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Book and Comic Reviews

(5/28/06)

Uncle $crooge #354 (July 2006).  Don Rosa is back, and he's got The Black Knight with him.  Rosa's most substantial original creation "Glorps Again" as he makes another attempt to "prove" he's the world's greatest thief by wiping out Scrooge's fortune with the aid of his OmnisolveTM-covered armor and sword.  As Rosa himself admits (in the inevitable text accompaniment), crafting a second Black Knight story that didn't seem like a simple rehash of the original tale was a tall order.  The tale does have some elements of dιjΰ vu, but Rosa includes a sufficient number of new elements to hold the reader's interest.  Part of the intrigue this time around involves master cracksman Arpin Lusene's efforts to locate and reclaim the "carefully hidden" armor which was taken from him after the first bout.  Also, though Arpin's effort to empty "ze mooney bean" (yes, the character's exaggerated French accent sounds every bit as overbaked the second time around) fails, he has an equally tempting alternative to fall back on – the collection of priceless McDuck artifacts that Scrooge has lent to the Duckburg Museum.  (Given his mighty labors on "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck," it's no surprise that Rosa would choose such a target as an acceptable fall-back option.)  Best of all, Donald, of all people, saves the day in the end.  Trapped in an airtight museum room with The Knight, Donald, recalling that OmnisolveTM will suck the air out of an enclosed space, tricks Arpin into tiring himself out and collapsing, thereby allowing Scrooge and HD&L to divest the thief of his armor.  This is especially impressive in light of the fact that Donald is imperiling his own life in the process.  For Rosa to let Don accomplish anything even remotely this heroic – in a story, no less, where Scrooge is consistently being thrown on the defensive and reduced to bemoaning his fate and begging for mercy not once but several times – is notable in and of itself.  Solid efforts like this make me all the more regretful that Rosa's fixation on "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" distracted him for so long from the task of crafting "conventional" Duck stories.

The "minor" $crooge features here – "No Thanks for the Memories" (Kari Korhonen, Jose Massaroli, Tony Isabella) and "Passport to Lisbon" (Miguel Pujol, Donald Markstein) – could themselves easily have passed muster as headlined stories.  In the first tale, Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold each write a scandal-mongering book designed to get the other multiplujillionaire to waste money purchasing all of the existing copies.  Both tycoons, as it turns out, are being suckered by a conniving book-publishing executive.  Scrooge and Flinty get wise and, in a rare bout of cooperation, jointly author a how-to-get-rich tome to get some of their money back.  "Lisbon," along with U$ #353's "The Great Paint Robbery," demonstrates that writer-artist Pujol definitely has something in for Donald.  Rather lazy and whiny in "Paint Robbery," Don's nothing less than a complete a**hole this time around.  When Scrooge disappears while on a trip to the Portuguese capital, Donald and the boys go to the rescue, but Don's effort is something less than half-hearted.  The Ducks are getting to spend time and money eating and lodging at McDuck Industries expense, so why rush things – especially when there's no concrete evidence that Scrooge is in any danger?  HD&L are quite rightly disgusted, and, even though it turns out that Scrooge was OK all along (he was angling to buy a worthless transit line so as to obtain a priceless antique streetcar), Donald does end up paying a heavy price for his "crimes."  The art style is luscious, the colors are lush, and the Lisbon scenery is lovingly detailed (shades of Pujol's depiction of Barcelona in "Paint Robbery"), but even Rosa has rarely made Don this unlikable.  

The book is topped off with a good Gyro Gearloose tale from Holland (in which the inventor creates a "generosity" solution, sees it get into the water supply of Duckburg, and is forced to come up with its "greedy" antidote) and a frankly ludicrous Magica De Spell short in which Magica hires Junior Woodchucks HD&L to clean up her messy workshop (!), then rehires the boys to mess it up again because she can't possibly do sorcery in such a clean environment (!!!). On his worst day, Vic Lockman wouldn't have thought up THAT idea…

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #669 (July 2006).  This thickly populated garden of "small works" contains more roses than thorns.  Back in his accustomed position at the head of the parade, William Van Horn snaps back to top form in "Nightmuscle," which sees Donald assume the guise of a costumed crusader for justice.  Don actually performs reasonably well in the role, mostly due to luck, and climaxes his "career" by stopping a pair of thieves who intend to ransom a stolen statue of the Mayor of Duckburg.  Alas, Don gets considerably more than "skinned up" in the process and renounces his crusade while recuperating in bed.  The idea of Donald playing superhero isn't exactly new (cf. his "Paperinik" secret ID in Italian comics), but Van Horn keeps the chortles coming; he even harks back to his glory years in Disney Comics' Donald Duck Adventures by using an obsessed, eccentric loony (in this case, a buck-toothed guy who's trying to steal "a whole year's supply of raspberry bubble gum") as one of Donald/Nightmuscle's foes.  I especially liked Don's inability to decide between first and third person speech while in the role of Nightmuscle ("Nightmuscle is right!  That is, if he sees what I think I see!") and the fact that his red cape appears to be stuck on permanent "billow" mode.  (Nightmuscle also appears to be wearing a horn, or a miniature cornucopia, on top of his cowl – shades of The Simpsons' Radioactive Man.)  The ending may be a little formulaic – how many times has Don ended one of Bill's contemporary stories in bed, I wonder?? – but this is the most enjoyable Van Horn story that I've read in some time.

Donald comes off considerably less well in "Pitstop Problems," the fourth installment of the six-chapter "Formula One" saga.  This time around, there's no subplot to draw us away from the track, but there's more than enough going on.  Scrooge is at the end of his rope over Glomgold's constant baiting, Donald's demands for higher pay, and a screaming bunch of "F1" groupies who appear to have the "hots" for Don (a situation which also ticks Daisy off no end).  As Donald makes his way through a race in Germany, he gleefully turns the financial screws on his uncle, dawdling in the pits and even hinting that he might switch his allegiance to Glomgold's racing team.  Of course, Scrooge finds a way out of the dilemma in the end.  There's a third Donald feature in this issue – Sarah Kinney and Manrique's "The Invention Convention" – but it's more or less a conventional Donald vs. Neighbor Jones "one-upmanship" set-to (this one involving their increasingly obsessed efforts to build a perfect "home-protection robot").

The one Mickey tale herein is Donald Markstein and Rodriques' "The Coming of Quadruplex," the disappointing climax to the equally disappointing "Robot Wrestling" story arc.  The return of Professors Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex (and, in this case, their supercomputer Quadruplex) should have brought forth a far more substantial tale than this.  Plenty of giant wrestling robots are on display, but the plot is put together with considerably less than medium-grade artistry.  The use of the captured Sam Simian as the source of quick-tempoed exposition is particularly painful, given Markstein's track record.  These tales aren't a patch on the Dr. Doublecross stories from the Disney Comics era, to say nothing of Emil Eagle's giant robot invasion of Mouseton as scripted by Marv Wolfman.

Backup features (if one can call them such in a mixture like this) include reprints of a Scamp story by Al Hubbard and a Chip & Dale tale by Jack Bradbury – both good – and a fairly decent Dutch Big Bad Wolf story in which Zeke gets far more than he bargained for after swiping Elviry Bear's cake – which was meant to be his birthday gift all along.  David Gerstein does a good job on the latter tale's dialogue, but what's with the lengthy spiel crammed into panel 5 on the last page?  Couldn't the same ideas have been gotten across with fewer words?

Carl Barks' Greatest DuckTales Stories Vol. 1 (Gemstone).  Joe Torcivia and I provided the back-cover blurb for this uniquely themed collection.  Having written an (at least in theory) exhaustive episode guide to DuckTales some years ago, the two of us were asked by David Gerstein to craft an appropriate introduction to this volume of Carl Barks stories that were adapted for the small screen.  We touch upon some of the similarities and differences between the originals and the adaptations, hopefully straddling the "middle ground" between fanboy screen and academic product.  The second collection, slated to be released in July, will be "fronted" by a very similar intro.  David G. himself complements our work with "Of Ducks and DuckTales", a discussion of the series' 1985 "bible" and how it jibed (or not) with Barks' world and characters.  Sadly, Disney wasn't able or willing to time the release of the second DT DVD collection to match these releases; indeed, the company recently announced that DT Volume 2 won't be released until November.  At the very least, this is still one of the more affordable and convenient Barks portmanteaux to appear on the market in some time – and I must admit, it is kind of neat to see my handiwork directly preceding a reprint of the Barks classic "Back to the Klondike"…

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(5/22/06) 

Comics Reviews

Mickey Mouse and Friends #289 (June 2006).  From the outset, I've refused to buy into some readers' reflexive loathing of the Riverside Rovers stories about Morty and Ferdie's soccer team.  If not exactly enthusiastic about these "kid-friendly," decidedly moralistic tales, I've at least acknowledged the reasonableness of the rationale for running them and haven't begrudged their presence.  That being said, I have to confess being severely underwhelmed by "Silent Witness," the latest saga of the "Rovers Boys," presented in this issue.  To be sure, the plotline does "get [somewhat] away from soccer," in Editor John Clark's words, with Morty, Ferdie, and Gilbert seeking out the Rovers' goalkeeper Sly, who's been playing poorly of late and has now mysteriously disappeared.  It turns out that Sly has been living in fear of being "offed" by some crooks whom he'd seen making their getaway after a payroll heist.  Just as the boys locate their friend, they're confronted by the bad guys – and a panel or two after that, in charges the Rovers' manager, who quickly dispatches the hoodlums.  Apart from the sheer improbability of both parties being that close on the kids' heels, I find it hard to believe that Morty, Ferdie, Gilbert, and the other Rovers would be so completely clueless about the nature of Sly's somewhat shabby neighborhood.  Sly suddenly picks up a street kid's speech pattern to match the setting, which doesn't jibe with how he was characterized (or not) in earlier stories.  If the story suggests anything, it's that the "Rovers" concept doesn't have the coherence to easily encompass more conventional story lines.  Perhaps Paul Halas should have stuck with the soccer terms and "Goofus and Gallant" life lessons.

The balance of the issue is taken up by "I.Q. Switcheroo," a not-very-funny Goofy and Gilbert story from the 1950s drawn by Paul Murry, and the featured item, the McGreals' and Cesar Ferioli's "The Stuff of Dreams," in which Dr. Winx, a scientist supposedly doing "dream research" literally appropriates the creatures in Mickey's dreams and uses them to rob a jewelry store.  The semi-mad (to be generous) doctor plans to use the proceeds to improve his technology and eventually steal everyone's "nocturnal cognitions," then charge a fortune for their return.  With the help of Goofy – whose dreams, not surprisingly, prove rather more difficult for Winx to control – Mickey steals Winx' own dreams and blackmails Winx into confessing all to the police.  The story is good, but one is left to wonder why Winx didn't immediately try to silence Mickey after loosing the dream-beasts in the store while the Mouse was present.  Even granted that, as Winx gloats, "There's no law against stealing dreams," surely Winx should have realized that he had committed a felony and that Mickey might pursue him for that simple reason alone?

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Donald Duck and Friends #340 (June 2006).  In honor of the 72nd anniversary of Donald's first on-screen appearance, Pat and Carol McGreal and Cesar Ferioli, who teamed up Donald and Mickey to excellent effect during the "Mythos Island" serial, present us with another dual adventure in "A Blighted Birthday."  The yarn is related in flashback by Don, who's explaining to his Nephews why he mistrusts Mickey's taste in birthday presents.  As the pair bummed their way through the South Pacific during their "foot-loose and fancy free" younger days, Mickey's efforts to give Donald various birthday treats kept blowing up in Don's face, prompting the irascible Duck to demand personal control over his own partying.  A pair of crooks, attracted by Don's wad of cash, shanghaied the Duck and dumped him into a ship's hold packed with snakes, but Mickey came to the rescue.  Back in the present day, the Duck reluctantly decides to unwrap Mickey's latest gift and is promptly scared silly by a rubber adder.  Don's concluding spate of grousage about Mickey's "sense of humor" seems a little overstated given the events of the earlier adventure, in which Don was laid low by happenstance and old-fashioned bum luck rather than practical jokes gone awry, but it does dovetail with the half-cooperative, half-resentful attitude he displayed towards Mickey throughout the "Mythos Island" saga.  In the event, any present-day teamup of D&M, even in a minor story like this one, is cause for gratitude.

Following a quick nod in tribute to the grand old theme of Donald the "master" – in the form of a reprint of "The Master Glasser," a brief 1959 story by Carl Barks – the McGreals team up with Vicar to bring us "Regarding Donald," a sort-of-spoof of Regarding Henry (not to mention the plots of episodes of The Flintstones and numerous other cartoon series) that is somewhat less than masterful.  The lazy, inconsiderate, irascible, etc. Duck becomes a paragon of mannered thoughtfulness after being beaned on the head with a brick by Neighbor Jones (and no Offissa Pupp in sight to jail the latter, alas).  Donald first charms, then ultimately sickens, HD&L, Daisy, and Scrooge, who plot to get the old Don back by delivering – you guessed it – another conk on the cabaza during a croquet game.  Fighting their efforts at every turn – and, of course, ultimately failing to stop Donald's inevitable "return to normal" -- is Jones, who adores the new Don and doesn't want to lose "the best neighbor I ever had!".  Therein lies the obvious problem with the story: Jones is much too quick to buy into Donald's apparent "reformation."  At the very least, the Jones I know would have taken more than half a dozen panels to become fully convinced that Donald was sincere and was not executing some sort of elaborate ruse.  We do get to witness the hitherto unthinkable sight of Jones matching his wits against the other Ducks on Donald's behalf, but the plot relies far too heavily upon Jones' extremely convenient change of heart about Donald.

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Walt Disney's Vacation Parade #3 (Gemstone).  Is "The Terror of the River" the first truly great Carl Barks adventure?  Surely, this 1946 tale, reprinted as the feature attraction in this issue, qualifies as one of the earliest Barks stories to feature all of the elements that would come to signify Barks at peak form.  The most notable innovation here is the appearance of the first really memorable Barks villain.  "The Scarer" is using a submarine and giant rubber serpent to frighten the wits out of all travelers on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, more or less for his own twisted sense of personal amusement.  Donald and HD&L must turn aside from their houseboat cruise to New Orleans to solve the mystery, and, ultimately, to knock "The Scarer" out of business.  The story is an odd mixture of slapstick humor (especially at the beginning, as Donald tries to learn the ins and outs of houseboating) and legitimate peril, even unto the narrative referring to potential death several times (for example, when the Nephews engage the "serpent" in a dangerous tug-of-war to save the previously captured Donald).  Barks knows how to take the edge off with well-placed gags and how to make the "multiplied adder" seem funny and menacing at the same time.  In his book on Barks, Michael Barrier flagged this story as the quintessential "the Nephews come to Donald's rescue" epic, but Don does enjoy the satisfaction of (rather violently) laying "The Scarer" low after the latter suddenly dissolves into a blubbering mess when it appears that his life might be in danger.  The artwork isn't quite up to the level of the Barks classics of the late 40s and early 50s, and the story ends a bit too abruptly, but the budding of a peerless narrative talent is clearly on display.

The gem of the rest of this oversized issue is Sarah Kinney and Rodriques' Goofy story, "Goofy Gives His All."  The Goof, as a member of a volunteer group dedicated to helping people in distress, mistakes a rustic vacation island for the storm-devastated location he was supposed to be succoring.  It's a simple idea, but Kinney runs with it brilliantly, with Goofy ultimately creating such chaos that the police are called in to stop him.  Goofy promptly mistakes the fuzz for the shock troops of an attempted coup (!) and pledges to help the thoroughly baffled vacationers regain their "homeland," even promising to help them with "paramilitary trainin' an' everything."  The date code indicates that the story predates Hurricane Katrina by a number of years, but its inclusion in this year's edition of Parade undoubtedly took Katrina and other recent natural disasters into account.  Some readers might overreact and take offense at the theme, but the story is a perfect vehicle for Goofy's genuine good-heartedness and his peerless ability to sow inadvertent misunderstanding.

The ish's main Mickey offering, Noel Van Horn's "Sandgate," is pretty good, but NVH could have done a little more to explain why, exactly, sand creatures from another dimension are bound and determined to suck sand from a coastal beach in order to replenish their planetoid.  The vacationing Mickey and Goofy, literally caught in the vortex of the sandmen's activities, are no closer to solving the mystery at the end than they were at the beginning.  No such confusion attends the 60s Donald and Fethry Studio story "The Fall Guy," which is simply a reworking of writer Dick Kinney's script for the Woody Woodpecker cartoon "Niagara Fools."  Here, it's gung-ho Fethry who wants to brave Niagara Falls in a barrel, with a park ranger and Donald trying to stop him and ending up riding the cascade themselves.  Two Dell-era reprints, a Pluto story drawn by Paul Murry and a Li'l Bad Wolf tale by Gil Turner, round out the issue (despite the fact that they don't really have much to do with the whole "Vacation" theme).

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Book Reviews

The Complete Peanuts Volume 5 (1959-1960) by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics).  So many classic Peanuts themes and "devices" are introduced between these covers – Linus' first vigil awaiting the Great Pumpkin, the first (offscreen, to be sure) appearance of Miss Othmar, and the first appearance of Lucy's psychiatric booth – that the volume must and should have  included SOME sort of article that put these seminal developments into proper perspective.  Instead, we get a Gary Groth interview with, of all people, Whoopi Goldberg – and, yes, they take some veiled shots at "Dubya" along the way.  R.C. Harvey, where were you when we needed you (to duplicate one of your fine essays from Fantagraphics' collected Pogo, that is)?  Why befoul the straightforward intent of this splendid series with such tiresome left-wing bellyaching?   

The vast majority of the strips in this collection have been reprinted umpteen times and will be quite familiar to Peanuts fans, but a couple of previously unseen continuities are present, including a heart-rending tale in which Charlie Brown misplaces a library book and becomes increasingly convinced that he's doomed.  (He ultimately finds it in the refrigerator, which leads to the question of whether any of the members of the Brown family ate anything during this period – apart from bowls of Snicker-Snacks, perhaps.)  Sally Brown is born, and, rather surprisingly, takes three months to appear "on-panel" for the first time.  Imagine a modern-day comic-strip creator displaying such restraint.  Before 1960 is through, Sally is walking, clad in her soon-to-be-characteristic dress, and displays her first signs of (unrequited) affection towards Linus. 

It was during this period that Peanuts exploded into a national phenomenon on the marketing front, with the characters catapulting into our collective consciousness for good.  More to the point, Schulz was shifting into his most fertile imaginative phase and beginning to contribute far more to pop culture than he borrowed from it. You simply can't go wrong with this volume, even as a stand-alone – for example, as a gift for someone who may not have much interest in the strip's formative years but might like to pick the series up at a point when it was rapidly transitioning into what we commonly remember as "the classic Peanuts" today.

Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux).  After I read and enjoyed The Meaning of Everything, tackling this book (which I saw reviewed in The Weekly Standard) was a natural "second step" for me.  Hitchings includes sufficient background material on Samuel Johnson to enlighten the uninformed without losing sight of his major goal, which is to demonstrate how Johnson tackled the daunting task of compiling an English dictionary in the 18th century with few models and minimal help available.  Cleverly, Hitchings uses actual definitions of words from Johnson as the equivalents of chapter titles (I wonder just how long he had to fish through the dictionary to find words and definitions to match the progress of his narrative).  An excellent effort. 

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(5/15/06)

Mickey Mouse Adventures #9 (Gemstone).  The age-old (well, 78-year-old, to be precise) conflict between Mickey and Pete wouldn't seem to hold many more possibilities for legitimate surprise, but Byron Erickson and Massimo Fecchi serve up a dandy in "Fatal Distraction."  This tale reminded me of the 1964 WDC&S serial "The Return of the Phantom Blot" in that the apparent villain really isn't the villain after all. Indeed, Pete's current status as jailhouse inmate and simultaneous appearances at various crime scenes lead an increasingly perturbed Mickey (not to mention an annoyed Chief O'Hara) to believe that The Mouse is suffering from a rather unhealthy obsession with the big lug.  (It also reduces the jugged Pete himself to sizzling resentment.)  If Mickey's "hallucinations" weren't bad enough, the city of Mouseton is going broke thanks to computer embezzlement and can't field a full complement of police.  This sounds like more than enough chicanery to justify several stories… except that the true villain's ultimate quarry is something else altogether.  I won't divulge the ID of the mastermind; I'll only note that Pete's nocturnal visit to Mickey's home in the opening pages of the story should give the reader a clue that the bad guy wants to make a special point of getting Mickey "off his guard" from the get-go. 

My "favorite" Duck artist, Toni Bancells, returns in the Donald epic "Soap Dope," but even Bancells' maladroit stylings can't completely mask a fairly good "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story penned by Dave Rawson.  Donald's obsession with soap operas leads to his winning a contest and subsequently shinnying up the ladder of fame – to the disgust of an ever-increasing number of actors, writers, and such whom Don has alienated during his speedy ascent from bit player to "personal assistant" to writer to budding star.  Initially appalled and cynical, HD&L are led to wonder if they haven't misjudged their uncle's true talent, but never fear – Don fails at the "last hurdle."  In contrast to the aura of total defeat at the end of most "mastery" stories, the tale ends with the still-addicted Donald giddily planning a comeback for the "officially dead" character he's been portraying.  Fecchi would have rendered this in a far more effective manner, but I did enjoy the lively (if somewhat predictable) tale.

The concluding Mickey story, Andreas Pihl, Donald Markstein and Joaquin Sanchez' "Ticket to Pong," also tries to put a new "spin" on the Mickey-Pete duel, but the motion is in a retrograde direction this time around, largely due to a truly bizarre premise.  Mickey and Pete share the prize in a contest wherein all the questions concern Pete's criminal career (!!!) and travel to the land of Pong.  With the assistance of a slightly annoying therapist, Pete is trying to prove that he can act as an "honorable gentleman" and thereby win a massive inheritance.  But will the proximity of Mickey and the presence of a tempting diamond mine prove too much for Pete to resist?  The whole contest/trip scenario turns out to have been a ruse from the beginning, but rather than marvel at how cleverly the knot was ultimately untied, I was left shaking my head at the sheer amount of contrivance involved.  Pihl's done much better work than this (in Donald Duck Adventures #1, for example), and Sanchez' artwork left me rather cold, as well.

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(5/8/06)

Uncle $crooge #353 (May 2006).  Almost 20 years after I originally translated "Picasso-Raub in Barcelona," the 44-page German tale, newly rechristened "The Great Paint Robbery," finally sees print in America!  I still find my good fortune hard to believe.  When I originally did the deed, armed with two years' worth of college German and a German-English dictionary, I had no thoughts of eventual publication but took up the task out of sheer enthusiasm.  It was during that time that I first became hugely interested in Disney comics -- the Ducks in particular – and the 44-page "Picasso-Raub" was included in a collection of European comics I acquired from a Dutch dealer.  I can't recall at this late date what drove me to pick this story, above all the others in the "Uncle Scrooge's Treasure Chest" album series, as fodder for translation.  I know that the story's artwork – primarily by Catalan artist Miguel Pujol, with assistance from several future Egmont stalwarts, including Cesar Ferioli and Maria Nunez – was easily the most attractive in any of the half-dozen or so "Treasure Chest" tales I'd acquired.  The story seemed interesting enough – sending Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews to Catalonia in search of mysterious clues hidden on the backs of a trio of Picasso's paintings (and yes, Picasso himself, not some dog- or pig-faced "Piquacko" stand-in, does appear in the story in a flashback).  All of this was enough to get me through the translation, which I then kept through several changes of address (not to mention changes of American Disney comics publisher).  David Gerstein finally heard of the translation and asked to see it, then convinced Gemstone Editor John Clark to carve out the majority of this issue of Uncle $crooge to display it.  David retouched some of my dialogue to make it sound more, well, "Ducksy," but the basic structure is still mine.  I hope people like the story.

I'm backed up by a Barks reprint (it sounds a little presumptuous, I know, but how many times can I legitimately say that) featuring Gyro Gearloose, a $crooge tale by Jeff Hamill and Vicar called "Tutu Traumatic," and a one-page gag in which Scrooge gets his portrait done (get the connection?  Huh??) to intimidate his employees into working hard.  The "tutu" story is mostly a flashback in which a slightly embarrassed Scrooge tells the Nephews the story of how a picture of him and the Beagle Boys in dancers' tutus happened to get into the newspaper.  It turns out to have been part of a convoluted effort to keep a long-lost ballet score by Scrooge's relative Sergus McSissy (from the "pansy" branch of the McDuck family tree, no doubt) out of the hands of the Beagle Boys.

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #668 (May 2006).  A real hodge-podge between these covers, so much so that it's hard to pick out a standout.  The lead Donald story, "Duck in Luck" by Daan Jippes (guess the "Van Horn of Plenty" is running dry), is pretty good, though it gets a little talky and pretentiously philosophical near the end as golfer Donald tries to figure out how Gladstone's luck operates (and, perhaps, siphon off some of the "runoff" for himself).  The third chapter of the "Formula One" series, "Moonstruck," is also entertaining.  It takes the Grand Prix racers to Montreal, where Gyro meets an attractive female inventor whose dad is trying to perfect a moonlight-powered flying machine.   Realizing that Gyro's inventive genius is what makes Team McDuck go (no, not Gladstone's luck – he's not in this chapter despite being "welcomed to the team" in part two), a disguised Flintheart Glomgold tries to get Gearloose and his new friend Rita Legrand out of the way for good.  The romantic angle (has Gyro ever had anything even remotely approaching a relationship before?), Glomgold's berating of his two knuckleheaded chief mechanics/henchmen, and Gyro and Rita's dramatic-albeit-contrived, plunge over Niagara Falls (an event which renders Gearloose extremely tender-stomached for the balance of the affair) make this story come off like an above-average episode of DuckTales.  There's more racing action than in part two, but not much more.  Rita appears to indicate in the final panel that she may join Team McDuck (I can hear artist Flemming Andersen groaning from here) but I'm advised by David G. that that's not actually going to happen.

There's one Barks reprint in the issue, and it's a choice one: "Daringly Different," perhaps the single most memorable tale from the generally pallid Daisy Duck's Diary series.  Barks didn't write this story, but he easily could have, as it's a spot-on parody of the "drive for conformity" so famously characteristic of first-generation suburbia.  (Things are different now, as witness the neighborhood in which Nicky and I live; there are no fancy mailboxes or cactuses in anyone's front yard, but additions and remodeling aplenty have erased the rubber-stamp look.)  The Mickey story is Donald Markstein and Rodriques' "The Robot Wrestling League," which, quite frankly, didn't impress me.  Mickey didn't have much to do in this one besides operate the (balky) controls of a (badly maintained) robot in Sam Simian's (underfunded) new "stadium" version of "robot wars."  Fethry Duck and the cantankerous human (!) Hard-Haid Moe are well represented in "Medicine Man," a Disney Studio story in which Fethry and Moe peddle a "Peace Potion" accidentally cooked up by the short-tempered hillbilly.  David Gerstein provides the dialogue for the Big Bad Wolf story "Big Bad Beauty Contest", which is rather zanier than Zeke's stories are generally wont to be.  In order to trick the Pigs into entering a phony "handsomest hog" contest, Zeke dons a "high-falutin'" Turkish disguise, leading to the priceless line, "Practical, you never told us [Zeke] was Turkish!"  Romano Scarpa and Giorgio Cavazzano did the artwork for this Italian story, another plus.

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Walt Disney's Donald Duck "Free Comic Book" Day Giveaway (Gemstone).  After two offerings of Carl Barks rarities, the newest freebie-funfest features three "Modern American Masters": Don Rosa, Pat Block (with an assist from wife Shelly), and William Van Horn.  The offerings aren't the finest examples of the "Masters"' capabilities but are certainly a cut above the norm.  Rosa's "Metaphorically Spanking" (1988) is one of the more outrageous, and memorable, tales Rosa produced during his brief early stab at the "ten-pager" format.  Rosa ultimately focused his energies on his trademark adventure epics, where I think his heart had always been, and I've always believed his "Gladstone I" "ten-pagers" reflected, if not laziness, then a certain lack of commitment to the rigors of the format.  This tale, for example, while well executed and taking full advantage of a multiple pileup of Barksian coincidences (to wit: the Nephews attempt to play hooky but keep running into Donald at every turn), rather too closely resembles a similar Barks tale from the 50s in which the much-put-upon Nephews ultimately stumble into a Truant Officers' Convention.  I wouldn't put it past Rosa to have "borrowed" the idea for convenience's sake, though he puts the boys through a lot more grief than Barks ever would have, such as having a portly pigface character sit squarely on one of the helpless ducklings at one point.  It wasn't until this reading, though, that I noticed a really huge hole in the plot.  Having been found out, so to speak, in the woods, at a theater, at the "old swimmin' hole," and finally at a ball game that absolutely must be taking place in the afternoon (because that's when Donald, who appears as a peanut vendor, said that he'd be starting his latest "new job"), a blitzed HD&L come home and gasp that they can "still make it to class!" (???)  Are they night students, or something?  Barks might have used Rosa' ending of a chastened HD&L, having finally been "caught" by Donald, literally punishing themselves, but I doubt he'd have screwed up the story's time frame to so great an extent.

The Blocks' "Queen of the Ant Farm" (1997) is similar to "Spanking" in that it represents a time when Pat Block, who burst upon the scene in the mid-90s with such long adventures as "The Mystery of Widow's Gap," apparently felt compelled to prove that he could do short stories, as well.  It's a "Donald overdoes things" opus in which Donald seeks to trump the Nephews' ant-farm project by literally becoming the Queen Ant (complete with crown and eyelashes) of his own mega-"antstravaganza."  The story features some truly groan-inducing "ant" jokes, with the one at the climax being especially painful, but on balance, it's pretty good.  Same for Van Horn's "Their Loaded Forebear" (1998), in which Donald and HD&L, in the deep woods to gather pine cones for sale as novelties back in Duckburg (as what, precisely, Bill doesn't say), run into a primitive cave duck (no, it's not Bubba) who has, shall we say, a rather familiar (to the Ducks, anyway) obsession with the coniferous commodities.  The story dates from the tail end of "Gladstone II," one of Van Horn's especially fertile periods, and I can't help but compare this sprightly tale with the puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying recent story "Chimera," which had a somewhat similar setting and theme but nowhere near as memorable a payoff.  Since the late 90s, Bill's output has grown more sedate and predictable, while Block has dropped off the radar screen, apart from the odd script for Egmont.  As for Rosa, there are still a few tales of his we haven't seen in America, but I've heard nothing to indicate that his "writer's block" (caused, in part, by too many demands on his time by "Eurofanboys") has dissipated.  Almost without its meaning to, there's something of the elegiac about this collection…

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Archie Americana Series: Best of the 50s, Part 2 (Archie).  Despite the title, there's hardly a whiff of the effluvia of the Eisenhower era in this latest collection.  Apart from a fleeting reference to Jughead going on a TV quiz show and an appearance by Veronica's nephew Asphalt (so-called because he's always "asphalt" for some transgression, ha-ha) in a Davy Crockett outfit, these stories could easily have come from any era.  There are some good ones here, with a particular favorite of mine being "Truth or Consequences" (1957), in which Reggie gets the gang in trouble simply by telling uncomfortable truths out loud, only to fall victim to the same stratagem.  As seems to be the norm with stories from this era, the stories' art styles are all over the lot, but a number of the "key" artists of the period, at least, seem to be represented here.

A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen by Joe Jackson (Viking Adult).  It's been a long while since I've read a book on the history of science apart from mathematics.  Since many scientific breakthroughs cannot be fully appreciated unless they are firmly grounded in the time and place from which they arose, a good book of this kind must impart a sense of history as successfully as it details the science.  Joe Jackson does so, almost to a fault, in this excellent book.  The late 18th century saw the breakup of many ancien regimes – witness the French Revolution that claimed the life of Antoine Lavoisier, one of the two main characters in this story – and the "four-element" matrix through which physical scientists had interpreted matter for almost two millennia was not the least of the citadels to crumble.  Joseph Priestley, an English chemist and co-founder of Unitarianism, and Lavoisier, an aristocrat with a natural gift for theorizing, led the "race to discover oxygen," or, more properly, to isolate and recognize it as an entity in and of itself – what we now think of as an "element." Ironically, it was Priestley, so willing to break with traditional views on the contentious religious questions of the day, who proved less able to adapt to the "New Chemistry," leaving the field clear for Lavoisier – thanks, in part, to some information provided by Priestley during a dinner described in the book's introduction – to claim the lion's share of laurels as the chemist who initiated the science's modern era.  Both men came to rather unfortunate ends – Priestley in exile in America after the French Revolution made his radical ideas suspect, Lavoisier on the guillotine during the insanity of the "Terror" – adding a bit of extra drama to a fascinating scientific tale.  Jackson spends rather more time on Priestley – no real surprise, as Priestley's was the more eventful life – but he keeps the twin narratives moving smoothly, and, despite an occasional tendency to overwrite and over-digress, he does a fine job in depicting the world in which these two great scientists operated.  Anyone interested in the history of science or chemistry in general should greatly enjoy this book.

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The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press, USA).  More than half a century passed between the delineation of the demand and the desistance of the deed – the ultimate English dictionary – but very few people know how the OED, as it's known today, came into existence.  We take such comprehensive reference works so much for granted that it's nice to be reminded how much labor went into their making.  About all I knew about the OED before reading this was that JRR Tolkien worked on the project for a time in the 1910s. 

I first saw this book reviewed in The Weekly Standard and then read the hardback after Nicky experienced and enjoyed the audiobook version.  I concur with the generally high marks given to Winchester's effort by other reviewers.  This thing could have been deathly dull, but Winchester is smart enough to concentrate on the various eccentric figures who first proposed the project, then bollixed up the works, then recovered to find the right man to helm the job (Sir James Murray) and brought the massive "ship" safely into port.  Among the contributors who hunted down obscure words in a bewildering variety of contexts were spinster ladies, a prisoner in a home for the criminally insane, and an estranged, hermit-like academic.  Winchester tells their stories and manages to keep the reader's interest throughout, even adding a note of pathos when he described how so many key figures, including Sir James Murray, did not live to see the finished product.  This is a great read for anyone interested in languages, English, history, or simply a little-known tale well told.

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Movie Review 

A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Come Home (Paramount Home Video/Peanuts Pictures).  The first two feature films based on Peanuts were far and away the best, but it's tough for me to decide which one is the better.  Each film seems to have its own set of strengths and weaknesses.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) has the better voice work (including that of Peter Robbins, the original and best voice of Charlie Brown, and Pamelyn Ferdin [The Odd Couple, Charlotte's Web] as Lucy) and musical contributions by Vince Guaraldi, but Snoopy Come Home (1972) benefits from a vastly superior array of songs (The Sherman Bros. vs. Rod McKuen??  No contest) and a stronger sense of pathos (Snoopy's former – yes, former – owner is ill and asks him to return to her, resulting in tears and broken hearts aplenty).  Both are based on late-60s comic-strip sequences but feature plenty of filler to flesh things out, much of it quite good (the "psychiatric business" and the Beethoven piano-piece visual accompaniment in ABNCB, Snoopy and Woodstock being shanghaied by an overzealous proto-Elmyra in SCH).  SCH was the third movie I distinctly recall seeing in a theater – the first two being The Aristocats and the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – so I suppose I have a slight sentimental leaning towards it, but only a slight one.  Not that you'll get any additional information on which to ground your own decision when you purchase the DVDs.  No extras, no nothing.  Surely they could have cornered some of the folks who helped the animated Peanuts reach its twin high-water marks…

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