Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Ills of Discovery (Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK: THE BARKS AND ROSA COLLECTION, VOLUME 3 [September 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

It would seem a tall order to top "The Golden Helmet," one of Carl Barks' all-time best Donald and HD&L adventures, but here's one instance in which Don Rosa unquestionably rose to the challenge of crafting a worthwhile -- even inspired -- sequel to a beloved classic. 1997's "The Lost Charts of Columbus" has its weak spots but still holds up remarkably well, even though Scrooge -- who made such a memorable addition to Keno Don's earlier "Return to Plain Awful" -- is nowhere in evidence. With the assistance of some intriguing bonus material, the two tales of would-be North American conquest form the strongest BARKS AND ROSA COLLECTION release to date.

"The Golden Helmet" has a fail-safe core plot notion: he who can claim title to the titular bauble, secreted on the island of Labrador in AD 901 by early Viking discovers of North America, will gain possession of the whole blinkin' continent, thanks to an earlier "Code of Discovery" enacted by Europe's rulers a century earlier and (helpfully) never repealed. The pickle-pussed Azure Blue, buttressed by his shifty lawyer Sharkey, so claims, and two representatives of the Duckburg Museum -- the elderly curator and lowly guard Donald -- head for Labrador to thwart the villains' plans by securing the helmet for themselves. Barks, in his prime artistic period at the time this story was created, really lets himself go in the Newfoundland scenes, crafting awesome land- and seascapes that he freely admitted were inspired by Hal Foster of PRINCE VALIANT fame. It's the characters, though, who really give this epic legs. Azure Blue, oddly enough, is probably the weakest of the lot; for all his grimacing menace, he's basically just a bully and con artist, not unlike Chisel McSue in Barks' later "Horseradish Story." Sharkey, with his comical snout and bogus Latin phrase-making, is something else again. The old curator also gets some memorable moments, in addition to which he, like Donald and Sharkey (and even Huey -- for a moment, at least!), gets the dubious opportunity to fall under the "spell" of the helmet and claim the auriferous armor for his own. Each character who gets "helmetized" spins his own fanciful fantasy of what he'll do with absolute power over North America; Donald, of course, gets the most outlandish one, with his goofy notion to tax the population for every breath they take. For his sins, Don gets to experience isolation (having the self-important Sharkey along almost doesn't count) and near-starvation before HD&L arrive to bail him out. Donald's subsequent refusal to continue the charade (despite Sharkey's protests) shows that he's learned his lesson well. Classic stuff appears on literally every page, and the story as a whole is a masterful mix of speculative history, action, suspense, and humor, with a poke or two in the ribs of "human nature" tossed in.

Prodded by his Norwegian editor to do a sequel to "Helmet," Rosa, perversely, came up with the idea of creating artifacts antedating (and thereby negating) the Golden Helmet's power-granting... uh, power. The need for such a trinket arises after Gladstone Gander (who else?) fishes the sunken helmet out of the deep during a trip to Newfoundland with Donald and the Nephews. Gosh all fishhooks (a phrase that seems quite apropos in this case, BTW), the Ducks' grizzled fishing guide turns out to be Azure Blue, and no sooner do we digest that highly unlikely intelligence than another "wouldjabelieve" moment socks us upside the head. Riffling through Junior Woodchuck documents in Canada, the (for the moment) blissfully ignorant HD&L discover old documents of Columbus revealing that he knew all along that land lay in the path of his westward journey. Columbus' collection of ancient maps yield several additional prior claims to discovery of the continent, and the race for control of North America's destiny is on again in earnest. (According to reprinted pages from the original version of the story, also reproduced herein, Akers MacCovet, the crooked real-estate agent from "His Majesty McDuck," was slated to be part of the lineup. It sure would've made logical sense, but MacCovet was dropped from the final version.) As the Ducks and Blue and Sharkey (who break their partnership and just as quickly re-form it when conditions are right) tussle over relics of Ireland, China, and Phoenicia and race from Mexico to Egypt to Cape Cod and back again, characterization takes a decided back seat to action and gags, but there's more than enough of the latter to satisfy anyone. The kicker is priceless, though I did "ding" it back in the day for political correctness. It doesn't seem nearly as irritating now, just a cute way of negating the Chris Berman-esque, "BACK-BACK-BACK" theme of temporally retreating relics. In his comments on "Charts," Rosa admits that it took no small amount of contrivance to get his plot underway, but, once it does, it "rolls" rather like the ancient Chinese stone wheel that Donald's butt spends a portion of the story uncomfortably wedged inside. Rosa does a nice job of tying the story in with his equally fine "Guardians of the Lost Library," as well.

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