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Book and Comic Reviews

(12/12/05)

Mickey and the Gang: Classic Stories in Verse, edited by David Gerstein (Gemstone).  This sumptuously handsome volume reprints – in full, and then some – the famous Disney pages that ran in Good Housekeeping magazine from 1934 to 1944.  Many of these pages, which married rhyming text to gorgeously drawn and colored illustrations, were "adaptations" of Disney short cartoons that were either in production at the time or had just been released.  As editor David Gerstein reveals in intricate detail, the word "adaptation" could mean everything from a fairly accurate précis of the cartoon's plot to an extremely early version of the project -- later to be changed extensively, but preserved for the young readers of the GH feature like a prehistoric creature encased in amber.  On occasion, the feature even presented summaries of cartoons that never saw ultimate release.  The GH pages have been discussed on occasion by various authors, but Gerstein's work is likely to remain the definitive discussion into the foreseeable future – not least because he "eggs the pudding" with reprints of press releases, trade reviews, original storyboard art, related comic-strip and comic-book material, and text adaptations that spun off from the GH pages and appeared in children's books and such contemporary periodicals as Mickey Mouse Magazine, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, and the British Mickey Mouse Weekly.  This mass of additional material places each page firmly in its historical perspective and lends strong credence to the thesis, presented by Gerstein in the book's foreword, that the GH pages served the important historical function of "standardizing" the appearance of characters for promotional purposes.  (Reprints of several frankly hideous visual interpretations of the Disney characters from British and Italian sources serve as silent testaments to just how significant an accomplishment this was.)  The rather rigid nature of the book's organization – cartoon plot summary, critique of the GH page, additional material – does get a bit tiresome after a while, especially after we reach the war years, which saw a gradual decline in the feature's overall quality.  When the feature becomes "New Tales from Old Mother Goose" in its final incarnation, Gerstein metaphorically throws in the towel and lets the individual pages pretty much speak for themselves.  But even if you "bleep" over the cartoons and other features that don't interest you (for my part, I chose to skip GH's lengthy and overly familiar tellings of the plots of Snow White and Pinocchio), you're likely to find something of interest on virtually every page.  Gerstein writes well and flavors his commentary with a dash of humor that will be familiar to anyone who has read his scripts for American Disney comics.  As to his accuracy, I've found only one (date-related) error in the book on the first reading, a fairly remarkable feat given the amount of material presented herein.  Any Disney fan will simply have to have this book.  Hopefully, if Gemstone can get the book distributed to the big chain bookstores and Disney stores, it will reach the wider pop-culture audience it deserves.

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(12/4/05) 

Those awaiting a full-dress review of David Gerstein's Mickey and the Gang will have to wait a bit longer.  I'm still working through it, somewhat slowly – blame the end-of-semester rush.  I can say, however, that anyone who wants to get a Christmas gift for a Disney fan-friend ought to hop over to Amazon and order a copy right now.  It's good, folks! 

Uncle $crooge #348 (December 2005).  A very solid "holiday" issue indeed, with every story having something(s) to recommend it.  The lead-off slot goes to "The Hunt for White December," a well-aged (judging by the date code) Egmont story drawn by the late Daniel Branca and featuring holly-jolly jazzed-up dialogue by David Gerstein.  The nasty Argus McSwine -- Carl Barks' "pig villain" in his semi-occasional role as a wealthy rival of Scrooge's – bets McDuck $10 million that Christmas won't be white this year, then hires Magica De Spell to help him stop what appears to be an inevitable snowfall.  This unprecedented teamup of two very different (in technique, anyway) villains produces the expected "frosty fireworks" and features a low-key, "Christmas-influenced" ending that manages to avoid what could have been a slushy overdose of holiday sentiment.  Magica's conveniently appearing and disappearing wand (she's supposed to be using it to hold back the snow, yet suddenly has quick access to it when she cooks up a disguise!) points to some laziness in story composition, but that certainly can't be attributed to the efforts of Gerstein or Branca.  "The Christmas that Almost Wasn't," by Janet Gilbert and Vicar, takes its title from a bad Italian-made holiday movie, anything but a promising beginning.  Luckily, Janet's tale is a little more inspired than the title suggests, if a bit on the "sweet" side.  The Ducks' search for Gyro's missing "Helper" intertwines with the travails of an unfortunate family whose car accident may force them to go without Christmas dinner or gifts.  "The Duckburg Ice Festival," another Gilbert/Vicar offering, isn't about Christmas per se but fits into the spirit of the issue quite nicely, spinning several tales at once about the Ducks' trials and tribulations at the headlined fete.  As all such multi-plot-line stories should do, everything gets tied together nicely (in a big, red holiday bow, no doubt) at the end.  The Beagle Boys are featured in Gorm Transgaard and Nunez' "The Christmas Gathering," which benefits hugely from an excellent dialogue job by Tony Isabella (whose previous scripts for Gemstone have generally erred on the side of blahness).  A posse of Gargoyles… er, Beagles from all over the world come to Duckburg to run a Santa Claus scam that's meant to finance the "ultimate" Christmas-themed crime spree, featuring a giant Santa/Beagle robot.  In the hands of someone like Vic Lockman, this story would have been just plain silly; this tale has a little more content to it (for example, the Beagles' fall from "glory" begins when they lose interest in easy pickings and greedily aim for the "Duckburg gold reserves in Fort Knocks" instead).  William Van Horn's "Out of the Blue", one of "Silly Billy"'s better efforts of late, fills out the issue.  Flat-broke Donald inherits a $2900 IOU that Scrooge once gave to Donald's "extremely distant uncle" Eustace (how "distant" can an uncle be, anyway?), and he and the boys are quick to besiege the old miser for the long-overdue dough.  The tale has nothing to do with Christmas, or winter for that matter, but the unexpected ending will jar those expecting Donald to end up on the short end, as he always seems to do in stories like these – and if that's not a gift to Donald "in the spirit of the season," then what is?

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #662 (December 2005).  I wasn't kind to Don Rosa regarding his treatment of Donald in his most recently published story, "Escape from Forbidden Valley."  Theoretically, then, I should be pleased that this issue presents the first installment of Rosa's second "Three Caballeros revival" tale, "The Magnificent Seven [minus four] Caballeros."  Jose Carioca and Panchito, "two pals who honor and respect" Donald for what he is (so say the Nephews), will surely give Rosa ample opportunity to treat Donald with the same dignity.  Before we get to that point, however, we must endure the truly pitiful sight of Donald literally lying face down in a pool of his own drool while being walked on by Gladstone.  (I kid you not.)  Donald's mental status is so abased at the start of this story that he has literally lost his smile and no longer has the energy to lose his temper.  Scrooge, Gladstone, and Daisy treat him like dirt and do so almost as a matter of course – and Donald seems to philosophically accept it all as "his lot in life."  I guess that Rosa's reason for all this is, with Don as low as he can possibly go, who better to bring him out of his rut than his two enthusiastic old buddies, Jose and Panchito?  (Well, HD&L could surely have had a go at it… but, to be fair to them, they do hatch the plan to send Donald to Brazil so that he can encounter the two other "Caballeros" for what promises to ultimately be a hunt for treasure.)

The major highlight of the rest of the issue is an appearance by Andold Wild Duck, Donald's fierce ancestor from the days of Vikings and Druids and Franks (oh my!), in David Gerstein and Marco Rota's "Mightier than the Sword."  Andold has appeared several times before in this country, but not since WDC&S #630 in late 1998, just before the demise of "Gladstone II" condemned us to five long years without American Disney comics.  Gerstein scripted that most recent Andold tale, and he's in fine form again in this one, in which a would-be Viking invader of Andold's Briton village tries to put its guardians off guard by staging a most unexpected sort of contest.  When Andold (who's marginally more competent than Donald, though he does have his moments) gets wind of the scheme, he decides to fight back – in this case, with drawing instruments, rather than weapons of war.  Of course, there's still sword-swinging and derring-do aplenty before all's said and done.  For those who enjoy movies like The 13th Warrior or Braveheart and relish the chance to read a sort of "Elseworlds" version of what Donald and Daisy (beg pardon, Andold and Aydis – get it?) might have been like had they lived a millennium ago, this story, like all the previous Andold offerings, is a real treat.  Now, if they'd only give us the origin story at long last…  The issue is filled out by a pair of Mickey and Goofy stories packed to the brim with holiday sentiment (in one of them, Black Pete gets to endure the Christmas Carol routine thanks to Mickey and one of Doc Static's inventions) and a reprint of William Van Horn's "The Ghost of Kamikaze Ridge" from the Disney Comics era.  This last-named tale evoked a note of pathos in my soul, originally appearing as it did almost concurrently with the notorious "Disney Implosion" (what was it with this issue and all the "before the deluge" stories?).  I do have a piece of Van Horn's original sketch art from the story, so it's always been a favorite of mine despite those bad (for Disney Comics) vibes.

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Movie Review 

The Flintstones, The Complete Fourth Season (Hanna-Barbera/Warners).  This latest collection of The Flintstones, featuring episodes from the 1963-64 season, catches the series at flood tide.  Bamm-Bamm's introduction notwithstanding, there were still more than enough "adult-themed" episodes to justify the series' ongoing prime-time slot, and virtually all of them provide solid enjoyment.  Artistically, the series hit its peak during this period as well.  Highly recommended for all cartoon buffs.

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