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Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review

C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Race Across America by Geoff Williams (Rodale).  Everything old really IS new again.  The "reality series" of today have nothing on the bizarre endurance contests of the 1920s and early 1930s, which frequently provoked massive media coverage.  This book describes one of the unjustly forgotten peaks of this esoteric genre: the International Transcontinental Foot Race of 1928, popularly known as the "Bunion Derby."  199 runners started from California with the goal of reaching Yankee Stadium (later, Madison Square Garden) in New York.  The event, somewhat haphazardly organized by sports promoter C.C. Pyle – best known as Red Grange's manager -- attracted plenty of flakes but also featured some seriously committed long-distance runners.  Williams' narrative lays the whole story out for you in gory, blistered, benumbed detail.  I could have asked for slightly better writing in a technical sense, but the tale is fascinating and will keep your attention till the end.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Comics Review 

E.C. Segar's Popeye, Volume 2: "Well, Blow Me Down!" (Fantagraphics).  Do yourself a big favor right off the bat: skip Donald Phelps' jargon-choked, muddy mess of a preamble and dive right into the strips themselves.  If you read Volume 1, you pretty much know the drill anyway.  In these daily and Sunday strips from 1931-32, Segar is still burnishing the character of Popeye while slowly starting to develop the sailor man's stable of supporting players.  Wimpy makes his first appearance as a referee in a Sunday sequence featuring "sprize fighter" Popeye's bout with the man-mountain Tinearo, then gradually infiltrates the ranks of regular patrons at Rough House's Café (which also debuts here, along with its hirsute, gruff, opinionated manager) and wastes little time in firmly establishing his murmuring, hamburger-mooching persona.  There are big doings "below the fold" as well, in the supplementary Sunday strip Sappo; after a long spell as a backyard inventor, John Sappo welcomes Prof. O.G. Wottasnozzle into his home, and wild flights of fancy are not long in arriving.  (Reflecting Segar's love of outdoor sports, a number of these early gadgets and gizmos relate to making hunting and fishing easier… which, of course, they don't.)  The highlight of the daily Thimble Theatre strip during this period is "The Great Rough-House War" (no, it has nothing to do with bad food) between worrywart King Blozo's Nazilia and "cowardly" Tonsylvania.  This may be regarded as a sort of warm-up act for Segar's most ambitious and fondly remembered political parody, the "Dictator of Spinachovia" story of the mid-30s, but it holds up very well on its own.  The silly struggle packages a strong pacifist message, no surprise given the tenor of the times.  Before the war story, Popeye (with a surprisingly large amount of help from a pistol-packin' Olive Oyl) polishes off Western outlaw Glint Gore and his gang, then uses the reward money to open a "one-way bank" that offers free funds to the disbelieving, Depression-straitened citizenry.  The latter story stings a little bit too much to be a real laugh-riot today, but those who contend that Popeye's world is completely oblivious of our own will have to contend with a strong counter-argument here.  After boosting Blozo, Popeye then saves Olive from Bluto… sorry, force of habit… from the fate of a worked-to-death barroom dancer in "Skullyville, the Toughest Town in the World," another Western setting.  Was Segar working out a personal fetish for sagebrush opi in doing the Skullyville story so soon after the Glint Gore epic?

With the debuts of Swee'Pea and (fatefully) Bluto to come in Volume 3, the spinach-powered momentum of Segar's wonderful strip is just beginning to kick in.  Too bad that we'll have to wait a full year to enjoy the next batch.

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Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (HarperCollins).  Here is one instance in which a smart editor would have argued AGAINST cutting Michaelis' lengthy work, which reportedly topped 1000 pages in the early going.  Given that Michaelis' aim was to write a definitive biography of Charles M. Schulz AND the "Peanuts" comic strip, there was certainly more than enough material here for TWO books.  In the process of cutting the narrative down to size, however, both the lifestory of Schulz and the analysis of "Peanuts" in personal and cultural context end up falling short of masterwork status.

The surviving members of Schulz' family have expressed anger at several of Michaelis' revelations and his lengthy dwelling on the dark side of the cartoonist's character.  That Schulz could be difficult to deal with does not come as a surprise to me, given what I have previously read about him.  The description of Schulz' engagement in an extramarital affair during the waning months of his first marriage could be taken as excessive but is all of a piece with the "rip-the-scab-off" trend of many contemporary biographies.  My major problem with Michaelis' approach lies with his selective use of "Peanuts" strips to illustrate what Schulz was going through and how his problems may have affected his work.  Certainly, Schulz drew upon his boyhood frustrations when setting up the universe of "Peanuts," which he once termed as "the cruelest strip going" (especially in terms of the struggles of the eternally put-upon Charlie Brown), and one can certainly make an argument that his description of Snoopy's crush on a girl beagle at the time of his affair was wholly intentional.  If Michaelis had truly wanted to plumb the depths of all of these parallels, however, he would have been well advised to have done so in a separate volume focusing on the strip alone.  As it stands here, Michaelis has virtually nothing to say about the last quarter-century of the strip (apart from a vague comment about "the absence of feeling"), primarily because he cannot find many strips to buttress his "Schulz-is-a-camera" thesis about the sources of Schulz' raw material.  It can be argued that, after a long period of repetition and gimmickry (all those Snoopy relatives and "Joe Personae"!), Schulz got a second creative wind in the 1990s, to a large extent because of his decision to shift from the rigid four-panel format to a freer approach that allowed for the possibility of single-panel vignettes and captions.  Michaelis does not discuss this, however, because it is primarily an aesthetic choice that doesn't lend itself to armchair inference-drawing and amateur psychoanalysis.

One unfortunate consequence of the fallout from this book is that the Schulz family may be very, very reticent to allow any other biographer – aside from a "friendly and trusted" one – to have free access to the cartoonist's personal papers and archives.  The end result will be that the next Schulz biography (and there will no doubt be one) will likely be either a wart-sanding quasi-hagiography or an "at-a-distance" project riddled with errors of fact.  Much as some critics of Michaelis' book may hate to admit, the next project SHOULD be a release of Michaelis' uncut narrative.  That would go a long way toward addressing the gaps in this edition.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DVD Review: DUCKTALES Volume 3 (Disney DVD)

My IQ (Irritation Quotient) has grown with each successive lackadaisical, unimaginative DDVD release of the classic "Disney Afternoon" series. With this particular release, it just about peaked. This is arguably the choicest slab of "DuckTales" episodes that could possibly be procured: the final dozen or so episodes of the first season -- by which time the slow pacing of some of the early eps had given way to slick, artful storytelling that married the best of the Carl Barks approach to the finest of contemporary humor scripting for animated cartoons -- and the two multipart epics (originally released in two-hour "movie" format as the only new material of the 1988-89 season) that introduced the new characters of Bubba Duck and Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck. Argue if you must about the merits of these additions to the cast -- especially the former -- and the somewhat looser, more sitcom-oriented style of dialogue and plot construction, but there's no denying that the series was at, or close to, its imaginative peak at this time. For DDVD to treat this as just another issuance of salable product -- still not even bothering to clean up the masters! -- is an extreme disappointment. The company's indifference to the quality of its TV-show releases has had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the reputation of the very series that triggered the "Silver Age" TV-animation boom of the 1990s, the tremors of which can still be felt (albeit in somewhat attenuated form) today. No series has suffered from this carelessness more than "DuckTales," the most entertaining of them all.

Of the 27 eps in this package, only "Once Upon a Dime," an ill-conceived and grossly inaccurate "biography" of Scrooge McDuck (where was Don Rosa when we REALLY needed him??), and a couple of chapters of the Bubba Duck serial "Time is Money" truly miss the mark. The full range of "DT" subject matter is on display, from the swashbuckling adventure of "Duck in the Iron Mask" (which also deserves praise as one of the few pre-"Quack Pack" Duck stories to build a legitimate character-based subtheme out of the identical nature of Huey, Dewey, and Louie) to the raucous parody of "The Uncrashable Hindentanic." The Phantom Blot makes a memorable (and wholly unexpected) animated debut in "All Ducks on Deck," which also rates as Donald Duck's most memorable role in the series. "Time is Money" is undercut by several egregious continuity goofs and a bit too much filler, but Bubba's bow-in is still entertaining in many spots; the decision to leave the caveduck marooned in contemporary Duckburg can legitimately be challenged, however. Fenton/Gizmoduck's curtain-raiser, "Super DuckTales" (the original title given to the adventure by NBC's "Magical World of Disney"), is far more consistently enjoyable and, along with the earlier episode "Double-O-Duck," clearly points the way towards the later series "Darkwing Duck" (in which Gizmoduck would make several appearances). Adding to the viewer's pleasure with "Super DT" is the restoration of several scenes involving guns (in "Liquid Assets," the first chapter of the serial) that had been pharisaically trimmed for broadcast on Toon Disney.

Will Volume 4, which will contain the episodes from the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons, finally do right by fans and provide extras -- as has been rumored of the long-delayed Volume 2 collection of "Gummi Bears"? One would like to think so, but we've been burned enough times to be leery of such optimistic projections. Thankfully, "DuckTales" is such a strong and hugely enjoyable production that there's no reason to warn you away from buying the DVDs just because of the skimpy production values.

1:17 pm est

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Comics Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY VOLUME 3 (1935-36) by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing)

In this latest chunk of Gould-plated detective action, the fantastic still takes a decided back seat to the mundane -- not to mention the intensely melodramatic.  Junior Tracy is reunited with his mother, Mary Steele.  Tracy nearly dies in the course of a ghastly shoot-out that rubs out gangster "Cut" Famon and his gang.  Dick takes it upon himself to convert a former hoodlum, "Lips" Manlis, to the side of good.  A naive cashier and her gambling-addicted boy friend suffer dramatic payback for their sins -- a hair-raising stay in a women's prison followed by temporary blindness in her case, the "big sleep" in his.  Similarly soap-operatic stuff would always be a part of Tracy's universe, of course, but with the legendary grotesque villains still some years away, these melodramatic sequences seem all the more potent somehow.
Max Allan Collins correctly points out in his introduction how Gould continued to draw story lines from contemporary headlines during this period.  Boris Arson -- who started out as a vaguely sinister Lenin look-and-act-alike before eventually being reduced to the standard strong-armed thuggery -- bluffs his way out of prison with an iodine-dyed potato gun, in an homage to John Dillinger's escape from a small-town jail.  Boris' sister, Zora, is a Bonnie Parker wannabe (with the extra touch of men's clothing suggesting lesbianism).  Famon, who'd been sent to an Alcatraz-style rockpile for income-tax evasion, is obviously modeled on the late-period Al Capone.  Gould also dips heavily into the stock ethnic stereotypes of the period, with mixed results.  The amiable Indian Chief Yellowpony is a major -- and worthy -- player in the caper that brings the Arson duo to justice, and bit appearances by a Jewish peddler and Italian coffee-shop attendant are perfectly fine by me, but "darkie" valet Memphis is, as Collins admits, pretty embarrassing even by the standards of the day. 
My favorite story arc in this volume is "The Hotel Murders," which I'd originally read in a paperback collection.  This 1936 continuity is more of a "true" mystery than the typical Tracy yarn, with Tracy and the cops baffled by a disappearing bullet that's killed a high-rolling confidence man.  Alas, Gould makes an unfortunate continuity goof, actually introducing the killer as a poor pencil-peddler BEFORE we learn that he's really a retired manufacturer!  Still, I do like the story, not to mention the fact that the guilty party merits at least some sympathy for being one of the con man's victims. 
The ancillary material's already getting a bit thin after just three volumes -- a brief piece by the inevitable Collins and an equally short article on Tracy's various appearances in Big Little Books.  Not a good sign.  Still, it's more than readers have gotten in the last several volumes of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS. 

7:11 pm est

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Has it REALLY been a month?...

Yes, I'm sorry to say, it has! 
The current delays in the release of Gemstone comics (a month and a half or thereabouts!) has left me with precious little new comics material to write about.  At the same time, I haven't had the time to delve deeply into OTHER forms of reading matter.  Now that the semester is over and a few (non-Gemstone-related) tomes have finally settled into my lap, I should be posting more regularly during the pre-Christmas period.  I'll start the "comeback" tonight with a quickie...
Comics Review:  Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz, foreword by Jerry Scott (About Comics).  "Sparky" has been very much on my mind of late as I prepare to read the controversial David Michaelis bio (it's not on the top of the pile yet, but it's getting close).  As a palate-cleanser of sorts, I recently perused this collection of Schulz' "Young Pillars" panels for the Worldwide Church of God youth magazine.  Perhaps to distance himself just a bit from his concurrent work on Peanuts, Schulz typically signed these works with a lowercase cursive "cms."  Schulz' gags here, many of which involve (no surprise) Biblical and church-related references, are very much in the spirit of his Peanuts gags, calculated to produce smiles and chuckles rather than guffaws.  Schulz does make efforts to generate running gags involving such topics as bowling dates, rattletrap jalopies, and teens awkwardly trying to teach Sunday School lessons to seated children who look very much like well-dressed members of the Peanuts gang, but he's usually content to make a gag with a single point and get off the stage.  The earliest panels are comparatively realistic-looking, as if Schulz (just as in his syndicated panel It's Only a Game) were consciously trying to make them so, but the familiar Schulz abstraction soon takes over.  By the end of the run, the characters  resemble nothing so much as contemporary Peanuts participants stretched on a rack.  In one unusual stylistic quirk, the faces of certain female characters -- especially good-looking ones -- are drawn so that there is a gap between the tip of the nose and the mouth.  The closest thing the feature has to a recurring character is a skinny male skyscraper with a face like Charlie Brown's and a shock of hair resembling that of a ruffled rooster, but he doesn't ever develop a distinct personality.   The message was clearly "the thing" in this enterprise, a sharp departure from the character dynamics that fueled Peanuts.  The book also includes Schulz' illustrations from another WCOG publication, Two-by-Fours, which feature neatly-coiffed preschool kids carrying off mildly amusing religious-themed gags.  Obviously essential for a Schulz completist, but whether this collection will interest anyone else is very much an open question. 

8:59 pm est

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Uncle $crooge #368 (August 2007).  Odd situation I'm in right now – U$ #369 came out this week and I've already read it, yet I still have to review the previous issue.  It didn't take long for me to realize that #369 was a darned sight better than #368, which makes the task all the tougher… Ah well, onward…

Truth be told, I only really, truly liked the very last story in this issue: "The Secretary's Secret," by Janet Gilbert and Anibal Uzal, which gives Ms. Quackfaster (I'm calling her "Ms." rather than "Miss" so as not to ruffle her feelings) a rare chance in the spotlight.  Ms. Q. is skulking about in a suspicious manner that suggests corporate treason or something like it.  While I never seriously doubted her continuing loyalty to Scrooge, I was quite intrigued (in a positive way) by the reason for all the chicanery.  Given Ms. Q.'s likely salary, I honestly can't blame her for trying to milk a little extra "side cash" out of Scrooge by authoring a roman a clef based on his penny-pinching persona.  As a part of her "research," Scrooge's secretary even gets to dress up like a ninja and do the TV Batman "rope walk" up the side of a building!  We're not likely to see that again, are we?

Ms. Quackfaster also gets to play a supporting role in the issue's featured story, Stefan Petrucha and Massimo Fecchi's three-tiered "Cloned Again, Unnaturally!".  It's not terrible, but it isn't terribly inspired, either, with its conceit of a con-artist clone (in alliance with a pair of supposedly "cloned" twin brothers) attempting to infiltrate Scrooge's empire.  In an attempt to unmask the truth behind "Scrooge II," Donald tries to pass himself off as yet another clone, "Scrooge III," which raises the question of how on earth he managed to disguise his voice so as to fool Scrooge for even a fraction of a second.  Perhaps he took another one of those "voice pills" from that notorious theatrical short.  This is the type of story that Donald's Nephews would have ended after a dozen pages or so had they been present, simply because they would have been too suspicious to buy the professors' claims for a second.

Janet Gilbert's other contribution herein, the Jose Massaroli-drawn "The Other Gyro Gearloose," evens her record for this issue at .500, being more in the tradition of her "Scrooge joins the circus" epics in the early days of Disney Adventures Digest (RIP – yeah, right…) than her generally excellent recent work for Egmont.  Mistaken for you-know-who, Donald is whisked away to a planet of more-or-less-stereotyped aliens who want him to fix a geophysical anomaly that has caused everyone and everything on the planet to turn green.  Needless to say, Donald gums up the works and barely survives his return trip, but not before piloting an alien craft through the sun (!!!!!) and switching the aliens' color scheme from green to orange.  Even for a spoof story, this is testing the reader's level of credulity to an almost painful degree.  And did I mention the references to disco?   L

The (apparently, fairly old) Dutch story "Memory Misery" rounds out the issue's main matter with some fine art from someone named Sander Gulien (has he/she ever been represented in American Disney comics before?) but a story that requires the ingestion of a whole hunk of salt in order to be taken seriously.  A "relapse of 'blinkus of the thinkus' " (cf. "Back to the Klondike") has caused Scrooge to suffer a very peculiar form of selective memory loss: he still has total recall of affairs connected with his businesses but draws repeated blanks about everything else.  When he encounters the Beagle Boys, he mistakes them for "business associates"… but wouldn't a perfect memory for business matters also involve an ability to recall potential threats to said matters, as well??  I also couldn't buy the idea that Scrooge would forget the alarm code to open his Money Bin, given that the Bin is the core of his financial empire.  Sorry to say, but this tale, like the bulk of the issue, is itself best forgotten.  #369 already promises much better, however…

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