Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is It "Bedtime" Again Already? (Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S VACATION PARADE #5, May 2008 [Gemstone Publishing])

Eighteen years on, the influence of the Disney Comics title MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES can still be felt. Without MMA's reestablishment of Mickey Mouse as a truly viable adventure character -- no offense intended to longtime Mouse artist Paul Murry, but Mickey's escapades as a "private detective" had long since grown enervated and stale by the time Murry retired in the mid-1980s -- one can hardly imagine Mickey's dramatic comeback in the Egmont-produced comics of the late 1990s and early 2000s ever taking place. Thanks to Byron Erickson, David Gerstein, a passel of talented (and primarily American) writers, and a phalanx of artists (led by Cesar Ferioli and Noel Van Horn) who successfully married Mickey's contemporary look to an old-fashioned Floyd Gottfredson attitude, Mickey is once again a front-rank comics star.

Of all of MMA's many fine stories, none packed quite the wallop of the two-part 1990 tale "The Big Fall" and "A Phantom Blot Bedtime Story," in which Mickey faced off against The Phantom Blot in a full-blooded throwback to the original Blot story of 1939. This classic, written by Lee Nordling and drawn by Stephen DeStefano and Gary Martin, finally gets an overdue reprinting at (unfortunately) the back of the recently released WALT DISNEY'S VACATION PARADE #5. (Actually, we were fortunate to see it at all, as the 1943 Ken Hultgren adventure "The Seven-Colored Terror" was originally scheduled to run in its place.) In "The Big Fall," The Blot, arguably closer here to his 1939 persona -- with one intriguing exception (see below) -- than in virtually any other story one could name, matches wits with Mickey for possession of a valuable gem, only to be foiled in the end. Making his escape at the end of the story, The Blot seeks revenge, and what a revenge he cooks up -- a death trap that makes the "barber chair" and "footstool" death traps of the original story seem like children's parlor games. Dumped into a bizarre revolving maze that's a cross between an M.C. Escher print gone mad and the chaotic rotating stairwells of Hogwarts Castle, Mickey labors to save Pluto and Goofy from certain doom. The Blot would have gotten away with it, too, if not for the fact that the venom-emboldened villain tries one ruse too many. Legendary artist John Byrne provided cover art illustrating The Blot's labyrinth, but DeStefano and Martin do an even better job of bringing the maddening maze to ghastly life.

Lending a touch of pathos to this otherwise straightforward story is the introduction of The Blot's black-clad daughter. Yep, you read it right. "The Phantom Brat" (cf. editor David Cody Weiss in the MMA letter column) appears in the last panel of "Fall," sobbing over her Dad's apparent plunge to doom. It seems that The Blot meant to give the gem to her, all his stories about being forced to steal the stone to propitiate a kidnapper being so much Blots**t. The wee one's role in "Bedtime Story" is even more arresting. Already in custody at the start of the story -- but given a chance by Mickey to say goodbye to his daughter -- The Blot couches the story of his a-maze-ing battle with Mickey in the form of a fairy tale in which he ("The Good King") crosses swords with and ultimately falls victim to Mickey ("The White Knight"). This fairy tale isn't fractured, it's positively twisted beyond the point of recognition. Adding to the surreal feel of the framing sequence, "The Phantom Brat"'s toys all sport the same cloaked heads as "The Brat" and her Dad. "The Brat" -- now bearing the name "Alberta" -- appeared in at least one other Egmont story following her debut, but it's safe to say that this was the high point of her brief but memorable comics career.

As great as this narrative is, certain flaws are now apparent that were not so visible in 1990. The biggest of these lies in the characterization of Mickey. Oh, he's certainly not a weak character of the "happy bandleader" mold here; his characterization just isn't quite as distinctive as that of the Mickey that would blossom in the later Egmont stories. Mickey basically plays the stalwart hero, impressing The Blot no end ("How durable of you!" the villain responds after Mickey has evaded death yet again) but showing relatively little of the Floyd Gottfredson-inspired flavor that later writers such as Gerstein, Pat and Carol McGreal, Stefan Petrucha, and Noel Van Horn would emphasize. Of course, in the context of 1990, simply showing that Mickey could handle heavy-duty action and suspense and not only survive but thrive was more than enough of an accomplishment for Nordling, who would go on to pen "Space Mickey and the Throgg-Ray Wars," an epic space adventure, for DISNEY ADVENTURES DIGEST (more's the pity) before gradually fading from the scene.

The rest of WDVP #5 isn't too shabby, either. Carl Barks' 1949 adventure "Trail of the Unicorn" isn't usually put on the short list of his greatest stories, but it's full of action and good running gags (Donald: "Yes, Uncle Scrooge!"). Sent to the Himalayas to corral a unicorn for Scrooge's zoo, Donald and HD&L must fend off Gladstone, who, strangely, not only trusts to his famous luck but also actively tries to scam Donald into purchasing a worn-out nag instead. This could be considered a logic break, except for the fact that Gladstone himself regrets actually working to con his cousin and goes back to lying in the lap of Lady Luck. The story also features one of the Ducks' all-time great near-death experiences, as Dewey barely saves himself from being skewered by the rampaging unicorn by proffering a moss-covered rock to the (supposedly) mythical beast. A grateful Dewey totes the rock home, and, unsurprisingly, the souvenir ends up helping the Ducks trump Gladstone in the end. Might this story enjoy a better "rep" if Scrooge had come along, as opposed to simply using Donald and HD&L as gofers? Could be...

The Scrooge of Kari Korhonen's "Treasure Treachery" is perilously close to becoming a basket case -- ceaselessly badgering his employees and stressing out to the max. The Ducks cook up a bogus treasure quest to an exotic island in order to shake Scrooge out of the rut, but Donald, true to form, doesn't want to stop the good times from rolling and ups the ante by tossing a fake treasure map into the mix. Little does he know that Scrooge has gotten wise to Don's deceit and is planning a revenge scam of his own. It's another good, solid Korhonen effort with lots of character-based humor -- and, unlike "Fall"/"Bedtime" and "Unicorn," it actually has something to do with a vacation. So, too, does Jack Bradbury's 1955 LI'L BAD WOLF story "Back to Nature", in which Zeke tries -- and mostly fails -- to prove his mettle as a he-wolf during a camping trip with his son. Even the Dick Kinney/Al Hubbard DONALD AND FETHRY story "Preserve Psychiatry" contains a nod to summer fun (hmm, now there's a name for a Disney quarterly...) as Don heads for a hunting and fishing frolic in The Everglades, where he runs smack dab into newly-anointed "conservationist" Fethry. There's no doubt, however, that the highlights of this issue transcend any particular season.


Joe Torcivia said...

Chris writes: “…no offense intended to longtime Mouse artist Paul Murry, but Mickey's escapades as a "private detective" had long since grown enervated and stale by the time Murry retired in the mid-1980s --”

Perhaps so, but one can hardly blame Murry for that! I’d say it had plenty more to do with the EIGHT PAGE format that was employed for the new Mickey stories for Western’s last ELEVEN YEARS! Even so, we got good moments with Pete, Dan and Idjit, and The Phantom Blot -- the latter maybe used more often that even in his last heyday of the mid-sixties. Murry’s Mouse tales were probably the best (in terms of story and art) that Western had to offer in its declining decade!

If you think Mickey suffered in those years… just look at SCROOGE!

That said, MMA (especially Nordling!) and Egmont did indeed bring Mickey back to where we always wanted him! …And aren’t we glad of that!

Say, I tried clicking on the link for MMA, and some of the others -- and then realized that they were just underlines. It may be the proper usage, but not the best Blog form to employ underlines as you do, simply because they can be taken for links.

Chris Barat said...

Thanks for the tip about the underlines. I guess I was still in "Microsoft Word" mode while I wrote this.

I realize that Murry wasn't responsible for the rigid format; that's why I said "no offense." (Though I do think his artwork grew less inspired with time.)