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Book and Comic Reviews

Friday, January 25, 2008

We've negotiated the "Gemstone Gulch" at last!  Would that the first fruits of the oncoming "Gemstone Gush" (of belated releases, that is) were a bit sweeter…

Comics Review

Disney's DuckTales featuring "Scrooge's Quest" by Marv Wolfman (September 2007 [and no, that is not a typo]).  Wolfman, well known for penning The New Teen Titans, Tomb of Dracula, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many "Silver Age" letters of comment before that, was among the hardened "mainstream" comics pros tabbed by Disney Comics Editor-in-Chief Len Wein to help with the product launch of the Disney line in early 1990.  Anyone familiar with the pre-"Disney Implosion" version of the line knows that Wein's dragnet snared a few genuine "keepers" and a few folks who probably ought to have been "thrown back."  Wolfman's Disney work, considered as a whole, wasn't terrible.  At a time when Mickey Mouse Adventures was bravely attempting to relaunch Mickey's adventure career – albeit with relatively bland characterizations that had not yet been retweaked by the likes of David Gerstein, Pat and Carol McGreal, Noel Van Horn, et al. to effectively blend the best of the Gottfredson era with a more up-to-date sensibility – Wolfman contributed some excellent stories to the title, creating such intriguing new villains as Ms. Vixen and Prince Penguin while getting good use out of such old standbys as "Big Bad" (ugh!) Pete and Emil Eagle.  Before that brief stint, however, Marv had to justify his keep by penning a multi-part story for the first seven issues of the DuckTales title.  The result was, simultaneously, (1) the first "formal" multi-part story ever to appear in Duck comics in America, and (2) one of the biggest letdowns in Disney comics history, generalized nostalgia for those giddy days of the "Disney Comics Ascendancy" notwithstanding.  For whatever reason, Gemstone chose to reissue the thing as its salute to the 20th anniversary of the DuckTales TV series.  The fact that said tribute is now out of date seems somehow fitting.

I suppose the lesson of this ungainly story is that a little learning can be a dangerous thing.  In his introduction to the trade paperback, Wolfman admits that he wasn't interested in the Barks and Gottfredson stories until relatively late in the game.  He then "picked up every comic [he] could find" and was rarin' to go when given the opportunity.  Evidently, however, Marv missed a couple of issues along the way.  How else could one explain Magica De Spell (whose kidnap of Webbigail and subsequent theft of the Old #1 Dime from a desperate Scrooge serves as the story's trigger) not being able to figure out how to exploit the dime's supposed powers?  Magica's aim of melting the dime into an amulet that will give her the power to become rich was present in the very first Magica story and has been elaborated upon many times since.  In Part Five, "Down but Not Out in Duckburg," Wolfman presents an elaborate tribute to Scrooge's past in the form of a room containing mementoes from some of his earlier adventures, including "The Unsafe Safe" (the Yeeker bird) and "The Golden Nugget Boat."  In the same story, however, a hallucinating Scrooge dreams of exploits past, and they're all from the same adventures as those represented in the memento room.  Exactly how large was Wolfman's Barks "database," anyway?  The sentiments were certainly appreciated, but they were depicted in a strangely cramped, claustrophobic manner.

As homage to both the Barks and the DuckTales approaches to storytelling, "Quest" falls short on more than a few counts, most egregiously in the area of slipshod characterization.  With the exception of Launchpad, whose laid-back speech pattern Marv mimics rather nicely, the main Duck stars are relentlessly bland.  Louie does get a nice solo bit in Part Six, "Witch Way Did She Go?", when he saves the others from Magica with the help of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook – thereby proving to a skeptical Scrooge that the Guidebook is more than a mere "children's book… of no use in the real world" (!!!) – but it pales in comparison to similar efforts in such stories as Pat Block and Ron Fernandez' "The Mystery of Widow's Gap" and Kori Korhonen's "Sons of the Moon."  Until he recovers Webby from Magica in Part Three, Scrooge obsesses over getting the wee lassie back to a positively absurd degree, letting his businesses go to pot in the process.  (Strangely, Marv doesn't bother to record the reactions of nanny Mrs. Beakley, who's merely Webby's grandmother and, presumably, her only surviving relative.  Was this another gap in Wolfman's Duck education?)  Scrooge's concern about the fate of Old #1 and his Money Bin waxes and wanes, as well.  Most notorious of all is Part Seven, "All That Glitters is Not Glomgold," in which Scrooge's nasty rival, who had bought up all of Scrooge's businesses while the latter was "distracted" by Magica, literally goes berserk trying to "prevent" an uncommonly calm and indifferent Scrooge from supposedly conniving to undo the evil handiwork that had turned Duckburg into "Glomgoldburg."  Joe Torcivia's comparison of the characterizations of Scrooge and Flinty in this story to those of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in the "Duck Season/Rabbit Season" shorts is spot on. Perversely, this chapter contains some of the liveliest dialogue in the entire serial.

Before reading Wolfman's intro, I had forgotten that one of the chapters of "Quest" (Part Four, "Shipwrecked") did not originate with him, but was, rather, a Disney Studios DuckTales story that was "retconned" to fit – however awkwardly – the "Quest" throughline.  I can't recall my initial reaction to this gambit in 1990, but the decision looks really questionable now.  Having recovered Webby – at least, according to the "retcon" – Scrooge and his family decide to take a cruise that runs into a storm, with Scrooge washed overboard as a result.  There follows an annoying sojourn on a tropic isle that leaves me wondering whether Scrooge had suddenly snapped and decided to "go native," Magica's possession of Old #1 and Glomgold's ongoing machinations be hanged.  Wouldn't it have been better to have pared the serial down to six chapters (equal to a nice, round half-a-year), as opposed to taking the opportunity to clear out someone's filing cabinet?  Wolfman explains the decision as the result of the artists' falling behind schedule and needing some time to catch up, which raises a few questions about the long-term planning process at Disney Comics.          

Speaking of the story's artwork, the legions of the Jaime Diaz Studios of Argentina put their pens together to create it, as they did for all of Disney Comics' TV-based titles up until the Darkwing Duck mini-series.  The Diaz stuff pleased me at the time, though it doesn't look quite as attractive now, after we in America have been exposed to such modern Egmont artists as Ferioli, Fecchi, Noel Van Horn, Korhonen, etc.  It can best be described as "dutiful."  The characters are on model and generally move and react as they should.  True inspiration, however, is usually lacking, especially in the depiction of background details.  The three-tiered panel format used for most of "Quest" (and for other Disney Comics titles) was an innovation at the time and is definitely a cut above the constipated traditional format used for the Disney Studio's DuckTales stories.  Unfortunately, Diaz-quality art isn't enough to make up for the weaknesses in the story.  In Bob Langhans' later, and far superior, DuckTales serial, "The Gold Odyssey," the art looks pretty much the same, but the action is strong enough to carry it.

What do I like about "Quest"?  Well, a couple of the chapters (Part Two, "The Nemesis of Napalabama," and "Witch Way Did She Go?") are pretty decent reads.  Plus, the mere fact that DuckTales was treated as epic-worthy by Wolfman certainly warms my heart to this day.  I believe Wolfman when he says that he worked hard to make this piebald production as good as it could be.

Perhaps a shorter multi-part story would have allowed Marv to work out the kinks and weave a more tightly constructed plot.  If nothing else, "Quest" demonstrates just how tricky it truly is to handle the Duck characters correctly in comic-book form.  Having dialogued a few stories myself, I can now at least attest to that in person…

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Gemstone releases are resuming this week… so be patient!!  In the meantime…

Tipoff:  How the 1984 Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy (Da Capo Press).  With the crystal clarity of hindsight, pro basketball fans have anointed the Portland Trail Blazers' drafting of gimpy-legged center Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft as the biggest goof in draft history.  Many folks forget that a number of other all-time NBA greats were also plucked in that draft, including Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton.  Bondy lays out the gory details of how the '84 draft played out and the implications that its results raised for the future of the league.  We all know how Jordan, for better or worse, impacted the style of play and the marketing muscle of the league, but I found most of my attention drawn to the tale's tragic hero, Sam Bowie – a fine college player with fatefully fragile legs who never deserved the ridicule that he has received in the wake of Jordan's transcendence.  A good read for both college and pro hoops fans.

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume 3 (1947-1950)

(Released December 11, 2007)  DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Thanks to this set, I have a new “hero” from the age of classic theatrical animation – and an unlikely one, at that… Director Jack King

I won’t pretend to be an expert on King’s career, but I DO know that he was with Disney in 1929, then directed some very early Warner Bros. Cartoons for Leon Schlesinger (Buddy, Porky Pig, and others) and ended up at Disney after that.  What little I’ve read about King’s efforts, over the years, paints him as an uninspired director – and it is probably as unfair to judge him strictly on his early WB output as it would be to judge the great Friz Freleng on his similar early, almost primitive achievements. 

But, credible persons as varied as Donald Duck comic book legend / Disney animation writer Carl Barks and Disney Treasures’ “Official Host” film historian Leonard Maltin seem to share this opinion of King.  Among Barks’ remarks in Thomas Andre’s 2006 book “Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book”, page 56, were: Old fashioned” and “Played it safe.  Maltin, on a previous Disney Treasures set, The Chronological Donald Volume 2 (1942-1946), describes King, as “An old hand [who] may not have been the most inspired director at the studio…

However, looking over the animated shorts on this particular set, Jack King is THE “King” of this collection.  Of the 30 shorts included here, 23 are by revered Duck director Jack Hannah, and 6 are by King, with one remaining “Donald and Goofy” short directed by Bob Carlson.  The entirety of Disc Two’s 14 shorts is Hannah’s. 

The odd thing is, despite the criticism of his former writer, Carl Barks, and others; King’s Donald Duck shorts are the most varied, the most entertaining… and, ironically, the most “Barks-like” of the collection!  To be sure, Jack Hannah’s cartoons are well-crafted and very entertaining as well, but Hannah took a great series and steered it into repetitive formula and (…at least when compared to King’s efforts in this grouping) mediocrity. 

Jack Hannah apparently “fell in love” with pitting Donald against cute little opponents – and did so far too often.  This is certainly the case within the window of this collection.  Bootle Beetle, Spike the Bee… and, in what is strictly my own personal opinion, the near-ruination of the series by Chip and Dale… who the aforementioned Leonard Maltin says were pitted against Donald over 20 times!  …Yes, he said “…over 20 times!”

Admittedly, each such Donald Duck short, if taken individually and on its own merit, is cute, funny, and entertaining… but, when you consider the impact on the series as a whole to continually “work this angle” to the exclusion of all other things that could involve and engage a character like Donald Duck, the series, alas, became the poorer for it.  All but three of the 14 shorts on Disc Two feature Bootle, Spike, or the rapidly chattering chipmunks.  To my mind, that is far too much repetition at the expense of the varied richness that could have been Don’s world in animation, as it was in comic books!

But, while Hannah’s Duck suffered ‘Munk Madness, Bee-trayal, and (dare I say it) Beetle-Mania, Jack King’s Donald came as close as the animated Duck had ever come to the splendor of his comics world.    

In chronological order King has Donald do the “perilous sleepwalking bit”, with Daisy going through ducky-hell to protect him.  Sure, Max Fleischer did it better with Olive Oyl in the POPEYE classic “A Dream Walking”, but this was good fun too! 

Donald becomes a world class crooner, to Daisy’s consternation. 

Exhausted Don attempts to sleep in the “great outdoors”, with a superb twist ending!

Still sleepy from King’s previous cartoon, we witness Donald go to extraordinary lengths to silence an incomprehensibly loud leaky faucet.  Leading to what appears to be King’s last two Donald cartoons before the Duck completely succumbs to the sensibilities of Jack Hannah… and they are simply two of the BEST! 

The classic “Donald’s Dream Voice” is probably the most innovative Donald cartoon of them all, playing on (…and with) Don’s defining attribute – his VOICE!  This is the “voice pills” cartoon that nearly everyone has seen sometime or other, and it succeeds wonderfully (…even though we wonder why Donald doesn’t simply buy a “lifetime supply” of the wonder drug – perhaps it was outlawed by the FDA, or something!). 

King’s final outing is “The Trial of Donald Duck”.  In my opinion, the best and most “Barksian” of any Donald short I’ve ever seen – and I’ve not seen them all, mind you.  Donald is brought before a judge, sued by a crooked restaurateur.  The story is told in flashback form, with BOTH Don and his accuser acting in ways that are less than “on the up-and-up”, but Don ends up as more of the victim than the perpetrator in the end.  Don loses the case, but prevails in another good twist ending.  With some minor editing, this could easily have been a “ten-pager” in WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES

After making this cartoon, King appears to have retired, as best as I can piece events together from Internet snippets, leaving this Duck fan to wonder what might have been.  

Lest this look like a valentine letter to Jack King, I must point out that Jack Hannah had his share of superb moments beyond Bootles and Bees – not to mention ‘munks!  There are a few fun-fests with Huey, Dewey, and Louie (…though, not nearly enough) an ant-invasion cartoon that you’ll never see on TV or anywhere else, two great appearances by a rascally mountain lion… and then there’s “Clown of the Jungle”. 

Clown of the Jungle” just may be the zaniest, outright funniest Donald Duck cartoon ever!!!  Imagine if the more sedate, though still quite volatile, post-war Donald met the early forties wild and out of control version of Woody Woodpecker, or the Do-Do Bird from Bob Clampett’s “Porky in Wackyland”… and that just barely describes what goes on here.  You’ll have to see it for yourself!  It doesn’t even look like a Disney cartoon, but more like the product of another studio entirely! 

Despite the appalling lack of ANY sort of voice acting credit for Clarence “Ducky” Nash in any of the cartoons – though other credits abound by this time, Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume 3 (1947-1950) is a great collection, and is highly recommended by your humble reviewer… aw, even the Chip and Dale cartoons are “kinda good”! 

Following is a list of the shorts, lifted without permission from the DVD TALK website – GO VISIT THEM!  (http://dvdsavant.com/)  I visit the site every day, and find it to be one of the best such sites out there.  Hopefully, in exchange for the plug, they won’t mind my borrowing their list of the set’s contents for informational reproduction here.  I’ve added the director’s name after each synopsis, just to keep it from being a complete and utter plagiarism! 

Straight Shooters (1947) (6:23)
Donald is a carnival barker who sets out to cheat his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.  (Jack Hannah)

Sleepy Time Donald (1947) (6:38)
Donald has a date with his best girl, Daisy, but there's only one problem: he sleepwalks through the whole evening! (Jack King)

Donald's Dilemma (1947) (7:16)
A blow to the head turns Donald into a Sinatra-like crooner - as well as into a class-A jerk, which upsets Daisy. (Jack King)

Crazy With the Heat (1947) (6:07)
Donald and Goofy's desert trip turns perilous when their car breaks down. (Bob Carlson)

Bootle Beetle (1947) (7:13)
Bootle Beetle tells the story of bug collector Donald Duck, to warn off his runaway grandson. (Jack Hannah)

Wide Open Spaces (1947) (6:38)
Too cheap to pay $16 bucks for an outdoor folding cot, Donald tries skipping the motel and sleeping rough on an air mattress. (Jack King)

Chip an' Dale (1947) (6:38)
Donald's piece of firewood happens to store Chip an' Dale's entire supply of winter nuts! (Jack Hannah)

Drip Dippy Donald (1948) (6:45) A leaky faucet keeps exhausted Donald awake - and fuming.  (Jack King)

Daddy Duck (1948) (6:34)
Donald adopts a baby kangaroo - with predictably disastrous results.  (Jack Hannah)

Donald's Dream Voice (1948) (6:35)
No one can understand brush salesman Donald's voice, so he takes a magic pill and winds up sounding like Ronald Colman. (Jack King)

The Trial of Donald Duck (1948) (6:49)
Donald's trip to a fancy restaurant results in an enormous bill - for a cup of coffee. (Jack King)

Inferior Decorator (1948) (6:20)
Donald is hanging flowered wallpaper - which proves very appealing to Spike the Bee.  (Jack Hannah)

Soup's On (1948) (6:54) Huey, Dewey and Louie won't wash up, and Donald sends them to bed without supper. But they of course exact their revenge. (Jack Hannah)

FROM THE VAULT:
As with previous Walt Disney Treasures, certain cartoons are isolated from the main grouping, on their own separate menu, with an introduction by host Leonard Maltin. Identified as potentially offensive due to racial stereotypes or "inappropriate cartoon behavior," these shorts include:

Clown of the Jungle (1947) (6:16)
The crazy Aracuan Bird gives South American explorer/photographer Donald Duck an enormous headache (twice the Aracuan Bird attempts to hang and shoot himself, as well as drink poison. Donald fires off one sweet automatic machine gun). (Jack Hannah)

Three for Breakfast (1948) (7:05)
Chip an' Dale want Donald's pancakes, but he's not obliging (the cartoon ends with Donald and Dale drawn as Asian stereotypes). (Jack Hannah)

Tea for Two Hundred (1948) (6:45)
Donald's picnic is ruined by marauding ants (one of the ants is an obvious black stereotype). (Jack Hannah)

 

DISC TWO:

Sea Salts (1949) (7:32)
Bootle Beetle, now old friends with Donald, recalls their adventures aboard a ship. (Jack Hannah)

Winter Storage (1949) (6:53)
Chip an' Dale bedevil Donald again, now a Park Ranger, with their insatiable quest for acorn nuts. (Jack Hannah)

Honey Harvester (1949) (7:14)
Spike the Bee sets his sights on Donald's greenhouse. (Jack Hannah)

All in a Nutshell (1949) (6:46)
Donald's "Nut Butter" Stand proves too tempting for Chip an' Dale. (Jack Hannah)

The Greener Yard (1949) (7:18)
A beetle takes up residence on Donald's pristine lawn. (Jack Hannah)

Slide, Donald, Slide (1949) (6:54)
Donald's baseball game on the radio, is interrupted by Spike the Bee. (Jack Hannah)

Toy Tinkers (1949) (7:36)
Presents under the Christmas tree provide ample cover and ammunition for a war between Chip an' Dale and Donald Duck. (Jack Hannah)

Lion Around (1950) (6:57)
Donald doesn't know it, but that’s a real mountain lion, not Huey, Dewey and Louie in disguise. (Jack Hannah)

Crazy Over Daisy (1950) (6:25)
Chip an' Dale spoil Donald's bike ride to Daisy's house. (Jack Hannah)

Trailer Horn (1950) (6:27)
Chip an' Dale spoil another Donald outing: this time, he's camping. (Jack Hannah)

Hook, Lion and Sinker (1950) (7:18)
Louie the Mountain Lion wants Donald's fish - or else. (Jack Hannah)

Out on a Limb (1950) (6:32)
Chip an' Dale's home is being pruned by Donald - and they don't like it. (Jack Hannah)

FROM THE VAULT:
As with previous Walt Disney Treasures, certain cartoons are isolated from the main grouping, on their own separate menu, with an introduction by host Leonard Maltin. Identified as potentially offensive due to racial stereotypes or "inappropriate cartoon behavior," these shorts include:

Donald's Happy Birthday (1949) (6:42)
Huey, Dewey and Louie do chores to buy Uncle Donald a birthday surprise: a box of cigars. But Donald wants them to save the money (the nephews are shown being forced to smoke cigars by Donald). (Jack Hannah)

Bee at the Beach (1950) (7:05)
Spike the Bee and Donald battle it out at the beach and on the ocean (all I can assume is someone thought that the shark attacks on Donal

 

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