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Book and Comic Reviews

Monday, July 14, 2008

Comic Review

Tintin and Alph-Art by Herge (Georges Remi) (Little, Brown).  Tintin's "Not-Quite-Last Adventure" was left incomplete at Herge's death in 1983.  This 2005 album, released to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Tintin's initial appearance, cobbles together the three fully penciled pages, forty-plus pages of scribbled sketches, and random notes that Herge made while wrestling with this complicated narrative of Tintin being plunged into the seamy underside of the commercial art world.  Thrown in for good measure is a questionable "guru" whose methods seem rather dated, even for the late 1970s.  The "guru" was undoubtedly intended to be the latest manifestation of Tintin's arch-enemy Rastapopoulos, who had last been seen being spirited away by aliens at the end of "Flight 714."  The last sketches Herge made before he died show the captured Tintin at the mercy of the "guru" and fated to be encased in liquid polyester as part of a statue.  However, Tintin's dog Snowy had already gone to fetch the "cavalry" and a last-second rescue clearly suggests itself.  Most of the tale plays out as a detective story, with Tintin trying to unravel the story behind several art-related murders and nearly getting killed himself for his pains.  Meanwhile, Captain Haddock provides comedy relief by purchasing a piece of "Alph-Art," a fairly ridiculous three-dimensional letter "H" which he has a spot of bother explaining to Herge's usual parade of regular supporting characters.  The story, had it been completed, would have been Herge's most relentlessly Tintin-focused in quite some while.  I've seen an unfortunate attempt to "complete" the story that features ham-handed art and too "neat" of a fate for Rastapopoulos.  It's far better to let the unfinished epic stand as a rare behind-the-scenes peek at the working methods of a comics master – albeit one in rapidly failing health.  

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 by Walter A. McDougall (Harper Collins).  The author of the acclaimed Freedom Just Around the Corner is back with volume two of his "New American History."  After tracing the theme of "hustling" in the initial volume, McDougall changes his tune a mite, choosing this time to focus on the idea of "pretense."  To wit, antebellum American politics and social structures had a consistent tendency to sidestep urgent national issues (slavery above all) until both sides got tired of telling lies to one another.  We still meet a fair number of "hustlers," though, especially in McDougall's enjoyable series of miniature histories of the various states, written in the order in which the states entered the Union.  It's a fairly quick read that repays repeat visits.  I just hope that McDougall doesn't try to cover the rest of the territory in the third volume.

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DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940: DVD Review Part Two "The Return of Bluto".    DVD Set Released: June 17, 2008.

 When last we left Popeye the Sailor Man, I had noted the lack of Bluto appearances in the cartoons that would make up the wonderful DVD collection POPEYE THE SAILOR 1938-1940.   Well, after those first “great eight” shorts discussed in the first part of this review, I can say that “Bluto’s back and (literally) better than ever!”  Apparently, Gus Wickie , the original voice of Bluto died at about the time the Fleischers  moved their studio from New York to Miami, and the role of  Bluto was downplayed until a replacement voice could be found.  Enter Pinto Colvig , best known as the voice of Goofy, to step into the role.  According to the Walt Disney Treasures Goofy DVD collection, Colvig had left Disney about 1940 and had moved over to Fleischer.   I’d never realized that he’d taken over Bluto, and had actually wondered what he DID do there.  

Now, this is strictly my own opinion, and for others it could vary, but I think Colvig may have made the best Bluto of them all!   Colvig’s Bluto is more of a comedic foil, lacking the cruel streak that Gus Wickie had brought to the character – and that Jackson Beck would take to new heights in the later cartoons.   An analogy for modern day Disney fans would be the quality that Jim Cummings presently brings to the character of Pete in contemporary cartoons like  “Mickey’s Mountain” and        “Mickey’s Cabin ”.  In short, he is fun to watch, and he is fun to listen to!   You will hear the difference immediately.   Among the great Bluto appearances in the collection are…

DISC ONE:

12: “Wotta Nightmare”.   A truly surreal cartoon, where Popeye’s deeply rooted fears about Bluto and Olive manifest themselves in weird and wonderful ways.   Even Swee’Pea and Eugene the Jeep get briefly into the act.   Watch out for the “Big Bluto Laughing Face” in this one.   And the final scene, after Popeye wakes up, is priceless!

15:  “It’s the Natural Thing to  Do ”.   Complaints about the violence in Popeye’s cartoons prompt Olive to coerce Popeye and Bluto into acting like gentlemen.  They, and Olive, try – they really do give it a go!   But their true nature comes through and the result is inevitable.  "Complaints about violence” in 1939?   WOW!   This cartoon is DECADES ahead of its time!   And this may be Pinto Colvig’s best performance as Bluto!

DISC TWO:

04:   "Stealin’ Ain’t Honest ”. Bluto claim-jumps Olive’s island gold mine.  Oddly, he is far more interested in the GOLD than in Olive -- unlike earlier or later incarnations, where he would have stolen the gold AND near-raped Olive to boot. (That’s part of the difference I mean about Colvig’s Bluto!)   Great scene: Bluto digs a shaft, and Popeye digs a shaft all the way under and around Bluto’s only to have their diggings meet!

08:   “Nurse Mates”. Olive tasks Popeye and Bluto with caring for Swee’Pea.   They approach the job as the great comedic rivals they are at their best!   Great scene: Swee’Pea blotches-up his face with a fountain pen.   Popeye uses “spot-remover” to wipe the ink blots away, and appears to wash Swee’Pea’s eyes and mouth off as well… until, after a beat, the kid opens his eyes and smiles.   Another great scene: Popeye swallows Swee’Pea’s bath soap, and, after some effort, blows it (in a bubble) out of his pipe!  Note that I describe Popeye and Bluto here as “great comedic rivals”.  That, again, is a large part of what Pinto Colvig (or the writers reacting to Colvig) brought to the character of Bluto, and a uniquely enjoyable aspect of this batch of cartoons.

…and the greatest for last!   (Yes, there’s a SPOILER for this one!  Can’t help it!)

09:   “Fightin’ Pals”.  The ultimate in playing with the Popeye and Bluto formula!   Bluto is off on an expedition to Africa.  Popeye sees him off.   They fight – almost playfully (!) on the dock, and Bluto departs.   As time passes, Popeye grows to MISS Bluto and the great brawls they’ve had together.   Then a radio bulletin declares that the big guy has been reported LOST in Darkest Africa!   Popeye is off to save his “pal”!  Popeye works his way through the jungle, fighting various animals – becoming more determined as he grows ever weaker!   To the Fleischers’ credit, he encounters ONLY wild animals – and no stereotypical African natives!   His mental image of Bluto’s plight grows more and more dire with each agonizing step!   Finally, he envisions Bluto’s DEAD BODY, with a hungry roaring LION over it, ready to dine! Yes, really!  Finally, Popeye cannot go another step, and collapses…  virtually at the feet of Bluto, who is enjoying himself, surrounded by native  girls, palm trees and coconut milk in abundance.   Bluto rushes to the near-dead Popeye’s aid and revives him with a can of spinach that he (Bluto) happens to be carrying  for just such an emergency!

BLUTO: “Do you feel strong enough?”

POPEYE: “I feel swell!”

BLUTO: "Well, let’s go…”

And they iris-out fighting, and apparently having the time of their lives!  I’m not quite sure yet, but this might end up being my favorite POPEYE cartoon of all time!   This is the way I’d like  to picture Popeye and Bluto forevermore – just as I regard the Bugs Bunny, Daffy  Duck, and Elmer Fudd of “Rabbit Seasoning ” as my favorite versions of those characters.  Combine these “Bluto Classics” with some other standouts of the collection like “Hello, How Am I?” (Wimpy poses as Popeye to wonderfully absurd effect!) “ Wimmen is a Myskery ”,and “Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep ” – in addition to those I discussed in Part One – and you have what may  be the greatest and most varied collection of Popeye cartoons imaginable!   Especially in view of the formulaic stuff that would soon follow!  Other items of interest on this set…  The credits for E. C. Segar stop at about the point Segar died.   Then, coincidently, WRITING CREDITS began appearing on the cartoons!  Writers credited were George Manuell (also seen on some very early Warner Bros. cartoons), Tedd Pierce (best known for his later WB work) and Joe Stultz, who enters my own personal “Writer’s Hall of Fame” for the great “ Fightin’ Pals ”.  The "Ship Doors Opening" goes away for a short while (as of cartoon #12 on Disc One) and later returns with more modern  graphics.   While it is gone, a generic title card is used for the credits... but the episode title is superimposed over the opening scene of the cartoon - to GREAT EFFECT!   There is a Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoon on the set ("Mechanical Monsters") and a six-minute feature on Popeye and Superman - who was the first superhero?  If there IS a negative to this period, it’s that the ad-lib mutterings made so famous by the earlier series of shorts  diminish and virtually disappear during this period.   But, it’s a small price to pay for the  overall enjoyable innovation seen in this grouping!  As much as I may have recommended this set earlier on, I’ve now tripled that recommendation!   …And I still have a few cartoons and extra features to go!

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