Thursday, December 31, 2009

DVD Review: ROPE (Transatlantic Pictures/Warner Bros., 1948)

In movies, as in life, we "see" what we're predisposed to notice. The conventional wisdom regarding Rope, Alfred Hitchcock's first color film -- and, by far, his most cinematically audacious one -- is that it contains gay subtext out the wazoo. It seems like a slam dunk: screenplay writer Arthur Laurents is gay, two of the three major players are gay/bisexual, and the play on which the movie is based was a dramatization of the real-life case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy gay men who murdered a youngster in 1924 just to see if they could get away with it. These facts imbue such moments in the film as a reference to "chicken strangling" and a character fussing with a champagne bottle with extra layers of meaning. While the subtext might very well have been inserted intentionally, one can, if one chooses to do so, regard the movie with equal validity as a black-hearted satire of liberal elitism.

For all the cachet that the homosexual patina may lend the film today, Rope is best-known for Hitchcock's decision to shoot it in real time, using a series of long takes ranging from 5 1/2 to 10 minutes. Hitchcock himself later felt that the gimmick hadn't really worked, and the director does resort to such clumsy cutting devices as focusing on a character's back before moving on to the next long take, but the stagey approach isn't really that off-putting. The major structural problem with the movie is that we know from the beginning that the two self-satisfied roommates (John Dall and Farley Granger) have done the deed; the only question is how it's going to be revealed. It would have been a much greater challenge for Hitchcock to have gradually uncovered exactly what had happened in the boys' luxurious apartment.

Given the stress of the long takes, the cast acquits itself very well, with one unfortunate (albeit unintentional) exception. James Stewart plays the worldly-wise prep school headmaster whose gauzy theories of "justifiable homicide" have helped persuade Dall and Granger that they can pull off their shocking crime. The callous casualness of Stewart's "what-if" musings will be familiar to anyone who's listened to an academic ramble on about praiseworthy dictators, evil corporations, and other topics that s/he can discuss with the smug self-satisfaction of someone who never expects to shoulder responsibility for the consequences. But these musings coming out of the mouth of Stewart, just 18 months removed from It's a Wonderful Life? The mind reels. Given the impossibility of the task set before him, Stewart manages to make the prof's feelings of horror at the discovery that the boys have actually taken him up on his ivory-tower idiocy somewhat believable. Surely, however, a more appropriate actor could have been used. At least Hitchcock gave Stewart the chance to redeem himself in several classic thrillers in the following decade. Rope winds up a very interesting misfire, but one very much worth seeing at least once.

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Comics Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, Volume 4: "PLUNDER ISLAND" (Fantagraphics Books, 2009)

How many comics readers received their first exposure to E.C. Segar's work through the medium of THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS? I was one of those lucky stiffs whose first taste of the "real" Popeye and friends was the deep, refreshing draft reprinted in full (and, for the first time, in color) in this volume. "Plunder Island," which ran in Segar's Sunday pages from December 1933 to July 1934 -- it was by far the most ambitious story the artist ever mounted in a Sunday format -- has been described by such respected comics scholars as Bill Blackbeard and Richard Marschall (who fills in for the unreadable Donald Phelps as this installment's introductory essayist) as the greatest single narrative in the history of comics. This is remarkable in view of the fact that 90% of the "epic adventure" consists of shipboard interactions between characters. Segar had used sea voyages for story settings in the past, dating all the way back to "Dice Island" (the story in which Popeye debuted), but, one way or another, the characters' activities off the ship eventually took center stage. Popeye's gang doesn't reach the titular island -- the hideaway where The Sea Hag's (stolen) treasure is stored -- until we hit the last half-dozen strips. It doesn't really matter, as we thrill (and not in a good way) to the introduction of the unsettling "original naked version" of Alice the Goon, chuckle at the paranoid George G. Geezil's increasingly desperate efforts to "kill" Wimpy "to death," and laugh out loud at the sight of Wimpy romancing The Hag and pretending to behead Popeye, just to get at the "50 pounds of frozen hamburger" she has on her ship. Here, "getting there" is definitely more than half the fun.

Segar's best daily-strip narratives contain more satirical punch, but "Plunder Island" is superb entertainment. I do wonder, however, what became of G.B. Gritmore, the secret agent (I guess) who asks to accompany Popeye, his old pal "Salty" Bill Barnacle, and the rest of the gang on their trip. Gritmore appears in one panel in the strip of 12/31/1933, is invited aboard by Popeye, and never appears again. Did Segar simply forget about him, or did he make a strange "New Year's Resolution" to cut down on the number of characters he had to draw? (Professor Cringley, the shivering savant who'd escaped The Hag's clutches, and "Miss Sniddle" gradually disappear from the narrative during the cruise, but at least they got some face time before doing so.) There is one possible "escape hatch" here: Popeye says that Gritmore can only come aboard "if ya' gots bravery an' intestimal fortnitude (sic)." Perhaps Gritmore fell at this "first turn."


This era's daily THIMBLE THEATER strips -- pushed to the rear of this volume for understandable reasons -- are a mixed bag. The late 1933-early 1934 strips are somewhat disappointing, perhaps because Segar was preoccupied with the Sunday continuity. Popeye's sojourn running a newspaper in Puddleburg is wrapped up with a dispatch that may reflect the artist's dissatisfaction with the way the story was progressing. (Another case in point: Puddleburg is described as "the laziest town on Earth," and the natives are initially depicted as sleepy-eyed and blase, but this characterization disappears almost as quickly as it's introduced.) As he cuts and runs, Segar does take a few funny shots at the trials and tribulations of cartoonists, in the person of the dish-faced gagman, B. Loony Bullony. "Romance and Riches" is a lengthy, and somewhat dawdling, story in which Popeye and Olive (who's put on airs since glomming onto her share of Plunder Island's riches) break up. Popeye goes to stay with billionaire Mr. Vanripple and Vanripple's comely (by Segar's modest standards) daughter June, who winds up falling hard for the sailor man. Vanripple, who looks like he's stepped out of a Dr. Seuss story, is the closest that Segar ever came to creating a Scrooge McDuck "type." Given the era (the early New Deal years), he's also a surprisingly benign portrayal of a big business man, though prone to eccentricity (he insists that the underwear-challenged Popeye wear June's frilly teddies, for instance). After Olive's attempt to become a movie star (even to the point of getting fitted with prosthetic legs to "improve her figure"!) destroys her fortune, leaving her a babbling wreck, Segar finally gets the dailies back on track. Not surprisingly, this return to top form "clicks in" just as "Plunder Island" is drawing to a close. "Unifruit," "Black Valley" (somewhat notorious as the "Popeye goes in drag" story), "The Pool of Youth" (the return of The Sea Hag and Alice, not to mention "detective" Castor Oyl, and the introduction of The Hag's vicious sister and the "immortal" caveman Toar), and "Popeye's Ark" (the start of the "Spinachova" story arc, Segar's most politically aware work -- and a daring one too, given the wide intellectual appeal of Fascism and Communism at this time) are all top-notch.


One shouldn't ignore the high quality -- and equally high spirits -- of Segar's secondary work at this time. SAPPO, THIMBLE THEATRE'S companion Sunday strip, is at its very best with imaginative storylines including a shrinking episode (with its arresting image of the microscopic John Sappo cutting his way to freedom through the hide of a germ), the brief but painful marriage of Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle, and a literal war between Wotasnozzle and his equally irascible rival, Professor Finklesnop. (Somehow, I can't imagine Gyro Gearloose getting quite that carried away, though he did have his moments. By the same token, I can't imagine the egotistical O.G. escaping to simpler medieval times -- he would never have "admitted defeat" in such a manner.) And that ain't all, folks: Segar treats his young and young-at-heart Sunday-page readers to "magic movies," drawing lessons, and one-panel moral messages. The last of these may have been one of Segar's efforts to appease William Randolph Hearst, who'd advised him to make Popeye a better role model for kids. With the Fleischer cartoon series starting and gathering steam during this time, the call to tone Popeye down a bit may have been especially urgent. (Don't worry, though, Popeye is still plenty raucous and has his moments of "backsliding.") Only two volumes to go, and some of Segar's best moments are yet to come! What a marvelous collection.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S CHRISTMAS CLASSICS (Boom! Kids)

Every family typically has "one" Christmas-themed book that they prize above all others and haul out of mothballs to re-delight young and old once December rolls around. In my family, it was THE TALL BOOK OF CHRISTMAS. For its first release in a promised line of special hardback collections, Boom! Kids has given us a volume that, while falling short of "stone-cold lock classic" status, would be a fine investment for parents who want to get their young children interested in reading Disney comics. What better way to do that than to read this book to/with them on a yearly basis as they grow up?

Forming the core of the book are a juicy wad of DONALD DUCK and MICKEY MOUSE stories from the 1940s FIRESTONE GIVEAWAY comic-book series. These books were distributed at Firestone stores at holiday time. The three Carl Barks DONALD tales -- "Donald Duck's Best Christmas" (1945), "Santa's Stormy Visit" (1946), and "Three Good Little Ducks" (1947) have all been reprinted within the past 20 years, but the first and third haven't been seen since the 1990s. All three are good, though thickly larded with seasonal sentiment in an obvious manner that Barks usually managed to avoid in his Christmas "ten-pagers" in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES. Paradoxically, "Best Christmas" tops the charts in both mawkishness (the noble-hearted poor kids who shame HD&L into handing over the Ducks' Christmas goodies are sweet enough to induce dental caries by osmosis) and overall quality (Donald's battle with a slow-moving farmer and his very large hay wagon is pretty funny for what it is, and the artwork is excellent). It also holds some historical cachet in that it includes Barks' first use of Grandma Duck, who looks more like an elderly female version of Donald than the bun-haired matron with whom we're now familiar. "Stormy Visit" is a bit contrived in its placing of Donald and HD&L in a lighthouse for Christmas, but the albatross that helps... wait for it... save Christmas for them is very much in the spirit of the annoying pets that tormented Donald in a number of 40s and early 50s Barks stories. "Good Little Ducks" is a Donald-vs.-kids "battle tale" with a twist: HD&L are so eager to "make up for [past] crimes" and give Don a Christmas Eve buttering-up that they nearly kill him with kindness... literally. The three MICKEY FIRESTONE stories, all drawn by Don Gunn, are enjoyable, albeit rather forgettable, fluff, with "Mickey's Christmas Mix-Up" (1945) -- in which Mickey buys a new chair for Minnie and discards the old one, unaware that it supposedly contains a fortune in money -- probably being the best.

While reprinting all of the DONALD and MICKEY FIRESTONE material here would have been perfectly acceptable, Boom! doesn't go that route, including three unrelated stories (plus a scattered gag or two and a couple of FIRESTONE covers) to fill out the collection. "Santa Claus' Visit", a 1943 DONALD story drawn by Jack Hannah for a Sears giveaway, leads off the book. Hannah was coming off his tag-team art job with Barks on DONALD DUCK FINDS PIRATE GOLD, and his artwork here looks very much the same as it did there. The plot, though, is lifted straight from the contemporary cartoons, with Donald (in a most unconvincing Santa disguise -- at least Don TRIED to look a little bit like Santa in Barks' later "Letter to Santa") and HD&L going at one another hammer-and-tongs. Next to the trio of Barks FIRESTONEs, this brief tale looks pretty simplistic, but it does achieve its modest goals. Romano Scarpa's "It's a Wonderful Christmas Story" (1998), previously printed in the U.S. in Gemstone CHRISTMAS PARADE #3 (2005) with English dialogue by David Gerstein, walks The Mouse through the George Bailey drill, complete with snowy bridge scene. No, Mickey doesn't attempt what you're thinking. Walt and Gottfredson may have been able to get away with that in the early 30s (and they did!), but here, Mickey -- having been tricked by a scam-Santa Pete into loading his Christmas tree with "ornaments" that splatter his friends with goop, and owing mucho dough on his home to boot -- merely intends to leave Mouseton. In the Pete-run "alternative Mouseton," Minnie's fate is by far the funniest. It's a good, solid story with nice Scarpa art, but Scarpa fails to put a unique "Continental" twist on the familiar plot. The book concludes with "Christmas on Bear Mountain" (1947), which I reviewed here upon its last appearance in UNCLE $CROOGE #372 (December 2007/February 2008). I have little to add to what I said previously, other than to note that, if Scrooge McDuck hadn't made his debut in this story, then it would probably have slipped quietly into oblivion (or as close to it as a Barks feature story can get) in a comfy niche right next to "The Golden Christmas Tree." As an introduction to a personage who'd become one of comics' greatest characters, however, it's still worth revisiting yearly as December dwindles down -- as are all of the tales in this fine compendium.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wondering Who's to Blame for the Big Snowstorm?

In the spirit of "The Winter of Their Dissed Kismet" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #690, March 2008, dialogued by yours truly), the Junior Woodchucks appear to have been eating turkey at their meetings again.

After digging "out from under," please enjoy the two comics reviews I've posted this evening.

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #701 (December 2009, Boom! Kids)

It's "more of the same" logically dubious, action-filled, quasi-satirical Italian "junk food" in part three of "Ultraheroes" -- though the sight of Cloverleaf (Gladstone's created-off-the-cuff superhero identity) skimming through the sky on a rocket-powered shamrock (a "Cloverglider," to be technically accurate) will likely test even the patience of those of us who aren't "purists." Between take-out pizza orders -- the closest thing this epic has to a running gag -- Cloverleaf duels Peg-Leg Pete in the Calisota Desert (after calling in a TV audience, no less -- has CL been taking lessons from Darkwing Duck?) for another piece of the "Ultramachine." This battle is handled well enough, as Cloverleaf believably trusts in his luck and drives Pete crazy, but writers Alessandro Ferrari and Giorgio Salati bloop the climactic kick over the bar when the publicity-prizing Cloverleaf reacts to the onlookers' "pity party" for the defeated Pete by wishing that his luck would turn bad -- and getting his wish. If losing the fight were really that desirable, then, given the way that Gladstone's luck typically works, shouldn't he have lost the initial showdown? Things get even worse when Cloverleaf's decision to "allow himself to lose" ends up making him a laughingstock, a fate from which Gladstone's good fortune should have protected him in the first place by causing his wish to backfire. Ferrari and Salati later commit another gaffe when Gus Goose eats Goofy's supply of "Super Goobers" and doesn't acquire Super Goof-style powers (he has to "sleep them off" instead), but it's the Gladstone-related goofs that really left me shaking my head.

The story slows down long enough to attempt some deeper characterization as Donald and Daisy, in costume as Duck Avenger and Super Daisy, trade dialogue about wanting to have "someone special" before reverting to their default "bicker" setting. We get a hint afterwards that Duck Avenger may have feelings for Super Daisy, but any change of heart will have to wait for the denouement of a promised battle in the Miceland Woods between the antagonistic ansers and "Sinister 7" newbies Spectrus and Zafire. Finally finding out what specific powers these hitherto-unknown baddies have is more than enough reason to look forward to #702. The imprisoned Scrooge's continued dissing of The Beagle Boys' efforts to prove that they belong on "the criminal A-List" also works fairly well. Untidily wrapped this package may be, but I must admit to enjoying the "Ultraheroes" saga more than the ongoing cycle of stories in UNCLE $CROOGE, which I never would have expected when Boom! took over these titles.

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #386 (December 2009, Boom! Kids)

It's becoming increasingly apparent that the "cycle of European treasure-tales" that Boom! has chosen to inaugurate its stewardship of UNCLE $CROOGE isn't going to make anyone forget "Scrooge's Quest," much less "The Gold Odyssey." On every count -- individual chapters, interstitial material -- Per-Erik Hedman's wannabe epic has been distressingly mediocre. Even the chapter titles display a lack of passion: in this issue, we get "Weapons of the Vikings" and the first eight pages of "The Gold Hunt." At this point, the artwork -- here, by Daniel Branca's accomplished former associate Wanda Gattino -- is keeping this thing afloat, but more in the manner of Scrooge's improbably seaworthy Golden Nugget Boat than the proud Viking craft that the Ducks are riding on the above cover.

"Weapons of the Vikings" finds Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L -- with Magica De Spell, of course, continuing to dog their web-steps -- in Denmark, where, thanks to some paradoxically lucky ineptitude of Donald's, they get involved in a hunt for the magical weapons used in a legendary battle between Viking king Harald the Hero and his rival, Vidar the Evil. The Ducks use a local professor's notes to guide them, which raises the question of whether the boys misplaced the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook during one of their previous stops. Magica tries and fails to derrick the Ducks' plans on two occasions before we have the big showdown at the site of the ancient battle, "a cliff known as Viking Rock, where the seas of Denmark (sic), Sweden (sic), and Norway (well, "en" out of "tre" ain't bad) meet." Both Harald's magical shield and Vidar's sorcerous sword just happen to be on site. While we do find out why Vidar's sword was left there, it seems unlikely that Harald would have left such a valuable implement behind. There's a legitimately scary moment at the climax, but there's relatively little else to stir the blood, "Viking" or otherwise.

In the first panel of "The Gold Hunt," Scrooge acts on a whim similar to that seen at the beginning of "His Ancestor's Diamonds" in #385, abruptly deciding to stay in Scandinavia and accept an invitation to look for gold in northern Finland. While there apparently really is gold in Finland -- and Scrooge's desire to steal a march on Flintheart Glomgold, who's also gotten the go-ahead to delve, gives him a believable reason to oversee the activity personally -- this sudden change of venue points up Hedman's major storytelling flaw, a lack of sufficient "connective tissue" between the various parts of his narrative. As Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L head for the gold field in a reindeer-driven sled (after the Ducks' snowmobile has been sabotaged by a Glomgold operative), the pursuing Magica provides the issue's brightest moment when she disguises herself as a rabbit and manages to look both cute and evil at the same time. Both Magi-bunny and the Ducks are set upon by hungry wolves, however, and then the story breaks... "To Be Contined (sic)." Yes, it really says that. Bad enough that we have to get a second mid-chapter cutoff without this particular "wet fish" (a herring, most likely, given the venues) being swatted across our faces. Sorry to say it, but I've started counting the number of issues until we can rid ourselves of the "Hedman hammerlock" and move on to some higher-quality European $CROOGE stories.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #298 (December 2009, Boom! Kids)

In the third installment of "Wizards of Mickey," we get a number of significant revelations -- a few too many for complete narrative comfort, if truth be told. The evil "Lord of Deception" who's holding Mickey's master Nereus captive and manipulating "Black Phantom Team" (Peg-Leg Pete and The Beagle Brothers) in the sorcerers' tournament turns out to be our old friend, The Phantom Blot, without his cover-all cloak. The "two-faced" villain, unfortunately, appears to suffer from a genuine "split of personality" when it comes to deciding upon a grand plan of action. The "L.O.D."'s desire to reunite the scattered Diamagics and remake the shattered "Crown of the Sorcerer Supreme," which gives the wearer "mastery of ALL magic," seems like a logical goal for an evil sorcerer. So why does the mustachioed malice-monger suddenly become obsessed in this chapter with finding the subterranean "Kingdom of the Dragons" and using their magical secrets to take over the world? This reminds me of Gummi Bears' Duke Igthorn dropping his standard plan to conquer Dunwyn in favor of "bigger pickings" when he decides to seize the weaponry of the magical Gummi city of Gummadoon. The "L.O.D." would be well advised to follow Gadget's advice in "Gadget Goes Hawaiian" and pick a plan, ONE plan, and stick with it. As the jugglers say, if you have too many balls in the air, you'll wind up with your pants down. Or something like that.

"Wizards of Mickey" are also "working for scales" in this issue as they seek a way to cure Donald's pet dragon Fafnir's case of "the smoky cough," which may put out Fafnir's internal fire for good if it isn't fixed. The desperate good guys demand a challenge match with the haughty dragons of "Team Magma Fire" on the off chance that the latter might unbend a bit and agree to help cure Fafnir's ailment. Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and the scaled ones wind up having to cooperate after a Beagle Brother snatches Fafnir in the hope that Fafnir will lead "Black Phantom Team" to the dragons' lair (not (c) Don Bluth). The obvious problem here is that the Fafnir is more like a dog than a full-grown dragon (as I mentioned in my review of #297) and thus is unlikely to assist anyone in any meaningful way, unless he regards his tenure as Donald's pet as an extremely long "walkies" and then can even remember where he lives. At least "Wizards of Mickey" wind up forging what will probably prove to be a very helpful friendship with the dragons. With Nereus still a prisoner of the "Lord of Deception," that alliance may have arrived just in time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: THE MACHINE by Joe Posnanski (William Morrow, 2009)

I've had good fortune of late regarding "whim" pickups at the library. While getting the Ayn Rand biography, I saw this "story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds" on the "new books" shelf and picked it up for some light reading. It turned out to be much better than it had any right to be -- almost as good as THE FIRST FALL CLASSIC, in fact, though somewhat more casually written.

The '75 Reds (who repeated as World Series champs in '76, sweeping my Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS) were one of the legendary baseball teams of my (relative) youth. With free agency disrupting the game in the late 70s, some even ventured to argue that the Reds would be "the last great team." Of course, the late-90s Yankees put paid to that presumptuous assertion, but the '75 Reds were plenty good, with one of the best eight-man lineups ever, a colorful (if somewhat unorthodox) manager in Sparky Anderson, and an underrated pitching staff of interchangeable parts which anticipated the "relief-pitching revolution" that has gifted us with so many 3 1/2-hour games in these latter days. Featuring such stars as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez, the Reds entered the '75 season as a formidable but flawed team: they had lost two World Series and one NLCS between 1970 and 1973 and seemed to have been eclipsed as an NL West power by the Dodgers. They got off to a poor start in '75, splitting their first 36 games, but then rocketed to the best regular-season record (108-54) since the 1906 Chicago Cubs. The upstart Boston Red Sox gave them all they could handle in one of the classic World Series -- winning the most famous game of the affair as Carlton Fisk's histrionic homer settled Game 6 in 12 innings -- but Cincinnati clawed back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 to take the title.

Posnanski, a writer for the KANSAS CITY STAR, provides us with the expected tidbits of back story and gossip that has accumulated over three decades (ending with the pathetic sight of a banned Pete Rose selling, if not his soul, then certainly a large portion of his dignity in a Las Vegas casino). He goes beyond the expected, however, by weaving cultural events from the year 1975 into his narrative. '75 was a difficult year for America, with South Vietnam falling, inflation roaring, Watergate a painful recent memory, and Jimmy Hoffa vanishing. The Reds, who stuck to a strict dress and hair code as a matter of organizational policy, represented a conservative portion of the country that literally felt under siege. Even Sparky Anderson found himself challenged when his son refused to cut his hair. The Reds could at least take some solace in the fact that, thanks to their World Series battle, interest in baseball -- that most traditional of American sports -- was revived after a long period of quiescence. Reading the book brought back many memories of those days. Posnanski deserves credit for injecting some real quality into what could have been your standard "where are they now?" pot-boiler.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Comics Review: LITTLE LULU: MISS FEENY'S FOLLY AND OTHER STORIES (Dark Horse, 2009)

A moment of silence to acknowledge the death of Irving Tripp, the man who inked John Stanley's pencils on LITTLE LULU for so many years. Tripp passed away on November 27 at the age of 88. Along with his seminal work on LULU, Tripp inked the Dell adaptations of Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon (the latter of which was reprinted in one of the "Gladstone I" digests in the 80s) and also drew TOM AND JERRY and BUGS BUNNY in the 40s. He stuck with Western Publishing (almost) to the bitter end, retiring in 1982.

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What happened to John Stanley during the period covered by this volume, LITTLE LULU #100-105 (October 1956 - March 1957)? In issue #101, he seems to go slightly crazy, spinning off such wacky ideas as racing earthworms, a man bringing his pet mouse to the movies (and asking for a separate seat for her, no less), and riffs on I Love Lucy (in "The Deadly Weapon," Tubby suddenly starts calling Lulu "Lulusie" for no apparent reason) and simply flooding his panels with dialogue. Since I know that Stanley's break with LULU is just a couple of years away, this sudden upsurge in energy may be the comics writer's equivalent of a star burning itself out before entering the "white dwarf" phase. Whatever came over Stanley at this moment, it appears to have subsided by #102, in which Stanley goes in completely the opposite direction by telling a story (of the "fellers" ripping off lemonade-saleslady Lulu by stealing lemonade with their water pistols) with no dialogue whatsoever. The balance of the collection is more conventional and, as always, highly entertaining.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: AYN RAND AND THE WORLD SHE MADE by Anne C. Heller (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 2009)

For an author who died in 1982 and whose most recent piece of fiction was released in 1957, Ayn Rand has been a most lively corpse of late. Some of the participants at the Tea Party rallies this past summer cited Ayn Rand's hero John Galt, the man who "stopped the motor of the world" in ATLAS SHRUGGED, as an inspiration of sorts. Just recently, Steve Ditko, co-creator of SPIDER-MAN and a prominent follower of Rand's Objectivist philosophy, posted several long pieces on the Big Hollywood Web site taking on some of the cultural issues of the moment. One should be a little wary of both the woman and her message, however. As Anne Heller makes clear in this new -- and for the most part fair -- biography, Rand's important insights into the nature of creativity and the importance of the individual, when taken to extremes, can lead to both an unforgiving philosophy and a troubled life. Rand's works do tend to polarize people, but, if you want to learn something about the woman and her work without being forced to "choose sides," this is a very good place to do so.

Of Rand's works, I've read only ATLAS SHRUGGED, which I found fascinating, if dated in its heavy emphasis on the reliance of world progress on such heavy industries as mining and railroads. While detailing Rand's progress from Russian exile to struggling playwright and author to popular novelist to "pop" philosopher and icon, Heller lets us in on the stories behind all of Rand's works (sometimes in too much detail for those who haven't read them). The unexpected success of THE FOUNTAINHEAD afforded Rand the luxury of taking over a decade to craft ATLAS SHRUGGED, her definitive defense of capitalism in fictional form. At some "tipping point," however, Rand's libertarian arguments began to harden into an "ism," complete with acolytes, apostates, and commandments. It was at that point that Rand began to succumb to the temptation of what Paul Johnson, in INTELLECTUALS, called "the heartless tyranny of ideas." Had Rand been an easier person to deal with and more willing to test her views against opposition in free-flowing debate, the future of her movement might have been different -- but then again, it was her uncompromising nature, forged in the fires of early Communist Russia, that pushed her in the direction of such a philosophy in the first place. It's perhaps fitting that the best expressions of Objectivism have come in self-contained fictional form, including such black-or-white Steve Ditko heroes as Mr. A and The Question. Heller correctly points out that the insular world of Objectivism in the 1960s mirrored that of the worlds of Rand's fictional creations. When human weaknesses crept in -- and Heller delineates those weaknesses in extreme detail, to the extent that the latter part of the book bogs down a bit -- both Rand and the Objectivist movement couldn't handle it. For a brief moment in the mid- to late-60s, however, Rand enjoyed cultural "pull" that would be inconceivable for a public philosopher (as opposed to a political point-talker) in the dumbed-down culture of today. Even now, one can feel that gravitational tug.

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #348 (Boom! Kids, November 2009)

"Double Duck, parts 0.5-1 and 1-1.5" -- and no, that's not some perverse form of mathematical humor -- continues to feature slick artwork and the occasional good gag. This issue adds the refreshing sight of a comely female duck (Donald's primary "Agency" contact Kay K) appearing to be attracted to secret agent Don with no questions asked. (Since I've seen other Double Duck images in which Daisy poses with Donald, I have to wonder whether a duel of desirous "duckettes" is in our future.) In places, however, the logic resembles that of a particularly loopy Darkwing Duck episode, most blatantly in the matter of why Donald needs a "training mission" of the type "The Agency" sets for him here. We saw in part one that Donald has already served as an agent, so why doesn't "The Agency" simply reactivate the memory cells that have lain dormant since Don underwent that "voluntary memory reset"? The mock mission and obligatory "training" gags don't amount to much, apart from a skydiving and scuba-diving escapade with the exuberant Kay and a chance to dredge up Donald's unpaid parking ticket, which will apparently be used as this story's chief running gag. Not until the latter portion of the book do we finally learn that Double Duck's real mission will be to recover a computer storing a list of "Agency" agents from criminal tycoon Marlo Burke. (I can't wait to see that gaggle of Duck-"universe" villains chanting "SELL THE LIST! SELL THE LIST!" at Marlo.)

Showing its Italian pocket-book roots all too clearly, the story breaks off in midstream for another "Double Duck" logo placement. Just prior to the break, Donald had successfully completed his mock mission, with an unwitting assist from the draconic "Duckburg Parking Guard." (As a result, he has to spend some time in jail, but he's used to that.) After some pointless training and the obligatory scene with Gizmo (the tech-wizard of "The Agency"), Don and his overbearing senior partner B-Black get on the job just in time for a smug Gladstone to close the book with a brief walk-on (and some news that he and Daisy will be attending a party at Burke's mansion). There is a hint that Don's boss Jay J may not be telling him the whole truth; the "missing agent" B-Berry, whom Jay claims may be the first victim of Burke's villainy, appears to be the same guy who was facing down Jay in the opening scene in #347! This adds a bit of spice to otherwise straightforward superspy doings and makes me wonder whether "The Agency" is using Don for some deeper, darker purpose. The plot's holes bother me, but the Double Duck saga is turning out to be more interesting than I'd expected -- and, best of all, Donald hasn't fired a weapon in anger yet.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #385 (November 2009, Boom! Kids)

Boom!'s UNCLE $CROOGE isn't a comic-book title, it's a Mobius strip -- and, like a real Mobius strip, the material in it has looked distressingly one-dimensional. At least this time, the book is organized with a bit more care. "Salt and Gold," so clumsily interrupted in U$ #384, wraps up in the first 10 pages, and then the Ducks are off on another treasure-seeking trek, in the environs of Rotterdam this time. "His Ancestor's Diamonds," however, appears complete in this issue, so Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L will be "starting afresh" in #386. Too bad that the trio of linked stories haven't felt fresher. Even a once-in-a-blue-moon teamup of sorts between Magica De Spell and the Beagle Boys in "Diamonds" is handled unimaginatively.

"Salt and Gold," take 2, gets off to a painful start as Magica discovers in her purloined book that, even if she does manage to snare the Old #1 Dime, "the Moon must be in a certain orbit" in order for her to successfully "fuse" the coin at Mt. Vesuvius. Such a disclaimer will surely be a big surprise to the longtime Scrooge-reader (not to mention the astronomy-conscious; how many "orbits" does the moon have, anyway?). The tale regains its bearings at the historic salt mine of Wieliczka, Poland, where Gyro (who, along with HD&L, has been cleared of the book-theft without any trouble -- so much for the cliffhanger, eh?) has deduced that Copernicus' assistant Krystztof's secret alchemist's lab must be located. Magica does the cheesy-disguise routine and fools the Ducks into accompanying her into a dangerous part of the complex, but her effort to grab Old #1 fails, and she causes an accidental cave-in by hurling a bottle of acid into a stone pillar (huh?). The story sort of peters out from there as Gyro, newly-recorded gold-making notes in hand, is sent back to Duckburg. Does Scrooge accompany him? Nope: as hinted by an advertising sign featuring a Dutch windmill, he takes Donald and the boys to Rotterdam to kick-start "His Ancestor's Diamonds"! (I almost expected a DuckTales commercial bumper to be inserted here, so much does this chain of tales resemble one of the TV series' serials.)

Having abruptly "changed his mind" about rendering salt into gold, Scrooge brings Donald and HD&L on a quest to recover a chest of diamonds lost by a Dutch merchant ancestor of Scrooge's. (It couldn't actually have been that much of a 180-degree turn, as Scrooge apparently had had the necessary equipment shipped to him from Duckburg -- which explains why the Beagle Boys decided to stow away.) The search isn't much of one -- Scrooge even evinces boredom by calling it "the easiest treasure hunt I've ever done" -- and is basically an excuse for a fuming Magica to catch up with the Ducks' salvage boat. The chest, however, proves to be full of junk. Several flung "poof" (sic) bombs and a deus ex machina revelation by a bit character later, the Ducks are back in Rotterdam to search the remains of an old dike that may now house the real treasure. Magica "uses" the Beagles to get her back to shore, has them framed for theft, and prepares to use a "special brew" to knock the Ducks silly. This gambit goes about as well as one might expect, and, as our heroes trundle out of town with the diamonds, a wall-poster suggests that they're heading to Scandinavia next. Stop the treadmill, Unca Scrooge, I want to get off!

Carlos Mota's artwork is excellent and his rendering of Magica exceptionally attractive, but the real problem with this/these story/stories is the lackluster writing (Erik Hedman on script, Stefania Bronzoni on translation duty). Had these point-to-point scenarios been infused with even a small portion of the humor and color to be found in such multi-part gems as "Treasure of the Golden Suns", "The Gold Odyssey," and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK, Boom! might have had something here to bear fair comparison to the best Scrooge-related material put out by Gladstone and Gemstone. It's unfortunate that the company chose to use this material during the line's "shakedown cruise" phase. As things stand right now, $CROOGE continues to lag behind Boom!'s other "classic Disney" efforts -- no matter how frantically the globe-hopping Ducks try to catch up.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Still Glowing After All These Years

Tomorrow, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will be broadcast for the 45th consecutive year. Ten days later, CBS will broadcast it again. One would think that this evergreen Christmas special would be used to such exalted treatment, but I can remember when CBS treated Rudolph with shocking disdain. Back in the early 80s, Rudolph was routinely trimmed for time, often with amazing sloppiness. Not until 1998 was the show restored to its original 1964 form. Included in the restoration was "We're a Couple of Misfits," the Rudolph-Herbie (or Rudolph-Hermey; that debate's been going on for a while) bonding song that was replaced by "Fame and Fortune" beginning in 1965:



This definitely fits the "outcasts" mood of the special much better than the generic song about finding glory as companions on the road. Considering the obstacles that Rudolph and Herbie had to face before taking down the Abominable Snowmonster -- a truculent elf-foreman, peer teasing, an ashamed father, a grumpy Santa Claus -- it's a wonder that they were able to muster up this amount of optimism about their status in North Pole society. Today, with scads of Rudolph merchandise available on the Web and catchphrases from the show having become cultural touchstones, this song has acquired an extra-thick lacquer of irony.

Ten particularly neat things about Rudolph:

(1) Billie Mae Richards' voice performance as Rudolph. She's sort of the Canadian version of Billie Lou Watt, a woman who made her voice-acting bones doing male children's voices. Amazingly, Richards got paid only a couple hundred dollars for the Rudolph gig.

(2) Many of the voice actors who appeared in Rudolph later provided voices for the Bakhshi-Krantz Spiderman (it was spelled that way, Stan; don't sue me) series. As a kid, I always wondered where I'd heard the voices of Herbie, Donner, etc. before.

(3) The grumpy Santa. Has Santa ever been depicted in so unflattering a light? He grumbles about being henpecked, blows off the elves' singing performance, immediately disses Rudolph because of his nose, and is ready to "cancel Christmas" before Rudolph selflessly agrees to light the way. Those who grouse about Rudolph's lacking the "deeper meaning" of A Charlie Brown Christmas or the wit of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas should keep this characterization in mind.

(4) The odd blend of modernity and old-fashioned low-tech at Santa's workshop. The elves make toys by hand, but Santa gets up-to-date weather reports.

(5) Herbie's choice of profession. A dentist just sounds so completely off-the-wall under the circumstances. Why, most of the characters don't even have visible teeth.

(6) Yukon Cornelius' pick-flinging, head-licking (eww!) routine.

(7) The fact that Yukon, Herbie, and Rudolph are all sleeping in the same bed when they bunk out at the Island of Misfit Toys. I think that the term "strange bedfellows" may apply here.

(8) The script's "pulling a Disney" by making the audience think that Yukon has been killed during his fight with the Abominable Snowman.

(9) Santa's "dropping off" the Misfit Toys by literally dropping them off his sleigh, armed only with an umbrella. I mean, what if the wind currents aren't exactly right -- then there will be a lot of missed chimneys as a result.

(10) The "convenient fact" that everyone meets at the Snowmonster's cave at exactly the right moment. The family had presumably been seeking Rudolph for a while, Rudolph had had enough time to grow into young buckhood, Herbie and Yukon had just been sent back out into the wild by Sam the Snowman... how many unlikely coincidences is that?!

Happy 45th, Rudolph. May your "beak" continue to blink like a beacon for many more blinkin' years.

Book Review: THE MAN WHO CREATED SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE by Andrew Lycett (Free Press, 2008)

Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation will be thrust back into the public eye this Christmas with the release of the big-budget Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Sherlock Holmes. It seemed like a good time to read a Doyle biography that I've long had on my "to peruse" list. John Dickson Carr's "authorized" 1949 biography is lively and still repays reading today, but Andrew Lycett's tale is denser, if drier, drawing heavily upon documents not available to Carr. Holmes and Watson aren't really the main focal point here; Lycett gives the duo their due, but he's every bit as interested in describing Doyle's other works, discussing the author's gradual absorption in the world of spiritualism, and detailing the doings of Doyle's extended family and circle of friends. The author's homework is appreciated, but I still prefer Carr's somewhat more loosely wound bio for its sheer readability. I just picked up another Doyle bio at the Stevenson library and should be getting to it soon.