Wednesday, November 25, 2009
To get to Van Horn's slyly self-referential bauble, "old school Disneyana fans" must slog through part two of "Ultraheroes," in which three writers, four artists, and one hard-pressed translator pool their wares to produce... well, something of a mess, to be perfectly frank. Pitching the reader right back into the story without a word of explanatory narration, the chapter features a generous portion of the same sort of exposition-heavy, mock-earnest dialogue that festooned part one. We learn that "The Sinister 7" have stolen the "Ultradetector," a thingy that helps one locate the disassembled parts of the deadly "Ultramachine," which Eega Beeva has strewn all over the Calisota landscape. Actually, all one really needs to put the "Ultramachine" back together is a tourist's guidebook to Duckburg, since the second location of an "Ultrapod" (after Scrooge's Money Bin) turns out to be a busy soccer stadium. Evidently, "men of the future" are experts at overlooking the obvious.
After the Ultraheroes get their "official" name and go through some desultory training, we finally get some real action as Super Goof -- now wearing the blue-white-and-gold Ultrahero uniform, as opposed to his red long johns -- squares off against The Inquinator, a cross of sorts between the POGO villain Sarcophagus MacAbre and the Darkwing Duck baddie Ample Grime (surely you remember Ammonia Pine's sister?), over the rights to "Ultrapod-2." Inquinator's shtick is the ability to "control" waste (and, somewhat confusingly, to cause a soccer crowd's refreshments to come to life -- perhaps because he has mastery over junk food, as well as junk?). The heroes' and villains' emotional investment in the goings-on can be gauged by the fact that Mickey Mouse and Peg-Leg Pete are dispatched during the midst of the tiff to pick up some pizzas. Saida Temafonte does get another gold star (following the use of St. Canard in part one) when Scrooge mocks the disrespected -- and, like him, imprisoned -- Beagle Boys using the phrase, "Bless me bagpipes!", and I do appreciate the increased attempts at a light-hearted, mocking approach, but the plotting could certainly be a bit tighter (though, to be fair, that problem likely stems from the Italian original).
Aaron Sparrow announces in his editor's column that the next two issues of WDC&S will "wrap up [the] first Ultraheroes arc," following which the ULTRAHEROES spin-off will debut and WDC&S will focus on Mickey for a bit. The latter is probably a wise move, given that MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS will soon be shunted aside in favor of WIZARDS OF MICKEY. The announcement, however, does leave me wondering how the battle for the remaining four pieces of the "Ultramachine" AND the inevitable showdown between both casts of characters -- the existence of which is clearly telegraphed in one of the several cover variants for #700 -- will be wrapped up in the space of just two additional regulation-sized (I guess) issues.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Comics Review: THE MISADVENTURES OF JANE by Norman Pett and J.H.G. "Don" Freeman (Titan Books, 2009)
Jane started as a "flapper" character of sorts. Perpetually accompanied by a dachshund named Fritz (amateur Freudians, the time is now yours), she was a gag-a-day character until "Don" Freeman assumed the writing chores in 1938 and introduced continuity into the mix -- not to mention plenty of puns, wordplay, and high-toned literary allusions. Artist Norman Pett delineated the "misadventures" of the leggy blonde beauty -- many of which involved pratfalls that divested Jane of at least the top layer of her clothes -- in a style hovering somewhere in the vicinity of Caniff territory, though with somewhat cruder figure drawing (especially noticeable in backgrounds and angled facial profiles, where Pett had a tendency to give everyone, including Jane, overly large noses). World War II was the best thing ever to happen to the strip, giving Jane a less frivolous purpose in life and providing Pett with the perfect excuse to make the comic a literal "strip." Following the war, Pett left for other projects and the strip slowly foundered, finally expiring in the late 1950s. Several later attempts to revive JANE all tanked. However, Chrystabel Leighton-Porter, the primary model for Jane -- she also appeared in movies and stage shows -- remained popular with aging veterans until her death in 2000.
In this collection of strips from 1944-1945, Jane goes "undercover" (that seems to be an inappropriate word, somehow) as a member of NAAFI (a service organization that provided refreshments and such to British troops) and ENSA (the British version of the USO) and encounters appropriately nasty Nazi agents and guerrilla fighters. The depictions of Jane's foes aren't exactly subtle; the "lingerie salesman" who's actually a spy scoping out an RAF airfield is so transparently a bad guy that he should be wearing a SPY VS. SPY-style trenchcoat and dark glasses. Far more interesting are the interactions between Jane and her there-and-back-again beau, Lieutenant Georgie Porgie -- Freeman wasn't that great with character names, either -- and a shy NAAFI worker named Dinah, whom Jane convinces to shake loose of that metaphorical corset and ultimately snare a fiancee. As one might imagine, Jane picks up a few would-be suitors along the way, a French secret agent and a Russian officer among them, but stays loyal to Georgie (whom she would eventually marry at the end of the strip's run). What makes Jane interesting to me is the fact that she is often used as the butt of physical humor -- of the clothes-shedding variety and otherwise -- yet Pett and Freeman obviously respect her as a clever, courageous woman who may be somewhat naive but is aware of her naivete on some level. Jane could very easily have been turned into a buffoonish bimbo a la Little Annie Fanny, but her creators refused to let that happen. Probably Jane's closest American relative is Sally the Sleuth from SPICY DETECTIVE STORIES, but Jane is a far more interesting (and better-drawn) character.
Titan includes a few tantalizing extras in the form of a vintage newspaper article from the Canadian armed forces newspaper THE MAPLE LEAF and some beautiful full-color reproductions from JANE'S JOURNAL, a postwar collection of pin-ups and poems. I am, however, disappointed that the modern perspective on the character was not given more attention. We get a one-page glorified blurb, "Introducing Jane," but that's about it. For the American release of the book, some explanatory footnotes on terms and acronyms used by the characters would also have been helpful. For all of Freeman's clever wordsmithing, though, the "madame" is the message here. If you like classic "good girl" art by the likes of Caniff, Bill Ward, and Dan DeCarlo, you'll certainly enjoy this collection.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Paradoxically, Preminger, so prone to towering tantrums on the set, essayed a "cool" style on film. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Advise and Consent (1962) tackle such hot-button topics as rape, murder, and homosexuality with a detached approach that refuses to pass judgment and gives the audience credit for being able to make up its own mind. Laura (1944), a memorable film noir, is generally regarded as Otto's finest work and is indeed splendid, but the previously mentioned films are, IMHO, every bit as good. Hirsch carefully details the stories of these films and Preminger's other works, making sure to give credit where credit is due, even when the task seems hopeless, as when he takes up Hurry Sundown (1967) and Skidoo (1968), Otto's two most notorious flops. Hurry Sundown, a heavy-handed and lumberingly self-righteous sermon on greed and racism in the 1940s Deep South, is, I believe, one instance in which Preminger wore his liberalism too transparently on his sleeve. Strong opinions on free speech and civil rights Preminger may have had, but he (unlike numerous Hollywood mavens of today) recognized the folly of writing off a large portion of one's audience in the name of ideological purity and, first and foremost, sought to put on a good show, albeit one with a point to make. Sundown and its bizarre follow-up Skidoo, Preminger's ham-fisted attempt to ride the wave of the hippie movement, were clear signs that he was losing his touch, pandering to rather than challenging his viewers. Hirsch does manage to mine nuggets of worth out of these piles of dross, but even he seems to lose heart when tackling Preminger's films of the 1970s, though he does give Otto's financially troubled last film, The Human Factor (1979), decent marks. Overall, I think that Hirsch is fair in his assessment of Preminger's oeuvre.
When discussing Preminger himself, Hirsch doesn't skimp on the gory details of Otto's legendary browbeatings, but he lets us see the director's softer side as well. Preminger comes across to me as a man who prized control above all else; it's only natural that he became one of the first truly successful independent producer/directors. Had his control of his temper matched his ability to ride herd on his productions, he would probably be a legendary figure today. (At least he had a healthy sense of humor about his reputation, never better seen than in this memorable acting turn.) It's not precisely a rehabilitation, but Hirsch's bio does a fine job of setting Preminger's career and accomplishments in their proper perspective.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Fausto Vitaliano and Andrea Freccero's tale leads off in typical bumbling-Donald style, with Don wrecking his romantic night out with Daisy by falling asleep during a "James Pond" movie. (Said movie features the overweight, and curiously wacky, Pond promising the comely Quacky Galore that "our love is for one night only!" Cue the startled gasps.) Worse is to come as Donald learns that he owes the city of Duckburg a hefty fine for a parking ticket, even though he can't remember ever parking in the specified location -- in fact, the entire three-day parking period is a blank to him. Enter Kay K, a mysterious babe who slips Don a DVD in which he appears as the suave "Double Duck" and agrees to undergo a "voluntary memory reset" now that he's finished his mission. Say what? With Don protesting all the while, Kay brings him to "The Agency," where, in the manner of Cheers, everyone knows his (code) name. According to "Agency" head honcho Jay J, Donald's a "sleeper agent" ("Daisy would find that ironic," comments Don) and accomplished quite a bit during his three days' worth of action, "saving the world" and such. And now, he's needed again...
Mixing in elements of Men in Black (the agents' names, the memory reboot) and The Bourne Identity (a rogue agent, introduced on page one, whom I suspect will be Donald's main adversary) and adding a touch of "Double-O-Duck", this introductory chapter manages to be entertaining despite the deadening effect of Saida Temafonte's English dialogue. Temafonte does get off a good one-liner or two but actually resorts to ending the script with Donald proclaiming "The name's Duck, Double Duck!" Somewhere, Ken Koonce and David Wiemers are not laughing. The story's real plus is Freccero's lively artwork, which goes a little over the top during the "James Pond" scene -- how could any glamour gal be attracted to this pneumatic knucklehead? -- but appears well suited to the slightly cockeyed premise. Get a dialogue writer with a better sense of humor (and absurdity), and this could be good -- though I'm still a little nervous regarding how they're ultimately going to handle the notion of Donald wielding a real, live "piece."
ADVISE AND CONSENT was actually the first of a series of Drury novels featuring a cast of characters who bore more than a passing resemblance to important political figures of the day. Some have argued over the extent to which Drury's works are true romans a clef, but, having read most of them, I can honestly say that the "Match Game" is least important in ADVISE, the basic plot of which is relatively straightforward. An ailing President played by Franchot Tone -- supposedly based on FDR, but in truth reminding me a bit more of Adlai Stevenson -- nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), a liberal egghead, for the post of Secretary of State, thereby stirring up the wrath of Dixiecrat Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton, in his last movie role). Convinced that Leffingwell is an appeaser, "Ol' Seab" trots out a former employee of his (Burgess Meredith) who claims to have been associated with Leffingwell in a Communist cell many years before. Leffingwell pretty much decimates his foe (no surprise, as Meredith does a good job of selling the fact that his character is mentally unstable), but the controversy gives young Utah Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), the chairman of the subcommittee holding the Leffingwell hearings, considerable pause. (And with good reason, as we eventually learn that Meredith was in fact telling the truth.) Anderson is soon under pressure from both the President and a hot-headed peacenik Senator (George Grizzard) who's willing to go to extreme lengths to get Leffingwell confirmed -- including blackmailing the straight-arrow Anderson with proof of a homosexual dalliance during the latter's time in the service. The Gordian knot is sliced through thanks to a combination of two tragic events, one faithful to the novel (and more besides -- see below) and one a cop-out of sorts that "resets the dials" just when the climactic Senate vote on Leffingwell's confirmation is about to be completed. In the end, the Senate's dignity is preserved, and justice (at least as defined by the strongly anti-Communist Drury) is done, but not without cost.
A few reviewers squawked at Preminger's accurate depiction of the fact that not all Senators are noblemen -- or, should I say, noblewomen; Betty White gets a brief cameo as a female Senator from Kansas, 16 years before Nancy Kassenbaum. (Preminger also reportedly wanted to cast Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a black Senator from Georgia (!), but he couldn't convince King to do the part.) The stalwart Senate Majority Leader (Walter Pidgeon) and the skirt-chasing, but principled, JFK-standin Lafe Smith (Peter Lawford -- yes, I capiche the irony here, too) are the closest things that the movie has to true moral centers, apart from the tragic Anderson. Grizzard's demagogic Senator, who's trailed everywhere he goes by a band of acolytes who would have been wearing shades had the movie been made 30 years later, serves as the villain, but he's far less harshly dealt with here than in Drury's cycle of novels, where he turns out to be a truly evil Communist sycophant. Drury was, however, well ahead of his time in pointing out that a Joe McCarthy-style figure was just as likely to arise on the Left as on the Right. Easily the most memorable performance here is that of Laughton, who struggles on occasion with his cornpone accent but otherwise has the mannerisms and figures of speech of the "old-style Southern senator" down pat.
If this film is remembered at all today, it's for the memorable -- and, for 1962, shocking -- depiction of a gay bar and "assignation pad." Trying to track down his former lover in New York, Anderson visits both haunts. Yes, the beaded-curtain decor, ambience, and tight muscle shirts are all laughably stereotyped, but Preminger deserves credit for putting this stuff on screen at all; Drury only referred to it tangentially.
Just like its literary source, the film version of ADVISE AND CONSENT is well worth seeking out. The movie moves slowly at times, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a thoughtful experience that puts most contemporary Washington melodramas to shame.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Sunday, November 1, 2009
In his HISTORICAL BASEBALL ABSTRACT, Bill James notes that the major-league teams of the 1910s were as diverse a collection of individuals (excepting skin color, of course) as have ever played big-league ball. Teams were potpourris of the educated and illiterate, the gentlemanly and the borderline-criminal, and sometimes the mixture curdled into something ugly. The Red Sox were split between Irish Catholics and Protestant/Masons, while the Giants, led by manager John McGraw, the most notorious of hard-ass skippers, had on their roster Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, a college graduate and famously straight arrow, and a couple of guys who hated McGraw's guts but wouldn't have wanted to play for any other manager. The Giants, despite not having won a championship in seven years prior to 1912, were every bit as arrogant as any modern New York team, while the speedy Red Sox gloried in the exploits of hard-throwing young pitcher Smoky Joe Wood and the antics of "The Royal Rooters," a pack of peripatetic, well-organized fans led by Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald, JFK's grandfather. Throw in the natural rivalry between New York and Boston -- not to mention hard feelings stemming from the Giants' refusal to play the Red Sox in a postseason series in 1904, the year before the "true" World Series began -- and you have a match-up that dwarfed even a dramatic Presidential race and a sensational trial involving corrupt NYC policeman Charles Becker in the popular press.
I won't give away specifics about the Series, but I will say that, despite several misspellings and errors of fact, Vaccaro gets the background details right. Ordinary citizens who couldn't get to the ball park followed the games in "virtual" fashion by means of scoreboards such as the one above. Vaccaro gives authentic voice to them, as well as to the players and other principals. He is especially good at detailing the sinister inroads that dishonesty had begun to make into the game by this time. Aside from describing the pervasive gambling in and around the ballparks, Vaccaro posits a conversation between Red Sox manager Jake Stahl and team owner James McAleer in which the latter "suggests" that the former refrain from using Wood, the Sox' best pitcher, in one game in New York with the Sox holding a "safe" 3-1 Series lead. The unspoken reason: to have a better chance of filling the stands for one final game in brand-new Fenway Park. I've never heard this story told anywhere else. I am, however, familiar with the "fan walkout" occasioned by the Sox management's foolish decision to sell the Royal Rooters' tickets out from under them, a gaffe which led to the deciding game drawing only a fraction of capacity.
Anyone interested in baseball history should enjoy this book. Among the books I've read regarding this era in baseball, only THE UNFORGETTABLE SEASON, G.H. Fleming's clippings book about the 1908 NL race, clearly surpasses it.