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Book and Comic Reviews

(3/26/06)

Mickey Mouse and Friends #287 (April 2006).  The original Mickey comic-book stories that appeared in the Four Color series during the 1940s don't measure up to the best of Carl Barks or Floyd Gottfredson, but they possess a naοve charm nonetheless.  "The World Under the Sea," a 1948 story drawn by Bill Wright and reprinted in this issue, is in every respect typical of the breed.  If logic isn't totally thrown to the winds, it's certainly pitched into a light breeze as Goofy builds an "underwater tank" that actually works, enabling Mickey and the Goof to take a trip in search of Atlantis.  The duo instead find a cave containing what amounts to a pocket-sized version of the surface world, including a kingdom of dogfaces, a woods, a desert, and a villainous usurper who seeks to use technology to extort money (in dollars, yet) from the kingdom's rotund monarch.  An obvious question: Why bother putting all of this under the sea, anyway?  Surely Mickey has visited enough Ruritanian lands above sea level (heck, he even ran one in Gottfredson's "Monarch of Medioka" story) that placing this new one on legitimate dry land wouldn't have made that much of a difference?  As absurd as it is, the story is entertaining (with Wright's delightful art an obvious highlight) and does avoid casting Goofy as a dope for once, giving him a few moments of legitimate ingenuity.  A Donald three-pager, "That Darn Hat," and a decent Rodriques-Kinney Mickey tale, "For the Birds," round out the issue.

Donald Duck and Friends #338 (April 2006).  Carl Barks' "ten-pager" "The Easter Election" leads off this enjoyable book.  Reprinted in celebration of its… uh, 53rd anniversary (I have no idea what to give as a present), the classic Donald-vs.-Gladstone matchup delivers a funny twist ending that leaves the lucky gander grateful that he didn't best Donald for the role of Grand Marshal of Duckburg's Easter Parade.  Cesar Ferioli, C.R. Teixido, and Sarah Kinney then score a ten-strike (or, should I say, reach the ninth level of consciousness) with the Mickey story "Guru Goofy."  After Mickey and Goofy meet a cantankerous sage atop a mountain and "enjoy" a soupcon of quickie enlightenment, Goofy decides to become a guru full-time.  Faced with the functional equivalent of a permanent loss of his old friend, Mickey must convince Goofy that "Goofism" is a dead end.  How he does so may surprise those readers who would expect Goofy to immediately succumb to the obvious temptation of returning to his regular routine of cheeseburgers and Flip the Fish comic books.  This is one of Kinney's better Goofy-centered stories, and that's no small complement considering her track record.  Ferioli and Teixido do a super job on facial expressions, especially those flashed by the nasty Nirvana-noodler who gets Goofy on the guru kick to begin with.  Bringing up the rear is Gorm Transgaard, David Gerstein, and Vicar's Donald story "Master of Mice," the latest version of the well-worn but always welcome "mastery" theme.  After Donald "finds and masters his true purpose in life" (that makes about 78 times he's done so, by my count) and goes into business as a super-successful mouse-catcher, he's hired to protect the wares at Duckburg's International Cheese Festival.  He should have offed his muscine captives (whom he's unaccountably kept as "trophies" -- even bringing their cage with him on his jobs in order to facilitate quick "storage") when he had the chance.  I have read better "mastery" tales in my time, but Gerstein does his usual great job dialoguing the story, even using the groan-inducing pun "weapon of mouse destruction" before all's said and done.  (And here I thought I'd cornered the market on rancid puns.)

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(3/19/06)

Little Lulu Volume 8: Late for School (Dark Horse Publishing).  Forever to be immortalized, in my mind at least, as The "Flying Turkey" Issue.  The undeniable highlight of yet another fun, fine collection of John Stanley's Little Lulu stories is a Thanksgiving epic in which Lulu wins a turkey in a raffle that she didn't even enter in the first place.  The "free bird" proves quite a handful for Lulu and her little friend Annie to handle, up to and including carrying Lulu in its talons as it soars through the air.  Yes, you read that right.  This story illustrates one of the fundamental differences between John Stanley and Carl Barks.  Stanley, based in New York, may have set his Lulu stories in a no-name small town, but he was a city guy at heart.  I betcha (to use a Lulu-ism) the only turkeys he had seen when he wrote this story were the ones in the butcher's window.  Carl Barks, born and raised on a farm, would never have let such a gaffe get its head in the door.  It's an honest mistake, but all the funnier for that reason.  One other note: Some of the later stories in this volume do not appear to have been inked by Stanley's regular inker, Irving Tripp.  The style is livelier and sketchier than Tripp's.  I am not an expert on Lulu, but I suspect that Stanley may have taken on the job himself, since the Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics quoted Stanley as saying that he considered Tripp's work to be too "static."

Blue Blood: Duke-Carolina, Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops by Art Chansky (St. Martin's Press).  This completes Chansky's trilogy-of-sorts on North Carolina basketball; he had previously written The Dean's List and Dean's Domain, both about former UNC Coach Dean Smith.  In the time-honored tradition of "never throwing anything anyway," Chansky includes many of the same anecdotes that graced his earlier books, but, to be fair, he goes into more detail in most cases.  He also surveys a wider field than previously, tracing the history of the Duke-UNC rivalry from the earliest times to the present (2004-05 season).  There are some factual errors that might have been eliminated with greater editorial diligence, such as the misidentification of Jim Nantz as the lead announcer on the famous Duke-Kentucky East Regional final of 1992.  (It was actually Verne Lundquist, and no, it's not that hard to check, since clips from that game appear constantly during CBS' broadcasts of Tournament action.)  The book is very thorough and, though it displays a slight bias towards UNC, does do a reasonably even-handed job of detailing the highs and lows of the love-hate relationships between the geographical and athletic rivals.  It's definitely a good choice for the college basketball fan's permanent library.

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(3/6/06)

Uncle $crooge #351 (March 2006). It's hard to tell what will get the moniker "Classic" hung on a work of art. Nowadays, any ordinary household implement liberally garnished with human body wastes would seem to qualify. The Italian Disney comics fans have somewhat better taste than that, and they've long regarded Romano Scarpa's 1950s story "Anti-Dollarosis," published in America for the first time in this issue, with considerable reverence as one of Scarpa's greatest early stories, so who am I to sour the ricotta and disagree? Actually, it wasn't hard to find flaws in this tale of Scrooge seeking a remedy for the titular malady from a scientist who lives on what appears to be an extinct volcanic island. Scarpa wanders away from the relatively simple plot (which bears some resemblance to the plot of the DuckTales episode "The Money Vanishes," right down to the guest appearance by the Beagle Boys) for several annoyingly lengthy stretches and gives the Ducks themselves surprisingly little to do. Evidently, Gladstone I's decision to introduce Scarpa to American readers in the late 80s with several stories of a slightly later vintage was a wise one.

The rest of the ish is OK, on balance. John Lustig and Daniel Branca team up for "The Grouch Kings of Duckburg," in which snarling Scrooge butts head with an equally cantankerous grouch, Prunepuss J. Crabapple – Duckburg's "undisputed King of the Grumps!" -- who appears to have nipped in from a neighborhood William Van Horn story. Branca draws Prunepuss with an oversized schnozzle, in the manner of a W.C. Fields type, and does well by the character, but I'd love to have seen how Van Horn would've portrayed him. The plot – well, really, doesn't exist per se – but it's good to see Lustig in Gemstone harness again. "Race of the Snails" features the first American appearance of Dutch artist Ben Verhagen, a Gladstone I staple, in many a year. Scrooge finds himself in one of the oddest competitions of his life when he races a stereotypical Texas oilman for the rights to an inheritance – with the prize going to the competitor who crosses the finish line last . Amazingly enough, Scrooge loses, but after seeing how shabbily he treats Donald and the Nephews along the way, you won't mind the outcome too much. In Jens Hansegard, David Gerstein, and Vicar's "White Gold," Scrooge again plays the role of "heavy" as he enlists Donald and Gyro in his efforts to corner the snow-removal market in Duckburg – and thereby gain a cheap source of water to sell to the Maharajah of Howduyustan's parched citizenry. Scrooge again ends up outsmarting himself, but this time, he makes the best of the bad situation. Finally, Pat and Shelly Block also check in with the three-page "Pearls of Wisdom," which is, quite frankly, embarrassingly lame: Scrooge thinks an entire bin of pearls has been stolen and calls in the cavalry before realizing that the bin is so big that it was "hiding in plain sight" all along. Right…

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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #666 (March 2006). Gemstone celebrates WDC&S' reaching of a rather ominous milestone with an audacious gesture: a reprinting of "Mickey's Inferno," a lengthy Italian story from the late 1940s that has long enjoyed a special sort of cachet among internationally-minded Disney fans. Writer Guido Martina and artist Angelo Bioletto's bold decision to retell Dante's Inferno with the Disney characters of the era was probably a greater risk 60 years ago than it was today, given the general public's greater familiarity with the source material and the consequent potential for claims of inappropriate or irreverent treatment. But considering that Dante himself was not above putting contemporary popes and other Church figures in Hell, he might have reacted much like the Dante-stand-in in this story, who threatens the (hooded) artist and writer with an evisceration by pen-nib but ultimately relents when Mickey points out that a Disney version of Inferno might cause young readers to gain new affection for the epic poem. The story itself, with David Gerstein doing yeomanlike work in converting Dwight Decker's prose English translation into an approximation of Dante's terza rima scheme, is more interesting in some places than in others, but the sheer improbability of the idea carries the reader along. Scattered amongst the tortures handed out to innumerable generic Disney dogfaces and numerous teachers (including – groan – a couple of math-peddlers), we get such memorable scenes as Zeke Wolf being picked clean to the bone by an exploding pig and Eli Squinch (the turnip-squeezing skinflint created by Floyd Gottfredson for the Mickey comic strip) being consumed by flames emanating from his hoarded money. (Scrooge had just been created when this story debuted, so he was probably never a candidate for this particular "honor".) Donald undergoes the largest number of transformations, being turned into a ghost and a flock of Harpies (yes, really) before managing to escape to a higher realm. About the only real complaint I have is that the tale was printed in what appears to be its original comic-strip format, meaning that the panels had to be shrunk to fit on each page. Gemstone should consider a larger-scale reprint in a specialty graphic album, perhaps a more modest version of the format used for David Gerstein's book Mickey and the Gang. (Just wondering: In Disney's version of Hades, who would inhabit Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, where all the good pagans went? Would all the Warner Bros., Fleischer/Famous, and Walter Lantz characters wind up there?)

The highlight of the rest of the issue (and, with "Inferno" clocking in at a cool 37 pages, there isn't much room left) is "Wonder Down Under," part one of a six-part cycle of stories written by Per-Erik Hedman and dialogued by Pat McGreal, in which Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold match pits – uh, wits – against one another in a series of Formula I auto races. The main problem I can see developing here, apart from a Wacky Races sort of repetitiveness – not to mention possible appearances by the likes of Racer X and the Car Acrobatic Team – is that Scrooge and Glomgold won't truly be competing against each other. In this first installment, Scrooge tries to give his driving job to an old Australian acquaintance but finds that the latter is too obese to drive, then has Donald – guided by the Aussie ace via remote control – take the wheel and earn victory. Scrooge has little to do but fret and/or celebrate on the sidelines. Glomgold's role is even tinier. The tale is bannered as a Donald Duck story, which makes sense, I suppose, but so many characters are involved – HD&L as pit crew, Daisy as PR liaison, and Gyro as automotive techie – that even Don will probably be more "along for the ride" than anything else. At least artist Flemming Andersen, who's done such good work on the TNT series in the Donald Duck Adventures pocket books, will finally get a nice, leisurely opportunity to fully introduce himself to readers of the "regular" Gemstone titles.

Mickey Mouse Adventures #8 (March 2006). Since when is Eega Beeva an alien from outer space??? That's the premise that we're obliged to swallow in "Project Volcania," a lengthy story written and drawn by Guiseppe Zironi in which Eega takes Mickey to the "planet of Psaint Pvalentine" to buy a gift for Minnie. The doodad, a "Turbo-automatic Hair-Styling Helmet," ends up causing trouble when it falls into the "Great Mouseton Tar Pits" and is snaffled by some underground aliens who want to make over Earth in their own image, and… but why am I bothering telling you all this, because it's all a dream. What a pointless exercise (and to top it all of in the manner of a rancid Maraschino atop a dunghill sundae, Zironi plays the "green card" and tries to work in a preachy environmental theme). At least the Mouse-tale in the back of the issue, Michael T. Gilbert and Joaquin's "Colder than Ice," fares better. A crashing meteor turns Mickey into the thermodynamic equivalent of a black hole, sucking heat away from anything that comes near him. Some ruthless, but blessedly inept, minions from a nearby "secret government lab" put Mickey to the test as a potential "ultimate weapon," but Minnie comes to the rescue in disguise. Mickey is ultimately forced to exhaust his powers when he fights a forest fire accidentally ignited by the bungling government agents. The story gives Minnie a lively role and could be considered an indirect send-up of The X-Files (I wonder how Stefan Petrucha, who has written for Mickey and for Agents Mulder and Scully, would have handled this part of the story). The Donald story, Spectrum Associates' and Bancells' "Crystal Ball," is a great deal of ado about nothing, centering on Don's inadvertent rescue of humanity from an intergalactic road-construction project, but at least it doesn't feature any scenes of Don beating Daisy's head against a rock, of the kind Bancells was obliged to illustrate in a recent digest tale.

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