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Book and Comic Reviews

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #369

I suppose you could call this the "Who Knew?" issue, as in: Who knew that Tony Strobl and Daniel Branca could actually WRITE as well as draw?  Before addressing those anomalies, however, I have to grant pride of (first) place to the splendid lead story, "Healers of the Andes".  This Dutch effort, drawn by Mau Heymans and scripted with panache, elan, and other French elucidations of excellence by David Gerstein, combines some of the best qualities of Carl Barks' "Lost in the Andes", "Ghost of the Grotto", "In Old California", and any "Pig Villain" story one could name.  Argus McSwine hatches a fiendish plot aimed at Duckburg's elite, suckering them into buying a series of "tycoon tonics", each of which carries with it an unpleasant side effect that forces the user to buy the next physic in the progression.  Scrooge ends up literally turned blue (no, he doesn't subsequently acquire the powers of a genie!), and he, Donald, and HD&L are forced to head for Peru, where, according to the Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook, the Hinca Indians once created "the first universal cure-all in history!".  McSwine and the Beagle Boys follow in an effort to stop them.  Posing as a local guide, McSwine employs his usual "direct approaches" in order to keep the Ducks from snagging the sensational serum, ultimately burying them under a ton of rubble.  The rockslide also frees the Hincas from their hidden valley, and their Elizabethan-inflected chief subsequently cures the battered Ducks of their aches and pains.  McSwine and the Beagles square off against the Ducks for the recipe, and suffice it to say that (1) the bad guys "take their medicine" in the end, and (2) Scrooge achieves only a partial victory after originally dreaming of making a fortune off the cure-all formula.  My only complaint is the Ducks' puzzling inability to recognize their "guide" as McSwine in the first place.  I mean, after all, the guy's mug is on the "Swineco Serums" bottle that the Ducks are toting around with them all the while!  Such zany supporting players as a "mountain expert" who attempts to tell the Ducks all about the local peaks -- starting with their formation in the Jurassic Era (!) -- and a Peruvian tough guy who doesn't take kindly to the Beagles' attempt to "fish" for his wallet add just the right amount of wackiness to a fine story that can stand up to the Barksian "competition" without seeming overmatched in the least.   
 
"The Saga of the Debit and Credit Ledger", produced by Strobl for the Disney overseas comics program in the mid-60s, may have an uninspired title, but it does definitely demonstrate that Strobl could, indeed, have written good Duck stories for Western Publishing had he been given the opportunity.  As Scrooge tots up credits and debits in an accounting journal, Donald attempts to prove his business mettle to his uncle by making a success of a salvage operation at "The Watery Wild Windy Caves of Winnetka."  What follows can best be described as good old-fashioned "bad Duck luck," as Don first discovers an underwater city of gold that's being eroded away by the currents, then inadvertently scuttles Scrooge's efforts to scoop up the rich residue.  The artwork looks pretty much the same as that of Strobl's contemporary efforts for Western/Gold Key, except for some rather peculiar-looking "eye effects" when Don is wearing his diving helmet.  The dialogue is sprightly and very much of a piece with the Carl Fallberg/Del Connell/Vic Lockman scripts of the time.
 
Daniel Branca (with story help from assistant Wanda Gattino and dialogue) subsequently displays some fairly decent writers' "chops" of his own in another ocean-going epic, "Sub-Sub-Zero."  With his cargo ships vanishing left and right, Scrooge drags Donald and the boys onto a "second-hand sub" to investigate (at least he took the Nephews, rather than Doofus, with him, unlike DuckTales' "Aqua Ducks").  After tumbling into the "sub-sub-zero" depths, the Ducks unaccountably discover a cavern with breathable air and subsequently encounter a band of slightly wacky natives who look to have been relocated from one of Carl Barks' jungle stories for the duration.  The natives, a strange combination of sophistication and primitivism, rely upon a "forcefield" (huh?) to keep the sea at bay and an elaborate canal-like system to cool the magma of a nearby abyss, but McDuck's ships, sucked into the cavern, have fouled up the process and put the population in peril.  Scrooge agrees to reroute his ships (but what about all the other shipping concerns and private boaters who didn't get the word?) and recovers the most precious of his cargoes -- a collection of stamps he'd been sending to San Juan to compete with Flintheart Glomgold's collection in the World Stamp Exposition.  The grateful natives end up lending an inadvertent hand to Scrooge's philatelic pursuits, leaving Flinty stomping in fury.  The wrap-up is a little loosely wound for my tastes -- how could the "lost" natives possibly use "sea mail" to begin with, anyway? -- but Branca's ever-lively artwork cancels out most of the plotting defects.
 
This is the issue of U$ that "officially" commemorates the 20th anniversary of DuckTales, and David G. marks the occasion with a nice essay on the topic.  Also included is the four-page DT tale "Back in Time for a Dime", which originally ran in the DuckTales children's activity magazine in 1990.  Insubstantial in itself, this story merits attention simply because Don Rosa provided the original script.  This doesn't mean, however, that the story's inclusion of Bubba Duck as a supporting player indicates that Rosa accepts Bubba as a canonical character!  As David explains, Rosa's editors were the ones who decided to shoehorn Bubba into the story.  (Phew, for a minute there, I thought that Rosa was suggesting that DuckTales took place in the 1950s, all those 1980s-era pop culture references notwithstanding.)  This will almost certainly be Bubba's one and only appearance in a "classic" American Disney comic book -- spot illo's in the Gladstone I DT title aside -- so those of you who cotton to the caveduck will want this issue in your collection.
 
The issue concludes with one of Barks' more memorable "filler" stories (non-Gyro Gearloose division) from the Dell U$ era, the 1955-56 tale in which Scrooge works like a demon to profit from a "square inch of land" deeded to him as a breakfast-cereal premium.  Scrooge ends up several million dollars in (or down) the hole, which never seemed quite fair to me, since he is simply trying to maximize his resources (e.g., he sends Donald and HD&L cross-country buying up cereal in order to amass enough land on which to drill an oil well) as opposed to cheating someone out of something.  Perhaps Scrooge was being chastised for claiming to divine his future fortunes from the bubbles in his coffee.  The "magic hourglass" was questionable enough, but the coffee-bubble scheme makes that earlier misstep of Barks' seem quasi-believable.

8:50 pm est

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More Expensive by the Dozen

My sister Sarah is expecting a fourth child!  Due date is late April or early May.  This will make an even dozen nieces/nephews for Nicky and myself.  At least there will be plenty of hand me downs available (from multiple sources, no less!) for the newcomer.
 
I've submitted a script (to be precise, a rewriting of a script's existing dialogue) to Gemstone for possible use in a future issue of their comics.  It's a short DuckTales story starring Scrooge and Launchpad McQuack.  Not sure when (or if) the thing will get into the publication pipeline, but there's always room in the prestige-format titles for filler material.  Meanwhile, I'm looking forward eagerly to Joe Torcivia's next Uncle $crooge script, which should be out in the next issue of U$.
 
Speaking of Mr. McDuck -- I haven't been able to post a review of Uncle $crooge #369 because my time has been taken up with grading, test prep, and tomorrow night's initiation ceremony for VJC's mathematics honor society.  You shouldn't have to wait much longer, however.

8:48 pm est

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Comics Review: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #684

Anyone who knows anything about William Van Horn is aware that the great Duck creator is something of a technophobe.  Even I, however, was aware that his antipathy towards gadgetry extended to the humble (at this moment in time, anyway) cell phone.  "The Phoney," this issue's last story, gives us WVH's "take" on the culture of cellular communication -- and a sour one it is, indeed.  Finally convinced by his Nephews to hustle a hand-held hollerer, Donald bungles through the inevitable snafus before finally coming a major cropper thanks to a car full of rare cacti (don't ask).  Were Don WVH's only target, this would be an unexceptional example of a "spiral of unforeseen disaster" story, but the balance of Bill's Luddite bile is directed at the assemblage of Duckburgian morons who are seen chattering about inane trivia as they trip over pedestrians, create havoc on the highway, and even literally crush people beneath their feet (a fate visited upon hapless Don himself at the hands -- er, whatever -- of a grossly obese gabber).  By story's end, Don has melted down and has been incarcerated, and HD&L are singing a different tune about cell-tech, with one opining that jail "sounds like the perfect place" for cell phones.  Don't hide your TRUE feelings from us, Bill...
 
Donald is featured in two other gag-stories in this ish, Carl Barks' "Thug Busters" (1945) and "For School the Bell Tolls," an Egmont story drawn by Vicar and scripted by David Gerstein.  David tells me that this latter effort was one of his earliest scripts, and that fact is apparent in both the enthusiastic tone and the multiple references to the likes of Tintin, the Marx Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, and, of course, Barks.  Peel away the clever dialogue, however, and this is your garden-variety "expert" story, albeit one in which Donald gets a helpful nudge on the way to "expert" status.  Rehired as a truant officer -- in a followup of a story that appeared 119 issues ago!!! -- Donald takes the advice of the principal and "thinks like a truant" to catch perpetrators.  He overdoes it (of course) when he mistakes a bunch of kids attending a blimp airshow for a crowd of truants.  The gaffe leads to the destruction of the school building and the expected manhunt for disgraced Don.  In "Thug Busters," it's HD&L who are tinkering with law enforcement, in this case as junior detectives.  For no apparent reason other than to irritate the boys, Don nearly drives them nuts with crazy clues, but HD&L see it through and end up collaring a wanted criminal.  This story has a wackier feel to it than most Barks tales of the era, with Donald even resorting to a stereotypical "nutty Napoleon" disguise at one point.
 
Bill Walsh and Floyd Gottfredson's "Mickey's Dangerous Double" concludes in this issue.  While I still regard the tale as being a notch below Walsh's more imaginative efforts, there are a few arresting features.  What did Mickey's evil double DO, exactly, to reduce the previously kidnapped Pluto to a shivering, emaciated pile of tattered fur?  Shock treatment?  Starvation?  This is nasty stuff even coming from a writer who killed several villains in earlier stories.  Miklos (yes, we do learn the evil one's name) employs a mechanical human -- uh, dogface -- costume to impersonate Chief O'Hara, no doubt making the Brain jealous.  Then there's the pursuit/battle sequence in a warehouse filled with oversized toys, a gambit fully worthy of Bill Finger.  To top it all off, Mickey and Miklos tussle on a rooftop, with the latter clutching a butcher knife with murderous intention!  Think you'll see Mickey involved in THAT activity in a future Disney production?
 
The book is filled out with "Br'er Rabbit's Secret" (shouldn't that last word be misspelled as "Secrut"?), a Paul Murry-drawn Cheerios Giveaway Comic from 1947, and Stefan Petrucha and Tino Santanach's Fethry Duck opus "Simian Similarity."  The swamp-folk opus is very much in the spirit of the animated material in Song of the South, with Br'er Rabbit getting himself ("hisself"?) in a pickle thanks to his big mouth, then wiggling his way out thanks to some quick thinking.  The use of a lion as a supporting character seems a little out of place, though.  The Fethry story finds the chic-crazed canard trying to regain what he thinks was a past life as an ape, leading to standard attempts at simian-style activity.  It's OK, but not particularly original or inspired.

6:09 pm est

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Frontloaded

I'm teaching a murderous 16 hours this semester, with all four classes -- all of which meet twice a week for two hours -- packed into the Monday-Thursday block.  As a result, when I finally do resume my weekly comics reviews, they'll almost certainly be posted between Thursday night and Sunday night.  I hope to finally get to the latest batch of Gemstones (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES 684, UNCLE $CROOGE 369) on Thursday or Friday.  Due to space limitations on our new web site, however, I may have to suppress my natural instinct to "ramble on" and keep things short and to the point.
 
I mentioned in the previous post that I'd started a new collection at this past weekend's Baltimore Con.  It's the Gold Key SCAMP title.  Don't laugh.  Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a sucker for "feisty young male characters" in the vein of Lady and the Tramp's sole non-distaff offspring.  I also love Al Hubbard's artwork in the early stories. (The later efforts by the likes of Jack Manning and Vic Lockman, not so much.)  I already have a lot of SCAMP material in back issues of COMICS AND STORIES, but this is the first time I'm going after the title itself.  I did fairly well this weekend, nabbing about 10-15 issues out of the total 45-issue run.  The rest I will probably try to nail on the Internet.  The Dell Comics SCAMP run is a little pricey and probably out of my reach, but I may try to find Dell issues with stories that were not reprinted later.  Once SCAMP's done, that'll probably be IT for me insofar as purchases of back issues are concerned.

9:09 pm est

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Just got back from Baltimore Comic-Con...

My first "official" blog post... just to (1) let you know that the site is operational and (2) whet your appetites for what's to come by noting that I just returned from the Baltimore Comic-Con.  No big, juicy stories to report, but I did make some purchases to start a new Disney collection (I'll let you know of WHAT later this week) and had a chance to visit with Joe Torcivia and David Gerstein.  More anon, once Nicky and I can verify that this ****ing Web site is actually doing what we want it to do.

4:07 pm est

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