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Book and Comic Reviews

(4/24/06)

Donald Duck Adventures #17 (March 2006).  The third tome is the "charmer" in this particular issue.  Michael T. Gilbert and Flemming Andersen serve up a sturdy time-travel epic with a somewhat macabre twist in "The Bathtub on the Edge of Forever".  When Donald accidentally activates a "100 zigga-watt" bomb he'd found on Gyro Gearloose's discard pile, then uses Gyro's "Time-Buster" to send the potentially world-ending gizmo back in time to the days of the dinosaurs – when Earth's ecosystem was even less equipped to handle the trauma – he and HD&L must follow it in Gyro's "Time-Buster Return Unit" – a gimmicked-up bathtub.  (Scrooge funded the research, which explains a lot.)  Gilbert amusingly interstices the Ducks' travails in 75,000,000 BC (which include the obligatory bonding with a cute baby dinosaur who helps save the day in the end) with Gyro's desperate attempts to construct a rocket to dispose of the recovered bomb in the face of Scrooge's endless gripes about the "expense" of duct tape and cheap rivets.  The Ducks succeed in their mission – but not before the "Gilbert Proximity Syndrome" (don't ask) causes the modern-day Earth to literally crumble beneath everyone's feet.  Comical, but also rather spooky (and in that sense, very reminiscent of the race to save the world from turning to gold in the last DuckTales adventure, "The Golden Goose").  This appears to be one of Andersen's earliest art jobs for Egmont, and his sketchy style is still a little crude at this juncture, but it works well here.

The other two tales aren't much.  Terry Laban and Andersen's "The Search for Bigfoot" is as uninspired as its title and casts Donald in an extremely bad light as he schemes to win a million-dollar reward for evidence of the Sasquatch, using phony Bigfoot disguises and playing his enthusiastic Nephews as dupes.  Don ends up paying a heavy price when he falls in with an amorous female Bigfoot who has a jealous boyfriend, and… well, you can probably write the rest of the story yourself, right down to the somewhat sappy ending.  Pat and Carol McGreal and artist Jose Gonzalez do rather better by Mickey Mouse in "Hoopla."  On a trip to Hollywood, an annoyingly overenthusiastic Mickey becomes the personal assistant of action hero Brick van Dratt, who's not that bad of a guy but seems to think that he should act like an action star all the time, even when performing such mundane tasks as signing for autographs.  A group of Ninjas, acting on the orders of Brick's ex-teacher, seek to ruin the showoff's career by humiliating him in public.  It's not a great plot, but at least the McGreals avoided the obvious clichι of having Mickey discover that his movie hero is a great big phony, a la Major Courage of DuckTales' "Where No Duck Has Gone Before."

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Little Lulu Volume 9: Lucky Lulu (Dark Horse).  There's nothing as gloriously goofy in this latest collection (which bundles stories from Little Lulu #33-#37 [1951]) as the "Flying Turkey" sequence in Volume 8, but there are plenty of funny moments to savor nonetheless.  A particular favorite of mine is the Tubby backup story "Tub's Big Moment."  Bereft of funds to buy a ticket to see Little Rita Rosebud, his favorite child movie star, who's making a personal appearance nearby, Tubby falls in with a tomboyish girl who resembles nothing so much as an anticipation of Peanuts' Peppermint Patty.  The kid drives Tubby crazy by outdoing him in various activities, then challenges him to a foot race to the Paradise Theater.  The ego-bruised Tubby wins at last, only to learn that his tormentor was – you guessed it.  The really weird thing about this story is the following: Rita Rosebud has delicately slender legs, yet the tomboyish version of the same character wears conventional chunky overalls.  How can the two characters possibly have the same leg volume??  Was the tomboyish Rita wearing balloon pants??  Elsewhere in this issue, Lulu becomes a ghost – at least, it appears so – and does the seemingly obligatory "shrinking" and "Western hero" routines (the latter two in a pair of her Alvin "story-telling" stories).

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Donald Duck and Friends #339 (May 2006).  In a recent issue of Uncle $crooge, Gemstone Editor John Clark recalled how the late Carl Barks story "Isle of Golden Geese" was THE story that hooked him on Barks' work for keeps.  This issue reprints "Ancient Persia," one of the four stories that introduced me to Barks – and, along with "Luck of the North," this was the story that made by far the strongest impression on me.  "Persia" and "Luck," along with "The Mummy's Ring" and "The Pixilated Parrot," were reprinted in Walt Disney's Comics Digest #44 (1973), a copy of which I somehow acquired in the late 70s (and eventually misplaced).  In spite of the poor printing quality and the reformatting of the panels to fit the three-tier digest format, the power of these tales was obvious.  For someone used to reading Richie Rich comics, Peanuts reprints, and little else, it was a heady experience.  "Persia," which first appeared in 1950, went one or two steps beyond that.  Many fans have commented that this epic, in which Donald and HD&L are shanghaied by a mad scientist in search of a lost city and a chemical agent that allows people to be freeze-dried for eternity, is rather more straightforwardly "Gothic" in tone than other Barks tales in this genre (despite the comical subplot of Donald being a dead ringer for a revived prince who got himself dried just to avoid being married to King Nevvawaza's hideous daughter).  For sure, it contains one of the most sinister undertones of any Barks story; you really believe the bad guy when he says that he's willing to dry out all of the people in the world just to be left alone.  (In general, I'm not crazy about Barks' use of human characters in his stories of the early 50s, but this is one instance in which it seems absolutely fitting; the audience would have found it impossible to take the scientist's schemes and threats seriously had he sported the usual "berry" nose and floppy ears.)  Barks made heavy use of the National Geographic, his standard reference, to add verisimilitude to the setting, and, for all the slapstick business involving Prince Cad Ali Cad, the underlying story is dead-pan serious.  The ending is enough to put chills up one's spine to this day.  Suffice it to say that rarely did Barks play "for keeps" with such starkly delineated straightforwardness.  The ending "clinch" between the reunited Donald and HD&L has rarely seemed so heartfelt and meaningful.

The short Beagle Boys story "Payback" provides a pleasant palate-cleanser after Barks' deadly desert doings.  The Beagles pose as Junior Woodchuck troop leaders in order to recover a valuable Woodchuck trophy that they'd buried after their first-ever heist.  The Woodchucks, of all people, really should have recognized from the get-go that the Beagle-chucks were still wearing their masks, but they wise up quickly and foil the plot.

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #288 (May 2006).  What is it about this week's comics and universe-altering powders?  The Phantom Blot takes a turn at attempting to control mankind (or, at least, Mickey, Mortimer Mouse, and Prof. Dustibones' archaeological expedition) with sinister silt in Donald D. Markstein and Fabrizio Pedrossi's "The Power of the Gods."  Using a powder found in an ancient amphora to control the wills of others, The Blot is planning to synthesize more of the stuff – and he's got plans as to what to do with an enslaved Mickey, for starters.  (Of course, it's nothing so obvious as simply having Mickey kill himself.  This is The Blot, after all.)  The filthy-rich Mortimer, who's agreed to help Mickey on this caper in order to show him that money can make Mickey's brand of gung-ho adventuring much easier and much more convenient, tries to bribe The Blot to no avail.  All ends well, of course, and Mickey and Mortimer admit to one another that their two conflicting methods of attacking problems each have their points.  The story makes very good use of the obnoxious-yet-enthusiastic Mortimer as an antagonist rather than as an out-and-out villain, which I believe is the only way to render his character truly palatable.

The "Gods" tale brackets a long-awaited Donald Duck sequel, the McGreals' and Vicar's "Battle for the Battle Beasties."  The Pokemon-esque critters, who are actually creatures from another dimension that a Duckburg entrepreneur has been able to "contact" via a "dimensional window" and subsequently market in trading cards and on TV shows, were introduced to general acclaim in MM&F #259.  The sequel finds Donald and HD&L entering the world of the Beasties themselves and fighting an equally ambitious, but somewhat less scrupulous, alien entrepreneur who's training the Beasties to fight one another in gladiatorial combat for the edification of his pacifistic brethren.  Vicar outdoes himself in rendering several dozen brigades of Beasties, including a literal "hammer-head" and a twiggy, thorn-throwing creature with a head that looks exactly like Daffy Duck's.  I wouldn't call the sequel inspired, exactly, but the basic concept is still appealing enough that the tale coasts along on a wave of good will… and Donald, who had to be won over to the pro-Beastie side in the original story, gets to engage in a nice bit of re-bonding with the puffy little Beastie he'd previously befriended.

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(4/3/06)

Uncle $crooge #352 (April 2006).  No Easter Rabbit (Lars Jensen/Vicar version) in this issue, but plenty of stories centered on eggs and bunnies, requiring varying degrees of suspension of disbelief. 

The issue leads off with "Isle of Golden Geese," a Carl Barks story from 1963, and not one of my favorites, I'll admit.  To accept the veracity of this adventure, you have to buy into the notion of an incongruously Bo Peep-type character on a distant island guarding a clutch of geese, including some golden ones (which she believes to be inferior, not grasping the concept of monetary value any better than the natives of Tralla La once did).  Sure, Barks asked us to comply some pretty far-fetched ideas over the years, but this one has always struck me as, well, just a tad childish.  Scrooge, Donald and the boys get wind of the place and head there, pursued by Magica De Spell, who appears to have moved to Duckburg and forgotten her obsession with Scrooge's Old #1 Dime for the purposes of this story.  (In an odd foreshadowing of the DuckTales episode "Send in the Clones," she even has the Beagle Boys helping her.)  The tale isn't actually bad – Barks keeps it lively and clever – but the premise is only slightly more bearable than the notorious notion of super-tall Venusian teenagers in "Interplanetary Postman."  John Clark notes in his Editor's Column that this was the story that hooked him on Barks' work as a youth.  I guess timing really is everything.

Scrooge and Donald are once again scrambling in hot pursuit of eggs in "The Great Egg Hunt," a Disney Studio story from about 1967 or '68 (I'm guessing that date since Dick Kinney's script makes a reference to "the happiest millionaire," a Disney live-action film of the time).  Burning up at a bum's constant references to him as "a vulture," Scrooge determines to save some endangered condor eggs and make people "realize that the name 'vulture' means something rare and precious."  Why Scrooge should get that bent out of shape over the damage a hobo's heckling may do to his "image" is more than I can say, but the slapstick tale, drawn by Al Hubbard, is executed nicely, and Scrooge ends up profiting from the wild adventure in a completely off-the-wall way. 

In "Say Uncle!" by Lars Jensen and Davis Gerstein and Manrique, Fethry Duck, with assistance from a book on "how to cope with children," "scrambles" as only he can to keep the Nephews out of danger when they try to earn more Woodchuck merit badges helping people across the street at Duckburg's most dangerous intersection.  To no one's surprise, he ends up crushed like an eggshell.  (I had to stretch to get the egg references in there, but it worked, I think.)

"Magic's Missin' Magica," an Egmont story drawn by Daniel Branca, features the prose (dialogue) stylings of Thad Komorowski, a regular contributor to the Gemstone letter columns.  Believe it or not, this, too, contains a hidden egg reference, in that Scrooge is literally "cracking up" as a result of paranoid worry over Magica De Spell's imminent arrival in Duckburg.  Poor Scrooge hasn't been this much of an (Easter?) basket case since the "Firefly Fruit" serial in DuckTales.  I love the way Branca emphasizes Scrooge's addled emotional state by drawing the paranoid McDuck with startling blue eyes.  Komorowski's dialogue is good, too.

In "The Bunny Song," by Gorm Transgaard, Tony Isabella, and Vicar, I don't have to stretch very far to pinpoint an Easter theme -- but the story itself stretches credulity to the breaking point.  To the writers' credit, it never quite snaps.  After Donald accidentally processes an order for 10,000 bunny suits at Scrooge's costume factory, the enraged tycoon grits his beak and tries to convince the public to buy them using celebrity endorsements and the like, but he reaps nothing but ridicule.  Handed the bill by an irate Scrooge, Donald vows he'll sell them all by himself – and, amazingly, does so, thanks to a "bunny song" he's been cooking up on the side.  Don gives away bunny suits with his "hip-hoppity" CD and sells out the lot, thereby obliging Scrooge to wear a bunny suit for a whole month.  Zany stuff, but funny nonetheless. 

The only gag in the issue is a one-page Launchpad McQuack laugher in which LP makes a milkshake in a flying plane.  (Could it be an egg cream, please, so we can make it a clean Easter sweep?)

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #667 (April 2006).  This issue doesn't start promisingly, as the lead Donald story, "Taking Things Litterly" by William Van Horn, can be charitably described as uninspired.  You can see the punchline of this one coming a mile away.  The Li'l Bad Wolf story "Musical Eggs" also holds few charms for me, primarily because I didn't care for the artwork (by Dutch artist Dick Matena, whose style is a little too loose and rubbery for my taste).  "Gadabout Gadget," the second chapter of the Formula One saga and the last story in the book, is OK, but the actual racing part of the story is over and done with in a matter of four panels on the final page.  Before that, we must endure a long "pit stop" wherein Donald and HD&L traipse back to Duckburg for a rare and necessary auto part, only to crash in the Brazilian jungle on the way back – and promptly run afoul of a grungy band of river pirates.  Gladstone Gander, of all people, having won a sweepstakes to attend the Formula One races (and taken advantage by cozying up to Daisy), saves the day in usual fortune-favored fashion.  Gladstone is then welcomed to Scrooge's F1 team, raising the question of whether other characters might not do the same in future chapters, thereby turning the saga's already unwieldy cast into a mob.  (I'd accept Launchpad, since he could spell Donald at the wheel, but aside from him…)  To me, the main reason for doing a Formula One series in the first place should be the notion of seeing the Ducks operating in a novel environment.  Absent that, it's simply a string of globe-trotting incidents hung on a rather flimsy thread of a "common theme."  I'm hoping for more "track action" in the next chapter.

The first major reprinting of a Floyd Gottfredson continuity in the Gemstone books (as opposed to the brief "Picnic" sequence of a while ago) is the true highlight of the issue.  "Pflip's Strange Power", a 1948-49 continuity, has never been reprinted in the U.S. until now.  By this time, Bill Walsh had taken over the scripting of the Mickey comic strip, and this tale bears his stamp through and through: outlandish plot contrivances, sharp gags, and just a little bit of an "edge" to make the reader uneasy.  Pete's brainwashing of Eega Beeva and his later kidnapping of Pflip, Eega's pet, don't sound all that threatening, but the pre-Walsh Pete wasn't known to use poisoned rings and nerve gas as weapons.  John Clark describes Pete's plot as "insidious"; I'd up that to "dastardly," myself.  (In just a few months' time, Walsh would reveal that Pete was a Soviet spy: coincidence???)  The tale is a little more fragmented than a typical Gottfredson-plotted continuity – a common occurrence in Walsh's stories, I've found – but I liked it, and I would love to see more continuities from this era.

Sarah Kinney and Rodriques are up to something rather outlandish themselves in the Goofy story "Esteem for a Day," which sees a perturbed Goofy, convinced that his pals won't take his advice seriously, wandering onto a spaceship and accidentally traveling to a distant (I guess) planet where his lookalike, "The Great Reasoner," once doled out directions to dogfaced followers (who all look like they belong in crowd scenes from a Mickey cartoon of the mid-30s).  This is, to say the least, an extremely contrived way of delivering a "message" story, but Kinney's dialogue has rarely been cleverer, and the story works if you're capable of buying into it.  The 1959 Scamp story "Making Like a Mole", which follows the Goofy epic, is anything but outlandish, but it perfectly captures the spirit, panache, and humor of the best of the old Al Hubbard-drawn tales.  More to follow, I hope.

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