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Book and Comic Reviews

(9/25/06)

Donald Duck and Friends #344 (October 2006).  In his editorial comments, Gemstone Editor John Clark floats the possibility that a "special volume" reprinting all of the Carl Barks scripts "redrawn" by Daan Jippes might be in our future.  Far be it from me to criticize the quality of Jippes' artwork – or to defend the wretched efforts of Kay Wright, whose clunky inking of Barks' penciled breakdowns on the Junior Woodchucks scripts of the 1970s originally prompted this particular application of the "memory hole" principle – but a redrawing of "Pawns of the Loup Garou," the featured item in this issue, wasn't really necessary.  Tony Strobl's artwork for the late-60s "original version" was just fine, thank you, and he actually went Jippes one better by drawing Miss Minemore, the Ducks' one-shot female ally, as a distinctly original character, rather than the "Daisy in a red fright wig" version that Daan gives us here.  The story of Scrooge, HD&L, and dedicated freight pilot Donald running afoul of a legendary vulpine beastie "on the Upper Mackenzie" has always struck me as a little too convoluted and talky for its own good, but it's still worthwhile reading, if only to luxuriate in the sight of a competent Donald.  That's right, the webfoot who had trouble keeping such gigs as "vinegar-vat-scum-skimmer" and "potato-peel-sweeper" in previous Barks stories turns in a dogged, stalwart performance that even approaches the heroic in places, as when he charges the Minemore mine entrance to retrieve his stolen cargo, or when he attacks the ferocious Loup Garou (actually, a hypnotized wolf – some party trick, that) with a solid-gold statue.  (I'm impressed enough by the fact that Don was actually able to lift the statue, much less use it as a weapon.)  Jippes' artwork is certainly lively and energetic, and if the promised "redrawn reprints" collection actually comes to pass, this deserves to be a featured item in it.  I'd still like to see the original version somehow kept in circulation, though.

The Stefan Petrucha-Jorge David Goofy backup, "The Only Thing to Fear," is basically a "by-thuh-numbers" story.  Trying to cure Goofy of hiccups by laying traps in a supposedly "haunted" house, Mickey is scared and then captured by the manse's real, live – uh, dead – specter, who proceeds to try and do the same to The Goof.  All too predictably, Goofy figures it's all the handiwork of ghost-doubting Mickey.  Goofy ends up chasing Mickey in anger at story's end, not something you see every day, but that's about the only innovation on display.

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Mickey Mouse and Friends #293 (October 2006).  Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli are both in top form for this ish's lead story, "Immaterial World," but ultimate kudos for this excellent effort should probably go to the colorists (a combination of Egmont and Barry Grossman).  At Doc Static's new clifftop lab, Mickey and the Doc are literally zapped into a different plane of existence after the prank-playing Horace Horsecollar mistakes the good doctor's "immaterializer" for a flashlight.  The dematerialized duo – their bodies, figures, and dialogue rendered in an unsettling shade of blue for the duration of their "altered state" – must literally crawl inside the body of the regretful, sorrowing Horace to convince him that they're still (sort of) alive and that only he can zap them back into the plane of reality.  When Mickey and Static are poking out of Horace's torso, their normal colors return, but in a somewhat "muted" condition.  The overall effect is decidedly creepy, but, thanks to deft use of the available palette and the usual first-rate Ferioli figure drawing, it's pulled off quite nicely.

It's hard to decide exactly how to evaluate "Know Thy Neighbor," Kari Korhonen, Annette Roman and Wanda Gattino's extremely bizarre Donald "sandwich" story.  The title carries with it a heavy burden of irony, since the whole point is that there's a whole honkin' load of stuff we didn't know about Donald's cantankerous Neighbor Jones.  That Jones has a passel of embarrassingly friendly yokel relatives (whom he tries to avoid as much as possible) is one thing, but we also find out that Jones (who, like Darkwing Duck's Drake Mallard, has never seemed to have had a "real" job over the years) has been swiping ideas from his feud with Donald to fuel his lucrative gig as the writer of Nasty Neighbors, a popular TV sitcom!!  Apart from the sheer, jaw-dropping strangeness of this notion, consider that TV-addict Donald would surely have watched the show at some point and noticed Jones' name in the credits.  (To add insult to injury, judging by the prominent water tower on the studio lot where Jones' scripts are filmed, Jones must be toiling for Warner Brothers.)  Desperate for new ideas, Jones has actually been picking fights with Donald, hoping to jog loose some original feud gambits.  Don, meanwhile, has taken the advice of his Nephews and is using psychobabble in an attempt to "understand" Jones' "asocial personality disorder."  He also sees fit to invite Jones' hick relatives to town in an attempt to sweeten his neighbor's disposition.  The resulting "collision of forces" is nothing if not unpleasant (and, if truth be told, is pretty funny).  As Jones jaunts go, this one is so far off the charts that it might as well be an undiscovered planet.  Gattino's artwork is appropriately loose and loony, and Roman does a fine job of massaging Korhonen's kooky plot notion into some semblance of a coherent form.  I'm still left with that one nagging question… how long, in fact, had this whole state of affairs been going on??  Did the sudden return of Jones to Barks' stories in the mid-60s, after a hiatus of well-nigh two decades, coincide with the sitcom's debut?  I think The Simpsons might have a rival to its throne here…

Any story would've seemed tame after "Neighbor," but Stefan Petrucha and Jesper Lund Madsen's "The Old Brat Trick" has some spicy scenes, nonetheless.  Babysitting at the home of what they believe to be a family of stage magicians, Mickey and Goofy find their hands full with nasty little Bradley Schreck, who has it in for "grown-ups" and is determined to show our heroes "the power of [his] dark arts."  It takes time and effort – not to mention a quick refresher course in stage magic – but Mickey and The Goof finally convince Bradley to settle down.  Ultimately, though, the joke's on them.  Bradley looks (and acts) like a figure out of a limited-animation TV series from the 60s, but his sheer persistence makes him an enjoyable character.

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(9/11/06)

Mickey Mouse Adventures #11 (September 2006).  A simply extraordinary – not to mention historically significant – issue.  One of Italian maestro Romano Scarpa's longest-lived original characters, the meson-spitting "humanized atom" Atomo Bleep-Bleep, is introduced to American readers in the best possible fashion, via a reprinting of his 1958 origin story, "The Delta Dimension."  In the course of this rather leisurely paced 60-plus-page epic, we learn that Atomo is a creation of Mickey's old friend (and Floyd Gottfredson creation) Dr. Einmug, the genius scientist who's turned from the atomic research that bore such memorable fruit in Gottfredson's "The Sky Adventure" to explorations into "meson acceleration" and resulting matter transformation in the fourth dimension.  Atomo, who resembles a double-haloed Smurf thanks to the electrons that constantly orbit his head, zaps Mickey into the Delta Dimension, where Dr. E. enlists Mickey's help in locating Atomo Bloop-Bloop, Bleep-Bleep's "bad seed" twin who has absconded with a "portable meson accelerator."  Lacking Bleep-Bleep's integrity, not to mention his judgment of personalities, Bloop-Bloop has partnered up with Pete, who's been plaguing Mouseton with cotton-candy snow and similar weird phenomena and has recently graduated to blackmail.  Pete also plans to create an entire army of Bloops/ Bleeps/et al. to "conquer thuh States an' Canada… fer a start!"  The basic plot and situations are strong enough to begin with, but David Gerstein outdoes himself with some of his most imaginative dialogue to date, running the gamut of pop-culture riffs from West Side Story to Klondike Kat (with a whole lot of stops in between).  Dr. Einmug was a perfect character for the science fantasy-minded Scarpa to exploit, and, in tribute to the good doctor's role in bringing Bleep-Bleep to (enlarged) life, Gerstein gifts the latter with an unexpected, yet fitting, German accent.  Several lengthy (and hilarious) set pieces in which Pete and Mickey exchange jabs both verbal and physical don't seem like "fillers" at all, but rather fit right in with the spirit of what is essentially a light-hearted story.   

In almost any other issue of MMA, this ish's second Mickey adventure, Donald Markstein and Joaquin's "Quadruple Threat," would have rated the front of the book.  In how many other stories, after all, do we get to see evil Professors Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex, The Phantom Blot, and a final-panel crowd scene packing in just about every other major and semi-major adversary of The Mouse, right down to Dangerous Dan McBoo and Idget the Midget?  In a mixture of old-time, test-tube-tinkering scientific exploitation and a utilization of up-to-date technology, the Professors plan to divest Mickey of his "high-quality" brain and use it to power their supercomputer Quadruplex (first glimpsed in an earlier Markstein story) as they attempt to take over the world's computers via the Internet.  As if he sensed a challenge, The Blot has cooked up an oddly similar plan, stealing radio-programming software and infecting it with a virus that "intensifies the listener's current state of mind," the first step in (yep) a master plan to enslave the citizens of the world.  Needless to say, Mickey soon has his gloved hands full as he deals with a double dose of would-be world domination.  In fact, he's so shaken by the experience that he ends the story by making a cross-check of all his other imprisoned foes, which explains that "spot the sinner" climax.  Markstein set himself a real challenge with this audacious effort, and he rises to the occasion, with all the necessary characterizations right on target.

The Donald Duck "sandwich" story, Stefan Petrucha and Flemming Andersen's "Back in the Box," more than holds its own against some decidedly stiff competition.  "The Delta Dimension" and "Quadruple Threat" are prime examples of the classic Mickey adventure scenario, presenting our dauntless hero with unfamiliar or challenging difficulties to overcome.  In "Box," by contrast, Petrucha spins the adventure out of Donald's personality.  Warned by Gyro Gearloose not to open a mysterious box during a house- (or lab-) sitting stint, Donald is – big surprise – sorely tempted to probe the container's contents.  Soon, however, he's being forced to recover the receptacle after a gang of crooks steal it and attempt to raffle it off to the highest of lowlife bidders.  (I couldn't help but flash on the Darkwing Duck episode "In Like Blunt" at this point.  The bidders even include the Beagle Boys in both cases.)  Using a combination of sheer brazenness and good fortune, Don gets the box back and figures he's owed at least a little peek inside.  Gyro, however, knows Donald all too well and has a contingency plan…  Lots of laughs, some typically bizarre artwork from Andersen, and you won't soon forget Donald's "crook disguise."  MMA has been a little on the uneven side since its inception, but this ish definitely sets the standard for all future compilations.

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(9/3/06)

I'll be attending the Baltimore Comic-Con next weekend.  Hope to see you there.

Uncle $crooge #357 (September 2006).  Oh, what memories – both good and bad -- this issue's reprint of Don Rosa's early-90s adventure "Return to Xanadu" brings back.  The story that marked, at the time, Rosa's "triumphant return" to the pages of American Disney comics also appeared (in two parts, originally) in the immediate aftermath of the notorious Disney Comics "Implosion."  The phrase "Pyrrhic victory" immediately springs to mind.  In hindsight, "Xanadu" could also be said to mark the "tipping point" of Rosa's career in a creative sense.  Hereafter, most of his time and effort would be given over to elaborating his own embellishment of the Carl Barks "canon," most famously in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.  Happily, in "Xanadu," while Rosa's goal from the start was to craft a sequel, his explanatory "machinery" had not yet become overly convoluted and a relatively straightforward and suspenseful plot was permitted to take center stage, resulting in a most satisfying effort that has retained its charm and vigor over the ensuing decade-and-a-half.  With "Xanadu," Rosa sets himself the task of intertwining two of Barks' classic $crooge stories ("The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" and "Tralla La") and does so by revealing that the moneyless valley paradise of Tralla La is also Kublai Khan's Xanadu, immortalized in the Coleridge poem.  Learning from the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook that Genghis Khan's Crown must have originally been part of the treasure of the Mongol Empire – a fact which rather unaccountably never was revealed during the original Crown search – Scrooge drags Donald and the boys back into the Himalayas on yet another treasure trek, with the object this time being the entire "Mongol Hoard."  To their amazement, the Ducks soon find themselves back in Tralla La, with Rosa revealing the ultimate truth of the matter quite deftly.  Just when it seems that they (including Scrooge himself!) have finally decided to shuck their worldly cares and settle down in peaceful Tralla La for good, they discover that they may have inadvertently sealed the valley's doom for a second time.  In detailing how the Ducks make good their error and save the day, Keno Don cleverly utilizes the detritus of the first Tralla Lallian escapade and allows his frequent fall-guy Donald to experience his single greatest triumph over adversity in a Rosa story.  Rosa's maturing artwork is detailed without the overabundance of frills and sidebar gags seen in more recent stories, his "moral" gently taps the reader on the shoulder rather than swatting him or her in the mush, and his characterizations are excellent.  Even the one new character in the mix – Tsamjah Phee, the ancient High Lama of Tralla La who is only called upon "in the worst emergencies" (I pity the Tralla Lallian who was tasked with determining whether the threat of a devastating flood would be considered a bigger emergency than an endless rain of bottle caps) – seems to fit right in.  Alas, for all the many good points of this story, reading it will always be a bittersweet experience for me, given the calamitous consequences of the "Disney Implosion" -- an event from which American Disney comics have arguably never fully recovered, even to this day.   

If Tralla La tested the Ducks' endurance in "Xanadu," then their wits and emotions are pushed to the limit in "Comet Get It!", written by Kari Korhonen, drawn by Tino Santanach, and dialogued by Annette Roman.  After Magica De Spell discovers an ancient grimoire and butchers one of the spells therein, thereby directing the "Black Chariot" Comet to head toward Earth and a potentially devastating impact, the sorceress is forced to swallow her considerable pride and ask Scrooge to help finance her efforts to locate a counter-spell.  A desperate Scrooge airlifts Donald and HD&L from Duckburg and brings them to the remote mountain stronghold where he and Magica have been cogitating.  Just in case Magica fails, Scrooge has Gyro busily preparing emergency rockets, one to derail the "Chariot" and the other to abandon Earth if necessary.  Can our heroes (and moonlighting villain) stop Earth from being destroyed?  Can Scrooge be convinced to abandon his money (as if)?  If all this sounds like a cross between the DuckTales tales "Magica's Shadow War" and "The Golden Goose," then you've got the gist of things.  To be honest, the Scrooge of this tale, who frets over hurting his businesses by fomenting "unnecessary consumer panic" and risks the success of Gyro's rockets on the use of cut-rate bolts, is a little bit truer to the conflicted personality of the "classic" old miser than the guilt-ridden, more straightforwardly heroic Scrooge of "The Golden Goose," and that in itself makes the tone of the tale surprisingly light-hearted given the apocalyptic subject matter.  Roman's funny dialogue adds another layer of sunshine, and, combined with Santanach's cheerful, Branca-like artwork, almost makes one wonder what all the fuss is about.  It's pretty silly stuff, all in all, but very enjoyable nonetheless.     

Two short stories, the Gyro tale "Dr. Invento" and the Donald quickie "Through a Lens Darkly,"  fill in the issue's cracks, and they're both good themselves.  Janet Gilbert, assisted by artist Marcal Bresco, hits upon a charmingly obvious – in retrospect – plot idea when she has Gyro become the popular star of a "Mr. Wizard"/"Bill Nye"-like children's science show.  Soon, Gyro's newfound fame is keeping him away from his own work, and he's forced to take drastic steps to get things back to normal (or his unique version thereof).  There's a very soft-pedaled pro-science message at the end of this story that I appreciated very much.  In "Darkly," by Frank Jonker, Bas Heymans, and Thad Komorowski, Donald apparently takes inspiration from the Dick Tracy character Influence (whose adventure with Tracy was reprinted by "Gladstone I" – hence the Duck connection!?) and uses hypnotic contact lenses to bamboozle his way into the Duckburg mayor's chair, from which he's soon issuing edicts to banish "cousins named Gladstone and Fethry," among other things.  Scrooge soon puts a merciful stop to Donald's "reign of (t)error" – thankfully, not by whipping Donald's deadly dioptrics right out of his eye sockets, as Tracy did to Influence.

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Little Lulu Color Special (Dark Horse).  I didn't expect this volume to come out so soon after the latest release in the "black and white" series, but who's complaining?  The 208-page tome reprints 26 stories spanning roughly a decade (mid-40s to mid-50s) and, happily, draws the majority of them from issues of Little Lulu that have not yet been reprinted by Dark Horse.  One thing I quickly learned from this four-color omnibus is how misleadingly tricky it is to color Lulu's gang – specifically, their faces.  As rendered by John Stanley and Irving Tripp, when a character is drawn in profile, there is usually a gap between his or her hairline and eyebrow, and again between eyebrow and eye.  If the implied "line of the profile" is not traced precisely, one can wind up with strange-looking flesh-colored "zones" that seem to extend beyond the limits of the character's true facial features.  (For an example, see panels 3 and 4 of this issue's reprint of "The Green Girl.")  The occasional glitch of this sort aside, this is a simply splendid collection that would be perfect as a gift for any young would-be comics reader.  There's a nice mixture of story types, including a healthy sampling of Stanley's much-loved "Story Telling" escapades (with two appearances by Witch Hazel), and there's not a single dud in the bunch.  Go buy it, already!

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