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Book and Comic Reviews

(10/31/05)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #662 (November 2005).  Ach, dem "damn Dutchmen" iss bach!  Stories from Holland's Disney-comics factory have been few and far between in Gemstone's pages in recent days, but this issue brings us no fewer than three "Dutch treats," all dialogued by David Gerstein.  Mau Heymans illustrates "Friendly Feuders," in which Donald's Nephews hit upon a simple but clever stratagem to stop the eternal feud between their "Unca" and Neighbor Jones.  "Three's a Crowd" is a Li'l Bad Wolf story in which Zeke Wolf takes advice from a book of "Words of Wolfly Wisdom" and sets an entirely new kind of pig-catching challenge for himself.  Finally, in "Car Wars," Freddy Milton illustrates a Wacky Races-like scenario wherein Donald vies for the championship of the "Anything Goes Rally" and its first prize of a brand-new car.  Nothing spectacular here, but all three stories are solid.

The balance of the book is even more enjoyable.  Bill Van Horn draws first blood (feather?) with "To Well and Back," a somewhat predictable, but thoroughly enjoyable, "Donald's latest obsession" caper.  This time around, Don dragoons the Nephews into a cross-country trek aimed at promoting physical fitness.  No, Don doesn't come home in a body bag – which I was half expecting, to be honest – but he does endure his share of rough treatment.  The ish's Mickey Mouse offering, Dave Rawson and Cesar Ferioli's "Vacation Brake," is an absolute gem.  On a trip to view the fall foliage of New England and get completely away from adventure for a while, Mickey and Minnie discover that Pete and Sylvester Shyster (the latter's surname is not used, prompting me to blink and look around for the nearest canary with an annoying speech impediment) have set themselves up as police, judge, jury, and (if they could get away with it) executioner in a small country town.  Not only that, but they have a nefarious plot afoot to ruin autumn enjoyment for everyone.  The wacky sci-fi aspect of this plot I can take or leave – simply running Pete and Shyster up against our favorite Mouse couple would have been more than sufficient in terms of plot motivation – but what really sets this story apart is Ferioli's utterly splendid artwork, and, above all, the magnificent coloring, which absolutely nails the tale's autumnal ambience.  Sarah Kinney and Xavi's Goofy story "Two Left Feet" is another winner.  Desirous of learning how to dance "like Fred Kelly or Gene Astaire," The Goof becomes the unwitting pawn of a pair of unscrupulous dance instructors, much to the chagrin of their dance-instructor daughter, who's more than a bit taken with our ungainly hero.  By rights, this story should have been the basis for a Goof Troop script, and it probably would have been had that TV series been executed with more finesse.  Kinney continues to buttress her rep as the best Goofy scripter of modern times.  A reprint of Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard's 60's Disney Studios story "It's Music?", which introduced the grouchy hillbilly Hard Haid Moe to overseas readers, rounds out a package that's well above average.               

Uncle $crooge #347 (November 2005).  After a long delay, Don Rosa's "Escape from Forbidden Valley" finally sees print in America.  Much as "Return to Plain Awful" injected Uncle Scrooge into the milieu of a story that had originally featured Donald and the Nephews alone, this tale mixes the old miser into the setting of Carl Barks' "Forbidden Valley" (with a dash of "A Spicy Tale" mixed in).  It's not hard to see why this story was banned from this country for a while – you need only glimpse the oh-so-carefully-rendered Caucasian coloration of the vicious, sharp-fanged, broken-speeched Stickaree Indians.  Nor is it particularly difficult to predict what the profit-minded Scrooge might want to literally "take out" of a prehistoric valley populated with dinosaurs.  Ultimately, the main image I brought away from this tale was that of poor Donald, tossed into the (now) walled-off Valley by the vengeful Stickarees, undergoing all manner of humiliation at the claws of a well-meaning hadrosaur who has adopted Don as her "baby." Rosa has long evinced something of a cruel streak in his rough treatment of "The Donald," but this definitely marks something of a low point in his canard-clobbering.  Rosa tries to smooth any ruffled feathers by including a subplot in which the Nephews theorize – to Scrooge's obvious discomfort – that Scrooge half-envies "bungling, no-good" Donald and his life free from worries over a constantly-threatened financial empire (Don's concerns are more mundane, like how to actually keep a job for a while).  Sorry, Keno D., but I'm not buying it.  Donald deserves better than this.  It's still a good story, but one that left me with an unpleasant taste in my bill, er, mouth.

The majority of stories in the rest of the issue have plots that must have been improvised under the influence of laughing gas.  Pat and Carol McGreal and Maria Nunez give us "Legal Beagle," a Beagle Boys epic in which the Beagle brothers struggle to counteract psychological programming that has turned their paroled sibling into an honest citizen.  So how does the newly reformed 176-167 conduct his search for the first honest job in his life?  Wearing his Beagle mask and clothes.  Uh, right.  The plot's ultimate resolution isn't any great shakes, either.  In "Don Quiduck de la Mancha," a Dutch story by Frank Jonker, Bas Heymans, and Dwight Decker, Donald reads himself into a stupor while attempting to win a role as "Don Quiduck" in a stage play and winds up thinking he's… Don Quiduck.  Oh, for the "konk on the head" amnesia plots of yore, which at least gave us something remotely resembling a reason as to why a character might hallucinate in such fashion.  Lars Jensen, Manrique, and David Gerstein give us "Green Thumbs Down," in which Fethry Duck tries – and fails -- to mine a profit out of his "eco-friendly garden," finally doing so after Gyro Gearloose provides him with a way to literally "make money" from his green thumb (in an ending gag that more properly belongs on the cover of an issue of Richie Rich).  Luckily, the book ends with "The Scrooge Museum," a first-rate tale by Janet Gilbert and Vicar that appears, from the looks of things, to have been originally intended for some sort of special Scrooge-tribute issue.  The story is structured around a giant museum exhibition featuring artifacts from Scrooge's "life and times" (sorry, Mr. Rosa) and features bow-ins by numerous supporting players, including Gladstone, Daisy, Gyro, and the Beagle Boys.  At its core, however, the idea is charmingly simple – having insisted that everyone, even big shots, pay for admittance to the exhibition, Scrooge finds his nearest and dearest principles challenged when he is asked to pay the $1 admission fee.  Scrooge's subsequent attempts to get in without paying represent slapstick in the grand tradition.  The resolution is equally simple and clever.

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(10/23/05) 

Uncle $crooge #346 (October 2005).  Teamups between mortal enemies united by the threat of a common foe are always great fun when handled properly, and Pat and Carol McGreal don't disappoint in this issue's signature story, "One Thin Dime."  Scrooge and Magica De Spell must (gulp!) cooperate to thwart the evil designs of a sleazy stage magician who has, like Magica, gotten wise to the notion that one can gain the "Midas Touch" by melting down Scrooge's Old #1 Dime.  The killjoy learned the trick by perusing an "arcane book of spells," which leads one to wonder how a reference to Scrooge's dime could possibly have made it into a centuries-old tome.  (It also calls into question the veracity of Magica's haughty claim that "only I have the power, accumulated through a thousand magic spells" to convert the dime into a magic amulet.  Isn't this the same sorceress who relied upon mechanical devices in her earliest appearances?  Could she have cribbed the idea from books, as well?)  Needless to say, double- and triple-crosses abound before Scrooge gets his dime back.  The funniest thing in the tale (aside from the effervescent Jose Massaroli artwork, which really helps pull this tale off) is the offhand narrative remark that, to pass the time while awaiting a chance to recoup the dime, the two erstwhile foes tell each other "their life stories."  I don't envy Magica having to listen to all those tales of the Klondike and so forth at a single sitting.

Two other featured stories in this ish, "The Funny Carrots" and "The Way the Cookie Crumbles," suffer from rather silly central plot notions, but the former (written and drawn by Romano Scarpa and scripted by Byron Erickson) makes far better use of its dubious raw materials than does the latter.  The special ingredient is the presence of Scarpa's own original character, Brigitta MacBridge, who proves here that she can be a fine foil for Scrooge on a treasure hunt (in this case, a search for carrots that make people laugh uncontrollably, which might help Scrooge recover from what seems at the outset to be a terminal case of dyspepsia).  Normally a mere annoyance -- albeit an affable one -- Brigitta actually motivates this adventure (of course, out of a desire to get closer to her beloved "Scroogie") and proves along the way that she does, indeed, possess both spirit and a brain.  After reading this tale, I'm almost convinced that Scrooge and Brigitta should become an item.  The story may be a little loose in the logic department, but it's a masterwork compared to "Cookie," which requires us to accept the notion that Scrooge willingly begins to run his business empire based on the advice in fortune cookies.  To say the least, this isn't one of the McGreals' better ideas.    

Donald Duck and Friends #333 (November 2005).  This Thanksgiving-themed issue leads off with "Turkey Trouble," a vintage Carl Barks story from 1946 in which the nephews, faced with Donald's refusal to break the bank to buy a turkey (remember those postwar meat shortages?), procure a live turkey… with which, of course, they (and, later, Donald) ultimately form a bond.  In his editor's column, John Clark points out various practices in this story (such as the turkey raffle and the "Good Joes' Turkey Shoot") that have since died out.  I don't know about others' experiences, but, as recently as the early to mid-70s, I can recall accompanying my grandfather to a turkey farm in Massachusetts, where a turkey was picked and butchered for our family's dinner table.  (The obvious advantage of this approach was that it removed any possibility that our family could bond with the "chosen one" and thus be deprived of our Thanksgiving meal.) 

The middle Mickey story, "Party Animus" by Sarah Kinney and Jesper Lund Madsen, sees Mickey trying valiantly to counter his romantic rival Mortimer's big-budget Thanksgiving wingding with a shindig of his own.  It's OK but nothing special.  The concluding Donald story, Michael T. Gilbert and Rodriques' "Bargain-Hunter!", is the true prize of the issue.  A decade ago, in "That Ol' Soft Soap" (recently reprinted by Gemstone), Gilbert (with help from artist William Van Horn) provided us with one of the all-time great modern "takes" on the old idea of Donald suddenly forming an obsession to one-up someone or something.  Michael T.'s back at the same vegetable stand – er, make that garage-sale table – in this outing, which sees Donald battling several yard-sale groupies in an effort to snaffle the best deals on thoroughly superfluous and worthless items, as Daisy and the Nephews look on in increasing horror (and Don's house gets ever more crowded with junk).  The tale echoes "Soft Soap" right down to a multi-image panel centered on a gloating, increasingly irrational Donald, who's taken to trickery and chicanery in an effort to keep others from making purchases.  It was entirely fitting for Gilbert to create "regular" antagonists for Donald just for this story – in this case, a stringy-haired harpy named Red who appears to dress in the very clothes she buys and an overweight slacker named Hank who claims to have found everything others buy for free somewhere else – because, as anyone who regularly goes to yard sales knows, that's pretty much the way things are in a real bargain-hunter's life.  

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #282 (November 2005).  Stefan Petrucha and Rodriques' adventure tale "The Treasure of Sierra Motty" reintroduces Eli Squinch, one of Floyd Gottfredson's lesser-known recurring villains, to American readers for the first time in quite a while.  John Clark comments in his editor's column that Squinch is a difficult character to write for, listing several reasons why.  I can add a few of my own: The elderly con artist is very close in general demeanor and attitude to another Gottfredson swindler, the crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster, and his anachronistic mannerisms and wheedling speech patterns aren't quite as malleable for a modern writer as, say, those of Pete or The Phantom Blot.  That being said, Petrucha squeezes (or squinches) about as much out of the irritating old coot as one could ask for.  Here, Squinch is conning Minnie's old babysitter, Sierra Motty, into marriage in an effort to get legal title to a priceless Aztec helmet that's buried on her property.  This is an entirely believable scheme for Squinch.  He's not a criminal mastermind like The Blot or a thug like Pete, he's someone who takes advantage of those in vulnerable situations (and the clueless Sierra, who sculpts lamps out of household junk in her spare time, appears to be the type of intellect who is vulnerable every waking minute of the day).  I'm not crazy about the contrived manner in which the plot is placed in Mexico just for the sake of a catchy title, and Minnie gets hardly anything to do once the plot gets rolling, but this lost-temple tale is worth any Mickey fan's serious attention.

Though "Treasure" is the featured attraction in this issue, it probably won't get as much attention as the "sandwich" story, "Penalty Problems," which features the return of "The Riverside Rovers."  The first few tales of Morty, Ferdie, Gilbert and their neighborhood soccer team elicited a number of negative comments from readers who regarded the "Rovers" stories as childish, overly moralistic, too dependent on in-depth soccer knowledge, and too humdrum to be interesting.  I didn't hate the "Rovers" tales as some did; I could see the point, which was to draw younger readers to the comics by using story situations with which they could identify.  "Penalty Problems" is more of the same, with the one exception being that the dialogue (courtesy of Tony Isabella) is slightly more "Americanized" this time around.  So, do you stand with Morty or with Ferdie on the great " 'blasting vs. placement' penalty-kick debate"?...        

Donald Duck Adventures #14 (October 2005).  I enjoyed only one story in this issue – Stefan Petrucha and Pasquale Venanzio's "The Lost Subway".  The lead story, "Duck Avenger in Crisis" by Enzo Mina and Anna Marabelli, strangely did not rate the cover, even though it contains the first American appearance (to the best of my knowledge) of Donald's costumed-hero persona, a very popular concept in Italy (where the "Duck Avenger" is known as "Paperinik").  Supposedly, Donald uses his "Duck Avenger" identity to gain revenge on other characters, such as Scrooge and Gladstone Gander, who have done him dirt.  If that's still the case today, then this tale presents a rather misleading picture of exactly who the "Duck Avenger" is supposed to be.  This "Avenger" appears to be just another caped crime fighter, who, in this case, is baffled by a string of misfortunes that foil his generic attempts to nab equally generic purse-snatchers and similar scofflaws.  The reason why Donald should have possibly been motivated to dress up and play hero is not made clear in the least.  Even DuckTales presented a much better rationale for Scrooge to briefly become "The Masked Mallard" in the TV episode of the same name.  The story plays out like a Darkwing Duck script, and Donald, for all his virtues as a character, is no Darkwing.  "The Lost Subway" sends Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews into the sewers of Duckburg (and with no Duckburgian equivalent of Ed Norton's hero, Pierre Francoise de la Briosche, in sight!) in search of the mysterious inventor Henry Clikenclaken's long-abandoned subway and the legendary Hackensack Diamond, which is mounted on the face of a clock in the subway station.  Along the way, in addition to battling the expected alligators and foul odors, the Ducks must tangle with the burly "Sewer King" and his grungy band of subterranean followers.  (I seem to sense a Gargoyles episode starting right about now.)  The tale's supernatural aspects seem a bit out of place, but Petrucha does a good job with the dialogue and Venanzio's somewhat scribbly artwork is effective.  The last two stories in the book aren't much.  Minnie Mouse is featured in Massimo Marconi and Massimo De Vita's "Girl Power," a fable of Minnie teaching the sexist inhabitants of an alternate dimension (the "alternate dimension" dodge employed so frequently in this magazine is losing its luster rather quickly) that women are as capable as men.  Following this leaden-handed effort, which is about as subtle as Minnie's bow, is Frank Jonker and Xavier's "The Lost City of Shoe-Ping," a jungle treasure trek pitting Scrooge and Donald against John D. Rockerduck, here making a rare American appearance.  This tale should have come wrapped in a plain white cover bearing the inscription "Generic Scrooge McDuck Adventure Story."     

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(10/16/05)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #661 (October 2005). Nice save, Pat and Carol McGreal. Having dug themselves into an apparent hole with some questionable plot twists in parts 7 and 8 of the "Mythos Island" cycle (WDC&S #660), the McGreals niftily stepped away from the brink in the two-part wrap-up tale, called – ahem – "Back from the Brink." In my review of 8/28/05, I expressed dismay at the notion that the crumbling of Mythos Island was due to a technological breakdown fomented by Master Mythos' robot helper. As a more palatable alternative, I suggested, "Why not have the crumbling of the island be caused by the creatures' dismay at what they believe to be mankind's universal loss of belief in legend and lore, which would give our heroes the opportunity to save the day by (1) striving to convince outsiders that myths are an essential part of human culture, or (2) convincing the distraught beasties that people do still draw inspiration from mythological heroes, using appropriate examples?" The McGreals didn't quite remove the plot's over-dependence on technology to that extent, but they did return their focus to the central principle that Mythos Island's existence depends upon the willingness of the outside world to believe in myth and legend. Traveling to Duckburg and Mouseton (which appear to be literal "Twin Cities" here -- possibly for the first time ever?) to retrieve Gyro and Doc Static's matter manipulators, Donald and Mickey inadvertently help the island to partially regenerate itself, thanks to the citizenry's glimpses of the dragon they're riding. Armed with the knowledge that exposing the mythological critters to the outside world will restore the latter's disintegrating home, our friends use the good Docs' gizmos to literally "flash" glimpses of various beasties before the wide eyes of an astonished world, completely restoring the island. I'd have been more pleased had the ultimate solution not involved high tech at all, but I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless. Some funny byplay between Don and Mickey (mostly, of course, fomented by the former and bemusedly absorbed by the latter) and Uncle Scrooge's stubborn unwillingness to cede the diamond he's found on the island (which just happens to be the material Gyro and Doc Static need to power their combined transporters) help liven up the conclusion of what is, in the final analysis, a praiseworthy – and, in the main, highly successful -- attempt to do a genuine multi-character epic featuring the extended Duck and Mouse casts. And artist Cesar Ferioli definitely deserves overtime pay for the effort he put in here. I do have to wonder, though… If Duckburg and Mouseton are really THAT close together, then shouldn't these two sets of characters get together far more often than they do?? (Perhaps we can attribute the cities' proximity to Ferioli's attempt at some labor-saving.)

The remainder of this ish is just sort of OK. In "Hat's All Folks," William Van Horn posits the existence of yet another kooky Duckburgian holiday (Duckburg's overloaded calendar must resemble the Catholic Church's feast-day calendar by now), the absence of which would cause the story's papier-mβchι plot to collapse. It's always nice to see Uncle Rumpus McFowl, though, and this tale of an inadvertent exchange of derby hats between Rumpus, a would-be larcenous butler, and x-thousand citizens of Duckburg who all wear carbon-copy cranium coverings on "Duckburg Derby Day" benefits from more than the usual amount of top-notch Van Horn verbiage. Halloween is saluted with a trio of tales: one of Carl Barks' weirder Gyro Gearloose tales, "Krankenstein Gyro" (before Gyro starts creating life, perhaps he needs to get one?); a bland but serviceable tale drawn by Marco Rota about Donald's efforts to cash in on a heightened awareness of paranormal phenomena caused by a popular TV show; and Sarah Kinney and Marsal Bresco's "The Assistant of Dr. Frankenfur," wherein Goofy becomes the willing assistant of a mad (or at least moderately peeved) scientist who ends up being something other than what he seems.

Krazy and Ignatz 1935-36: "A Wild Warmth of Chromatic Gravy" by George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Press). We finally reach the "color" era of Krazy Kat with this handsome volume collecting the first year and a half of Sunday pages that followed Herriman's "product relaunch" in mid-1935. Truly amazing it is that these marvelous strips, limited as their appearances were to only a handful of newspapers – non-archived ones, at that – look as good as they do. Editor Blackbeard gives due credit to those diligent fans who saved originals and made them available for reprinting. An accompanying article on Herriman's ethnic background (to wit: he was a man of mixed-race ancestry who took some pains to conceal the fact, yet did inject some "multicultural" idioms into his work) is described as the "definitive" work on the subject. Personally, given Herriman's amazing facility with language of all sorts, I think his educational background (provided by the Jesuits, BTW) would be fodder for an even more interesting (and relevant) article.

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Movie Review

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Aardman Animation returns to the big screen for the first time since 2000's megahit Chicken Run by bringing creator Nick Park's most recognizable and popular characters out of cheeseballs, er, mothballs. Wallace, the dotty, cheese-loving inventor, and Gromit, his mute, long-suffering canine pal, prove capable of sustaining a 90-minute feature in this enjoyable outing. As always, one of Wallace's inventions (in this case, a "humane" pest-control system) appears to have worked splendidly, and he reaps a potential romance to boot, but he can't help tempting Murphy's Corollary (to wit: If you fool with a thing long enough, you'll screw it up for sure) and ends up unleashing a monstrous hare who threatens to make succotash of Wallace's slightly zany community's quaintly absurd "giant vegetable contest." Heaving an inaudible but palpable (thanks to Aardman's clever animation) sigh, Gromit must set things right. There's rather more double-entendre humor here than I can recall seeing in any of the other W&G productions, but, if any recent release can be termed "family-friendly," then this one can. Kudos to Aardman for not queering the deal by sticking a big-name voice, on the order of Chicken Run's Mel Gibson, into this charming project; such a conceit would surely have damaged the property's ongoing appeal. BTW, I've heard that Aardman recently suffered a fire that destroyed a number of its assets, so you'll be doing a good deed, in addition to watching a good movie, if you patronize this effort.

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