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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Comics Review

Uncle $crooge #372 (December 2007). Two-month delay be hanged…  we'll be celebrating the 60th calendar year anniversary of Scrooge McDuck's first appearance until December of this year, so this "official" 60th birthday salute (along with Walt Disney Treasures #2, which'll be next on the reviewing line) still makes the temporal "cut" with room to spare.  For starters, we fittingly get Carl Barks' "Christmas on Bear Mountain," the 1947 epic (I'm being somewhat sarcastic) that launched Scrooge, or an early facsimile of same, on his glorious career.  It's far too easy to pick nits about this enjoyable but rickety tale, in which a much crankier, nastier – Dickensian, even! – Scrooge tricks Donald and HD&L into enjoying a holiday getaway at his Bear Mountain cabin.  It's all part of a scheme to put Donald through a "test of bravery" to see whether he's worthy of receiving a gift.  (Why Scrooge should involve the Nephews in this particular gauntlet-running goes unexplained.)  Unfortunately, instead of Scrooge menacing the Ducks in a corny bear suit, a couple of real bears show up and create comical havoc.  Clip out Scrooge's role and the holiday theme, and the middle portion of this story would have made a good contemporary animated cartoon.  The "test of bravery" angle, however, is an awfully contrived way to get Scrooge involved in the Ducks' lives.  (Another annoying aspect of the story is how, exactly, Scrooge's chauffeur managed to get word to the Ducks that Scrooge wanted to throw them a holiday bash to fete their supposed "bravery."  I mean, weren't the bears still on the premises?)  The fact that Scrooge, himself, turns out to be chicken-hearted provides a good ironic cap to the proceedings but doesn't exactly endear the grouchy old coot to the reader; now he's hypocritical, as well as manipulative.  Given the relative lack of appeal of this early version of the character, it's not hard to accept Barks' contention that Scrooge was originally meant to be a one-shot visitor.  Happily, Barks saw just enough promise in Scrooge to leach out some of the decrepitude in time for "The Old Castle's Secret," and the rest is history.

Since Scrooge was Barks' creation all the way, it's not surprising that a number of the earliest non-Barks attempts to craft Scrooge tales sometimes read as if they are emanating from a parallel universe.  "Still the Champion," a Duck Album segment from 1953 drawn by Tony Strobl, is more "canonical" than some, less so than others.  Faced with the news that oilman Indian Joe is now "the wealthiest person in the world," a desperate Scrooge springs into action to regain top billing, doing everything from selling pencils outside his office building (sic) to gulling the Beagle Boys into robbing his new redskin rival.  The challenge gutters out quickly, however, as Joe's wells start to run dry.  Scrooge is very much in character here, a definite plus for such an early non-Barks story, but the anonymous writer's decision to never have Scrooge and Joe meet reflects the different level on which this tale was written.  When Barks created Flintheart Glomgold half-a-decade later, he sure as heck didn't stage Scrooge and Flinty's battles to determine "The Money Champ" through the indirect medium of newspaper headlines.

As an example of a contemporary Scrooge story, Don Rosa's "The Treasury of Croesus" (1996) is as solid a choice as any.  Rosa produced this history-flecked opus immediately upon completion of the initial 12 chapters of "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck," and one can almost sense the sigh of relief that he must have exhaled after discarding that set of self-forged shackles.  Scrooge's quest (sorry, Marv Wolfman, but the phrase is much more legit here) to reconstruct the Temple of Artemis and crack the mystery of the treasure of Croesus, the legendary richest man of the ancient world, is packed full of clever quips, amusing sub-scenes (I especially like the one in which Dewey, having just set a record for speed-reading ancient Lydian script on the collapsing Temple, gets a special Junior Woodchuck award as a daze of Greek letters spins around his head), and an antagonist (the Turkish Prof. Owotta Pigayam) whose motives and intentions keep the reader guessing until the end.  (I suppose that Rosa should count himself fortunate that this story was released in the 90s, or else he might have gotten into trouble, Danish-cartoon style, for making the representative of a majority-Muslim country a pigface.)  Best of all, from my perspective, the Donald we see here is a far cry from the pathetic loser who famously lay in a puddle of drool at the start of one of Rosa's later stories.  He does annoy everyone within earshot (not to mention the reader) with his incessant choruses of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," but he actually seems to possess a reasonable amount of intelligence here and even gets to flash it (albeit in a towering rage) at story's end.  The story's tying-in of the Croesus-Circe relationship to that of Scrooge and Magica is legitimately inspired.  It's fairly easy to guess the identity of Croesus' "greatest treasure," given all the Scrooge-Croesus comparisons that Rosa hammers on throughout the story, but, truth is, it's the only fitting conclusion to the tale.  As David Gerstein notes in a brief article, "The Early Scrooge," "Treasury" also reminds us that Barks' Scrooge is capable of underhanded actions when he feels they are necessary – though he fails to profit thereby.  One final note: I am certain that someone, somewhere – probably in Europe – has attempted to piece together the details of Magica's "most complex and bizarre scheme yet" from the handful of anarchic panels that begin the story.  If so, I'd love to hear them…

The issue's concluding story, Evert Geradts and Mau Heymans' "Projected Poverty," is, in its own way, as contrived as "Christmas on Bear Mountain," but I like it, if only because it reminds me of one of my favorite early Richie Rich stories.  In the Richie tale, Reggie Van Dough bets Richie that his poor friends Freckles and Pee-Wee would forsake him if they thought that the Rich family had gone broke.  Here, in order to seal a business deal, Scrooge must prove that Donald and HD&L would still accept him as their uncle even if he were poor.  Using Gyro's 3-D projector, Scrooge creates the impression that the money bin has been wrecked.  Donald invites him home, but HD&L have heard this song before (really?  I wonder when?)  and investigate.  Unfortunately, the story starts to cave in during the final couple of pages, at which point we're expected to accept that Scrooge believes that the Nephews have bankrupted him by virtue of purchasing one expensive meal.  Uh, not bloody likely.  The final dilemma faced by Donald and the boys also seems unfair, given the fact that Donald had willingly accepted Scrooge into his household in all apparent sincerity earlier in the story.  Perhaps the Nephews were being punished for the sin of excess cynicism.  Pretty merciless, though, if you ask me…

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Monday, February 25, 2008

As Nicky noted on the front page, my mother is doing well recovering from hip replacement surgery.  I'm also currently working out the details of a possible research plan for VJC undergraduate students with one of Nicky's colleagues at Johns Hopkins.  AND...  Uncle $crooge #373, featuring a story dialogued by me, is slated to be released this week!

Erratum:  I misidentified Uncle $crooge #371 as #372 in my last posting.  Sorry.  #372 is the Christmas… erm… December issue and will be reviewed in this space later in the week.  In the meantime…

Comics Review

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #687 (December 2007).  Is there such a thing as a by-the- numbers "saving Christmas" story?  One in which the heroes don't attack that inevitable "holiday problem" as much as slog through it?  If not, then Freddy Milton's "Claus and Effect" may just establish a new template.  Milton's story, dialogued by David Gerstein, is a rather odd mixture of themes from two Carl Barks adventures, "Letter to Santa" and "Frozen Gold," and a 1950s Barks ten-pager in which Donald is a put-upon postal carrier forced to haul mail (Valentines, in the earlier case) through rough winter weather.  Here, Don is enduring a temp job as holiday postal help when an "urgent" package addressed to Santa falls into his hands.  In order to save his job and help HD&L maintain their faith in the postal service (huh?), Don drags the boys with him to the North Pole in a "charming little biplane."  Don somehow manages to chip ice off the plane's wings while standing on them and NOT tipping the plane out of control in the process, but there follows the inevitable wreck and a dreary slog through the white wilderness that comes complete with an encounter with a ferocious polar bear.  The package turns out -- of course -- to be essential equipment for Santa's midnight run.  You can almost hear the Ducks punching the time clock, this story is so cut-and-dried.  There's some nice cross-referencing of "Letter to Santa," though (and in more ways than one – Milton's positioning of Santa's sleigh and reindeer in the last panel looks suspiciously similar to the same panel in "Letter").

Sarah Kinney and Rodriquez's Goofy story "Putting it All Together" doesn't qualify as a "saving Christmas" tale, unless you mean "saving Christmas energy."  A lazy elf who's new on the North Pole beat and worried about quality control browbeats toy-shop-salesman Goofy into fixing up some enchanted toys overnight.  The gig causes a rift between Goofy and a justifiably dubious Mickey, but a trip to the N.P. and a confab with Santa helps straighten things out.  If the real Santa has elves with the attitudes displayed here, I'd certainly consider outsourcing as an option… with "disenchanted" toys, mind you.

"Santa Claus' Visit," an ultra-rare Jack Hannah Donald story from the earliest Firestone Christmas Giveaway in 1943, sets its holiday happenings – with concrete, even -- firmly within the framework of the Donald vs. Nephews grudge fights of the contemporary animated cartoons.  Determined to teach the boys a lesson for their naughty behavior, Don dons the red threads of Mr. Claus and tries to shame them into being good but fools no one.  After being fed a peppered ham sandwich and doing the standard spit-fire "take," Don locks up HD&L's gifts, but the boys nonchalantly saw through the door as if nothing had ever happened.  Consider, if you will, the fact that had Carl Barks not decided to forego chicken ranching and begun his freelancing career, such un-enterprising stories might have become the norm for the comic-book Ducks.  Rather than revering the Barksian Nephews for their intelligence and high-spiritedness, we would have spent most of our time wondering why Donald didn't simply fricassee HD&L and just get on with his life.

The Mickey adventure "Claws of the Cat," by Byron Erickson and Rodriquez, is the star attraction of a relatively humdrum issue.  Remember Ms. Vixen, the beautiful burglar, who made a memorable one-off appearance in an issue of Disney Comics' Mickey Mouse Adventures?  She's baaaack… well, sort of.  Selina Kyle might want to claim some portion of credit for the attractive, athletic, freelancing sneak thief Katarina, who runs afoul of Mickey while trying to swipe a precious jade cat statue from the soon-to-be-auctioned collection of a hard-up dot-com entrepreneur.  In truth, Kat's been hired (by whom, we never do find out) to destroy the article so that it can't get back into the hands of the Hong Kong mob, who pledged obedience to it after ending its internecine gang wars.  All this Tong business passes by relatively quickly, which points up the story's primary flaw: it's too short.  Kat and Mickey (who ultimately form a somewhat reluctant partnership of convenience after the statue is stolen by some Tong thieves) should have had much more of a substantial adventure than the quick raid on a Hong Kong steamer that we got here.  I halfway suspect that a sequel is in our future, especially since Mickey ends up prevailing upon Kat not to destroy the beautiful statue and subsequently gives it to Minnie… which, by the way, is a pretty lame-brained thing to do when you think about it, despite Mickey's nonchalant attitude at story's end.  It'll probably take the Tong a long time to realize that the bauble isn't busted, so Minnie is safe for now, but putting your girlfriend's life in peril for no real reason??  A nice highlight here is Kat's conversation with the smitten nerd who's put the statue up for auction.  That angle, as it turns out, never goes anywhere after that, but it's a good character bit.  If only Kat didn't have the collagen-enhanced lips that also marred the otherwise attractive looks of Lotus Blossom, the female pirate from Rodriquez' earlier story "Knit One, Pearl Two"… not to mention Ms. Vixen herself.

A dreadful Gyro Gearloose and Grandma Duck story, "The Present Plot," and a Barks ten-pager, "Ten-Dollar Dither" (1945), wrap the issue.  "Plot" originally appeared in a Dell Giant and was drawn and lettered by Paul Murry.  The lettering is redone here for some reason, but it hardly seems worth the trouble.  "Contrived" doesn't even begin to describe this ridiculous tale of a mold for Helper's body made out of fudge (don't ask, please).  "Dither" rides a jet-black wave of sheer cynicism for almost nine pages before even Barks appeared to have had some second thoughts about what he was doing.  The Ducks' attempts to find the rightful owner of a lost ten-dollar bill fall completely to pieces in a riot of nastiness during which, among other things, an armor-clad Donald literally gets flattened by an angry mob in a gag straight out of the Warner Bros. playbook.  I know that ten dollars was a more substantial sum in those days, but still…  A conman's success in claiming the money and subsequent plan to "buy a gun an' rob de orphints' [sic] home" appears to have been the last straw for Barks (not to mention Donald, who overhears the plot and beats the guy up in order to get the money back).  There follows a frankly sappy denouement in which a weeping, ragged little girl proves to be the bill's true claimant.  The Ducks can't let well enough alone even after that, voicing a two-panel moral.  So Barks was an old softie at heart underneath that hard-bitten shell?  Sounds like a creation of his that I've heard of… one Scrooge McDuck. 

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Comics Review

Uncle $crooge #372 (November 2007).  Not nearly as strong a "comeback issue" as the concurrent issue of WDC&S most recently reviewed here, but that's mostly due to the prime spot occupied by the lead (and cover-theme) story, Carl Barks' "How Green Was My Lettuce."  It pains me to have to describe ANY Barks story as "bad," but this 1964 effort comes perilously close to meriting that label.  The opening pages, in which Scrooge's Money Bin is undermined by a horde of gophers trained by the Beagle Boys, are a chaotic mess, and the rest of the tale doesn't rise far above that subterranean level.  The final spasm of action is spurred by a completely fluky encounter between Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L, who are spiriting Scrooge's money out of Duckburg hidden in heads of lettuce, and the Beagle Boys, who are "leaving town in disgrace" after having found the bin picked clean.  Cheesy farmer (and, for the Nephews, chicken) disguises and a running theme of eating lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches (what, no bacon?) add to the alleged fun.  In the end, the foiled Beagles are sent to jail, not for their umpteenth attempt to rob Scrooge, but, rather, for turning the air blue with "naughty words"!  Barks would recover from this disaster and pen some fine stories in his declining years, but that knowledge doesn't make the tale any less painful to read.

Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Tino Santanach give us a much more enjoyable ride in "The Gloves of King Midas."  Having finally "had it" with assaults by Magica De Spell, Scrooge plans to buy the headlined accessories, which supposedly possess anti-magical powers (for example, they allowed Midas to eat without turning his food to gold), from an antique dealer in Pig Bay (which appears to be populated entirely by porkers – so much for equal housing laws, eh?).  Magica gets one step ahead of Scrooge, however, and tries the old disguise ploy to force Scrooge to let loose of the Old #1 Dime.  The ducks' duel leads to the Pig Bay subway system, where Magica gains possession of the gloves herself – but finds herself in a most unfortunate situation at tale's end.  I'm not going to spoil the surprise, but it's plenty icky.  Next time, Scrooge should probably break down (financially) and hire a hit squad to do the "rubout" work for him.

The third $crooge saga in the ish is a good Dutch effort, "Higher Than Mount Everest."  It's a cheeky tale in which Scrooge's Earth-orbiting "McDuckSat" supposedly discovers a Himalayan peak that is… you guessed it.  The Ducks' subsequent mountain-mastering trek is quite Barksian in flavor (with a little of Don Rosa's "Fortune on the Rocks" mixed in), but I doubt that Barks would've allowed Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L to climb a Himalayan peak without using breathing equipment or proper clothing.  Scrooge's attempt to cash in on his knowledge by stashing a pay-as-you-go telescope atop the peak backfires, but in a delightfully unexpected way that raises a cautionary point about making use of local expertise.

Gyro Gearloose gets the lone "backup" feature, and Enrico Faccini's story "The Electronic Hissy-Fitter" (dialogued by Gary Leach) is a good one.  In an attempt to help people with frayed nerves, Gyro crafts a robot that literally "absorbs" their bad vibes and leaves only good ones behind.  The machine works too well, as dozens of stressed Duckburgians literally invade the inventor's property in their zeal to undergo emotional "detox," finally causing the temper-tampering tin man to go haywire.  I'm tempted to classify this as an entry in the "Gearloose-produced robot goes out of control" subspecies of Gyro stories, but Faccini makes it quite clear that the ultimate fate of the robot isn't Gyro's fault.  In that respect, Gyro doesn't really deserve the black eye he receives as an ironic "blow" at the end.

Book Review

Krazy and Ignatz 1941-42: "A Ragout of Raspberries" by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Books).  "Kat", "Mouse", "Pupp", "bricks", "jails" – 'nuff said!  When is this guy Herriman going to stop repeating himself?  Seriously, this penultimate slab of Krazy Kat Sunday pages is just as bafflingly enjoyable as always.  Where the collection falls short is in the normally superb ancillary material, which appears to have been "mailed in" this time around.  Jeet Heer's essay on Herriman's use of language is OK for what it is, but "what it is" isn't nearly comprehensive enough to fully explain the development of Herriman's verbal style.  No mention of Herriman's near-constant use of alliteration?  The effects of his Jesuit schooling?  The need to put "nouns" of all sorts in "quotes" for no apparent "reason" I can fathom?  This was definitely an opportunity missed.  There are few "newly discovered" pieces of Herriman artwork included, save for a color piece originally drawn for Jean Harlow and Hal Roach.  In a note at the end of the book, Kat fans are asked to send in any and all such material to help lend heft to the concluding 1943-44 volume (which will encompass only part of the latter year, due to the artist's death).  I'm sorely tempted to send them the piece I wrote for the APA Passions a few years ago, though I doubt whether it strikes the appropriate note of pretentious pomposity that informs most discussions of this strip.  After this installment, however, it looks as if Fantagraphics may need all the assistance it can get. 

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gemstone's back… and I FINALLY have some time to write about it!  Since the December issues are supposed to be shipping this week, and I have yet to review November's Uncle $crooge, you can expect a number of new posts in the days to come.

 Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #686 (November 2007).  If we HAD to do without Gemstone Comics for so long, at least the line returned with a bang – one of the strongest issues of WDC&S that the publisher has ever released.  Everything in here is first-rate, starting with Bill Van Horn's chucklesome Donald Duck story, "Just for Kicks."  Taking advantage of Don's reputation for saying and doing the wrong things, Mayor Hogsnout (a somewhat more severe and strait-laced version of Egmont's "canonical" Mayor Pork) asks Don to accompany him to the opening of a new amusement park the day before the election, figuring that Don will know best what sorts of behavior to avoid.  Despite Don's best efforts not to do the worst, Hogsnout finds himself shedding more and more of his sangfroid with each passing minute.  Van Horn gleefully hammers home numerous Disneyland parodies, culminating with a "giant spider promenade" (think a robot version of a monorail) that wouldn't get past the dimmest of liability lawyers in the real world.  The ending is a little predictable for all that, but I adore the basic concept.

Noel Van Horn backs up his Dad with a fine Mickey Mouse tale, "Signs."  No crop circles here, just a succession of increasingly improbable objects raining from the sky.  Goofy, his nerves set a-jangling by a dreadful horoscope warning of "celestial misfortunes," has to be dragged out of bed by iconoclast Mickey, who smilingly comes up with explanations (however contrived) for all of the falling debris.  Little does Mickey know that the 'scope actually tolled for him.  I could see the end of this story (including the ending scene) coming about halfway through, but Noel draws the story so well that I hardly minded.  What's with Goofy's dialogue, though, Noel?  He hasn't been this well-spoken and contraction-less since… well, ever.  Mebbe thuh ol' Dippy Dawg's bin learnin' some new tricks at night school?

Even the issue's Carl Buettner Li'l Bad Wolf reprint, this one from the mid-40s, is of exceptionally high quality.  Not that Buettner's batting average was all that poor to begin with, but here, he punches above his weight with a very funny tale in which Zeke, infuriated by Li'l Bad's most recent spasm of niceness, drags out the Wolf family album (in the tradition of Goof Troop, Li'l Bad should've screamed, "Not the family ALBUM!" and skedaddled at this point) and tells his son the story of how, as a youth, he supposedly captured Practical Pig's father.  Needless to say, a lot of the hot air has been let out of Zeke's windy narrative by the time the last panel is reached.

"The Lost Treasure of Cornelius Coot," by Byron Erickson and Francisco Rodriques, is the true prize of the issue.  Those Duck fans who insist that all Duck stories should be set in a nebulous Barksian 50s "universe" (side glance at Don Rosa) will probably gag at the tale's premise, but for those of us who don't mind the Ducks' coming to grips with the modern world and modern technology, the logic of the notion is delightful.  Determined to never be caught short of information again, Donald plunges whole hog into the world of online newspapers, search engines, PDAs, and similar tech-treats.  He's so confident of the power now at his fingertips that he challenges the Nephews, who've just returned from a Woodchuck camp spent mastering the index of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, to a contest "to see who can find accurate information faster."  (The Nephews' having to undergo "special training" in order to unlock the organizational secrets of the Guidebook makes the Woodchucks seem more like the Illuminati or the Freemasons.  Have the JWs hoarded priceless treasure under the Cathedral of Notre Duck for all these years, and the rest of Duckburg is simply unaware of it?)  During the course of their battle, the Ducks become engaged in a search for several bags of gold supposedly "lost" by Duckburg's founder, Cornelius Coot, years ago.  Since the JWs aren't ditching the Guidebook (much less converting it to a digital format) any time soon, I think you can guess which side wins the fact-finding frenzy.  Along the way, Erickson touches upon some weighty issues related to Internet information -- in particular, whether the 'Net's advantage of immediacy is outweighed by its glut of "ephemeral trivia" and questionable back-sourcing.  The lesson goes down easily because Donald and the boys appear to be having the time of their lives engaging in this particular competition.  Seeing as how so many of the Ducks' past contests have carried a nasty edge to them (such as Don sabotaging the Nephews' efforts or vice versa), this "semi-friendly rivals" approach is extremely refreshing.  Complementing the high glee of the story, Rodriques' spirited artwork positively jumps off the page. 

The ish's second Mickey story, Pat and Carol McGreal and Cesar Ferioli's "Free Weegie," isn't as interesting or original as "Signs," tracing a rather familiar arc of Mickey trying to save an exploited creature (a literal "missing link" in this case) from a carnival and return it to its home in the jungle.  The story does pick up when Weegie unexpectedly begins spouting "carny" lingo, however, and carries through to a satisfying finish.  "The Great Ski Race," the Carl Barks reprint that wraps the book, carries the unfortunate distinction of being the most "dated" item in the inventory – not because it originally appeared in 1945, but because the opening panel makes clear references to the "Thug Busters" story "last month," which of course is now two months or so ago.  This tale is a rare instance of Barks' Nephews letting Donald down, as they gorge themselves on snacks and become sick just when Don needs them to pilot his boat in the water-skiing competition.  In that sense, HD&L deserved to lose the rest of their "Thug Busters" money at story's end in order to spring Donald from "Durance Vile."

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