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Book and Comic Reviews

(8/28/05)

Little Lulu Volume 5: Lulu in the Doghouse (Dark Horse Books).  More hilarity and hijinks from Lulu and friends.  This volume reprints Four Color #165 and the first five numbered issues of the Little Lulu title (I'm still at a loss as to why Dark Horse didn't proceed in chronological order).  As always, no one story particularly stands out, but each of them is guaranteed to provide at least a few chuckles.  My favorite in this lot is "Lulu's Conscience," wherein Lulu struggles with the standard "angel/devil" characters as she debates what to do with the nickel her Mom gave her, and, later, with a $10 bill she found on the street. (The latter event seems to happen all the time in comics, but hardly ever occurs in real life.)  Lulu ends up "ahead," but only after the convoluted-yet-logical twists and turns that are the specialty of writer John Stanley.

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #660 (September 2005).  A very disappointing issue, given the talents represented.  Bear with me, I plan to explain why at some length.

The leadoff story, "The Idle Glitch," finally forced me to agree with a number of my fan-friends who've recently been criticizing William Van Horn's growing tendency to "repeat himself" in his short humorous tales.  Every single aspect of this story – in which Donald runs into trouble when he hires an over-zealous household robot to do chores for him while he lazes away a week at home alone – has been featured in previous, and better, Van Horn stories.  It comes as absolutely no surprise that the robot ultimately goes berserk, or that Don ends up prostrate and temporarily "out of commission."  I've been in "Silly Billy"'s corner for years, but there's no denying that he mailed this sucker in. 

Parts seven and eight of Pat and Carol McGreal and Cesar Ferioli's "Mythos Island" saga contain more novelty -- a lot of which has to do with the juxtaposition of characters who don't normally interact, such as Goofy and Uncle Scrooge -- but the revelation of the reason for the island's continuing disintegration, which finally comes at the end of chapter eight, is startlingly poor in conception.  All the trouble, it turns out, was caused by one of Master Mythos' robot helpers, who became convinced that mankind had forsaken myth and legend (favoring instead the cheap thrills provided by TV and "making money") and destroyed Mythos' matter-transporting machine (the gizmo that allows humans to catch glimpses of legendary creatures) in what can only be described as a fit of pique, thereby triggering the island's decomposition.  Put aside the question of how what is essentially a robot drone could allow such thoughts to "obsess and darken its mind" (not to mention the questions of who the heck Master Mythos is, how he gained the ability to design such advanced technology, or how he came to assume his role); it seems to me that the McGreals missed a more obvious, fitting, and meaningful explanation.  Why not have the crumbling of the island be caused by the creatures' dismay at what they believe to be mankind's universal loss of belief in legend and lore, which would give our heroes the opportunity to save the day by (1) striving to convince outsiders that myths are an essential part of human culture, or (2) convincing the distraught beasties that people do still draw inspiration from mythological heroes, using appropriate examples?  Instead, we are now presented with a scenario in which Gyro Gearloose and Doc Static, Master Mythos' original targets as "the greatest scientists in the world" (since when are science and invention synonymous??), must now repair Mythos' busted machine while everyone else sits around and waits for the "convenient technological miracles" to appear.  Perhaps the McGreals can salvage things in the final two installments and give our heroes a more meaningful role in the ultimate denouement.  I certainly hope so.

Wait -- I haven't even touched on this issue's real low point.  Marco Rota's handsomely drawn Donald tale "Between Two Worlds" must nonetheless rank as one of the flimsiest Duck stories ever committed to paper.  While touring an old aircraft carrier in Duckburg Harbor, Donald gets stuck in a radio-controlled "vintage fighter plane" and is sent on a stunt flight.  Meanwhile, "in a parallel universe only slightly different from ours," the exact same thing happens to Donald* (I don't know how else to represent the "parallel" Donald; he is basically identical to the original except that he doesn't wear the same size clothes) in a slightly different plane.  An electrical storm causes the two Dons to switch places, they both return to the carrier and are both chased by shipboard personnel, they both escape the carrier in the same way, and another storm returns each Duck to his correct universe.  That's IT, folks.  What the heck was Rota thinking when he introduced this "parallel universe" nonsense into what would otherwise have been an unexceptional but OK gag story?  If the two Dons had been different in any meaningful particulars, then we might have seen some good gags related to the Nephews' confusion, etc., but D&D* act exactly the same.  To add insult to injury, Rota makes an error when he has the transformed Donald (the original model, that is) react to the fact that he has emerged from a "different" plane when it is in fact the same plane he started in.  All I can say is, Rota's editor must have been in a decidedly generous mood on the day this story landed on his desk.   

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Uncle $crooge #345 (September 2005).  "X-Treme Scrooge" marks the third installment in writer Terry Laban's Sly K. Switcheroo cycle.  In this go-round, the artistic chores fall to Rodriques, rather than Romano Scarpa.  The plot is probably the most imaginative of the lot, as SKS bamboozles Scrooge into thinking that he's a Gen-X computer mogul and nearly gets McDuck to buy his (nonexistent) company for $40 billion.  In the course of trying to bond with the phony "Rich Slackster," the deal-hungry Scrooge displays a growing interest in such "extreme" sports as motor skating and upside-down snowboarding.  It's nice to see a story so thoroughly committed to the idea that Scrooge can be thrust (head-first and squawking, if necessary) into the modern techno-world and can be forced to confront its perils and opportunities without any loss of his trademark traits.

The issue's other highlight is a reprint of "King Scrooge the First," Carl Barks' last original story for the Gold Key Uncle $crooge title.  Barks only scripted this one, leaving the artistic chores to the much-maligned (unfairly, in my view) Tony Strobl, and I, for one, am glad that the reported plans to have European artist Ulrich Schroeder redraw Barks' script from scratch evidently came to nothing.  Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews are basically manipulated into the story rather than actively making anything happen, which counts as something of a debit, but it's difficult to forget the scene in which the ancient King Khan Khan swallows the antidote to the immortality powder he had taken from Scrooge's ancestor thousands of years before and shrivels away to nothing as he plods off to "go gladly to join" his long-dead armies and slave girls.  It's hard to see this scene as anything other than a mournful valedictory for Barks' imminent departure from the title with which he is the most readily associated.

The issue's one negative note is sounded in a short filler tale, "Feed for Greed."  In this story, we are expected to believe that Scrooge has commissioned a gizmo called a "Greed-O-Matic" that will give consumers an insatiable urge to buy McDuck products.  Anyone familiar with Scrooge has to be appalled by this mischaracterization.  Why is Scrooge so surprised when his lawyers tell him that the "G-O-M" may be a violation of fair trade law, and why does he then demand that they find him some loopholes?  "Making it square," indeed…                

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(8/21/05)

Mickey Mouse and Friends #280 (September 2005).  Artist Paul Murry is back in the lead-off slot with a reprint of "The Case of the Vanishing Bandit."  This 1950s tale is full of the charming naivete and improbable coincidences characteristic of its era.  From his "island in the sky" – and with Floyd Gottfredson's Dr. Einmug nowhere in sight! – villainous Professor Homer J. Thugg is "robbing the earth" a couple of moneybags at a time by using his "super crank crook-hooker" to reel in his bank-robbing accomplice.  The sheer inefficiency of this method does considerably more than boggle the mind, but Thugg, the self-proclaimed "world's most unscrupulous inventor," is too delightfully egocentric to notice or care that people on the ground might actually look up sooner or later and realize what's afoot.  The tale contains a larger-than-average number of clever lines and non-sequiturs for Goofy and a priceless ending gag involving the destruction of the Mouseton police station that gives the story as a whole something of a burlesque tone.  The Donald Duck offering "A Unique Home," which pits Donald and the boys against a triad of unscrupulous realtors, is a little older than most of Gemstone's Egmont offerings have been, and it's easy to recognize the fact from the relatively bland and predictable plot.  In the concluding Goofy story, "Officer Goofy," The Goof is in harness as a rookie cop trying (and failing) to live up to the tough ideals instilled in him by the police drill sergeant.  Sarah Kinney proves once again that she understands the intricate byways of Goofy's mind and reasoning processes, while Fabrizio Petrossi provides suitably lively, slapstick-friendly artwork.  This would have made a good plot for an installment of Mickey's Mouseworks.    

Donald Duck and Friends #331 (September 2005).  DD&F continues its recent run of consecutive reprints of Carl Barks' early Donald stories from WDC&S.  "Camera Crazy" is fairly straightforward Don vs. Nephews shenanigans, with the ducks competing to provide a newspaper with dramatic photographs.  The ultimate fate of "The Donald"'s efforts is nicely telegraphed on the very first page, but in so subtle a way that it's easy for the first-time reader to miss.  The book's centerpiece and highlight, Stefan Petrucha and Euclides Miyaura's "Gliquid," chronicles the efforts of Mickey Mouse and Doc Static to find a use for a gaseous liquid (fluidous gas?) that Mickey has accidentally invented after falling and scattering chemicals all over the place (was Petrucha thinking of the origin of the Silver Age Flash here?).  A Mouseton research lab, some villainous corporate spies, and Krankle Gorb's mob (cf. Petrucha's earlier story "Mickey Most Wanted" in Mickey Mouse and Friends #277) try in turn to unlock the "secret" of "Gliquid," but it turns out that it doesn't have a "secret" at all – in a manner of speaking.  Petrucha's poker-faced rendition of the spies of Inky Black Inc. as sun-glassed, trench-coated agents who boldly announce the location of their "Secret Lab" to the world might almost be considered a reaction to the types of plots he has regularly scripted for such convoluted, conspiracy-themed titles as Kolchak: The Night Stalker and X-Files.  The closing tale "You Can Run but You Can't Hide" showcases a rather over-the-top depiction of Donald's ineptitude, with Don making a pathetic ass of himself as he tries to prove he can hide from the Nephews. (HD&L, for their part, treat his "challenge" which such disrespect that they don't even plan to seek him out until their TV program is finished.)  If nothing else, the story provides more evidence that artist Wanda Gattino is the closest thing Egmont has to a direct artistic "successor" to the late Daniel Branca.

(8/14/05)

Donald Duck Adventures #13 (August 2005). By this title's relatively high standards, this issue qualifies as something of a bust – not so much in the quality of storytelling as in the choice of subject matter.  The opening story, Dave Rawson and Manrique's "Mask of the Mardi Gras," qualifies as the best, if only because it spins a logically acceptable -- albeit rather uninspired – tale.  It's Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L vs. the Beagle Boys and Mr. McSwine (the vicious pig-faced villain who appeared in various Carl Barks stories under different names) for control of an "authentic mask of ritual magic" with an unexpected hypnotic power.  The mask's power is mildly clever; the balance of the story is not.  The Rio de Janiero "Carnival" and Amazon jungle settings are depicted in humdrum style, and, when it comes to characterization, suffice it to say that there's something wrong with a story in which the Beagle Boys seem more committed than McSwine to eliminating the Ducks from the land of the living.  Well, at least Rawson's main sin was a simple lack of inspiration.  Stefan Petrucha and Miguel, in the Mickey Mouse story "Mouse by Mousewest," and John Blair Moore and Carrion (unfortunate name, that), in the Uncle $crooge caper "Feeling for Ice," commit much more grievous gaffes.  A full-blown parody of North by Northwest, with Mickey in the Cary Grant role, is a perfectly fine idea, but the normally reliable Petrucha can't seem to commit himself fully to the notion.  In addition to a few Hitchcock-inspired scenes – yes, the crop-dusting one is included – Petrucha stirs in a loopy plot involving spies' plans to steal a space shuttle and reprogram a satellite to beam hypnotic transmissions at the Earth.  Opposing the baddies are a top-secret clutch of good-guy agents headed by a Mickey lookalike named (wait for it) Jake Bland.  I think you can probably predict Mickey's ultimate role in all this.  The resulting mishmash holds absolutely no surprises.  "Feeling for Ice" is a sort of Scrooge and Donald version of an old Darkwing Duck episode (actually, the last one broadcast) in which Darkwing discovers himself in a museum, encased in amber that is billions of years old.  Here, Donald and Gyro Gearloose uncover Scrooge inside a 100,000-year-old block of ice – and, soon thereafter, Donald himself in the same frigid predicament.  As you can probably guess, this is a time-travel story – one in which you have to buy the notion that Donald and Scrooge have, indeed, spent the last 100,000 years entombed in ice, thereby missing all of their already-existing adventures (and all of recorded human/waterfowl history, besides).  I thought the idea was appalling when I saw it done on Darkwing Duck, and I'm sure not inclined to change my mind now.        

Television Cartoon Shows (2nd ed.) by Hal Erickson (2 vols., McFarland).  Twelve years after its initial appearance, this generally excellent reference work has finally gone into a second edition.  This new version rates an illustrated cover (the original had the generic McFarland "denim-ish" look) and, due to the proliferation of animated series of all types since 1993, a division into two volumes, covering over 1000 pages in all.  Unfortunately, a number of the mistakes and oversights of the first edition are still present.  A couple of the old entries have been updated, but only if a new version of the series has been produced (e.g., the entry for Superman now includes the 90s Superman: the Animated Series) or if new information about a previously obscure project has come to light.  (The lack of corrections may have something to do with the fact that McFarland is a reference publisher; as a result, many of the copies that were sold have been resting peacefully on college library shelves rather than circulating amongst animation fans.)  The new entries are well-written, and most of them seem accurate, but Erickson seems less willing to pass judgment on the merits of the series of interest.  Superman: the Animated Series was easily as ambitious an undertaking as the earlier Batman series, yet, while Erickson devotes a lot of space to analyzing what made the latter series so good and so groundbreaking, he contents himself with a bald summary of factual particulars when it comes to the former.  I didn't always agree with what Erickson had to say about a series, but it was most entertaining to read through his reasoning.  I still think quite highly of Erickson's work and appreciate the effort he put into this revamping, but this new edition falls a little short of what it could have been had the necessary changes been made.  

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(8/7/05)

Uncle $crooge #344 (August 2005).  Two Italian creators get prominent places in this month's issue.  Unfortunately, the wrong story got the cover and the prized leadoff position.  "Fishpond Frenzy," drawn and co-written by Marco Rota, exemplifies Rota's one major flaw as a creator.  Though he's a magnificent draftsman, his success rate when it comes to crafting well-plotted stories is roughly that of the typical Italian government when it comes to staying in power.  Scrooge's plan to "corner the world carp market" by raising prize koi gets tangled up -- rather illogically -- with yet another try by Magica de Spell at Scrooge's talismanic Old #1 Dime.  Scrooge jumps to the (dubious) conclusion that Magica is responsible for putting a ravenous pike in his fish pond, then promptly fetches Old #1 from its well-guarded hiding place so as to make himself "feel better" before the representatives of the "Duckburg Koi Fanciers' Society" come on their inevitable visit to judge his fishy handiwork.  Huh????  Perhaps fittingly, the story ends with Magica's butt getting put in traction, thanks to the sturdy jaws of the pike.  I think reading this story took a piece out of me, as well.  Thankfully, the recently deceased Romano Scarpa is back (in tandem with writer Terry Laban) with "All You Need is Love," the second chapter in what David Gerstein tells me will be a trilogy of stories in which Scrooge matches wits with the villainous master of disguise, Sly K. Switcheroo.  Scarpa's own original creation, the lovesick Brigitta MacBridge, has a prominent role here and gets to display some unexpected talents (would you believe, karate??) over and above her unique ability to get on Scrooge's nerves.  The book is filled out by several small works featuring the Beagle Boys and Gyro Gearloose and a reprint of "The Cattle King," one of Carl Barks' last $crooge stories.  Though some folks don't care for them, I tend to like Barks' later adventures.  Their light tone and overall air of bemused flippancy seem to give them the heft of papier-mâché when they are compared to the solid craftsmanship displayed in Barks' classics of the 40s and 50s, but they are definitely a few cuts above the less inspired work that an overworked and underpaid Barks cranked out in the late 50s and early 60s.  Barks may have sounded like a cranky old fart by the time the Summer of Love rolled around, but, at the best of times, he was an inspired cranky old fart.  "The Cattle King" is as good as any of the stories from this period. 

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #659 (August 2005).  Now I know another reason why Mythos Island continues to crumble into the sea: the combined weight of the characters clambering onto it is getting to be too much to bear.  In chapters 5 and 6 of the ongoing saga by Pat and Carol McGreal and Cesar Ferioli, Scrooge, Donald, HD&L, Mickey, Goofy, Pluto, Minnie, and Daisy all either return to the mythological menagerie or experience it for the first time.  Soon enough, Doc Static and Gyro Gearloose are going to join the crowd.  Then what?  With so many characters involved – and that's before we start counting the banshees, centaurs, genii, and such – the concluding four chapters could wind up resembling "Donald and Mickey's All-Star Myth-O-Lympics."  Well, the McGreals are probably too clever and accomplished to fall into that trap.  We're still awaiting the promised article where the writers discuss the origins of the story and the sources of the mythological beasties.  The best thing in the rest of the issue is "That Ol' Soft Soap," a reprint of a classic story from the late, lamented Disney Comics era of the early 1990s.  Knowing what we now know about the profound damage that hologram covers, forever-sealed first issues, black-bagged "death issues" (with accompanying black armbands and cardboard tombstones!), and similar trickery wrought on the comics industry during the 1990s, Michael T. Gilbert's acid-etched parody of collector excess -- in which Donald, brandishing the knowledge gained from a mail-order advertising course, challenges Scrooge's grip on the Duckburg soap market by means of increasingly ludicrous marketing gimmicks -- shows a prescience that's little short of amazing.  William Van Horn only illustrated this 1991 tale, but he was the perfect choice to do so: who else could have captured the loony soap collectors' fanaticism or Donald's increasing loss of control over his own somewhat dubious advertising skills?  In place of the usual Van Horn Donald Duck leadoff story, we get Marco Rota's "Blazing Tastebuds," which is no classic but, thank goodness, is better than "Fishpond Frenzy" – though there may be a few too many clichéd gags involving Central American countries and chili peppers for some people's sensitive (and not just when it comes to hot peppers) tastes.

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