Sunday, December 28, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #383 (November 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Don Rosa's "Guardians of the Lost Library" (1994) was created at a time when Keno Don was well into production of the initial chapters of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK. "Authenticity" was very much on Rosa's mind, as you can imagine, and the nit-picking desire for accuracy is certainly on display in this one-shot adventure. (In his companion text piece for this reprinting, Rosa even admits that he may have gotten a bit carried away.) Why, then, is "Guardians," which embodies so many of Rosa's creative weaknesses, such a beloved story? I think that the secret lies in the fact that Rosa was commissioned by Egmont to create it, as a tie-in for Norway's national "Year of the Book." Unlike LIFE OF SCROOGE, in which Rosa's tendency towards excess was limited only by his own imagination in stringing together incidents from Carl Barks stories, "Guardians" is a strictly "point-to-point" story with a certain inherent structure (telling the history of bookmaking and book collecting) that obliges the creator to focus on a single narrative that will justify that structure. And Rosa couldn't have picked a better one: an explanation of the tortured origins of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook. The story does, as Rosa admits, contain a lot of exposition, but it also contains plenty of action and physical humor (visited upon Scrooge, this time; the TV-addicted Donald stays home to "guard" Scrooge's Money Bin and thus avoids his standard Rosa-ration of abuse), and the partnership of Scrooge and HD&L is pleasantly reminiscent of DuckTales. The "reading is fun-damental" moral is obvious, but Rosa treats it with enough humor to make the pill go down easily. I can identify only one major area in which "Guardians" can be said to "flip over and burst into flames." The story makes clear the reason why the Guidebook contains such a plethora of obscure information, but, to be a proper guidebook for the Woodchucks, shouldn't it contain a lot of mundane matter, as well? A Woodchuck may need to translate ancient Etruscan one day, but he may also need to build a fire or make a knot the next; in fact, since most Woodchucks presumably don't have super-rich uncles who take them on globe-trotting adventures, I'd venture to say that the latter situation is much more likely. Perhaps this material is what a Nephew was referring to when he mentions that the founders of the Woodchucks "added lots of modern knowledge" to the Guidebook. One side-comment: Given the relentlessly secular nature of the Ducks' world, it was nice to see Rosa include a Greek Orthodox priest and a Catholic monk among those who assist Scrooge and the boys. Given the important role the Church played in preserving knowledge, using such characters would seem only natural, but Rosa deserves commendation for treating them in a non-snarky manner (though not without humor; e.g. the monks of the abbey of "San Slanti" would be right at home living in the Tower of Pisa).

The Dutch story "Gloom of the Unknown Author," by Ruud Stratman, Mau Heymans, and David Gerstein, is a very apropos follow-up to "Guardians" that takes as its cue a very simple question: How does the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook get updated each year? Like the question "What if one of the Nephews got tired of looking like his brothers?" in the DuckTales ep "Duck in the Iron Mask," this is one of those questions about the Ducks' world that, once asked, makes you wonder why it was never addressed before. It turns out that even HD&L and their "Grand Mogul" (what, no abbreviation?) don't know who's responsible. The lack of knowledge threatens the entire Woodchuck organization with a serious ontological crisis, while Donald figures that he can finally one-up the know-it-all 'Chucks by giving the news to the papers and Scrooge (of course) thinks that he might be able to profit somehow. The subsequent chase to track down the mysterious editor leads to another (and equally valid) question: even if the Woodchucks can find the "culprit," should they expose him? This straightforward tale raises a number of interesting questions about the ideals that uphold the Woodchucks and furnishes an interesting contrast to Rosa's highly entertaining, but nonetheless somewhat mechanical, expose of how the Guidebook originally came to be.

Compared to the stories that precede it, Kari Korhonen and Ferran Rodriguez' "The Senior Woodchuck" is 100% fluff, but it's still an enjoyable tale, though some of its details about the Woodchucks can be called into question. As you might surmise from the title, the plot revolves around Scrooge's attempt to crash the 'Chucks (as an honorary member). Of course, the ultimate reason for his effort is business-related. The mucky-mucks at JW HQ see this as an opportunity to get even with Scrooge for denying the 'Chucks land for camping and nature preservation, so they proceed to try to bilk him out of as many goodies as they can. Um, shouldn't Woodchuck officials be a little more upstanding than this? Likewise, Scrooge's being forced to work with a trio of inept Woodchucks as part of the "tests" he must perform makes me wonder how said 'Chucks were even allowed to stay in the corps. I mean, even Doofus proved his worth in DuckTales' "Superdoo!," and these fellows make Doofus look like a 10-star general. At least Scrooge winds up "getting what he deserves" in both a positive and a negative sense -- as do the conniving troop leaders. The fact that Rodriguez assisted Korhonen with the artwork may account for its "squashy" look. Personally, I'd prefer that Korhonen handle the art by himself.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Movie Review: BOLT (Walt Disney Pictures, 2008)

Disney's CGI feature Bolt contains little plot material we haven't seen somewhere before but remains a definite winner for all that. Disney TV fans are, of course, more than familiar with the idea of a supposedly "heroic" canine whose stardom has been manufactured by Hollywood; the Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers episode "Flash the Wonder Dog" and the 101 Dalmatians: The Series ep "Watch for Falling Idols" both gave the concept a thorough going-over. In those cases, however, the focus was on the loss of another character's (Dale's or Lucky's) faith in a supposed hero that turns out to have "paws of clay." Bolt's spin on the theme – that Bolt (John Travolta) has been conditioned to believe that his superpowers are real and that his mistress, Penny, really is in mortal danger – allows for a level of character development and self-discovery that Flash and Thunderbolt never had a chance to experience. (No doubt, this added layer of complexity owes something to the fact that Pixar's John Lasseter served in a supervisory capacity.) The manner in which Bolt is thrown upon his own resources is exceptionally contrived, and the unlikely allies that he meets – Mittens, a streetwise New York cat whose attitude towards Bolt is a fascinating mixture of fear, pity, contempt, and genuine concern, and Rhino, a nutty hamster who's a huge fan of Bolt the TV star – smack a little too much of formulaic casting (not to mention The Incredible Journey), but the cross-country trek that forms the narrative spine of the movie is executed with flair and great humor, with every character being given multiple moments to shine. Rhino's delusion-nourished one-liners are almost enough to carry the movie themselves… almost. I wish that the movie had dwelt a little longer on Bolt's gradual realization that he's "only canine," and the near-breakup of the traveling team is painfully predictable, but the denouement is impossible for even the worst cynic to resist. Certainly, the movie kept the audience with which I saw it emotionally involved to the very end.

I do confess to being a little baffled by the movie's conflicted view of the "flyover country" that Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino must slog and/or ride through (Bolt, after all, can't fly!) in order to return to Hollywood and "save Penny from the green-eyed man." The contrast between Hollywood phoniness (the technological and psychological manipulations that infest Bolt's TV series; the annoying agent who constantly tries to get the grieving Penny to forget her missing pal and literally "stay with the program") and the genuine connection between Penny and Bolt is crystal-clear, and the wholesome Middle America setting of the movie's final scene suggests that said setting is the perfect spot for such "authentic" emotion and, therefore, is morally superior to that of Tinseltown. Why, then, are all the human characters in this portion of the movie portrayed as being ugly, fat, oblivious, or a combination of all three? Were the writers conflicted – wanting to "only connect" with red-state America while, at the same time, proving incapable of purging those carefully nurtured mental stereotypes from their characterizations of the Middle American cast members? Or might this have been a case of Wall-E hangover? (At least these "plain folks" are capable of autonomous movement as they waddle to their RV parks and "Waffle World" restaurants.)

Apart from the debt that Bolt's plot may owe to those aforementioned humble TV episodes, I noticed a few other fairly suspicious "might-be" borrowings. Three trios of humorous pigeons – with each group emoting in a manner befitting its setting -- pop up in NYC, L.A., and the "down-home" setting of the final scene, but the fact that the NYC pigeons appear first and do GoodFellas shtick suggests that the writers may have had Animaniacs' "GoodFeathers" somewhere in the backs of their minds. Likewise, Mittens may not sing, but her general attitude (not to mention her underlying desire for a home) reminded me of Rita (though Bolt "def'n'tely" has little in common with Runt the sheepdog!). The claim made by some reviewers that Inspector Gadget's Penny and Brain inspired the characters of Penny and Bolt may also have some basis in fact, but the fact that Animaniacs is a little more contemporary may make my case just a bit stronger.

Bolt was accompanied by a "Cars-Toon" in which Mater is pitted against an arrogant Japanese car (voiced by Robert Ito, who the bloody heck else?) in a race to the top of the Tokyo Tower (which couldn't possibly have been built by the inhabitants of a world of cars without any hands, or… but those who know me already know my fundamental beef about Cars). I assume that the "globe-trotting" aspect of this action-filled short ("filled"? More like stuffed and oozing out of the side, like the jelly in a jelly donut) is meant to be a foreshadowing of Cars 2. If so, then I think Pixar may have some problems piecing together a coherent plot that lives up to its usual high standards in the areas of character development and audience involvement. Toy Story 2 managed to do it by introducing some winning new characters, and I suspect that Cars 2 may have to do the same thing, or it might end up resembling the live-action Speed Racer all too closely.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Brace of Holiday Book Reviews

Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a great New Year!




How well I remember my Dad warning me against majoring in what he called "farts and litters" in college! Ironically, as a longtime member of the Jesuits, he himself had a classical education, including a healthy dose of readings from what used to be known as "the Western canon" but what is now sometimes disparaged as the roll call of "the dead white males." In A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: THE RISE, FALL, AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT BOOKS (Public Affairs Books, 2008), Alex Beam provides a lively and entertaining survey of the mid-20th-century push to make the "canon" accessible to a mass audience, in the form of Encyclopedia Britannica's GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. The "Great Books" still serve as the focus of the traditional "core curricula" at such schools as Columbia University, St. John's College, Shimer College, and Thomas Aquinas College, but they have largely been abandoned elsewhere for reasons more or less convincing. The drive to make the likes of Faraday, Gibbon, and Aristophanes (... "ridiculous"!! Hi, Odd Couple fans!) after-dinner reading for middle-class families turned out to be a non-starter, though some aging acolytes have kept the flame burning with "Great Books Discussion Groups."

In retrospect, the original GREAT BOOKS collection had two fatal flaws: It provided absolutely no ancillary material to help inexperienced readers cope with obscure language and concepts (let's not even talk about the misguided inclusion of classic texts of science and mathematics; I've read excerpts from these and trust me, you MUST have a guide to get through them!) and the quality of its printing was atrocious (minuscule type, double-column format). That being said, I happen to think that a judicious use of readings from original sources is a necessary part of liberal education. You simply need to avoid the trap of providing "too much of a good thing."

Thanks to the work of Allan Bloom and such defenders of the traditional academy as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, defenses of the "Great Books" have come to be associated with political conservatism. Beam seems to think that this is a strike against them, and this is the one major flaw in his argument. Why should he be so surprised? Colleges have trivialized and dumbed down their curricula to such an extent that SOME form of dissent is inevitable, and, given the prevailing political ethos on modern campuses, it is natural that conservatives should be placed in the position of defending what has been dismantled. Nor is the current "Great Books" movement a political monolith. Some "Great Books" schools have a conservative political bent, but St. John's and Shimer, among others, do not. Judging by the anecdotal evidence Beam provides, participants in "Great Books Discussion Groups" include a fair number of people on the left. The whole idea of using "Great Books" is to bring fundamental ideas into the spotlight for open and vigorous debate, and that's something on which both fair-minded liberals and fair-minded conservatives should be able to agree. Let's use readings from original sources more often in ALL colleges, I say. Just don't expect me -- or anyone else -- to read Apollonius' CONICS without a few judiciously positioned nets.




Anyone interested in the future of conservatism ought to read Claire Berlinski's THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE: WHY MARGARET THATCHER MATTERS (Basic Books, 2008). Thatcher is both loved and loathed, and both for good reason. Taking power in Britain at a time when the country was an absolute basket case, the grocer's daughter realized that extreme measures were needed in order to pull Britain off the downward path of socialism and liberate the considerable entrepreneurial energies of its people. She ultimately succeeded, but not without causing dislocations and fundamental changes that, by contrast, make Ronald Reagan's strides forward to "morning in America" look like a cakewalk. Her imperious personality only made her drastic policies seem all the more drastic. There is an important lesson to be learned here: any really profound change away from socialism and towards capitalism will make permanent enemies, so any politician who seeks to make such changes must either be able to ignore the critics or transcend them.

Berlinski interviews both allies and adversaries of Thatcher, including an interesting visit with some former miners whose lives were changed forever in the wake of the failed miners' strike of 1984. Berlinski's sympathies obviously lie with Thatcher, but she gives Thatcher's enemies a fair chance to be heard. I happen to agree with Berlinski's summation that while current geopolitical issues (radical Islamic terrorism, which Thatcher frankly failed to recognize as a big threat) may seem to have little to do with the Cold War milieu in which Thatcher operated, the eternal appeal of the secular religion of socialism (especially when it forms an "unholy alliance" of expediency with Islamic enemies of the West, as detailed by David Horowitz and others) will always make Thatcher's ideas and experiences relevant. This is a very well-written book with a very important message.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #698 (November 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

A real hodge-podge of an issue this time, so I'll start with my favorite "supplementary" feature: the SCAMP tale "Useful Things (and How to Use Them)" by the creative team of Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Daniel Perez, who brought this character back to the American comics pages in such delightful fashion in WDC&S #665's "Just Like Pop." This tale is less ambitious than that one but no less charming for all that. Jock is ashamed to admit that he doesn't know the purpose of an old metronome he's found, so he and Scamp set out to discover what it can be used for. We get some nice cross-references to the rotating animal supporting cast of the SCAMP daily strip as a gopher and Cheeps the bird make brief appearances. Mr. Ger-r-r-r-stein tr-r-r-ries a bit too har-r-r-r-rd to mimic Bill Thompson's Scottish accent for Jock, but that's hardly a fault.

The issue actually begins with a couple of items that are almost as "dated" as the early-1900s milieu to which Jensen, Gerstein, and Perez have returned Scamp and friends. Carl Barks' "Donald's Bay Lot" (1944) features an "explosive" climax as Donald goes to rather extreme lengths to make a shabby beach shack, sold to him by a sleazy real-estate agent, a more attractive item for buyers. Since this was a wartime story, I'm surprised that Don didn't wind up arrested for unauthorized misuse of government -- or would that be enemy? -- property. Part one of the Floyd Gottfredson MICKEY MOUSE strip continuity "The Boxing Champion" (1931) casts us back even further in time. Mickey plays something of a secondary role here to Ruffhouse Rat, who bears the proud title of "heavy-light-weight champion," though how he earned it I don't want to think; he exercises while reading Shakespeare, gets battered by fence boards and chickens, and uses heavy hammers to crack nuts. Mickey, tasked with managing this paragon's next bout, learns to his dismay that the opponent is "gorilla-grappler" Creamo Catnera. The "coming next issue" blurb indicates that Creamo will wind up fighting Mickey, rather than Ruffhouse, so Creamo should at least get some sort of reasonable challenge, if only because Mickey is nimbler. I can't help but think that Gottfredson was influenced in some way by the contemporary THIMBLE THEATER Sunday strip's use of Popeye as a "s'prize fighter"; many of the boxing and training gags are in the same spirit as Segar's.

The next story, "Donald Duck's Fouled-Up Fairy Tale," is the subject of this issue's cover, which highlights Daisy and her nieces. I wonder when April, May, and June last appeared on a cover? David Gerstein told me that this was one of the earliest stories he wrote for Egmont, and it's a good one, though a little contrived. AM&J, who are presently working through an obsession with fairy tales, decide to dress up and act out some of the stories, even as the on-the-lam Beagle Boys seek to raid the Ducks' "getaway cabin" while clad in animal disguises. Interestingly, the Beagle Boys appear to think that lions qualify as common "forest critters" in this particular neck of the woods. Did I say a little contrived? I stand corrected. You can pretty much figure out what goes down from here. Donald seems unusually competent in this story, figuring out that the "animals" are actually Beagles in disguise and dispatching several of them with fairly extreme prejudice. Daniel Branca's artwork is great, as usual. David was still smoothing out the rough edges in this story -- he wouldn't get nearly as cutesy-wootsey as this in most of his later efforts -- but you can see the promise.

After Scamp and Jock's "metro-nomadic" search and a two-page BRER RABBIT story, we come to the ish's one undeniable stinkeroo, Pat and Carol McGreal and Vicar's DONALD DUCK story "The Fizzy Pop Fiend." Donald's obsession with the titular soda pop wouldn't be funny even if it were original, which it isn't; see Barks' "Bubbleweight Champ". "Unca Donald's got a problem!", HD&L intone as their addled uncle becomes increasingly desperate in his quest to acquire enough Fizzy Pop labels to make a killing in a sweepstakes in which the big prize is a year's supply of the sugary substance. The boys, Scrooge, and Daisy finally perform an "intervention" and have Donald sent to a health farm, where he's soon on the "Road to Wellville." But there's still the result of that contest to consider... Suffice it to say that this story is struggling for scraps of humor when it uses a massive belch as a centerpiece of one scene. We're also expected to believe that Donald's spilling some Fizzy Pop in a very small area of Scrooge's Money Bin obliges Scrooge to have "every bill" in the Bin dry cleaned. The McGreals appear to be aiming for a somewhat cynical ending, but it doesn't come close to the overall nastiness of "Bubbleweight Champ," in which Donald was characterized as completely pathetic, rather than merely obsessed. "Fiend," I'm sorry to say, is one soda story that was "flat" from the very beginning... and, with that, I'll mimic Dale from the Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers episode "The Case of the Cola Cult" and bid you "soda-long" for now.

Bunnies Plugged

I wouldn't recommend "Comparison of Side Effects between Buprenorphine and Meloxicam Used Postoperatively in Dutch Belted Rabbits" as leisure reading, but this paper, soon to be published in a journal of veterinary medicine, will mark my second authorial credit in a peer-reviewed journal. Thanks go to Dr. Diana Scorpio at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for allowing me to provide statistical analysis for this project. More credits may be forthcoming, as both of my Independent Research students from the fall semester stand an excellent chance of getting cited on papers that include their data analyses.

See you later this evening with a new Disney comics review.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S CHRISTMAS PARADE #5 (Gemstone Publishing, December 2008)

After a one-year hiatus, XMAS PARADE returns with an excellent, though at times deuced peculiar, collection of holiday stories. The lead-off reprint of Carl Barks' "The Thrifty Spendthrift" (1963) is actually the most "normal" thing in the ish, and that's saying something, considering that Scrooge is under hypnosis most of the time and Donald and HD&L spend several pages dressed up in bird costumes. Having learned nothing from his disastrous experiment with a toy hypno-gun eleven years earlier, Donald attempts to use a "hypno-ray" bamboozle his tightwad uncle into buying him scads of Christmas gifts. Thanks to innocent interference by HD&L, however, Scrooge's intentions wind up being "fixed" on the Duchess of Duckshire's dog. Soon Scrooge is busily gathering up the components to bring the famed presents named in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to life, while a frantic Donald, assuming that the gifts are for him -- and that he'll get stuck with the room-and-board bill for hosting all those dancing ladies, piping pipers, leaping lords, etc. -- is just as busily trying to sabotage him. Don drafts his Nephews as the "three French hens," and he, himself, suits up as the pear-tree-perching partridge just to cut down on the expenses he expects to have to shoulder. Compared to such Barks Christmas classics as "Letter to Santa" and "A Christmas for Shacktown," "Spendthrift" has the story content of the average fluffernutter, but this ultra-lightweight story still manages to entertain. A rather mournful note is struck in the first panel when Scrooge makes a reference to John F. Kennedy ("My money! It vigahrizes me to dive around in it like a porpoise!"). Barks completed the story in the summer of '63, but it was published the month after Kennedy was assassinated. I believe that several DC Comics stories featuring JFK as a supporting player also came out after the President's death.

The 1954 Italian story "Memoirs of an Invisible Santa" is so bizarre that it makes "Spendthrift" seem like poker-faced drama. Goofy's home-brewed perfume, meant as a gift for Minnie, winds up turning both him and Mickey invisible (apart from their feet, that is -- we have to have some way of tracking them, right?). While the perdu pals search for a way out of their dilemma (and spook a healthy portion of Mouseton in the process), Minnie, Daisy, Donald, HD&L, and Scrooge wait with increasing impatience for Mickey and Goofy to keep their promise of meeting them for a Christmas Eve party. The gang gets so steamed that they start hurling insults at the absent pair, even as the newly-solidified duo return to overhear. Soon, a full-blown pah-rump-a-pum-rumpus erupts, complete with snowball fight. Will tempers cool before the clock strikes Christmas? And why is the fact that said clock (another Goofy project) is running faster than normal a key to making the season bright once again? It's always a treat to see the Duck and Mouse characters interact in a full-length story, but we're about as far from "Mythos Island" territory here as can be imagined -- rather, think Home Alone without the "cuteness" of the Culkin-crooks conflict. The suddenness with which M&G's pals turn on them is rather jarring, even considering that the Italian comics do tend to make their relationships a little rockier than American readers are used to. It's well drawn by Romano Scarpa and expertly dialogued by David Gerstein, but it definitely falls in the "more weird than truly hilarious" category.

The zaniness continues as Pat and Shelly Block and Tino Santanach's "Cookery Countdown" somehow contrives to make Donald's purchase of a new set of crockery a mechanism for getting orbit-bound shuttle astronauts a real Christmas dinner. In Stefan Petrucha and Jose Ramon Bernardo's "Better to Give Than to Deceive," we appear to return to familiar "true meaning of Christmas" territory as Mickey teaches spendthrift Horace Horsecollar a lesson about buying presents for himself as opposed to others, but that's only setting us up for Kari Korhonen's "Mr. Clerkly's Christmas", one of the cleverest subversions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL I've ever read. Amazingly, Korhonen manages to do the deed without making any character look truly "bad." After a local TV crew catches a stressed Scrooge cursing out Christmas as "a lie... empty sentiment wrapped in tinsel!", the negative publicity imperils a business deal the tycoon's got cooking. A seemingly contrite Scrooge invites the newsies to his Money Bin to learn how "generous" he truly is to his employees, but Clerkly inadvertently curdles the eggnog, and Scrooge responds by ripping his faithful clerk a new... er, page out of the account book. Is Clerkly truly Scrooge's Bob Cratchit? A series of unlikely coincidences lead the increasingly guilt-ridden Scrooge to believe as much... but he's got a surprise coming to him. Some may regard Korhonen's ending as cynical; I prefer to think of it as realistic, given what little we know about Clerkly (not to mention Scrooge himself). In light of the current economic crisis, you might even find yourself thinking that Clerkly does, indeed, have a point. This story shows that you can do an effective CAROL parody without relying on mean-spirited or gross humor, and, for that alone, I'm grateful.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fanfic Review: KIM POSSIBLE in "THE CLAWS OF THE KITTEN" by Richard Smyers

Those who, like me, toiled for years in the fruitful vineyard of the Disney TV-themed a.p.a. WTFB (1992-2003) will readily attest to the extremely high quality of the fan fiction produced by such writers as Kim McFarland, Michael Demcio, the late Jim Kellogg, and others. WTFB may be gone, but some scriveners are still pushing the pen (or clicking the keyboard) to great effect, as witness this story from longtime member Richard Smyers. The a.p.a. went under just as Kim Possible -- arguably, the last truly outstanding show to be produced by Walt Disney TV Animation -- was hitting its stride, so Kim, Ron Stoppable, and company never got a fair chance to strut their stuff on WTFB's spiral-bound pages. Richard gives us a peek at what we may have missed with this excellent effort, which stays faithful to the generally light-hearted spirit of the source material while including somewhat grimmer subject matter.

For those interested in dipping into this fanfic, I won't dilute the wine by giving away any plot points, but suffice it to say that the daring Kim gets to play a "role" here that more than a few Disney feature-animation characters have had to shoulder. And she carries it off quite well, I might add. The one-shot villain, Al Capone wannabe Al K. Trazz, seems very much like an overstated TV villain at first, but behind the corny dialogue lurks a deadly serious bad guy who has very nasty plans for the entire planet if he doesn't get his way. A number of Kim's regular adversaries get face time as well, and I'm pleased to report that the petty bickering that frequently characterized their relationship on TV has been preserved here (though their ultimate "fate" is a pleasant surprise). Kim, Ron, Wade, Rufus, and Kim's family members are all very well characterized, including a few folks whom I don't recall ever having met on the small screen (they may have appeared in episodes I missed; I don't know). The only real debit is a somewhat talky last chapter that follows up one of the most emotional moments that these characters have ever experienced with what feels, for all the world, like an extended version of a "coffee scene" from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Richard is always careful to add dashes of verisimilitude and "little known facts" to his stories, but here, the placement of the material seemed awkward. Still, any KP fan is bound to love this story. Better yet, Richard promises more tales to come. The spirit of WTFB refuses to die!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #382 (October 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

A "Festivus" issue (see my post on WDC&S #697) suffused with the worthy, yet occasionally treaclesome, sentiment of characters learning "the true meaning of the holiday season" leads off with something brisk, bracing, and decidedly UNsentimental -- Carl Barks' "The Money Champ." This 1959 story marks the second appearance of Flintheart Glomgold, and, within its panels, the South African squajillionaire who'd acted simply as Scrooge's doppelganger during the first go-round begins the long slide into sinfulness. Challenging Scrooge to another "contest for the money championship of the universe!" -- this time, it's a straightforward pileup of the two ducks' riches (converted into silver dollar form) at a Duckburg airport -- Flinty cheats in order to prosper. The avaricious Afrikaaner uses transparent aliases to hamstring some of Scrooge's business enterprises, puffs up his own money pile with the help of an air pump, and buys a witch doctor's "shrinking juice" in order to shrivel Scrooge's tycoonhood. Glomgold does appear to realize, on some level, the damage he's doing to his soul, worrying "I've betrayed my dear old mother's fondest hopes [and] turned myself into a scoundrel!", but, once he buys the Jivaro Juice, there's literally no turning back. (In a symbolic assertion of his "good-guy" status forever after vis-a-vis Flinty, Scrooge proudly refuses to buy any of the witch doctor's wares when he gets the chance to do so.) By the time of his third appearance, Flinty had turned into a murderous thug, and his subsequent persona on DuckTales wasn't much nicer. For all intents and purposes, this is a Scrooge solo -- Donald and HD&L play a decidedly secondary role -- and it's one of Barks' better long stories from the late 50s, though there are a few glitches here and there. (Why, for example, does Glomgold fret over "going to jail" after Scrooge literally kicks his butt on the final page? Did he actually do anything illegal that the authorities knew about?) The cynical characterization of the Duckburg populace as a fickle mob that alternately glories in Scrooge's status as "money champ" ("The only claim to glamor Duckburg has!" frets one native) and sucks up to Flinty when it appears that he's going to win is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the tale.

For the balance of the issue, it's ho-ho-hold back no attempt to tug at the heartstrings as Scrooge and Donald get lessons in Christmas-ology 101 in a trio of decent, though predictably mechanical, stories. Jens Hansegard and Jose Massaroli first serve up "Scrooge's Workshop," in which Scrooge, obsessed with the "menace" of a gift-giving, uncompensated Santa, takes advantage of a legal loophole and literally takes possession of Santa's toy factory. The new Claus is most definitely not the same as the old Claus, hatching a scheme to deliver gifts throughout the month of December and (horrors!) ask for payment in return. This works about as well as might be expected, but Scrooge is thankfully jolted back to sanity by the sight of an elf-made toy train, which reminds him of a gift he got as a wee lad. Next, in the Daniel Branca-drawn "The Great Lot Plot," Donald is shamed into aggressive solicitation for a phony charity, goes ballistic when he learns the truth, yet exits the tale with a new-found compassion for "Duckburg's dreariest." David Gerstein tries to pump some extra life into the modest storyline with some turbo-charged dialogue but unfortunately overwrites some of it, to the extent that it's very hard to imagine the characters actually speaking their lines. Hansegard then returns (with Vicar and John Clark) in "The Madness of King Scrooge," which finds Scrooge being forced to give out largess to Donald and his Money Bin staff in order to maintain his status as "King of Christmas" at the Billionaires' Club Christmas fete. Determined to stop Donald, at least, from "squandering" his $500 bonus, an increasingly frantic Scrooge tries repeated subterfuges to con his nephew out of the money. He relents, however, after he learns that Don used the funds to finance a family Christmas party -- and included Scrooge as one of the gift recipients. Scrooge really gets off lightly here, considering the extreme lengths to which he goes to get his money back; why, he even manages to turn a profit in the end! But only at Christmastime, it would seem, can a one-panel penance reap such rich rewards. Overall, this isn't a bad issue, but last week's CHRISTMAS PARADE (which I'll review soon) certainly qualifies as a more memorable Yuletide reading experience.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 3: "LET'S YOU AND HIM FIGHT!" (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to a burgeoning pop-culture phenomenon of the sort that Popeye had become by the early 1930s. Bluto, Popeye's eternal antagonist on both the large and small screens, provides the menace in "The Eighth Sea" (1932), this latest Segar collection's first extended narrative. The hulking, black-bearded pirate scourge does enjoy the privilege of an extended fistfight with the sailor man (nearly getting permanently dispatched by the terrible force of Popeye's "twisker sock") but consequently suffers the relatively placid fate of being set adrift in a lifeboat, along with a band of thugs that had stowed away on Popeye's ship in hopes of glomming onto a "vast treasure." That was it for Bluto's comic-strip career, but the Fleischer Studios just happened to be starting its series of POPEYE shorts at the time and latched onto the big brute as an ideal foil.

"The Eighth Sea" cabooses neatly onto a lengthy, though sometimes wandering, story in which Nazilia's King Blozo returns in triumph to his country with gold to prop up his pathetic economy, survives an attempted coup and an electoral challenge from the cigar-chomping General Bunzo (his commander during "The Great Rough-House War"), and then agrees to sell an outlying island to Popeye, who's intrigued with the notion of setting up an entire nation from scratch. "Popeye, King of Popilania" definitely points toward the later "The Dictator of Spinachovia" but lacks the topical satirical sting of that story, including only a few passing references to the Depression (e.g. Popeye ensures "prosperiky" for his new realm by turning a horde of invading jaybirds sent by the jealous Blozo into a Shmoo-like source of all manner of salable products) and wedging in a severely silly subplot in which Popeye lures bachelors from Nazilia by offering them the matrimonial services of a tribe of "wild women." Presaging the denouement of "Spinachovia," Popeye ultimately gives up on nation-building and generously turns over his kingdom to Blozo, who's watched his land depopulate as a result of Popeye's eccentric, but genuine, largesse. Perhaps Popeye had come to realize that government will always turn out "punk" regardless of whether its leader is a two-fister straight-shooter like himself or a whining worrywart like Blozo. "Spinachovia" would hone this point to a rapier's keenness a few years down the line.

The last story in the volume, besides introducing another key member of Popeye's extended "tribe," illustrates Segar's nimbleness as a story-teller, in the sense that he knew when to cut away from a less-than-inspired plot and go in an entirely different direction that ultimately netted vast profits. After returning from Popilania/Nazilia, Popeye (joined by Wimpy, who'd made his first extended appearance in the daily strip in the role of the ineffective "commander" of Popilania's minuscule army), accepts Castor Oyl's offer to invest his profits in a newspaper. The ensuing reporter-and-photographer gags evidently didn't excite Segar, who executes a neat swerve by having Popeye receive a mysterious package. Inside is Swee'pea, who will, of course, become Popeye's child-ward forever after. (Segar obviously loved the "package" gambit, as he also used it to introduce Bernice the Whiffle Hen and Eugene the Jeep. No wonder; it's a sure-fire way to build suspense and make a new character's appearance seem like something really out of the ordinary.) Swee'pea is being pursued by agents of his "superstitious" homeland of Demonia, who regard the infant as a "lucky gift from the gods" on account of the seven moles on his back. The Demonians inflict such a series of head-blows upon Popeye that the sailor suffers a supposedly fatal case "bonkus of the conkus." Even when mentally addled, however, Popeye holds his ward in an iron grip, braving a sojourn in the desert (and an attack from a goon sent to track him and Swee'pea down) and finally curing himself through sheer willpower. Segar puts the cap on this extraordinarily detailed "diversion" by bringing Popeye home to take over a small-town newspaper.

In this era's Sunday strips, Wimpy really comes into his own as the ultimate sponger, driving Rough-House to distraction (and even into a hospital at one point!) and even discomfiting poor Popeye at times. The "s'prize fight" theme gradually fades into the background as Segar prepares for "Plunder Island," his greatest Sunday continuity (and, arguably, his most famous story), which will be reproduced in full in the next volume. (In a sort of anticipation of that epic, Segar sends John Sappo and Professor O.G. Wottasnozzle on a lengthy trip to Mars and Venus in THIMBLE THEATRE's always-entertaining Sunday-page companion strip.) And that's not all, folks; we close the volume with a series of never-before-reprinted strips from early 1933 in which Popeye and friends experience the Chicago World's Fair in their own unique way. These strips appeared in the sports sections of the Hearst newspapers, which perhaps explains why Segar was willing to dare convention (not to mention evoke nausea) by having Olive Oyl emulate Sally Rand and perform a fan dance. Popeye likewise "has his way" with a series of chorus girls and dancers, as indirectly indicated by the fact that a whole slew of them cry at his departure from the Windy City in the series' final strip. Between this additional newspaper exposure, the debut of the Fleischer cartoons, and the canonical newspaper strip, 1933 might be considered the peak year of Segar's career -- except that some of his greatest narratives were still over the horizon. Save for yet another obscure and muddy introductory spiel by Donald Phelps, this would be an absolutely perfect package of classic comic-strip entertainment.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #697 (Festivus, 2008*, Gemstone Publishing)

* No, this isn't a Seinfeld reference... but how else can I describe a comic with an October cover date but a Christmas theme?!

A first-class holiday (ah, that otherwise annoying euphemism seems to hit the mark in this case) issue leads off with one of my favorite "low-key" Carl Barks seasonal stories, 1954's "Submarine Christmas." This could have been so much sappier than it actually was, but Barks treats Scrooge's decision to abandon his undersea search for a sunken, money-laden McDuck Industries steamship and improvise a Christmas celebration for Donald and the Nephews with a directness that seems quite appropriate for Scrooge's no-guff character. The good fortune that soon follows makes for one of the most delightful endings of any Barks story. The one criticism I would make is that Donald's forgetting to mail HD&L's letter to Santa introduces a "fantasy element" that really didn't have to be there. Barks famously used Santa in the classic long story "Letter to Santa" and in "Toyland", a FIRESTONE GIVEAWAY story originally written by someone else, but otherwise steered clear of directly involving the jolly old elf. HD&L's explosive reaction to Don's brain-lapse suggests that Santa is the only possible source for presents, which he obviously is not. It would have been better had the boys simply evinced depression and then dutifully provided Scrooge with the midnight (I guess) snack that pricked the old miser's conscience. Aside from this one nit, the story is near-perfect -- beautifully written and just as beautifully drawn.

Noel Van Horn next serves up a new holiday classic in the sprightly and imaginative MICKEY MOUSE story "Tradition." (No, Tevye is not involved. How could he be?) Mickey, it seems, has a most unusual holiday habit -- hunting for a Christmas tree "high atop Mt. Ominous!" and then using it as a toboggan to slide back down to Mouseton, where eager citizens await his return. This time around, the Mouse runs afoul of an obsessed dealer in artificial trees who wants to sell Mickey one of his charlatan conifers. The pushy pseudo-pine peddler is exceptionally reminiscent of those "one-shot loony" characters that so thickly populated Papa Bill's older stories, though Noel, true to his somewhat more subdued approach, dispenses with outright insanity for the most part. Very funny stuff, though Noel once again gets a little wordy with his dialogue.

The 1970s Dutch BIG BAD WOLF story "So Bad He's Good" is the only story in the issue sans even the remotest holiday trimmings (unless you reflexively mumble "... so be good, for goodness sake!" after reading the title), but it's so attractively drawn (by Robert van der Kroft) and so expertly dialogued (by the modern "Big Bad Wolf Dialogue Daddy," David Gerstein) that it's a welcome visitor here. Arm-twisted into performing bad deeds to prove his "goodness" on Zeke's inverted scale of values, Li'l Bad finally hits on a satisfying solution: save the Pigs and thereby disobey his Dad (by doing good deeds) to show that he's truly "bad"! Got that? A simple enough idea, but very, very well executed. Van der Kroft's Li'l Bad isn't as cute as Cesar Ferioli's, but he's close.

"All Work and No Christmas," by Janet Gilbert and Vicar, is the only questionable story in the holiday stocking, on a philosophical level at least. Consumed with the development and subsequent marketing of a new computer game, HD&L forget all about Christmas and claim to be too "busy" to engage in the usual festivities. It takes a cooperative effort from Donald, Daisy, Grandma, Gyro, and Scrooge to break the spell, but my main gripe lies in the fact that HD&L went so far off the rails in the first place. "Comical obsession" plots are all well and good when Donald is involved, but the down-to-earth HD&L?? It's also hard to believe that HD&L would become such big moguls so quickly, moving from backyard (in this case, actually, bedroom) inventors to inhabitants of a snazzy office building in the span of just eight pages. I didn't like this sort of thing in the DuckTales episode "Yuppy Ducks," and I'm not buying it here, either.

Of the grab bag of short stories that fill out the balance of the ish, the best item is Sarah Kinney and Miguel Martinez' "Cabin Fever." It's the familiar situation of two characters (Mickey and Goofy) getting stuck in a snowed-in cabin and rubbing one another the wrong way, but with an extra edge to it given the nature of the characters involved. "You haven't even started to be as irritating as I know you can be," Mickey groans as he starts to panic, and M&G are about to engage in all-out snowball warfare when they discover that their dire situation isn't nearly as dire as they'd thought. I wonder how long M&G will take to forget this unpleasant sojourn and reboot to their default settings. In Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Marsal's "The Great Swap Flop" (and how are you today, Mr. Lockman?), Donald strings together a chain of commitments to others just so he can avoid shoveling his own snow-filled walk. You just know that it has to snap back on him at some point. Another Dutch "Swamp Folk" tale dialogued by Gerstein has Brer Fox dressing as Santa to trick Brer Rabbit, only to run afoul of Brer Bear. Bucky Bug returns in a story dialogued by Donald Markstein, as he and his snowbound pals are forced to blast their way to freedom using New Year's fireworks. Finally, a one-page gag by the 1930s British Disney artist Wilfred Haughton, "Snow Use," makes an extremely obscure point with the assistance of an extremely out-of-place British householder.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Special "Blast From My Past": DIALOGUE

Hope that you and your family enjoy the holiday... and that 2009 FINALLY sees the completion of the "Golden Age" Disney Afternoon DVD releases!

This piece first appeared in issue #15 of the APA WTFB, released in February 1996. Original contents © 1996 Christopher E. Barat. Revised contents © 2001 Christopher E. Barat.
[Note: The first three lines of this thing are taken verbatim from an actual encounter that I recently had with a student. Rather than stewing about it, I've decided to have a little constructive fun with it.]

SCENE: A computer lab in the Virginia State University Mathematics Department. Dr. Barat and a New (Female) Student are both sitting at terminals, doing some work.

NEW STUDENT: Excuse me, are you a professor here?

DR. BARAT: Yes, my name is Dr. Barat. I teach in the Math Department.

NEW STUDENT: YICK! You know, I always hated math, 'cause I was never any good at it!

[Flash of an interdimensional gate opening: a large number of "Disney Afternoon" characters appear, to the sound of a thunderclap]

SCROOGE MCDUCK: Curse me kilts! We canna let this insult pass, can we, lassie?

GADGET HACKWRENCH: Golly, no! We've got to help our old friend, Chris!

DR. BARAT: What are you guys talking about?

SCROOGE: This student has joost insulted math, lad! Canna you respond by telling her how important math is to us Disney Afternoon characters?

DR. BARAT: Hmm, the comment was so remarkably inconsiderate that I was simply too stunned to think of that approach! Why don't you guys handle it -- I have to finish this syllabus.

SCROOGE: Gladly! Young lassie, wi'out a clear understanding of math, none of the Disney Afternoon business folks could keep their financial books in order!

PETE: Or cook 'em!

DAVID XANATOS: Exactly. An understanding of the intricacies of financial manipulation -- or, should I say, management -- requires a thorough grounding in algebra, calculus, and other types of mathematics.


OWEN: It would seem as though those who actually put businesses' plans into operation and oversee their day-to-day tasks need a firm grasp of mathematics, as well.

FENTON CRACKSHELL ["popping up" in typical fashion]: You can count on that!


REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: Yes, of course! I have to do all the meaningful work around Higher for Hire, so of course I had to pick up math along the way.

GADGET: Golly! And if you want to get into engineering, or inventing, or maybe even tinkering, you have to know something about math! Otherwise, your left-nozzled framistan won't have the proper quasi-lateral dimension to fit into your right-handed doodlethingie... or something. Wait, I can fix that...

GYRO GEARLOOSE: Don't worry if you can't get all those technical terms quite right, Gadget. We inventors still need to have a good, practical understanding of mathematics in order to purchase enough supplies, make adequate plans for building our inventions, and determine whether or not we can make a profit by building them!

NEW STUDENT: Gee! I thought that maybe if I majored in Engineering Technology, I could avoid taking all those math classes and just take Engineering classes.

GRUFFI GUMMI: You gotta face it, kid -- even if you want to get into a job like carpentry and home repair, you gotta know something about making measurements, and that's math.

KIT CLOUDKICKER: And if you think that a keen job like airplane navigation will get you out of math class -- forget it! Navigators have to learn just about as much math as anyone in order to figure out where they're going and how to get there.

LAUNCHPAD MCQUACK: Ya mean, I've been doin' math all this time and didn't even know it?

DARKWING DUCK: Quite true, LP! Even we crusading canards have to conquer calculus! Otherwise, I'd never be able to figure out how to maximize the number of 8 x 12 glossies I can produce to spread my fame around St. Canard, given limitations on film budget, exposure size, camera aperture size, and...

Enough's enough, Darkwing! If that didn't convince her of the virtues of math, probably nothing will.

PRINCESS JASMINE: If nothing else, she should think about taking mathematics as part of a well-rounded education. We in Agrabah should know -- we and the other Arab cities are busy helping to preserve Greek mathematics right now.

NEW STUDENT: Hmm...I still don't know if math courses are worth it...

BONKERS D. BOBCAT: Kid, kid, kid, of COURSE it isn't worth it. Why, when I got to be a Toon Cop, I didn't need to know a THING about math!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The STANDARD Deviates... into Disney Comics Territory, that is!

My eyes bugged out when I received the latest issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD and turned to the concluding "Parody" page. Whatever mischievous soul is responsible for that regular feature really did himself or herself proud with "Scrooge McDuck Writes to The Treasury." Not only do the "panel grabs" from Don Rosa stories suggest that the writer has followed Disney comics at least since 1987 (the year of Rosa's debut), but several references are made to DuckTales -- the obvious one regarding Launchpad McQuack, and the subtler one mentioning that Donald is in the Navy. I'd like to think that Scrooge is recognized by most well-informed consumers of pop culture, but I wonder how many readers found themselves baffled by all the other names mentioned here.




Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Tomorrow, to celebrate the holiday, I'm planning to post a piece from the days I wrote for the APA WTFB.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I wouldn't accuse Chester Gould of resting on his oars, exactly, but January 1938 - July 1939, the period covered in this volume, wasn't a prime time for Gould or Dick Tracy. Sure, the volume starts off with a bang (once we've gotten the obligatory intro by Max Allan Collins and a brief piece on Tracy collectibles) as Tracy helps the Coast Guard bust Stud Bronzen, a depraved seaman who's in the dirty business of smuggling emaciated Chinese men into the country. Thereafter, however, we're forced to thrash through a few racketeering capers, spend time with a hideous gas-station stick-up man named Scardol (could he be considered Gould's first truly "grotesque" villain, insofar as the featureless "Blank" of a few years earlier was less ugly than unnatural?), and tap our thighs with impatience as a crooked pilot named Whip Chute tries to impersonate a visiting "Bovanian prince" and abscond with some loot. A wispy-haired, slightly decadent poison-gas manufacturer named Karpse is the only truly interesting villain in the lot besides Bronzen, and that's only because (as Collins notes) he spends a good part of his story posing as a thoroughly respectable citizen -- even engendering a little sympathy after he gets badly scalded while working at Mrs. Trueheart's bakery. (As it turns out, that little incident presages Karpse's dreadful demise after his fraud is uncovered.) Alleged "comic relief" appears in the guise of the slightly twee Brighton Spotts, an amateur detective who fancies himself capable of helping Tracy with his cases; Spotts pals around with Junior Tracy for a while before Gould drops him, but he doesn't improve with additional exposure. The "Bovanian" story and Karpse's peddling of poison gas to other nations reflects Gould's increasing concerns about the international crisis and impending world war, but the artist still has one foot in the "tommy guns" era and isn't quite ready to ditch the Dillinger/Baby Face stuff in favor of the rogue's gallery that would make him famous. The next couple of volumes will mark the shift into Tracy's peak period, and I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #381 ("September" 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Happy 80th, Mickey!




Alas, poor Donald -- even when he succeeds by failing, he winds up... well, failing. Such is the intriguing premise of this issue's main story, the ingenious Italian effort "Breakfast of Champions" by Bruno Concina, David Gerstein, and artist Lara Molinari. Desperate to counteract John D. Rockerduck's aggressive marketing of his marmalade Vita-Jam, Scrooge strikes out in his efforts to purchase celebrity talent to hawk McDuck Marmalade, mostly because he's unwilling to pay the going price. Scrooge settles for the inevitable LCD (that's "least common denominator" for the layperson) in the ever-indebted Donald, who proves to be a surprise success by -- surprise -- totally fouling up a variety of attention-grabbing "extreme" stunts. Finally admitting, "I should really let you stay you!", Scrooge lets his bumbling nephew have his own fallible head. "Failure is victory! Black is white!" smiles Donald as his popularity soars... but then comes the inevitable crash. Don't worry, I won't spoil the surprise for you, but Donald is tangentially responsible for his own demise, though it comes as the result of another character's actions. Molinari's lively artwork channels that of Giorgio Cavazzano without being overly derivative, and Gerstein packs in references to Barack Obama, Al Pacino, Vic and Sade, and The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy in the course of his merry labors.

"Half-Baked Bakers," a brief four-page story by Frank Jonker, Mau Heymans, and John Clark, returns us to something resembling familiar ground as Scrooge challenges Donald and Gladstone to show their business mettle by operating competing pastry shops. Don's performance, of course, founders on the reefs of Gladstone's luck, and Gladstone winds up outperforming Tim Hortons -- to his ultimate dismay. With the 1952 Carl Barks classic "Spending Money," we're back to the theme of an improbable Donald crash-and-burn. Scrooge is rapidly running out of room to store his money, so the troubled tycoon engages Donald to spend some of it for a wage of 30 cents a week. Unfortunately, the ensuing uber-splurge winds up enriching, you guessed it, a bunch of businesses controlled by Scrooge. Donald really deserved a "thank you" for a good try, as opposed to the caning he's about to receive at story's end. If this is unfair, then Don's fate in Jens Hansegard, John Clark, and Tino Santanach's "Cleaned and Intervened" is enough to make you cry. A doctor orders Scrooge, who's "never taken a day off" (I suppose all those treasure hunts counted as business trips, then?), to spend a day at a health spa or be forcibly hospitalized, and casually fingers Donald as the "aggressive young man" to take over for the duration. Scrooge, who's nothing if not obsessively hands-on, disguises himself as a cleaning woman, sneaks away and spies on his nephew, and sabotages what looks like an attempt to con Donald into a bad investment. Don turns out to be right about the proposition after all, leaving Scrooge a babbling wreck. No, I don't feel sorry for Scrooge here -- I feel sorry for Donald, who misses out on a chance to make far more money for Scrooge than he would have at any old pastry shop.

The book closes with "Homeward Hound," an "origin story" for Bolivar, Donald and HD&L's lumbering St. Bernard. We learn that "Bolly" hails from the Heather Hill Kennel (do I detect a spoof of Snoopy's Daisy Hill Puppy Farm?) and comes from a whole family of famous rescue dogs (with names of famous South American heroes, natch). Don and HD&L return to the scene of the whelping in the course of trying to locate Bolly after the depressed dog has run away. Until the very end of the story, it appears that Bolly got shortchanged in terms of inheriting noble qualities (unless a bottomless appetite counts as one), but we finally learn that he has one very large asset that even his brothers do not possess. (The ultimate reason why Bolly displays such a trait is one of the funniest things in the story.) Fine dialogue by David Gerstein and lively artwork by Maria Nunez (normally a Beagle Boys specialist) nicely complement Kari Korhonen's solid, and generally believable, story.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #696 ("September" 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Two days hence marks the 80th anniversary of the release of Steamboat Willie and the debut of Mickey Mouse, the fount from whom all other things Disney flowed. What better way to celebrate the occasion than to... er, bring back a singularly irritating character to torment Mickey and his friends? Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli give Mickey "An Impish Bad Birthday" in this issue, and, if a complaints window for such "gifts" existed, I'm sure Mickey would be heading there even as we speak. The painfully derivative "imp from the 11th dimension" "blunks" back into Mouseton, causing Mickey to skip an entire day and thus miss his birthday. When Mickey tries to outsmart him by claiming that his friends had planned a later birthday party, the punk pixie turns everyone present into manifestations of their "worst personal nightmares" and deposits them in the monkey cage at the zoo. Several pages of tedious non-shenanigans precede the inevitable moment when the bumptious brownie is sent packing by being forced to unwittingly do a backwards recital of the phrase on his "magical jar." By that time, in the words of Gilbert Gottfried's Mr. Mxyzptlk, I really do "need a barf bag!" Ferioli's superb artwork is literally the only thing this story has going for it. Well, that, and a moment of curious candor from Minnie. After the imp has zapped Mickey and Minnie into baby clothes, the two mice re-raiment themselves and take off in pursuit of him, with Minnie commenting, "It's a good thing I keep a spare outfit at your house!" Hmmmm, how conveeeeenient! Spare bows I can perhaps understand, but what would a spare outfit be doing there, unless....?!?!

Luckily, part two of Romano Scarpa's "The Sacred Spring of Seasons Past", which takes up most of the last half of the issue, saves Mickey's bacon insofar as a fitting tribute is concerned. (A vintage Floyd Gottfredson Sunday-page reprint doesn't hurt, either.) The standard Scarpa strangeness more than manifests itself in the person of an obsessed sea captain in search of Moby Dud, an albino sardine. Rest assured, however, Cap'n Ahab (yes, really) has a significant role to play before story's end. Mickey, Atomo Bleep-Bleep, and absent-minded antique dealer Heath O'Hara wind up losing out on a really big haul, but, thanks to the generosity of the guardian "wandering ghost" of the long-lost Native American treasure -- who had been obliged to wander the earth to complete his bungled mission -- they do come out ahead on the deal. Jonathan Gray's dialogue is top-notch, as always.

Donald, as is proper on this occasion, has a low-key role in the issue. In Carl Barks' 1947 story "The Cantankerous Cat," Don and HD&L's plans to get a good night's sleep before a fishing outing are wrecked when a stray cat Don's bull-headedly insisted on taking in (much as he insisted on trying to tame an untamable wild colt in a story a few years earlier) howls from dusk to dawn. The trip goes on, with Donald and the boys punch-drunk from lack of sleep, but Don still hopes to get some use out of the annoying cat. He doesn't, of course. The funniest thing about the story is the weird dialogue that Don and HD&L use when they're trying to stay awake to fish. (I've never said anything like they did when I've been sleep-deprived, but I may have thought it.) Continuing on the theme of pestiferous animals, Travis Seitler and Mau Heymans' "Playing Possum" finds Donald trying ineptly to take care of an opossum (named Pogo, man, what a stretch!) the Nephews have brought home as part of a school project. As with Barks' cat, Don's knuckleheaded consideration backfires on him, as he takes the possum's "playing dead" for the real thing and winds up bringing a whole slew of others possums into his home to make up for the "damage" he caused. A David Gerstein-scripted BIG BAD WOLF story with an "election" theme (to wit: Zeke wanting to get elected to the Forest Council but needing the Three Pigs' votes in order to succeed) wraps an ish that would have been better had that annoying BATMAN supporting-cast ripoff not been on hand.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Comics Review: DISNEY'S DUCKTALES: THE GOLD ODYSSEY (Gemstone Publishing, October 2008)

Bob Langhans' justly famed seven-part epic, which ran in Disney Comics' DUCKTALES title from December 1990 until the middle of the following year, finally gets the one-volume graphic-novel treatment it's so long deserved... in a manner of speaking. Publication of this issue was delayed, and the wait turns out to have been hardly worth the trouble, as Gemstone's packaging bears all the earmarks of a rush job. Pages six and seven of Part Three, "The Once and Future Warlock," are reversed, and splotchy, mottled coloring mars the presentation in several places. Most disappointing of all, absolutely no ancillary material is featured -- not even an explanation of who Bob Langhans is, much less why his story set the standard for adaptations of the DuckTales TV series to comic-book form. Even Marv Wolfman got to speak his piece in a foreword to the previously published (and inferior) "Scrooge's Quest." The missed opportunity is a real shame, as Langhans' story proved to be the first truly successful serialized Duck tale, a key precursor to Don Rosa's THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK and similar projects down to the present day.

How well does "Odyssey" hold up almost two decades later? Well, it's a decent Duck adventure, but an outstanding DuckTales adventure -- and the distinction is important. Disney Studio stories in the late 1980s based on the TV series were uninspired finger exercises. John Lustig and Bill Van Horn did far better by the characters in their series of stories for "Gladstone I," but those tales were sui generis, full of quirky humor, and, for all their high quality, not really reminiscent of any TV episode. "Scrooge's Quest" captured the broad outlines of the show, but was totally lacking in the finer details, most fatally in the area of characterization. Langhans' plot can be faulted in places, but his characterizations are spot-on from panel one (and not just because Scrooge drops the occasional Scottish-ism, either). Launchpad is particularly well captured, issuing a steady stream of believable one-liners and exuding that recognizable McQuack bravado. Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold are equally well realized. Even the Nephews sound as they "should" in the DuckTales context, making references to monster movies, rock videos, and similar stuff. Read Langhans' dialogue, and you can bring the voices of Alan Young, Terry McGovern, Russi Taylor, and Hal Smith to mind with no effort at all.

Langhans' decision to end each part of the serial with a cliffhanger was an inspired idea that paid off handsomely; it's still the most memorable aspect of the story. More subtly, Langhans ups the danger quotient across the board. The evil Druid who temporarily takes possession of Doofus' soul in "The Once and Future Warlock" should have been so lucky as to suffer the fate of El Capitan in the TV series' "Treasure of the Golden Suns." Rather than being doomed to search for treasure forever, the nasty necromancer gets buried in a cave-in -- and he's not digging his way out anytime soon! An alien monster conks out after flying out of the atmosphere and into space in pursuit of our space-traveling friends. Glomgold is left to die in a malfunctioning spacecraft by space pirates and later narrowly escapes being stranded on an alien planet. Huey appears unconscious with blood on his forehead, for crying out loud (he later claims that he was faking it, but I don't buy it, somehow). The TV series rarely played this rough, but it works superbly on the comics page. (The Jaime Diaz Studio artistically renders every scene in its standard straightforward, literal fashion, which somewhat undercuts the tension in places.)

For all the story's good points, I get the distinct impression that Langhans improved generous chunks of his plot. The true "core" of the story -- Scrooge, Launchpad, and HD&L's voyage into space to rescue Glomgold, who'd been attempting to locate a "golden moon" that had showered Earth with chunks of the valuable stuff from the Arctic to England -- doesn't begin until Part Four, and it ends at the beginning of Part Six. The early battles against a pack of Arctic poachers, a gaggle of rather unpleasant, tradition-obsessed natives, and the devilish Druid are interesting enough, but the presence of Doofus (beginning in Part Two), in particular, seems somewhat contrived. Not that I begrudge Doofus his one moment of genuine four-color glory after eons of either being patronized or mischaracterized (as a Junior Woodchuck troop leader in Vic Lockman's stories), but, after he suddenly appears in Gyro's lab, accompanies the gang to New Swampadonia, and is rescued from the Druid, he... uh, completely vanishes from the story. Wouldn't he want to see the full adventure through after all that? (Maybe he remembered his bad experiences during the trip-to-Mars TV episode "The Right Duck" and declined the space jaunt on principle.) The space-jinks are great -- and "junk collector" Captain Finna, alien innkeeper Ito, and ruthless rat-oid pirate Omio Rexx are all excellent supporting characters -- but Part Seven returns us to Duckburg for a somewhat-less-than-riveting battle between Scrooge and the Beagle Boys that links into the epic's "hunt for gold" theme in a particularly far-fetched way. Even the cliffhanger to end Part Six (with the splashed-down Ducks about to be run over by a *gulp!* speeding ocean liner!) is a downer. Just a little more focus on Langhans' part could have made this story truly great and fully worthy to stand with Barks, Rosa, and the other masters of the four-color form. Nevertheless, it's still an ideal encapsulation of the qualities that made DuckTales so wonderful.  For that alone, it deserves to be cherished by Duck comics fans of all persuasions.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1969-70 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

This latest PEANUTS collection features an unquestionable "tipping point" -- and you can get a hint as to what it is by checking out the front cover's featured player. No, it's not the high point of the "World War I Flying Ace" era; in fact, the fad that had begun in '66 quietly exited the scene during this period. (The brooding 6/1/69 Sunday strip could be taken as a formal recognition of the fact. When the "Flying Ace" returned to the strip a decade later, the bullets and dogfights were dispensed with in favor of a more wistful, nostalgic approach.) But there's no question that Snoopy becomes the strip's primo star during the height of what Sally memorably mischaracterizes as the "Age of Aquariums." Other characters get memorable moments within these pages, of course, but Snoopy gets far and away the most meaningful "panel time."

Many longstanding Snoopy-related themes that would carry PEANUTS through the next decade and beyond are first introduced here. The horde of identical birds that had long interacted with Snoopy is finally pared down to a single companion, Woodstock, who henceforth will serve as ol' Snoop's "Bird Friday" and silent (apart from the occasional outburst of crooked vertical lines) partner in countless strips. Snoopy's persistent efforts to wade through those infamously "dark and stormy" opening sentences and gain fame as the "world's greatest novelist" also begin during this time. Most symbolic of all are the trio of continuities that I'll call "The Head Beagle Trilogy." In round one, Frieda, making her last valiant effort to get Snoopy to chase rabbits, commits a fatal faux pas by reporting his lax attitude to "The Head Beagle." She thereby becomes a pariah (perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the naturally curly one dropped out of the main cast soon thereafter!) as Schulz builds the "fear factor" up to comically grotesque proportions. A most unsatisfying concluding strip, however, leaves the reader with a sense of letdown. Ditto the second series of strips, in which the H.B. assigns Snoopy to a "secret mission" on the playground. Schulz again drops the ball by allowing Snoopy to linger there for only two days' worth of strips before getting chased away. Finally, Schulz decides to cut to the chase and make Snoopy HIMSELF the Head Beagle. This works out much better, though it does seem rather strange that the H.B. is apparently responsible for the activities of all dogs throughout the world (!). The not-yet-named Woodstock has his most memorable "anonymous" role as Snoopy's secretary; that gig would linger beyond the end of the continuity (not to mention be featured in the feature film Snoopy Come Home several years later). After Snoopy gets stripped of his title (for cracking under the strain and seeking asylum with Peppermint Patty), Schulz mines a few more continuities out of the situation. The most memorable of these finds the deposed kingpin invited to speak (?) at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, only to be caught in the middle of a riot protesting the plight of Vietnam "war dogs." Readers of David Michaelis' SCHULZ AND PEANUTS will recognize this as the story in which Schulz was supposedly "mirroring" his concurrent affair. (I won't comment on that here, but does anyone remember that Snoopy had been ready to get married to that "skating/beach beagle" a few years before? And I don't even want to think about what Snoopy's fling with "three airline stewardesses" might represent.) Perhaps in reaction to all this overheated material, Snoopy's next major "role" after the "Daisy Hill Riot"/"love affair" sequence was the far more prosaic one of a "world-famous grocery clerk."

Snoopy's "journeys to places unknown" also result in several memorable continuities in this volume. First, the beagle goes on an unsuccessful journey to find his mother. Snoopy would meet plenty of relatives -- too many, in fact -- in the years just ahead, but the time for doing so was not quite ripe. Then, in late 1970, Snoopy helps Woodstock walk (note the verb) south so that the bird "won't upset the ecology." The pair get only two blocks from home, but Snoopy's kidnapping by an over-eager little girl would be used again during Snoopy Come Home. (The girl isn't quite as wacky here as she is on screen; in fact, she goes nameless and only appears in two panels.)

Snoopy dominates the proceedings, but Charlie Brown and Linus get to star in what is undoubtedly the volume's most inexpressibly sad continuity: the sudden departure of the Little Red-Haired Girl from the neighborhood. Tragically, Charlie can't bring himself to speak to his icon, even at this juncture, and the angry Linus flips out, screaming his frustration at his tongue-tied friend and even threatening Lucy when she happens to get in the way. Linus gets in one final lick, too, kicking Charlie in the butt a few days later after the wishy-washy one begins mooning over "what might have been" yet again. Was this continuity ever reprinted in books? If so, I never saw it. I can understand cutting out the gags in which Charlie falls headfirst out of a ski-run chair lift and jumps headfirst off a baseball backstop, but if the book publishers really did ignore this sequence out of some misguided sense of sensitivity for Charlie (or for Linus' reputation), then they missed a trick.

Several stand-alone gags illustrate the conservative vision at the heart of Schulz' work, even as he tried to understand -- and, in certain instances, co-opt -- the rebellious spirit of this famously turbulent time. The "Love Balloon" gag of 4/19/69 could almost be taken as a veiled rebuke of the hippie-ish sentiment that "love is all you need." Even more memorable is the strip of 7/30/70 in which Schulz ever so delicately skirts the issue of abortion. "Your ignorance of theology and medicine is appalling!" snorts Lucy after Linus wonders aloud what would happen if a couple decided not to have a baby "waiting to be born" in heaven. "I still think it's a good question," muses Linus, and the question still bedevils our society to this day.

Fantagraphics' presentation is the same as it ever was, including the obligatory introduction, this one by Mo Willems. It's substance over style all the way, only now the substance comes packaged in black-and-white spotted fur, for the most part. Essential, as always.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Book Review: MEANWHILE... A BIOGRAPHY OF MILTON CANIFF by R.C. Harvey (Fantagraphics Press, 2007)

This meaty slab of a book consumed a great deal of my attention over the course of two recent weeks. It doesn't usually take me that long to finish a reading job, but this one deserved the extra attention, for which all credit is due to R.C. Harvey, the respected comics scholar who labored over it for such a long time. Caniff, creator of TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON and the acknowledged grand master of the now-all-but-defunct continuity adventure strip, deserved a big, sprawling biography detailing his many services to the profession and to American culture in general, and Harvey certainly delivers the goods with this blockbuster.

In many respects, this is the exact opposite of another recent cartoonist's biography, SCHULZ AND PEANUTS. Harvey eschews psychological theorizing in favor of what he himself terms (in the Foreword) "a reportorial stance" -- just the facts, please. Not that the author's admiration for his subject isn't obvious at every turn. It helps that Caniff was a most admirable and honorable man who contributed massively to bucking up morale during WWII and later did yeoman service in support of the armed forces during the Cold War. Caniff's lush drawing style and trademark "snappy patter" set the pace in adventure strips from the late 30s, when TERRY AND THE PIRATES blossomed, through the late 60s. Harvey arguably denotes a little too much time to describing how Caniff (who left TERRY and the Tribune-News Syndicate for the Field Syndicate in the interest of gaining greater personal control over his work) developed and launched STEVE CANYON in the late 40s and not quite enough space to a completely thorough discussion of TERRY, but he hardly gives the latter short shrift.

The book is not without an element of artistic tragedy, in a manner of speaking. Caniff's smart-alecky humor and the joyful camaraderie displayed by his characters fit perfectly with the Zeitgeist of the 1940s, when America was forced to fight for its survival but managed to keep its sense of humor while doing so. In the 50s, however, Caniff may have committed a misstep when he turned Steve Canyon from a free-lance globetrotting pilot into a troubleshooter for the Air Force. In the Vietnam War era, it was all the easier to dismiss Caniff's old-fashioned patriotism as jingoism when the hero of the strip wore clothes provided by Uncle Sam. Caniff never really did recover from the loss of popularity he suffered during the late 60s and early 70s. By the time STEVE CANYON staggered to the line in 1988, Caniff was resorting to dream sequences and the like in an effort to capture at least a small portion of the old magic, to no avail. The comics medium had changed on the old master, and not for the better. Harvey's description of Caniff's final years is at once poignant, frustrating, and elegaic.

Be prepared to linger over these pages, but rest assured, it's definitely worth the time and effort.




It's a full rich week at the comics shop with the announced releases of the newest issues of UNCLE $CROOGE and WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, the delayed appearance of the collected DUCKTALES: THE GOLD ODYSSEY, and -- if Fantagraphics ain't woofin' -- the release of Volume 3 of the E.C. Segar POPEYE collection. Between those tomes and a few items still to be read, I've got more than enough reading material to assuage those post-election blues.