Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S UNCLE $CROOGE: THE SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Books, 2014)

If this be "skimming," then at least it's mostly cream.  In his seminal CARL BARKS AND THE ART OF THE COMIC BOOK, Michael Barrier* praised the earliest UNCLE $CROOGE stories -- in particular, "Only a Poor Old Man" -- to the highest heavens but then argued that, with Scrooge's essential nature having been revealed whole during these tales, there was nothing more that Barks could do with the old miser that wouldn't be "skimming the surface" in comparison.  When he used that phrase, Barrier had in mind tales exactly like the ones in this collection, the stories from U$ #7-12 (1954-55).  Here, we can see Barks really settling in with the notion of using Scrooge as an adventure hero in search of lost treasures -- the genre that William Van Horn once tongue-in-cheekedly described as "plunging into the jungle in search of the lost ruby."  In the sense that these stories don't delve as deeply into what drives Scrooge as did "Poor Old Man" or "Back to the Klondike," then Barrier has a point; after all, Scrooge can be "fully realized for the first time" only once.  But even Barrier had to admit that many of these "second-stage" offerings are "beautifully crafted."  Given that Barks was still getting used to the whole idea of Scrooge playing an heroic role on a regular basis, that's certainly an admirable enough achievement.

If Barrier doesn't have a full appreciation of Barks' craft during this period, then DuckTales sure as shootin' did.  The TV series borrowed liberally from Barks' output during this time, producing direct adaptations of "The Lemming with the Locket" and "The Golden Fleecing" and swiping the conflict from "The Great Steamboat Race" to serve as a centerpiece of its ill-fated Scrooge biography, "Once Upon a Dime."  And that may not be the end of the story.  As I argued when discussing "Too Much of a Gold Thing," the final chapter of "Treasure of the Golden Suns," one could make a good argument that "The Seven Cities of Cibola" had a direct influence on that climactic classic, just as it did on a certain Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg.

As great as the finest of these tales are, I do have to admit that this volume contains the first U$ feature story that I didn't much care for: "The Mysterious Stone Ray," aka "The Mysterious Unfinished Invention," aka "Leave Stranded and Petrified Beagle Boys Lie."  I previously reviewed it here.  The story is currently ranked 16th among all Disney comics stories at Inducks, which I quite frankly cannot fathom.  Our own GeoX bombed quite savagely on "The Menehune Mystery" as Barks' first really sh**ty $CROOGE story (Geo, of course, used the uncensored version of the word), but "Stone Ray" is poorly organized and is illogical in so many ways that it's hard for me, at least, to regard it as being distinctly better than "Menehune."  Chacun a son gout, and all that.  The use of the two unrelated "adventurettes" in U$ #11, "The Great Steamboat Race" and "Riches, Riches Everywhere," is just a bit irritating -- I'm sure that at least a few of Barks' loyal readers back in 1955 regarded the unprecedented double-dip in the same way that DuckTales fans regarded that series' only venture into the two-story format (in Episode 11, no less! How about that?!), but at least the Barks tales are actually good.

Artistically speaking, Barks is still close to the top of his game here, though the effects of the notorious mid-50s "drawing paper switch" that stiffened up his art for a while can first be seen here (in U$ #11).  The worst of these effects won't show up until the "tall Ducks" period of the late 50s, however, and, all things considered, Barks' initial adaptation to the switcheroo is quite adept.  On the gag side, we see the initial one-page salvos in the "free cup of coffee wars" between Scrooge and the unfortunate diner owner who will have to wait more than half a century before his psychological torment can be comprehensively examined in a real, live, full-length story.

* In case you were unaware of the fact, FUNNYBOOKS, Barrier's new book-length history of the "Dell Comics are Good Comics" era, presently stands on the cusp of release.  Barrier can be an astringent analyst, but his views are always worth considering, so anyone with an interest in the Dell days should pick this book up, either for oneself or as a gift for a like-minded friend.  Given IDW's aggressive action in acquiring the Disney comics license and its sturdy stable of licensed properties and original creations, might we be on the verge of seeing the rise of "the new Dell"?  Time will dell... er, tell.

ECAC Southeast Bowl: Stevenson 27, Bethany (WV) 9 (11/22)

Given an unexpected opportunity to extend their season -- and on friendly turf, no less -- the Mustangs took full advantage against the Bethany (WV) Bison in a concoction called the ECAC Southeast Bowl.  The game took place at the end of a very cold week, so, despite a fairly benevolent Saturday forecast, Nicky and I came bundled up, with an extra blanket in tow, just in case.  Even so, the wind and cold were severe enough that we decided to vamoose at halftime.  It was a good decision, because Stevenson already had a 23-0 lead, playing an exceptionally crisp first half.  (They did miss an extra point, but we've sort of come to expect that by now.)  The second half was apparently much less pleasing, but the Mustangs already had the game in hand anyway. 


The crowd was a little subdued, partially because of people's attire (it's hard to clap loudly when you're wearing gloves) and partially because there just weren't that many people on hand.  The players made up for it, though; the Mustangs' bench was easily the loudest I have ever heard it.  Evidently, finishing 8-3 and sending the 20-odd seniors out on a winning note was something that the players really wanted to accomplish.

Chalk this season up as a huge success, and let's try for Middle Atlantic title contention in 2015!

Monday, November 24, 2014

DUCKTALES Fanfic Review: "The Reunion at Duckburg" by "Sosa Lola"

At long (and seemingly interminable) last, it's time to begin examining some of the very best Duckfic fantales!... Er, DuckTales fanfics!

Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge my good friend Mark Lungo for his useful advice concerning these reviews should be organized.  In the Disney Afternoon apa WTFB, Mark developed something of a specialization in the assessment of fan-created prose works.  The "star" rating system for various features of the story is entirely my own.

You can find "Sosa Lola"'s "The Reunion at Duckburg" here on fanfiction.net.

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** WATCH FOR FALLING (AND YAHOOHOOEEING, GOOFY-STYLE) SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD -- OR DOWN, IF YOU PREFER **

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THE STORY:  It's Spring Break time, and Goofy and a reluctant Max travel to McDuck Mansion for one of Goofy's periodic reunions with his old pals Donald and Mickey.  There are several reasons for Max' reticence: he's reluctant to get reacquainted with Donald's Nephews, who tormented him with pranks at the last reunion at Donald's house some four years ago; Uncle Scrooge, whom Max has never met, sounds like a grouchy old miser; Goofy's enthusiasm for the get-together just doesn't seem... cool.  (In case you're wondering: HD&L appear to be their DuckTales selves here, as opposed to the teenaged Quack Pack versions, while Max likewise seems to be in his Goof Troop form, rather than his older A Goofy Movie manifestation.)  Not wanting to be victimized yet again, and somewhat alienated by Huey and Dewey's slightly snarky attitudes towards him, Max tries to get "cold-served" revenge on the triplets with a prank of his own.  The gag winds up putting Dewey in bed with an injured ankle.  An angry Goofy grounds Max for the first time ever, meaning that he's left behind while the others go out to dinner.  Scrooge, who's been busy and absent up until this time, returns home to find the unfamiliar Goof kid.  The duo hit it off reasonably well -- so much so, in fact, that Scrooge brings Max with him to the Money Bin.  Scrooge has been fretting over a threatened attack on the Bin by the Beagle Boys, who are working for Magica de Spell.  Scrooge temporarily leaves his Old #1 Dime in Max' possession while he's investigating a suspicious noise inside the Bin, and Max is promptly knocked out.  He awakes to find himself in Magica's lair on Mount Vesuvius, where Magica is preparing to finish what she started in "Send in the Clones" and create an amulet out of the cherished coin.  One hitch, however: she needs some frogs' legs to complete the recipe.  (Um, since when?)  With a heavy load of guilt sitting on his shoulders due to his failure to protect Old #1 at the Bin -- not to mention his previous misbehavior -- Max must help the Duck, Mouse, and Goof rescue party set things right, a task that becomes all the more difficult when his beloved Dad gets turned into a frog by Magica...

Well, I certainly wasn't going to pick a dog (heh) of a story with which to start my review series.  This is a fine effort, a fanfic that both reflects the familiar and expected in a (mostly) accurate fashion and goes in several new, intriguing, and entirely believable directions.

Here are my evaluations of the individual components of the tale:

PLOT:  Just fine in Chapter 1 (which ends with Scrooge taking Max to the Bin), but gets a tad "overly convenient" in a couple of spots in Chapter 2, and goes completely haywire in one particular instance.  (***1/2 out of *****) 

"Sosa Lola" him/herself seems to have been uncomfortable about the notion of the Beagle Boys bringing the unconscious Max back to Magica's lair with them when there was no need for them to do so.  How can I tell?  Because Max HIMSELF wonders why they did it. Since Magica needs frogs' legs to complete the amulet spell (again, you tell me why) and later proves to have no compunction over turning both adults and kids into frogs and threatening to rip off their legs, you would think that this would be the main reason for going to the trouble of bringing Max along, but it turns out that Magica expected the Beagles to get real frogs instead.  What makes this all the stranger is that the Beagles don't even bother to capture Scrooge; Max is the only one that enjoys the privilege of being carted away.

The good-guy cavalry arrives at Mount Vesuvius very soon after Max does -- the others actually arrive in stages, with Minnie and Daisy (who, thankfully, are not on hand just to serve as eye candy; the same goes for Webby, BTW) flying in helicopters as backup.  I don't have a problem with this, given that Scrooge was left behind to raise the alarm.  But Louie insisting on parachuting out of Launchpad's plane beforehand, under the premise that a little kid like him would be able to infiltrate Magica's place more easily?  It rings true in a character-based sense -- at least in the context of this story, as we'll soon see -- but no way can I imagine Scrooge letting Louie do that on his own recognizance.

Which would be more likely to parachute solo into a dangerous situation?

Where I really must part company with "SL" is with his decision to set Max up to be the "fall Goof" by having Scrooge give Max Old #1 for temporary safekeeping.  Mind you, Scrooge had already taken a special precaution to protect the dime by removing it from its normal storage case and sticking it inside a "pencil box" filled with loose change.  It would make all the sense in the world to simply leave it in that atypical location, as opposed to putting it in the hands of a young kid whom Scrooge has just met.  Yes, Scrooge does treat Max with respect from the start.  Even given that fact, there's no bleeding way I can see him taking such a chance.

I can't even imagine Little Scroogie doing it.

CHARACTERIZATIONS:  The best part of the story, in both a good sense and a bad sense... if you can believe it.   (***** out of *****)

Apparently, "Sosa Lola" has written several other Goof Troop fanfics in addition to this one, so I would hope that he would have a handle on what makes Max Goof tick.  He turns out to possess rather more than that.  The Max that we see here is poised somewhere between the Max of Goof Troop and the Max of A Goofy Movie.  He's still the "polite kid" who desires to be "cool," is a mean foot (feet?) with a skateboard, and easily gets embarrassed at his Dad's pratfalls, but there are more than a few hints that Max' attitude towards his own "Goofitude" and his tendency to screw things up is beginning to sour into something rather more unpleasant.  "SL" ramps up Max' feelings of inadequacy as the story progresses -- making him feel bad over his prank going wrong, making him feel ashamed of embarrassing his Dad, giving him the guilt trip over "losing" Scrooge's dime, etc.  It gets to the point where Max is so filled with "guilt and self-loathing" that he even offers to sacrifice his life so that other characters won't be harmed for Magica's benefit.  Louie is so horrified at what Max had planned to do that he literally slaps Max in the face.  Even Goofy is tempted to do the same, except that he "doesn't believe in hitting children."  Now you see why I described Max as standing between two "poles."  If one wants to take this story as belonging to "Spoonerville canon," then this might be the very moment at which "Glad Max" morphed into "Sad Max."  It makes the "happy ending" seem just a bit hollow.

Louie's reaction to Max' intended self-sacrifice resonates all the more because Louie had previously treated the visiting Goof kid with far more thoughtfulness and kindness than either of his brothers.  When you realize that the Nephews are still their DuckTales selves, this is quite something.  Numerous other fanfics that I've examined, especially those set in the indeterminate future, have taken pains to give the boys distinct characterizations.  It's as if these writers wanted to go the Quack Pack route but didn't necessarily want to use the Quack Pack versions of HD&L.  This is the first fic I've seen in which such a distinction was applied to the DuckTales versions of the boys.  Louie's slapping of Max is all the more significant because Louie appears to be disappointed with Max for even contemplating such a thing.  Evidently, Louie had been determined to befriend Max from the start.

If you're wondering why Huey and Dewey had so much more of a negative reaction than Louie did to Max' presence... well, "SL" helpfully provides us with an explanation, straight from the Ducks' (in this case, Huey's) beak.  Apparently, HD&L had always been jealous of the fact that Max lived with and was cared for by his Dad, in part because of a guilt trip carried over from their own hell-raising days.  Add to this the fact that the boys were upset that Donald (who's still in the Navy) had been unable to get away for the reunion... The unanswered question here is, what caused Louie, in particular, to have a different attitude from his brothers'?  Was "SL" consciously or unconsciously drawing on the "big-hearted" Louie of Quack Pack, the kid who protected endangered "pugduddies" and so forth? 

You have NO idea, Donald...

HOMEWORK:  To be a really good fanfic, "attention must be paid" at some point(s) to what has gone before, even if only tangentially.  "Sosa Losa" is right "on point" in this area.  (***** out of *****)

There are many, many references here to "Send in the Clones."  In fact, the first part of the showdown at Magica's lair is close to a clone (heh) of what we saw in that first syndicated ep, right down to Huey giving Magica the most trouble.  Huey and Magica each make clear references to their previous encounter.  Some lines from "Don't Give Up the Ship" are shoehorned in, as well, and Dewey (who has to sit out the battle back in Duckburg because of his injury) is referred to by Louie as "always com[ing] up with great plans."

"SL" also makes references to several Goof Troop episodes, such as "Slightly Dinghy."  Goofy's "lucky horseshoe," which enters into the denouement, first appeared in An Extremely Goofy Movie, but it's easy to imagine Goofy having that object during the Goof Troop era, so I'll let the apparent anachronism slide.

Thankfully, "Sosa" didn't add "disco references" to his story. 

WRITING AND HUMOR:  The writing's serviceable, and, given that half of the tale is an adventure and some genuinely sober subthemes are present, there are some really funny lines.  It helps that "Sosa Lola" understands how these characters should sound.  (**** out of *****)

There's one really annoying misspelling -- "stake" for "steak" -- that should really have been corrected, especially since it appeared multiple times during the course of a couple of pages.  It's also difficult at times to identify who exactly is speaking; this is a particular issue during the character-choked finale.  Other than those nits, there are few problems here.

Launchpad doesn't have a whole lot to do, but, true to form, he does get the funniest line of the story.  Some of the banter between Max and Scrooge is  quite amusing, and it was easy for me to imagine the characters exchanging the dialogue in their "animated voices."

There is one peculiar moment at the very end of the story that I frankly don't quite understand.  Peg appears on the scene, and she and Scrooge appear to engage in a bit of.... innuendo??  Was this titillation really necessary?  I did get a chuckle about the plans that Scrooge has for Peg, though.  (They're NOT WHAT YOU THINK.  Remember, Goldie could always be lurking around the next corner inside a giant cake.)


OVERALL:  ****1/2 out of *****N&V RECOMMENDED.

This story is definitely worth DuckTales' fans' time.  "Sosa Lola" clearly put a good deal of thought into it, and the problems with the plot don't detract from the simple fact that it's an enjoyable read, albeit one with a slightly darker underside than you might expect.

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Please feel free to send feedback on how I handled this first review.  Did I give away too much of the plot?  Do you approve of the categories I used?  Did you actually go and READ the darned story, and, if so, how did your reactions differ from mine?  I'd love to know.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stevenson 35, Misericordia 14... BUT WAIT, There's More!

 
As I expected, Stevenson handled Misericordia last Saturday to finish 7-3 and in fourth place in the Middle Atlantic Conference -- not bad at all for a program in its fourth season of existence.  The Mustangs, however, got an unexpected bonus when they were invited to play in something called the ECAC Southeast Bowl.  The game will be this Saturday at Stevenson against Bethany (WV).  It's not exactly the Division III playoffs, but, hey, who's complaining?  Especially when Nicky and I, as season-ticket holders, are getting free admission to the game?

Happily, the weather on Saturday promises to be warmer than the arctic conditions we've endured the past few days.  We're still going to, as Nicky likes to put it, "dress in layers" for the occasion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #11 (IDW Publishing, November 2014)

FRIENDS FOREVER gets back on the beam with issue #11, doing what I always hope that this title will do... namely, use a limited cast of MLP characters to allow for a focus on certain aspects of a character that have never been examined, or perhaps even clearly defined, before.  The task is trickier here than it might appear at first glance, certainly more so than when Katie Cook and Andy Price cast the hitherto characterization-challenged Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor as refugees from a John Hughes movieSpitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts and thus something of an "aspirational peer" for the gung-ho Rainbow Dash, has a problem opposite to that of the Princess and her hubby; she has literally gotten a different characterization every time she has appeared on the show, and most of those did not exactly put her in the best of lights.  Somehow, writer Ted Anderson manages to cut through the muck and give us a new take on the character that feels believable and does not entirely abandon what has gone before.  It helps that Rainbow Dash, whose various foibles have been the subject of televised dissection more than once, gets one of her best "supportive adult" moments in any medium here.

** SPOILERS **

Think I'm kidding re: Spitfire?  Glad-hoofing celebrity and partygoer ("The Best Night Ever"), bumbling co-conspirator in a surprisingly incompetent group of supposedly heroic pegasi ("Sonic Rainboom" and "Secret of My Excess"), bland sideline-watching executive ("Hurricane Fluttershy"), hardass drill instructor ("Wonderbolts Academy"), conniving bitch and colleague-betrayer ("Rainbow Falls")... Baskin-Robbins would be hard put to top the variety in that list.  My hopes here were that Anderson would (1) not add to the damage caused by the character derailment in "Rainbow Falls," (2) bring Spitfire back to something resembling the "authority figure" setting of "Wonderbolts Academy," where I think she works the best, and (3) give her some relatable foibles without making her an overt figure of fun.  All three missions accomplished!

Spitfire invites Dash to be an instructor at a "Junior Flyers Summer Camp" because... she simply isn't good at dealing with kids (beg pardon, fillies and foals).  It seems that she doesn't know how to temper down her "mean" behavior as a Wonderbolt D.I. (I'd call it "demanding" rather than outright "mean," but potato, potahto...) and thus lets the littl'uns walk all over her.  Dash suggests being "tougher" with the kids, but Spitfire promptly overdoes it, treating them just like adult recruits.  Spitfire, however, does have a legitimate, inherent ability to motivate others -- though, as we are told in a flashback, it took a while for her to assert herself when she was a new recruit -- and Dash cunningly gives Spitfire a chance to literally show the little(r) ponies how it's done by whipping up a tornado for the Wonderbolt Captain to disperse before their eyes.  (The meteorological danger is perhaps a bit extreme for the purpose, but, then again, this is Rainbow Dash we're talking about.)  The "practical lessons" finally take, and Dash reminds Spitfire that the latter can always get better at working with kids by herself, yet still ask for a helping hoof when needed.

The plot is handled spot-on perfect.  We get a look at what makes Spitfire the entire character, as opposed to Spitfire the icon/buffoon/meanie/bitch, tick.  Anyone who has ever had to wield authority that they have earned, as opposed to authority that they have been awarded, will be able to both understand Spitfire's pride in her capabilities and recognize that any leader must be willing to keep learning, just as Spitfire does here.  And all credit to Dash for being so understanding, thoughtful, and (what else?) friendly while playing a lower-key role than the "cheekily bombastic" one at which she normally excels.

The plot is strong enough by itself, but the artwork, by a newcomer named Jay P. Fosgitt (henceforth to be referred to "Fearless" for blog-obvious reasons), is really something special.  It is at utter variance with any visual depictions of the MLP:FIM characters that we have been given in any of IDW's MLP titles, or on the TV show, for that matter: cartoonier, sweeter, softer-edged.  I would even go so far as to call it "POGO-esque," but that may be setting the bar just a tad high, and, in any event, Fosgitt uses more exaggerated facial expressions and poses than Walt Kelly ever did.  Having seen a preview page or two, I wasn't sure how this style was going to wear in a book-length tale, but it didn't take long for Fosgitt to win me over.  It helped that the story, with its mix of slapstick, reminiscence, and sentiment, seemed to be complemented quite well by Fosgitt's approach.  I don't think that the somewhat stiffer "official" visual versions of the characters would have carried the plot off with such panache.

You can get an idea of the amount of "cartoonification" involved here by looking at the cover at the top of this blog entry and comparing it to the Fosgitt cover.  I hope we see more of Fosgitt in the future; I would be particularly intrigued to see how he would handle a more "action/adventure"-oriented story.

This title continues to mix gems with relative clinkers.  Perhaps I should do some research and try to come up with a numerically-based reason for the inconsistency... you know, like the thing about "original Star Trek movies" only being good if they're even-numbered.

Book Review: THE RETURN OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Edward J. Larson (William Morrow/Harper-Collins, 2014)

"What?" the reader may ask upon reading the title of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson's new book.  "How could George Washington have returned from anything?"  A good question, indeed... because, as Larson makes clear in this study of Washington's life and public works from the end of the Revolutionary War until he became America's first President under the new Constitution, Washington never truly stepped off the stage or shucked the role of America's "indispensable man," even after he shockingly resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon for what he hoped would be a pleasant retirement as a gentleman farmer and land speculator.  Indeed, his influence wound up being a -- Larson would no doubt say "the" -- deciding factor in persuading citizens to accept the paper version of an unprecedented form of popular government.  The belief that Washington would inevitably be the first President and could be trusted to set a good precedent for conduct in office was, of course, widespread, but Larson also reveals just how "hands-on" Washington was in aiding and abetting the Federalist cause "behind the scenes" during the ratification process

The tribulations of the newly independent United States (plural emphasized) under the Articles of Confederation, like the fabled Corleones, kept pulling Washington back into public life even as he insisted that he was "out" for good.  A trip to his western landholdings convinced him that only a strong central government could preserve property rights, protect settlers, and encourage commerce in the back country.  (Washington's hope for a Potomac River canal never really materialized, but he certainly was on the right towpath.)  Interstate squabbles, the inability of Congress to convince states to monetarily support what central authority there was, "hyperdemocratic" and faction-riven state institutions such as the unicameral legislature of Pennsylvania, and, above all, the insurrection in Massachusetts that became known as Shays' Rebellion convinced Washington, and many other "like-minded" nationalists, that a proposed convention to "reform" the Articles of Confederation needed to literally start the process over from scratch, creating a governmental framework for a nation, as opposed to "the several states."

Always expressing his reluctance to be dragged into the world of politics, Washington nonetheless played a critical role as President of the Constitutional Convention, albeit one that hardly ever intersected with the actual debates taking place on the floor.  While both large- and small-state advocates got some of what they wanted in the final document, the sheer weight of Washington's presence -- and the delegates' inherent, and justified, trust in him to do the right thing by the country -- guaranteed that the primary influence would be nationalist/Federalist.  Indeed, Washington appears to have assumed something of a protective role towards the Constitution, believing it to be the only alternative to chaos, and he took a dimmer and dimmer view of the "Antifederalists" as the ratification debates proceeded.  Never to the point of literally trying to ram the Constitution down its opponents' throats, however; Washington realized that "Antifeds" had to have their say, that they would have to be part of the new nation, and that the debates should be conducted with what he called "moderation, candor & fairness."

I am an immense admirer of Washington and greatly appreciated this discussion of a (relatively) lightly examined period in the great man's life.  Larson's portrait of the general/statesman depicts a man with strong opinions, forcefully expressed, but whose modesty, character, and ethical sense kept him firmly grounded at all times, as he displayed conduct that all too few "revolutionary heroes" have imitated in the centuries since.