "Vacation Time") kidnaps Brigitta.  Scrooge may not like to hear it, but he and Brigitta make a pretty good adventure (or at least mock-adventure) team, especially as rendered by the always classy Ferioli and written by Lars & David.

The Gyro story, a Dutch treat titled "No Need to Know," uses the cute conceit of Gyro creating a device that will read Valentines and let the recipient know who sent them.  The problem with this, of course, is that you may not WANT to know the ID of your "secret admirer" – though Gyro, as it turns out, may live to regret not finding out.  It's a clever, to-the-point story marred only by some blah Comicup Studio art.  William Van Horn follows up with "Easy Circumstances," which features the first appearance by Rumpus McFowl in some time.  Here, the phlegmatic pest becomes the conduit for a pack of jokers who want to take advantage of Rumpus' emergence as a "man about town" to bend Scrooge's ear with investment schemes of all sorts.  Faking sudden poverty (which I don't think Rumpus truly buys for a minute), Scrooge accompanies his half-brother to a swanky party to show him that "if I was dirt poor, those society phonies wouldn't come within ten miles of me, let alone you!". Scrooge's scheme backfires, and the old skinflint is promptly besieged by a bunch of would-be investors who trot out enough crazy schemes to bring back nostalgic memories of "Van Horn loonies" past.  Scrooge, however, ultimately does find a profitable investment opportunity – and one that lets Bill take a not-so-veiled swipe at a certain "witless" collector's market, besides.  The closing spasm of curmudgeonliness puts the cherry on top of one of Van Horn's funniest and best-written stories in quite a while.  Perhaps Bill should use Rumpus a bit more often; the character seems to inspire him in a manner that few of his more mundane recent plots have.

After a one-page Barks gag from 1947 that has dated "but awfully" badly, another Dutch tale, "Discreet Delivery," rounds out the issue.  Like "A Gal for Gladstone," this story casts Scrooge in a decidedly secondary role, which rather undercuts the cover blurb promising "Four Complete Uncle Scrooge Adventures."  Adding to the annoyance quotient, "Delivery" makes Donald a fall guy despite the fact that he really doesn't do anything to deserve his fate.  Told by Scrooge to deliver a valuable Stradiduckius violin to the symphony hall, Donald dodges Beagle Boys, snarling dogs, et al. but succeeds in getting through, only to blurt out the existence of the precious instrument within earshot of a pack of Duckburgian paparazzi.  In the ensuing scrum, the violin is ruined, and you can guess how Scrooge reacts.  Poor Donald, but I guess it's Scrooge's fault in the first place for eschewing Gladstone's luck for Don's doltish diligence at the start of "A Gal for Gladstone."  Scrooge has definitely changed his tune since the Barks story in which he allowed Gladdy to compete for his inheritance…

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Book Review

The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli by Richard Aldous (Pimlico).  Aldous' accessible, colorful account of the decades-long rivalry between the two pre-eminent British politicians of the 19th century will confound those comfortable with the popular ideological stereotypes of today.  Disraeli, the founder of the modern Conservative party, employed wit and mockery in a manner more reminiscent of a modern, smart-aleck liberal, while the Liberal Gladstone married his high-minded social-reformer's agenda to a dour Evangelical outlook.  Both men's strengths and weaknesses are on full display, and Aldous succeeds in avoiding the temptation to pick a favorite, though I have to admit that Disraeli seems to have been a far more likable individual (provided that you weren't pierced by a strike from his rapier tongue, that is).  Together, the two men helped shepherd Britain through a demanding time and left the nation and Empire stronger, no matter that they loathed one another.  If this fine book proves anything, it demonstrates that severe partisanship doesn't inevitably end in wholesale cultural destruction – a good thing to remember as the 2008 Presidential race percolates.

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DVD Review

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2006, Disney).  Mark Frost's marvelous recreation of 20-year-old amateur golfer Francis Ouimet's shocking triumph over top British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open is unquestionably one of the best books on golf ever written.  Actor/director Bill Paxton strains mightily to capture the feel of Frost's book in this screen adaptation, but some unfortunate simplifications and distortions of the story, coupled with a slightly wacky visual approach, leave the movie's quality a few yards short of that of its source material.  In the tradition of past Disney sports films like Remember the Titans and Glory Road, Paxton (and Frost, who wrote the screenplay) can't resist the temptation to "gin up" the already-dramatic narrative with various and sundry tweaks, several of which play havoc with the truth.  According to the movie, Ouimet had pretty much given up on his dream to become a golfer (at the command of his demanding father, burdened here with a mediocre French-Canadian accent) before getting a crack at the Open; in reality, Francis had competed in the National Amateur tournament just a few weeks before and done well.  Ouimet's ultimate win in a playoff was not quite the "last-second putt" routine depicted here, either; he had the thing pretty much in the bag by the time he played the 18th hole.  The decision to depict the golf action from a "ball's eye view" in certain cases is admittedly clever but approaches the silly at times, such as when we see a lengthy close-up of a bug perched on Ray's ball as the big Brit prepares to hit it.  The best thing about the movie may be the imaginative title sequence, which (as Frost notes in his commentary) was inspired by the "Eleanor Rigby" sequence of Yellow Submarine.  If you are interested in the history of golf, the movie is definitely worth seeing, but just be aware that the book is far superior.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

RIP, Charlton Heston.  Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Planet of the Apes are stone-cold classics, and the man was a decent fellow as well

Comics Review

Harvey Comics Classics, Volume 3: HOT STUFF, THE LITTLE DEVIL (Dark Horse).  Well, you can't say I didn't read this latest Dark Horse Harvey collection with an open mind.  Casper and Richie Rich, the featured players in the first two portmanteaux, were quite familiar to me, but, prior to tackling this volume, I had read precisely zero starring vehicles featuring Hot Stuff.  The be-diapered, trident-toting, prickly-tempered imp made only one appearance in ANY Harvey comic I ever read, and that was more or less of a glorified cameo in the Richie Rich and Casper story "The Happiness Balloon."  Of course, I do know some things about the character.  Hot Stuff (may I call him "Hots" for short?  Thanks) debuted in comics in 1957 and enjoyed a decent career, starring in an eponymous title as well as Hot Stuff Sizzlers, Devil Kids featuring Hot Stuff, and Hot Stuff Creepy Caves.  Though he never got the chance to star in any other media, Hots has acquired a cult following over the years.  In a short but informative foreword to this collection, Mark Arnold notes that Hots merchandise is particularly popular in France.  (Well, at least Jerry Lewis has some competition over there.)  A few years ago, Harvey itself – or, rather, one of the corporate entities that have played patty-cake with the company over the past 15 years – supposedly planned to market a line of girls' clothing with a new Hot Stuff logo that struck many as, shall we say, somewhat provocative.  In truth, I can understand why Hots never got off the ground as a mainstream icon in America.  While there's strong reason to believe that Hots is NOT really "The Devil" (as I'll argue below), the casting of a supposedly satanic figure as a kids' comic star was already pushing it in '57 and would really raise the hackles of a number of modern religious groups, who would inevitably see the sale of Hot Stuff merchandise as yet another blow directed at them in the ongoing "culture wars."  Credit Harvey's uncanny ability to "repackage" otherworldly creatures as cuddly, amusing companions with Hots' success in having any sort of career at all.

The present volume collects Hot Stuff stories from 1957 to 1966, all of which are drawn by either Warren Kremer or Howard Post.  Also included are a number of Kremer stories featuring Stumbo the Giant, a benevolent behemoth who never quite made it to Harvey "A-list" status but nonetheless enjoyed a solid career as a back-up feature in Hots' titles.  The fact that Stumbo played such a consistent second fiddle to Hots points up one of the distinctive features of Harvey's diminutive diablo; he seemed to inhabit a universe that was entirely his own, virtually never interacting with the other Harvey characters.  (Sad Sack also stayed in his own orbit, but that was understandable, given its nature and its original creation independent of Harvey.)  Supporting characters were also thin on the ground; apart from occasional walk-ons by other devil characters (such as cranky Aunt Clinker) and fairy Princess Charma, the only character who seems to have anything approaching a regular "relationship" with Hots, the irritable imp was left to dominate his own stories (which he invariably did, given his fly-off-at-the-handle personality).  Since Hots, like Disney TV's Darkwing Duck, was always the focal point of the action, there was extra pressure on the writers to come up with new and interesting plot ideas and avoid formulas.  Judging by the stories collected here, they usually did so, though one can occasionally sense the strain – for example, in Kremer's "The Apple Sauce Caper," wherein a Hitler-like villain abruptly shows up in Hots' neck of the woods and dispatches a pair of "heil"-ing hirelings to strip said woods of Hots' favorite snack – apples – and convert the fruit into apple sauce to, I presume, corner the world's apple-sauce market and make enough money to "get control of der vorld!"  It's hard to connect "der dots" here, you must admit.

The lack of a consistent supporting cast for Hots' adventures did have one significant negative effect: it makes Hots' universe one heck of an aesthetic and logical mess.  Jerry Beck's introduction  describes at some length the dizzying variety of allies, adversaries, and walk-on characters in Hot Stuff stories, including "robots, dragons, space aliens, giants, genies, fairies, witches, cupids, the Sun, the clouds, [and] numerous bears" just to name a few.  For completeness' sake, we should also add sentient forest animals, anthropomorphized dog- and pig-faced characters, scribbled drawings that come to life (Post's "The Fummadiddles"), various "lands" full of anthropomorphized inanimate objects, and the occasional "semi-normal" human, including a suburban kid who decides to dress up and play devil with Hots (in the story "Not So Hot," one of the color stories reproduced herein) and the "Hitler guys" described previously.  Oh, and Hots' "trusty trident" occasionally acquired a face and voice, too.  Really, was someone -- and yes, I'm looking at you, Editor Sid Jacobson – actually keeping track of all this?  (It wasn't just Hots, either; Stumbo's humanoid-dominated world somehow managed to incorporate both the quasi-medieval denizens of "Tiny Town" and such modern archetypes as a sleazy used-car salesman and a snooty rich lady in a fancy limousine.)  The volume's final story, Post's 15-pager "Mystery in Forest Edge," neatly sums up the chaos, throwing in the following supporting players: a pig-faced mayor, a gnome, a quartet of Beatles-style musicians who can best be labeled "humanoid," a horse-faced peddler, a humanoid warlock, anthropomorphized but butt-naked rabbits and bears, a caveman, and female sub-teen rock fans.  The kitchen sink feels unfairly neglected, I'm sure.  And to think J.R.R. Tolkien resented C.S. Lewis' "cheating" by throwing such "discordant" figures as Father Christmas and talking beavers into his Narnia stories. 

One fortunate consequence of the aforementioned aesthetic carnage is the happy fact that the major sticking point of religious objections to glorifying a devil character can be easily sidestepped by appealing to the unique nature of Hots' universe.  Hots is cantankerous, mischievous, occasionally spiteful, and proud of his "street cred" as a wise guy, but he's obviously not "The Devil" of Christian theology.  For one thing, he's only one of a number of devil characters.  For another, in "Mystery in Forest Edge," another character appeals to "evil spirits" to STOP Hots from getting away.  In this weird and wild corner of "The Harvey World," evidently, devils are simply another kind of unusual fauna who just happen to resemble Lucifer.  I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End, in which Earth is peacefully taken over by a group of aliens who remain hidden for many years, during which time Earthlings have gotten used to their presence – at which point they reveal themselves to be replicas of Satan.

Apart from the disarray of the world surrounding him, the only other major issue I can raise regarding the quality of Hots' stories is the fact that Hots, well, doesn't appear to have much of a purpose in life.  Casper and Wendy want to make friends and protect the Enchanted Forest.  Sad Sack wants to survive the Army.  Baby Huey wants to stop the wolf from eating him and/or his family.  Little Dot and Lotta want to collect dots and chow down, respectively.  Richie Rich, of course, has any number of challenges on his plate.  But Hot Stuff?  Is this the reason why so many of Hots' stories begin with the character either sleeping or eating (especially "trident-baked apples")?  Or, barring that, end with such (in)activities?  Perhaps the large number of truly off-the-wall stories, such as "The Fumadiddles," arose as a result of this search for adversaries that would give Hots a meaningful challenge, if only for a moment.  They may also have served to keep the character's harder edges honed.  In this volume's two "adventure" (read: multi-part) stories, "What Happened to Santa?" and "Mystery at Forest Edge," Hots functions as more or less of a conventional hero, albeit with character flaws (e.g., in "What Happened to Santa?", Hots tries to function as a detective, complete with deerstalker hat [which somehow doesn't burn up after being perched on his head?], but makes something of a fool of himself before everything turns out all right in the end).  Having weird adversaries, it seems, served to keep Hots' temper stoked.  Much the same thing happened with Spooky in the Post back-up stories that ran in the Casper titles.

As was the case with the Casper and Richie volumes, this collection is handsomely produced.  The black-and-white reproductions may cheese off some folks who demand that all stories be in color, but, in this case, I appreciated the opportunity to examine Kremer and Post's art as it was originally drawn.  As Beck notes, Post's style and stories are a notch or two above Kremer's on the wackiness scale, but both creators are at their best here.  This is definitely a must-buy for Harvey fans both dedicated and casual – including those who, like me, specialize in scouring a different corner of "The Harvey World" – as well as folks looking for kid-friendly comics who aren't fooled by Hots' "Satanic" trappings.  (Though, given Hots' relatively low comics profile in recent years, I really do have to wonder how large the latter group actually is.)

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