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Book and Comic Reviews

(6/26/05)

Donald Duck and Friends #329 (July 2005).  This issue features "The Mad Chemist," a 1944 Carl Barks story in which Donald gets a crack on the cabaza and turns into the headlined chemical-commingling loon.  An above-average story for its time period, this epic has earned more notoriety than one might expect thanks to Donald's offhand reference to CH2 (carbene), a subject of chemical research years later.  Editor John Clark rather overfills the beaker when he claims that "the formula for Duckmite" (the explosive substance that Don cooks up while in his crazy state) "was later to become the subject of a number of scientific papers and discussions."

Personally, I think Barks' later "raising a sunken yacht with ping-pong balls" story – which was directly mimicked for real salvage work – deserves a ton more credit for prescience than the strictly accidental reference here.  In the middle of the issue, Sarah Kinney and Xavi give us a surprisingly sprightly Survivor parody, "A Tale of Two Crusoes," in which Mickey and his pal Butch, marooned on a desert isle for reality-TV purposes, tussle over whether Mickey's "adventurous" spirit or Butch's "streetwise" smarts represents the best way to brave the various jungle perils.  The character conflict here – entirely believable for anyone who knows anything about Butch, a minor creation of Floyd Gottfredson back in the 30s who's been revived and (somewhat) updated in recent years – far outshines any specific reference to a "cultural phenomenon" that has long since passed its sell-by date.  Finally, Sharland, Sutter, Tony Isabella, and Vicar's "Auto be a Law" finds a frustrated (imagine that) Donald wishing that his old semi-reliable car were more responsive to his needs in a pinch.  Gyro gets involved, and Don learns, for about the quintillionth time, to be careful what he wishes for…  
 

Mickey Mouse and Friends #278 (July 2005).   "The Rajah's Treasure," a 1949 Mickey story from the Four Color series, gets the whole issue to itself, and a new generation of readers gets an opportunity to sample the art of Bill Wright at length.  Of all the Mickey artists whom Western Publishing called into service circa 1950 when it decided to run original stories rather than Floyd Gottfredson newspaper-strip reprints, Wright's style is probably the closest in looks to what Gottfredson's style had evolved into by that time.  Since I like that style a great deal, small wonder I like Wright's work.  The story itself is a "mystery" on roughly the Scooby-Doo level, but it does have its share of intriguing quirks, chief among them being the constant references to Mickey and Minnie as "kids" and "youngsters."  Uh, if Mickey is as wet behind his sizable ears as Chief O'Hara, O'Hara fellow cops, "The Boss," and the Rajah seem to think here, then how does one explain his snagging a risky job transporting jewels in an armored car -- much less driving said car?  At best, shouldn't he be tooling around Mouseton in a jalopy with bad puns and slang painted on the side (these are the late 40s, remember)?  I've seen this sort of odd "verbal juvenilization" of star Disney characters in other stories from the 40s, including at least one story by Carl Barks.  Was this some sort of ham-handed way to help the truly youthful comics-reading audience to more closely identify with the characters?  Whatever the purpose, it is a true oddity.

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(6/12/05)

Winsor McCay: Early Works Volume 5 by Winsor McCay (Checker Books).  I've stuck with this series from the first volume onward for both historical and aesthetic reasons.  McCay, best known for the century-old masterpiece Little Nemo in Slumberland, created many other comic strips, most notably The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and was an accomplished spot illustrator, powerful editorial cartoonist, and pioneering animator besides.  Little Nemo has been collected in other venues, so this series has concentrated on McCay's other credits, in particular, Rarebit Fiend.  Despite the fact that some of the works collected in Early Works can only qualify as "early" in the loosest sense of the word – for example, some strips in Volume 5 postdate the glory days of Nemo and company by half-a-decade or so – each volume has contained material of lasting interest.  With Volume 5, however, it appears that Checker is scraping the bottom of the barrel for unseen material and running low on enthusiasm for the project at the same time.  I don't expect perfect reproductions of these ancient strips, but a number of V5's offerings cross the line from "poor" to "unacceptable" insofar as reproduction quality goes.  This is especially annoying in certain Rarebit Fiend strips that must be aligned vertically on the page and reduced in size – the dialogue and details become unreadable.  Then, too, some early versions of Rarebit Fiend are presented without much information as to when they originally appeared, even though it is obvious that some time elapsed between them.  At least one more Early Works volume has been solicited

Donald Duck Adventures #12 (May 2005).  For the first time in a while, DDA goes an undeniable three for three.  All the stories herein are good to excellent.  First, Michael T. Gilbert and Fecchi give us "The Once and Future Donald," a light-hearted take on the same "futuristic Duckburg" theme that was seen in issue #1's Uncle $crooge Matrix parody.  Donald, the Nephews, and Daisy all turn out to have futuristic doppelgangers who – surprise – behave just like the original models.  Donald and his twin, DN-3000, switch places (and times) ,and the expected hell breaks loose.  Though the focus is definitely on belly-laughs here, a note of pathos is struck in the subtheme of the future Nephews' status as the last three Junior Woodchucks in a robot-managed world that (supposedly) has no need for such paragons of youthful virtue and intelligence.  Gilbert and Joaquin then team up for "The Town that Hated Mickey," wherein The Mouse is placed in the decidedly unfamiliar role of the most hated personality in two towns (including one that he's never even visited before this story!).  The self-loathing, comically mean-spirited villain of the story reminds me of nothing so much as a dog-faced Norton Nimnul (cf. Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers), in looks if not (exactly) in personality.  Finally, Dave Rawson and Miguel weave an intricate web of double-crossing, triple-crossing, etc. in "Deep-Sea Dilemma."  Scrooge, Gyro, and a marine archaeologist sail in search of a priceless sunken vessel, but the Beagle Boys have shanghaied the "expert" crew.  Each group soon realizes what's afoot, but which group will reveal itself first?...

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(6/5/05) 

Uncle $crooge #342 (June 2005).  There's one thing you can definitely say about Don Rosa, the acknowledged master of the flamboyant, maniacally-reseached, vista-spanning Scrooge epic: when one of his stories scores a hit, it scores a BIG hit.  This issue's "The Old Castle's Other Secret," a.k.a. "A Letter from Home," is one rib-snapper of a tale.  In one 34-page story, Rosa concludes the "Knights Templar" story arc begun in "The Crown of the Crusader Kings" (U$ #339), drags Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews through one of the most intricately detailed treasure quests they have ever had to attempt, and gives Scrooge the opportunity to reconcile with an alienated relative and close a circle in his relationship with his parents, especially his father, Fergus.  Rosa warns the reader in his accompanying essay that "Secret" required more background research than he has done for any other Duck story – so much, in fact, that he openly frets that between dropping crumbs of info about the Knights Templar and patching up Scrooge's "dysfunctional familial relations," he might have shortchanged the reader in the areas of action and humor.  In fact, there's more than enough of each to go around, from the dramatic revelation of the Treasury of the Knights Templar to an elaborate riff on a "poop joke" involving Rosa's perpetual fall-guy, Donald (don't worry -- it's clean, both literally and figuratively).  Moreover, Rosa injects some authentic "Heart" into the story (an aspect of his work that has often been less than stellar in the past) in the instantly-memorable scene in which Scrooge reads a letter from the long-dead Fergus.  To get the absolute most out of the story, I'd suggest that those less acquainted with Rosa's past work start by reviewing the eleventh chapter of "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck," as well as "The Crown of the Crusader Kings."  There are a couple of other items in here, including a reprint of Carl Barks' "Raven Mad" and a Beagle Boys story scripted by David Gerstein, but this ish is 99 44/100% Rosa's show. 

Walt Disney's Vacation Parade #2 (June 2005). Gemstone's second whack at a special summer issue features "Dangerous Disguise," one of Carl Barks' more…  er, innnnteresting stories.  This 1950 parody of overwrought spy movies (not, as some heavy-breathing critics have claimed, a satire on the Cold War) pits Donald and the Nephews against real, live human supporting characters.  Not "cartoony" humans, mind you, but folks that could have stepped out of any of the popular "slick" magazine illustrations of the time.  Barks had used human characters in several other stories around this time, but in no other tale were the characters so realistically depicted.  Opinions on the appropriateness of Barks' gambit (which caused Barks' editor to exact a promise from him never, ever to do it again) span the spectrum.  Personally, I never much liked it, because there was no established precedent for the Disney Duck (and Mouse) characters to do this sort of thing – in the cartoon shorts and newspaper strips, they regularly interacted with dogface, pigface, chicken, etc. "humans" from the very beginning.  I think that the Ducks' world has its own integrity that should not be violated except in cases of "magic" or similar outrι justifications.  Barks may have let his desire to do a human adventure strip get the better of his judgment on this occasion.  In Barks' defense, he does do a much better job at blending his humans in with the Ducks' environment than did Paul Murry and Dan Spiegle in the short-lived Mickey Mouse: Super Secret Agent misfire of the mid-60s, or the artists and writers who threw the cuddly Walter Lantz character Andy Panda into a world of humans in his earliest comic-book adventures.

Elsewhere in the ish, we get a couple of reprints from the original Vacation Parade #2, the one published under the Dell Comics banner in 1951.  Bill Wright's "The Ram's Head Ramblers" is a frothy, silly, slapstick-riddled concoction in which Mickey and Goofy find more trouble than they bargained for while traveling to a remote mountain resort.  The story isn't much, but it's nice to see the clean, precise artwork of Bill Wright once again.  The Li'l Bad Wolf story "The Pigmy Pigs" goes way out on a limb in positing that a tribe of fierce little porkers straight out of "darkest Africa" territory live downstream (sic) from the Big and Li'l Bad Wolves.  This is the sort of illogical story that Western Publishing seemed to dote on in a lot of its Annuals, Giants, and so forth.  I guess they thought that readers taking these comics on vacation would automatically be less demanding insofar as elementary plot integrity was concerned.  Again, good artwork, this time by Al Hubbard, is the saving grace.  Other reprints (not from VP #2) include a Chip & Dale tale drawn by Harvey Eisenberg and a Ludwig Von Drake epic penned by Tony Strobl.  The only "new" item in the lot is the $crooge story "Brig-a-dog," a by-the-numbers parody of Brigadoon produced by Egmont and scripted by Tony Isabella, whose jobs for Gemstone to date have been disappointingly ordinary, given his reputation.

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