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Book and Comic Reviews

Sunday, June 29rd, 2009

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #691 (April 2008).  What pleasure can possibly be extracted from reading an April Fool's Day-themed story as June fades into July?  I suppose it could be thought of as an extension of the Presidential campaign.  Certainly, like a vintage campaign commercial, Robert Klein and Jan Gulbransson's Donald Duck tale, "The Greatest Hoax of All Time," requires one honkin' suspension of disbelief.  A member of a club of gagsters engaged in an April Fool's prank-pulling contest, Donald boldly proclaims that he'll come up with the best trick of all time to hoodwink Scrooge.  300-some-odd failed attempts later, Don dons a cheesy scientist's disguise (and accent), employs a blackmailed HD&L as fake Martians supposedly bent on stealing Scrooge's fortune… and, heavens to von Braun, convinces a suddenly panicky Scrooge to send his fortune to the Moon for safekeeping.  Sorry, I don't buy it for a second.  I can accept an April Fool's Day story in which the Ducks are engaged in private, relatively low-key gaggery – Barks did a particularly funny one in the early 50s – but stretching it out to this elephantine extent is really testing my patience.  By the end, Klein is padding the slim storyline to the extent that Donald's inevitable dash for Timbuktu – with an angry Scrooge and equally peeved club members on his heels – takes fully five panels to get under way.  Gulbransson's artwork is serviceable enough, but why does Donald look no bigger than the Nephews in the opening splash panel?  For a moment, I thought Don was Genie from the DuckTales movie.

The Dutch Donald story "Unwelcome Income" is also a little behind the temporal curve – "celebrating" as it does the arrival of April 15, Tax Day – but it is more successful than "Greatest Hoax."  Donald discovers that he made so little income in the previous year that he's owed a $250 refund (uh… a tax refund in a story produced in Holland?  We're talking science fiction, right?).  As the tax assessor gleefully tries to poke holes in Don's claim of extreme poverty, Don gets an unwelcome visit from Gladstone, who's inconveniently remembered that he owed his cousin $10 from the previous year.  The expected "keep Gladstone away" hijinx ensue, but the story turns out to have a twist ending that leaves the put-upon Donald well ahead, or reasonably close to it.

April foolery reformulates in the McGreals' and Xavi's Mickey story "Mates in Mischief," which pleases all six fans of the "Imp from the Eleventh Dimension" by bringing that irritating Mr. Mxyzptlk rip-off back to torment Mickey.  This time, the torture is indirect in nature, as the Imp has befriended a clueless Goofy.  Goofy dismisses Mickey's warnings of the Imp's nature as jealous carping but changes his mind after the Imp turns Mickey into a string of sausages (thank heavens Pluto wasn't around, eh?).  Let's just say the Imp didn't improve with additional exposure.  A far more interesting (and, frankly, bizarre) Mickey effort, Jeff Hamill and Romano Scarpa's "A Quiet Day at the Beach," gives us nine wordless and occasionally baffling panels of Mickey encountering weird perils by the seashore, interspersed with thought-balloon appearances by Minnie.  After fighting to avoid the temptation of investigating a genie in a magical lamp, an alternative dimension, and a race of pollution-protesting aquatic creatures who strongly resemble the "fish folk" in the DuckTales episode "Aqua Ducks," Mickey's girlfriend finally shows up for real and reveals the point of all this: she had challenged Mickey's claim that he's "some sort of weirdness magnet," and the sojourn on the beach was a test of sorts.  Somewhat confusingly, Minnie adds the comment that Mickey "only [finds] trouble because [he goes] looking for it."  So which is it, Minnie?  Fate or free will?  The tradition established by Floyd Gottfredson argues vehemently for the latter, which is why I find this claim of Mickey attracting weirdness to be somewhat silly.  Perhaps this was a version of a midlife crisis, in which Mickey is getting tired of his perilous existence and temporarily gave in to the pessimistic notion that adventure seeks him out, rather than the reverse.  There's nothing wrong with that that a nice, long vacation with Minnie wouldn't cure – Hamill's tetchy last panel notwithstanding.

The highlight of the rest of the issue is David Gerstein's retrofitting of "The Molasses Well," a Brer Rabbit Studio story drawn by Paul Murry in the 1960s.  Brer R. sidesteps Brer Fox's attempt to lure him into a molasses-baited trap by making Brer Bear the (literal) fall guy.  It's funny stuff that makes the most of the relatively straightforward plot idea, with plenty of the Pogo-style "spin" that David gives to these characters.  Another Studio effort, "The Ro-Brat," features evil inventor Emil Eagle (in his first appearance in a Gemstone comic?  I can't recall another) unsuccessfully attempting to sabotage Gyro's lab with a programmed-for-destruction "baby robot" (geez, wouldn't the machine that nearly "leveled Mouseton" in that Marv Wolfman Disney Comics adventure have been more efficient, albeit somewhat messier?).  Finally, Carl Barks serves up the unsubtle but funny 1946 tale "The Smugsnorkle Squatty," with Donald turning his beak up at the Nephews' new mutt Tagalong and getting a highly pedigreed do-nothing of a dog instead.  Tagalong winds up saving the Ducks' house following "Grand Genius III of Old Siwash"'s inadvertent retrieval of a stick of dynamite.  "Don't judge a bark by its cover" is the simple message here, and it's an easy sell for me, since three of the five dogs I've personally cared for have been mixed-breed (though none nearly as piebald as Tagalong, who literally appears to have been pieced together from disparate dog-parts).

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Movie Review

Get Smart (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures).  Would you believe… I'm not going to do any more obvious homages to the 1960s TV series?  The standard Get Smart shtick is trotted out several times during this so-so movie adaptation, but never so much as to become annoying.  The "original" parts of the movie are more problematic.  Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is now a nebbish CONTROL analyst who yearns to put the "Peter Principle" to the test by becoming a full-fledged agent.  After KAOS trashes CONTROL's compromised HQ (which, in a bit of shoddy editing, reverts back to normal in a subsequent scene before returning to its broken-down state), the Chief (Alan Arkin) has no choice but to anoint Max Agent 86 and team him up with ultra-competent but chilly Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) in an effort to unravel the conspiracy, which turns out to be the fairly standard "nuclear blackmail" fodder, with the added twist of a duplicitous CONTROL agent.  The movie borrows shamelessly from Moonraker, True Lies, Entrapment and any number of other flicks and uses more crude humor than I would have liked to have seen.  Still, Carell makes a reasonably believable Max without aping Don Adams' original.  Funny cameos include Bernie Kopell (from the original series) as a peeved Opel driver and Patrick Warburton as Hymie, the robot agent, whose appearance at the end practically screams "sequel."  (A pair of original characters – techno-dweebs who built and control Hymie – have already spun off into a direct-to-TV feature of their own.)

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Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Uncle $crooge #376 (April 2008).  If you squint real hard, you might catch a few fleeting references to Easter – apart from the title, that is – in this issue's opening story, "Uncle $crooge and the Easter Eggs-port."  Given the two-month delay in this issue's release, however, it may be best not to squint.  Instead, you should just sit back and enjoy David Gerstein's superb (even by his elevated standards) dialoguing job on this intriguing, albeit strangely drawn and borderline illogical, Romano Scarpa-choreographed Italian effort from the mid-1960s.  Faced with the task of getting his rich gold deposits out of a Latin American country that has just been taken over by a greedy dictator – the parallel to the DuckTales episode "Allowance Day" is striking – Scrooge stumbles upon the idea of mixing the gold with grain, feeding it to hens, and shipping the gold out hidden inside the hens' eggs.  Physiologically speaking, this strikes me as improbable – though Scarpa has certainly tested my patience in more severe ways -- but we accept cartoon physics in most cases, so why not cartoon digestion as well?  The Beagle Boys, who're touring a neighboring country with their trained hawk in a desperate attempt to make ends meet (and justify their involvement in the story), get wise and launch "Operation Easter Parade" to short-circuit Scrooge's smuggling and get the gold for themselves.  With Gyro Gearloose's help – plus a last-second deal that has the added effect of toppling the government – Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L are NOT left with egg on their faces.  This summary does scant justice to David G.'s script, which rustles up references from everywhere – classic rock, Warner Bros. cartoons, you name it.  Scarpa's bottom-heavy Ducks and (especially) Beagles simply don't look right, so it's up to David to carry this one across the finish line, and he succeeds grandly.

In Pat and Carol McGreal and Rodriquez' imaginative "The Richest Tycoon in the World," Scrooge once again determines to get that pesky sorceress Magica De Spell out of his feathers once and for all.  Forget hit squads, spies, and such; Scrooge does something much more drastic – he surreptitiously helps retail tycoon Ike Amberson, whom he'd earlier squelched at a "seminar for near-gazillionaires," to temporarily become the richest man in the world, at least on paper.  The next time Magica shows up, Scrooge simply points out that his Old #1 Dime no longer has the talismanic power Magica craves.  (Far be it from me to question Scrooge's logic, but wouldn't a coin owned by one of the world's richest men fit Magica's needs just as well?)  Unsurprisingly, Scrooge soon misses the thrill of being #1.  We soon learn why Scrooge didn't cede the pole position to the equally chintzy Flintheart Glomgold as we watch the gleeful Amberson spend money left and right to celebrate his newfound status.  Since money has no sentimental value to Ike – a failing earlier roasted by Scrooge at the seminar – he has no problem giving his first dime (which he'd actually lost before his mother returned it to him) to Magica.  Scrooge delays Magica's return to Mt. Vesuvius just long enough for Ike to break his bank (actually, it really should have taken a lot longer than one afternoon…) and returns to the top of the pile.  The logic creaks loudly in a couple of places, but the basic idea is strong enough for the story as a whole to work for me.

Next, Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Vicar's "Happy Birthday, Flintheart Glomgold"  (which, judging by the date code, was produced in time for the 50th anniversary of Flinty's first appearance in Carl Barks' "The Second-Richest Duck") finds Scrooge and Donald arriving at Glomgold's South African money bin to give McDuck's misanthropic measuring stick some wholly unexpected birthday greetings.  The inevitable catch?  As a "gift," Scrooge has dug up Glomgold's nephew, Slackjaw Snorehead, and proceeds to foist the heavy-lidded slacker on "Uncle Flinty."  Having recently learned that Flinty is close to overtaking him in wealth, Scrooge figures that trying to find Slacky a decent job will keep Glomgold distracted long enough for Scrooge to retrench.  The kicker is that Slacky (who quickly finds common cause with Donald, big surprise there) is actually an idiot savant of sorts with a nose for business deals.  Slacky and Donald work together to get the oldsters out of their hair, and a coming sequel is clearly telegraphed before story's end.  Glomgold may have had visiting relatives in other Egmont stories, but, even so, I'm amazed that it took this long to hit upon so obvious an idea.  Glomgold's self-imposed isolation (he's left to wish himself "Happy Birthday" in the final panel, with the aid of several strategically placed mirrors) further burnishes his image as a Scrooge-like character who never got out of the "Christmas on Bear Mountain" phase.

After a reprint of Carl Barks' 1964 story "Delivery Dilemma," which actually abuts several other stories in the issue – Donald trying to avoid being drafted into "business service" by Scrooge a la Slackjaw with Glomgold, Scrooge's need to deliver valuable cargo while fighting off the Beagle Boys, and, lest we forget, the Beagles' use of supposed "wild rabbit eggs" as part of the scam effort – the book ends quietly with a Dutch tale, "Driven to Distraction."  I should say, "ends with a snore," as Scrooge unaccountably falls asleep while piloting Gyro's new computer-driven automobile to the money bin with a load of cash in the trunk.  A Beagle attempt to hijack the cash is foiled by Gyro's nick-of-time redirection of his auto-pilot automobile to the state prison.  I put this one down to Scrooge's advanced age, since I find it hard to believe that a younger McDuck would be so careless as to nod off with so much money in tow.

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DVD Review by Special Guest Reviewer Joe Torcivia

POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940: Disc One (Partial Review: First Eight Cartoons) DVD Set Released: June 17, 2008.

What a great series of Popeye cartoons we have to open Disc One of this new set! 

By 1938, Max and Dave Fleischer have clearly broken with the formula they established early on… and the one that the Famous Paramount studio would do to death in their later Popeye cartoons.  You know… Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, triangle, spinach, Sock-o, etc.

In the first EIGHT cartoons on the disc, Bluto – and the formulaic conflict he brings with him – is nowhere in sight, save for a cameo appearance AS A PHOTOGRAPH (!) in the first one.  In these eight alone, we have a diversity of cast that would be unimaginable in later years.  Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Swee’Pea, Eugene the Jeep, Poopdeck Pappy, the Goons… and, of course, the photograph of Bluto that (not unexpectedly) steals the only scene that it’s in! 

Before continuing, I should say that, despite my comments above, Bluto is one of the great villains in the history of theatrical animation, and most (if not all) of his appearances on the first POPEYE set (1933-1938) were very enjoyable.  But, in times to come, he will wear out his welcome (at least to me) and it is with this knowledge of what lies ahead that I take this position.  But, if we go much longer than these first eight without him, I’m going to really start missing the big lug!  

Here’s a (relatively, but not completely) Spoiler-Free recap of those first eight cartoons…

01:  “I Yam Love Sick”. Enraptured in romance novels, and aided by a huge box of chocolates from Bluto – and that scene-stealing photograph – Olive totally ignores Popeye, to the point where he has to play sick-and-dying to get any attention.  “I must be losin’ me sex repeal, or sumpthin’!” mutters the sailor man, in one of those famous Jack Mercer ad-libs where Popeye’s mouth doesn’t move!  She takes him to the hospital, where he continues to play almost-dead… until it’s time to operate! 

02:  “Plumbing is a Pipe”.  I’m guessing that, in ye olde-tyme slang, if something was “a pipe”, it was easy or “a cinch”.  Olive springs a leak in her kitchen, which she compounds – and Popeye compounds much further.  Wimpy is great as the plumber, who keeps forgetting things or has other excuses like Lunch to keep from getting on the job.  He gets his later!

03: “The Jeep”.  Swee’Pea keeps trying to escape Olive’s very high apartment, by crawling out the window.  She thwarts him (Saying that he’s giving her “Populations of the heart!” – on first play it sounds as if she says: “Copulations of the heart!”), until he finally gets out!  Popeye shows up with Eugene the Jeep (a “magical dog”!) who can accurately answer any question, disappear and reappear, and track anything with his uncanny abilities to walk through walls, on air, or anywhere else.  He tracks the missing Swee’Pea, leading Popeye on a merry – and painful – chase and to a great ending! 

This is one of the two best cartoons on the disc so far!  Though it is not an origin for “The Jeep”… he’s just there with Popeye, visiting Olive.  Oddly, his animated origin occurs in “Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep”, which is the LAST cartoon on Disc Two – and was apparently produced by the Fleischers about TWO YEARS after this one. 

The latter Jeep cartoon contradicts the former, in dealing with Eugene’s origins, but that’s to be expected from Golden Age animation.  The presence of the second cartoon, a good explanatory commentary on this cartoon, and an extra feature mini-documentary, “Eugene the Jeep: A Breed of His Own”, detailing the Jeep’s comic strip origins, help ease (…or maybe they ADD TO) the confusion over this odd and wonderful character. 

Oh, and try to watch this one and not be reminded of PFLIP, Eega Beeva’s version of a “magical dog”, from Floyd Gottfredson and Bill Walsh’s MICKEY MOUSE comic strip of the late ‘40s – early ‘50s!  Especially the story “Pflip’s Strange Power” that was reprinted in WDC&S # 667 (2006).   Something tells me that Pflip owes Eugene the Jeep a small debt, at the very least! 

04:  “Bulldozing the Bull”.  Popeye’s in Spain, Mexico, or somewhere that bullfighting is popular.  In this unexpectedly superior cartoon he demonstrates the more modern attitude (…and certainly not the prevailing attitude when this cartoon was made!) that the sport of bullfighting – and especially the killing of the bull – is cruelty to animals!  Olive is the obligatory senorita (presaging the sort of role-playing she’d often do in later outings), and a seating mix-up leads to Popeye being a reluctant toreador.  Lots of good gags, and a great surprise ending that I will not spoil!  Popeye’s steadfast values here left me clapping!  That’s the Popeye I love from the comics, unflagging ethics and all! 

05: “Mutiny Ain’t Nice”.  One of my general complaints about the POPEYE series is that he isn’t shown often enough to be a SAILOR!  Well, here he captains his own cargo sailing ship, with a rough and dangerous crew to boot.  Olive falls into a trunk and is brought aboard as they shove off.  The crew believes that females are bad luck on a ship and, when they find Olive, they mutiny against Captain Popeye and try to kill Olive.  The great thing about this one (…and it’s only a small spoiler in the greater scheme of things) is that Olive finds that she ACTUALLY ENJOYS leading the murderous crew on a wild chase!  Popeye, once regaining control, enacts a solution that satisfies everyone – just not the way any of them would like! 

06:  “Goonland”.  The best cartoon on the disc so far – and more of an adventure in the E.C. Segar comic strip tradition than the usual animated comedy.  Popeye sails (Yes, he’s a sailor again!) to the mysterious “Goon Island”, to find his lost “Poopdeck Pappy” who left 40 years ago, when Popeye was a baby!  Was Pappy animation’s first “deadbeat dad”? The Goons AND Pappy, from the Segar strip, are introduced in this one! 

Pappy is a prisoner of the Goons, and wants no part of his son, until the Goons capture Popeye and try to kill him by staking him at the foot of a cliff and dropping a boulder on him. Pappy downs the spinach, which the Goons removed from Popeye, and saves the day.  The Goons are dealt with by a remarkable fourth-wall-breaking device that is both extremely clever and looks somewhat out of place at the same time.  You judge for yourself.  Its unexpected surprise value goes a long way toward selling it, though! 

This is a magnificently designed cartoon!  Everything on Goon Island is eerie looking… especially for a cartoon of this period!  As with the introduction of Eugene the Jeep, a good explanatory commentary on this cartoon, and an extra feature mini-documentary, “Poopdeck Pappy: The Nasty Old Man and the Sea” detail Pappy’s comic strip origins.

07:  “A Date to Skate”.  With Bluto still among the missing, Popeye convinces a VERY reluctant Olive to roller skate in one of those old roller skating palaces.  As expected, Olive soon careens out of control, onto the street, wreaking havoc on the outside world!  The Fleischers continue to marvelously play with “The Formula” by having Popeye FORGET TO BRING HIS SPINACH on the skating date!  “I must be gettin’ OLD! Don’t tell me I left it HOME!” Don’t worry; he gets some though a device we’ve seen in some other cartoons.  And, as when she was pursued by the crew of murderous mutineers, Olive ends up enjoying her near-death-ride for the sheer thrill of it all!  This is a take on the usually timid Olive that we seldom saw!  I guess THAT’S what Popeye sees in the old scarecrow!

08:  “Cops is Always Right”.  A funnier than expected cartoon, where Popeye and his little crank-start, puttering car continuously run afoul of a gruff police officer.  And he helps Olive with spring cleaning to boot.  Popeye comes across a little more ignorant of the law than you’d expect even a one-eyed sailor to be, but it works anyway because the officer is such a good one-shot antagonist. 

The DVD set offers audio commentaries on SIX of the first eight cartoons.  These are actually good, informative commentaries by animation figures with something of value to contribute – not seven minutes of John Kricfalusi and friends laughing at what they see!

Alas, as was the Fleischer practice of the time, there are no writing credits on any of these first eight cartoons.  Though, story credits begin during the period covered by this DVD set, as the second Jeep cartoon lists a story credit. The lack of credits early-on is a particular shame, as the cartoons discussed in this review comprised a very innovative portion of the series, story-wise.  I’d sure love to know who wrote these! 

The Fleischer animation is always tops, and Jack Mercer and Mae Questel (though Questel is replaced in some of these) are magnificent as Popeye and Olive – especially with their frequent and outright funny ad-libs!  Indeed, at this particular point in the history of animation, they would have been the most entertaining animation voice actors of their time.  But, look out for Mel Blanc lurking in the shadows…   

So, on the basis of the first eight shorts (…and I have little expectation that this will change over the balance of the set), POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940 is highly recommended by this reviewer!  And… Hey, Bluto?  We’ll see ya soon, ol’ pal!   

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

RIP, Jim McKay… Mr. Olympics and so much more.  I'm a little young to clearly remember the 1972 Munich Olympics and the job he did covering that awful situation, but I definitely remember him introducing the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" broadcast on tape delay.  How hard it must have been for him to have put on that poker face and kept the news to himself that the U.S. had shocked the Soviets.

Also:  Folks on the Disney Comics Mailing List are reporting that Don Rosa has decided to retire permanently.  Not that I had seriously expected him to go on, given his all-too-evident state of creative exhaustion (exacerbated by the insatiable demands of his European acolytes) and the eye trouble that recently forced him to undergo an operation, but this is unfortunate news.  Perhaps it's time to begin putting Rosa's work into some true historical perspective – though that may be more of a task for an article in The Harveyville Fun Times! (shameless plug) than a blog entry.

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Walt Disney's Spring Fever (April 2008).  Three Gemstones finally found their way to the comics shop this past week, but I'm reviewing the quarterly first because, well, Spring is just about over.  None of the stories have much of a connection to the season, and even Bill Van Horn's cover gag of Donald blowing heart-shaped soap bubbles to impress (or not) Daisy appears to owe more to Valentine's Day than to the famed "a young man's fancy" conceit.  Still, it's a pretty decent package, all things considered.

Carl Barks' 1943 story "Too Many Pets" leads off, and completists beware: This is a slightly altered version of the "Mummy's Ring" backup.  The phrase "Near a busy factory…" is deleted from the panel in which the spy who has bought HD&L's mischievous pet monkey Jingo prepares to reveal his plan to use the agile ape to steal military secrets.  Since we can plainly see the doggone factory in the background, I don't have a problem with this.  However, if superfluous narration was targeted for elimination, then why wasn't the equally de trop caption "The crook leans back with his hands behind his head!" excised as well?  And what happened to the writing on the decorative "peace and love" banner in the first panel on the final page?  Strange doings, indeed.  The key plot point involving Jingo throwing things at anyone who puts his hands behind his head has always struck me as "but awfully" contrived.  Still, this "filler" story compares favorably with most of the early three-tiered tales that Barks produced for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories.

In Noel Van Horn's "Sticky Business," Goofy and Mickey run afoul of Goofy's fastidious, posy-raising neighbor as they attempt to give The Goof's roof a coat of rain-repelling tar.  Noel's Dad probably would have made the neighbor even lighter in the loafers, but Noel handles the slapstick doings (which, perhaps inevitably, culminate with everything in sight getting "sticky with it") reasonably well.  Daan Jippes, as is his wont, also does quite well by Barks' early-70s script for the Junior Woodchucks tale "Music Hath Charms."  This story departs from the familiar formula of the JWs battling eco-ravaging Scrooge to present a more standard Donald vs. HD&L scenario.  In this case, Donald uses Gyro Gearloose's rat-attracting musical pipes (which, the inventor has discovered, can also charm children if tuned to the correct frequency) in an attempt to prevent HD&L and their peers from winning a race with the Littlest Chickadees and garnering additional trophies and medals to clutter up the Duck residence.  Here is one instance in which I actually sympathize with Don – not least because the boys make a big deal out of not wanting to lose to "mere" girls.  Needless to say, Jippes' art is much livelier than Kay Wright's ("It'd be impossible not to be!" the Nephews chime in, in DuckTales fashion). 

The main highlight of the issue, Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli's "A Blot on Their Friendship," teams up Mickey and Donald in an adventure for the first time in a while, and it's a first-rate one.  Donald still harbors resentment towards Mickey for always getting him into trouble on such jaunts – in this case, he even refers to a recent escapade in which Mickey literally "got the girl" (do Minnie and Daisy know about this??) – so his decision to ask Mickey to help him literally "plunge into the jungle" and seek out Camcordia's "Lost Temple of Banghor Mash" seems odd on the surface.  Something peculiar is afoot, though, and you can tell because Don's eyes glaze over on occasion.  Sure enough, The Phantom Blot turns out to be behind it all, having put "that annoying waterfowl" (his words, not mine –though they very well could be) under mind control and programmed him to lead The Mouse into a deadly confrontation with a giant spider.  Now, if it had been me, I'd have told Donald to bump Mickey off in Duckburg, as opposed to bringing him to a hideout where I'm planning to clone giant spiders for a presumptive attempt to take over the world.  This is The Blot, however, and half the fun of his death traps for Mickey is their sheer level of contrivance.  Cleverly, the machete-wielding Don drives off the spider not because he's suddenly braver than usual, but because he's angry at being distracted from his upbraiding of Mickey for having gotten him into yet another fine mess.  Additional Erickson stories along these same lines would be greatly appreciated.

The book wraps with "Tabloid Tattletale," a rather silly Uncle $crooge story from Holland in which Scrooge's long-ago "recruitment" by a band of would-be bank robbers somehow results in his founding a popular gossip magazine; a two-page Floyd Gottfredson Sunday-page gag from 1932; and, amazingly, a Vic Lockman gag from the "Gladstone II" era that has not aged well at all, even given the fact that it was rather overripe to begin with.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Book Review

Power, Faith, and Fantasy:  America in the Middle East, 1776-present by Michael Oren (Norton).  Any parochial notion that America only recently stumbled into the maelstrom of Middle Eastern religious and political conflict will not long survive this entertaining, though flawed, survey of Americans' encounters with the region since the War of Independence.  Oren identifies three overarching themes that have shaped the country's attitudes towards the Middle East (they're right there in the title, in case that weren't already obvious) and sticks manfully to this tripartite structure through the volume, though the last chapter, which covers the period from the birth of Israel to the Iraq War, is hopelessly rushed and inadequate.  A large number of typos and avoidable errors of fact, coupled with a prose style that can best be described as earnestly clunky, will probably set one's teeth on edge more than once, but there is plenty of information here that will come as a surprise to the average reader (for example, did you know that American veterans of the Civil War – both Union and Confederate – essentially created the Egyptian army?  I certainly didn't).  It's not a book I care to own, but I'm glad to have read it.  One suggestion, Mr. Oren: Describing each and every personage's physical appearance is a luxury, not a requirement!

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Movie Review 

Iron Man (Paramount/Marvel Studios).  I'll really have to pick and choose my "popcorn movies" of choice this Summer.  Speed Racer – nah.  Get Smart – perhaps, especially since Steve Carell is a good choice for the lead role.  Indiana Jones and the Midlife Crisis, er, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – probably not worth the exorbitant theater prices.  Iron Man, however, is the real deal, fully worthy of its excellent reviews.  Just as in the X-Men flicks, Iron Man provides a to-the-point introduction to the Marvel comic-book hero without bogging its storyline down in fanboy-targeted minutiae.  To no one's surprise, munitions magnate Tony Stark's main theater of operations is shifted from Southeast Asia (in the early 60s, he originally fell into the hands of Communists) to Afghanistan, but the film avoids taking political sides concerning the War on Terror.  Rather, the focus is on Stark's gradual transformation from irresponsible playboy to defender of the helpless.  (Does the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" ring a bell?  Too bad another Marvel star has already co-opted it.)  The acting performances are uniformly excellent, with the much-put-upon Robert Downey Jr. in particularly good form.  There's just enough humor to lighten what could have been a drearily grim-faced plot about corporate skullduggery and double-dealing.  The ending kicker is first-rate, as well.  I do have a queasy feeling that Paramount should stop right here and not even consider making a sequel that would most likely take the short cut of emphasizing multiple punch-outs of the "rock 'em sock 'em robots" variety, such as the one that dominates the last 15 or 20 minutes of this movie.  Even if they do, at least they got it right the first time.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Comics Review

Comics Revue #264.  Well, now, what did I do for Rick Norwood and Donald Markstein to merit them sending me a completely unexpected, unsolicited issue of their "classic comics" reprint mag?  I've seen this title on the racks at numerous comics stores but never gave one a tumble.  Sorry to say, I don't think I'll start to purchase it based on this assumedly representative issue.  Not that Rick and Don choose unwisely; reprinted herein are hunks of continuities from such fine strips as Steve Canyon, Gasoline Alley, Rick O'Shay, Buz Sawyer, and Alley Oop (from before Oop and friends began time-traveling).  The fact that the continuities are divided into parts – meaning that some stories are concluded herein, while others are just getting underway – is annoying.  Far more problematic is the poor reproduction of some of the strips.  Poor Milton Caniff (whose massive biography, by R.C. Harvey, I hope to be reading soon) comes off worst, with his characteristic dark inking and shading being jumbled into muddy murkiness in several places.  Thanks, guys, but I think I'll pass on a subscription.

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