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Book and Comic Reviews

(6/25/07)

Uncle $crooge Adventures, The Barks-Rosa Collection Volume 1: "Land of the Pygmy Indians" / "War of the Wendigo" (July 2007).  Want to explain the difference between conservationism and environmentalism to someone you know?  Point him in the direction of this volume, the first in a planned series of Carl Barks stories and Don Rosa sequels to same.  Rosa takes Barks' somewhat didactic, but nonetheless clever and amusing, 1957 scrape between Scrooge and the eco-friendly, Song of Hiawatha-cadenced Peeweegah Indians and turns it into something more closely approximating an episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.  Not that Rosa's heart isn't in the right place, but whereas Barks uses a stiletto to get his point across, Rosa whales away with a club. 

In Barks' tale, Scrooge is desperate to escape industrial Duckburg "with it [sic] chemical gases and smelter smoke" and find a new home for himself and his money bin in the Northern wilderness.  (Since Scrooge is assumedly moving from the U.S. to Canada in doing so, this could have all sorts of ghastly financial and tax implications, but I digress.)  The old miser buys a hunk of "uninhabited" land which he, Donald, and HD&L find out is actually peopled by the sawed-off, super-schnozzed Peeweegahs, who are not pleased by the possible encroachment upon their nature-centered "way of living."  As Barks puts it, "two rival groups" then "seek ways to outfox each other," with the Ducks' kidnap of a Peeweegah foiled with the help of flora and fauna allied with the runty redskins and the Peeweegahs ultimately putting Scrooge on trial for daring to claim sovereignty over the land.  They're right to be nervous, as Scrooge alternates rhapsodizing over nature with poking at the bounteous natural resources available in the region.  Donald proves the Ducks "worthy" of the Peeweegahs' trust by managing to capture a giant sturgeon, and Scrooge promises to respect the Indians' wishes – "for a while, I hope" – only to be "smoked" into unconsciousness by a drugged peace pipe, the potency of which (rather far-fetchedly) convinces him to leave the land to the Peegeewahs.  The plot and its particulars are essentially those of Barks' 1945 story "Mystery of the Swamp", only with smoother edges and a surer storytelling touch.  The Peeweegahs definitely have it all over the earlier story's Gneezles insofar as likability goes, and the story has sufficient ambiguity that one can never decide whether Scrooge's good intentions would, in fact, have been betrayed by greed had he decided to stay in the wilderness.  In other words, the Peeweegahs "win," but Scrooge gets the benefit of the doubt.

Rosa's "Wendigo" was originally produced in the early 90s – not coincidentally, perhaps, the heyday of Captain Planet – but sat on the shelf due to Disney's stubborn refusal to allow the American publication of anything remotely resembling a Native American "stereotype."  No matter that the Peeweegahs rivaled Disney's own feature-film star Pocahontas for nobility.  The going-out-of-biz "Gladstone II" ultimately published the tale in 1999 as more or less of an act of "stick it in your ear" defiance.  Due to the long wait, "Wendigo" acquired a certain cachet which, to be frank, it probably doesn't deserve.  This time around, Scrooge and the boys are touring Scrooge's Canadian mills, the tall smokestacks of which are supposedly wafting any aerial pollution clear out of sight.  The result, of course, is "acid rain," and the legendary wilderness sprites, the Wendigo, are supposedly vandalizing the plant in response.  The Wendigo turn out to be our old pals the Peeweegahs, who kidnap Scrooge and accuse him of betraying their trust.  Donald (incongruously clad in Indian garb) does the "prove yourself worthy" bit yet again, but this time, he's assigned to take out a strip-mining machine.  Scrooge agrees to close the plant and sends Donald to get it shut down, but plant manager Ravage DeFlora has other ideas – and here's where the story wanders off the reservation, so to speak.  DeFlora, frothing at the snout like Hoggish Greedly on a bad day, refuses to stop polluting, providing the Peeweegahs with the excuse to indulge in what must have been a fantasy of Rosa's and attack the plant with the assistance of their animal allies.  As DeFlora devolves into a cackling, flame-throwing maniac, Scrooge relieves the Peeweegah Chief of the responsibility of destroying the plant with a flash flood by doing the deed himself.  Finally agreeing with the Chief that he owes his wealth to the "Great Spirit of Nature," Scrooge literally vows to "clean up his act" and winds up crowned with a floral wreath.  Unfortunately, in his effort to relieve Scrooge of the entire burden of guilt for the pollution, Rosa goes too far, rendering the traitorous DeFlora a caricature of a nature-spoiling bad guy.  The use of such a crude villain actually undercuts the moral; it would have been far better had Scrooge faced up to his responsibility entirely by himself, even if his "making it square" reputation sustained a ding or two in the process.  At least Rosa's artwork is first-rate throughout. 

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(6/17/07)

Book Reviews

Krazy and Ignatz 1939-1940: "A Brick Stuffed with Moom-Bims" by George Herriman (Fantagraphics).  My comic-book store was a little tardy in getting this to me, not that it really matters when you're talking about a strip as well-aged as Krazy Kat was in the first place…  Reading these colorful Sunday strips, you'd never guess that the world had been plunged into its worst war during this period.  Herriman ultimately did slip a few off-hand references to WWII ("tank" bricks, etc.) into later 40s strips, but the brick-related schemes, alliteration, songs, and strange backgrounds during these dreadful 24 months are pretty much indistinguishable from those seen earlier in the 30s.  Editor Bill Blackbeard provides his usual quota of half-insightful, half-doubtful "debafflers" – does he really believe that Herriman's offhand use of the phone number "Coconino 69696" in one strip was a veiled reference to oral sex?? – and Jeet Heer contributes an interesting, albeit poorly proof-read, piece on Herriman's use of color.  Essential reading for serious comics scholars.

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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster).  Goodwin's much-praised, massive "multiple quasi-biography" of Abraham Lincoln and the contentious men who composed his Civil War-time Cabinet proved to be worth my wait – though not without its share of flaws.  Lincoln is the clear hero of the tale, the oft-"mis-underestimated" man whose rivals for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination – William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates – regarded him with a mixture of condescension and exasperation.  The "Illinois country lawyer" proved to have an unsurpassed ability to take such individuals into his administration and keep their disagreements from erupting into internecine warfare that might have seriously damaged the cause of the Union during the war.  Goodwin may slightly overstate the "Lincoln magic" at times in her desire to portray the man's "political genius", but Lincoln's ability to pour oil on troubled waters truly was remarkable and is a model of Presidential leadership.

Goodwin paints on such a broad canvas and includes so many different events and individuals that it should probably not be surprising that her narrative contains a few loose threads and gaps.  Remarkably, her discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates says nothing about the Freeport Doctrine and its role as a point of contention between the candidates.  Characters such as General Winfield Scott and Count Adam Gurowski are mentioned numerous times but are never "formally" introduced to the reader.  The opening 200 or so pages also drag a bit, as Goodwin meticulously traces the lives of the "rivals" from the beginning.  Those searching for the "red meat" of political infighting and Cabinet squabbles will have a long wait in store for them if they begin at the beginning.

Overall, though, a fine read and a good contribution to the vast literature on the Civil War era.

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A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by Andrew Roberts (HarperCollins).  A previous Amazon reviewer compared this book to Paul Johnson's classic Modern Times, to which I respond: we should only have been so lucky.  Roberts' robust defense of the English-speaking nations' actions during the 20th century is refreshingly free of the "guilt complexes" that befoul many trendy historical narratives, but it sorely lacks the narrative "spine" of Johnson's seminal work.  Roberts freely admits that his book is more of a grab-bag of anecdotes than a continuous narrative, but he fails to follow the first rule of anyone engaged in such selective cherry-picking: Get your facts right.  A multitude of mistakes, both large and small, tend to undercut Roberts' arguments (such as they are).  The book is also inconsistent in its treatment of the English-speaking peoples: the U.S., Britain, the Anzac nations, and even Ireland get plenty of attention, but Roberts seems to have forgotten about Canada along the way, saying very little about postwar Canadian politics and culture.  Roberts is a voice of reason, for the most part, and I hope that he will follow up this disappointing work with a more coherent version covering the same basic material, but I'm afraid that this was an opportunity missed.

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(6/3/07)

Actually, I'm writing this on 6/1, prior to my trip to Louisville for the AP Stats Reading…

Comics Review

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #681 (June 2007).  How many characters originating in animated films can claim 75 years of active, continuous life?  Setting aside Felix the Cat (sorry, David Gerstein) as having too many "career gaps" to qualify, I count a grand total of three, all Disney-related:  Mickey Mouse, Black Pete, and this issue's birthday boy, Goofy.  In his tribute essay, "Still Goofy After All These Years," Dave G. attributes the Goof's longevity to a unique mixture of zaniness, charming naivete, occasional insight, and old-fashioned "Heart."  How odd, then, that the two celebratory Goofy tales offered herein find "the thinking man's crackpot" more or less a passive receptor of plot-prodding blows, as opposed to a character that sets craziness in motion by his own actions (or lack of same).  That's not to say that the stories are poor, by any means.

In Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli's "Green Ice Cream and a Trampoline," Mickey's friends puzzle over how to collect a set of desired birthday gifts that sound like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn up on an off day.  Bossy Clarabelle concludes that Goofy "doesn't know what he needs" and convinces Minnie and Horace to help her get the Goof more mundane gifts.  The trio's efforts prove a letdown for Goofy, who's reduced to searching Mickey's home for the gifts he'd asked for.  At long last, Clarabelle and the others see the light and get Goofy a gift he both wanted and (in his mind, anyway) needed: a trampoline on which to bounce gleefully while gobbling his green (pistachio) ice cream.  You can see the conclusion coming a mile away, but the sentiment is worthy enough, and Goofy's reactions to his friends' gifts are generally funny.  While shopping for clothes with Minnie, he even gets to dress up in a hip-hop outfit that must have been left over from the classic MouseWorks short "How to be Groovy, Cool, and Fly."  (Cleverly, he ultimately gets clothes that "fit" – in more ways than one! – at "Gawky & Gangly Menswear", which sells Goofy's typical outfit and nothing else.)

Having survived the force of well-meaning friends, Goofy receives a "blast" of a more impersonal nature in Romano Scarpa's entertaining, but extremely bizarre, early-60s story, "The Great Gawrsh-Durn Champion."  Exposure to a powerful "explosive" (which is pretty obviously of an atomic nature – the mushroom cloud gives it away) inexplicably renders Goofy the possessor of super strength far beyond that of mortal Goofs.  With the debut of Super Goof still a few years away, Goofy settles for becoming a champion boxer under the tutelage of Tommy Toupee, an unscrupulous promoter and ex-boxer who intends to get revenge for a past humiliation in the ring by making the Goof an even more mortified fall guy.  After Goofy has punched his way to a shot at the heavyweight (sic) title, Toupee springs his trap, putting Mickey in a death trap that The Phantom Blot would have appreciated and blackmailing Goofy into agreeing to throw the fight.  Once again, Goofy's subsequent actions are triggered by others' doings – in this case, Mickey's hair-breadth escape from a pool of piranhas.  Goofy ends up the "champeen" and promptly loses his strength, leaving a very loose end dangling at the story's conclusion (unless Goofy makes like Rocky Marciano and retires undefeated).  Jonathan Gray, handling the dialogue, pumps up the humor quotient considerably by including several Disney-related references, most notably (and unexpectedly) Pete's dialogue from the "Mickey to the Rescue" sequence seen on MouseWorks.  This last is especially funny since Mickey is the character in peril at the time.

Along with a two-page reprinting of Goofy's first appearance (as the impossibly gangly "Dippy Dog") in the Mickey Mouse newspaper strip, the balance of the issue is filled out by a pair of Donald tales.  "Taming the Rapids," a 1945 Barks story drawn in a somewhat disorienting four-tier format to save two pages (= one sheet!) of paper, finds Donald's inept efforts to "rescue" his Nephews from a mishap at the Grand Canyon resulting in the Ducks landing at the wild, mysterious bottom of the gorge.  The boys end up having to save their bungling uncle from numerous perils, including a gang of prehistoric Indians.  Guess who takes the credit when the Ducks finally emerge from the canyon?  Don comes off more like Darkwing Duck in a particularly unartful TV episode, and I can't accept such convenient events as an equipped raft accidentally floating into the Ducks' hands (or, for that matter, the Grand Canyon having such lax security as to allow HD&L to peer over the very edge of the abyss – get those class-action lawsuits ready!).  "Snob's Your Uncle", drawn by Vicar and dialogued by David Gerstein, is more like it, even though, in its own peculiar way, it is just as "dated" as the early Barks effort.  In an attempt to ingratiate himself with his boss, Donald agrees to babysit the latter's child, who turns out to be a malevolent, spoiled intellectual with the mannerisms and speech patterns of Red Skelton's "Mean Widdle Kid."  Frankly, I find "wittle Gwidley" to be well-nigh insufferable, which is OK for one story but makes me wonder how Skelton managed to get away with using the characterization for so long.  Despite Donald's best efforts, it takes a punch-up between Gridley and the "wess bwainy" HD&L to knock a little sense and good nature into the former.  The funny thing, of course, is that the Nephews are plenty brainy; they're simply far more down to Earth and far less pretentious than Gridley.  Role models for youth, indeed…

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Book Review

Who Really Cares:  The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism by Arthur C. Brooks (Basic Books).  In this book, sociologist Brooks surveys a wide variety of studies of charitable giving patterns in America. To his stated "surprise", he finds that the behaviors that foster charitable giving (as well as the transmission of values encouraging such behaviors in future generations) are more in line with modern conservatism than with modern liberalism. Note: I did not say that Brooks found that "conservatives are more charitable than liberals". He takes pains to indicate that factors other than political affiliation -- religious belief above all -- are of primary importance in predicting how much and how often one gives, and that, at the present time, such factors are present in conservatives to a larger degree than liberals. Far from inducing conservatives to a sense of smug, Pharisaical superiority, Brooks' main goal is to help liberals (to which tribe he once belonged) to confront the often huge gap between their professed values of "compassion and caring" and the practical outcomes the mere avowal of such values does, or doesn't, yield. Since facing up to a flawed image of oneself is not easy for most people to do, it's no surprise that most of the self-proclaimed liberals who reviewed the book on Amazon.com resorted to attacks on Brooks' hidden motives. They should keep in mind that Brooks has their best interests (as well as those of society at large) at heart.
In a sense, Brooks' most controversial point is contained in the chapter "Charity Makes You Healthy, Happy, and Rich." Here, he argues that encouraging charitable giving sets up a "virtuous circle" whereby all of society is enriched and made more prosperous, and that such activities are more effective than government intervention. He notes that the residents of secularist, socialist Western Europe consistently report lower levels of happiness and fulfillment than those in the United States. This reminds me of radio talk-show host Dennis Prager's argument that one of the primary faults of socialism is that "socialism makes people worse." At the least, it does appear to suck some of the higher meaning out of life. The subjective argument is strong, but I'm sure that many who advocate a "social safety net" (perhaps interlaced with such new strands as a universal health care system) will see in this argument the advocacy of a return to soup kitchens and bread lines.
Brooks repeats himself in several places (e.g., in the use of descriptions of matched-pairs experiment), and the surfeit of statistical results makes for some fairly dry reading. (This, despite the fact that the really heavy statistical data is consigned to the appendix. I can see statistics professors using such data as the basis for some thought-provoking classroom discussions.)  Even so, this is a hard book to put down, and Brooks deserves credit for making this subject palatable for a general audience. He also merits no small amount of admiration for his professional courage. The discipline of social science is not known for a high level of charitable behavior when it comes to those who question accepted notions.

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Movie Reviews

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DVD Reviews

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