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Book and Comic Reviews

(11/20/06)

Correction:  In my review of "The Keeper of Babylon Gardens" last week, I attributed the story's crazy sound effects to artist Romano Scarpa.  I have it on good authority (to wit: David Gerstein) that writer Lars Jensen was actually responsible for the oddball onomatopoeia.  Since Scarpa was known to use strange sound effects in stories he wrote as well as drew, it's easy to understand why I jumped to that particular conclusion.

Donald Duck and Friends #346 (December 2006).  The last issue of this title (for, dare we hope, "the time being"?) fetes the increasingly attenuated holiday season by serving up a trio of fine Duck holiday stories.  "New Toys,"  Carl Barks' final contribution to the late-40s Firestone Giveaway giveaway comic, is one of the two best stories from that particular series, ranking right alongside the 1945 "sleigh ride" tale.  After Donald rejects the Nephews' request for replacement playthings on the grounds that their present toys are still "in good shape," the boys crank up a scheme to earn money to buy their own baubles, touching off a series of interconnected events that lead to a satisfying ending for all concerned.  The story features the thickly-laid-on sentiment characteristic of most of Barks' Firestone tales – in this instance, a trio of doe-eyed poor kids who longingly eye HD&L's toys – and one can easily imagine Barks smirking a bit to himself as he worked on it, but it's still a reasonably enjoyable cup of holiday cheer.

Stefan Petrucha and Vicar's "Naughty or Nice" takes its impetus from an entirely believable holiday-eve meltdown of Duck-temper that causes a hypnotist to cast a spell on Donald.  Subsequently saddled with the "curse" of perpetual good manners – any violation of which will supposedly cause him to forfeit any right to Christmas presents – Donald is soon baffling Scrooge and sickening his Nephews with annoyingly altruistic behavior.  Don finally breaks free of his "shackles" (by threatening to do good deeds for the hypnotist until the latter cracks up!), but his many considerate acts have convinced family and friends to throw a party for him.  Strangely, the "cured" Donald closes the epic by vowing to be "extra-mean to everyone" next year.  Sure, Don is right to be relieved that he's once again free to follow his natural instincts – however irritating they may be to others – but is it really in character for him to plan in advance to treat everyone like dirt?  Don't his worst moments occur on the spur of the moment, when his famed temper flares?  The basic plot idea remains sound, but Don's final line still strikes a false note in my view. 

Lars Jensen and Cesar Ferioli's "Beating the Wrap" is the best story in the issue, a classic Donald-vs.-HD&L tussle that's touched off when the boys first overhear Donald gleefully planning to spend his Christmas bonus on himself and then discover that their uncle intends to give them decidedly mundane (read: practical) gifts.  The Nephews use a fake "gift-wrap detector" to bilk Don out of some money, but the latter quickly gets wise and has Gyro Gearloose construct a real "tinsel-teaser-outer," leading to an increasingly high-stakes wrap-sniffing battle.  The wild plot seems more apropos to a William Van Horn story, but Jensen keeps the sight gags coming and slips in a clever "in-joke" reference to Barks' famous "New Year's Resolution" contests (wherein the loser inevitably had to wash the dishes for a specified period of time).  Ferioli, best known as a Mickey artist, proved during "The Mythos Island Saga" that he could handle the Ducks every bit as well as Mickey and company, and he does well by the quackers once again, especially the Nephews.

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #295 (December 2006).  Huh?  If the last issue of DD&F was permitted to feature three Donald stories, then why didn't Mickey rate the same sort of consideration in MM&F's last bow?  Surely, a better story than "Mickey's Christmas Mix-Up" (from the 1945 Firestone Giveaway) could have been found to lead off the issue – say, Stefan Petrucha and Noel Van Horn's "The Quest for Quasar," which brings up the rear.  "Mix-Up" tries hard to milk humor and excitement out of Minnie's unwitting purchase of a valuable antique chair, but the story doesn't have any "vital" Christmas connection to speak of, and I'm not overly enamored of Don Gunn's artwork, either.  A point or two for the clever ending gag, which is actually telegraphed in a sneaky way earlier in the tale, but that's not enough to make a whole story.  "Quasar" is a whole lot better, despite the fact that it's based on the by-now-clichιd notion of a "hot" holiday toy that simply everyone must have.  Striving to get a "Quasar" toy (sort of a slightly more violent version of Buzz Lightyear) for a Christmas present for his nephews, Mickey runs afoul of a shady toy-store owner who is (of course) trying to corner the market on the desired object.  Cognizant of some of the toy's powers, Mickey takes advantage of an accumulated army of the critters to help him thwart the evil extortionist – but he still needs assistance from a children's home full of "Quasar"-savvy kids to finish the job.  Adding to the story's humor quotient, the ever-zealous Mickey pretends to be an "undercover agent" to intimidate the villain, thereby stepping on the toes of a real undercover cop who's tracking the missing toys. 

The Donald "sandwich" story, Pat and Carol McGreal and Vicar's "The Christmas Eve Caper," is actually the longest story in the book.  With HD&L, thanks to their "advanced [sic] age," having suddenly cast aside their "infantile" belief in Santa Claus, a desperate Donald is forced to alter his usual Christmas Eve Santa-impersonation routine and hire a "ringer" to take his place.  Unbeknownst to Don, he picks the at-large "Christmas Eve Burglar" to do the dirty work – and then is mistaken for the "Burglar" in the process as he's swiping a Santa disguise.  You just know the real Santa is going to show up before all is said and done, just as he did in Barks' not entirely dissimilar story "Letter to Santa."  (In that case, Donald was trying to cover for a Santa that everyone assumed really did exist, having forgotten to mail the Nephews' letter to the "Big Man".)  Aside from the somewhat predictable nature of the ending, I confess to being somewhat turned-off by the violence of HD&L's sudden change of heart about Santa.  The Junior Woodchucks I know and love would have been more likely to ask for proof of Santa's existence than to throw the entire notion of Santa overboard in a fit of newly-won sophistication.  After all, they've met up with a lot of strange creatures during their adventures with Donald and Scrooge…

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(11/12/06)

Uncle $crooge #359 (November 2006).  Savagely – and rather inexplicably -- censored at the time of its first American printing in WDC&S #612-613 (1997), Don Rosa's "pocket epic" (and I mean that literally) "The Incredible Shrinking Tightwad" finally gets first-class Stateside treatment in this issue.  To add insult to Disney's injury – namely, the deletion of certain panels regarded as a little too gross and/or "scary" for mass consumption – "Gladstone II" originally ran "Tightwad" as a two-part, back-of-the-book feature.  This time around, the story gets the lead position, and Rosa adds a few editorial comments about the newly restored material. 

"Tightwad" is not one of Rosa's truly great stand-alone stories, since it's basically a riff on a well-worn idea that Carl Barks had tackled first (and not even a "formal" sequel, to boot), but it's a fun read nonetheless.  After being hit by a blast of the "Atom Subtractor" ray from the Barks story "Billions in the Hole," a rapidly shrinking Scrooge and Donald literally push their luck to "the vanishing point" as they struggle to survive the perils of the micro-world.  Among the dangers they dodge are a flea in a Beagle Boy's hair, a decomposing, lint-covered prune, and a "sonic boom" of snot sent forth by a Beagle's sneeze.  All of these antics were either cut out completely or "finessed" in the original Gladstone II appearance, as were gags in which (1) Scrooge nearly knocks his brains out diving onto a huge coin and (2) the rapidly enlarging Money Bin (which the Beagles had miniaturized after they'd found the Ducks AWOL) explodes out of a Beagle's pants pocket and causes his drawers to descend, revealing a pair of adorable Mickey Mouse-themed boxers.  Quibble if you will about Rosa's level of taste, but there was nothing truly offensive about any of this censored material.  (Indeed, if I get nightmares from any of this stuff, it'll be more likely to be the grotesque microbes that Donald and Scrooge encounter just before being enlarged – which were preserved in the censored version of the story.)  The original version sustained collateral damage in that it was never satisfactorily explained how Scrooge and Donald ultimately discovered that they had become "Beagle bacilli." Rosa managed to patch things up so that the story would hold together, but it's hard to deny that the fully restored version of the tale flows more smoothly. 

After Daisy dreams of barely surviving ingestion of Gyro's diet pills in the Dutch story "Out of Shape," we get to a story that really does have some questionable subject matter – though not necessarily what one might expect.  Pat and Carol McGreal and Jose Massaroli's "Old Folks at Home" finds Scrooge being clapped into a retirement home after the old miser forgets that his money's been sent out for a cleaning and dives head-first into an empty Money Bin, sustaining severe injuries as a result.  At the "downright depressing" seniors' stable, Scrooge despairs at first, but his spirit revives after he decides to show the artsy-craftsy residents how to profit from their creations.  With Scrooge having retained his Old #1 Dime, Magica De Spell poses as a retiree to swipe the latter, but she ends up a basket case herself – and a home resident, to boot.  Leaving aside the fact that characters are getting sent to the retirement home when they should be heading for a hospital, the tale is shot through with the sort of "raw cynicism" that Barks might have appreciated.  The sad truth that families use retirement homes as "dumping grounds" for unwanted relatives is actually played for laughs.  A legitimate point, to be sure, but it hardly makes for a warm and fuzzy "Scrooge triumphs over adversity" epic.  

Lars Jensen and Romano Scarpa's "The Keeper of Babylon Gardens" is, perhaps thankfully, a much more light-hearted story than either "Tightwad" or "Old Folks".  Challenged by Donald and HD&L to come up with a new retailing idea, Scrooge comes up with a dilly: he creates a "themed" mall inspired by the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Unfortunately, when Donald gets promoted to the job of head gardener in charge of the mall's variegated plant life, he's victimized by sabotage (courtesy of the fired ex-gardener) and then by yet another Gyro Gearloose invention run amuck (a too-fast-acting fertilizer, this time).   Extra points go to Scarpa for the truly bizarre sound effects he uses as the plants grow.  Even Bill Van Horn would have reason to be jealous of such beauties as "Kwilch," "Gulluch," and "Bwulop"!  

Returning us to the key of "C" – as in citrus – the 1956 Barks story "The Colossalest Surprise Quiz Show" takes dead aim at the contemporary TV quiz-show craze (the one that ended in scandal and disgrace, you may recall).  Scrooge succeeds in getting onto a program where the questions are so easy that they literally "answer themselves," only to discover that he'll owe an extra billion dollars in taxes if – actually, when -- he wins.  Barks was actually a little ahead of his time in this case, as such "colossal" stumpers as "What is the shape of a round coin?" would have seemed more apropos for modern shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? than the somewhat classier (at least in terms of subject matter) Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question.  Given the ultimate fate of the first big quiz-show era, he deserves extra credit for sniffing something tainted in the air, regardless.

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #674 (November 2006).  Pat and Carol McGreal's "The Orb Saga," which began last issue, still has a "point" as clear as mud.  What the orbs are intended to be or do, and why they are so "attracted" to Donald and Mickey, is still a complete conundrum.  The two chapters appearing here, "Ornery Orb" and "Sister Sleuths," don't even have the advantage of qualifying as full-throated adventures. "Ornery Orb", drawn by Vicar, is more of a series of slapstick pratfalls than anything else and serves merely as a mechanism whereby Donald transfers (theoretical) control of his orb to Daisy.  "Sister Sleuths", drawn by Tino Santanach, is a little more interesting, giving Minnie and Daisy a chance to team up (and don tough-guy disguises, to boot) and foil the Beagle Boys after the latter knock over a jewelry store and steal the girls' orbs in the process.  M&D do show a fair amount of orbs by recovering the balls – er, that didn't come out quite right – and the chapter ends with the baubles once again in their possession.  The clock is ticking, however – only six chapters left in which to pan some sense out of this muddy stream of disjointed narrative.  

"The Mystery of Freefer Hall" is probably the issue's centerpiece, serving as it does as a sort of "sequel" to the classic Floyd Gottfredson continuity "The Seven Ghosts."  Writer Don Markstein gets the credit, but it was then-Egmont editor David Gerstein who convinced Markstein to alter his original tale of a "staged mystery" being mistaken for a real one to a somewhat more complicated – and scarier – plot involving arson at Bassett Hall, which Colonel Bassett is about to lose to a Hollywood interloper who plans to turn it into "a genteel, dignified Vegas-style hotel".  Cesar Ferioli adds to the period feel by drawing Bassett, Goofy, Chief O'Hara, and even a smaller-than-normal Donald in something approximating the style of late-1930s Gottfredson.  (In at least one instance, Ferioli makes the homage explicit by lifting one of Donald's poses directly from a Gottfredson panel.)  It's a clever idea well-executed, and Donald's upbraiding Mickey for being "a disaster magnet" and constantly dragging him into mysteries is very much of a piece with the character dynamic seen in the McGreals' "Mythos Island" serial and a number of other modern Egmont team-up tales.  

The lead-off Donald story, Daan Jippes and Byron Erickson's "Froggy Fortune", is actually a relatively minor player in this issue, resembling as it does a takeoff on a similar Barks story about Donald and HD&L entering a frog in a jumping contest.  This time, the stakes are a little higher (to wit: Don and the boys are about to be thrown out of their house and divested of their belongings) and the frog a little less cooperative (again to wit:  it leads the Ducks a merry chase before the Nephews exploit its weakness for dark, cramped quarters).  Like Farragut the falcon in an early Barks story, "Phibian" ends the story as a source of transportation for the paid-up, but still flat-broke, Ducks.  A not-bad Li'l Bad Wolf reprint by Gil Turner and a one-page Panchito gag wrap the issue.

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Little Lulu Volume 12:  Leave it to Lulu (Dark Horse).  There's little more I can add to my previous comments about this superb ongoing series, apart from: (1)  Buy it.  (2)  Read it.  (3)  Give it to a kid who evinces even a smattering of interest in comics.  (4)  Read it to your kids.  (5)  Get a few volumes for Christmas gifts.  (6)  What are you waiting for, already??

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Movie Reviews

(11/20/06)

The Flintstones:  The Complete Sixth Season (Hanna-Barbera/Warner Bros. Home Video).  The six-volume series winds to a rather weary close, with nary an episode commentary or meaningful "special feature" in sight.  It's nice to hear from Earl Kress (in a very short "featurette") that The Great Gazoo was originally called "The Wizard of Ogg," but I'd much rather he imparted that particular information in a full-fledged commentary on one or more of the Gazoo episodes.  The Bewitched, Tony Curtis, and Shindig parodies probably also rated some sort of special consideration, along the lines of the "Ann-Margrock" and Hoagy Carmichael episodes of seasons past, but they don't get it.  On the positive side, no cuts are apparent, and the best of the season's eps are still first-rate, even though virtually all Flintstones fans concede that the series was winding down by this time.  Such episodes as "How to Pick a Fight with Your Wife Without Really Trying," "Jealousy," "Disorder in the Court," and "The Return of Rocky's Raiders" somewhat belie the common belief that the series had abandoned any pretense of being for adults as well as children in its later stages.  The Gazoo eps, of course, continue to be a source of lively debate amongst fans: was the inclusion of The Great One as a regular cast member the final "kiss of death" for the series?  Personally, I'd have preferred that Gazoo's appearance had been a one-shot deal (just as I thought that DuckTales should have sent Bubba Duck back to the Stone Age after his one featured appearance), but there's no denying the fact that the character is clever and amusing.

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