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Book and Comic Reviews

(11/20/05)

Walt Disney's Christmas Parade #3 (Gemstone).  The trouble with producing a yearly Christmas-themed comic that prominently features reprints of classic Christmas stories is that ultimately, in order to avoid repeating yourself, you will be obliged to reprint some material that's… well, something less than classic.  Having reprinted Carl Barks' evergreen "Letter to Santa" in XP #1, and having followed that up with the solidly enjoyable "You Can't Guess!" in XP #2, Gemstone leads off XP #3 with "The Golden Christmas Tree", which is neither evergreen (well, obviously – it's "golden"!) nor particularly enjoyable.  If this story isn't Barks' single worst long "adventure" tale, it's surely one of the finalists for that dubious honor.  It's not all Barks' fault; his editors gave him a script pitting Donald and HD&L against the Disney Witch and asked him to work it into a story.  His lack of interest in the whole idea is evident on just about every page.  The narrative takes crazy lurches, the characters' emotions swing with an almost palpable violence, and some of the gags are more suited to Looney Tunes cartoons than to the Duck comic-book "universe."  Barks' other significant "office-directed" story, "Trick or Treat" (just recently reprinted by Gemstone), was a far more pleasant experience (but then, Barks' source material in that case was much better).  Happily, Barks gets a chance for some redemption in another story in this issue, "Silent Night," a 1945 tale that was originally shelved by Barks' editors due to excessive violence (not to mention excessive roughness on a venerable Christmas carol) but managed to avoid the trash bin.  The story's opening half-page is newly written by David Gerstein and Unn Printz-Pahlson and drawn by Daan Jippes in a bang-on simulation of Barks' artistic style of the era.

The best thing in this particular Christmas package is the Mickey Mouse tale "It's a Wonderful Christmas Story," written and drawn by Romano Scarpa and dialogued by "Dandy" Dave G.  Of course, once one reads the title, one knows what to expect – and Mickey duly undergoes the "George Bailey" treatment.  Given the fact that the plot is essentially predetermined, the story is quite enjoyable, featuring appearances by many members of Mickey's supporting cast and an unexpected, holiday-flavored twist involving Mickey's eternal enemy Black Pete.  I can't bring myself to buy the rationale that causes Mickey to become alienated from his closest friends (even Pluto!), but them's the conditions that prevail when one writes a plot according to a preset formula.  The Uncle $crooge tale "Sentimental Energy," by Marco Rota and Tony Isabella, is also good.  It's simply saturated with all sorts of noble sentiments, but it does present what can accurately be termed a wholly original spin on the familiar notion (dating back to "Christmas on Bear Mountain," Scrooge's first appearance) of old McDuck's crusty heart softening under the influence of mistletoe, holly, and such like.  Reprints of Li'l Bad Wolf and Pluto Christmas stories from the 1950's (well, I guess the LBW story is about Christmas – at least, it's got a wreath hanging from the title box – but the holiday isn't mentioned) round out the issue. 

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The Ultimate Casper Comics Collection, edited by Sid Jacobson (iBooks).  In the immortal words of Tale Spin's Don Karnage: "Congratulations, Meester Jacobson!  You have not done a terrible job!" 

The first truly meaningful Harvey Comics-related release in many a moon features what appear to be complete reprints of the following issues of Harvey's Casper title: #11, 13, 17, 18, 20, 22, 48.  I'd like to think that Jacobson, the long-time (by now, even extending well beyond the life of the company!) Harvey editor, puzzled long and hard over which classic Casper tales to present to children and adolescents whose only exposure to Casper has come in the form of the 1995 live-action film and possibly the subsequent cartoon series.  (Will they be surprised to learn that Casper, Spooky, The Ghostly Trio, and the other Enchanted Forest ghosts once had feet?)  Or perhaps Sid just happened to have had these issues sitting in his desk drawer all along.  In any event, he chose well.  The leadoff story, 1959's "Real Gone," which might be considered Harvey's take on Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck, features caricatures of Alfred Harvey and Casper artist deluxe Warren Kremer (who drew all of the 15-page Casper stories herein).  As such, it's a fitting introduction for newbies.  The other 15-pagers are all entirely representative of their era, the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and are of uniformly high quality.  Unexpectedly, thanks to the "reprint-everything" policy, we also get some Spooky filler stories drawn in lively, funny style by Howard Post.  The coloring is uneven – for example, the sky in the opening panels of "Real Gone" is much too blue – but, for the most part, the book reflects the look of a "real" Harvey comic of the Silver Age.  Most any young reader would enjoy this collection, I think.  In his opening comments, Jacobson makes some peculiar and somewhat confusing assertions (if Casper were truly "born a ghost," that raises all sorts of unsettling questions about how ghosts procreate!), but this is the best project with which he's been involved in quite a while.  Similar collections of Hot Stuff and Richie Rich stories are forthcoming in 2006. 

Superman in the Forties (DC).  The latest decade-by-decade collection of Superman and Batman's "greatest hits" actually bleeds over into the late 1930s, as the first two stories in the collection appeared in Action Comics #1 and #2.  Several other items in the collection, such as a two-page prose tale written by co-creator Jerry Siegel, also date from before 1940.  Superman was a much less complicated, yet paradoxically more refreshing, character in these early tales.  When not personifying a caped and cowled New Dealer during his battles with political fixers, crooked businessmen, greedy war profiteers, foreign strongmen, and similar contemporary villains, he was facing off against oddball opponents (such as genial con-man Wilbur Wolfingham and devilish sprite Mr. Mxyzptlk) who checked the Man of Steel's already-formidable powers (which were not nearly as comprehensive as they would ultimately become) by keeping him off balance.  Among other things, the reader will learn how the company managed to explain why Superman could not simply step in and win World War II all by himself.   

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #283 (December 2005).  A pretty decent holiday ish begins with "Mickey's Christmas Trees," a reprint of a story from one of the late-1940's Firestone holiday giveaway comics.  (The Donald Duck story in that same issue appears in this week's issue of Donald Duck and Friends.)  The ancient epic has never been reprinted in this country before.  It's OK if you can stomach the sight of shoplifter Peg-Leg Pete getting away with a "drag" bit that a fully "functioning" Mickey should really have seen through from the beginning.  The Donald Duck "sandwich" tale, "Skeptics and Sorcery" by Jens Hansegard and Rodriques, is a "Donald masters a craft but ultimately causes disaster" tale married to a Magica De Spell story.  Here, Don is vying to become the Duckburg Skeptics' Club's "debunker of the year" by uncovering just a few more charlatans, but he makes the mistake of dissing Magica's supposedly "fake" sorcery.  Magica did make some use of gadgetry to perform her witchcraft in "The Midas Touch," the early-60s Barks tale in which she was introduced, so one can't entirely blame Donald for jumping to an incorrect conclusion.  At the very least, though, he should have thought twice before angering a sorceress with a notoriously short temper.  The book closes with "Songs of the Season" by Donald Markstein and Rodriques, a tale in which Mickey and Horace Horsecollar compete to win a holiday songwriting contest.  The running gag concerning the incessantly dinned "Silver Bell Rock" should ring a bell (pun intended) with anyone who's had their fill of holiday "background music" by the middle of December.     
 

Donald Duck and Friends #334 (December 2005).  "Santa's Stormy Visit," one of Carl Barks' five original contributions to the Firestone giveaway series, anchors this month's issue.  I wouldn't call it Barks' best Firestone frolic, but it's certainly better than average.  Barks dispatches the expected dose of holiday sentiment with a minimum of candy-coating and focuses most of his attention on the comic albatross who encounters Donald and the Nephews serving as lighthouse keepers in Duckburg Harbor on a stormy Christmas Eve.  In its denouement, the tale presages a later and more famous story, Barks' "Submarine Christmas" tale of the mid-1950s.  "The Sure Cure," Michael T. Gilbert and Noel Van Horn's middle Mickey story, seems rather out of place, since it doesn't make even the slightest mention of the holiday season.  Van Horn's always-reliable artwork enlivens a fairly predictable story in which Mickey is tormented first by hiccups, then by his friends' attempts to cure his ailment in increasingly dangerous ways.  The third story, "Santa's Helpers," features the return of the zany Easter Bunny character created by writer Lars Jensen.  This time around, if you can believe it, the long-eared galoot (thanks, Yosemite Sam) and Donald are forced to substitute for Santa Claus (!!) after the latter suffers a "ho-ho-horrible" accident.  Two things conspire to make this "saving Christmas" chestnut better than it has any earthly right to be: David Gerstein's dialogue and Marco Rota's artwork.  Gerstein realizes that he has a Herculean task to make this tale seem like anything more than a really lousy holiday special, and he pulls out all the stops, making references to everything from Henrik Ibsen to Chuck Jones to the Rudolph TV special.  Rota's art gives the story dignity where it is required, and the elegant Italian also proves capable of getting across the expected slapsticky pratfalls.    

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Movie Review

Disney's DuckTales, Volume 1 (Episodes 1-27) (Disney DVD).  To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway's comment about Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: All modern television animation stems from one source, Disney's DuckTales.  It is quite simply the most uniformly enjoyable animated series ever created.  Proving that high quality and daily strip syndication were indeed compatible, it raised the bar for all subsequent daily-strip animated projects, ultimately leading to the creation of The Disney Afternoon, Warners TV Animation's numerous projects, and many other worthwhile efforts.  The "quality TV Toon boom" that DuckTales detonated helped convince FOX to green-light The Simpsons in prime time, with all that that move implied for the future.  The series' popularity even convinced Disney to develop TV-themed attractions at its theme parks.  18 years after its debut, DuckTales' impact can still be felt.  It was long overdue to appear in DVD form. 

Unfortunately, Disney's treatment of the property in this release can charitably be described as uninspired.  The episodes are uncut and unaltered, apart from one or two tweaks (e.g. the voice-track volume in "Top Duck," originally very hard for the viewer to hear, has been turned up, and a line of dialogue in "Sir Gyro de Gearloose" that originally [and inadvertently] sounded very much like a string of cuss words has been redubbed).  There are no extras of any sort.  It is to weep, especially when this set is compared to previous releases of such series as The Simpsons and Batman: the Animated Series, not to mention Disney TV's only previous DVD release, Gargoyles.  It appears that Disney now regards DuckTales as just another "old" product to be vended in as generic a manner as possible.  A series that has had such a profound impact on the TV-cartoon industry deserved more respect than that.  The comparison with the Gargoyles release is particularly bothersome because Disney, in its decision to include extras with that particular set, may have been expressing its belief that DuckTales, unlike Gargoyles, was strictly "kid stuff" and never had any sort of an adult following.  How soon they forget: A healthy chunk of DuckTales' regular viewers (not to mention many of its most fervent fans) were over 18 years of age.

Disney DVD's commitment to the highest standard of quality as regards this release may further be questioned in light of the fact that the multi-part adventure "Treasure of the Golden Suns," which aired before the show debuted in syndication and served as the series' "origin story," is not included, simply because the complete version of the serial aired after the 27 episodes packaged herein.  It is not absolutely essential to have seen "Golden Suns" before plunging ahead with "syndicated" Episode 1, but the epic serves as such a dramatic and memorable curtain-raiser that its absence is keenly felt.  Had actual fans of DuckTales been in charge of this project, you can be assured that "Golden Suns" would have been in the leadoff slot on Disc 1.  (In like manner, Volume 1 of Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers neglected to include "To the Rescue," that series' "origin" tale.)     

Ultimately, if you buy this collection, it will be for the format alone.  For DuckTales fans, this will be sufficient reason for most to make the purchase, but a source of consternation and disappointment for others.  I'd encourage all fans of the show to contact Disney DVD and request that extras and other materials be included in future volumes.  Disney may in fact need to be reminded that such materials do, in fact, exist.

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(11/6/05) 

"Hobblin' Goblins" Halloween Giveaway Comic (Gemstone).  To say the least – or haven't you seen the latest statistics on childhood obesity? – the last thing young trick-or-treaters need to receive on Halloween is candy.  This year, Gemstone gave the comics-loving treat-providers of the world a viable fallback option with this 12-page mini-comic.  Given that there are a number of other short Carl Barks stories that either have Halloween themes or involve creepy creatures of various sorts (cf. the "Wispy Willie" story from WDC&S), one can certainly visualize this premium becoming a yearly ritual.  "Hobblin' Goblins," focusing as it does on Donald's Nephews, was a good place to start.  Barks wrote the 8-page tale as a quickie replacement when his editors axed some pages from the long story "Trick or Treat," and the haste shows – the practical-minded inventor Gyro Gearloose attributing all the world's troubles to goblins?? Still, the brief story does showcase artwork from Barks' peak period, a good advertisement for The Duck Man's many virtues for those kids who may not have seen his work before.  Gemstone packs in the expected ads relating to Previews, the Gemstone Web site, and such, so let's hope that this leads to an uptick in the number of young readers of Duck comics. 

Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge One-Shot: "Somewhere in Nowhere" and "North of the Yukon" (Gemstone).  It may bear only the slightest of resemblances to the one-page "concept" typed up by Carl Barks in the mid-1990s – thanks in no small part to numerous "suggestions" made by the manipulative staffers of "The Carl Barks Studio," the same friendly folks who unnecessarily soured the last few years of Barks' life – but the much-anticipated "Somewhere in Nowhere" turns out to be a pretty darn good yarn.  In several prose articles, scripter John Lustig (in a funny "mock-interview") and artist Pat Block give us the dope on how what began as a fairly simple story mutated into a 28-page Arctic adventure.  Despite his supposed trepidation, Lustig has no reason to go back into his "underground bunker" for fear of reprisals, from Joe Torcivia or anyone else.  Indeed, the finished product represents what might be considered a wholly unique Duck adventure, at least by American standards: it is the closest we have ever come to a "Barks-like" adventure epic starring Donald all by himself.  Scrooge appears briefly at the beginning and the end, while the Nephews are mentioned in Barks' outline but do not appear at all in the finished story.  In between, it's Donald against the elements of the frozen North and the would-be monopolist Hamalot McSwine, yet another version of Barks' protean "pig villain."  Don tries to prove himself to Scrooge (I've lost count of exactly how many times he's done this by now!) by making a success out of his new job: delivering mail to folks in impossibly out-of-the-way places in the "Frozen Nowhere."  Things get complicated when the vicious McSwine attempts to interfere with Donald's deliveries so as to maintain his iron economic grip on the town of Bearflanks, Alaska.  Though the cast may be sparse, the gags definitely have the staging of Barks gags (indeed, Carl provided several of them!), and the plot has the structure and the pleasantly "completed" feel that one associates with most of Barks' long adventure stories.  Artistically, Pat Block (with advice and hints provided by Barks, at least on the penciled roughs) outdoes himself with some first-class work, featuring tighter and more precise inking than he has employed in most previous stories.  The last Block artwork we saw, in "Duck of the Deep" (WDC&S #653), still reflected his early desire to mimic Barks' style of the early 50s; this effort bears more of a personal stamp.  If Block had only continued along this path with both stories and art for Egmont…    

The back of the book maintains the far-North theme with "North of the Yukon," a Barks tale from 1965.  It's been speculated that the character of Barko, the ancient sled dog whom Scrooge coaxes out of retirement to help him recover a valuable document from the clutches of ruthless moneylender Soapy Slick (yet another manifestation of the "pig villain"), reflects Barks' own concerns about encroaching age and impending retirement.  In that respect, Barko's appearance in the comic containing Barks' absolute last story contribution to the Duck saga seems rather poignant, indeed.      

Little Lulu Volume 6: "Letters to Santa" (Dark Horse).  They're putting the volume number on the spine now.  Other than that, it's – thankfully – more of the same clever storytelling and family-friendly fun.  Random thought while reading this collection: Given that Lulu and her family and friends spent most of their stories in and around their own neighborhood, did John Stanley conceive the "Story Telling Time" tales (the stories in which Lulu relates wildly improbable achievements or adventures to little Alvin) as an indirect way of introducing a sort of adventure feel to the Little Lulu comics?  I know that Lulu, Tubby, and company visited other countries in some of the Dell Giant Comics, but Stanley may have had nothing to do with those stories.  If the "Story Telling" theme was Stanley's way of sneaking in something like epic adventure through the back door, it was a most ingenious strategy.
 

The Complete Peanuts, Volume 4: 1957-1958 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics).  This particular installment of our semiannual Peanuts fix catches Peanuts at a point in time when Charles M. Schulz had really begun to hit his stride.  Despite a few dated oddities, such as Lucy and Linus spending a week engaged in "stereophonic fussing," the numerous mini- and micro-dramas enacted herein have begun to assume familiar contours.  Charlie Brown is now firmly established as the ultimate loser and fall-guy, whose "soul is full of weeds."  He drops a fly ball to lose a "championship" game (I always wondered how the Peanuts team managed to attain that opportunity, considering how inept they were), fights numerous losing battles with the kite-eating tree, endures insults and humiliation at the hands of Lucy, Patty, and Violet, and braves his first "official" Valentine's Day sans Valentines.  (On a more pleasant note, he does begin regular correspondence with his pen-, er, pencil-pal.)  Snoopy, meanwhile, has begun to dance and walk upon his hind legs on a regular basis, though he's still recognizably what he himself might call "a plain ol' 'dog' dog."  Linus is now thoroughly hooked on his blanket, barely surviving both Snoopy's repeated attempts to steal the prized poultice and Lucy's first attempt to wean him from it by force.  The direct references to childhood pastimes (aside from that ol' standby, baseball) are beginning to wane as the characters slip more and more easily into the "philosophical" mode that would come to be associated with the strip in its next, incredibly lucrative decade.  The vast majority of the strips here have been reprinted at some point, making the few "no-see-ums" all the more intriguing to me.  (My favorite among the latter: Linus explaining what appears to be a cowboy-and-Indian "fake gunfight" as, in fact, a game of "liberals and conservatives."  What would he be using today, multi-megaton bombs?)  This comes with my highest recommendation.  Big surprise, eh?

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Movie Reviews

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