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Book and Comic Reviews

(9/25/05)

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 Apathetic Ghost." 

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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(9/11/05)

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. 

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(9/5/05)

Mickey Mouse 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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