Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ciao, Have We Been Properly Introduced?

I spent a little time this evening on an Italian Disney Comics Web site checking out the Italian version of "Ultraheroes," which Boom! Studios will soon be unspooling at leisure in its first 10 issues of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES. Knowing that the numbers of "Disney superheroes" and "Disney supervillains" that are canonical comic-book characters wouldn't be enough to raise a modest dust cloud, much less engage in a "globe-girdling" fight, I wanted to see just who the sets of competing characters would be. A nagging suspicion of mine was confirmed: the roster of villains will include some characters who are totally unfamiliar to American audiences. And in saying that, I'm being charitable towards Emil Eagle, who had a memorable turn in Marv Wolfman's multi-part epic in Disney Comics' MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #11-14 (1991) but has had precious little exposure since then (in fact, I can't think of any, but my synapses might be misfiring) and will be completely unknown to the youngsters at whom the Boom! comics are supposedly targeted. You'd think that using Magica De Spell, a character who has actual magical powers, as the evil gang's distaff member would have been a no-brainer, but no such luck: the group does include a female, but it's a character named "Zafire." The males include folks named "Spectrus" and "Inquinator," for whatever that's worth, as well as John D. Rockerduck, whose U.S. bows have been few and far between themselves. The Phantom Blot and Pete are on hand to provide a schoche of familiarity, but how crazy is this, really: to introduce all of these newbies to both old and new Disney Comics readers in such an off-the-wall story? (Let's not even talk about the appearances of Gus Goose and Gladstone Gander as "superheroes" who've never assumed those guises in any American comic.) The person who dialogues this story is going to have a heck of a job on his or her hands.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Giving 5ive

I never bought or listened to Thriller or Bad, never was tempted to moonwalk, never cared one way or the other about Michael Jackson the "global pop icon." My exposure to Michael was pretty much limited to this:



This early 70s Rankin-Bass cartoon was accompanied by a similar one starring The Osmonds. I watched both of them back in the day and, quite honestly, would prefer to remember Michael as a
real cartoon, as opposed to the live-action cartoon he unfortunately became.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gracias, Diaz

Competence and professionalism are drab virtues, but ones worth celebrating for all that... and no Disney comics creators exemplified said virtues quite as thoroughly as the semi-mysterious "strangers" who labored at the Jaime Diaz Studios in Argentina. The company's namesake, an animator and cartoonist who worked for Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon both before and after launching the Studios in the mid-70s, died this past weekend at the age of 72. Though the animation "arm" of Diaz' enterprise worked on such notable projects as Fish Police and Dexter's Laboratory, I'll always associate him with the Disney TV Animation comics published during the Disney Comics era and, after that unfortunate enterprise's demise, DISNEY ADVENTURES DIGEST (until it ditched TV adaptations for original creations, that is).

The TV-based Disney Comics releases are fondly remembered to this day, and the Diaz gang's efforts are part of the reason why. To be sure, the Diaz product didn't have the quirky details and distortions of the Italian school, the oddball designs frequently used by Bill Van Horn, or the hyper-detail of Don Rosa. What it was, for the most part, was straightforward, on-model depiction of the script -- no more, no less. Unexceptional, perhaps, but pick up an issue of Marvel's DISNEY AFTERNOON comic and compare it to a randomly selected Diaz issue of CHIP & DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS, DUCKTALES, or TALE SPIN -- not to mention an early issue of DISADV DIGEST -- and the difference in craftsmanship will immediately pop out. Branca and Vicar they weren't, but they always treated the TV characters with respect, and you can't imagine what a relief that was to those of us who merely hoped that the TV-based comics would be readable. These efforts had unexpected side effects, as well: the Disney APA WTFB, for which I wrote for over a decade, wouldn't have come into being had fans of the RESCUE RANGERS comic book not been royally tweaked by the book's cancellation.

Of course, Diaz' bland approach didn't always succeed in capturing the essence of the characters the studio was working on. The studio's adaptations of the Warner Bros. shorts and TV characters were somewhat hit-or-miss, with the level of success depending more upon the skills of the individual artist than anything else. (Walter Carzon's fine efforts for LOONEY TUNES, ANIMANIACS, and PINKY AND THE BRAIN come quickly to mind.) Their batting average, however, was very high indeed, and their work still stirs fond memories in my mind. Ah, for the good old days when Disney's TV product was a source of pride -- irrespective of the medium being used.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Boom! Goes the Dynamite

Boom! Studios' acquisition of the "traditional" American Disney comics license, hinted at previously by at least one (sketchy) source, now appears to be a reality, judging by this article. Talk about a radical departure from the recent past... I know nothing about either Ultraheroes or Wizards of Mickey, but Boom! appears to be ready to ride them for no fewer than ten 24-page issues apiece. The material definitely appears to be aimed at younger readers, and, insofar as this will help to rebuild a "critical mass" of Disney comics readers in this country, I can appreciate the thinking. But will Gemstone readers be carried along for the ride?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

To Boldly Go (Up) Where No Man Has Gone (Up) Before...

Thus far, Nicky's and my Summer movie-going has been limited to Up and Star Trek. I wanted to like each of them more than I did -- honest -- but IMHO, they fell just a bit short of true greatness, especially the latter.

The rave reviews for Up had me primed for a true classic, something on the order of the Toy Story movies or The Incredibles. After the opening table-setting sequence, the hosannas seemed justified. Karl Frederickson's backstory was handled brilliantly and with exquisite taste (name me another animated product that deals with infertility!) and I felt myself welling up at the end. Then Karl's house headed for the skies and... I didn't need the tissues anymore. The villain and his "problem" were predictable, the supporting characters were uninteresting -- though the eventual bonding between Karl and Russell was nice to see, Russell became seriously annoying at times -- and, worst of all, the writers copped out and allowed Karl to act as something close to a conventional action-adventure hero in the end. True, they got a few gags out of the fact that he and Muntz could barely move during their "duel to the death," but Karl received so many other bumps, bruises, contusions, and so forth that his broken-bone count at picture's end should have been several dozen, at least. I think that it would have been better (though more challenging to write) had Karl been forced to rely entirely on his wits and leave whatever derring-do was required to Russell, who, while clumsy, was certainly in better shape to handle it. It was still an enjoyable movie, but the superb character dynamics of the aforementioned Pixar classics simply weren't present.
Up had at least one big advantage over Star Trek -- its plot was easily discernible. (Too easily, in fact, with a few draggy spots included.) The "reboot" of Kirk, Spock, and company lost me with the confusing time-travel business. They should simply have told the "fanboys" to take a long walk off a short pier (or the starship's equivalent thereof) and not bothered with trying to tie the new origin back to the original series. The most fanatical of the purists were bound and determined to hate the whole idea of a "redo" anyway, so why try to finesse the issue? If J.J. Abrams' goal was to keep the original characters and their version of the Trek franchise alive, then he certainly accomplished that goal. He did so, however, at the price of turning Star Trek into just another noisy, SFX-clogged sci-fi epic of the Iron Man, Transformers, or X-Men variety. To me, the simplicity of the original series -- a straightforwardness that was, for the most part, honored in the lengthy procession of movies trailing in the wake of Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- is the true essence of Star Trek. It's unfortunate that the inevitable sequels of this movie will almost certainly be moving further and further away from that ideal.

Next up on the cinematic firing line: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in mid-July.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: HAROLD GRAY'S LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume 3: AND A BLIND MAN SHALL LEAD THEM by Harold Gray (IDW Publishing, 2009)

Pay no attention to the blandly genial cover of this delayed third release in the ANNIE reprint series. The Great Depression bites down HARD during the course of a year-long continuity in which "Daddy" Warbucks, after losing both his fortune and his eyesight, endures a sad stretch as a patient in a hospital's charity ward and is even reduced to outright beggary before clawing his way back to the top. Meanwhile, Annie once again is forced to fend for herself, and her status is even more precarious than it had been in earlier spells of Warbucks-less-ness. Only the generosity of Maw Green, a crusty but kindly Irish landlady, and Jake, a Jewish shopkeeper, allow Annie and Sandy to maintain a knife's-edge existence in a dingy apartment where they are waiting for "Daddy" to return home from his attempts to find work. Things become even more complicated after a botched child-abduction drops a toddler on Annie's doorstep, and Annie is forced to care for the kid. (Actually, Sandy does most of the active babysitting while Annie is out helping in Jake's store. Can you imagine such a scenario coming close to passing editorial muster in this era of "helicopter parenting" and mandatory car safety seats?) This sequence clearly shows that Gray, for all his hyper-capitalist reputation, was well aware of the havoc that the Depression was wreaking on America and wasn't afraid to showcase the realities of the situation in his strip. Critics may carp at Gray's "naive" belief that optimism and a sense of renewed purpose would be enough to revivify the economy, but he certainly didn't ignore what was going on around him.

Towards the end of the Depression continuity, with Annie and a newly-flush "Daddy" reunited, the toddler Pat having been reunited with her parents, and Warbucks having regained his sight through the "convenient miracle" of a million-to-one operation, Gray permits Annie to sermonize a bit on how "organization" and the like is going to beat hard times. I find this interesting in that Roosevelt's New Deal, with its creation of a myriad of federal agencies, certainly contained plenty of "organization," yet Gray regarded it as anathema. Gray may have been referring here to Hoover's efforts to gin the economy in what many historians now regard as a precursor of the New Deal. Jeet Heer, in his introductory essay, misses this point entirely, falling back on the cliche that Hoover was just another Calvin Coolidge. With the next volume containing strips from 1932 and 1933, it will be interesting to see how Gray's viewpoint changed as FDR's regime took hold.

Gray's use of a grab-bag of ethnic characters and "outcasts" also deserves more attention than Heer gives it in his article. Aside from Maw Green (whose ostensible Irishness isn't really on display here; it would become much more apparent in the later companion strip that ran under the ANNIE Sunday page for many years) and Jake, the dwarf Flop-House Bill becomes Warbucks' main ally during his fight to regain his empire. In the era of Tod Browning's Freaks and (a bit later) The Terror of Tiny Town and the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the relatively straightforward portrayal of the hard-bitten, but decent and loyal, Bill is fairly remarkable. Bill rues his small status to the extent that he's convinced that, once Warbucks recovers his sight, the tycoon will jettison him. "Daddy," of course, does no such thing. Gray may have trafficked in the stereotypes of his time, but he didn't let the stereotypes define his characters.

The continuities that make up the first half of this volume, while strong enough, don't measure up to the Depression epic. After Gray diddles with the idea of giving Annie a boyfriend (thank God, he finally thought better of it) and does give her a new pet/companion in the form of a cute bear cub named Willie, Annie's tossed onto a country work farm, escapes the place only to get caught up in the midst of a devastating flood, is befriended by "old salt" Spike Marlin, and promptly gets marooned on what appears to be a South Seas island. (I say "appears" because, for the life of me, I can't see how Marlin's little boat could have made it from Middle America, no matter how badly flooded, to a palm-tree-bedecked, monkey-populated island in such a short time period.) The "Shipwrecked" continuity goes on a little too long (the length of time that it takes Annie and Spike's "message in a bottle" to reach the right hands is positively irritating) and strays into Gilligan's Island territory at times, but it's not bad; it's just not as good -- not to mention as relevant -- as the later Depression story. After both Spike and Annie have suffered illnesses that leave them all but "done fer," it's "Daddy" to the rescue. (Willie is later dispensed with in a single Sunday strip that sees him rather improbably reunited with his mother in a zoo; I don't know whether Gray was simply tired of drawing two animal companions for Annie or was consciously battening down the hatches for the upcoming Depression story by paring down the cast. Whatever the reason, it's a rather abrupt way to get rid of such a cute and likable character.)

In the front of the book, in addition to Jeet Heer's ongoing efforts to sanitize Gray and ANNIE for contemporary progressive consumption -- it must be working, or why else would Art Spiegelman be doing a blurb on the back cover of this volume? -- we get a brief article by Bruce Canwell on Annie's role as a trail-blazer for aggressive female characters in the comics and other popular media. Several examples of PRIVATE LIFE OF..., Gray's first attempt at a Sunday companion strip -- a clever, if repetitive, feature in which various inanimate objects such as potatoes, hats, and baseballs relate their "stories" -- are also included. All in all, this is a superb package that maintains IDW's quality standards. Hopefully, Volume 4 will not have to undergo a similarly long lacuna before its release.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: MELVIN MONSTER, VOLUME 1 by John Stanley (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Thanks to the success of Dark Horse's LITTLE LULU volumes, Stanley "stock" is up, and now Montreal-based D&Q is joining the frenzy with the first of a promised series of volumes collecting Stanley's non-LULU works. MELVIN MONSTER dates from the mid-1960s, by which time (1) Stanley was working for a Dell Publishing outfit that had split off from Western Publishing and was attempting to establish itself as a comics-publishing contender; (2) Stanley was drawing, as well as writing, his stories; (3) Stanley was working entirely with characters of his own creation; (4) Stanley's attitude towards the comics industry was rapidly souring (he would quit altogether by the end of the decade). All four factors have a heavy influence on MELVIN, which, while entertaining enough, doesn't quite measure up to Stanley's peerless work with Marge's characters.

At first glance, MELVIN appears to be drawing upon the same zeitgeist that gave rise to such contemporary TV series as The Munsters and The Addams Family. The title character is, after all, a monster and interacts on a fairly regular basis with humans (or, as Melvin calls them, "human beans"). A closer examination, however, suggests that the character of Melvin owes just as large a debt to that of Casper the Friendly Ghost. To the chagrin of his square-shouldered, hulking, overbearing "Baddy" and bandage-wrapped "Mummy," Melvin wants to be as close to a normal boy as one can possibly be in the abnormality-riddled community of "Monsterville." His attempts to actually attend "The Little Black Schoolhouse," as opposed to buying into the "normal" practice of playing hooky -- thereby scandalizing the "teacher" (a dyspeptic witch) on duty -- are particularly funny. Melvin's attitude towards "fitting in" veers between mild defiance and stoic acceptance (e.g., when he agrees to slide down his slide into a "daggerberry bush" without screaming, only to take refuge in a cave after the fact and painfully give forth with the requisite number of "Ow!"s). The family pet, a crocodile named Cleopatra, is perpetually trying to eat him. Even his "guardian demon," who's supposed to protect him from harm, is fairly useless. Given all of the above factors, Melvin is an easy character for whom to root and should make an appealing hero. His milieu, however, is not as well-defined as it ought to be, and much of that is Stanley's fault.

In the absence of the experienced editorial hands that had been employed by Western, Stanley appears to have had some trouble deciding how, exactly, Melvin should relate to the human world, or even how his work should be organized. Issues #1 and #2 consist of single narratives broken into distinctly titled parts (shades of Harvey Comics' 10- and 15-page stories) in which Melvin takes a "detour" into "Humanbeanville" along the way. These stories plainly suggest that humans live in, so to speak, a different dimension than monsters. With issue #3, we get a paradigm shift: the stories are now stand-alone, and Melvin runs into humans as a matter of course (even getting tracked by "monster hunters"). This is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. In both manifestations, the humans (whom Melvin appears to admire on principle) do behave pretty much the same -- namely, like jerks. A rich owner of a "private zoo" wishes to add Melvin to his collection (where are Superman and Lobo when you need them?); several human kids spin Melvin like a top; a rich couple living in a penthouse mock the "riff-raff" below; and, of course, there are the "monster hunters." The adult characters in the LULU stories never came off as badly as this. Creeping cynicism, you suggest? So do I.

Stanley's artwork in MELVIN reflects a comment that I recall him making about Irving Tripp's artwork on LULU (for which Stanley provided scripts and pencil roughs) being overly "static." Stanley's work is much livelier, if a bit inconsistent: the monster characters are very cartoony in appearance, while the humans look as if they've stepped out of a New Yorker cartoon. Melvin straddles these two extremes, being neither realistic-looking nor overly stylized. Again, a better editor might have suggested that Stanley bring the two disparate styles a bit closer together. Occasional misspellings in Stanley's lettering -- plus an awkwardly-placed caption that appears to have been shoehorned in at the last minute -- lend further credence to the theory that Stanley, working on his own, needed more editorial help than when he was part of a creative "team."

Subsequent volumes of the JSL will reprint Stanley's comic-book work on NANCY -- which, it goes without saying, will probably look and "feel" a lot more like LITTLE LULU -- and such additional all-Stanley enterprises as THIRTEEN, GOING ON EIGHTEEN. It will be interesting to see if the theory that I've posited here -- that Stanley was better working with established characters that he could "embellish" than with original creations -- continues to hold true.

Book Review: ASTRO BOY AND ANIME COME TO THE AMERICAS by Fred Ladd, with Harvey Deneroff (McFarland & Co., 2009)

If only Ladd and Deneroff had stuck to the premise of this book's subtitle: "An Insider's View of the Birth [italics mine] of a Pop Culture Phenomenon"! There are at least two or three distinct narratives sloshing around within this slender volume, and, for my money, the most intriguing of these was the first: the story of how Ladd -- virtually the only surviving member of the small group of Americans involved -- and pioneering creators in Japan joined forces to bring the "first wave" of anime (Japanese animation) to the United States. Ladd was there from the start, and he clears away a number of the remaining mysteries surrounding the production of Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and other beloved TV series of the 1960s. Once Ladd gets beyond this "comfort zone," however, the book becomes a grab-bag of factoids about more modern anime series. "Old sourdoughs" like me who prefer "those 60s shows" will have little interest in this material, while younger fans will find the coverage superficial. It's possible that Ladd and Deneroff included this later material simply to give the volume enough "heft" to sell to McFarland. While not exactly bad, the book's extreme unevenness makes it, in my view, a marginal purchase for general animation fans, to say nothing of anime devotees.