Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cheering for Old Notre Duck (Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #379 [July 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

Critical opinion on this issue's featured Carl Barks reprint, 1965's "The Phantom of Notre Duck," seems to be decidedly mixed. One online post I found termed it "the worst" Barks story ever done (worse than "Interplanetary Postman"? I think not!), and I get the impression that it's knocked down a few notches because of (1) the seemingly anachronistic setting of a "legendary" Duckburgian cathedral and (2) a general lack of gravitas, the hooded Phantom aside. It certainly bears many of the hallmarks of Barks' "camp" years -- slangy dialogue, gags better suited to an animated cartoon, and such like -- but it hangs together fairly well and ranks as one of my favorite late Barks efforts, sort of a comedic version of "The Old Castle's Secret." The Phantom's theft of a special fife that Scrooge is now using to activate his vault door seems at first like a straight "raid-the-Bin" notion, but it turns out that the black-clad brigand has very unusual plans in mind for the money he plans to swipe. (Unfortunately, despite the memorable "unmasking" scene at the end, the Phantom doesn't really have a distinctive characterization, which is probably the tale's biggest flaw.) As for Notre Duck itself, the vast cathedral is far more believable as a modern setting than is the absurd "castle of the Mad Duke of Duckburg" in the vastly inferior "House of Haunts." Barks takes obvious pains to present the interior of N.D. as "museum-like" rather than tied to any sort of religion, but the "wishing fountain" in which Scrooge wishes to "dunk" his fife for luck is pretty clearly a "holy water font" by another name, and, in the scene in which a howling Scrooge is hanging from the ceiling by a rope, one can see an altar-like shape in the background. An agnostic Barks may have been, but I appreciate these touches.

In a rare solo appearance, Magica essays time travel in Paul Halas, David Gerstein, and Jose Massaroli's "The Taxman Cometh," the better to catch a younger and unsuspecting Scrooge off guard and snatch the Old #1 Dime. Are you pondering what I'm pondering -- namely, the extreme similarity to Don Rosa's "Of Ducks, Dimes, and Destinies"? Perhaps thrown off by guilty feelings of plagiarism, Magica messes up her metric units and winds up in medieval Italy, where she's arraigned as a "witch" (such an insult!). The local tax collector spares her in exchange for her becoming his magical "enforcer," and all goes well until the taxmen raid a real witch. As Magica gets blown back to 2008, we get a clever reminder that Magica, unlike "the great witch Arcadia," is actually a self-taught dabbler in sorcery (or even worse -- remember the gadget she used to throw foof bombs in her origin story?).

Gorm Transgaard, John Clark, and Cesar Ferioli next serve up a superbly-drawn (surprised? Hey, it's Ferioli!) but only moderately inspired caper, "Wreckered Time." The title pun is actually the best thing the opus has going for it. Reliving his glory days as a "Master Wrecker," Donald faces ruin after Scrooge debuts the Kapow-3000 Wrecking Robot (a "Giant Robot Rubbler," if you will). In desperation, Don sabotages the robot's public demonstration, the robot sustains damage and goes on a rampage, and... you can pretty much fill in the rest. At least Don doesn't get stuck with the bill for damages in the end, thanks to timely intervention by HD&L. It's OK, but there are simply too many familiar ideas from past stories here for me to give the tale full marks.

Remember those William Van Horn gag stories from the "Gladstone I" era in which Launchpad tested planes for Gyro? In Bob Langhans and Jose Millet's "I of the Storm," the pair get to experience an actual adventure together. Helper accompanies them on a daring trip through a forming hurricane, and that actually turns out to be a major plot point, albeit one that isn't paid off until the final panel. Forced to take refuge inside a volcano (shades of the DuckTales episode "Launchpad's First Crash"!), LP and Gyro ride their disabled plane to safety with the help of a giant parachute (the script calls it a "balloon") filled with hot gases. Believe it or not, I first saw that gag in a RICHIE RICH story in 1975, and it still works for me, however physically improbable it may be. I appreciated seeing this story if only because it's sort of a "warmup act" for the impending release of the trade-paperback version of Langhans' Disney Comics-era epic, "The Gold Odyssey", which is by far the best adaptation of DuckTales to the four-color format.

We close with John Lustig and Esteban's "A Soft Job for a Hard Head," where we get to find out how Scrooge would fare without his faithful secretary, Mrs. Quackfaster. After she quits over Scrooge's refusal to grant her her first raise in two decades, Scrooge trusts to "the next person I meet!" to fill what he considers an easy position. Along comes Donald, and his stint at the desk goes about as well as you'd expect. It turns out that Mrs. Q. has such a way with paperwork (which overwhelms Scrooge, Don, and HD&L in her absence) that she almost comes off like one of the Rich family's "perfect" servants. Fenton Crackshell's ability to count quickly doesn't come close, if you ask me -- and, if you consider Scrooge as a "big tycoon" rather than a miserly oddball, then Mrs. Q's skill seems even more vital. This story would have been even better had the art not been quite so crude. Even so, it's a good capper on a very solid issue.


ramapith said...

Hi Chris!

Eek! Typo alert... the witch "Arcadia" is really Aradia, and has been known to turn men into newts for less. (Some got better.)

She's a famous mage of legend who would have lived in Magica's region of Italy some 750 years ago, so it's no surprise Magica's medieval employer ran into her...

Chris Barat said...

Thanks for the correction, David!