Sunday, December 28, 2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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
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 "sprize 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," where 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.
See you later this evening with a new Disney comics review.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
The mid-50s 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 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 him 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 Scrooge's faithful clerk (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
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
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
"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 "sprize 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 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
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.