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Book and Comic Reviews

(6/25/06)

As promised, I'm back!

Donald Duck and Friends #340 (July 2006).  Not a great issue, but it does have some good points, most of them in the second Donald story.  The lead-off tale, "Farragut the Falcon," is a ho-hum 1944 Carl Barks production in which Donald gets more trouble than he bargained for after receiving a falcon as a gift from a relative.  As was his wont in many animated shorts and early Barks "ten-pagers" – especially those featuring a combative animal whom Don tries and fails to outwit – Donald gets himself in a pickle right off the reel thanks to overconfidence: "I know all about falcons – I saw one in a movie once!"  In this case, however, one can't really say that Farragut dupes Don, since the bird proves to have a few loose wires upstairs itself, disrupting a "falcon contest" by abandoning pursuit of a quail in favor of a model airplane.  Don gets revenge in the end by pressing the hapless Farragut into service as a makeshift rickshaw driver.  Closing with an animal-abuse joke – what a riot!

In Stefan Petrucha and Jorge David's "Monkey-See, Monkey-Do," Goofy eagerly receives a shipment of "Ocean-Monkeys," based on that all-too-familiar scam advertisement from countless comic-books past.  After a quintet of miniaturized crooks who've stolen a shrink ray from a local lab blunder into The Goof's house, Goofy mistakes them for… you guessed it.  The crooks take advantage of Goofy's credulity and live the life of Reilly at their host's expense, enjoying such comforts as a dollhouse hideout, "pretty blondes" in tiny sports cars (did those last two come pre-shrunk??), and an endless stream of snacks.  An increasingly peeved Goofy finally gets wise, uses the obligatory "reverse switch" on the shrink ray to enlarge the "real" "Ocean Monkeys" (which are, of course, brine shrimp), and scares the crooks into giving up.  A farfetched and loosely wound premise, to say the least, but a nice tribute of sorts to one of comicdom's most, uh, fondly "cherished" traditions.

In "The Careless Genie", writer Michael T. Gilbert revives the somewhat familiar "The Ducks meet a genie" plot, exploited most memorably in DuckTales: The Movie (not to mention the earlier DT episode "Masters of the Djinni"), but burnishes it with an unexpected twist or two. An incredibly selfish and self-centered Donald lucks into a bottle of "Magic Wish Cola" containing a doofus djinn named Spud, who's trying to graduate from "Genie U." but is not, shall we say, the brightest flame in the lamp.  Drawing on his knowledge of the standard protocol for genie encounters, Don tricks Spud into allowing him to wish for a million wishes.  Don quickly enriches himself and then (just to show an angry Daisy that he can, too, give unto others) bestows various baubles upon Duckburg, but the clueless Spud can't get any of the requests right.  Don finally trades places with Spud, becoming the genie himself… and Spud promptly wishes that he'd never met the anseriform a**hole!  Gilbert, who's cast Don as a consummate jerk more than a few times in the past – most memorably, in "That Ol' Soft Soap", the William Van Horn-illustrated "collectors' mania" satire from the Disney Comics era – cranks up the Duck's unlikability a few extra notches, which serves to make Don's abuse of Spud both nasty and funny at the same time.  Rodriques compliments Don's hoggish doings with some funny, lively art.  This is one instance in which it would have seemed completely inappropriate for Donald to have seen the light and repented in the end…

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #290 (July 2006).  This ish's lead story, "The Photonic Muffler," is all about automotive technology and was literally "salvaged" from the scrap heap of the defunct Disney Studio comics program.  Coincidence??  (Uh, yeah.)  The artwork in Romano Scarpa's tale was completed in the mid-80s, but not until 2005, when the story was rediscovered, were Luca Boschi (a frequent collaborator with Scarpa) and David Gerstein able to put their heads together and reconstruct a semblance of the original script.  Of the many "tales of weird science" that have appeared in the Mickey title, especially in recent years, this is definitely one of the kookiest.  Researcher Blint Brandon (a possible nod to Brick Bradford, the hero of a sci-fi comic strip years ago?) has drawn on his wartime work for Uncle Sam to develop a mail-order racecar that draws "boosts" of solar power from "a special doohickey in thuh muffler (sic!)," according to Goofy, who's bought one of Brandon's vehicles.  Ever ready to exploit others' "dinguses" for his own evil purposes, Pete learns of the tech and forces Brandon to develop tanks and other solar-stoked weapons for sale to the proverbial "highest bidder."  Mickey and Goofy discover Brandon's whereabouts from a secret message on a postcard Brandon had sent to a neighbor and go to the rescue.  As wacky as the whole powered-by-a-muffler thing sounds, it's not the oddest thing about the story, in my view.  If Mickey and Goofy can only uncover Brandon's SOS by doctoring the postcard with "special powder under a bright light," then how would Brandon expect his neighbor to be able to figure out where he is?  And whence such off-the-wall sound effects as "Tranch!", "Gweeesh!" and "Strankle!"??  (I don't even think those make sense in Italian.)  Boschi and Gerstein do their very best with the available raw materials, but in the end, the tale primarily serves to remind us just how completely off-the-wall Scarpa's creative genius could sometimes be.

"A Shot in the Dark," the middle Donald story, features the first appearance of Danish artist Mardon Smet (cf. "Legacy" in the recently released Donald Duck Adventures #18) in a "regulation" Gladstone release.  On a moonlight picnic with a horny (there is simply no other word for it) Daisy, Donald insists on indulging his newfound obsession of bird-watching and concentrates his attention on photographing the mating ritual of "the toggle-crested rainbow-beaked pink-bellied sapsucker."  (Why do people constantly use "sapsucker" when they're parodying bird-watchers?  Just the funny way it sounds, I guess.)  Donald's increasingly desperate efforts to get a perfect picture, even unto building a whistle lure, lead to ultimate overkill as he's literally buried under dozens of lecherous sapsuckers.  Smet's art looks a little peculiar in places – I've rarely seen any artist draw Daisy's legs quite so long – but his hyper-lively approach definitely brightens what could have otherwise been a by-the-numbers, Gold Key Daisy and Donald-type story.

To wrap the issue, Sarah Kinney produces yet another fine Goofy story in "Power Goofy," illustrated by Marcal Abella Bresco.  As she has often done, Kinney takes a fairly simple conceit and builds on it by making logical extensions from Goofy's own personality.  Desirous of building up his strength, Goofy buys "Muscle Munchies" from a shifty operator at the local gym and is soon sporting supercharged sinew (not to mention a head of newly-curled, thicker hair) that would put Super Goof himself to shame.  Trying desperately to put his new powers to good use (inspired by a recent viewing of the movie Gallant Gilroy), Goofy begins acting like a vigilante, much to Mickey's dismay.  After he learns that the "Munchies" were doctored with a special strength serum and have "crazy side effects," The Goof decides to return to pipe-cleaner extremities and mild-mannered lassitude.  For those who feel that the heroic pose struck by Super Goof lacked a certain degree of "authenticity", this tale may serve as a welcome departure.

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Uncle $crooge #355 (July 2006).  When I opened the copy of U$ #355 that I'd bought at the local store, I discovered that the last page was folded back upon itself and could only be loosened by a certain amount of tugging and (ultimately) tearing.  When I literally "straightened things out," I found that the page had not been cut properly to begin with; its edge extended several inches beyond the rest of the pages'.  Somehow, this production snafu seemed fitting for a book prominently featuring "The Mysterious Stone Ray" (aka "The Mysterious Unfinished Invention"), one of Carl Barks' most jumbled, chaotic, and ultimately unsatisfying early Uncle $crooge epics.  An article in The Carl Barks Library revealed the numerous changes Barks made to the story before final publication, but even with these adjustments, the tale simply contains far too many plot holes and out-of-left-field coincidences to be rated any sort of success.  How likely is it that a message in a bottle dropped by a stranded Beagle Boy would wash up on Duckburg beach and be recovered by Scrooge and the Nephews?  Why does the "peeved" (he's not loony enough to be truly mad) scientist who's developed the titular invention while seeking a means of producing fumeless cabbage (huh?) suddenly shut the stone ray off while meeting the Ducks, giving the previously petrified "stone Beagle Boys" a chance to escape and snag the ray for their own piratical purposes?  Why does the ray itself need a key to operate?  Why does Scrooge claim that stopping the Beagles from using the ray to "glom all of my money" is equivalent to "sav[ing] the whole world!"?  (36 years after this story first appeared, Scrooge would get a chance to legitimately save the world from being rendered inert in the last DuckTales adventure, 1990's "The Golden Goose".)  Barks never truly wrestled this story to the mat, and it shows.  If nothing else, as David Gerstein points out in the editorial column, this does mark one of the last times that the Beagles threatened the Ducks with actual bodily harm, as opposed to pulling the endless series of "goofy Money Bin capers" with which they're most identified. (As if the story weren't already problematic, the normally reliable Susan Daigle-Leach makes a bad coloring error along the way, momentarily forgetting that red-capped Huey was left on the beach to guard the "surviving" Beagle and allowing him to get zapped with the ray along with Dewey.)

Barks is better represented in the Junior Woodchucks story "Bottled Battlers," one of The Duck Man's better yarns for the JW title.  Once again, Daan Jippes is called upon to redraw Barks' script, and he does his usual fine job.  The tale is notable in that it features an unexpected revival of Magica De Spell, whom Barks had abandoned after using her extensively in the early 1960s.  Intending to break into Scrooge's Bin (curiously, there's nary a mention of the Old #1 Dime) with a powerful acid, Magica runs "afowl" of HD&L, who are picking up glass litter along a highway.  Unlike some of Barks' JW scripts, this tale doesn't preach, but instead uses the pollution theme as a jumping-off point for a straightforward "Ducks in conflict" tale.  

Writer Kari Korhonen, whose efforts rarely disappoint, scores again with the Gyro Gearloose tale "Creative Impulse," drawn by Santanach and dialogued by Tony Isabella (whose work for Gemstone has steadily improved over time).  The inventor confides in Donald that he's become a slave to his "creative impulse," reflexively offering to improve people's lives with his inventions whether or not they want or need his assistance.  Trying to relax at Donald's house, Gyro can't keep from tinkering with Don's TV or remodeling Don's kitchen (the latter, while in somnambulist mode).  Donald hits upon the solution: get Gyro so many jobs that he's simply too busy to fall victim to his own subconscious desires.  There would still seem to be a problem in that Gyro, being human (so to speak), still has to sleep and thus might still perform inadvertent inventage while sleepwalking, but perhaps Donald also suggested some sort of bed restraint.

At the book's (somewhat mangled) back end, writer Tomas Kolodziejczak (with an assist from Donald Markstein) makes a sparkling Gemstone debut with the $crooge tale "Something for Nothing," drawn by Vicar.  Listening to Scrooge ramble on about the glories of the free-enterprise system on page one, you can just sense that he's heading for a financial fall of some sort.  It comes in the form of a strange bargain store that offers luxurious premiums ("Buy a TV Guide, get a TV!") and is soon posing a healthy threat to Scrooge's gorilla grip on the local economy.  Donald and Gyro each investigate and find that the store's proprietors (the Beagle Boys, in a trio of particularly hideous disguises) have compelled the kidnapped Gyro to produce merchandise with his new "matter creator."  In a twist that fans of DuckTales will particularly appreciate, Gyro protests that the device had a "fatal flaw" all along: the items it produces aren't permanent.  After the populace discovers the ruse, Scrooge profits from the Beagles' bungle by offering evanescent ephemera in his "TemporaryMart."  Markstein does an excellent job on the tale's dialogue, lifting it a notch or two above the norm, and the plot itself is an ingenious idea that might have worked even better with Flintheart Glomgold as the brains of the shifty operation.

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(6/4/06)

Donald Duck Adventures #18 (May 2006).  With this issue's lead tale, "Let's Get Kraken," the Egmont team responsible for the Donald/Fethry "TNT" series takes – well, not precisely its first misstep, but a sidestep, at the very least.  This time around, Don and his gung-ho cousin pose as sailors on a ship belonging to tycoon John D. Rockerduck (a regular foe of Uncle Scrooge's in European comics but not often seen on this side of the "Duck pond").  JDR intends to capture the Kraken, a legendary sea beast, for his marine park.  TNT's Head fears that the giant "carnivorous squid-crab" poses a "terrible danger to mankind" -- exactly what said danger consists of, apart from the usual "perils of the open sea," is never explained – and assigns Don, Fethry, and fellow TNT agent Boysenberry to sabotage the mission.  After the expected screw-ups and the ultimate encounter with the Kraken, Scrooge, who'd wanted the boys to monkey-wrench the operation for his own (financial, of course) reasons, saves the day by abruptly appearing and using a fake sperm whale – the one sea creature the Kraken fears – to scare the monster away to a remote location.  The story isn't bad, but I don't feel it takes full advantage of the "TNT" scenario of Don, Fethry, et al. tussling with bizarre paranormal threats, and Scrooge's convenient rescue run at the end is pretty contrived.  One can easily imagine the tale being presented without the "TNT" references, which kind of undercuts the whole rationale for having it be part of a special series of stories in the first place.  (I'm reminded of the stories in the Richie Rich and Jackie Jokers title wherein Jackie, a kid comic with a very distinctive personality, is presented as "just another young companion" of Richie's.)

The middle Mickey story, "Blot Clot," features The Phantom Blot, as you might expect, but both writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Miguel have spilled ink to much better purposes that this.  The Blot's plot this time around is to hypnotize folks into using "hypnotic paint" to delineate a certain symbol on the surface of the moon, the consequences of which will be to "zombie-fy" the entire population of Earth.  OK, to be clearly visible from Earth, the sinister device would have to be HOW many hundred miles on a side, exactly?  (As depicted by Miguel, it's anything but that size.)  And how can "hypnotic paint" influence people from such an immense distance when people have to be staring at it at close quarters in order to become hypnotized in the first place?  Add in The Blot's sudden ability to mount an elaborate interplanetary expedition (not to mention his unexplained mastery of the Vulcan Neck Pinch-like "Antasian Death Grip") and the convenient appearance of an alien who helps the Moon-stranded Mickey get back to Earth, and you've got a story as poorly thought out as any I've ever read.  From the date code, I gather that this was one of Petrucha's first scripts for Egmont, which may explain the tale's slapdash nature; Petrucha must still have been trying to purge his system of the notion that he could be cavalier with facts and logic, because, after all, who takes adventure stories about a four-foot-tall talking mouse seriously.  Happily, he's gotten much, much better since then.

It took me three or so readings to pick up on all the details of the issue's third tale, Andreas Pihl and Mardon Smet's "Legacy," but in this case, that's actually a compliment.  Pihl does nothing less than give us a potted "origin story" for Donald's masked-hero alter ego, Duck Avenger ("Paperinik" in Italy, where this notion was originally hatched).  DA's origin was told in more detail in a very long Italian story that would have been difficult to print in its entirety in this country, so the gesture of printing this tale is much appreciated.  The story finds Phantom Duck, the supposedly "departed" crimefighter whose mantle Donald had commandeered, returning to Duckburg to see how his legacy is being handled.  The twist: PD's property was actually supposed to go to Don's Cousin Gladstone Gander, but Donald got the deed by mistake and horned in on the role.  Under the impression that Gladstone is Duck Avenger, Phantom Duck reacts violently to Gladstone's layabout lifestyle and resolves to train him "properly" using, among other things, a diet of "cold lentils" and a phony "nemesis" that will give DA the chance to truly "prove" himself.  Said "nemesis" ultimately materializes in a rather contrived fashion – the weakest aspect of the tale by far – but, with Gladstone having cut and run, Donald himself appears in Duck Avenger mode to defeat the menace and convince Phantom Duck that DA is now a truly worthy heir.  The tale is complicated, and attention must be paid, but it's an excellent read and features some dynamic art by Smet, a relative newcomer to the Ducks whose work has never appeared in America until now.  I must confess to never fully buying into the whole Duck Avenger concept; DA isn't wacky enough to be a full-blown superhero parody like Super Goof, nor is he a one-shot concept like Scrooge's alter ego in DuckTales' "The Masked Mallard," so what, precisely, is the point?  That being said, I did enjoy this tale quite a bit.

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