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Book and Comic Reviews

(7/31/05)

Mickey Mouse Meets Blotman (Gemstone).  Gemstone gives this extended parody an oversized book all to itself, but that might not have been the proper format for it.  If any Disney comic-book story ever DESERVED a multipart treatment over several issues, it would have to be this one.  With the help of inventor Doc Static, Mickey follows the fugitive Phantom Blot into a parallel universe where The Blot is a vengeful agent of justice in the night ("Blotman," get it?) and Doc Static is his worst enemy.  When the "real" Blot hooks up with the devilish "Doc Stat," Mickey offers his services as a sidekick to Blotman (the secret identity of whom is the best thing about the tale).  Writers Pat and Carol McGreal do a fine job with the expected elements of the parody, but a lengthier examination of Blotman's "parallel universe" would have been even more enjoyable.  (Imagine the possibilities: Minnie Mouse as a bawdy hoyden...  Chief O'Hara as the reigning king of the city rackets, with his cigar-chomping underling Detective Casey as his enforcer...  Horace Horsecollar as a Joker-style villain whose practical jokes are used for evil purposes...  Clarabelle Cow as a vicious gossip columnist!  The mind reels, no matter WHAT dimension it's operating in.) 

The tale does have one rather weak element: the fact that the entire plot turned on Doc Static's questionable inference that The Blot's sudden disappearance HAD to have been due to his being sucked into a "parallel universe".  What -- he didn't even consider transporters, cloaking devices, or other convenient scientific marvels?  I know, the Doc is somewhat "entitled" to such improbable leaps of faith, being Mouseton's resident inventor-genius and all, but fer gosh sakes, let's have some logical justification here! 

Fittingly, the title story is backed up by a tale starring the Disney universe's "original" superhero character, Super Goof -- this one, a Disney Studio effort from the 60s or 70s drawn by veteran artist Jack Manning.  David Gerstein's dialogue is no doubt much punchier than the original script. 

Donald Duck and Friends #330 (August 2005, Gemstone).  The Duck stories at front and back are the epitome of "blah".  The leadoff reprint, "Rival Boatmen," is one of Carl Barks' less inspired brainstorms from the mid-40s (though it is neat to see Black Pete "cast" in the guise of a good guy, in this case, short-tempered richnik J.P. Diamondtubs).  The Renard-Manrique snoozer "The Pauper and the Pauper," meanwhile, is an Egmont tale with an all-too-familiar plot: Donald temporarily switches places with a dot-com-millionaire doppelganger whose financial "bubble" is just beginning to burst.  Apart from treading on well-worn ground, the tale seems dated now (its date code indicates an original publication date of 2001).

The prize of the issue is the middle Mickey story, "The Mouse Who Knew Too Much" by Pat and Carol McGreal and artist Noel Van Horn.  After Minnie strong-arms Mickey into serving as a fake swami at a carnival run by Minnie's "Women's Affirmation Group" (!), Mickey finds himself making real (and highly embarrassing) predictions thanks to an apparently magical amulet.  The story is solid, NVH's lively artwork is a cut above even his usual superb standards – and I'm still asking myself why Minnie needs a "Women's Affirmation Group."  Perhaps to remind herself that she's a woman first, a mouse second?... 

Mickey Mouse and Friends #279 (August 2005, Gemstone).   By now, "Don't mess with the Time Stream!" should be stamped on the forehead of every self-respecting comic-book hero.  Leave it to Mickey's inventor pal, the brilliant-yet-impulsive Doc Static, to tempt the fates -- not once, but several times -- in Pat and Carol McGreal and Cesar Ferioli's "Time and Time Again".  After Doc S. loses an alarm clock while "fishing for artifacts" in "an opening in the space-time continuum" – yep, using a fishing pole and everything – he goes back in time to retrieve it, but he just can't help giving the various civilizations he encounters a little push in the right direction.  Mickey is confronted with the task of saving Doc S. from the past (not to mention the present/ future from Doc S.).  The "here we go again!" ending used by the McGreals seemed just the right way to end this story.  Perhaps Mickey should give up the idea of persuasion and simply knock the wayward "time master" out cold the next time he encounters him. 

The balance of the book consists of a thoroughly vapid Grandma Duck story written by Pat and Shelly Block (what do they see in that character, anyway?) and a wholly unexpected reprint of a 1967 story from Gold Key's Super Goof title.  After the convoluted "Time and Time Again," the naive simplicity of Vic Lockman and Tony Strobl's "Super Goof meets Super Bad Wolf" is a particularly welcome palate-cleanser. 

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The Grand Slam by Mark Frost (Hyperion Press).  Frost's follow-up effort to the outstanding The Greatest Game Ever Played – the movie adaptation of which will be released by Disney this fall – this meandering tale tracks the career of Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer of all time, climaxing with his assault on the Grand Slam (back then, it was the US and British Open and Amateur titles) in 1930.  After winning the Slam, Jones retired from tournament competition, at the age of 29.  After reading Frost's harrowing account of his physical and mental anguish during the ordeal, you'll certain understand why. 

Aesthetically, this book doesn't hold together nearly as well as Greatest Game.  Frost includes far too much "background" information (most of which is, quite honestly, common knowledge) about everything from the origins of World War I to the Scopes "Monkey Trial".  The bits of early 20th-century lore than festooned the pages of Greatest Game were a welcome addition to the storyline, helping us to understand the time and place.  Here, they are an annoying intrusion.  Despite this unfortunate slip, Frost's prose is still enjoyable to read, and the story will be of interest to anyone who has an interest in the history of golf. 

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic).  No, I'm not going to reveal any aspects of the plot.  Just a few more or less random comments about the sixth book in the Potter series: (1) We've left "kid stuff" far behind.  Prepare your little 'uns as best you can for a true shock.  (2)  If you don't like teenage soap operas, beware the middle of the book, wherein Harry and company have hormones a-pumping.  (3)  J.K. Rowling evidently wanted to leave as many options – repeat, as many options – open as possible before writing the final volume.  That explains a lot of what goes on in the final couple of chapters.  (4)  If you've been following the series faithfully, you'll finish the last page of the story and immediately start wondering when Rowling will lift the "seventh veil."

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(7/17/05)

Marge's Little Lulu Volume 4: Sunday Afternoon (Dark Horse).  Dark Horse presents its fourth collection of John Stanley's Little Lulu comic-book work -- with this batch coming from Four Color Comics releases of the late 1940s -- in the same uninspired, but easy-to-read, format.  The most ambitious tale of the lot is the very first one, "Lulu Is Taken for a Ride," wherein little Miss Moppet is kidnapped by two crooks who have mistaken her for a wealthy girl.  Travails faintly similar to those seen in O. Henry's story The Ransom of Red Chief ensue, but Stanley, as is his wont, keeps the reader guessing as to exactly what's going to happen next.  "Ride," as opposed to the relatively minor story "Sunday Afternoon," probably deserved the honor of the volume's subtitle, but DH must have thought that the choice would have been inappropriate next to such previous subtitles as "Lulu Goes Shopping." 

In all of these stories, one can see Stanley developing his trademark "ball of string" narrative style – setting up a very basic situation and essentially letting the characters "run with it" in believable, amusing fashion.  I've seen enough of them to become convinced that Lulu stories should rank with the best of the Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson stories as an ideal way to introduce youngsters to the wonderful world of sequential art.  My 8-year-old niece Lulu loved the first two volumes of this series when I bought them for her as a birthday present… and it wasn't just because of the title character's first name.    

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Reversing the Curse: The Story of the 2004 Boston Red Sox by Dan Shaughnessy.  Boston Globe sportswriter Shaughnessy was responsible for popularizing the whole "Curse of the Bambino" legend about the Red Sox, so it's entirely fitting that he close the circuit with this narrative of the Sox' 2004 season, which climaxed with that amazing playoff comeback against the Yankees and subsequent World Series sweep.  Actually, Shaughnessy was the beneficiary of a tremendous slice of old-fashioned dumb luck, since he had planned to write a book about the Sox' '04 campaign all along.  He's honest enough to admit the fact by including comments from Sox execs and others who fretted that the book would be a bust if the Sox didn't win. 

The book is a good, straightforward prιcis of the tumultuous twelve months preceding the Sox' first World Series win since 1918, beginning with their seventh-game collapse against the Yanks in the 2003 league championship series – an event which only strengthened the efforts of the club's aggressive management to best the "Evil Empire" at (literally) all costs.  There are enough backroom deals, hissy fits, overblown tabloid headlines, and clubhouse crises to satisfy even the most jaded baseball fan.  BTW, if you're looking at the book's table of contents and don't see a listing for Chapter 13, it's not a misprint.  Shaughnessy skips from Chapter 12 to Chapter 14 for a reason that probably does not need to be explained, given the book's theme and title.

Regarding a point raised by Shaughnessy at the end: there is little evidence that "reversing the curse" has lessened the ardor of Sox fans or caused them to lose interest.  At a recent Sox-Orioles game at Camden Yards, Nicky and I spotted far, far more red shirts in the crowd than black-and-orange shirts, and a fair portion of the folks in red must have traveled from New England, judging by all the Massachusetts license plates we saw.  The real effect of the Sox' win will be to muzzle all those literary types who had turned musings on Boston's perpetual disappointment into something of a fetish.  The Sox are a "normal" team now, and, as such, can no longer be used as metaphor.  The Yankees and Cardinals deserve considerable thanks for this, I'd say.   

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Nine Lives to Live: A Classic Felix Celebration by Otto Messmer, edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Press).  I have David to thank for the loan of this volume, which was published by Fantagraphics in the mid-90s.  The book collects some of Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat comic strips from the 1920s and early 1930s, the feature's prime period.  The strips may have been signed "Pat Sullivan," just as the Disney-related comic strips were signed "Walt Disney," but it was Messmer who not only created the character of Felix but shepherded him through his glory days as the most popular animated-cartoon character of the silent era.  A great and imaginative animator, Messmer's touch was a little less sure when he turned his attention to comic strips.  Direct adaptations of Felix cartoons -- many of which are reproduced here -- tided the strip over for a good long while, but once Felix ceased to appear on movie screens, Messmer's limitations as an original strip-writer quickly became apparent.  The material in this volume is as good as this strip got, so it's an essential read for anyone interested in the history of this character and early animation. 

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Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein (Knopf).  This isn't Feinstein's first foray into fiction – the best-selling author of such fine sports books as A Season on the Brink, A Good Walk Spoiled, and The Last Amateurs has also written at least one other mystery novel – but it is his first work of fiction for children.  Two teenage kids win a sportswriting contest and get to participate as working journalists at college basketball's Final Four, where they stumble upon the mother of all game-fixing scandals.  The book doesn't have much action – even the coverage of the Final Four games is perfunctory – but it is reasonably written and provides a clear-eyed view of the seamier side of college athletics.  Two unusual features of particular note: (1) The book features an inordinate number of real college-basketball personalities who interact with the fictional characters.  The gambit helps maintain the verisimilitude of the narrative, but it's decidedly odd, akin to reading a work of alternative-reality fiction.  (2)  Any adult reader who skims the book will recognize a lot of side-themes and references that reflect Feinstein's adult works.  Feinstein gives full play to his disdain for the NCAA, officious security guards, rampant commercialism in college sports, and other personal banes, but he also has a lot of fun with the notion that Duke (his alma mater) is the most loved and the most disdained of college basketball powers.  It's no Harry Potter, and Feinstein is no J.K. Rowling, but I think that any kid who is interested in basketball and likes (or needs to be encouraged) to read would enjoy this story.   

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(7/3/05)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #658 (July 2005).  Chapters 3 and 4 of the Pat and Carol McGreal-Cesar Ferioli serial "Mythos Island" appear in this issue, but don't expect any startling new revelations in these episodes – merely a "transitional phase" that makes the island's true nature somewhat clearer to the reader.  Between Chapters 1 and 2 and Chapters 3 and 4, those characters who had not maintained direct contact with some tangible, tactile memento of their adventures on the island evidently lost their memories.  In "Pegasus" and "The Unicorn's Horn," Scrooge and Mickey literally "regain consciousness" in the course of fighting sidebar battles against, respectively, Flintheart Glomgold and a pair of con-artist villains named Philcher and Cheatum.  We now have a secondary theme (How will the characters manage to hold onto their memories when they depart Mythos Island?) to pair with the primary one (What other mythological creatures will they encounter on the island?), thereby widening the scope of the epic, at least in a psychological sense.  I'll be interested to see how the McGreals choose to exploit this "lost memory" conceit in the upcoming chapters. 

The rest of the issue is OK but nothing special, including, among other odds and sundries, a William Van Horn story with a unfortunately predictable ending ("A Bird in the Hand") and a David Gerstein script for the Marco Rota-drawn Donald tale "Knight Rider."  (No, Donald does not perform a David Hasselhoff turn in the latter story -- thank goodness for small favors.) 

Uncle $crooge #343 (July 2005).   Oooops!  Right on the heels of Don Rosa's magnificent "The Old Castle's Other Secret" (U$ #342), which delved deeply into the fantastic legend of The Knights Templar (among many other things), this issue brings us the two-part story "A Knight to Remember" by Pat and Carol McGreal and Jose Massaroli, wherein Scrooge encounters the magically immortal Sir Simpy, the last remaining "Knight Simplar of Mundania."  Reader comparisons will be inevitable, and, of course, will be decidedly in favor of the former.  That's not to say that this new tale is a poor one.  For a solo Scrooge adventure, it's quite good, with Massaroli's energetic artwork being a major plus.  The tale's visiting female character is a dogface double for Gadget Hackwrench of Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers, which fact certainly doesn't hurt it in my eyes.  Scrooge even gets in a plug for democratic free enterprise.  "That's what makes the frankfurters so yummy!" he tells Sir Simpy, who's been charged with protecting the Mundanian Crown Jewels "until the King returns" but finds the decidedly modern, democratic form of his country to be most bewildering.  Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan couldn't have put it better than Mr. McDuck does here!

At the front of the book, William Van Horn gives us "Pudding it Straight," which can best be described by the single word "bizarre."  Make that the three words "really, really bizarre."  It's a throwback of sorts to Van Horn's coming-out period of the late 80s and early 90s, during which he larded his pages with all sorts of loony, off-center doings and well and truly earned the sobriquet "Silly Billy."  It also makes me wonder whether tapioca pudding ranks with pesky houseflies as one of Van Horn's biggest bugaboos.

Elsewhere in the issue: "Security," which pits Scrooge and Donald against "notorious con-man and disguise artist" Sly K. Switcheroo, turns out to be something of a requiem for artist Romano Scarpa, whose recent death is announced by John Clark at the front of the book.  Beagle Boys filler stories have become something of a regular feature in this title – no surprise – and this ish's "Being Donald Duck," written by Olaf Sostrand and drawn by the Daniel Branca-channeling Maria Nunez, is particularly clever, spicing up its venerable "body-switching plot" with multiple references to past Carl Barks stories, plus a running gag based on the old standby, "This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me…".  Gail Renard, Tony Isabella, and Manrique's "Gyro 2.0" (a robot double of Gyro runs amuck) and Pat and Shelly Block and Marcal's "Golden Slumbers" (Scrooge "rests" by dreaming of bloodcurdling Klondike adventures) are modest fare by comparison.     

Mickey Mouse Adventures Volume 4 (June 2005).  Pat and Carol McGreal and artist J. Gonzalez tackle the legend of Pandora's Box in this issue's lead story, "Boxful of Troubles."  The tale is modest in scope compared with the McGreals' "Mythos Island" saga but is notable nonetheless in that Minnie is the real driving force behind the adventure.  After the box falls into her possession at a Mouseton yard sale (!), Mickey's girlfriend becomes determined to restore the "good name of all women" and return it to its Grecian home so that the various troubles released by Pandora will be obliged to retreat.  Mickey's only true contribution to the denouement occurs, quite literally, by accident.  The story is no great shakes but is an A-1 effort next to the issue's Donald Duck offering, "A Texas Tale," which, while not the worst story I've seen in the pocket books, is surely among the most annoying.  Hapless Donald, relegated to the duty of a line-painter on Texas roads, gets involved in a convoluted oil-drilling caper that mostly consists of a lot of screaming, yelling, threatening, and slapstick action.  The concluding Mickey story, "Incredible Menace of Cyberman," from the Italian digest Topolino, is the best of the recent run of Topolino reprints slotted in the back in MMA, a sort of modern updating of the "private detective Mickey" stories that became the Mouse's primary vehicle for "adventure" in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  When the comic-book superhero Cyberman literally "comes to life" and menaces its putative creator, it's up to Mickey to crack the case.  

Star Trek: The Key Collection Volume 3 (Checker Book Publishing Group).  A third "bindle" of tales from Gold Key's Star Trek title – with this bunch coming from the years 1972, '73, and '74 – makes for an entertaining read for someone who, like me, thinks that the over-inflated Star Trek "phenomenon" needs some firm re-grounding in the original series' slightly campy reality.  The tales' plots vary in quality, while artist Alberto Giolitti's work wavers on- and off-model and relies rather too heavily on what Managing Editor Constance Taylor calls "goofy haircuts" in its depictions of aliens.  (Giolitti does OK with humans and "tentacled blob"-type creatures as adversaries; it's in that "middle ground" of semi-believable, human-like alien-looking characters where he seems to be the least sure of himself.)  Plus, whoever picked up the lettering job starting with "The Haunted Asteroid" should probably have been working for Charlton rather than Gold Key.  Still and all, I'd rather read something like this than watch "Star Trek: The Greatest Generation Meets the Voyager of Deep Space" or something similar try to make viewers believe that this is, in fact, the "semi-official" future history of humanity's encounter with the cosmos.  

Dick Tracy: Unholy Matrimony 5/7/39 to 9/26/39 (Pacific Comics Club).  The latest Dick Tracy reprint volume from Tony Raiola's company features the notorious sequence wherein Tracy's impatient flame Tess Trueheart, claiming she "isn't getting any younger," marries the wealthy ex-athlete (and four-star heel) Edward Nuremoh and lives (barely) to regret it.  Driven semi-crazy by the wedding's gruesome coda, Tess goes "but definitely" nuts and takes up with a crooked dog-trainer who'd previously tried to bump her off.  The nasty Nuremoh family has all the heart appeal of The Sopranos, and Tess comes off as a complete buffoon and airhead throughout.  This was not one of Chester Gould's better efforts, and Tracy's creator seems to have recognized the fact right away, as he soon thereafter embarked upon his famous run of grotesque villains.

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