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Book and Comic Reviews

(3/27/05)

Uncle $crooge #340 (April 2005).  It's "Weird Transformations" month at the money bin, with the bizarre changes being both physical to psychological in nature.  A mid-60s Carl Barks Scrooge adventure (and I use that term with reservations), "The Heedless Horseman," leads things off.  A number of Barks fans don't care for his later, lighter-in-weight stories, but this is a particular favorite of mine from that period – albeit one in which you have to buy the farfetched notions that (1) Scrooge has suddenly become obsessed with winning the annual Great Crystal Orb Derby, and (2) the winner of said race gets to be treated as the "King of Duckburg" for an entire year. The more hard-headed Scrooge of earlier Barks stories would surely have scoffed at the notion that his future public notoriety depends upon the outcome of a horse race!  Despite the TV-cartoon-level plot, the story is successful: the gags are generally funny, Barks' cynicism is on full display as he depicts the extreme lengths to which the Derby entrants will go to come out on top, and the artwork is lively for its period.  …  In "Beagle Brain" by the McGreals and Nunez, a Beagle Boy becomes a Wile E. Coyote-style "Suuuper-Geeenius" after accidentally getting zapped by Gyro Gearloose's "Evo-Ray," but the Beagle Boys can't leave well enough alone and continue to augment the clod's intelligence level.  Strictly "been there and done that" stuff (on DuckTales with Bubba Duck, on Darkwing Duck with Launchpad McQuack, etc.), though I did like the running gag in which Gyro becomes increasingly annoyed with the Beagles constantly returning to his lab and tying him up.  …  In Gorm Transgaard and Vicar's "The Golden Illusion," Donald gets a bump on the noggin and subsequently apes the rich-robbing title character of the "Robin Good" movie he's just seen.  The Beagle Boys attempt to exploit Don's amnesiac spell for purposes of robbing Scrooge's Money Bin, with the usual backfire-laced complications.  …  Surprise, surprise!  Launchpad McQuack is back is "The Hardware Hardener," a reprint of a decade-old Egmont story nicely dialogued by David Gerstein.  No strange transformations take place in this short tale (unless you count a sudden time-shift back to the days of DuckTales), but anytime Launchpad gets to test his four-color wings these days, I'm pleased as punch.  Thanks "ever so" for the completely unexpected Tale Spin reference, David! …  Finally, "Jumbled Ducks" by the McGreals and Vicar chucks ALL of the Ducks into the transmutation mix, as first the Nephews and then Donald, Gyro, and Scrooge have their bodies "compacted" by Gyro's "Super Matter Compactor."  The gag falls a little flat with the Nephews – having three dialogue balloons emanating from one Duckling body isn't quite enough to create the desired effect – but the three-headed DG&S monster (which occasions a bout of near-panic amongst some horror-movie-goers who mistake the "accidental" freak for a real monster) is rather unsettling to view, even when it's delineated by Vicar's rather subdued pen.  …  This mixed bag of oddments is nicely veneered by a splendid Easter-themed cover by the late, lamented Daniel Branca 

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #655 (April 2005).  For my $6.95, the real "keeper" of this issue comes at the end.  The Mickey Mouse story "Knit One, Pearl Two," by the McGreals and Rodriques, is one of the best Mickey tales not penned by Cesar Ferioli or Noel Van Horn to appear in quite some time.  On a trip to the Far Eastern land of Bhummah, Mickey and Minnie have a serious clash over Mickey's opinion that Minnie's seeming obsession with finishing a knitting project is a sign of her impending "domesticization."  Their conflict is sharpened by Mickey's subsequent encounter with the stunning river pirate Lotus Blossom, who's out to recover (or so she claims) some pearls that belong to her grandfather but were stolen by local warlord Phoo Man Choo Choo.  You can sort of guess where the story is heading – Minnie gets what is commonly referred to as "the wrong idea" about Mickey and Blossom's encounter, and she subsequently gets to rekindle her romance and re-burnish her adventure spurs alongside her man (er, mouse) – but the tale does pack several clever surprises and makes Blossom a truly well-rounded (no jokes, please) ally-cum-adversary for Mickey.  Rodriques' exuberant art is a real plus as well.  David Gerstein tells me that the McGreals intend Blossom to return in a future story.  Can't wait…  William Van Horn's lead-off Donald Duck opus, "Full Circle," is Van Horn's version of one of those puzzle-box-ish Carl Barks stories in which a chain of odd happenstances combine to produce an outcome that's unexpected, yet sort of expected as well.  He pulls it off nicely… "Be Leery of Lake Eerie" repackages one of Barks' Junior Woodchucks scripts with new art by Daan Jippes.  Jippes, as always, is a vast improvement on the pallid art of the original story, but the eco-conscious tale was already somewhat "over the top" in 1972, and it seems fairly absurd now, at least when it comes to current levels of pollution in the US and Europe…  Several additional bundles of small work include a rather distasteful Three Caballeros reprint from 1944 in which Jose Carioca and Panchito come to visit their "pal Donal' " and make his life a living infierno by acting like a pair of three-year-olds who've been denied their daily Ritalin.  Donald has ended up in jail in many a story, but never have I felt so overwhelmingly sorry for him.

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(3/20/05)

Dick Tracy: The Collins Casefiles, Vol. 3 by Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher (Checker Books Publishing Group). In late 1977, revered Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould hung up his drawing board (do they make hooks large enough to support that weight??). Mystery writer Max Allan Collins and longtime Gould assistant Rick Fletcher assumed the daunting task of keeping America's favorite fictional detective alive on the funny pages. This is Checker's third collection (like, duh…) of Collins-Fletcher daily and Sunday strips, with this particular volume primarily covering the year 1980. Until he "melted down" in his later years – drawing particular fire by putting Tracy and his wife, Tess Trueheart, through some ugly marital conflicts – Collins did an excellent job of preserving the Gould traditions of realistic police procedures and grotesque villains (like this volume's Art Dekko [an art thief who resembles a John Held Jr. caricature from the 20s] and Torcher [a professional arsonist who sports flamelike hair and reads tomes on "The Great Chicago Fire"]) while making them seem fresh and relevant. Fletcher was unquestionably the best single artist the Tracy strip ever had, even better than his boss Gould. He mimicked the "stylized stiffness" of Gould's artwork while mixing in slightly more realistic and naturalistic characters and settings. Unfortunately, Fletcher died in early 1983. I'm not a big fan of Dick Locher, Fletcher's artistic successor, so I'm undecided as to whether I'll continue buying these collections after the Fletcher years have been covered.

Uncle $crooge #339 (March 2005). Don Rosa's latest "sequel" to a Carl Barks story, "The Crown of the Crusader Kings," is, I'm sorry to report, the latest example of Rosa's occasional tendency to "overproduce" a story. As always, Rosa has done his homework – boy, has he ever – but in this tale of the Ducks' search for a priceless crown that once belonged to the Knights Templar (of which legendary order the "International Money Council" of Barks' "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone" are here revealed to be direct descendants!), he wears his larnin' rather heavily. There are flashbacks and expository captions galore -- and, perhaps tellingly, there's an unusually small amount of humor, most of it involving voodoo slapstick and Dewey's cap button popping off (yes, really). It's still an absorbing read, but Rosa never comes off at his best when he's clearly trying to demonstrate what a clever fellow he is. … Between the self-important "Crusader Kings" and a reprint of "The Great Wig Mystery" (a slightly silly Barks Scrooge adventure from the mid-60s) is tucked the book's real treasure, "In Quest of the Green Hope." The recently deceased Daniel Branca co-wrote this adventure, and (with no little help from David Gerstein's punched-up dialogue) he demonstrates that he can write, as well as draw, a first-rate Scrooge epic. The plot reminds me a bit of the "Don’t Give Up the Ship/Wrongway in Ronguay" sequence of the DuckTales debut adventure, "Treasure of the Golden Suns." In both cases, a physical device serves as a "guide" to a long-hidden "treasure" in the form of an old sailing ship, and Flintheart Glomgold provides the villainous opposition. The story is delightfully told and delineated and doesn't forget to mix in the occasional bout of unexpected levity.

Mickey Mouse and Friends #275 (April 2005). In Dave Rawson and Rodriques' "The Caves of California," Mickey and Goofy meet Zorro! -- not the Disney Guy Williams variety, to be sure, but a dogfaced stand-in. Of course, M&G have to go back in time to pull this off, and the "explanation" of how they do so is the tale's one weak point. A good story nonetheless, with Mickey's naivete about the "great days of noble lawmen and ruthless bandits" receiving a decided shaking-up. … The Donald Duck story in the middle, "Bargain Battle," pits Donald and Neighbor Jones against one another in a game of yard-sale one-upmanship. Considering where Donald lands at story's end, it's a good thing that the Nephews were (apparently) visiting Grandma Duck's at the time. … Mickey gets to show his more ruthless side when he's caught between the importunations of two competing salesmen in Markstein and Martinez' "Sales Resistance." No, it doesn't involve firearms, but Mickey has to think fast to neutralize the pests, and he comes up with a wickedly ingenious solution.

Donald Duck and Friends #326 (April 2005). "Good Neighbors" is the quintessential early battle between Donald and the cantankerous Neighbor Jones, with the feuding homebodies discovering for good and all that proclamations of eternal friendship are futile. This Barks story from 1943 easily trumps the issue's other two rather weak entries. Michael T. Gilbert and Esteban's Mickey story "This Mummy's No Dummy" saddles the Mouse with a 2000-year-old Egyptian King who has just finished sleeping off the effects of one of Cleopatra's "dull parties" (!!!!) and does the standard "everything in the modern world is so different and confusing!" shtick. And for all those who've craved a meeting of the Ducks with the Easter Bunny – sounds more like a promising Easter dinner menu to me – the Vicar-drawn snoozer "The Easter Mystery" takes Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews to Easter Island, where they learn that the E.B. distributes eggs around the world because his egg-laying hen produces too many specimens of hen fruit for him to eat by himself. If the story had been played for laughs, I might have tolerated it better, but Scrooge actually has a scheme cooking to get the Bunny's hen and sell her eggs. Oh, b-r-r-rother…

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(3/13/05)

God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America by Naomi Schaefer Riley (St. Martin's Press). A well-written, fair-minded survey of various religious colleges and universities (including my alma mater, "Old" Notre Dame) and how they are grappling with issues of race, gender, political correctness, and other battlefronts in the cultural wars raging in the country. The major focus is on half a dozen schools, including ND, Brigham Young, Thomas Aquinas College (an orthodox Catholic "Great Books" college), Yeshiva, and the "notorious" Bob Jones University, but other institutions are covered as well. Any simple-minded hypothesis you may have formed regarding the "inferior" quality of education at schools with an explicit religious emphasis is sure to be overturned here. (For example, did you know that the hyper-fundamentalist Bob Jones University has a well-regarded art collection? I certainly didn't.) Far from being backwaters laden with hicks and idol-worshippers, these colleges and universities provide some real intellectual "diversity" amidst a sea of sameness, have preserved an air of academic seriousness in an era of increasingly trivialized scholarship, and possess the inestimable advantage of a framework of "shared values" within which to examine the surrounding culture – and change it in meaningful ways.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones (Basic Books). Veteran comic-book writer Jones, whose past book credits include The Comic Book Heroes (a fan-focused survey of post-"Silver Age" "mainstream" comics) and Honey, I'm Home! (a history of TV sitcoms), here attempts to, in his own words, "dig through the tall tales, drunken misunderstandings, and self-protective fudgings" that have obscured the early history of the comic book and provide a semi-definitive history of that wild and woolly era. The first generation of comics creators are fast slipping from the scene (as the recent death of Will Eisner reminds us), so it's just as well that Jones tackled this ambitious project when he did. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's struggle to develop and sell Superman – and then to gain some measure of permanent credit for their accomplishment, which merely set the future course of an entire industry – is the centerpiece of the book, as it should be. You'll also learn just how, um, questionable the backgrounds and ethics of several of the comics pioneers were. (DC Comics patriarch Harry Donenfeld and Batman creator Bob Kane come off particularly badly.) Jones effectively links comicdom to other aspects of the "junk culture" of the 20s and 30s, not to mention Prohibition, the growth of organized crime, and the struggle of swashbuckling Jewish entrepreneurs to make it in corporate America. He also resists the temptation to turn the Siegel/ Schuster imbroglio into a simplistic tale of screwed creators vs. greedy moneymen, making it clear that, while S&S were hardly treated fairly, they (especially Siegel) share a heavy chunk of the responsibility for the implosion of their careers. If you're interested in the history of pop culture, or are simply curious as to where those peculiar funnybooks that your child/boyfriend/ husband/etc. dotes on originated, this will be a highly entertaining read.

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(3/7/05)

Marge's Little Lulu: "Lulu Takes a Trip" (Dark Horse Comics). This is the second installment in a promised series of softcover volumes reprinting stories from Western Publishing's much-beloved Little Lulu comic-book title. Already a (semi-) household name thanks to Marge's panel cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post and a series of animated cartoons from Famous Studios, Lulu really came into her own when she earned a regular comics gig in the late 1940s, thanks to the ingenious plotting and humor of writer/scenarist John Stanley. I had had minimal exposure to Lulu before these volumes appeared, but I had liked what little I'd seen, so this series was an easy sell for me. Despite Dark Horse's uninspired physical presentation (not to mention a few of the story pages being printed in incorrect order!!), it appears that Stanley's high reputation is indeed warranted. The stories starring the feisty title character, her rotund pal Tubby, her parents, and a clutch of supporting players vary from straightforward gag tales to clever "fantasy flights." Most of the latter are framed by the conceit of Lulu telling stories to a cranky toddler named Alvin, but they also appear in what at first glance are conventional stories (e.g., Lulu, left alone at night while her parents go out on the town, discovers a real live – um, dead – ghost hiding in her bedroom). If Stanley hews to a particular theme in his stories, it is "No bad deed goes unpunished." Characters inevitably end up paying for arrogance, chicanery, and hypocrisy before the stories are done, and Stanley has the ability to keep you guessing as to the precise denouement. If you have an imaginative child and would like to introduce him or her to the wonderful world of comics, Little Lulu is a great place to start – and you'll end up being entertained along the way, as well.

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Movie Reviews

(3/20/05)

Roger Ramjet: Hero of Our Nation (3-disc DVD set, released by Classic Media and Sony Wonder). Nicky carved up what she perceived to be a turkey of a "vintage cartoon" in her own review of this release. For my part, I'm delighted to see this extremely funny show back in circulation again. It's very much in the vein of the Jay Ward shows (topical references, limited [not to say sloppy] animation, mock-dramatic voice work), but I happen to think that it's even better than most of those. The fact that each cartoon is a self-contained entity imposed a certain amount of discipline on the creators, and they responded by packing as many gags as possible into each and every square inch of footage. Roger's constant use of the Proton Energy Pill to augment his physical abilities (while, it must be admitted, not improving his limited mental processes one iota) is, of course, the reason this show fell out of favor with syndicators and children's show producers not long after it was originally released in 1965, but to condemn the show, as Nicky did, for somehow promoting drug use is to preach the same sermon that has rendered so many modern "children's TV spokespeople" ridiculous. You might as well condemn The Powerpuff Girls for encouraging kids to search for a "Chemical X" that will turn them into preschool superheroes. Parents could always explain to their kids that it's just a cartoon (and, for good measure, keep the pills in the medicine cabinet out of children's reach). The pill-taking and villain-bopping was always the least interesting thing about the show, anyway (well, that and the relentlessly chipper theme song). I'd rather dwell on the droll use of Yiddish phrases, the frequent references to old-time TV and radio series, and the heroically silly figure of Roger himself. The packaging is cute and amusing, but the set has absolutely no behind-the-scenes material or commentaries, and mine was unaccountably missing the promised "Official Log Book" and "Roger Ramjet foam glider" (personally, I hold Noodles Romanoff and his band of No-Goods responsible). Also, be aware that the set does not contain all the episodes. I have a few VHS tapes that contain eps missing from this set. Perhaps these strays were released in one of the earlier stand-alone Ramjet DVD's. I shall hie myself hence to Amazon…

Roger Ramjet  (Nicky's Take)  This was a little cartoon that ran between segments of a childrens show back in the mid 60's.  For more information read Chris' review (next week).  Anyway, I only saw a couple of these cartoons but that was enough.  When you watch them back to back you make yourself crazy listening to the jingle that plays during the title and credits.  It's a little tune that is sung to the music of Yankee Doodle.  Because the episodes are only a couple of minutes long, more TV time is spent listeng to the jingle.  BUT that's not my beef.  The idea that Roger gets all of his powers from his tiny little "proton pill" leaves one (in this day and age) with the idea of "what the heck were they thinking?"  Of course taking drugs to gain "peace," strength, stamina and power (hallucinated or not) was not unique to this show.  We' talking about the sixties now.  The idea that shooting up is condoned by this show just turned my stomach.  Chris' idea that "these were much simpler times," doesn't cut it.  I may be giving old Rog a bum rap but sending a message that you can solve all of your problems and win the day with a pill is just not right.  How good would you feel hearing:

John Sr. -  Come on Jonny you can hit a homerun.  Just roll up your sleeve and I'll shoot you up.  Watch Daddy do it.  It will make you strong and invincable and you'll be loved by everyone when you win the game.  Make a fist for Daddy.

I know that's not fair to the cartoon but that's what I heard every time Roger took his pill to give himself power for whatever predicament with which he was faced.

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