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Book and Comic Reviews

(10/30/06)

Mickey Mouse and Friends #294 (November 2006).  Pardon me while I shed a tear or two at the keyboard.  Gemstone has just officially announced (through the medium of a missive to the Disney Comics Mailing List) that this title, along with Donald Duck and Friends and the two pocket-books (Donald Duck Adventures and Mickey Mouse Adventures) is being discontinued "for the time being."  These "temporary" cancellations have a nasty habit of becoming permanent.  The Gemstone folks are planning to increase their rate of release of such "Prestige Format" projects as Walt Disney Treasures and the quarterlies, but with the derricking of the …and Friends books, I think it's safe to say that any pretense that Gemstone comics can be sold in the traditional newsstand format has been rudely clobbered, and that's not a good thing.  "Trick or Treat for Halloween," indeed… 

At least MM&F managed to slip this issue's book-length reprint of "The Red Wasp Mystery," a much-loved serial from the late-60s Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, through its vanishing "window of opportunity."  Though this adventure, written by Cecil Beard and drawn by the inevitable Paul Murry, is a bit on the childish side compared to the best Floyd Gottfredson continuities, it represents Disney comics' one real effort to spin a story off the "superhero boom" that followed the success of the Batman TV show.  (No, I'm not forgetting Super Goof, but that character was created, and his long-running title launched, before Adam West's quarter-hour of fame arrived.)  Mickey acts on Chief O'Hara's behalf to locate the missing Red Wasp, Mouseton's crimson-clad human (!) "crusader against the forces of evil," during a massive crime wave.  Mickey locates the hero's cloud-bound lair (with the help of Goofy, whom the Wasp had hired as a gardener), and, donning a spare cape and cowl which ever-so-conveniently fit him, he "buzzes off" to fill in as best he can.  Having kidnapped the Wasp and sent him on a one-way rocket trip to Mars, villains Dangerous Dan McBoo and Idgit the Midget attempt to do the same to "impostor" Mickey, eventually succeeding.  On Mars, Mickey and the wayward Wasp join forces to cobble together a workable space vehicle (see what I mean about all this being "childish"?) and finally return to Earth in time to stop McBoo and Idgit from reducing Mouseton to rubble with missile attacks.  The death traps and high-tech gimcrackery (courtesy of McBoo and Idget, normally conventional bank-robbers and such) remove any doubt as to what's being parodied.  Indeed, this story was, as David Gerstein comments in his editorial remarks, "a seismic rethinking of [Mickey's] traditional world."  Alas, it was just as "successful" as the earlier Mickey Mouse: Super Secret Agent, in the sense that it left no traces (except in Brazil, where the Wasp ultimately inspired a whole regiment of Disney-character superheroes).

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(10/23/06)

Donald Duck Adventures #20 (September 2006).  This issue's front cover spotlights the last story in the volume: John Blair Moore and Flemming Andersen's Uncle $crooge tale, "Crash Course".  While it's not the best thing in this particular package, "Crash" merits the distinction if only because of what it teaches American readers about one of Scrooge's less appreciated recurring foes, the free-spending John D. Rockerduck.  Well-known to European readers, JDR has only appeared a handful of times in this country.  In this caper, he and Scrooge race along "the most dangerous road in the state" (you may now commence with the humming of the Speed Racer theme song) to determine which mogul can manufacture the safer car.  The wild and wacky proceedings, illustrated by Andersen at his most slapdash, are reasonably funny in and of themselves, but to me, the real highlight is a brief exchange between Donald and Scrooge along the way.  Donald, while needling his uncle for paying him, Gyro Gearloose, and the other crew members the usual pittance in wages, responds to Scrooge's comeback "What [read: how little] you spend can make a difference!" by noting, "[Rockerduck's] not the world's richest duck, he doesn't care about that!  But he does care about showing you up!"  I can't think of a better way to explain the difference between JDR and the more familiar figure of Flintheart Glomgold.  It is easy for the casual reader to regard Rockerduck as simply a Glomgold clone.  All praise to Moore for making the distinction crystal clear.

The lead story, Michael T. Gilbert and Toni Bancells' "Lotsa Luck," likewise tries to "enlighten" the masses as to the underlying realities of the Duck "universe," but in a far clumsier manner.  Gilbert floats the idea that Gladstone's luck may depend upon a "Lucky Buck" that Scrooge gave him while he was a child.  Donald certainly buys the theory; after he goes overboard with the "Lucky Buck" in tow and lands on a remote island, he insists to the isle's alternately genial and dyspeptic chief that the greenback gives him good vibes galore.  This works about as well as one might expect… but with Gladstone's cruise ship lost at sea and menaced by bad weather, might there be something to the fanciful story?  The storyline is cluttered and confused, not up to Gilbert's usual standards, and the connection to a Fu Manchu-type villain who wields black magic (up to and including animating giant stone statues) is pretty unconvincing.  For once, however, Bancells' artwork is fairly decent.

The Mickey interregnum adventure, Stefan Petrucha and Xavier Vives Mateu's "The Letter Mouse Trap," is the best story of the trio.  Acting on a request from Goofy – or so he thinks – Mickey finds himself traveling the globe, collecting a number of packages from post offices while dodging a gang of "clone" villains who resemble the Spy vs. Spy title characters (if the latter wore scarves and spoke broken English, anyway).  Remarkably enough, this extended chase sequence blends smoothly into a plot by a sophisticated but "megalomaniacal" robot to "retrofit" Earth to make it inhabitable for an alien race.  Petrucha's "alien-themed" Mickey stories have traditionally been hit-or-miss, to put it charitably, but this one's denouement legitimately took me by surprise.  Petrucha's experiences in writing mystery stories for the comic-book adaptations of X-Files and Kolchak: the Night Stalker definitely served The Mouse well here.   

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Donald Duck and Friends #345 (November 2006).  The dear, departed Daniel Branca returns to the pages (as opposed to the cover) of Gemstone Comics in this issue's lead story, "Guard Duty."  The script, by Jeff Hamill – I'll always remember him as the guy who wrote the backup story in the issue of Uncle $crooge containing the long tale I dialogued – puts Don's Nephews in the highly unusual position of trying to keep their desperate uncle from finding his way into Scrooge's money bin to see the old miser.  Unbeknownst to Donald, HD&L are trying to earn some money to help their uncle take Daisy to the Thanksgiving Day dance – the very same money that Don is trying to borrow from Scrooge!  The art is a glorious example of "late-period" Branca, wherein the artist loosened up his pen line and doted a bit more on distortions and extreme poses.  Some people prefer Branca's earlier style, but hey, his Nephews are still as cute as ever and the action still flows wonderfully.

The Stefan Petrucha/Jorge David Goofy story "Fish Face" would have rated four "starfishes" (hyuck) had Petrucha not tried to cram the "twist" ending into a single, dialogue-heavy final panel.  Until that point, the story is a classic showcase for Goofy as "the thinking man's crackpot" (thanks, David, for the inspiration).  Glimpsing a fish at the aquarium with a face that looks just like his, the Goof is soon obsessed with the idea of getting another look at the critter; he's even willing to take a 24-hours-a-day job as "staffer by day, watchman by night" so he can "wait for [his] fishy all the time."  As I said, the payoff doesn't measure up to the buildup, but this is a Goofy story worthy of Sarah Kinney (and yes, that's meant as a complement, in case you were wondering).

A Carl Barks reprint from 1945, "The Tramp Steamer," fills out the book.  Unemployed yet again – or perhaps, this early on in Barks' career, I should say, "unemployed for one of the very first times"? – Donald enlists the Nephews' help in trying to make a go of a cargo-hauling business, using the title craft.  Disaster duly follows disaster -- though, to be fair, very few of the bad things are directly attributable to Donald himself.  With his steamer in ruins, Don is left to pick up the pieces and hope he can locate "a good corner to sell pencils!"  Donald's state of mind would have been far serener had he maintained this stoic attitude throughout Barks' career… but then, how many of you have ever heard of a funny Stoic?

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(10/9/06)

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #673 (October 2006).  Here's yet another "quasi-Halloween" fun-fest, headlined by a reprint of a 1991 William Van Horn tale, "Kid Stuff."  Recall the early-50s Carl Barks story in which the Nephews tried to queer realtor Donald's sale of their decrepit "kids' hideout"?  Consider this opus a sort of "distant cousin" of that tale.  As Donald prepares to paint a supposedly "haunted" house, HD&L try to hassle him with "ghostly" gimmickry.  The boys are definitely in "brat" mode in this case, as there's no reason whatsoever to make trouble, so you suspect right away that some real phantoms will arrive to set things right (in a cosmic sense), as indeed they do.  Despite the predictability of the outcome, this is a most entertaining and well-written tale, a worthy representative of Van Horn's famed "hot streak" in the pre-"Implosion" Disney Comics' Donald Duck Adventures.  The splash panel of HD&L being confronted by a cellarful of levitated junk is very nicely done.   

Portrayed as a dogged (and ultimately successful!) entrepreneur in "Kid Stuff," Donald also "represents" admirably in Janet Gilbert and Wanda Gattino's "Hotel Transylvania."  After surviving a rugged training course to earn his spurs as a hotel concierge -- strangely, he wears a bellboy's uniform during his trial – Don is assigned the duty of pleasing a hostel full of Transylvanian monsters.  (Think the DuckTales episode "Ducky Horror Picture Show," in which Uncle Scrooge and the crew of McDuck Mansion were forced to serve a gang of ghastlies on Scrooge's own turf.)  Don does quite well until the hotel chain manager comes to inspect his efforts and a couple of bad breaks "break" at the same time.  The hotel winds up wrecked, but the monsters prevent the angry boss from firing Donald because (1) he really has tried to "solve any problem" for them, and (2) they like that "lived-in" look!  Remembering Donald's painful (and unlucky) demise in a similar Barks story set in a backwater town, I'm sure he appreciated the customer support.  

"Dimes are Forever" and "A Kidnapping in Yubet," the first two parts of "The Orb Saga" – Pat and Carol McGreal's second stab at a multipart crossover epic, on the heels of "Mythos Island" – have nothing to do with Halloween, but they sure qualify as something of a mystery.  Little truly happens in these two unrelated adventures, the first (drawn by Vicar) pitting Scrooge and Donald against Magica De Spell and the second (drawn by Cesar Ferioli) matching Mickey and Goofy against the Phantom Blot, other than the fact that before the end, each "hero duo" comes into possession of a mysterious orb.  The Magica story was so uninspired that I could almost imagine Pat and Carol checking off "Aspects of Generic Magica Story" as they went along – "Scrooge's spies, check; amulet, check; Old #1 Dime, check; foof bombs, check; Vesuvius, check…".  In the Mickey tale, meanwhile, the Blot kidnaps young La Dee Dama, the spiritual ruler of mountainous Yubet, because the latter can levitate and the Blot plans to use that power to aid his "criminal conquests."  Unless Dama's abilities extend to levitating bank safes and such, I can't honestly see what the Blot is gaining from this gambit.  Dama's annoying repetition of the fatalistic catchphrase "What will be, will be!" adds little to the proceedings apart from awakening memories of a Doris Day hit.  The McGreals usually have a higher "batting average" than this, so hopefully they'll get the "real" saga moving next issue.

The issue's "fillers" are reprints of a pair of late-50s stories.  The Scamp tale "Boo to You, Too" is one of the earliest Al Hubbard-drawn pup-tales and still features the supporting characters in a distinct Lady and the Tramp mode.  Scamp and Speedy the dachshund (was that his name in the movie?) team up to test the veracity of bloodhound Trusty's long-winded tales of long-ago bravery by scaring him inside an old abandoned house.  The obvious similarity to "Kid Stuff" makes it all the odder that this story immediately follows the Van Horn reprint.  In "The Broom Boom," drawn by Jack Bradbury, the Three Little Pigs outwit the Disney Witch (or whatever the "official" name of the Snow White character has become) in a rather contrived story that starts with the Pigs inheriting a broom factory.

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(10/2/06)

Uncle $crooge #358 (October 2006).  It'd be nice to pretend that this issue's lead story reflects some sort of "Halloween" theme, but, in truth, the scariest things about Carl Barks' 1966 tale "House of Haunts" are (1) the Beagle Boys' grammar, which slips out of subject-verb "phase" more often than is usual for them, and (2) the very idea of Duckburg possessing a vaguely medieval castle built by a "mad Duke."  A creaky, old, legendary haunted house I would have been able to accept, but this notion is even further "out there" than the "Cathedral of Notre Duck" Barks created for his earlier story "The Phantom of Notre Duck."  The Duke's peril-filled pile is the site of Scrooge's latest attempt to sidestep "the terrible menace of R-Day!", the day when the "rehabilitated" Beagle Boys are once more released from durance not-so-vile.  This time around, the Beagles plan to use the degrees they've earned in "Studious Hours School" to help them rob Scrooge's money bin.  Scrooge sticks his money in the mad Duke's dungeons for safekeeping, but his craving to take a swim in it and relieve his "banker's eczema" proves too much to control.  The Beagles use glowing paint to track Scrooge to his hideaway, then give Scrooge a sort of localized amnesia.  Covered with the ghastly puke-green paint, a freed Scrooge jumps to the conclusion that he's a ghost – and, yes, it really is as contrived and unfunny as it sounds.  Even with Donald and the Nephews' help, will Scrooge ever recover his memory?  And why will doing so ultimately help save the Beagles' behinds, as well?  Barks does what he can with these unpromising raw materials, but it's hard not to classify this as one of his less successful late-period efforts.

"Let Sleeping Bones Lie," another Daan Jippes redrawing of a Barks script from Junior Woodchucks, is, by contrast, one of the funnier and cleverer entries from that series, though it relies a bit too much on the repeated sight gag of the "Woodchuck walla" (the JWs running about aimlessly, bumping noggins and weeping and wailing) for my taste.  Not exactly an "environmental morality play" of the sort this series is famous for, this is more of a story of the Woodchucks thwarting Scrooge's effort to profit from an existing natural find – in this case, a gigantic preserved skeleton of a hitherto unclassified dinosaur.  Denied in his desire to grind the bones into roadbed fodder, Scrooge switches gears and seeks to turn the skeleton into a themed roadside restaurant.  With key assistance from their Official Hound (Pluto in the original John Carey-drawn story), who slips some "vision weed" into Scrooge's tea and causes him to hallucinate that the long-dead "colossosaurus" has come alive for revenge, the Woodchucks succeed in preserving the debris' dignity, or some semblance thereof.  I love the gag in which the Woodchucks' mentor d'histoire, the "Great J.A.W.B.O.N.E.," can't spit out his elongated name and title fast enough to prevent Scrooge from winning a race to the land office to lay claim to the "colosso"'s carcass.

The book's concluding story, "The Terror of Outer Space," purports to be the introduction of a new adversary for Scrooge: Tachyon Farflung, an ambitious alien villain who dreams of having his name added to the "Annals of Villainy" by stealing "the single hugest fortune in the universe!"  As written by Stefan and Ulm Printz-Pahlsson and Donald Markstein and drawn by Vicar, however, Farflung more closely resembles a constipated green monkey with an attitude.  The villain's grand scheme of shrinking the money bin to portable size isn't exactly new, and a subsequent fight between Donald, Scrooge, and Farflung on a "living planet" lacks any real punch, mostly because Vicar's artwork is far too prosaic (in this particular story, at least) for such exotic doings.  When Farflung bellows the inevitable "I'll be back!" on his way back to the Galactic Gulag, suffice it to say that I wasn't shaking in my size 11˝'s.  A regularly-scheduled off-planet offender wouldn't be a bad addition to Scrooge's rogue's gallery, but I have my doubts that Farflung is a true "keeper," of the Michael Rennie (Lost in Space) variety or otherwise.

The better of the book's two crack-fillers is the Beagle Boys shortie "Hive Been Better." By controlling the movements of a beehive's queen, the B-Boys hope to enlist some airborne assistance in a "stinging" operation on a local bank.  David Gerstein's "bee" puns flow as copiously as honey from the comb, and I'm not thrilled by Esteban's art in this particular story, but the execution is decent enough.  Fethry Duck has a harder time manufacturing something worthwhile out of Ferioli, Manrique, and Gerstein's "Dance of the Cuckoos," a trite tale in which the eternal faddist – an "efficiency expert" this time around -- runs afoul of a Teutonic-accented witch and her Frankenstein-monster-ish maidservant while toting a load of cuckoo clocks to a mountain lodge. 

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