Friday, December 28, 2007
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.
Back to the Top
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
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.
Back to the Top
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.
Back to the Top
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
DVD Review: DUCKTALES Volume 3 (Disney DVD)
1:17 pm est
Back to the Top
Friday, December 14, 2007
Comics Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY VOLUME 3 (1935-36) by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing)
7:11 pm est
Back to the Top
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Has it REALLY been a month?...
8:59 pm est
Back to the Top
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…
Back to the Top