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Book and Comic Reviews

(8/28/06)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #672 (September 2006).  Two contrasting tales of romantic skullduggery – or snuggleduggery, if you prefer – featuring Disney's two "leading men" provide ample fodder for "compare and contrast" hijinks in this issue.  Part three of Floyd Gottfredson's classic continuity "Love Trouble" finds Mickey winding up his "campaign of retaliation" against Minnie, who'd ditched him for the caddish Montmorency Rodent.  With the help of Millicent Van Gilt-Mouse – whose true identity is revealed here – Mickey teaches Monty and Minnie a definitive lesson at Mrs. Van Astorocks' swanky party, and, for good measure, unmasks the showboating Monty as a fraud.  Needless to say, Mickey and Minnie patch things up for good and all before tale's end.  One might argue that, while Minnie undoubtedly deserved to be set straight, Mickey gets off fairly easily, considering that Minnie's original intention was to teach her globe-trotting man not to take her for granted -- an entirely legitimate criticism.  (As if tacitly agreeing that Mickey hadn't been spending enough quality time with Minnie of late, Gottfredson set his subsequent continuity, "Mickey Mouse: Super Salesman," on "home turf" and had the two "meeces" working in the same advertising agency!)  A more general criticism that's been aimed at this story in the past is that all the female characters act in a stereotyped manner.  This is undeniably true up to a point – the snippy encounter between Minnie and Millicent outside a beauty shop in this installment is just one example of such attitudes on clear display – but the sheer energy running through Mickey and Minnie's extended battle of wits (not to mention acting jobs) puts the story over for me despite the "period" characterizations. 

As luck (or deliberate editorial decision) would have it, the McGreals-Santanach Donald story "A Date with Daisy" that follows on the heels of "Love Trouble"'s wrap-up involves Daisy's delivery of a dram of distaff deception.  Deciding that "it's now or never" that lazy, forgetful Donald prove his loyalty to her, Daisy mimics getting gifts and attention from a nonexistent "new admirer," pitching Don into a jealous fit.  (Note that unlike Minnie, who used a real "rival" to get Mickey's goat, Daisy knows that working on Donald's explosive psyche, rather than his senses, is likely to achieve maximum impact.).  Donald ultimately gets wise and feigns indifference when he sees Daisy bereft of male accompaniment at the Duckburg Grande Ball – at least, until a weeping Daisy falls on the shoulder of a bewildered sympathetic male just in time for Donald's return to the room, with the intention of "coming clean."  The messy consequences can be imagined.  As is typical of most of their "tete a tete" tales, Don and Daisy (especially the former) essentially return to the status quo "default setting" by tale's end… a sad, but altogether believable, outcome.   If Mickey and Minnie, for all their occasional squabbles, represent what we would like a long-term relationship to be, Donald and Daisy perpetually bring us all back down to Earth, in a manner of speaking.

The rest of the ish has its ups and downs.  Donald's nasty Neighbor Jones finally gets a co-starring byline (and logo) of his very own in the lead story, Daan Jippes and Byron Erickson's "Deep Un-Pact".  Alas, Jippes appears to have expended 99.999% of the energy he used to craft this story on the (exemplary) artwork.  After literally decades of noisy feuding between Don and Jones, we suddenly learn that… a live WWII-era bomb is buried beneath Jones' property, and the slightest vibration might set it off???  Wouldn't that bomb have exploded sometime back around, oh, 1943 (the year Jones debuted) or thereabouts?  In his frenzied haste to muffle Jones' subsequent assaults, Donald does such things as suck up live grenades with a snowplow and shoot them out of the danger zone, only to have angry neighbors subsequently appear, pull the grenades' pins (sic!), and stage an assault of their own.  Ultimately, Jones discovers the bomb right underneath his fence (note: it was supposedly "thirty feet below" said fence) and endeavors to cram it down Don's gullet.  Sorry, Daan, but all this guff is roughly on the level of the "Donald's Dynamite" feature from Disney's MouseWorks.  A fine vintage Li'l Bad Wolf story by Gil Turner and a very good Mickey dino-tale, "Reverting Raptors," serve to settle the dust a mite.  The latter story, by the McGreals and Noel Van Horn, is a sequel to a series of Jurassic Park-inspired tales that appeared at the tail end of the "Gladstone II" era (and to be quite honest, I've forgotten virtually all of the details of those stories by this time).  This time around, the supposedly harmless vegetarian raptors cloned by Professor Wagstaff appear to have turned rogue, causing "wrangler" Mickey and his partner Buck a fair amount of trouble.  The story takes a nice "mystery" approach and features some excellent NVH art.  Alas, we travel back "down the tubes" with the concluding Donald story, Pat and Shelly Block and Santiago Scalabroni's "Believe!".  (No, this does not take place in Baltimore City – that's an "in-joke", son.)  Loudly pooh-poohing the Nephews' enthusiastic dash towards a supposed "pot of gold" at the end of a rainbow, as well as their faith in the existence of Santa Claus and other such fanciful fauna, Donald is set straight (in a dream, anyway) by "The Spirit of Innocence," a dyspeptic imp with a severe skin condition, who acts and sounds anything but innocent.  Forced to play the role of the "mythical" Tooth Fairy, Don covers himself in glory (not) and wakes up avowing that all mythological critters really do exist.  Childish, unfunny, and poorly drawn – "three strikes and" you know the rest…    

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Little Lulu Volume 11:  April Fools (Dark Horse).  This latest bundle of mirth collects the stories from Little Lulu #43-48.  Two definite "keepers" in this package are the "story telling" – er, stories – "The Ghost Train" and "The Girl Who Could Talk to Trees."  The former touches, lightly but poignantly, upon the theme of death with its scenario of Lulu encountering the shade of a legendary train that was wrecked in a cave-in.  Thanks to some Lulu-style ingenuity, the ghostly rail-riders are finally able to "complete some unfinished business" (in the words of the phrase used in the Casper feature film) and head to their eternal rest.  Witch Hazel also returns in several stories, in one of which she transforms hapless Lulu into, of all things, a water pipe!  Unlike Barry Allen on that famous Flash cover, the one on which he groaned "I've got the strangest feeling I'm being turned into a puppet!" without ever explaining exactly what that meant, Lulu knows enough to clarify matters, sort of: "I can't explain how it feels to feel like a pipe – you just have to be a pipe to know what I mean."  (John Stanley's ingenuity in crafting these Witch Hazel stories apparently didn't extend to the titles: "That Awful Witch Hazel, Again" and "That Awful Witch Hazel."  I mean, even "That Awfuler Witch Hazel" or "Good Grief, More of That Awful Witch Hazel!" would have been better.)  Back in the 'hood, Lulu braves the usual gauntlet of trick-playing boys, truant officer Mr. McNabbem (finally making another appearance), and conceited girlfriends.  Dark Horse should soon be releasing Little Lulu in Color, and I can't imagine a better holiday gift for that child you know who loves reading and might just be convinced to get interested in comics if they are given a gentle "push."

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(8/20/06)

Donald Duck and Friends #343 (September 2006).  As was the case in last month's issue, a vintage tale by Carl Barks bumps what should have been this book's featured item – the McGreals' and Vicar's delightful "The Duke of Dipp" – into the "back seat."  This epic asks the question: Can "regular guy" Donald Duck find happiness in a strange land after he's unexpectedly fingered as the heir to the recently deceased Duke of Dipp?  The question becomes anything but moot after the newly dubbed, increasingly disdainful Duke Donald of Dipp discovers that he will have to marry the Duchess of Doofus as part of the bargain – a shocker that affects both Don and Daisy.  David Gerstein describes the story as "a darkly comic look at human weakness" in his editorial remarks, which is overstating matters, if anything.  Personally, I'd have been surprised had "anti-establishmentarian" Donald NOT changed his mind about the inherent worthlessness of royalty -- not because he's "human" and "weak", but because he's, well, Donald.  The Nephews' equally complete acquiescence to life in Dippland comes as a little bit more of a jolt; they're still grousing about losing such privileges as "neat banisters to slide on" and "desserts day and night" long after a bit of genealogical research has saved Donald from a lifetime sentence as Dippland's despised co-ruler.  Despite the inherent silliness of the plot's execution – complete with some human caricatures that are, I'm told, modeled on Egmont executives -- I must confess that I really enjoyed the McGreals' treatment of the relationship between Donald and Daisy, which is rendered with far more finesse than we have come to expect from most Duck creators.  The McGreals even manage to suggest that Don and his lady – much like Mickey and Minnie – are somehow meant to be together, no matter what.  D&D have had so many battles over the years that I genuinely appreciated the sentiment.  One wiseacre question: Given that the plot climaxes with Donald being saved from a wedding "in the nick of time," why does it appear that the characters rely entirely on ship travel to move between Duckburg and Dippland?  One would have to conclude (for the Ducks' sake, anyway) that Dippland is somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia or Long Island…

The Barks lead story, 1944's "Ten Cents' Worth of Trouble," is truly painful to read: Donald strives mightily to recover a valuable old coin that he'd inadvertently given to HD&L to spend --  and he winds up a literal mental case.  Apart from a little carelessness in letting the coin get out of his hands, Don really doesn't do anything to merit the agonies he undergoes here.  The Nephews even contrive to let him down when they fail to recognize the dime near the end and give it away themselves, after Don has, through a series of coincidences that defy even normal Disney comics logic, recovered his prize.  This, mind you, after the boys had been shown the "funny-looking" coin at least once.  (HD&L have had better issues.)  The Mickey "sandwich" story, Sarah Kinney and Cesar Ferioli's "Quest for Rest," is a better story despite being less than half as long.  Mickey (for once) wants nothing more than to enjoy a little peace and quiet, but, after dodging potential "adventures" with his friends long enough to get on board a plane to a tropical resort, he finds that action and/or adventure continue to trail him wherever he goes.  After saving the plane when its pilot blacks out, Mickey is dragooned into various resort activities and then caught in a hurricane.  After finally getting some enforced rest – and being bored silly thereby -- Mickey decides that he ought not to fight the Fates.  It's a simple idea, but a nicely delineated one – and having Ferioli handle the art chores certainly doesn't hurt.  I'm especially taken with his careful depiction of distinct "background characters" (as opposed to the usual generic dogfaces who switch from scene to scene) in this particular effort.

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #292 (September 2006).   In the few Italian Disney stories I've read, I've noted a consistent tendency to, if not bend logic, then certainly to "morph" it into a format suitable for justifying the events of a story.  Never has the process of metamorphosis been on more garish display than in this issue's sole story, Roberto Catalano and Romano Scarpa's "Mickey Mouse and the Incredible Black Comet."  You know you're in for a wild ride when you learn on page 3 that Goofy has been taking a "correspondence course" in "missile commanding" (and I don't mean the once-popular video game) and now demands to be addressed as "Z-413".  The newly christened "Z" and Mickey are soon joined by Eega Beeva, who's traveled from 2447 to warn the citizens of Mouseton about an oncoming "black comet" that may or may not have wiped out the city in 2006.  The subsequent alarms raised by Mickey, "Z", and "The Beeva" are unsuccessful, but the trio do manage to enlist the help of Doc Static. (Actually, it isn't Doc Static, but a one-shot scientist character whose basic physical model Scarpa and Cesar Ferioli just happened to use 30-odd years apart!)  The good Doctor (the "retconned" version, that is) alters the comet's path with a missile packing a "vast explosive charge" (read: nuclear explosion).  Pieces of the comet enter Earth's atmosphere, and a gas they emit kills all the kumquats on the planet.  Problem is, in Eega Beeva's time, the people (or whatever term would be most appropriate for Eega Beeva) live on kumquats.  Luckily, Eega – ta-dah-h! – produces a ray gun that "reintegrates" his stash of kumquats, thereby preserving the fruit for future generations.  The loophole here is almost too obvious: why would Eega possess a "kumquat-reintegrator" in a future in which kumquats haven't existed for hundreds of years?  Then, too, there's the small detail that the destruction of all of 2006 Earth's kumquats would theoretically make it impossible for Eega to exist at all…  I'm sorry, but I find it impossible to "connect the dots" here.    Add the extremely dubious notion that the "shock wave" from an outer-space explosion could be materially felt on Earth (not to mention the danger inherent in letting fly with a nuclear salvo so close to Earth's atmosphere) and you've got a story that's ready for a padded cell.  We don't even get to see Goofy use his newfound expertise, aside from him suggesting that Doc Static consider using a missile to stop the comet.  Ah, me… at least the story is well drawn, but it leaves me wishing that Scarpa had not ceased to write as well as draw stories for a time in the 1960s.

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(8/7/06)

Uncle $crooge #356 (August 2006).  Oh dear.  Not a good issue, this…  and the leadoff Carl Barks reprint, "Hall of the Mermaid Queen," widely regarded as one of Barks' weakest $crooge efforts, is only one of the reasons.  I do like a number of the stories from Barks' "wind-down" period of the mid- to late 60s, but "Mermaid Queen" probably deserves its notoriety.  Originally produced (at least in part) as Barks' "reply" to an editorial request that he update Daisy's looks and wardrobe and feature her in more stories to please female readers, this somewhat tedious tale of an undersea encounter with a race of slightly silly green mermen and their haughty Queen Cleopickerel oozes contempt from every panel.  The somewhat more "glamorized" physical version of Daisy who tags along on a journey to salvage Scrooge's sunken money certainly looks good – an anticipation, of sorts, of the appearance of the much-liked Daisy of TV's Quack Pack – but her shrillness and paranoid unwillingness to let Donald be tempted away by mermaids (even before she knows that they actually exist!!) rather sour the effect.  The egocentric Cleopickerel doesn't come off much better, ultimately getting "bought off" by an endless supply of cosmetics provided by Scrooge's factories.  (She also mystifyingly learns to speak English by the end of the story after not being able to when she first appears.)  The plot, as David Gerstein notes in his editor's column, bears some similarities to that of Barks' earlier "The Secret of Atlantis," but the opening scenario of Scrooge's money dropping into a subterranean cavern may also reflect the influence of "A Christmas for Shacktown."  Whatever the source of the idea, it's clear that Barks was "running on autopilot" when he produced this story.  Given his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the story, Barks "works the room" reasonably adroitly, but, in the end, that can only help so much.

In Terry Laban and Miguel's "It Must Be Magic," the Beagle Boys get more than they bargained for when they kidnap a diminutive magician who's just performed a David Copperfield-esque illusion trick and made Scrooge's money bin "disappear".  There are no major surprises here, but it's a reasonably well-told tale, which makes it one of the better items in this particular issue.  After "Gift Lion," a reprint of an OK early-60s Barks $crooge "filler" tale, comes a Disney Studio Gyro Gearloose reprint, "Space Food Folly," written by veteran Western Pub. scripter Don Christensen and drawn by Tony Strobl.  The best thing about this tale is the coloring – Kneon Transitt puts a "sheen" on Strobl's artwork that has rarely been seen before.  The plot, though, takes much too long to get started (especially for a short story!), is overly talky, and is strictly derivative besides, revolving around "beef gumballs" (I'm not making this up) that Gyro has created for the space program.  After greedy Scrooge gets his mitts on the invention, things start to "heat up" – literally – and Scrooge and Gyro barely survive being crushed under an avalanche of massive beef roasts.

The issue's final offering, Paul Halas, Tony Isabella, and Millet's "Everything's Coming Up Rubies," could have attained the level of a good DuckTales episode were it not for one exceptionally irritating detail.  Egmont writers have sometimes fallen back on the easy plot hook of having Donald become obsessed with one enthusiasm or another (to be fair, Barks was known to exploit this notion as well).  Here, though, we're expected to buy into the idea that Don has suddenly gone gaga for elephant artifacts – and Scrooge just happens to show up at that moment to ask him and HD&L to accompany him on a trip to India in search of the legendary treasure of an Indian maharajah!  I mean, even in the Disney comics "universe", what are the odds?  (Donald's elephant enthusiasm apparently doesn't extend to protecting the precious critters, since his pachyderm-packed pad features a mounted elephant head and an elephant-foot umbrella stand!)  In their quest, the ducks battle Glomgold (who first appears on the scene sporting his DuckTales-era beard and Scottish attire).  Taking advantage of a groggy Donald in the throes of recovering from a jeep crash – caused by Don's carelessly ogling elephants, of course – Flintheart poses as a local guru, or something, to get Don to take him to where Scrooge and HD&L have been buried in the collapse of the maharajah's elephant-shaped (yep) jungle temple.  The twist ending and a nice Millet splash panel of the Ducks' first glimpse of the ancient temple are good touches, but the whole premise is a little too farfetched for me to accept.

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Donald Duck Adventures #19 (July 2006).  An enjoyable, albeit somewhat sloppy (especially in the second Donald story) issue.  Pat and Carol McGreal and Flemming Andersen lead off the book with "Where's the Bin Been?", a "Duck-take" on a conceit seen in numerous time-travel stories: the appearance of a modern construct in the guise of an ancient artifact.  This time out, the "displaced" item is nothing less than Scrooge's Money Bin, which first vanishes right from under Scrooge's beak, then is discovered in a thousand-year-old rock formation.  Soon, Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L are winging their way to A.D. 1000-era Duckburg thanks to Gyro Gearloose's latest "temporal-displacement prototype."  Stranded after Gyro's gizmo goes haywire, the displaced Ducks soon find themselves defending an Indian village against a raid by a frothing-at-the-oversized-mouth band of Vikings.  Commanded by the Vikes to cough up as much dough as he can muster, the tribe's shaman casts his "magical net" far afield for countless riches and hauls in… you guessed it.  Can the Ducks save Scrooge's fortune and return it to the present – and how can Donald's extensive comic-book knowledge of Thor (!) and the Nephews' Woodchuck-imparted knowledge of how to make gunpowder help them?  Anderson's usual artistic energy and some cutting side remarks by the Nephews (including some frankly uncharitable ones about their Unca Donald's unparalleled stupidity) lift this effort to an above-average level, though the loopholes are large enough to hurl a thousand war-hammers through (unsurprisingly, both the "Native Duckburgians" and the Vikings speak perfect English) and the gag ending rudely thumbs its nose at every caution ever issued against displacing beings out of their "natural time" for what would appear to be a permanent stay.

The book's long Mickey story, Augusto Macchetto and Giuseppe Dalla Santa's "The Wind of the Azalai," commits a rather surprising gaffe: it forgets to give Mickey (and Goofy) any sort of meaningful role.  M&G more or less tag along with Mouseton archaeologist Professor Zapotec on an expedition to the Sahara to find out what happened to the ancestors of the Tuareg, "today's desert nomads," after the former's legendary ancient caravan disappeared ages ago.  Apparently, it was considered bad scientific form to simply ask today's Tuareg about their ancestors' fate.  Instead, we get a somewhat long-winded (pun intended) visit to the Azalai's "twin cities" of gold and salt, complete with a journey through the subterranean tunnel that connects them.  An unscrupulous member of Mickey's party is bent on stealing the desert dwellers blind.  Mickey is present when the Azalai foil the villain's getaway, but he can't really be said to have contributed any tangible aid to the capture.  Goofy, meanwhile, is pretty oblivious from the first panel through the last, even discounting the "mind-scrubbing" that he and Prof. Z. receive before the end.  A strange tale: reasonably well-told and well-drawn, but essentially irrelevant in the larger scheme of Mickey's "universe."  I wonder if other Italian writers have resorted to such gambits out of sheer laziness or a lack of confidence in Mickey's potential to carry a story.  

"The Black Sheep," a brief and quirky Beagle Boys story by Francesco Artibani and Silvia Zeche, marks the first American installment of what would appear to be a continuing Italian series entitled Tales of the Beagle Boys.  Two Beagles, visiting their incarcerated Grandpa, are upbraided by the senior scoundrel for reportedly "[blowing] another caper," and the boys (who appear to be the runts of the Beagle-litter when it comes to pulling off successful capers) mournfully relate how they somehow managed to fail to steal a "sweet little lamb" to help them break through Scrooge's "anti-criminal-vibe" security system.  Before it's over, the hapless Beagles have thoroughly relived every one of the pains visited upon Wile E. Coyote during one of those "Sheepdog" cartoons.  The jailhouse interview is a clever (if somewhat mechanical) idea, and Zeche's zest-filled artwork punches the unsubtle gags across well.  It may be coincidence, but Zeche's two Beagles are among the scrawniest and most pathetic Beagles I've ever seen.  In addition to the Beagles story, the issue also includes as "filler" a short Mickey and Ellsworth saga drawn by Romano Scarpa and Giorgio Cavazzano and a couple of contemporary gags from Topolino.   

Flemming Andersen returns for a second artistic go-round in the issue's second Donald story, "Inside Donald Duck," penned by Mark and Laura Shaw.  If Andersen was lively in "Where's the Bin Been?", he's positively manic this time around, and with good reason: the plot revolves around Scrooge's attempts to extract his Old #1 Dime from Donald after the latter has (gulp!) swallowed it.  After desperately trying any number of non-surgical means of get ridding of the Dime – including ingesting a full bottle of ipecac, with its inevitable consequences – Don is finally cornered by Scrooge and arm-twisted into letting his uncle, miniaturized by Gyro and manning a dredger, go down his gullet to grab the constricted coin.  Scrooge's "voyage" proves anything but "fantastic," as he manages to extract Old #1 but gets stuck himself.  Donald doesn't help matters by vindictively swallowing all manner of spicy and otherwise "inconvenient" foods just so he can torment his shrunken unc'.  Soon, as Scrooge and the dredger begin to enlarge again, "we're on the eve of eruction" -- and I think you can visualize the rest.  Suffice it to say that I didn't regard this twisted tale as being particularly appropriate for the Ducks' "universe," however unpredictable it might sometimes be.  (Even the denizens of Darkwing Duck's St. Canard might have found this idea -- heh -- hard to swallow.)  The "here we go again!" ending only served to underscore the tale's similarity to a "Great Wackorotti" concert on Animaniacs or the Tiny Toon Adventures epic "The Horn Blows at Lunchtime." Body-function humor has rarely set well with me, and, ultimately, what got me through this (literal) mess was Anderson's artwork, which occasionally verged on the downright demented.  If this story simply had to be done, then Andersen was unquestionably the man to draw it.  Tales like this make me regret all the more the fact that Andersen arrived on the scene too late to illustrate Darkwing Duck comic-book stories.

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America: The Last Best Hope – Volume 1: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War by William J. Bennett (Nelson Current).  Former EdSec Bennett's contribution to the "one-volume history of America" genre plows little new ground and contains few new insights, but I think it would serve as a good gift for a teenager with an interest in history (not to mention inept or ideologically rabid history instructors).  Why did Bennett use all those "italicized" words and one-sentence paragraphs?  To make the tale more exciting, no doubt, but the earlier A Patriot's History of the United States eschewed such tricks and achieved the same goal of delivering a positively-slanted history of America.  It is also difficult to understand why Bennett stopped Volume 1 at 1918 – why not "go the distance", as it were?  There are better histories out there, but Bennett's heart is in the right place and I appreciate his efforts.

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