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Book and Comic Reviews

(7/30/06)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #671 (August 2006).  For whatever reason, the latest issue of WDC&S arrived at my comic-book shop unaccompanied by Uncle $crooge, its usual "travel partner."  David Gerstein avows that both books were indeed released on the same day, and he would know.  As a result, U$ will have to be put aside for the time being.

In #671's lead story, William Van Horn celebrates what might be termed "Old Home-Grown Week" by bringing back a trio of his original character creations: Uncle Rumpus McFowl, con artist Woimly Filcher, and whistling flea Baron Itsy Bitzy.  "Zenith" finds Donald and HD&L joining Filcher and Rumpus in a quest to ascend Old Mt. Cranky, with the winner earning the right to rename the terribly-named tor.  (Given that mountain-mastering is the theme here, wouldn't "Summit" have been a better title?  "Zenith" suggests that everyone is heading straight up.)  Rumpus' bow is little more than a (literal) nod, with most of the inevitable bickering and one-upmanship being traded by Donald and Filcher.  If you're wondering about Baron I.B.'s role in all this, you'll have to read the story, as I don't want to spoil what little surprise the "surprise" ending holds.  I can't help but feel that a younger, fresher Van Horn would've managed to make this supposedly "wacky" contest a whole lot zanier; a single gag in which the leading "generic" challenger to our heroes abandons the race after inheriting "a doorknob factory in Kansas" hardly fills the void.  It's a pretty good yarn, but something of a testament, I'm afraid, to the gradual wind-down of Van Horn's distinguished career.

In Part 2 of Floyd Gottfredson's "Mickey Mouse in Love Trouble," the despondent, two-timed Mickey finally starts giving back as good as he gets after the blonde Millicent Van Gilt-Mouse, complete with collagen-enhanced lips and (canonical) rouge spots on her cheeks, suddenly blows into town. Mickey begins what folks used to call "stepping out" with Milly, to the chagrin of Minnie and her "new squeeze" Montmorency Rodent.  In the course of the ensuing insult-swappage, Millicent reveals a tart tongue, but Minnie sinks far lower, going far deeper into "high-snouted bitch" territory than she had ever or would ever venture.  (Her frosty response to Mickey and Milly's appearance on an otherwise uncrowded beach is a true classic.)  Those who are familiar with this story know what's coming in the concluding chapter, but Gottfredson keeps the new reader guessing, though a small hint as to the ultimate denouement is given for those paying close attention.    

Following a decent, if unspectacular, "summer-themed" Li'l Bad Wolf story from Holland, we get the second major bow in the Gemstone era for Daisy's nieces April, May, and June.  "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", by Pat and Carol McGreal and artist Rodriquez, rolls out a seemingly obvious but (to my knowledge) hitherto untried notion: what would happen if AM&J and Donald's Nephews literally had to trade places?  Yep, it's "Drag City" as the nieces, angling to avoid a boring birthday bash Daisy's cooked up for them, trick HD&L into donning dresses and false eyelashes under equally false pretenses.  Meanwhile, AM&J, now dressed as the Nephews and looking forward to having their own sort of fun – exactly what is never revealed -- are shanghaied by Donald into doing yard work and then get the unwanted "reward" of a fishing trip.  It's not as clever a plot hook as the wonderful "Dirk Duckly Fan Club" story we got a while back, but it's a funny idea, provided that you don't look too close, to wit: How are the kids reasonably expected to disguise their voices so that Donald and Daisy can't recognize the switch?  Why does Donald finally get wise after AM&J lose their caps (in a plunge over a waterfall), but not before?  On a more philosophical level, would the girl-hating Nephews I know and love (I'm thinking in particular of the DuckTales version) assent so readily to playing "distaff dress-up" just because they think they're getting a chance to visit an amusement park, and would they forgive AM&J their undeniable chicanery at the end just because they admired the girls' fishing and aquatic skills?  A few surprisingly sexist notes (Dewey's reference to Happy Mountain's roller coasters as "no place for girls," the portrayal of an incredibly lame and clueless "image-obsessed" Daisy that even Carl Barks might have disavowed) trouble me as well.  I still think the idea is a good one, and I love Rodriques' artwork, but the execution of the story reminded me of a less accomplished episode of DuckTales.

After an underwhelming Bucky Bug story from the 40s (I know Carl Buettner is mailing it in when he rhymes "this" with "this"!), the issue "pulls into the pits" with "Final Refuel," the last installment of the Formula One story arc.  My enthusiasm for this serial has cooled a bit over time, thanks to the repetitive use of the "Will Team McDuck overcome Glomgold's foul frauds and get to the racecourse in time?" conceit, but the twist that settles the Formula One title is really difficult to accept.  After dodging so many efforts by Glomgold and his bumbling "sparkplug-uglies" to cheat and otherwise circumvent the rules, Team McDuck's ultimate strategy during the final race in Japan is – to cheat!  Granted, TM was provoked by a Glomgold gambit, but if you're going to set up a "Wacky Racers vs. Dick Dastardly" scenario to begin with, at least try to maintain some semblance of consistency in terms of how the characters behave!  The climax and coda are also remarkably weak, given the assumed buildup in reader interest and excitement that was supposedly a beneficiary of the six-part format. Overall, I'd have to give the Formula One saga a grade of B- or C+: worth doing, but a little bit less than the sum of its (spare) parts.

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Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Comics, 75 Years of Innovation – The Official Anniversary Book (Gemstone).  Phew!  That title is long enough to fit an 18th or 19th century manuscript.  The first installment in the Treasures series is a 160-package stuffed to the gills with Disney comics stories published between 1930 and 2004.  Virtually every major Disney comics creator is represented, and there's a reasonable mix of reprints and previously unseen (in this country, anyway) material – though I honestly would have preferred more of the latter.  No doubt, the need to make sure everyone was included (and, in the cases of Don Rosa and William Van Horn, to save the relatively small amount of unseen material left to us for the regular Gemstone books) dictated a number of the choices – which, by and large, were excellent ones.

Given the fact that there are 25 (!) features of various lengths presented here, I won't attempt to assess every single one of them.  I will, however, single out a couple of items for particular praise -- or otherwise.  The restoration of Carl Barks' "Race to the South Seas" is superbly done, even unto the depiction of the brown-skinned island natives whom Gladstone, Donald, and HD&L encounter en route to "rescuing" a supposedly marooned Scrooge.  (David Gerstein provides a quasi-"apology" for both this story and an Uncle Remus Sunday-strip sequence, which I honestly wish weren't necessary, but better that than not seeing these things at all.)  As the first extended depiction of Gladstone's luck, this tale would be significant enough, but it's got a crackerjack "contest" theme to boot.  The reprints of Al Taliaferro's Donald Duck sequence "Donald's Nephews" (the comics introduction of you know who) and Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey adventure "Foray to Mount Fishflake" are also well done, though the (mostly silent) action in the shrunken Sunday-strip panels is easier to follow in the latter.  The stories from overseas are all good to excellent, and we even get an unexpected bonus when Romano Scarpa, Giorgio Cavazzano, and Dwight Decker's Goofy and Ellsworth story "AKA Cormorant Number Twelve" features a prominent role for Scarpa creation Trudy Van Tubb, Pete's paramour in the Italian comics.  (It also features a shockingly angular, nigh-anorexic version of Goofy.)  Only one overseas story is an American reprint – Freddy Milton, Daan Jippes, and Geoffrey Blum's Donald tale "Sauce for the Duck," which originally appeared during the "Gladstone I" era – and even that is acceptable in light of the 20-year (!) wait since its initial American appearance.  Jose Carioca is well represented in a two-strip reprint from the Sunday feature of the 1940s and a Brazilian story, "End of the Line," that plays off then-contemporary shortages in that country.  (Apparently, the latter's a big favorite of Jose's fans in Brazil.)  The book closes strongly with "With Friends like These...", a good showcase for the modern Egmont version of Mickey that features the elegant artwork of Cesar Ferioli.

What didn't I like?  Erm…  I can't help but think that Bill Van Horn got a little shortchanged, rating only a Gyro Gearloose and Launchpad McQuack four-page story from the "Gladstone I" DuckTales title.  This may have been the product of a space crunch and a desire to give Launchpad a spot in the "lineup," but I would've preferred to see one of the Lustig-Van Horn confections from DT.  (Don Rosa, at least, fares better than Bill with the reprint of "Fortune on the Rocks," one of his better early gag stories.)  Vicar's one appearance in this collection, as illustrator of Janet Gilbert's Donald tale "The Leaning Tower of Meatloaf," is a rather disappointing "tribute" to the works of this prolific artist.  Finally, while the Fethry Duck story "The Retriever" isn't exactly bad, this Dick Kinney-Al Hubbard yarn surely qualifies as strange: Fethry asks to borrow Donald's pet cat Tabby to help him go duck-hunting!  Not only that, but the semi-realistic mallard targets are capable of speech!  Boy, and here I thought making sense of the "universe" of Cars was tough…      

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(7/23/06)

Donald Duck and Friends #342 (August 2006).  Never underestimate the power of reputation.  Despite the fact that the featured item in this issue is unquestionably the 1966 Vic Lockman-Tony Strobl adventure "Og's Iron Bed," to the extent that Strobl's original cover (a fine effort, I might add) from Donald Duck #109 is reprinted as well, the book leads off with a Carl Barks reprint from 1944.  "The High-Wire Walkers" is a good story for its era, focusing on HD&L's success at tightrope walking and Donald's inevitable attempt to top it (and, of course, profit handsomely in the process) by conquering Niagara Falls, but it surely wouldn't have been an insult to Barks' memory had "Og's Iron Bed" taken the lead slot instead.  As David Gerstein makes clear in the editor's column – and Duck fan Pete Fernbaugh made even clearer in an excellent analysis of the story published several years ago in The Harveyville Fun Times! -- "Bed" ranks as one of Lockman's most ambitious attempts to craft his own version of a Duck adventure epic. What sets this story apart from so many of Lockman's fanciful late-60s soufflés is the fact that he draws directly upon one of his own "areas of expertise" for ideas, much as Barks frequently used the National Geographic as a reference source and Don Rosa occasionally draws upon his engineering background.  King Og of Bashan, whose "beat-up" old iron bedstead Scrooge has purchased for $1 million – leading him to commission Donald, HD&L, and Gyro to travel back in time to get photographic evidence that the bed really was Og's and thus justify a profitable museum donation – is no fanciful creation of Lockman, but a figure from the Old Testament.  The "big slaughter" that engulfs our century-crossing canard-chicken combo in ancient Bashan is actually the battle between the Israelites and the Amorites that wound up destroying Og's kingdom.  A frequent producer of illustrated religious pamphlets, Lockman knew his Scriptures well, and he sows the story with other Biblical references above and beyond the basic Og-plot.  Evil inventor Emil Eagle, a Lockman creation, provides the obligatory rival to the Ducks for possession of Og's bed.  To be sure, Lockman didn't make any overt references to "Bed"'s Biblical roots, but if Barks and Rosa deserve praise (and they do) for their use of real historical and physical details, then surely Lockman rates the same sort of encomium for his fine effort here.  A one-page Goofy gag, "Light the Fire," provides the issue's obligatory piece of non-Duck-related material – and it's a clever one.

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #291 (August 2006).  This issue's main feature, Stefan Petrucha and Noel Van Horn's engagingly offbeat "Flip Mickey," may not be "high-concept" in the manner of such earlier Mouse tales as the McGreals' "Shambor" series, but it certainly qualifies as a story with a purpose other than to merely entertain.  Thanks to the efforts of a "high-tech hypnotist," Mickey is bamboozled into becoming "a mystery-hating, adventure-hating romantic fop" at the request of a riled-up Minnie, who's resentful of Mickey's charge that she is too enamored of "refined and domesticated stuff."  The overarching intent – as David Gerstein explains in an editorial "backgrounder" – was to satirize the dull, bland, "straight-man" version of Mickey that appeared in several animated shorts, came to be the standard representation of the character in the gag-a-day era of the Mickey comic strip, and is still referenced by many non-Disney fans when they attempt to explain why they do not respect Mickey as a viable, interesting character.  Even if David hadn't made the point clear to the reader, it becomes explicit when the "anti-Mickey" dons the Bing Crosby-esque hat and bow tie that became a regular part of his wardrobe after World War II.  (For obvious reasons, Mickey doesn't adopt a pipe as well, though it certainly would have been fitting.)  Admittedly, the canasta-loving, art-ogling, restaurant-hopping sap we're left with here (after several hooded thugs disable and kidnap the hypnotist, that is) is something of a "straw mouse," in the sense that he was merely one version of the postwar Mickey, existing alongside the "cheerful bandleader" of The Mickey Mouse Club and the "dogged detective" of the Paul Murry comic-book stories.  Then, too, the story doesn't really address the more fundamental problem with the modern image of Mickey – namely, that his overall status as an unquestioned "good guy" has fallen out of favor in a cynical, overly ironic era that likes to tear down, "deconstruct," or otherwise attach "clay feet" to its icons.  Given the limitations of its viewpoint, however, the tale is an excellent one.  The sight of Minnie trying valiantly to motivate the blasé "anti-Mickey" into helping her track down villain Sylvester Shyster, who's using the hypnotist's (battery-powered!) staff to bamboozle all of Mouseton while he steals "the most valuable mirror in the country," provides plenty of laughs in and of itself, and even the somewhat predictable climax doesn't detract from the essential strength of the plot.  NVH's supporting artwork is superb. 

In its own way, the backup Mickey tale, the McGreals' "The Old Switcheroo," represents something of a departure from the norm, despite the fact that it recycles the "body-switching plot" that fans of the Disney Afternoon TV series (among other venues) remember seeing all too many times.  Using an ancient artifact from the cult of Janus, the "two-faced" Roman god, the Phantom Blot trades torsos with Mickey, intending to use Mickey's (presumed) "universal" popularity to rise to world domination.  As I watched Mickey/Blot gloat over how he would rewrite laws and dominate the World Court and the U.N., I suddenly got the feeling that an episode of Pinky and the Brain had suddenly "broken out."  At that point, I began to watch out for the inevitable "small flaw" that doomed so many of Brain's schemes -- and its revelation wasn't long in coming.  Mickey/Blot quickly realizes that his unique image of The Mouse as "a clever, relentless nemesis" doesn't account for the fact that Mickey is a "regular schmoe" who must endure such mundane pains as going to boring garden parties with Minnie, helping Goofy with repair work, and confronting neighbors who are upset about the misbehaving Pluto – and who, despite his reputation, would never be allowed to dominate the world.  The disenthralled do-badder wastes little time in returning things to the status quo and skedaddling.  Jesper Lund Madsen's somewhat simplistic artwork wouldn't have made sense for "Flip Mickey," but it seems to fit the animated-cartoon sensibility of this story quite well.  In fact, I'm almost sorry that this tale didn't show up on an episode of House of Mouse.

Filling in the cracks of a great issue, the three-page Donald story "Get a Life" almost seems to warrant a more extended treatment.  After Donald gets a PDA, he's forced to come to grips with the fact that he has no schedule to organize – and henceforth, he becomes an "active Duck" in all manner of ways.  That is, until the PDA suffers a slight mishap…  Another excellent effort from Janet Gilbert, adequately supported by artist Santanach.

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Carl Barks' Greatest DuckTales Stories, Volume 2 (Gemstone).  Second collection, same (idea) as the first, except that there's no David Gerstein-penned featurette to back up the introduction by Joe Torcivia and yours truly.  "The Giant Robot Robbers," "The Golden Fleecing," "The Horseradish Story," "The Status Seeker," "The Unsafe Safe," and "The Land of Tralla La," all adapted by DuckTales with varying degrees of fidelity, are reprinted herein.  (The TV series did use additional bits and pieces of Barks stories – most memorably, the money-dam collapse from "Only a Poor Old Man" in "Liquid Assets," the first installment of the epic that introduced Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck – but those stories were not included in these volumes.)  Joe and I will likely raise some hackles with our contention that the DT take on "Tralla La" was markedly superior to Barks' original – will anyone respond, and, if so, in what forum?  The first volume reportedly sold well, and the second will likely do the same, so it's not as if there won't be any potential objectors…

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Movie Reviews

(7/17/06)

Little Lulu Vol. 10: All Dressed Up (Dark Horse).  This latest agglomeration of John Stanley's Lulu stories features two tales previously reprinted in The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, the locus of my first exposure to Stanley's work.  "Five Little Babies" is frequently held up by longtime Lulu fans as an epitome of the "comical escalation" in which Stanley specialized; now that I've finally read the tale "in context," as it were, I can readily agree.  As an exemplar of the "Lulu is humiliated by the 'fellers' and turns the tables in clever and painful fashion," one could hardly top the sights of (1) "fresh rich kid" Wilbur van Snobbe somehow convincing Lulu to trail in his wake on her hands and knees while carrying a ball in her mouth, or (2) Lulu contriving to expose Wilbur and his co-conspiratorial "clubhouse pals" to general ridicule by forcing them to wear diapers in public.  "The Little Rich Boy," an entry in the "Alvin Story Telling Time" series, spotlights a similar bouleversement, as "poor girl" Lulu suddenly gets rich and then gets even with the nasty little richnik who'd previously scorned her.  One other significant highlight of this package is the first appearance of Witch Hazel, the evil witch who'd come to menace Lulu in a number of "fantasy" stories.  Hazel was the first continuing character in these "storytelling tales," and, as such, may represent the first evidence that Stanley's well of inventiveness was starting to run dry, much as Carl Barks' overuse of Magica de Spell in the early 60s indicated a certain degree of flagging energy.  I'll be interested to see how often Hazel appears in the next several collections…

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Mickey Mouse Adventures #10 (Gemstone).  A marvelous issue, the best MMA offering for quite a while.  Interestingly, all three stories are portmanteau offerings of sorts, combining ideas and themes from several different sources, yet the storytelling is no less crisp and coherent for all that. 

Pat and Carol McGreal and Massimo Fecchi's "May the Farce Be With You" is, as you might expect, a Star Wars parody, originally produced to coincide with the release of SW Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  What lifts this effort above others of the genre is its combining of elements from ALL of the Star Wars movies, gathering within its grasp everything from Darth Maul to the Ewoks.  Overall, the McGreals manage to keep the "long ago/far away" laughs coming without resorting to overly crude or sarcastic humor in the manner of a Mad parody.  The setup is admittedly a stretch: Gyro's "realism-enhancing" device, which the inventor has contributed to the opening of the latest Star Force (sic) epic, sucks Mickey, Donald, and Goofy into the "universe" behind the movie screen.  There, M&D play heroic pals Luke Puddlehopper and Drumm Solo, while Goofy assumes the role of… well, it's pretty easy to guess even before the secret is revealed, but I'm going to preserve the "suspense" for those who haven't read the story yet.  M&D bicker rather more than we have come to expect – I don't recall them being anywhere near as nasty towards each other at any point of the McGreals' earlier "Mythos Island" saga – but their byplay is funny nonetheless, as is the McGreals' clever take on the mangled grammar of Master Yoyo, the unexpectedly esurient Jedi trainer.  Cleverest gag: Donald outfitting the cute and cuddly Ewok-clones (who, like the C3PO and Chewbacca stand-ins, never do get named) with different types of garb a la the Vermont Teddy Bears.

In John Blair Moore and Fecchi's Donald "sandwich" story, "Healthy Choice," we get a mixture of sorts of the DuckTales episode "The Big Flub" and the Michael T. Gilbert/William Van Horn classic "That Ol' Soft Soap."  Like "Soap," this tale comes down to a no-holds-barred "marketing war" between turf-protecting Scrooge and up-and-coming Donald, whose "video course in salesmanship" leads to remarkable success when he promotes Gyro's "Snifflezap" as the long-sought "cure for the common cold."  With assistance from Daisy, HD&L, the Nephews' pals, and the Junior Woodchucks, Donald soon has Scrooge's "McDuck Medicine" on the ropes, despite the best efforts of Scrooge's crack sales and advertising staffs.  (Scrooge ultimately becomes so desperate that he authorizes the distribution of – gasp! – free samples.)  Daisy, HD&L, and Gyro are first amazed at, then increasingly disturbed by, Donald's apparent knack for high-caliber huckstering.  Ultimately, however, the "Big Flub" half of the equation kicks in, as Donald (like Fenton Crackshell) learns too late that Gyro's warning that the wonder-product's "long-term effects" haven't been fully evaluated was given with good reason.  Some funny dialogue and first-rate Fecchi art give this story a remarkable level of energy and overall likeability.  Notable, too, are the appearances of such infrequently seen "kid characters" as HD&L's pig pal Herbert, the boys' friend Garvey Gull (who hasn't been formally introduced in this country yet, but I'm assured that he soon will be), and Glittering Goldie's niece Dickie Duck (a Romano Scarpa creation making only her second American appearance here).

The second Mickey story in MMA has generally been reserved for a tale from the Italian digest Topolino.  The previous efforts we've seen have mostly been OK, but, with Bruno Sarda, Dwight Decker, and Giuseppe Dalla Santa's "Double Danger," we get a real gem – a sort of "three-way collision" between the Disney "universe's version of The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, and the Floyd Gottfredson classic "The Monarch of Medioka."  This time around, the pivotal figure gets a sex change.  Vacationing Mickey and Minnie fall in with Rattistani rebels who wish to restore an unjustly deposed ruler and depose her "wicked" sister – both of whom have features identical to Minnie's.  But are the rebels – or, for that matter, the Rattistani police chief – or, for another matter, the "wicked" Queen Sita – all that they appear to be?  Sarda (and translator Decker) manage to sustain legitimate suspense and uncertainty almost until the end, not an easy task.  Just as remarkably, Minnie, who is called upon to portray the potentate for the good of the rebels' cause, spends much of the tale in need of rescue, yet the story is most definitely not a throwback to the days when Mickey and Minnie filled stereotypical hero/damsel roles, as Minnie cuts every bit as strong a figure as her man here.  Dalla Santa's artwork is somewhat on the angular side but is excellent nonetheless.

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Shanda the Panda #45 (April 2006 [note the cover date]).  Admittedly, my level of tolerance for the quality level of "micro-press" independent projects is rather more generous than that for material produced by the likes of DC Comics or Gemstone.  This being said, there is, quite simply, no excuse whatsoever for the shoddy shape of the latest installment of Mike Curtis' anthropomorphic, mature-audience "slice of life" comic.  The lead story squanders a golden opportunity to use Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Gulf States (from whence "male lead" Richard Sabatier hails) in a really meaningful way in the story line.  The "artwork" is embarrassingly amateurish, the lettering is worse than that, and the paper quality is poor.  The whole production looks as if it were traced from sketch form directly onto the page.  The backup stories aren't much better.  In the second one, in which a lecherous "senator from Massachusetts" (sound familiar?) attempts to score with a Cedar Rabbits policewoman, the first dialogue balloon contains microscopic print that is literally too small to read.  This isn't some "hit-and-run" outfit we're talking about here: Shanda Fantasy Arts has been producing this title for 13 years.  Whatever happened to taking pride in your own creations?  What possessed Mike Curtis to permit this "dog" to escape (and rather late, to boot, judging by the cover date)?  If he can't find better helpmates than this, then Curtis should seriously consider folding Shanda, in order to preserve what remains of its reputation.  I will admit, however, that that last story ends up giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "getting screwed by the Democrats."  :-)

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(7/2/06)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #670 (July 2006).  Sorry I didn't review this book last week; I was still catching up on my reading, post-Nebraska.  The latest WDC&S features a trio of intriguing reprints: a Jose Carioca story from WDC&S #28 – that's three issues before stories by Carl Barks began to appear in the title, BTW – a Li'l Bad Wolf tale from the 1950 Vacation Parade annual, and, choicest of all, the first installment of "Love Trouble," a Mickey Mouse strip continuity from 1941.  This last was one of the very few continuities from Floyd Gottfredson's salad days that "Gladstone I" could have reprinted (bereft as it is of ethnic stereotypes and similarly Verboten themes) but did not.  The single best thing about this reprint is the format: four tiers per page and two large panels per tier, very closely approximating the dimensions of the original comic strips.  For years, Gottfredson's work has suffered at the hands of well-meaning reformatters who treated his art roughly as they attempted to fit it onto comic-book pages.  Would that "G-I" had had the resources to use Gemstone's layout in the late 80s and early 90s – not to mention the technology required to color the panels without having to mix together tints and leftover Ben-Day in a muddy mess.  "Trouble" itself ranks as the finest of Gottfredson's few outright domestic comedies.  Minnie decides that Mickey has dashed off on high adventure without her once too often and decides to get back at him by taking up with "another mouse."  In this case, it's the lanky, debonair Montmorency Rodent, who's in effect a "relaunch" of Mickey's old romantic rival, Mortimer Mouse.  (The "Monty" character design has since literally become the one used for Mortimer, completing the transition with grim finality.)  The stunned Mickey finds himself having to fight Monty for Minnie's affections – and the battle quickly becomes one-sided in favor of Monty, whose parlor tricks and dancing abilities are the 1941 equivalent of "da bomb."  Mickey manages to hold his temper, with the exception of one memorable sequence in which he literally walks through Minnie's picture window (a scene excised from previous reprints of this tale), but burdened as he is by his lower-middle-class mannerisms and a few untimely spells of clumsiness, he'll have to think fast if he wants to appear on a stamp with Minnie some 65 years hence…

The Carioca story, "The Carnival King," actually predates the Brazilian parrot's animated debut in Saludos Amigos (1943); Jose similarly appeared in the Sunday Silly Symphonies page at about the time that this story was printed.  Carl Buettner's tale shows Carioca's "elegant con-artist" persona to good advantage.  The brazen bird poses as a burglar in order to crash a masquerade ball and dance with the inevitable distaff bird bombshell.  (Seeing as how Lolo, "the famous samba dancer," and Jose won the "Best Costume Award" despite the fact that Lolo was wearing the exact same costume as the one she'd previously worn for newspaper photographs, I have to believe that the proverbial "feex" was in.)  Alas, Jose is soon on the run again as a policeman mistakes him for a real burglar.  Nothing so spicy occurs in Gil Turner's Li'l Bad Wolf tale, a simple story of a camping trip gone awry, but Zeke Wolf and Li'l Bad do get to cross paths with Bent-Tail Coyote Senior and Junior, the stars of a contemporary Disney short.  BT Jr. mistakes Zeke for a giant chicken (do I hear Warner Bros.' Henery Hawk mumbling something about residuals?), and the expected slapstick chaos concludes with the Wolves hightailing it for home, pursued by angry hornets.

Elsewhere in the ish, "Wheels of Fire," Part 5 of the Formula One series, finds the Ducks in Italy, where Glomgold, devious as ever, schemes to keep Donald and the Team McDuck racer from reaching the race site in time.  With his clunky truck transport broken down, Donald has to use the racer itself to get to the starting line, which he really should have thought to do from the start (that is, if he'd remembered his Speed Racer plots).  The plots are starting to get repetitive, right down to the concluding "raging chase-off" scene, so it's probably just as well that this series will wind up next issue…  A "temporary obsession" conceit powers the issue's lead Donald story, Fred Milton, Daan Jippes, and David Gerstein's "Rewarding Formula," but the tale is no less entertaining for all that.  Donald, who's blindly prejudiced against scientists for some reason, finds himself in a battle of wits with a hidden egghead at a remote "science center," but HD&L suspect that there's more going on than meets the eye.  Sure enough, the boys discover that two crooks are inside trying to wangle a secret formula from a research scientist, and they come to the rescue the "scientific" (or at least ingenious) way.  This must have been one of Milton and Jippes' earliest "Barks-like" stories; aside from the date code, there are a couple of Duck poses that appear to have been "inspired" directly by Barks…  Finally, in Stefan Petrucha and Santanach's "Scream Team," Gyro and Donald get scared when they hear dreadful noises from Gyro's "post-temporal recorder," indicating that something bad is going to happen in Gyro's lab in a couple of hours.  You kinda suspect from the start who's inevitably going to wind up making all that racket, though, so the "twist" ending really isn't one.

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Movie Reviews

Cars (Disney/Pixar).  Nicky and I were slow to see this, turned off as we were by the generally negative reviews -- and, more significantly, by Nicky's (entirely accurate) recognition, upon learning of the movie's plot, that Pixar was ripping off the decade-old Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood.  That Pixar, which has shown such refreshing originality while building its reputation as the most reliably outstanding animation house in Hollywood, should choose to swipe a plot in such brazen fashion seemed downright unbelievable.  Now that we've seen the movie, we can only echo Alley Oop's Dr. Wonmug and personally attest to the fact that we have, in fact, "beheld the unheard-of."  Pixar doesn't even attempt to hide the similarities; Sally, the cute little Porsche who's the main romantic interest for arrogant racing car Lightning McQueen, is a former "city coupe" who's found a comfort zone (parking space?) in the decaying-yet-friendly backwater town of Radiator Springs – just like the Julie Warner character in Doc Hollywood – and the elderly-yet-proud ex-racer (voiced by Paul Newman) who challenges McQueen's self-centeredness (and, along with other denizens of Radiator Springs, ultimately comes to L.A. to help McQueen in his battle to win the Piston Cup) has a direct parallel in the town doctor who faces off against, then comes to respect, Michael J. Fox.  Did the pressure to get out another feature as quickly as possible finally catch up with Pixar here, as it ultimately did with Disney in the waning days of its 2-D animation studio?  Or perhaps Pixar's attention was partially diverted by work on another feature (Ratatouille, slated for release next Summer).  Whatever the reason, Cars is the first Pixar feature to have that unsettling "assembly-line" (sorry) feel that plagued the last several Disney 2-D releases.  I suppose it was inevitable, but it's still disheartening to see. 

In several other aspects, Cars mirrors the machines it uses as stand-ins for humans (not to mention animals [tractors and combines] and insects [literal VW "bugs"]!).  At its core, the movie purrs like a car's motor, but it lacks any sort of organic "Heart."  Gone are the family dynamics of The Incredibles and the emotional heights and depths experienced by the Toy Story characters.  Instead, we get predictable collisions between predictable stereotypes, most of whom are amusing, but whose shticks are easily forgotten.  The banal (albeit good-natured) bickering between Sarge (the surplus-supply-store jeep) and Fillmore (the "hippie" microbus voiced by George Carlin) sums it up as well as anything can.  I got the distinct impression that the Pixar scenarists carefully identified certain elements of their target audience ("straight arrows" [Sarge], 60s leftovers [Fillmore], elderly folks [Lizzie], blacks [Flo], other ethnics [Luigi, Guido, and Ramon], red-state rednecks ["Larry the Cable Guy"'s mildly irritating Mater]) and designed their characters to meet certain demographic specifications.  "Custom features" may have a place on cars, but they're a rather cold-blooded notion around which to build the supporting cast of a movie.  Lightning McQueen may have undergone a true change of heart (or should we say, "undergone a life-changing transmission"?) during his involuntary sojourn in Radiator Springs, but, unlike Michael J. Fox' character, who ultimately decided to return to the small town he had gradually come to love, McQueen's salvation comes when the other characters decide to help him.  McQueen ultimately proves the sincerity of his "conversion" during the climactic race that decides the winner of the Piston Cup.  Even so, the fortunate fact that the other vehicles showed up at precisely the right moment struck me as something of a cheat.

Technically, Cars is excellent.  The Pixar animators shine with particular radiance during the races that serve as the bookends of the movie.  (Actually, since we're in a world of sentient cars here, aren't McQueen and his fellow competitors actually participating in the equivalent of a foot race?  Would this make the "Interstate Highway" that has left Radiator Springs to wither on the vine the car-world's version of an extremely lengthy running trail?)  Notable, too, are the breathtaking desert vistas that Sally shows an awestruck McQueen during a casual drive – er, run – er, whatever.  This last may have been an homage paid by director John Lasseter to Chuck Jones of "Road Runner & Coyote" fame (it is well known that Lasseter counts Jones as one of his creative inspirations).  The movie could easily have been shortened, however; I heard youthful fidgeting during Cars that I'd never heard during any other theatrical showing of a Pixar flick.  Cars certainly doesn't qualify as a terrible movie, but it's not terribly involving, either.  Hopefully, Ratatouille will show that Pixar is back on the right track – er, running trail – er, I know when to quit…

As is Pixar's fashion, Cars is preceded by a short -- in this case, One-Man Band.  It's an amusing little tale in which two street musicians try (and fail) to convince a cute little urchin to part with her one gold piece.  Band isn't particularly ambitious or groundbreaking, but it's good, like all the other Pixar palate-cleansers.

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This site was last updated 11/20/06