Thursday, April 8, 2010
Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK CLASSICS: QUACK UP (Boom! Kids, 2010)
The Boom! "Classics Division"'s first whack (or should that be "Wak"?) at Donald isn't quite as uniformly impressive as the earlier MOUSE TAILS, but it's eminently worthy of an honored place on the same shelf. The Boom!sters "had me at" the very first page with a beautifully colored new reprinting of one of my favorite Carl Barks adventure tales, "Luck of the North" (1949). This story was one of the "Big Four" in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS DIGEST #44 (December 1973), the venue in which I was first exposed to Barks' work back in the 70s (though I knew neither his name nor his significance until later), and I think it's a severely underappreciated piece of work. Like the earlier "Race to the South Seas" and the later "The Gilded Man," it's structured as a one-sided battle between Donald and his cousin Gladstone that "turns" only at the very last (as in: right down to the last bloody panel) moment. The "big idea" here is that it's Donald's fault that he gets into the mess. Driven beyond the point of endurance by lucky Gladstone's bragging and gloating -- and, given that Gladstone also manhandles Donald physically while showing off his luck in various Duckburgian venues, we can certainly second Don's emotion -- Don tricks his cousin into going off to the Arctic Circle in search of a phony uranium mine, only to suffer an attack of conscience later. With HD&L (literally) in harness, Don dashes North to "save" Gladstone, but the Ducks wind up stranded on an iceberg. An iceberg that holds more than a few unexpected treasures having nothing at all to do with uranium...
First and foremost, "Luck" is a spectacularly drawn story. Mike Barrier correctly notes in his Barks book that Donald's gradual dissolution from flippant indifference to Gladstone's fate into literally being burdened with guilt is a real tour de force of dialogue-free characterization. There's a later panel in the story that, to my mind, is just as impressive. After Don, trying to get the fake map, accidentally grabs Gladstone's horoscope chart, he shows the piece of paper off to the boys. HD&L have the usual (for the era) sentence-sharing verbal reaction... and have three completely different expressions on their faces, all of which are believable under the circs. There are excellent Duck artists who would never have thought of that and would have simply given HD&L three identical "takes." It's a small thing, perhaps, but Barks excelled at the small details during this period of his career. The story's dialogue and gags are sharp and first-rate, as well... especially the opening, which gets us on Donald's side even as he plays a mean trick on his relative.
Alas, this marvelous story, which has never looked so good reproduction-wise, is marred just a hair by some silly political correctness injected by Boom!. On three occasions in Barks' story, characters shout, "We've been gypped!" With Boom! evidently worried about perpetuating stereotypes about gypsies, the line is changed to read, "We've been hosed!" Never mind that the expression is totally anachronistic to those familiar with the original... and do very much mind that the fractured dialogue of the Eskimos who have dealings with Gladstone, Donald, and HD&L over kayaks is preserved intact! Inconsistent much, guys? Then, there's the whole touchy idea of Donald using his Nephews as sled dogs. Thank goodness Don didn't use a whip, or this story would have been buried deeper than Floyd Collins long ago...
From a Dell classic, we move to a happy reminder of the best days of Gladstone Comics with the reprinting of "The Master's Touch," a late-70s story plotted by Egmont writers, drawn by "Dutch masters" Daan Jippes and Ben Verhagen, and, most significantly, dialogued by Geoffrey Blum. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Blum reinvented the whole notion of a Duck story as a highly literate, even educational experience when he worked for Gladstone in the late 1980s. Here, he takes a pretty straightforward "mastery" tale (to wit: accomplished photographer Donald, who specializes in prettifying ugly reality, comes unglued when he comes up against a subject that represents the ultimate challenge) and gives it a patina of extra class. "I found the great truth in the camera obscura of life!" Don gloats to HD&L before his big fall. For those like me who first read newsstand Disneys in the "Gladstone I" era, Blum's work established a level of quality that we've since come to expect from American writers. That's not to say that I take his work for granted -- far from it, in fact. All I have to do is dip into a new Whitman Duck comic from the late 70s or early 80s to realize what a quantum leap Blum's work represented.
Bob Gregory, author of this book's third reprint, "The Paper Route Panic" (1959), was also a fine writer in his heyday, but his reputation has suffered from the unfortunate fact that he drew, as well as wrote, a number of his stories, most notably those in DAISY AND DONALD. The D&D opi can only be termed "clunky," and that's a shame, as Gregory's work for the DONALD DUCK title in the late 50s was, if not up to the level of Barks' contemporary work on UNCLE $CROOGE, at least within shouting distance of same. "Panic," drawn by the fecund Tony Strobl, follows the Gregory template of tying seemingly disparate strands of plot together in a neat bow by the end. Here, Don messes up the absent HD&L's paper route while working on an invention that ultimately leads to a new hit record for the boys' favorite singing star, Paisley Mantee. Scrooge gets involved as a potential investor for Don's brainstorm, but his presence really isn't necessary; Donald could have sold his invention to anyone. Most lead stories in DD during this period included Scrooge, probably because his title was a better seller, and "Panic" doesn't do as good a job of incorporating Scrooge into the action as did other Gregory efforts of the era. Even so, it's a good, solid read.
Presumably, Boom! didn't see the irony of reprinting Barks' censored ten-page story, "Donald the Milkman" (1957), in the same volume in which it turned a gypsy insult into (I guess) a Canadian one. This is the third reprinting of a story (the first was in 1990, during the early Disney Comics era) that was originally rejected by Western Publishing because Donald was "too mean to the villain." Actually, the same dynamic that led us to root for Donald in "Luck of the North" despite his dishonesty is in play here, and amplified roughly 100-fold. In his efforts to become a "perfect" milkman, Donald shows no hubris whatsoever, remaining "humble and lovable" throughout, and so we're fully behind him when he finally "goes lactic" and takes revenge on the vicious pig character who's been trying to trip Donald up so that he'll get fired and the pig can claim his job. Truth be told, the "meanness" that gave Western the willies is downright silly, rather than offensive. Censorship is such an inexact science...
The Italian story "Moldfinger: or, The Spy who Ducked-Out on Me" (1966) goes on for 30 mostly tiny panels, and it's rather a slog, even given the fact that I'd been fully "prepped" for the casting of Donald as a "secret agent" thanks to DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS' "Double Duck" saga. It's not really the fault of dialogue men Joe Torcivia and David Gerstein, who do the best they can with the raw material. No, this spy spoof has two big debits that can't be expunged: the artwork of Giovan Battista Carpi and writer Carlo Chendi's shameless swiping from Goldfinger (1964). Carpi was a contemporary of Romano Scarpa, and, while the Italian "Maestro" had his awkward moments artistically, they're minor when compared to Carpi's inartful inconsistency. The Beagle Boys appear first as roly-polies, then lose fully a quarter of their body weight within a few pages. Eric Moldfinger, the would-be looter of Scrooge's Money Bin, smokes a cigar roughly the size of a Hickory Farms Beef Stick and indulges in all manner of wild gesticulations. A human lackey suddenly appears at Moldfinger's hideout for no apparent reason. All I can say is, thank goodness the panels were so small. As to the plot, Donald the MIA (McDuck Intelligence Agency -- "The Cheaper Secret Service!") agent acquits himself reasonably well, but Moldfinger's scheme to "gas" the Money Bin guards hardly needed to be locked away for safekeeping, since it was lifted straight from the Bond movie. Joe and Dave made this one enjoyable in the end, but it was a close shave.
Happily, QUACK UP ends on a bright note with Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Cesar Ferioli's "Nothing New" (2007). Like a Mobius strip, the Ducks' "universe" bends back on itself here as Donald's second cousin Hackney McWebfoot, the burned-out author of the PUP COP! (read: SCOOBY-DOO) comic book, gets some fresh ideas simply by observing the Duck clan in action during an eventful trip to a county fair. Alas, "Unca Hack"'s plan to create a "universe" out of his relatives' world is nixed by an exec who claims "Nobody wants to read comics about Ducks!" (In the context of Duckburg's "ethnic" makeup, wouldn't this sentiment be considered, well, rather racist? Or perhaps "speciesist" is the proper term.) The funny conceit makes the tale work despite the odd fact that most of the specific activity in the story has nothing to do with the ultimate payoff. Oh, and Ferioli rules. I'd love to see previously-unseen Ferioli-drawn stories become a recurring back-of-the-book feature in these "Classics" titles. Despite the faults of "Moldfinger," this particular "Classic" lives up to the line's high standards.