Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: THE COMPLETE LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume 4: A HOUSE DIVIDED by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2009)

Little Orphan Annie, Vol. 4: A House Divided, 1932-1933

As was the case with Volume 3, IDW's fourth collection of ANNIE strips, produced during the period January 1932-July 1933, took its sweet time arriving at the local shop. It would be ironic indeed if the delay were due to the current economic climate, since this batch of strips appeared at the very nadir of the Great Depression. While Harold Gray's strip continues to reflect some of the harsh realities of the time, there does seem to be a layer of "insulation" between the characters and the worst of what is going on around them: the two main plot lines traced herein involve "Daddy" Warbucks' ill-conceived remarriage and Annie and Sandy's lengthy sojourn in the small town of Cosmic City, where the biggest concerns are strictly parochial (though no less intriguing -- and potentially dangerous -- for all that). One can sense a certain hardening of Gray's positions on several issues, however, as he takes time to swipe at irresponsible intellectuals and begins to elaborate his, shall we say, ethically controversial theory of justifiable revenge.

Warbucks' romance with and marriage to the vulgar ex-showgirl Trixie Tinkle makes sense only if you buy the notion that the tycoon's desire to give Annie a "real" mother has temporarily blinded him to the faults of character that he is quick to pick up on in other instances. The blowsy Trixie, who bears a frankly unsettling resemblance to Russi Taylor, makes a weak attempt to "connect" with Annie, but is soon trying to "off" Sandy (who survives several attempts on his life with an elan that The Road Runner would be hard-pressed to match) and alienating Warbucks' friends to the extent that they no longer want to visit him. The ultimate affronts (at least in Gray's eyes) come when Trixie hires "moderns" to redecorate "Daddy"'s cozy apartment and invites a gaggle of hirsute revolutionaries, bohemians, and assorted ne'er-do-wells to the place for a party. This can only be taken as Gray's reaction to the then-burgeoning radical strain in American life, a warm-up for his later frontal assault on FDR's New Deal. Even after Trixie has made it clear that she wants Warbucks' money and nothing else, "Daddy" is willing to give the relationship one more chance, to the extent that he takes Trixie on a round-the-world cruise in an old sailing ship (bad memories of the Gargoyles "Cruise Arc" are fluttering about my head now) and allows Trixie to pick a suitable "boarding school" for Annie to attend in the meantime. Suffice it to say that Annie and Sandy are much better off hitting the open road.

The Cosmic City story arc, which lasts about a year, isn't particularly outstanding, with Annie's benefactors the Futiles a fairly bland couple (apart from the occasional slapstick pratfall that justifies the surname) and the solution of the story's "mystery" being helped along by a couple of extremely fortunate coincidences. It does, however, deserve note for giving readers their most "hissable" pair of stock villains to date. Parsimonious mortgage-monger Phineas Pinchpenny and his alternately cruel and blase son Elmer are presented as bad eggs from the off, but we gradually learn that Pinchpenny is hiding a deep, dark secret that goes well beyond "merely" foreclosing on widows. Elmer, for his part, nearly kills Sandy with his speeding car more or less for the heck of it. With the help of Tom Take, the feeble-minded but friendly town kleptomaniac, Annie executes a fairly gruesome revenge on Elmer that goes well beyond the occasional "gotcha" gag she played on Trixie and others in Sunday strips. Pinchpenny gets his in due course, though not after attempting to murder Annie so that she won't reveal his shameful secret. Both villains deserve their fate, but those who decry ANNIE as "sentimental pap" will receive a good shaking-up when they read this sequence.

Speaking of extra-legal activity, Gray's introduction of Warbucks' Oriental friend, the businessman Wun Wey, presages his creation of the tycoon's most famous (and sinister) allies, Punjab and The Asp, whose initial appearances are just over the horizon. Gray may have hated those who preached revolution in the face of economic catastrophe, but Wun Wey and his vaguely defined band of "brethren," who seem perfectly willing to go to extreme lengths to protect one of their own, illustrate that the cartoonist harbored his own severe doubts that the legal structure could withstand the strain and regarded vigilantism with surprising equanimity. Gray's "universe" may not have been as bloody as Dick Tracy's, but it could be a much chillier place at times.

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