Sunday, February 28, 2010

RIP Chris Sturmfels

Sorry I haven't had the chance to post any additional reviews this weekend. On Friday, Nicky and I received the news that my sister-in-law's brother had been killed in a head-on collision in Delaware on Thursday. Chris was 42, was married and has an eight year old son. A passenger in the car with Chris was also killed. The culprit -- who apparently had a long rap sheet of driving and other infractions and had been involved in two hit-and-runs that very same day -- is in critical condition in the hospital.

Thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE CLASSICS: MOUSE TAILS (Boom! Kids, 2010)

CHRISTMAS CLASSICS may have beaten it into print by a couple of months, but this unquestionably ranks as Boom!'s first true Disney comics "classic." Its production values are far superior to those of the Christmas volume; it features a fine cross-section of MICKEY MOUSE comics stories from (almost) the beginning to the present day, including Carl Barks' only MICKEY story; and, I'm happy to say, it displays a sense of history that provides a sound counterpoint to the superheroics, spy capers, and wizardry of Boom! Kids' "New Direction" newsstand releases. Though none of Mickey's most truly memorable heroic moments are reproduced here -- indeed, the cliched scenario of "Mickey saving the day," which is trumpeted in the back-cover blurb, is conspicuous by its relative absence -- MOUSE TAILS succeeds admirably in its stated intent to help readers "acquaint [themselves] with the mouse of yesterday to better understand the Mickey of today."

As he should, Floyd Gottfredson gets pride of front-of-the-book place with the reprinting of a continuity from early 1931, Mickey Mouse vs. Kat Nipp. Neither Gladstone, Gemstone, nor Disney Comics ever got around to giving us this opus, and its only previous reprinting in the U.S., in a 1934 David McKay volume, omitted a number of strips. Gottfredson was just getting his feet under him as a writer, and it must have seemed natural to pit feisty Mickey against the preening bully Kat Nipp, who'd appeared in several Mickey cartoons a couple of years earlier. In a sense, Mickey deserves the somewhat painful treatment meted out to him, as he insisted on finding out the identity of the hidden Nipp -- the self-proclaimed "toufest (sic) guy in the county" -- even after being victimized by a number of booby traps. The gags are very much of the animated-cartoon variety, but Floyd milks a surprising amount of mileage out of the simple scenario, especially after "nepeta cataria" is shown to be Nipp's great weakness. It's funny stuff, if not particularly profound, and David Gerstein's brief afterword is much appreciated.

One of my favorite stories in the short-lived Gladstone Comics digest line was Ken Hultgren's 1943 adventure, Mickey Mouse and the Seven-Colored Terror. The muddy coloring and poor reproduction couldn't hide the quality of Hultgren's artwork (and it was real quality; Hultgren drew several beautiful BAMBI comics at about this same time and handled "funny animals" every bit as well). MOUSE TAILS gives Hultgren's tale the quality reprinting it's long deserved. Since Hultgren also wrote the story, Terror (and its backup stories in FOUR COLOR #27, The Great Swami Moo-Lah and Villain of the Victory Garden, which I also hope to see reprinted someday) is an artifact of a great "might-have-been" in American Disney comics history. Had Hultgren stayed with Western, rather than going off to script and draw now-forgotten animal characters for most of the rest of the 1940s, might he have developed into the Mouse version of Carl Barks? He certainly doesn't write a "formulaic" Mickey, depicting the Mouse's quest to solve the mystery of the headlined "monster" of idyllic Lake Tranquil as a product of Mickey's headstrong (albeit always well-intentioned) nature. Hultgren has a nice way with words -- "I've got to use my brains, or a reasonable facsimile," grumbles Mickey at one point -- and even characterizes the minor players well. Topping it all off is an unexpected wartime tie-in, as the "Terror" winds up being connected to a search for a rubber substitute. There's only one false note: when Mickey has a climactic fistfight with the putative villain of the piece, the "sounds of the battle" apparently can be heard for an amazingly long distance! Kermit Washington didn't hit Rudy Tomjanovich nearly as hard.

Asked to draw Mickey due to wartime manpower shortages, Carl Barks drew and scripted The Riddle of the Red Hat (FOUR COLOR #79, 1945), then immediately forgot it. "My old pay vouchers prove I did do the work," he commented 25 years later, "so I'll puff out my chest and brag that I did a pretty fair Mickey and Goofy." They're actually better than fair, though some have claimed to have found swipes from Gottfredson in several character poses. Barks' dialogue is decent, as well. Where this story (which was reprinted not that long ago as a Gemstone contribution to "Free Comic Book Day") falls short is in the plotting, which appears to have been the work of Western managing editor Eleanor Packer. Mickey and Minnie's involvement in a jewel-thieving caper turns entirely upon the improbable coincidence of Minnie and her crazy new hat looking the same (from the back) as a female jewel courier. Chester Gould would be proud, but Barks probably wouldn't have thought up so clumsy a device himself, even at this early stage of his career. At least we get to see Mickey and Minnie packing heat when they corner the crooks (among whose number is Pete, though he's just a hired goon in this case).

The inclusion of Romano Scarpa's Lost in the Microcosmos (1957) in a volume supposedly devoted to examples of Mickey's "just generally saving the day" is a bit curious, as it's Eega Beeva who does most of the heavy lifting (or traveling, in his microscopic sort-of-spacecraft), especially early in the story. Mickey, Eega, and Chief O'Hara have to cooperate to foil a counterfeiting scheme masterminded by an "old fiend" disguised as a fruit salesman with a surprisingly stereotypical Italian accent (not to mention a mustache that disappears and reappears at least once). Dialogue mavens David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray are hereby sentenced to 100 lashes with a wet piece of linguine for their un-progressive transgression. They do, however, deserve credit for giving a semi-scientific basis to a weird "microcosmic" scene in which multiple microscopic copies of the villain go on a rampage. In Carl Fallberg and Paul Murry's The Last-Minute Mutiny (1959), Mickey likewise is drawn into the story as opposed to making it happen, with Goofy inviting him to participate in a ship-sailing contest to celebrate the founding of Mouseton "by thuh early Spanish explorers five hundred years ago!". Mickey more than gets his (sword) licks in before the end, though, as he and Goofy foil (heh) an attempt by the inevitable Pete to pilfer the prize. Fallberg and Murry did better stories than this, but it's wholly representative of their output.

The volume's last offering (apart from a handful of newspaper and strip gags), Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli's Trading Faces (2008), is by far its strangest. Erickson and Ferioli have teamed up Mickey and Donald Duck before, and in that adventure story they played with the theme of Donald resenting the two pals' diametrically opposed experiences of good fortune. Here, the entire story turns on the latter notion. Thanks to Gyro Gearloose's "holographic body switchers," Don and Mick spend virtually the entire story in one another's bodies (so to speak). Convinced that "Fate doesn't like my face!", Don wants to prove his theory by watching Mickey absorb punishment while clad in Duck feathers. The real charm of this tale is watching Ferioli (who also provides MOUSE TAILS' cover) tackle the task of portraying Mickey displaying Donald-like emotions while Donald "underplays" scenes as Mickey would under the circs. If any modern artist could pull that off, Ferioli could, and he does. It's not an adventure or anything close to it, but it's a nice way of tying Mickey into the other main segment of the Disney comics "universe."

If MOUSE TAILS is any indication of what is to come from Boom!'s hardback "classics" line, then that segment of the Boom! Disney line, at least, is in sure hands. My review of the next (in chronological order of reception, that is) release, VALENTINE CLASSICS, will appear in this space soon.

Our "Predominantly Losing" Season

(Advance apologies to Pat Conroy for riffing on his title.)

Stevenson University's death march of a basketball campaign is finally over. The men finished 2-23 (with both wins coming against Gallaudet), the women 5-18. Though some unintentional levity was provided along the way, it seriously remains to be seen whether the programs can be competitive in the Capital Athletic Conference. The men are a combined 15-61 in their three years since joining the CAC, while the women have gone 18-56. With a new gym set to open next year and football set to debut as a varsity sport at SU in 2011, the need for basketball to improve becomes all the more imperative. Far be it from me to dismiss out of hand SU's current status as a D3 power in lacrosse, but, once the pigskinners begin their fall exercises, the old-fashioned pecking order in college sports -- 1. football, 2. basketball, 3. all else -- is bound to assert itself.

SU's student newspaper, THE VILLAGER, tried to put the best face on things by describing the men as suffering through a "predominantly losing" season. I know the writer's heart was in the right place, but I couldn't help but be reminded of Jimmy Carter's description of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission as an "incomplete success."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #388 (Boom! Kids, February 2010)

(Huh? Another cover in which Disney characters ride motorcycles without wearing the proper headgear? Is that why Donald is trying to protect his head with the map?)

The rehabilitation of Boom!'s UNCLE $CROOGE begins modestly enough, but I'll accept any improvement, however slight, over the train wreck we got in the last issue. "Around the World in 80 Bucks" gives the familiar story of Phileas Fogg a clever Scrooge-ian twist, with penny-pinching Scrooge betting spendthrift John D. Rockerduck that he can make a globe-girdling trip with only the titular amount of money. Just to prove his point, Scrooge decides to take Donald along. To no one's surprise, the unscrupulous John D. sends Lusky, one of his henchmen, after Scrooge to gum up the works. Scrooge gets across the U.S. and picks up a little extra cash to boot (by contracting to drive an agency's car to New York), then signs himself and Don aboard a luxury liner as hired help. The cliffhanger is a little shaky in a logical sense; why would the cruise line force Scrooge to pay for his passage even if his identity were revealed? Still, despite the somewhat formulaic script (by some outfit called "Staff di IF") and decidedly pedestrian artwork (by no less than the Francesco Bargada Studio, the folks responsible for "The Great Paint Robbery," which I dialogued for U$ #353), this shapes up to be a pretty decent, if fairly bland, effort. Let's hope the thread of the plot doesn't snap, as it did during the concluding roundabout of the "European Vacation" cycle.

Dickie Duck, a Romano Scarpa creation from the 1960s -- she's a teenager and Glittering Goldie's granddaughter, Goldie's niece, and/or a cousin/pal of Donald's Nephews, depending upon which Scarpa story you read -- makes a surprise appearance in the story, hitching a ride to New York with Scrooge and Donald. The real surprise isn't that she appears; she had made brief appearances in several of the Gemstone "pocket book" stories and can even be glimpsed in a piece of animation previously posted on this blog. This, however, is the first time that she has ever been referred to by name in American Disney comics. Yep, we're back to the "Who the heck are you?" territory previously mined so diligently by Ultraheroes. Happy as I am to see a Scarpa character of more than 40 years' standing get some attention in this country, I could have hoped for a more "formal" introduction. Perhaps Dickie's origin story can some day be printed in one of Boom!'s hardback collections -- which, by the bye, are quickly turning out to be the true gems of the line. More on that subject later this week.

Comics Review: STAR COMICS ALL-STAR COLLECTION, Volume 2 (Marvel Comics, 2010)


Second volume, pretty much the same as the first... in terms of generally outstripping my expectations, that is. This issue collects PLANET TERRY #3-#4, TOP DOG #4-#6, WALLY THE WIZARD #3-#4, and ROYAL ROY #3-#4, taking us through the end of 1985 and the latter stages of the Star "shakedown cruise." For the most part, the original writers and artists are still on the job, though another Harvey stalwart from the 70s and 80s, Ben Brown, bows in by both writing and drawing both stories in WALLY #4. Most of Brown's previous work on RICHIE RICH can charitably be described as uninspired, but here he turns in some first-rate work, though inkers Jon D'Agostino and Vince Colletta may have helped his cause considerably. Bob Bolling returns to WALLY with issue #3's book-length "Folkquest" and turns in the best single story of this collection, a touching tale of Wally's efforts to find his kidnapped parents and help his young Viking pal, Vikk, track down his own father. Wally shows genuine nobility of spirit throughout. By contrast, ROYAL ROY is already beginning to stagger despite the best efforts of Stan Kay, Warren Kremer, and new writer Angelo DeCesare. DeCesare's "The Curse of the Gold-Engaged Bridge" (RR #4) delivers a wretched title pun worthy of Harvey at its peak but, at bottom, is nothing more than a riff on one of my favorite Richie Rich-Mayda Munny stories, "Wedded Blitz." We learn something of Top Dog's past in TOP DOG #4 and #5 as federal agent Morrison calls upon TD to reprise his role as mental jockey of the government's "Brainstrain" computer (the usual Colossus-like beep-and-flash monstrosity that the the PC revolution was then in the process of rendering somewhat obsolete) and save America from, in turn, an embittered Treasury engraver who plans to flood the country with fake currency and a crook who intends to use the power of an "ancient Egyptian amulet" to make himself "King Invisible of America." It's good fun, but the fact that Lenny Herman resorted to two such plots back-to-back is a bit troubling, especially since the relationship between TD and his "owner" Joey Jordan still needs development. Ish #6 sags badly with a poor lead story in which nasty Mervin Megabucks hires two unfunny "mildly peeved" scientists, Frank and Stein, to hypnotize TD into becoming his dog, and offers up what may be a sinister portent for the future with some shoddy non-Kremer art in one of a pair of one-page gags. Finally, Planet Terry, Robota, and Omnus continue their search for Terry's mom and dad (I should really create a key function that prints all that in one fell swoop, since it'll be operative for the book's entire run) and make the acquaintance of Elvin, a cute, no-doubt-Ewoks-influenced character. Terry must be a bit older than he looks, since the beautiful Princess Ugly, ruler of the World of the Gorkels, appears to have the hots for him. That only happened to Richie Rich in the Christmas Wish movie, and, even then, the female rock-band groupies were talking about "someday" getting together with Richie when he had become a bit older. These may be Harvey Comics in all but branding, but at least one or two modest chances were being taken...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #703 (Boom! Kids, January 2010)

Now here's a comic re-establishing "first principles" with a vengeance! With the Ultraheroes having departed to their own title, Boom! returns to the original Disney comics hero -- the quick-witted, dashing Mickey Mouse of the Floyd Gottfredson era -- in "Mickey Mouse and the World to Come," a 2008 Italian story written and drawn by Andrea "Casty" Castellan (who is also interviewed herein). Castellan's art strongly resembles that of Gottfredson during the immediate post-World War II period when Bill Walsh was handling the writing chores -- his "smaller and squatter" rendition of Mickey's scientist pal Doc Static is a good "guesstimate" of how Gottfredson might have drawn Static had the character debuted in the late 40s -- and the resemblance is further strengthened by Castellan's decision to bring back The Rhyming Man, the villain of Walsh's 1948 continuity "The Atombrella," as the tale's apparent villain. (The "Atombrella" story, which co-starred Eega Beeva, was never reprinted in comic-book form in America, which renders editor Aaron Sparrow's sidebar note to "see" the original story "for Mickey's first duel with his rhyming foe!" rather pointless.) The plot (dialogued with great panache by David Gerstein, Jonathan Gray, and Stefania Bronzoni) isn't exactly clear as of yet, but we do know that (1) Doc Static may have been up to some sort of intrigue during a 1980's sojourn in Europe (does he seem like the nuclear freeze type to you?); (2) someone out in the desert built a giant flying robot some years ago, and it ain't Emil Eagle; (3) a bunch of sunglass-wearing "Men in Black" (OK, "in Tan," to be perfectly technical) didn't appreciate Mickey and Minnie snooping around that desert location. I may not quite know what's going on, but I do know that chapter one ends on a legitimate cliffhanger. After some of the awkward cutoff points we've seen in Boom! issues past, this is no small achievement. Castellan tops off the fine performance with a splendid cover that looks like a cross between an advertisement for The Rocketeer and a cover to Kit Cloudkicker's favorite pulp magazine, AMAZINGLY FANTASTICAL TALES.

I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing a few extra pages from Castellan -- even if it would have messed up that great cliffhanger -- but Boom! serves up an out-of-left-field backup story, giving us part one of Alberto Savini and Abramo Leghziel's "Peg-Leg Pete and the Alien Band." This thing is just plain weird. To wit: (1) "Peg-Leg" Pete has both feet intact; (2) Pete is abducted bodily out of his bathtub in a manner not unlike that of the Elephant Girl in DuckTales' "Duckworth's Revolt" (the Elephant Girl's tub came with her, but I doubt that any force in the universe is powerful enough to lift both Pete's tub and his body at once); (3) Pete's alien abductors appear to be the "love children" of an unidentified Muppet and The Way-Outs. Evidently, the aliens intend to "change Pete's skin," for whatever cockamamie reason. A pre-story blurb attempts to tie Pete's travails, however loosely, to the events of "World to Come" ("With Mickey otherwise occupied, who will keep Mouseton safe from the sinister machinations of Peg-Leg [sic] Pete?"), but it hardly seems necessary. I will admit, though, that I can easily hear Jim Cummings providing Pete's voice in this story. I can hardly wait for Pete to snap out of his initial fright and try to sell the aliens a used spaceship...

Book Review: RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: RONALD REAGAN AND THE CAMPAIGN THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Craig Shirley (ISI Books, 2009)



Well... (as the hero of the story might have put it...) the wait for the followup to Shirley's REAGAN'S REVOLUTION, though somewhat longer than expected, was certainly worth it. As Shirley's earlier book has come to be regarded as a definitive portrait of Ronald Reagan's near-miss challenge of Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination, so this much thicker tome is likely to stand as the standard account of Reagan's successful capture of the White House in 1980 -- at least from a Reagan-friendly perspective -- for the foreseeable future. That all-important election is now far enough in the past that the story needs to be retold, especially now that the first great wave of "Reagan revisionism" is being met by counterblasts from some writers on the Left. The facts that Reagan was anything but a universally respected and popular figure (even within his own party and campaign staff), and that Reagan nearly blew what should have been a clear victory over a fatally weak and incompetent incumbent President, have been blanketed beneath the haze of golden memories streaming from the unforgettable experience of Reagan's state funeral. Shirley lays out many familiar anecdotes from the campaign trail, rustles up a few new ones for our delectation, solves a long-standing "mystery" in the bargain, and, though his bias in favor of Reagan is always evident, gives both friends and foes their fair share of ink. (Shirley's favorable description of Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention is particularly notable. Perhaps his discovery that a number of Kennedy hands, angry at Jimmy Carter for personal, political, and ideological reasons, apparently voted for Reagan influenced his posture here?)

One of the great questions about the 1980 campaign concerns how a set of Carter's debate briefing books got into the hands of Reagan's people. Shirley presents evidence that Paul Corbin, a shadowy figure on the Kennedy periphery, was responsible for the theft. I remember when "Debategate" blew up and how some elements of the media seized on it as a way of trying to, in some sense, delegitimize Reagan's election. Shirley argues that the books contained nothing more than records of Reagan's past statements and, as such, didn't materially affect the candidates' debate performances. While that can be fairly debated, I think that Shirley puts the kibosh on any claims of "Republican dirty tricks" here.

As thorough as Shirley is, I think that his text could have done with just one more read-through by an objective editor familiar with Shirley's style in REAGAN'S REVOLUTION. The earlier book was informally written and contained several funny anecdotes but never strayed over the line separating seriousness from silliness. The tone of RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY, by contrast, can only be described as sophomoric in places. The use of words like "kinda" and "natch" in what purports to be an exhaustive history of an historic election rubbed me the wrong way, I must admit. I mean, Teddy White pioneered the "campaign biography" and never resorted to such shenanigans. Also, a few too many sentences are "clunkily" written for my taste. Perhaps Shirley was so focused on packing the narrative with detail (did the original version of the text really run to 1700 pages, as one Amazon reviewer claimed?) that he paid less attention to how he was writing. If you can ignore the occasional gaucheries, however, you'll find this to be a truly fascinating read.

Comics Review: LITTLE LULU: THE BIG DIPPER CLUB AND OTHER STORIES (Dark Horse, 2010)

No screwball I Love Lucy riffs in this volume, which covers LITTLE LULU #106-111 (April-September 1957), but few lulls, either. The title story finds Lulu and her pal Annie exacting revenge on Tubby and his clubhouse buddies in that inimitable John Stanley fashion after the girls are turned into unwitting circus attractions. In my favorite story in the book, Lulu shows that she's, ahem, maturing nicely by throwing a "Surprise Party" in which the only guest is rich Wilbur Van Snobbe. Despite this "victimization," Wilbur ends up the odd man out anyway, which seems rather unfair but does give Lulu a chance to express her true feelings about her other friends. Another good tale finds benevolent Lulu distributing a basket of kittens to all and sundry, but winding up without a kitten herself because there was "One Kid Too Many." Stanley is only two years or so away from leaving the title for good, but these issues find him reasonably close to peak form.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Barats' Sense of Snow -- Second Wave

After the second snowstorm... it took the better part of a morning to get the driveway clean (again).

Even after we had cleared away the dogs' "potty spot," Harry wanted to go exploring. His efforts were futile...

... so we dug a trench and created a crater in the middle of the back yard (OK, it was mostly a place to dump the extra snow, but the dogs don't have to know that).

We're taking bets on when we'll again see green grass that we haven't uncovered ourselves.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Barats' Sense of Snow -- First Wave

Here are some pictures Nicky took in the aftermath of last weekend's 32-inch snowstorm. We're still digging out from under phase 2 but hope to put up some pics of the aftermath of that trifling little 18-incher once we've made some progress.

A beautiful cake-icing effect on our roof. We decided that safety trumped aesthetic beauty and knocked the overhang down.

The well-insulated Bengie was constantly "underpaw" as we shoveled. We quickly cleared the deck and patio so that he, Harry, and Shasta could transact their business...

... and, just in case a little privacy was desired, we carved out a pathway under the deck.

Implements of war -- or should that be entrenchment? -- stacked under the shadow of Old Glory.

And all traces of this valiant work would soon disappear under yet another blanket of white. Stop eating turkey, already, Junior Woodchucks!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Comics Reviews: DISNEY'S HERO SQUAD #1 and WIZARDS OF MICKEY #1 (Boom! Kids, January 2010)

Last week's Boom! releases marked a watershed in American Disney comics history. The company's decision to shift the ongoing Ultraheroes and Wizards of Mickey story lines into their own eponymous titles may not appear to tempt fate in the dramatic manner of the Saints at the start of the Super Bowl's second half, but it definitely represents a gamble. "Themed" books with familiar Disney characters assuming unusual roles have long done well in Europe, but never have they replaced traditional titles in the manner that WIZARDS OF MICKEY has now supplanted MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS in America. Should these new books outsell MM&F and WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, will Boom! shift en masse to a "themed" approach, revamping even UNCLE $CROOGE and WDC&S and limiting "classic" material to its pricey hardback collections? That would be a "sea change" surging beyond even Disney Comics' introduction of TV-based titles and ROGER RABBIT releases in the early 90s.

In its opening 14 pages, HERO SQUAD #1 bravely faces the "New World" -- and quails ever so slightly. Though described as a "super-slugfest," the latest chapter in the "Ultramachine" saga features hardly any violence at all, super or otherwise. Indeed, "Iron" Gus Goose foils the attempt of John D. Rockerduck (aka "Roller Dollar") to locate Ultrapod-6 by doing nothing more than falling asleep and discombobulating Rockerduck's "cyborg-miners" with his snoring! Fethry "The Red Bat" shows a little more initiative, scandalizing the Pod-5-seeking Phantom Blot by tromping on The Blot's obsidian instep after all manner of "Bat-repellers" have failed to foil the villain. (I thought The Blot's most recent appearance had established that his body is liquid in nature? Fethry's folly is nicely reminiscent of a Warner Bros. or Darkwing Duck gag, regardless.) Elsewhere, The Beagle Boys again screw up Scrooge's attempt to escape The Sinister 7's clutches, while Donald and Daisy, still clueless to one another's crushingly obvious secret identities, meet in Duckburg and bicker in approved Duck Avenger/Super Daisy style. Really, that's all there is to this "collector's issue" insofar as Ultraheroes material goes. Even the artwork, by Roberta Migheli, falls well below the series' genially disheveled, eminently surmountable standard. Boom! probably could have picked a better moment at which to launch HERO SQUAD than this.

The ish's big surprise comes after the Ultraheroes segment, when the "powers-that-edit" abruptly decide to provide some much-needed historical perspective and announce a new subfeature detailing "the secret beginnings of your favorite Ultraheroes!". Better late than never! Taking the first bow is Super Goof in Bob Ogle and Paul Murry's "The Thief of Zanzipar", from SUPER GOOF #1 (1965). Actually, SG had made a couple of appearances before this "origin tale," but this story firmly establishes the Super Goobers as the one true source of Goofy's powers and gives SG his first "official" adventure. The amusing script and first-class Murry artwork are pleasant reminders of Gold Key's golden years. Two problems "grody" up the Goobers, however. First, we only get the first nine of the story's 16 pages, meaning that we'll have to wait an extra issue before another Ultrahero gets his or her chance to shine. Second, Goofy's face is, I kid you not, a light purple in color! (Cue Pauley Cracker squawking: "Maybe he ate too many grapes!" It's a Kimba in-joke, and, yes, they do exist.) I suppose that's better than Goofy the Genie's entire body being colored blue for the WDC&S #584 reprint of the 1960s story "A Lad 'n His Lamp," but it still looks really, really peculiar, especially since no other character in the story gets a mauve makeover. Colorist Eric Cobain needs to look into this before worried fans begin to write in offering to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on Goofy.


If HERO SQUAD stumbles a bit out of the gate, then WIZARDS OF MICKEY -- once you get past the well-designed logo -- tromps on the reader's face and laughs in the process. Well, at least for a brief moment. The narrative quickly wraps up the "Team Diamond Moon" subplot in fairly slick fashion, giving "Princess Minnie" a back story and permitting Mickey a moment of true nobility to boot, but then hoots with derision in the faces of those who've complained of Boom!'s awkward handling of splits in its chapter arcs: "Stay tuned for the next episode... See you here soon! Like now! No seriously, turn the page!" Then follows the title page of the next chapter, "The Dragon's Nest." The only good thing about this remarkably inartful editorial decision is that it doesn't involve any misspellings. "The Dragon's Nest" itself is fine, with "Wizards of Mickey" outpointing a team of... erm, they kinda look like Muppets, I guess... for a "light diamagic" and forging ahead to isolated Crow Fortress to fight for the "sleep diamagic" (though Goofy's lullabies may work just as effectively, at least on animals). The "Lord of Deception," meanwhile, thinks that he may finally have a lead on the location of the Dragons' Kingdom, thanks to the imprisoned Nereus' unwitting assistance. I must admit to being surprised by the speed with which "Team Diamond Moon" was discarded -- I had expected them to become steady allies of "WOM," at the very least -- but perhaps Minnie, Daisy, and Clarabelle will reappear in later chapters. Frustratingly, the inside front cover of the book boasts what appears to be a map of the setting for these sorcery stories, but it's too small and faint to read. Why not create a fold-out version as a keepsake of this first issue? That would have been a great way to attract attention from the casual rack-browser. Leaving aside the painful editorial leg-pulling, WIZARDS OF MICKEY continues to rival the "Double Duck" arc in DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS as the best of Boom!'s "New Direction" material.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: THIRTEEN "GOING ON EIGHTEEN" Vol. 1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Drawn & Quarterly has already done well enough by John Stanley with its fine collections of the creator's work on Dell's NANCY and MELVIN MONSTER. What those earlier volumes (especially the latter) lacked was a sense of perspective for those of us who are still catching up with Stanley's LITTLE LULU work and want to know how, exactly, these lesser-known efforts compare with that justly celebrated series. For its third (and thickest) STANLEY LIBRARY offering, D&Q makes up for past omissions by fronting the first nine issues of THIRTEEN "GOING ON EIGHTEEN" -- by far, Stanley's most successful original creation -- with an essay by cartoonist and graphic designer Seth, who ranks this 1960s series among the best "mainstream" comics ever produced. As things turned out, I would have liked the collection under any circumstances, but I appreciate Seth's pointing out how THIRTEEN ties in with themes inherent in Stanley's earlier work. (Frank Young, in his fine review of the collection at his Stanley Stories Blog, provides additional insights for those who are interested.)

I've never been a big fan of "teenage" comics, but THIRTEEN already ranks as one of my two favorites of that genre, along with Harvey's BUNNY. Those familiar with both will probably laugh, but I'm serious. I like BUNNY, that well-meaning and completely addle-pated Valentine to the groovy, ginchy late 60s, precisely because it's so truly bizarre. (That, plus the fact that uncredited artist Hy Eisman, bless him, didn't fall into the trap of ripping off ARCHIE character designs, as Tower, Marvel, and DC so conspicuously did during that same period.) THIRTEEN, by contrast, is much more down-to-earth and believable, tracing as it does the lives and loves of a pair of occasionally lovable, occasionally aggravating teenage girls. Stereotyping of the ARCHIE variety is nowhere to be seen, though I'm sure Stanley must have received some pressure from the folks at Dell to compete directly with the Riverdale behemoth.

Stanley takes a while to get into a groove with Val and Judy, his teen stars. Issues #1-#2 of THIRTEEN, drawn by Tony Tallarico, are easily the weakest of the nine reproduced here. The gags aren't great, and Tallarico -- an artist about whom I've literally never heard a kind word -- draws petite blond Val and chunky brunette Judy as though they're somewhere around 11 or 12. Stanley himself takes over the drawing chores with #3, and the extra burden, oddly enough, appears to have liberated him a bit. Funny supporting characters begin to appear -- Judy's annoying boyfriend-for-lack-of-a-better-alternative Wilbur, an equally slothful loser named Charlie -- and Val's next-door neighbor Billy, who rotates between the roles of "good friend" and fallback date option, develops a wickedly impish sense of humor. Frenetic action and controlled hysteria of the LULU variety become a standard ingredient of most plots. Reminiscent of LULU, as well, is the book's decidedly distaff-friendly perspective (no big surprise, given that teenage girls were the target audience). Val may be a "drama queen" -- her occasional bouts of weeping and wailing on her bed are hilarious -- and Judy a bit mean-spirited, but they shine in contrast to the totem-like Paul Vayne (a "dreamboat" who becomes Val's first semi-serious steady), the calculatedly "kooky" Billy, and the utterly hopeless Wilbur and Charlie. To be sure, everyone has good and bad moments in these pages, but the girls -- including Val's older sister Evie, who sometimes functions as goad, sometimes as sounding-board, for her flightier younger sister -- come off better most of the time. Sometimes too much better, as I'll explain below.

THIRTEEN is very much a work powered by the "gas fumes" of the 1950s -- to the extent that one critic of these stories goes all postmodern on us and describe the comic as "a clear example of the concept of 'cultural hegemony.'" That in itself is a reason for me to enjoy the series; though the title's first issue appeared in 1961, it radiates that 50s sense of cultural contentment that drives the Left so crazy about any era over which it does not hold hegemony. Don't be fooled by the well-groomed setting, though. In this title, Stanley has some rather raw things to say about the quest for love, suggesting that, while unrequited love may be painful, requited love may be just as harsh. Val's relationship with Paul Vayne ends up causing no small amount of stress; she worries about losing him and is not a little nervous about what her relationship with Paul might do to her tie with Billy. Judy, less attractive than Val even after she suddenly drops a few dozen pounds, is desperate for the "right guy" but winds up settling for Wilbur, an oaf who refuses to pay for Judy on dates and insists on wearing a filthy hat everywhere he goes. Even Evie gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop when her steady throws her over (and we don't even get to see it "live"). Sure, some may carp that Val and Judy care more about impressing boys than they do about maximizing their career options or "finding their voices," but the former is where the "funny" is, no matter what era you're living in.

As with most Stanley collections I've read, the collective effect of reading Stanley stories is more significant than the impact of any one story. I do have some favorites in this collection, though. "A Maiden's Prayer" finds Val trying to enjoy a picnic with Paul Vayne even as she desperately tries to steer him away from trees, walls, and any other places where "Val and [fill in the blank]" carvings are present. We do get an odd moment when lightning strikes a shelter where Paul and Val are hiding from the rain. The way Stanley depicts the accident, the duo are lucky to have survived unscathed! Next thing you know, turkeys will start flying (yes, Mr. Stanley, I remember well that goof from a LULU story). The stories in which Val tries to dodge the unwanted attentions of a bespectacled "admirer" named "Sticky Stu" bring back wistful memories of a time when I, myself, was enamored with a high-school classmate and always had to be around her. I'd like to think that I was better company than the poker-faced Stu, however.

THIRTEEN does have one feature that I don't care for at all. Thanks to those strange postal regulations that gifted us with GYRO GEARLOOSE backup features in UNCLE $CROOGE and GOOFY quickies in DONALD DUCK, the title concludes every issue with a brief story starring Judy Junior (who looks like a younger, shorter, and even chunkier Judy) and a little boy, Jimmy Fuzzi. I've read those GYRO and GOOFY stories, however, and Judy Junior is no Gyro or Goofy. What she is is a painfully pushy, overbearing brat whose apparent sole purpose in life is to make Jimmy miserable. Sure, Stanley wanted to make the girls the star characters of the title, but this is going too far. Seth claims that he could read a "whole book" of these supposedly hilarious tales. They may work for him, but, for me, they simply seem cruel -- like an endless string of Lucy-pulls-the-football-away-from-Charlie-Brown gags without the pathos (and infrequency) that made those PEANUTS gags memorable (and tolerable). At least in LULU stories, put-upon characters generally get a chance for revenge; Jimmy almost never does. To make matters worse, the characters constantly refer to one another by name, a gambit which gets to be like Chinese water torture after a while. Stanley's LULU stories had an edge to them; the JUDY JUNIOR tales hone that edge down to razor-sharpness and then ask you to perch on same. I'll pass.

In his Introduction, Seth comments that Stanley wasn't greatly affected by the oncoming post-Camelot cultural tsunami in later issues of THIRTEEN, apart from an occasional Beatles reference. But then, Stanley's comics always seem to take place at a certain remove from the topical concerns of the real world -- all the better for Stanley to concentrate on his plots and characterizations. The fact that he can make this approach work in a quasi-realistic comic like this one is a considerable tribute to his talents. I'm definitely on board for future collections of this title -- and, if Dark Horse or someone else would only agree to publish the collected BUNNY, my "teen comics dream," such as it is, would be complete.