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Book and Comic Reviews

This week, I'm ceding "pride of (first) place" in the "Reviews" section to my good friend Mark Lungo.  Mark recently responded to a thread on the Web site www.toonzone.net asking for people to list their favorite animated products (both movies and TV series) of the 1980s.  His comments were so good that I asked if I could run them here.  Take it away, Mark… CLICK MOVIE REVIEWS ABOVE.

(3/26/07)

Now, back to the salt mines…

Creators:  From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins).  I always make it a point to dip into the über-prolific Johnson's latest tome; his magnificent Modern Times (1985) had a most profound effect on the way I see and interpret the world.  This latest effort is a sequel, of sorts, to Johnson's incisive Intellectuals (1980), in which the author drew stark contrasts between the lofty ideals of a gaggle of influential thinkers from Rousseau to Bertrand Russell and the frequently dreadful ways in which they treated the people in their lives.  The message: beware letting such busybodies run things, as they recognize only "the heartless tyranny of ideas."  As Johnson explains in the Introduction to Creators, he caught a lot of flak over Intellectuals' "mean-spiritedness" (I prefer to call it "unwelcome truth-telling") and thereupon resolved to write a more "positive" survey of some of the world's most accomplished creative minds.

Creators could easily have been several times its final length, and one can sense in several cases how tempted Johnson must have been to expand his survey.  In the section on Jane Austen, for example, Johnson manages to squeeze in micro-discussions of several other female authors, such as George Eliot and Mme. de Staël. (Perhaps he was trying to head off accusations of sexism?)  By and large, however, Creators cuts the critical commentaries close to the bone and hews to its stated goal of using the figures discussed here to illustrate various ways in which the creative urge may manifest itself.  Johnson evinces a clear preference for practical-minded, nose-to-the-grindstone geniuses such as Shakespeare, J.S. Bach, and Albrecht Dürer, who married disdain for overly "intellectual" theorizing to superhuman work ethics.  By far the least likable of these pivotal figures is Pablo Picasso, whom Johnson compares unfavorably with Walt Disney in perhaps the most controversial of his essays.  (Those who have read Johnson's Art: A History will be familiar with Johnson's attitude towards Picasso; it's the direct comparison with Disney, a bête noîre of the same cultural leftists who idolize Picasso, that will drive the latter folks crazy.)  The book isn't as memorable or as eye-opening as Intellectuals, but it will give a reader new to Johnson a fairly decent flavor of the man's working methods (dare I say, his sense of creativity?).

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Movie Reviews

Contributions from Mark Lungo

<<In alphabetical order:

Movies:

The Great Mouse Detective.  A lovable hero, an outstanding villain, a little girl who's as spunky as she is sweet, good songs -- what's not to like here? This was the real start of Disney's comeback.

The Little Mermaid.  Disney's "Broadway musical" formula begins here.

Oliver and Company.  Likable characters + excellent voice cast = win. Also, as with parts of The Rescuers, it had a contemporary urban setting -- maybe Disney should do that more often.

The Secret of NIMH.  My favorite American animated feature ever, and still Don Bluth's best.

Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force.  My favorite Japanese animated feature ever, and still Gainax's best.

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TV:

Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.  I'm surprised no one has mentioned this cult favorite yet. The best of the three space western cartoons that aired in 1986 and 1987, Rangers gave Jerry Orbach [A graduate of my wife Nicky's grandmother's acting school, by the way – CEB] his first animated role and was often sophisticated enough to border on Adult Swim territory. It stumbled only when it blatantly attempted to appeal to the kiddie audience.

Bionic Six. This adventure series never took itself too seriously, and also had good animation and a catchy theme song.

Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers.  Fun for kids, amusing for adults, and Gadget may be the best original character to come from Disney TV Animation.

Duck Tales.  Disney TV's first series based on established characters remains one of its best. It deserves kudos for bringing characters and stories from Carl Barks' great Uncle $crooge comics to a wider audience.

Adventures of the Gummi Bears. One of Disney's first two TV series (the other was Wuzzles) took a premise that could have been terrible (Smurf-like medieval bears based on candy?) and made it a lot of fun, adding a surprising amount of depth as well. The Disney Afternoon empire starts here.

Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats. It should have been The Cleo Show, because she was the standout character. Also, some of the animation (particularly on the later episodes) is horrifically bad. Still, the good episodes are amusing enough to make up for it.

The Real Ghostbusters. This surprisingly faithful adaptation of the movie featured some of the best writing of any 80s toon -- at least in the syndicated episodes, thanks to story editor J. Michael Straczynski. The inconsistent, often kiddie-oriented ABC episodes are another matter.

Spiral Zone. This latecomer to the "action figure commercial" genre got no ratings, but its unusually dark storyline (the villains have already taken over half the world, and the heroes have to win it back) and excellent score have won it a small group of dedicated fans.

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Show I wish I'd watched more often:

Robotech.  I've seen just enough to make me want to see more. Also, warts and all, you can't deny the show's role in increasing American awareness of anime.

Guilty pleasures:

Bravestarr.  Filmation's entry in the space western sweepstakes was often silly and juvenile, but the more dramatic episodes pack a surprising punch. (Rule of thumb: If Bob Forward wrote the episode, and the plot includes the death of a guest star character, it's worth watching.) Also, the theme song is hilarious.

Centurions.  Great toy line, great action scenes, but hindered by stiff animation, stiffer characters, and a reliance on clichéd plot lines.

Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs.  I've mentioned the other two space westerns, so I should include the first show in the genre. This bowdlerization of the anime series Seijuushi Bismarck proves that Rob Paulsen can do a pretty good British accent.>>

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(3/11/07)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #678 (March 2007).  Of late, kind words for the autumnal efforts of William Van Horn in this space have been rather hard to come by, but you'll be happy to know that the mirthful veteran's latest Donald Duck short tale, "The Critic," features him at something reasonably resembling top form.  Put another way: "It doesn't stink!"  (Thank you, Jon Lovitz.)  As the new art critic of the Duckburg Daily Bla, Donald drubs Duckburg's daubers to such a devastating degree that the aggravated artists challenge him to show off his own artistic expertise by entering the Duckburg Art Contest.  Finding creation to be considerably more difficult than criticism, an angry Don leaves his canvas a mangled mess.  Care to guess what the contest judges think of it?  In truth, the rather predictable ending only mildly detracts from this very entertaining yarn.  Van Horn has a field day (as veteran readers might expect) with the windy verbiage of art criticism and the silly pretensions of Duckburg's artists, who seek to make "statements" with arrangements of "flower covered anvils" or "a 12-foot-long amoeba made from toothpicks!".  In his prime, "Silly Billy" would probably have slugged a home run here, but a ringing double off the wall is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. 

In the concluding chapter of Floyd Gottfredson's "Mickey Mouse Joins the Foreign Legion," Mickey gives us a grand lesson in the "art" of setting one's enemies up for a grand fall.  When one considers that the centerpiece of the story's climax is a full-blooded charge (led by Pete, his partner in crime, Trigger Hawkes, and bandit chief Yusuf Aiper) that has the stated intent of cold-bloodedly massacring a band of Legionnaires, it's pretty remarkable that Gottfredson manages to keep the tone as light as he does.  Mickey, of course, manages to thwart the plot and get back the plans for the "new-type gun" without spilling a drop of blood – while Pete, of course, manages to elude capture yet again.  It's not one of Gottfredson's more spectacular stories, but it definitely has its moments.

Elsewhere in this issue: Goofy "goes ape" – or rather, has an ape "go" for him -- in Sarah Kinney and Jesper Lund Madsen's "Primate Passion."   The Goof finds himself the object of the affections of a lab-bred female ape who's being flown to the tropics to be the mate of the local "alpha male."  He then has to convince "Lovey" to drop him, but he finds it harder to act like a useless, undesirable "loser" than one would think possible, given his seven-decades-plus track record.  Another winner from Kinney…  Gyro faces off against Pete in a contest to literally "build a better mousetrap" in Carl Barks' "The Inventors' Contest."  Somehow, I find it hard to buy the notion of Pete as an inventor, as opposed to someone who simply chisels off others' works (think Emil Eagle or Dexter Dingus)…  In Dick Kinney and Tony Strobl's Studio story "You Can Take the Guy Out of the Country, But…", Fethry Duck takes Hard Haid Moe to the city in an attempt to "sell" the bearded bumpkin as a folk singer.  The subsequent "fish out of water" gags remind me of some of the early gags in the Li'l Abner comic strip.  I'm not a big fan of Moe's, but Kinney squeezes as much humor out of a limited conceit as could reasonably be expected…  And bringing the ish full circle, Byron Erickson and Vicar's "Breaking the Ice"  features Donald and Neighbor Jones as competing ice sculptors.  When Gladstone Gander enters the contest, Don and Jones must pool their wits (actually, that's more like a puddle, isn't it?) and tackle the hopeless chore of beating back Gladstone's (inadvertent, of course) "efforts."  Along the way, we learn that Jones became an ice-master while running a posh catering business "for years."  Now we know the source of his mysterious "independent source of income."  (We also know one possible reason for his prominent gut.)       

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(3/4/07)

Congratulations to Joe Torcivia for recently completing his collection of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories at the New York Comic-Con.  I wonder how long it would take Joe to read all 677 issues (to date) of WDC&S, starting with "Old(est) #1."  If you wish to take this as a challenge, Joe, go right ahead.

Little Lulu Volume 14:  Queen Lulu (Dark Horse).  The most uniformly enjoyable comics reprint project in recent memory – aside from The Complete Peanuts – continues with this latest issue's reprinting of the chucklesome contents of LL #59-63.  Both writer John Stanley and artist Irving Tripp are at the top of their form, with virtually all stories herein providing their fair share of bright spots.  Highlight:  Lulu gets to play "The Little Mermaid," courtesy of "That Awful" Witch Hazel.

Uncle $crooge #363 (March 2007).  What is it about the hugely gifted Italian Duck creator Marco Rota that frustrates me so much?  Probably the same thing that annoys me about the justly revered Winsor McCay: Their collected works prove that beautiful artwork and outstanding storytelling are, in fact, sometimes mutually exclusive.  If Rota put a fraction as much effort and thought into his plots as he so obviously does into his magnificent Duck-art, then only Carl Barks at the peak of his powers would be a match for him. 

"Night of the Saracen," a gloriously sumptuous 1980s Rota story that graces the front of this issue, has long been on the "short-short list" of European comics delights that American fans have most longed to see reprinted.  Now that Don Markstein has provided an English translation of the epic, the patches in the tapestry are fully visible.  The premise, at least, is first-rate: Donald, HD&L, and Scrooge go to Genoa, Italy on the trail of a legendary "treasure" that supposedly belonged to the Ducks' ancestor Don-Al-Din, "most fearsome" of the "dreaded Saracen pirates."  Upon reuniting the broken hilt of Al-Din's sword with its missing blade, the Ducks are abruptly transported back in time to the night of a Saracen raid on a coastal village.  The pickings are slim for Al-Din and his band, as the villagers have already fled due to the onset of a tidal wave predicted in "ancient legend."  Nonetheless, the ruthless, temperamental "Duckaneer" does find a "treasure" of sorts in town – one that convinces him to give up pirating forever.  The "booty," however, proves to be quite literal indeed, to the watching Ducks' (or at least Scrooge's) dismay.  At story's end, Scrooge wails that the Ducks' adventure was "boooorrrrring!", and I almost have to agree with him – a spectacular two-page spread of the onrushing tidal wave notwithstanding.  The connection between the reconnected blade and the ability to time-travel is never adequately explained (apart from the usual dodge that "you can justify anything with magic"), nor is the fact that modern-day Genoa appears to be anticipating a tidal wave of its own, only to have all evidence of the latter gone after the Ducks return to the present for the final time.  (Donald further muddies the waters at the end by openly questioning whether the adventure had happened at all.)  The single weakest point of the tale, however, lies in the fact that unlike, let's say, Byron Erickson and Giorgio Cavazzano's World of the Dragonlords, the time-displaced Ducks aren't capable of interacting with the Saracens or their victims.  This turns the Ducks into passive observers, as opposed to active participants who have a true stake in the outcome.  I think that Rota would have been much better off handling the situation as he did in his tales of "Andold Wild Duck," dispensing with the services of Donald and company and concentrating on developing the new cast of characters.  Perhaps Rota learned this lesson the hard way in the course of preparing this story and changed his tactics as a result.  If so, then it's a shame that such a superbly-sculpted effort ended up being the panelogical equivalent of a "mulligan."

Following a two-page Launchpad McQuack gag (and that was precisely my reaction upon lamping artist Millet's clumsy efforts!), we get another time-travel story:  Nils Smeby, David Gerstein, and Vicar's "A Dime in Time."  This one, at least, has a plot with some genuine substance, though it's based on the somewhat familiar notion of a character (Scrooge) discovering an aged object (his "Old #1 Dime") that supposedly exists elsewhere in the present.  (Think Lieutenant Data's head being found during an archaeological dig in San Francisco in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

It turns out that Scrooge himself had hidden it 30 years in the past after using Gyro Gearloose's time machine to escape Magica De Spell's latest dime-raid.  Despite the Ducks' best efforts to avoid the usual time-travel-related pitfalls, it ultimately falls to Scrooge's faithful secretary, Miss Quackfaster, to save the day (and the Dime). 

The issue wraps with a pair of decent gag stories: Gorm Transgaard, Tony Isabella, and Millet's "Designed to Sell" and a Dutch effort, "Fleece and Quiet."   In the former, Donald is confronted with the horrifying spectacle of a do-everything robot that's programmed to sell itself to customers no matter what.  Don would've been fully justified in taking the thing apart rivet by rivet, but HD&L exact a more satisfying revenge by using a computer virus to turn the device against its manufacturer – which turns out to be Scrooge (employing one of his less ethical business gambits, I'd say).  "Quiet" finds Scrooge employing Gyro's "Clatter Pacifier" to neutralize the ambient noise around his money bin – thereby giving the Beagle Boys a chance to stage a literal "silent raid"!

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Movie Reviews

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DVD Reviews

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