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Book and Comic Reviews

(12/17/06)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #675 (December 2006).  Let's begin with a quick aside.  Has any Disney comic ever been so utterly packed with lengthy exposition?  Both parts of "The Orb Saga" and part one of "The Protector of Shambor" positively luxuriate in backstory, almost to excess.  The latter I can accept in view of the fact that Mickey hasn't visited Shambor of late, but as for the former… let's just say that any story that requires such extensive backtracking after a mere month's delay could have been told a bit more tidily.

The issue begins quietly with "Snow Job," a William Van Horn tale that could, in truth, have been a lot more raucous, considering the identities and attitudes of the principals involved.  Duckburg's under siege from a mysterious "Phantom Snowballer," and Donald and Neighbor Jones are convinced of one another's guilt in the matter.  What could have been an explosive ending peters out into a spasm of genuine cooperation after the feuders learn that Gyro Gearloose's out-of-control "flying snow cannon" is responsible and work with Gyro to corral the malfunctioning device.  It's a well-written and well-drawn story, but I can think of no exhibit to put on display that better illustrates the autumnal mellowing of the man once known as "Silly Billy."

With parts five and six of "The Orb Saga," we finally learn something about the nature and importance of the much-prized baubles.  In part five, "War of the Wizards," Gyro Gearloose inadvertently turns the twin spheres into a window onto the past.  As a result, he watches early Colonial ancestors of Donald and Mickey help a Druid sorcerer foil an attempt by lantern-jawed magick Meringue the Magnificent to use the orbs to create an "invincible scepter of power."  After the Druid banishes the orbs to separate corners of the Earth, Meringue goes him one better and casts a spell that will allow him to return several hundred years later to reclaim his devices.  Meringue makes his inevitable return (on Christmas Eve, yet) in part six, "'Tis the Season to Be Wicked," and proceeds to hypnotize Magica de Spell, the Beagle Boys, and the Phantom Blot (who, fittingly, is the last holdout) into becoming his willing allies.  Meringue is so egotistical and overbearing that it's only a matter of time before he lays himself low, so it's hard to generate all that much enthusiasm about the final chapters of the story.  Still, the McGreals are accomplished writers and may yet surprise us.  Notable here is Vicar's turn at drawing Mickey (or, to be precise, Mickey's ancestor) in "War of the Wizards," which serves primarily to show us why Vicar became a Duck specialist. 

Part one of "The Protector of Shambor" barely gets out of the starting gate before the issue comes to an end.  That's how long it takes for us to be reminded, at considerable length, of Mickey's previous adventures in the "marvelous realm of Shambor."  Scared into returning to Shambor after dreaming of his doppelganger Yekcim Esoum's being tortured at the hands of Shambor's wicked ex-vizier, Mickey can't exploit the powers of the Book of Shambor to return there.  He learns from the old man who gave him the Book (also the prophet that foretold Mickey's coming as Shambor's liberator) that it is now time for him to "write [his] own chapter."  He does so and succeeds in getting back to Shambor but finds himself at the mercy of a nestful of birds just as we literally "close the book."  Where will this story go?  Who knows, but it's nice to see the McGreals and artist Cesar Ferioli working together once more on this intriguing property.    

The ish also contains part one of a classic Floyd Gottfredson Mickey story, "Mickey Mouse Joins the Foreign Legion."  This 1936 epic is one of the very few Mickey strip continuities from Gottfredson's "Golden Age" that "Gladstone I" did not get around to reprinting -- at least in part because Mickey undergoes some very rough treatment along the way at the hands of Pete.  With Disney having undergone some rough treatment of its own in the ensuing years – much of which has been self-inflicted – keeping Mickey's gloves unsoiled is now the least of the company's worries, so off we go!  Mickey is commissioned by the "commander in chief of the National Secret Service" to track an ex-agent, Trigger Hawkes, who's bound for parts unknown to peddle the blueprints of a "new-type gun" (as opposed to a new gun, I presume?) to the highest bidder.  The Mouse benefits from a tremendous slice of luck when he's accidentally trapped on board a ship that Hawkes just happens to be taking to Africa.  That's as far as we progress for now, but along the way, we're treated to such delightful scenes as Mickey's refusing to reveal military secrets to a flock of (phony) masked thugs who are willing to resort to the (gasp!) chicken-pecking torture test.  Unhappily – for Mickey, that is – such cutesy means of persuasion will be replaced by more serious threats to his well-being later on in the story. 

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Mickey Mouse and Blotman: "Blotman Returns" (December 2006).  In the inevitable sequel to the fine "Blotman" story, the crime-fighting Blotman and Sidekick invade Mickey's dimension to enlist his help in short-circuiting an impending reign of terror by the evil Doctor Stat.  Along the way, Goofy gets involved and ends up subbing for his doppelganger Goofus D. Dawg to preserve Blotman's secret ID.  Pat and Carol McGreal successfully preserve the light tone of the original, throwing in plenty of the obligatory references to/shots at the 60s Batman TV show (for example, Goofus Dawg's mansion is "sprawling and opulent," rather than merely "stately").  Joaquin Sanchez' artwork is also up to its previous standards.  The best gag involves Goofy's resentful reaction to the news that his doppelganger is a "devil-may-care playboy and multi-billionaire" ("How th' heck did I miss th' boat in [my universe]?" frets The Goof).  No huge surprises here, just a package of good, wholesome "Silver Age"-flavored fun.

The Super Goof backup tale, "Now Museum, Now You Don't", gives Joe Torcivia his long-awaited, well-deserved chance to write a Gemstone script, and he certainly doesn't disappoint.  Joe takes the placid English dialogue of the Disney Studios original and mutates it into a full-bore tribute to Vic Lockman, the writer who penned many of the best (and weirdest) SG epics.  With such character names as Phineas Fawningfan (the Super Goof "fanboy" who eagerly enlists The Goof of Steel's help in collecting exhibits for a new "Super Goof Museum") and Mr. Picklepurse, not to mention such wacko walk-on types as a marooned saleslady who's been "selling cold cream to hot-air balloonists" and an imperiled steelworker who carries a "peanut butter and cole slaw sandwich" in his lunch box, Joe can safely be said to have succeeded at his task.  At one point, Super Goof even prepares to ask for a cash reward – and only those completely familiar with Lockman's "template" would recognize that particular reference!  We can only hope that Joe gets additional opportunities to showcase his writing talents for Gemstone. 

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(12/10/06) 

E.C. Segar's Popeye:  Volume 1, "I Yam What I Yam!" (Fantagraphics Press) This project marks Fantagraphics' second swipe at "Thimble Theatre: The Popeye Years."  Having previously issued a series of paperbacks collecting all of Segar's Popeye-related Theatre strips, Fantagraphics really does right by the sailor man this time around, presenting black and white daily strips and color Sunday strips from 1928-1931 in a handsome, over-sized hardback volume.  I have several of the paperbacks but had never before read the "Dice Island" narrative that introduced Popeye.  The grand reputation of this famous continuity is fully justified.  Like Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks, Segar was a true master of humorous adventure, and though he was a less gifted artist than either of the aforementioned gents, the quality of his storytelling is so high that it doesn't much matter. 

The Popeye of this era is quite a revelation to those of us who grew up on all those vapid Famous Studios and King Features Cartoons (not to mention -- *shudder* -- "Popeye and Son").  Even those of us who know something of the slightly more decorous Popeye of the later Segar years might gasp with shock at the sight of the decidedly homely and pugnacious early version of the character picking fights with a series of suitors for Olive Oyl's hand and breaking all known rules of boxing (except those relating to cheating, of course) during his early career as a "s'pise fighter."  Segar maintained separate story arcs in his daily and Sunday strips at this time, and it is in the Sundays that one of the more familiar lineaments of Popeye's character --his stormy love affair with Olive – was first developed.  In the daily strip, by contrast, after the "Dice Island" jaunt and an early encounter with The Sea Hag, Popeye settles down (relatively speaking) to solving mysteries in tandem with pint-sized Castor Oyl, the original lead character of Thimble Theatre.  Though Segar momentarily put Popeye in dry dock after the "Dice Island" adventure – quickly bringing him back after word of the sailor's instant popularity filtered back up the grapevine – it is pretty clear that Segar knew that he had a winner in this character.  For a "supporting" player, Popeye gets an inordinate amount of attention during "Dice Island," from the very beginning.  Once Popeye returns to the spotlight, of course, he never truly cedes it.  While it's unfortunate that we'll have to wait until next Fall to see the second installment in this series, I think it'll be worth the wait.

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Uncle $crooge #360 (December 2006).  Only this issue's lead story, "Being Good for Goodness' Sake," really and truly qualifies as a "Christmas story," but it holds enough sincere sentiment to make up any deficit in the rest of the book.  This Italian tale, drawn by Romano Scarpa and dialogued by Byron Erickson, finds Donald, Scrooge, and other would-be Duckburgian do-gooders trying to win a cash prize offered for "the most sincere act of generosity before Christmas" by burdening all unfortunate souls they encounter with loads of largesse.  Despite their best efforts, the palm ultimately winds up in the hands of… the on-the-lam Beagle Boys, who give cash and gifts to a poor mother and child in an effort to get them to move out of an old cabin that hides a secret passage leading to Scrooge's Money Bin.  The "holiday spirit" displayed here is more sweet than truly sickening, which helps the story work for me.

Speaking of sickening, Tachyon Farflung, the loudmouthed simian alien criminal who'd made one previous attempt to steal Scrooge's money, doesn't much improve by added acquaintance in his second bow, "Return of the Terror."  Intending to pipe Scrooge's money into space (don't ask, please), Farflung is defeated, not by the Ducks' efforts, but by the various inconveniences and irritants he encounters while trying to best the Ducks at a department store.  About all the Ducks offer in terms of resistance is the Nephews' pet mouse Mortimer, who sends a furious Farflung to the tall galactic timber with a bite on the finger.  I appreciate the effort to give Scrooge another recurring opponent to tackle, but Farflung is really annoying above and beyond any efforts by the creators to make him unlikable.

The third major offering herein, "Operation Vesuvius," touches tangentially upon the holidays in the sense that a subplot involves Donald and HD&L's efforts to find a suitable Christmas gift for Daisy.  Apart from that, however, it's a straightforward Ducks vs. Magica de Spell set-to, with the intriguing caveat that the Ducks are the ones taking the fight to Magica in this case.  After the sorceress unsuccessfully attacks them in Duckburg, the peeved pintails go to Mount Vesuvius with the goal of destroying Magica's book of spells for good and all.  Some snappy dialogue by Tony Isabella (who's come a long way since his early, uninspired efforts for Gemstone) and the usual peerless artwork by Daniel Branca make this short yet flavorful tale a winning wrapup to a fine issue.  The balance of the book is filled out by "Snow Duster," a cute Gyro Gearloose story by Carl Barks, and a couple of one-page gags.      

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(12/3/06)

Mickey Mouse Adventures #12 (November 2006).  This pocket-book title has been so consistently strong lately, it's rather hard for me to accept the fact that it's going away after this issue.  As if to taunt us with visions of the wonders we might have seen in future issues, this last effort serves up a trio outstanding stories, climaxing with a memorable, envelope-pushing effort in which Mickey (1) begins to turn into a real, live (?) vampire and (2) is prepared to sacrifice his life in order to avoid (1).  Mickey and the Air Pirates, eat your heart out!

Actually, the overall standout item of this issue is the first story, the Mickey-Donald teamup "The Counterfeit Conundrum," by Byron Erickson and Massimo Fecchi.  Each of these creators is a master of his craft, and they combine to serve up an intricate tale with more unexpected twists and turns than your typical Formula One race.  As part of a scheme cooked up by Mickey's pals to give the mystery-loving Mouse a memorable birthday present, Donald (rather ham-handedly) attempts to draw Mickey into investigating a phony counterfeiting ring.  Mickey figures the truth out (of course) and jerks Don's chain a bit by playing along in unexpected ways.  While doing so, he and Don stumble upon a real mystery involving the whereabouts of a long-lost silent-film classic – and the surprises don't stop there.  I was at a bit of a disadvantage when I first read this story, in that the power was out at the time and I had to squint my way through the pages by the feeble light of a fluorescent lantern.  As a result, until I read the story a second (and more "enlightened") time, I didn't fully appreciate how wonderfully Fecchi telegraphed the truth early on through Donald's facial expressions and reactions.  Thankfully, it was a little easier to acknowledge how skillfully Erickson took the plot off on an apparent tangent without losing his grip on the original plot thread.

The Donald "sandwich" story, "The Isle of Can't-Be-Can," benefits hugely from David Gerstein's typically impeccable (and clever) scripting.  The Italian effort, drawn by Giorgio Cavazzano (cf. World of the Dragonlords), finds Donald and Gyro Gearloose dumped by Scrooge on a remote island to investigate why "ghosts and banshees from… children's stories" have apparently invaded the place and caused the residents to flee.  No, there's no need to call upon the Scooby-Doo template: these monsters are real… in the sense that an alien marketing guru's "Thrill-O-Rama" device is causing people's childhood bogeymen to come to life.  There's no compelling reason to involve an off-worlder here – the device might just as well have been a Gyro invention run amuck – but the alien is humorously characterized and the story manages to get by with the notion.  Donald and Gyro don't get a chance to team up by themselves very often, and, while there's little of the friction that one might expect to occur between them, Gyro does get off one great line after experiencing several of Donald's childhood bogies: "Donald, I never truly appreciated your imagination before!"  As drawn by Cavazzano, Donald's monsters seem imaginative, indeed.  

The third story, "By Twilight's Bite," takes such a daring plunge into uncharted waters that it is with genuine regret that I rate it the weakest story in the issue.  The dialogue, by J. Gray, certainly isn't to blame, nor is the plot.  Where this tale falls short is in the realm of artwork.  Miguel Martinez tries his best, but his art simply isn't as strong as, say, Fecchi's.  Even so, the story is so good that you only notice the weak artwork out of the corner of your eye, so to speak.  Mickey accompanies Goofy to Transylvania, where the Goof has inherited an "ancestral castle" (which has happened more often in the annals of Disney comics, I wonder – characters inheriting "ancestral castles" or zoo animals escaping from their cages to terrorize the populace?).  A local descendant of a famed vampire-slayer fingers Goofy as Dracul Goofula, "the cruelest vampire in history!", but, after Mickey gets bit by a pretty (and pretty "undead") female vampire, he's the one displaying the standard Stoker-style stigmata; fer gosh sakes, he even falls in love with the female vampire and starts to forget Minnie!  After an apparent (and decidedly creepy) attack on Goofy by a blood-hungry Mickey, the female vamp literally "swoops in" to stop the repentant Mouse from a permanent "stakeout."  The only real problem I have with the plot lies in the fact that Mickey sates his blood-lust with a blood sausage, which apparently cures him for good!  Wouldn't it just assuage his appetite for the moment?  Someone enlighten me as to the arcane of vampire lore, please…

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Donald Duck Adventures #21 (November 2006).  Not quite as stellar as the concluding issue of MMA, but there's plenty of three-tiered goodness to be savored here, not least because the title comes full circle and features Fecchi (who made such a walloping impression with the two superb Donald and Scrooge stories in DDA #1) as the artist in the lead story.  "Merman Donald," written by Michael Gilbert and Henning Cure, finds Don desperately trying to locate sunken treasure with a map he got in a "discount treasure-map hut" (?!).  Headstrong as always, Don gulps down a jarful of pills that Gyro had been testing as a potential aid to help people breathe underwater, and as a consequence, he loses the ability to survive on land.  Forced to live "under da sea" for the fore-"sea"-able future, Don alternates between glorying in his newfound freedom and wistfully wishing that he could return to high-and-dry Duckburg.  Before surfacing for good and all, he and some newfound finny friends succeed in collaring a ruthless crook who's been netting endangered fish.  Fecchi and the writers manage to wring a fair amount of pathos out of Donald's unfortunate dilemma, despite the inevitable spasms of submerged slapstick.

Fecchi gets credit for drawing the ish's Mickey story, "Absolutely Mickey," but it's Miguel who actually does the honors.  The Gilbert-scripted story plays like a somewhat more visually ambitious and "globally-minded" take on the Floyd Gottfredson continuity "Mickey Mouse the Miracle Master."  In Gottfredson's story, Mickey gained control of a genie but found it impossible to improve the lot of others, even when he made efforts to do so.  Here, Mickey likewise "inherits" a djinn and attempts to "reshape the world into a better place!", but winds up creating a world in which everyone is sickeningly nice in an "Alphonse and Gaston" sort of way.  Mickey's friends, given the largesse of unlimited wishes, likewise learn the truth of the hoary "Be careful what you wish for…" adage.  In the cleverest bit of all, Mickey decides to treat himself to some adventures but quickly grows bored because he's never in any danger (and what fun is that?).  Ultimately, the genie is revealed to be a demonic power who's trying to use Mickey as a pawn, and the Mouse must thwart the former's evil designs.  Gottfredson's "Miracle Master" is probably a better story in terms of being a commentary on human nature, since in that tale, Mickey's good intentions failed because the greed and suspicion of other people caused them to fail, whereas in "Absolutely Mickey," we learn before the end that the genie's wishes were designed to backfire from the start.  It's a good effort nonetheless, with some genuinely atmospheric (albeit sketchy-looking) art from Miguel (I wish he could've saved some out for several additional scenes in "By Twilight's Bite"). 

We're back on the "salvage seas" once more in the concluding Scrooge story, Gorm Transgaard and Toni Bancells' "Whale for Hire."  In an effort to rescue a long-lost safe from the ocean floor and thereby settle a bet with John D. Rockerduck – the subject of which is better left unremarked-upon – Scrooge hires a sexy marine biologist to train an orca to retrieve the item, with Donald (ahem!) willingly lending his assistance.  Meanwhile, Rockerduck hires the Beagle Boys to queer the quest.  I always like to see Donald get involved (chastely, of course) with members of the opposite sex besides the frequently impossible Daisy, and even the perpetually underwhelming Bancells can't help but make Marina (clever name) an attractive character.  Why, Donald even gets a date with the chick at the end – though it's more of a "lesser of evils" deal than anything else.   

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Walt Disney's Christmas Parade #4 (December 2006).  With Gemstone's "slick-cover" and pocket-book titles going bye-bye, the quality of such annuals as this (which, David Gerstein informs me, will soon resume the quarterly schedule they briefly enjoyed during the Disney Comics years) becomes of more importance than ever before.  As Christmas Parades go, this one is pretty solid.  Bob Gregory and Carl Barks' 1958 Duck story "Christmas in Duckburg" leads things off.  While I like their later story "The Christmas Cha-Cha" a little better, this one is OK, though Gregory probably tried to pack one too many plot contrivances into the story when he decided to include the "geese/ meese" business.  Following… sigh… yet another parody of A Christmas Carol, this one a Dutch Big Bad Wolf story – sorry, David, but the bloom is definitely off the mistletoe with this conceit as far as I'm concerned – we get a brief Huey, Dewey, and Louie tale about shoveling snow, drawn by Tony Strobl during his "large-headed Nephews" phase of the late 1950s.  The Mickey story "Wrap Up Your Troubles," by John Lustig and Rodriques, is attractively drawn, but I'm not too crazy about the plot notion of a genial nutcase who wants Minnie to wrap presents that turn out to be real, live weapons.  (It turns out to be a great, big misunderstanding.  Ho-ho-ho, indeed.)  In Gorm Transgaard and Wanda Gattino's sprightly "Presently Indisposed," Gyro Gearloose builds an "Ecumenical Gift-Giver" to relieve himself of the bother of deciding what presents to buy others, but (as per usual) the gizmo ends up "working" in a wholly unexpected manner.  Transgaard (with Vicar) also contributes the Donald and Scrooge tale "Free Tree Spree" to the fun, and this item turns out to be the best thing in the issue.  Not because the plot is particularly original – the Beagle Boys plan to corner the Christmas-tree market in Duckburg by mowing down all the trees that Scrooge had intended to donate to the city (in exchange for a hefty tax break) – but because of the genuinely frightening prospect that the villains are willing to abandon Donald and HD&L (who are in the North Country serving as Scrooge's troubleshooters) and let them freeze to death!  So much for the image of the Beagles as carefree, childlike crooks.  The scene in which HD&L desperately try to prevent an increasingly irrational Donald from burning several pairs of wooden skis – and thereby dooming the Ducks – will stay with me for quite some time.  A Jack Bradbury-drawn Chip and Dale saga and a pair of vintage gags by Gottfredson and Barks wrap things up.  ("Wrap"!  Christmas wrapping paper!  Get it?...)  

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The Complete Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy" Volume 1, 1931-33 (IDW Publishing).  Publishers have been nibbling at the idea of reprinting Gould's classic adventure strip for some time, but this looks like the start of a serious attempt to dish out the whole enchilada.  What gives me pause is the obvious attempt to rip off the format of Fantagraphics' The Complete Peanuts, from the cover layout to the opening interview segment to the formatting of the text (though in this case, two daily strips, rather than three, are reprinted per page).  An outfit that sees fit to ape another publisher's efforts so slavishly does not strike me as the sort of company that would be able to sustain the lengthy effort and level of commitment that a project like this will require.  I am likewise disturbed by the shortsightedness that resulted in the reprinted interview (conducted with Gould by Max Collins in 1980) being cut off just as Gould was about to describe the genesis and the early development of Tracy in the very strips being reprinted in this issue.  Wouldn't it have made more sense to have matched the subject matter of the interview to the strips collected here?  Sure seems logical to me.  In any event, the reproduction of the strips presented herein is reasonably good, though the strips are sized a bit smaller than the reprints that appeared in the hardback volume Dick Tracy: Tommy Guns and Hard Times a number of years ago.  The "non-continuity" Sunday strips (the Sunday pages did not join up with the daily continuity until the strip had been underway for a while) are reprinted in color in the back of the book; the print quality of these ranges from good to marginal.  All in all, a respectable first effort, though the execution isn't yet quite as sharp as the angle of Tracy's jaw.

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Movie Reviews

Casino Royale.  The first appearance of Daniel Craig as James Bond also marks a formal attempt by the franchise-holders to "reboot" the series.  In keeping with the fact that Ian Fleming's series of Bond novels started here, the movie presents Bond's faceoff with terror-enabler and high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre as the Double-O super-spy's first really major case.  The film is actually several movies in one, gluing together several of the extended chase/fight sequences that have come to define the Bond films with the tense casino showdown that took up most of the novel.  (In keeping with modern tastes, not to mention ESPN-bred audience familiarity, the game of baccarat that ruled center stage in the novel has been replaced with a game of "hold 'em" poker.)  Once I saw the movie swerve back onto the Fleming "track," I had a pretty good idea of what was coming, but the notorious "ball-beating" sequence was still pretty shocking to see on film.  The rest of the movie tracked the remainder of the novel, including the fate of Bond's female ally and love-object, Vesper Lynd.  It's rather long and drawn-out, but after having seen so many Bond movies that shared a title – and little else – with the Fleming novels that "inspired" them, I did appreciate the return to first principles.  Ditto Craig's portrayal of Bond as something of a roughneck with a thin veneer of "class," an obvious attempt to bottle some of that old Sean Connery magic.  One negative note: an almost total absence of humor.  I admit that an appearance by John Cleese might've seemed a bit out of place, but there's nary a smart-aleck wisecrack to be found.  Perhaps the writers were attempting to wipe the late-60s spoof version of Casino Royale out of existence by producing that movie's exact opposite…

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