Book and Comic
Donald Duck and Fiends #332
(October 2005). Yup, that reads "Fiends", rather than the
usual "Friends". It's the Halloween issue, you see. This ish is taken
up in its entirety by "Trick or Treat," a 1952 tale that Carl Barks
adapted from a Disney theatrical cartoon of the same name (at the
request of his editors). The story's origins are reflected in the
occasional snatches of song (mostly taken straight from the cartoon),
the characters' staccato dialogue, the reliance (over-reliance,
actually) on slapstick gags, and the casting of Donald as an out-and-out
villain who seeks to deny his Nephews their "rightful" haul of Halloween
treats. (In contrast to the cartoon, Barks lets Don repent on the last
page.) The story's one lasting legacy is the character of Witch Hazel,
a feisty human witch who speaks (at least in some panels) in
semi-Elizabethan tones and helps the Nephews fight their selfish "Unca."
Hazel has made a number of other appearances in the intervening years,
mostly in European comics. Some extra cachet is provided by the
presence of an improvised sequence of Barks' own invention that the
editors struck out, but which was restored in the late 1980s and has
been present in all subsequent reprints of this story.
Mickey Mouse and Fiends #281
(October 2005). "Fiendishly mediocre", this ish is -- right down to
the bland cover, drawn in faux-Paul Murry style by one of the
Murry imitators who dominated Egmont's Mickey output until Byron
Erickson's "American Invasion" cleared out the cobwebs. The best story
in the mix -- and that's not really saying much -- is the last one, "Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Mouse" by Stefan Petrucha and Rodriques. A thrown-away
potion to "enhance and strengthen the inner instincts"
falls into Mickey's mouth (read that again – slowly, this time)
and amplifies Mickey's instinctive zeal for risk-taking adventure
tenfold. Before Mickey realizes it – literally, since he doesn't
understand what he's doing -- he's signed up as an Evel Knievel-style
stuntman who's to be shot out of a cannon across "the mile-wide Mouseton
Ravine." Guess when the potion finally wears off… At east Petrucha's
tale is livelier than the book-opening "Poltergeist Panic" by Paul Halas,
Donald Markstein, and Jorge David, in which a con man clad in a hideous
suit jacket that would've been eschewed by a fashion plate of the 70s
extorts money from Mickey and others by using helpers in invisible
"light-proof suits" to cause wreckage and subsequently offering
"poltergeist protection." The interior Donald tale, "The Shy
Ghost" by Markstein and Vicar, is a little better, thanks to a cute
twist on the standard "haunted ghost" routine. Donald tries to wring
some money from Scrooge's recent purchase of a white-elephant "manor" by
exploiting the house's resident ghost. Trouble is, the spook is
mild-mannered and doesn't want to be bothered. Think "Casper the
Disraeli by Stanley Weintraub.
Weintraub's biography of the 19th-century British Prime
Minister is, curiously enough, at its least effective when it's
describing Disraeli's accomplishments in his second turn as P.M.
(1874-1880). We get lots of information about Disraeli's foreign policy
achievements, culminating in the Congress of Berlin in 1878, but
precious little concerning how, exactly, he turned the Tories
from a party of the landed gentry into a successful modern political
party. Be prepared to thrash through a lot of "Lords and Ladies" to get
through this thick tome. I learned a lot about Disraeli that I didn't
know before, but I think I will have to consult one of the older
biographies, such as Robert Blake's (which Richard Nixon greatly
admired, BTW), in order to acquire a better-rounded picture of the man.
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God Bless America
World of the Dragonlords by
Byron Erickson and Giorgio Cavazzano (Gemstone). Having established
its tiny but tightly-clutched niche in the world of American comics,
Gemstone Publishing certainly can't be accused of playing it safe. The
collected chapters of Don Rosa's "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck"
may not have counted as much of a gamble, given Rosa's following, but
Mickey Mouse Meets Blotman certainly did. Now, Gemstone is asking
readers to shell out $12.99 for a 12-part, 164-page epic adventure
(originally produced to pep up the lagging German comics market, shelved
for a couple of years by jittery editors because of its sheer
unwieldiness, then finally printed in Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia)
unlike any Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews have yet experienced.
Remarkably, the investment turns out to be a bargain. World of the
Dragonlords is a marvelous achievement -- and a groundbreaking one
as well, seeing as how the lengthy narrative is much more of a
consciously-designed whole than such episodic storylines as "Life of
Scrooge" and the ongoing "Mythos Island".
In Dragonlords, writer Erickson
and artist Cavazzano boldly thrust the Ducks into a Lord of the Rings-style
adventure. The fearless webfoots are magically transported to an
alternate dimension packed with noble humans, evil Morg (this tale's
stand-ins for Tolkien's Orcs), and dragons. There, they find themselves
in the midst of a conflict between a band of human rebels and the
all-conquering, human-slave-driving Morg. With an eye to his main
audience in Europe, Erickson consciously makes the Nephews the major
"action stars" of the story, though Scrooge and Donald do play
significant roles and perform important actions before story's end. As
a result, the tale strikes me as something akin to an extended
DuckTales adventure. There's more than a touch of Asterix
and The Smurfs on view as well, especially in the use of a
humorous supporting human character (the slightly fallible magician
Hintermann) and the prominent role played by a spunky human youngster
(the resistance supporter and practical-joke-player Jute, the story's
Johan/Peewit character). Erickson even manages to slip in a sentimental
but heartfelt moral about the all-importance of family. The bonding
between HD&L and the trio of baby dragons, whom the boys free from a
potential lifetime of service to the Dragonlords of the Morg, gets a
little gooey at times, but it never quite curdles into ickiness. It
helps that the Nephews' trademark feistiness and intelligence, on
display here throughout, actively militates against falling into the
trap of a Care Bears-style approach. You can only "cutesy-fy"
Junior Woodchuck ten-star generals up so much.
The biggest surprise in this story,
insofar as it diverged from my expectations, was the artwork of
Cavazzano. The Italian artist is well known for his wild, exaggerated
style, especially in such digest-sized comics as Topolino, where
simplified, broad-stroke artwork is often needed to make the drawings
easier for the reader to decipher. How could he possibly pull off an
ambitious sword-and-sorcery epic without rendering it silly-looking and
having it come off as a parody? Amazingly, he gets the job done, and in
spades. Cavazzano displays a remarkable ability to render a full range
of emotions in his characters, especially the Nephews, without
sacrificing the underlying liveliness of his artwork. This is most
visible in the (virtually) silent Chapter 11, the obligatory "big battle
scene," wherein the humans and the Morg finally square off. At the same
time, there's plenty of humor on display, especially in the character of
the bullying/cowardly Morg stable-master who takes charge of the
enslaved HD&L and the funny subplot involving a Morg warrior who is left
behind in Duckburg and promptly scores a movie role thanks to his
"amazingly realistic acting and makeup." Cavazzano's ability to handle
both sorts of narratives – the adventurous and the amusing – in
the same story has definitely forced me to reconsider his overall merits
as an artist.
Negative points? They're hard to find.
The human rebels' leader, Brendon, is rather a cipher, more of a
personification of nobility of heart and courage under (dragon) fire
than an interesting character in his own right. Hintermann, Jute, and
even Brendon's daughter Silia display much more personality than Brendon.
Also (BIG SPOILER WARNING!!!)… perhaps this has something
to do with the fact that I read this story during the week that New
Orleans was devastated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I
think Erickson chickened out a bit when he decided to let Sniffles
live. The "fake death" routine has long since become a Disney
feature-film cliché, and I was somewhat disappointed to see it raise its
snout here. Had Sniffles actually been a casualty of the battle, the
theme that families must stick together and support one another
through good times and bad would have been amplified tenfold.
Tolkien, after all, didn't hesitate to kill off such heroic characters
as Thorin Oakenshield, Fili and Kili, and even (for a while) Gandalf.
(The Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit featured an even higher
body count.) Of course, I can intellectually understand Erickson's
decision. It would have taken a ton and a half of guts for Erickson to
try and get an actual, on-"screen" character death past the vigilant
editorial guardians, and it would have presented Cavazzano with an
immense artistic challenge in the final chapter, but I can't help but
feel that it should have at least been tried. This is just a personal
observation, as opposed to a criticism.
Overall, Dragonlords is one of
Gemstone's most praiseworthy achievements. Unlike the second
incarnation of Gladstone, Gemstone seems willing to essay unusual
projects with no ulterior motive apart from entertaining its readers.
Duck fans will surely snap this volume up; the question remains as to
whether fantasy fans in general will do so, but hopefully they will
sample the narrative and lay aside any preconceived notions.
Back to the Top
Adventures #5 (September 2005). A mediocre ish,
at best. The best story is the lead, "Rodeo Ruckus" by the McGreals and
Joaquin. On a visit to the ranch of Minnie's Uncle Mortimer (an old
Gottfredson character whose Western accent seems to have thickened, if
not congealed, since the last time I saw him), Mickey and Minnie get
caught in the crossfire of a feud between Mortimer and his neighbor
Culvert Sneed. At the same time, they have to bring together Mortimer's
head cowpoke Slim and Sneed's daughter, who are madly in love. Romeo
and Juliet on the range? I wish: Mortimer's foolish bet with Sneed
over who has the best cowboys reminds me more of "Ducks of the West,"
one of the lesser episodes of DuckTales, wherein Scrooge bet his
entire fortune (!) on the results of a similar contest. The McGreals
happily resist the temptation to let Mickey play God by depicting the
city-slicker Mouse as somewhat inept at basic ridin', ropin', and
rasslin', allowing Mickey a chance to learn new skills and prove his
worth at the end. The middle tale, "Brain Drain" by Eddie O'Connor and
Miguel, is an amusingly weird Donald epic with a number of good
points and just as many bad ones. Trying to impress Daisy with his
intellect, Donald finagles his way into a job with Daisy's new employer,
The IQ Corporation, Duckburg's very own "think tank" crammed with
chrome-domed ponderers. Donald literally starts at the bottom (in the
boiler room) and quickly finds himself caught up in a power struggle
between several resident geniuses. Then things get really
strange when Don accidentally wins a special IQ contest and gets to
advise the President (a Bill Clinton-modeled dogface – with an
ever-present golf club!) on an imminent alien encounter. O'Connor seems
to have had a lot of ideas at once and tried to cram them all into the
same story, to the extent that he leaves a lot of simple questions
unanswered. For instance, a lot of time is spent in explaining how
Donald got his job, but how did Daisy get hers?
Did the IQ Corp. need an expert on "tatting" or organizing annoying
ladies' charity drives? At least "Brain Drain" is recognizably a
Donald story in a way that "The Forest That Walks!", the last story
in the book, is not one of Mickey's. This tale from the Italian
pocketbook Topolino takes place on an "alternate world… where
Mickey and Goofy lead very different lives." Uh, but they're still
Mickey and Goofy, is that what you're saying? This is not a
direct-parody story, like the parodies of Mad Max and The
Matrix in the early issues of Donald Duck Adventures; it
simply plops Mickey and Goofy (the latter speaking in oddly precise
English) into a world that is not their own and tells a tale that could
have just as easily been told with generic "heroic adventurer"
characters. I'm told that the Italian creators use ideas like this
quite a lot. To me, it's a cheat. A Mickey story, whether a
parody or a regular story, should feature Mickey acting as Mickey,
not a placeholder wearing what amounts to a Mickey "suit."
Race of the
Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race
by Judy Fensler (Crown Books). Perhaps you've seen the 60s movie
The Great Race, which was based on this real-life historical event.
The "true story" is much more interesting than Blake Edwards'
slapstick-filled concoction. Fensler, who has written extensively about
the automobile industry and also written a history of ether (I hear that
one's a gas), does a fine job in retelling compelling story of the six
international racers that traversed the United States, Siberia, and
Europe for six months in 1908. The narrative draws extensively from
documents of the day and the participants' own memoirs and
recollections. My major complaint is that the book ends much too
abruptly. After spending extended periods of time on the harrowing trek
through America (which led to calls for an improved road system in the
country) and the ordeal of Siberia, Fensler whizzes through the third
stage of the race in a handful of pages. Granted, the European leg took
place on good roads and thus did not lend itself to tales of
near-disaster, but I would like to have heard more about the reactions
of the cities along the way.
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