Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Where Your Tress-ure Is, There Will Your Heart Be Also"

While Googling a Gadget link for a recent column, I accidentally ran across this Web site and... well, it's hard to know WHAT to say about this, aside from cracking a few funnies:

(1) Is there a heretical spinoff of the "Cult of Gadget" in which Gadget represents the power of Light battling against her evil twin Lahwhiney, standing in for the power of Darkness? Sort of a parallel to the Cult of Mithras?

(2) Can we now regard the episode "The Case of the Cola Cult" as a seminal doctrinal text involving Temptation (Gadget joining the Cola Cult) followed by a redemptive Crusade (Gadget playing "Rambo-ette" to save the other Rangers)?

(3) What role does Tress MacNeille play in Gadget's Nativity narrative -- if any?

Seriously (if one CAN be serious about this), I don't know but what I would prefer the "worship" of a cartoon character, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, to the decidedly devilish disagreements that have cropped up among fans ABOUT cartoon characters and other fictional creations. At least the former doesn't involve alienating other people for no truly meaningful reason.

Comics Review: ARCHIE AS PUREHEART THE POWERFUL, VOLUME 1 (IDW Publishing/Archie Comics, 2010)


Scratch one nosy feline! I'm not an ARCHIE reader but broke down and bought this grab-baggy compilation of thirteen stories from that giddy era when Archie and his pals joined the cape-and-cowl crowd. To give writer Frank Doyle and artist Bob White their due, they anticipated the tidal wave of "high camp" by a couple of months: Archie made his debut as Captain Pureheart the Powerful in LIFE WITH ARCHIE #42 (October 1965), while the Batman TV series premiered in January of '66. Doyle and White evidently conceived the Pureheart gig as a lark; they didn't even bother to give Pureheart an origin story but instead tossed him, carrot-topped casaba first, into a battle with The Ice Cube, a villain made out of... you guessed it. Four issues later, "The PH Factor" belatedly explained that Archie got his powers by concentrating really, really hard to channel his inner goodness. Jughead, Reggie, and the rest followed "super-suit," and the craze even birthed a title of its own, which lasted six issues under two different names. By contrast, SUPER RICHIE, the titular vehicle for another "normal" character (Richie Rich) who turned "heroic" during the mid-60s just for kicks, lasted three times as long despite debuting a decade after the death of "camp." I'd have to rate SUPER RICHIE as the more successful concept, wouldn't you?

White packs plenty of energy and good spirits into his PUREHEART scripts, but, frankly, there's more imagination on display in even a mediocre episode of Darkwing Duck. Perhaps symbolically, the most enjoyable moments occur when Pureheart and his rival Evilheart (Reggie) are vying for attention (particularly that dispensed by Betty and Veronica). Imagine Darkwing and Negaduck cast as Gizmoduck and you've pretty much got the idea. One collection of PUREHEART stories is enough for me, though.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Comics Reviews: DISNEY'S HERO SQUAD #7 and WIZARDS OF MICKEY #7 (July 2010, Boom! Kids)

My first joint review of these titles in a while -- and, depending on shipping skeds, it may well be the last, as each is scheduled to "go on hiatus" following installment #8. I can now honestly say that I won't be at all sorry to see HERO SQUAD depart... and, while I have enjoyed WIZARDS OF MICKEY for the most part, seeing it go won't exactly crush my spirits. I think it is far more likely that we'll see WIZARDS again, seeing as how there's so much unpublished material available. Perhaps WIZARDS can be turned into a recurring subfeature in the newly revived MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS? Hey, if Donald can enjoy stints as a superspy and (so I hear) as a kung fu expert in DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS, why can't Mickey don different creative chapeaux in "his" title? (Of course, the way that Boom! has been burning up the Casty material, WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES can almost be counted as a MICKEY book now.)

The end of "The Battle for the Ultramachine" SHOULD, by all rights, have appeared in HERO SQUAD #8, but it looks as if we're going to get a trivial follow-up story, "Fight Before the Exams," to fill in the gap. (Whatever happened to the plan to reprint more hero origin stories?) It's finally occurred to me that the Ultramachine epic turned out to be very much like a classic JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA story penned by Gardner Fox, with discrete individual battles seguing into a grand free-for-all finale. The main difference here is that the actual en masse combat between the Ultraheroes and the Sinister 7 didn't last that long. More attention was paid to the two groups' combining of forces to stop the giant, out-of-control, Ultramachine-powered Eega Beeva. And therein lies the problem -- we didn't really know ANY of these characters well enough for the alliance to have any impact at all. A number of artist Stefan Turconi's panels featured squiggly little characters buzzing around Big Eega like hornets around a hornets' nest, doing... stuff. That pretty much summed up the impersonal, uninvolving nature of this battle. Mickey, after being subjected to menial duties and minor humiliations throughout most of the story, actually makes the most meaningful contribution to Eega's neutralization... which is promptly undercut when Eega crushes a loose Ultrapod (thereby making it impossible to reconstruct the Ultramachine) and blandly admits that he really should have thought of that beforehand! Pno kidding, Psherlock. This struck me as supremely cynical storytelling. At least the final few pages tried to tidy up some loose ends: the "civilian" Donald and Daisy making up (with a direct, beak-on-beak kiss? How often have we seen that in a Duck story?), Fethry getting a new igloo-selling idea, Cloverleaf (who's called "Clover" several times here for some unknown reason) finally getting someone to join his online fan club. The identity of Cloverleaf's cyber-buddy is probably the best gag in the entire story. Scrooge had better make darn sure that his Money Bin defenses (a giant mechanical hand and foot? Gizmoduck should feel insulted) are extra-secure in the near future, or "Old #1" will be tested to the utmost as a "lucky" charm.

The heroes and villains meander away from the Money Bin at the end of "Ultraheroes" exchanging reluctant compliments and vague threats of future battles (because, well, that's what is expected of them). So it's not all that surprising to see Pete immediately return in "Fight Before the Exams" as what would appear to be a "final exam" challenge for the still-training Ultraheroes. The promised "fight" looks to be between Duck Avenger and Cloverleaf, who close the issue with a bout of fairly irritating bickering. Whatever happens in HS #8, it will be a decided anticlimax... but then, the climax of the "Ultramachine Saga" already was.

The big question I have regarding WIZARDS OF MICKEY #7 actually relates to WIZARDS OF MICKEY #8. With the final part of "The Sorcerer of Donnybrook Castle" taking up space at the back of the issue, how will the first great battle between WOM and The Phantom Blot be brought to a really satisfying conclusion in such a small amount of space? Will continuity issues -- Donald's delayed-reaction magic, WOM's painfully-forged alliances with the Dragons and Team Diamond Moon, Goofy's endless search for a profession (it's photography, this time -- well, he did build the team's "Iron Dragon" flying machine in what seemed like a split second, so I suppose he could whip up a camera "in a jiff", a la Gadget) -- be wrapped up at the same time as The Blot, Pete, and The Beagle Brothers are dealt with? If they can pull this off, it'll be quite a feat. I suspect that the long-absent Nereus may wind up lending a hand somehow, since Mickey got a warning through his techno-charm to be wary of the bad guys' "rage spell" trap at Fang Castle. I did notice one continuity error when Donald mentioned that inviting "all the wizards" in the tournament to meet in the same location was not S.O.P. for this competition. What about The Blot's plan to steal "all" the staffs and Diamagics at Arborea in WOM #3, or even the party at 1000 Rooms Castle in #5? I may be searching for nits here, though. Assuming that you can accept the premise, the world of WIZARDS OF MICKEY has featured a decent amount of consistency (Team Yum-Yum Cook and Team Jinx are still around!) and, by and large, the stories have been enjoyable, if a little disjointed. Squeezing the rest of the package into 12 pages seems like a tall order, however. Let's see whether the magic holds to the end.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

DVD Review: MISTER ROBERTS (Warner Bros., 1955)

Many, many moons ago -- it may have been when I was working as a page at the New Castle County Library and had grown well acquainted with what was hidden away on the shelves -- I read Thomas Heggen's slender novel MISTER ROBERTS (1946), about an ambitious executive officer serving aboard a dreary cargo ship during the latter stages of World War II. The book is more of a collection of short stories/vignettes than a novel proper, but I remember liking it. The tale was later adapted into a Broadway smash starring Henry Fonda and seemed a natural for easy translation to the screen, under the direction of John Ford, no less. The shoot, however, turned into a rough one, with Ford uncharacteristically imbibing on the job and Fonda quarreling with the great director over changes the latter made to the script, most notably in the area of pumping up the role of the callow Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon). After location filming had been completed, Ford finally checked out of the picture due to illness, leaving Mervyn LeRoy to helm a good portion of the studio-bound material. The directorial seams don't really show, but the film, though enjoyable enough, has a far more serious flaw: its wildly inconsistent tone. The original book had both moments of mirth and periods of seriousness, but the film overplays the former to the extent that it undercuts the latter. A few tough-to-take acting performances don't help the cause.

At bottom, MISTER ROBERTS is about doing your job under difficult, and frequently absurd, circumstances -- think DILBERT on the high seas. Roberts desperately wants to get away from the backwater environs of the USS Reluctant and see some real action before the war ends. He sends a steady stream of letters to his tyrannical captain (James Cagney) asking to be transferred. At the same time, he rules the Reluctant's working stiffs with a light, yet very respected, hand. The ship's worldly-wise doctor (William Powell, whose rough experience on this shoot convinced him to retire for good) is Roberts' anchor (no pun intended), always ready with a good piece of advice or a good stiff drink. The war of wills, had it been limited to these three main characters, would have been enough to carry the entire film. Pulver, however, knocks everything out of balance. Lemmon plays Pulver as a cartoon of a lecherous, scheming junior officer who'd have been right at home sailing with McHale's Navy. Granted, Lemmon is funny, but he's also irritating as hell; how did he win the Academy Award again? Cagney also fits into the little-bit-goes-a-long-way category, yelling his way through his role. The captain, whose promotion from the Merchant Marine was obviously one of those "wartime necessities" on a par with saving grease, does get several good scenes, including a surreal little dialogue with Pulver (who's managed to keep his head low enough that the captain doesn't even know who he is, even though he's been on board for over a year) and a memorable showdown with Roberts, during which he sets the final part of the plot in motion by blackmailing the exec into pledging his "undying loyalty" in exchange for the men being allowed much-needed liberty. Roberts exacts revenge -- of a sort -- and finally gets his wish to be transferred, but "be careful what you wish for" rears its ugly head during the memorable final scene. The moment would have been even more powerful had the film throttled back a bit on the earlier sophomoric hijinx. John Ford always had a weakness for comedy relief, even in his most serious films like The Searchers, but very rarely did the humor so severely compromise the message of the movie. It's especially surprising here given Ford's wartime Naval service and reverence for the Navy (he liked Hogan's Heroes but hated McHale's Navy).

The DVD's extras are modest at best: a clip from an episode of Toast of the Town (The Ed Sullivan Show) during which several scenes from the movie are reenacted on very cheap-looking TV-stage sets; still pictures of the cast; a vintage trailer. No commentary, I'm sorry to say, though I would have liked to have heard more about the details of the troubled shoot.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gott Rights?

This project has been "teased" for a long time, but it appears to be about to come to pass. It will certainly be an "acid test" for the acceptability of politically incorrect material; Fantagraphics' PEANUTS, KRAZY KAT, and THIMBLE THEATER collections contain no material quite so dicey as that seen in, say, "The Great Orphanage Robbery" or "An Education for Thursday." FG's well-regarded ongoing collections, however, have bought the company quite a lot of good will, which no doubt helped during the negotiating process.

Will this collection extend to the end of Gottfredson's working career, in 1975? I rather doubt it. Previous efforts to collect the Mouse master's work stopped when the format switched permanently to "gag-a-day" mode in the mid-50s. Even before that time, in the 1940s, when the gag format was occasionally used for brief periods of time, the quality of the gags was not exactly top-notch. (In particular, the gags tended to put Mickey in a surprisingly bad light more often than not, though he never came off as badly as Donald consistently did in Al Taliaferro's strip.) I'll definitely call it quits once the adventures trail off, but how nice it will be to have such a luxury to begin with!

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In his comments on the Gottfredson Library news, GeoX wonders whether Disney is sending a signal to Boom! by assigning the publication rights to Fantagraphics. If I were Boom!, I'd be a bit more concerned about this news. The TRON graphic novel -- which, with its "departures" from the movie cast and storyline, certainly sounds like a setup for a continuing series to me -- is different from the Library in that it's an honest-to-goodness original comics creation. Are we now simply counting down the days until Disney flips all of its remaining comics over to Marvel?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 7: Airship of Fools? (July 14)

No pictures to illustrate this final installment, I'm sorry to say... though, in hindsight, I wish that we had snapped some. Our straight-shot, 8 1/2-hour flight from Vienna to JFK on Austrian Airlines turned out to be a lot more interesting -- in the dubious Chinese sense -- than the lay-back-and-snoozefest that we had been expecting. Due to the late arrival of the plane from New York, our flight was delayed for over an hour and a half, allowing us ample opportunity to carefully survey our fellow passengers. The effect was not unlike that of being chucked headfirst into the steerage scenes in Titanic, if not the bar scene in Star Wars. Among other things, we encountered:

(1) A young woman from Belarus, dressed in vaguely gypsy-ish garb, who cornered us at the security checkpoint (which was right at the gate itself) and asked us to tell her "the name of a street in New York City." Nicky's critical antennae, honed in NYC and further sharpened by her military intelligence background, went up, and she pointed the girl out to the security people. The woman must have been "clean," for they let her into the waiting area, but I couldn't help but wonder the fate that was in store for her on the "other side."

(2) Numerous Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic families with extremely loud kids.

(3) A woman who was reading a newspaper in which "k" was used as a vowel.

(4) Several smelly guys of indeterminate origin who surreptitiously swiped stuff from the first-class section when we boarded the plane.

(5) A crate containing a bomb-sniffing dog.

The "foreign-bazaar" mood was heightened by the large number of "standees" after the seating area had already been filled to capacity. The gate personnel finally relented and opened up the "restricted" seating area, as well as commandeering the empty seating area in the neighboring gate. Apparently, Vienna has become the major transfer point for travelers from Eastern Europe and the Balkans on their way to America. It's as if the Hapsburg Empire never went away...

The interior of our plane was like something out of a bad 70's dream: Flight attendants dressed all in shocking red! Seat upholstery in "pea/Astroturf green"! At least we got two decent meals and a "snackypoo" or two... though some individuals in our economy section were apparently more "equal" than we were. These youngish folks were the recipients of a steady stream of goodies -- cheese, alcohol, and other first-class amenities -- from a complaisant stewardess. Nicky and I finally deduced from their general appearance and luggage that these were other Austrian Airlines personnel getting a lift to their next assignment. If that's the case, then I understand the special treatment, but did they have to advertise their good fortune with all that raucous laughter? At least they didn't make with the Gladstone-style bragging.

We finally landed at JFK about an hour and 45 minutes late after seemingly being over Canada's Maritime Provinces for about 19 days. I gather that the pilot was trying to dodge some bad weather; the cloud cover never lifted once for the whole of our journey. At the "Border Control" inside JFK, we gasped at the immense crowd of visitors who were already there waiting to enter the U.S. (The line for U.S. citizens was considerably shorter, thank goodness.) The monitors at the baggage-claim area streamed an endless sequence of pictures of multi-hued, preternaturally cheerful folks "welcoming" newcomers. The immigrants who came through Ellis Island didn't receive such treatment, but didn't they integrate more eagerly into American society, for the most part? What's the "lesson" here?

The 19 1/2-hour travel day to remember (no matter how hard we try to forget) comes to a close when we reach Mom's condo in Wilmington around 7:30 pm. Nicky and I are already discussing a possible return trip... but, for the time being, we're glad to be home.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #356 (Boom! Kids, July 2010)

Scratch one reformation -- maybe. The fag-end of "Souvenir de Paris", and especially the first page of DD&F's final (for now, anyway) DOUBLE DUCK story, "Total Reset Button", throw us yet another curve ball regarding Kay K's true loyalties. Was she simply "using" Donald, and the cover of the fake kidnapping of Daisy in #355, to rifle The Organization's coffers? Is she, in fact, the mysterious individual who's targeted Don based on the results of his "first mission" for The Agency -- the one the details of which he so conveniently can't remember? Is ANY person or event in these DOUBLE DUCK stories what he/she/it appears to be at first glance? I'm going to wind up hoping that the emergency "TRB" that Don has been instructed to apply to the backsliding ex-Agency director Felino Felinys can be applied to this entire collection of story arcs. It's all getting so difficult to keep straight. Even if you can, there's Giorgio Cavazzano's bizarre cover to this issue to consider. What symbolism could be inherent in agent Don's brandishing of a banana, I don't like to think... and who is the "Double-O-Duck" extra pushing a button in the corner, there? Is he auditioning for Minion status?

A good portion of the opening action of "Total Reset Button" is simply a rehash of the beginning of "Before the Premiere", with the opera changed to Aida, the setting switched to Cairo, and Gladstone Gander serving as the cocklebur in Don's cummerbund. (For some reason, I think even Gladstone will be less irritating than Daisy has generally been during these stories -- though the preoccupied Donald's blowoff of his bragging cousin at the start of "TRB" suggests that he might be able to handle the situation.) While trying to keep Felinys in "ignorance-is-bliss" mode, Donald is evincing a growing interest in exactly what happened during that nebulous "first mission," the one that's got that supposed assassin in such a snit. Don even goes so far as to attempt to do some espionage work at The Agency itself. If the "first mission" subplot is wrapped up at the end of "TRB," as I suspect it probably will, then that will indeed be an ideal time for the DOUBLE DUCK tales to go bye-bye for a spell.

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #2 (Boom! Kids, July 2010)


Despite numerous moments in the script that can only be described as baffling, part two of "The Duck Knight Returns" manages to maintain the momentum that distinguished part one. Almost in spite of himself, I think that writer Ian Brill has already telegraphed who's really behind Quackwerks' "subtle takeover" of St. Canard. If the "villion" (to swipe a word coined by Gizmoduck) is who I think it is, then he must have mellowed to a considerable extent; using corporate subterfuge and an army of Crimebot robots seems rather too indirect an approach for one who typically gets his jollies from hands-on mayhem. Darkwing's other arch-nemeses appear to have their own personal agenda in this battle, though only Quackerjack has gotten to do anything meaningfully destructive as of yet. Since their agenda partially dovetails with DW's -- apart from the violence, that is -- could we be headed for a "Regularverse" equivalent of the cooperation between DW and "The Friendly Four" in "Life, the Negaverse, and Everything"?

So, exactly how much time DID elapse between the rise of Quackwerks and the events of this story? Brill is now sending us decidedly mixed signals. On page 2 of DARKWING #1, it's explicitly stated that Darkwing's "last known adventure" (the "Starducks Caper") was one year ago. Moreover, the TV report that spills the beans clearly remembers who DW is/was, and Gosalyn and Honker appear to be about the same age as they were on TV. Thanks to DARKWING #2, we now have the following "facts" to range against the above:


(1) A fellow office worker of Drake's (who, in a clever bit, is initially teased as being yet another of DW's old foes) catches the snooping DW in the Quackwerks offices and treats him as Drake Mallard wearing a costume.
(2) An aged Quackwerks security employee definitely seems to remember DW, since he gives the crimefighter a tip on how to crack the Crimebots' secret lair. No one else at the old gent's retirement party does.
(3) A St. Canard radio announcer says that "older listeners may remember" the battles between DW and his foes, but can't remember the characters' names.


All of this points to a L-O-N-G intervening stretch of time between the time frame of the TV series and that of "Duck Knight." So which is it, Ian? Or is some sort of weird "time paradox" going on here? Is someone monkeying with Quackerjack's Time Top behind the scenes, and we don't know it yet? I'd like to think that there's some method to Brill's apparent temporal madness.

Some other aspects of the plotting are a bit wonky. It seems a bit out of character to me for Gosalyn to respond to her best friend Honker's incarceration by... boarding an overnight bus for Duckburg to solicit help from Launchpad. Perhaps she's learned some humility in her "older young age," but she should be a little more upset about the Crimebots' action than she appears to be here. The dispensation of Launchpad is a further mystery; LP is now back in Duckburg in his shack at the airfield (with red, blue, and green biplanes in his collection -- a cute reference to DuckTales' Nephews!), so I would imagine that he broke his alliance with DW at some point during the past year (or years, depending on issue). Would DW's sidekick have cut and run that quickly? Even if the Crimebots have taken over DW's job, I'd think that LP would still feel some proprietary interest in the welfare of Gos and Honker, to say nothing of Drake, and would want to stay in town. And how did Quackerjack suddenly recover "the improved Mr. Banana Brain" from a pile of trashed Crimebots? What was Mr. BB doing there in the first place?

Brill has a real job ahead of him to tie up all the loose ends and answer these questions. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt based on the currently available evidence.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 6: Salzburg (July 13)

Part 6 of our Central European odyssey nearly turns into a scene from Leonard, Part 6 before normalcy is restored. After arising at 5 a.m., securing a "to-go" breakfast, and drinking some coffee in the humid, mosquito-infested Hilton lobby -- thank some standing water in a nearby fountain for the latter annoyance -- we wait past the appointed hour for the bus to Salzburg to pick us up. Since other participants are supposed to board at the nearby Hotel de France, Mom goes there to see what the problem is and learns that the bus driver did indeed admit the HDF guests but forgot to stop at the Hilton. The phone number provided by the tour agency handling the trip turns out to be for a cell phone and isn't answered. Luckily, the bus has a couple more scheduled pickup stops to make -- one at the Opera House -- and the Hilton desk clerk calls a taxi for us. We get to Opernring with time to spare, thank goodness. (We also get a thoughtful letter of apology from the agency later in the day.)

Our group includes American, Italian, and Japanese tourists, providing our on-board guide -- a native Austrian named Hans -- with something of a challenge. The Japanese do speak English, so Hans gives his spiels in both English and Italian and does a pretty efficient job of it. (His lauding of the "green," animal-friendly aspects of his country is spread on just a bit thick, IMHO, but its sincerity certainly can't be questioned.) After crawling through a dozen or so suburban Vienna streets, we finally pick up speed as we hit the A1 Autobahn and head into the Vienna Woods on a westerly course for Salzburg. We have a 3 1/2-hour drive ahead of us all told, including a 30-minute rest stop at a Landzeit, one link in a national chain of rest stations and motels. To our surprise and amazement, the Landzeit looks more like a Whole Foods than any roadside nosh-pit we could name. All manner of food and drink is available for our delectation, including self-service wine (!), and there's even a gift shop with yet another rack stuffed to the gills with Disney comics. To top it all off, the view of the Alpine foothills from the back of the establishment is beautiful. The New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that we passed on the way up to JFK simply can't compete.


Nicky and I at Landzeit

Notable sights on the way to Salzburg include several massive wind farms and the 900-plus-year-old Benedictine monastery at Melk. Once we get off the A1 at Mondzee, we also get a leisurely glimpse of various small towns in the Salzkammergut lakes region. Nicky and I immediately start thinking about a return visit to this lovely area, to which a whirlwind drive-by can't really do justice. We finally pull into Salzburg at about noon and are dropped off at the Mirabell Gardens, prominently featured in The Sound of Music... as the available tourist propaganda is quick to remind us. And therein lies one of the major problems with the much-loved "Home of Mozart": a decided uptick in the "tackiness index" that was noteworthy by its absence in both Budapest and Vienna.


At the Mirabell: a familiar setting for "Sound of Music" fans

Due to the large number of people in our party, we join a different guide for our walk through the Mirabell and into the "Old Town" district, nestled beneath the looming Hohensalzburg Castle. The guide has to pull triple duty, giving information in English, French, and Spanish. The resulting awkwardness (combined with the guide's noticeable b.o.) finally convince us to break off and do our own exploring. The charming narrow streets of "Old Town" are filled with the expected high-end stores, each with its own unique descriptive street sign. Even the local McDonald's has its own "personalized" marker (though, apparently, it took some arm-twisting by the city to convince Mickey D's to cooperate). A water fountain consisting of a stream of water from one of the oldest surviving Roman aqueducts serves as a trickling token of the immense age of the city. Unfortunately, side by side with these historical delights are such sobering sights as an ice-cream parlor (complete with giant plastic cone) on the ground floor of Mozart's birth house, cardboard cutouts (but, thank God, no bobbleheads) of "Moze" being used to sell a certain brand of candy, and a kiosk with refrigerator magnets meant to represent... oh, the pain... big hunks of Wiener Schnitzel. The effect of the latter is not unlike that of those rubber pools of fake vomit that used to be sold in novelty stores and comic-book ads. For a city regarded as a cultural touchstone, these features are disconcerting, to say the least. I wonder how much of the "tourist-ification" of Salzburg post-dates The Sound of Music, which must have motivated a much wider assortment of visitors to come to the city. We'd certainly like to visit more historically congenial sights, such as the Hohensalzburg and some of the local churches, but we simply don't have the time to do so.

The weather, though a bit cooler, remains warm, so we spend a lengthy lunch period at the Sternhaus, an open-air, but blessedly shaded, beer garden that dates back to the 16th century. (One of the charms of "Old Town" is that virtually all of the buildings, no matter how mundane their present use, date back anywhere from 200 to 600 years.) Here, we finally "do our wurst" and get some authentic sausage (no offense intended to the good-in-a-pinch stuff we had during the Railjet trip), potatoes, and sauerkraut. For dessert, Nicky finally gets to enjoy her much-prized apple strudel. I take a slightly more practical approach and have some ice cream in an attempt to cool down.


Into the shadow of "tack" rode... er, walked... the six hundred... er, three...

All too soon, following one final stroll through the Mirabell (and not a single singing or dancing nun in sight), we're back on the road and headed for Vienna. On the way, we make another rest stop, this one at a branch of Rosenberger, yet another travel-trade chain (this one, a combination of a buffet and a sit-down place, rather like a Shoney's) that turns out to have much more going for it than expected. My dish of goulash has far more kick to it than the Dinty Moore-esque "edible and no more" stuff to which I had been resigned. As for the service, imagine a Friendly's where the waitstaff really is friendly!

Back at the hotel by 8:45 pm, Nicky and I have just enough time for a relaxing dip in the hotel whirlpool before retiring. Now the question before the house is: Will the bus snafu be repeated tomorrow, our day of departure?

Up next: We have our own "Titanic" experience aboard Austrian Airlines... and no, that doesn't mean our plane hits an iceberg.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 5: A Day in Vienna (July 12)

Since tomorrow will be taken up by our excursion to Salzburg, it's time to switch to "A Duck's Eye View of Europe" mode and try to pick off as many Viennese landmarks as we can before the heat gets to us. We decide to make our lives a little easier by joining one of the voluntary "introductory excursions" that Monogram Travel, the sponsor of our trip, offers for its customers. A chartered bus takes us around the Ringstrasse, the fabled chain of streets that encircle the heart of the city, and then across the Danube to what might be considered the "international" portion of town, with its numerous U.N. installations. It's easy to see that Vienna never has incorporated the river into its cityscape as successfully as has Budapest, though the city fathers have tried, even spreading sand at various locations along the bank to create pseudo-beaches. Then we enter the "old city," centered on massive St. Stephen's Cathedral. Extensive renovation and cleaning work is being done on the exterior of the structure -- with whole sections being covered over by canvas with replicas of the "true" exterior superimposed on them -- while the interior puts me in mind of the constantly chaotic interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, with even more secular activity, if that's possible. "Stephansdom" is still a fully functioning church, for all of that.


The spire of St. Stephen's, mid-morning

Stretching in all directions away from "Stephansdom" are cobblestoned shopping streets lined by the types of stores one patronizes if one doesn't have to worry about money. One such street leads us to Michaelsplatz and the entrance to the Hofburg Palace, the nerve-center of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. One small portion of the Hofburg is still used by the Federal President of Austria (you can gauge how important this position is by the fact that the office is watched over by a single guard!), other portions by the Vienna Boys' Choir and the Spanish Riding School, while the rest has been given over to hoi-polloi prying. Splitting off from the Monogram group at Josefsplatz, we prepare to join the pryers. But first, a drink -- several, in fact! -- at a nearby cafe.  The sky remains stubbornly cloudless, the sun merciless.


Nicky and I in front of a fountain at Michaelsplatz

The wing of the Hofburg facing Michaelsplatz is partially disfigured by a huge advertising banner featuring the smug mug of George Clooney. The real aristocrats -- or their leavings, anyway -- lurk inside in a series of museums and displays. Most heavily represented, not surprisingly, are artifacts from the era of Emperor Franz Josef I (reigned 1848-1916) and his ill-fated wife Elisabeth or "Sisi." "Sisi" was sort of the Princess Diana of her day, and, if a full-scale, all-stops-out "Diana Museum" ever gets built, it will probably bear a heavy resemblance to the interesting, but rather over-the-top, "Sisi" Museum. Dramatic lighting highlights "Sisi"'s personal artifacts, both significant and trivial, while snatches of the Empress' bad introspective poetry appear on just about every wall. When I see a case holding the VERY SAME sharpened nail file that was used to assassinate "Sisi" in 1898, I can't help but think of "The Bullet!" in that old "Got Milk?" commercial. A little more to my liking are the Imperial Apartments, where Franz Josef and "Sisi" worked and lived. Recent reading gave me a new-found respect for the old Emperor, who worked 15- to 18-hour days until the end of his life but endured more than his share of unhappiness, culminating with the disaster of World War I. He wasn't a particularly likable person, but one must admire the dogged dedication with which he approached the thankless task of holding together that messy, multi-lingual melange of an Empire. The Imperial Silver Collection -- room after room after room of knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, table decorations, candelabras, egg scrapers, asparagus bleeders, artichoke raspers, and all and sundry "sillyware" -- leaves me wondering: (1) How did all of these valuables survive the fall of the Hapsburgs in such good condition? (2) If you've seen one pickle fork, have you really seen them all? (3) I wonder what sort of a life "The Master of the Bread" (yes, there really was such a person in the Hapsburgs' household) had?

All three Hofburg exhibits have one unpleasant thing in common -- no air conditioning or ventilation! A crowd of hygienically questionable tourists who funk up part of our route at the "Sisi" Museum make matters even worse. We emerge in serious need of refreshment of various kinds. We find them at Augustinerkeller, a basement snuggery (it was formerly a monastery cellar) attached to the nearby Augustinian church where Franz Josef and "Sisi" were married. A hearty meal and a draught of Franziskaner wheat beer later, we're back in fine fettle.

Following a 1 1/2-hour rest back at the Hilton, we venture forth at around 5 pm in search of the Sachertorte. This most famous of all Viennese desserts -- no small feat, given Vienna's world-wide reputation for gooey goodies -- is available in only three cities in the world; two of them are Vienna and Salzburg. We hone in on the Ur-source: the cafe at the original Hotel Sacher itself, across the street from the Vienna Opera House. Three pieces of Torte, drinks, and iced chocolate total a whopping $40 -- and, to be perfectly honest, I've had better chocolate cake in my life (though, to be fair, the method of preparation of the Sachertorte is a bit different than what most Americans are used to).









The "Look what I found!" moments of the day come when we go into the Unterbahn's subterranean Opernring station for the journey back to our hotel. Granted, the environs of the Opera House are a classy part of town, but the public pay toilet in the station goes above and beyond "nature's call" of duty:


They're not kidding about the "mit Musik" part, either: all guests are greeted with The Blue Danube when they "drop" that fateful 0.60-euro piece. A more anticipated, but nonetheless welcome, "culture shock" comes when I spot this rack in the window of a newspaper, magazine, and tobacco shop:



Right up there where all the commuters, young and old, can see it. Now there's a store with "all its Ducks in a row."

Up next: Sights of Salzburg and the Lakes Region; tacky magnets taken to a new level/depth; and rest stops that an American motorist would kill for!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 4: From Budapest to Vienna (July 11)

It's time to leave Budapest, and, in truth, we've already "hit" most of the things we really wanted to see in the Hungarian capital. We did miss out on a visit to one of Budapest's famous thermal baths, but the peculiar hotel pool that Nicky and I used yesterday made up for that, in a way. By 8 a.m., following one final circuit 'round the groaning breakfast buffet table, we're on our way to Budapest's Keleti (East) railroad station. There, we take our first-class seats aboard Austrian Railways' "Railjet" and are soon heading for Wien (Vienna) Westbanhof station.

First-class isn't the highest class of train travel available on the "Railjet," but you could have fooled us: we get seat-side snack service (trying some wurst on for size) and have plenty of leg room. It is definitely a strange feeling traveling in such comfort over approximately the same route that my Dad took when he escaped the country in 1949. We don't have to show our passports at the final Hungarian station; indeed, were it not for the electronic map in the train car, we wouldn't have known when we crossed the border. We travel through farmland that becomes noticeably tidier and more organized once we're in Austria. Austria's commitment to alternative sources of energy is also very evident as we zoom by several sizable wind farms, all with turbines pin-wheeling away.

We arrive at our hotel -- the Hilton Vienna Plaza -- just in time to witness the concluding stages of a bike race on the famed Ringstrasse. Granted, these fellows can't be among the best bikers in Europe, since the latter are presently struggling up hill and coasting down dale in the Tour de France. But our bus driver tells us that the competitors have pretty much crossed Austria, and the temperature remains in the 90s, so who are we to flyspeck their game efforts?




(Sorry, but we snapped only the peloton, not the lead group, which I believe consisted of only three or four racers.)

The Plaza tries hard not to seem like a chain hotel -- adding such little touches as a child-sized set of stairs at the front desk to allow its "little guests" to sign in alongside the big'uns -- but Nicky's and my room definitely looks more like what we're used to in America. The water from the tap is clear and ice-cold, no surprise given that Vienna gets its water directly from the Alps. The air conditioning, however, is certainly not up to U.S. standards. (I just saw on the news where over 500 Belgians have died during the recent heat wave; maybe we should have made a health-based argument to the hotel staff to turn up the A/C.)

After a brief rest, we strike out for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna's (somewhat louder) answer to Budapest's Fine Arts Museum. The KHM is closed on Mondays and we won't be in town on Tuesday due to our planned trip to Salzburg, so this is our one chance to sample one of the world's better museums (though it will only be open for another hour or two). It's boiling hot, so we make use of Vienna's extensive Unterbahn system to get to Museumsquartier -- learning along the way that one must always push the button to open the car doors. (Don't worry, we only went one stop too far and were quickly able to double back.) Unfortunately, we find the KHM to be only slightly less warm than the outside. At least the lighting is more appropriate than it was in the Budapest museum.

Mom and I eyeball Rembrandt's self-portraits

Fortified by a brief drink-and-snack break at the KHM's ornate public dining area, we manage to make it through the museum's immense and world-famous collection of "Dutch Masters" before the heat and the close atmosphere take most of the "virtue" out of us and compel a retreat. Most of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's most famous canvases are here, including three of his "Seasons" cycle. Paul Johnson's fine art history text had given me a heads-up that Bruegel was well represented here, and I am glad to see the artist's remarkably detailed and intricate originals. Think Where's Waldo?, only quainter and with greater cultural import. Also on hand are some of Rembrandt's best-known self-portraits, several massive religious works by Rubens (which are so huge that I defy The Beagle Boys, nay, even Negaduck, to steal them!), and various portraits by Van Dyck. No sooner have we started on the Spanish, Italian, and French section, however, when the three of us run out of steam all at once. Before leaving, I buy a couple of Bruegel prints at the gift shop, including the celebrated Hunters in the Snow.


Curling, 16th-century style! (Detail from "Hunters in the Snow")

We have Frommer's guide to thank for our choice of dinner destination -- but the trick is to get there before we wilt completely. On the map, "Alt-Wiener Beisl zu den 2 Lieserln" is only a short walk away from Museumsquartier, but we encounter a few anxious moments before finally tracking it down. The place is described by Frommer's as a "well-kept secret" that serves some of the biggest and best Schnitzel in town. They aren't kidding about that "biggest" part. We all order the "small" Schnitzel-and-potato-salad plate, and the slabs of breaded pork with which we are gifted are roughly the size of Frisbees. When I ask how big the "large" portion is, the friendly manager (who also seems to be the only waiter on duty) points to his belly and makes a large circle. We also get an excellent bread basket that includes a soft pretzel. To wash all this down, some potent potables are needed. Mom and I each sink a half-liter of Ottakringer beer, and I must admit that beer has rarely tasted so good to me in my life. We decide to "cab it" back to the hotel, and the manager caps off a near-perfect gastronomic experience by calling the cab for us.

If the streets of normally night-life-oriented Vienna seem a bit quiet, there's a good reason -- the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands is tonight. The rest of our evening is spent switching between Austrian and German TV and wincing at Holland's manifestly crude attempts to keep the technically superior Spaniards from playing their game. The result is a steady stream of yellow cards and very few chances (though Spain clearly takes the initiative in the second half). After a Dutch player is sent off in extra time, the question becomes, Can Holland somehow get the thing to penalty kicks? They fall four minutes shy as Spain finally scores the decisive goal. The better team clearly won, though I feel badly for the Dutch fans watching their team lose in the final for the third time in three tries. Winning the Cup has got to mean more to a small country like that than to a large one.

Up next: We finally join Monogram in motion; the crib of the Hapsburgs; entirely too much kitchenware; in search of the Sachertorte; plus, a major-league Duck-comics sighting!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Movie Review: DESPICABLE ME (Universal, 2010)

You can thank a clever trailer or two for convincing Nicky and me to give this surprisingly funny and enjoyable animated entry a try... though the one we saw last year pretty much shot the entire opening sequence of the movie straight to hell for us. In truth, had I also watched the Darkwing Duck two-part pilot episode "Darkly Dawns the Duck" before screening this film, it would have been the perfect warm-up exercise to acquaint myself with the emotional ups-and-downs that would be on display. The kicker, of course, is that our protagonist is a glory-hungry villain, rather than a glory-hungry hero...

The beak-nosed, hunch-shouldered Gru (Steve Carell, essaying a funny, and at times creepy, Eastern European accent) has all the accouterments of a master criminal -- loyal science-geek helper (Russell Brand), high-tech equipment out the wazoo, an army of minions (one- and two-eyed creatures who speak in gibberish and resemble animated Twinkies cakes stood on end) -- but as a master criminal, he's, well, more like the holder of an associate's degree. The "evil bank" that funds him is unhappy over the meager returns on its repeated investments, and, to make matters worse, Vector (Jason Segel), a younger and (at least in Vector's own eyes, though there's precious little supporting evidence) "hipper" new rival, has just swiped the one piece of equipment Gru craves in order to accomplish a lifelong goal: shrinking and stealing the Moon. To get the tech back, Gru cynically adopts a trio of orphans (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Geier, Elsie Fisher) and intends to raid Vector's fortress while the kids are busy selling cookies to the sweet-toothed geek. Little does Gru realize what an impact the presence of these girls will have on his life -- and ensuing efforts to complete his "mission", in spite of all obstacles...

Emotionally, Despicable Me doesn't come close to plumbing the depths reached by Toy Story 3, largely because all of the characterizations save Gru's are basically stereotypes and many of the major set-pieces have antecedents in other movies. An early gag in which Gru "laughs off" the apparent death of one of the orphans because he "can manage with two" is less amusing than it appears at first glance; the trio of "cynical and realistic older girl," "slightly weird middle girl," and "annoyingly cute and enthusiastic young girl" could very easily have been melded into a single character (as, in fact, Darkwing Duck did with Gosalyn). There's no denying, however, that writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have an effective way of plucking one's heartstrings. Likewise, the set-up of the high-altitude climax will be quite familiar to those who've watched Up, but Daurio and Paul know how to slip in a clever gag to brighten things up (such as the various ones arising from the unexpected... flaw in the glorious Shrink Ray). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is the ability to make a villain an appealing protagonist without veering off into snarkiness or amorality. For a film aimed mostly at kids, that's pretty remarkable.

Universal would be crazy to attempt to do a sequel to this movie, but, by all accounts, they're considering one even as I write. Well, even Dr. Seuss buckled and allowed DePatie-Freleng to make Halloween is Grinch Night, so a follow-up would fail in rather distinguished company.

European Trip Diary, Part 3: Szentendre and a Meeting with Clan Baracskai (July 10)

Happy Birthday, Mom! After another hearty breakfast, we catch the M2 metro for Batthyany ter station, where we switch over to the HEV (suburban railway) line. I should note at this point that we purchased a special card at the start of our trip that allows us unlimited travel on the Metro, as well as discounts at various museums and restaurants (such as yesterday's Fine Arts Museum and Bagolyvar), for a period of 48 hours. The 15-mile trip to Szentendre, however, necessitates shelling out an extra couple of bucks apiece. Our well-aged but (save for the by-now-expected lack of good ventilation) comfortable train rattles past a series of Communist-era "prison block" flats and residential neighborhoods in the northern suburbs of Budapest. Graffiti is everywhere, but, in a stark contrast with Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, there's not much trash or debris next to the tracks. Literally every house we see has its perimeter marked out by a fence of some sort. Could this be a silent witness to the desire for private property, so long suppressed?

Szentendre is "picturesque" in the grand tradition, with cobblestone streets, quiet cafe-style restaurants, several eye-catching churches, a town pump gushing forth ice-cold water, and dozens and dozens of shops selling jewelry, clothing, crafts, artwork, foodstuffs (including the inevitable paprika), and so forth. Nicky and I try to handle our money with care, avoiding the joints that sell "I Love Hungary" magnets and the like. In truth, we see very little obviously "Made-in-the-Far-East" merchandise, unless you count the Hello Kitty boutique huddled, as if in embarrassment, on the edge of town. Most of the artistic enterprises seem quite authentic. From one shop, we purchase a couple of watercolors of Budapest and Szentendre scenes and a really nice original porcelain painting by a Hungarian artist now residing in Italy. Meanwhile, Mom picks up some small gifts for our nieces.


Nicky and I in front of the cross at the Szentendre central square

The remorseless sun is once again a major foe. Nicky and I are lucky enough to find a store that, almost as an afterthought, sells 1.5-liter bottles of cold water for 1 euro apiece. After a steady diet of teeny-tiny bottles of mineral water, this seems like a luxury (and you can't blame the store owner for trying to stand out from the crowd in any way she can). For lunch, we seek shade under a grape arbor at the Labyrinth Restaurant, which also houses the "National Wine Museum." We got a lead on this place thanks to the Internet, and it has excellent food (Nicky and I both "keep it cool" with chicken salad dishes). We can't pass up the chance to explore the "Wine Museum," but it turns out to be much more extensive (and damp, and puddle-strewn) that we thought, so we only spend a few minutes there. The restaurant has a few tables down there... with a heater. That's a real cellar, all right.

Back in Budapest, Nicky and I decide to prepare for the arrival of my relatives a few hours hence by going to the New York Palace pool to cool off. We're expecting your standard hotel pool (with the depth measured in meters, I suppose), but what we find is something that resembles the interior of a velvet Elvis: black and white fiberglass walls with wavy, cavern-like surfaces, purple-bluish lighting, whirlpool-style jets, "Barry White" mood music. The pool is so narrow that Nicky and I barely have room to swim side by side in comfort. Not only that, but the water temperature is as goopily "semi-warm" as most of the non-air-conditioned rooms we've been in. Evidently, the European ideal of a pool is very different from our own. I wonder whether this is the reason why Americans and Australians tend to win most of the swimming medals.

We cool off following our swim (and, yes, we have to) in our room's shower, get "dressed up" (to wit: fresh polo shirts!), and, at 5 p.m., meet the relatives in the hotel lobby!


This is the first time I've ever met my Aunt Matyi (third from left) and my 2nd cousin Dani (standing next to Mom). I'd only met my Cousin Agi (Matyi's daughter and Dani's mother, third from right) when she visited the U.S. over the holidays back in the late 70s. Agi's husband Csaba (next to Nicky) knows English, having studied it and lived in England for a time, so he does the translation work. Standing next to me on the far left is Dani's wife Marcsi, who is expecting a baby. My Cousin Lotsi (Agi's brother) and his sons unfortunately weren't able to make it.

We were expecting only a sit-down in the New York Kavehaz, but "the folks" have other plans: they pack us into two cars and zoom us off to Margaret Island, a popular recreational spot in the middle of the Duna. The island used to be a religious retreat (old churches and ruins can still be seen there) until it was turned into a public park. We make the circuit of the island, or something close to it, before settling down at an outdoor snack bar for some ice cream and drinks. Nicky has brought along her netbook computer and soon we are showing everyone pictures of our dogs, Mom's grandchildren, the works. Even more important, we exchange the all-important electronic contact information. After Dad passed on, communication via "snail mail" became much harder to sustain. Now, thanks to Google Translator, we will be able to translate English messages into Hungarian and vice-versa. This will mean a lot to all of us.

Csaba brings us back to the hotel via "the scenic route" including a ride over the Chain Bridge, a great view of the Parliament building, and a "drive-by" of Budapest's huge synagogue, one of the largest in Europe. We say a final goodbye in the lobby and, yes, there are some tears.


Nicky snapped this nice pic of Parliament from Csaba's car.

Up next: Tracing Dad's trail to Vienna; watching some second-echelon bicyclists; more classic art; and we get in a real Schnitz!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #393 (July 2010, Boom! Kids)


Well... we've made some progress over the first DuckTales-themed issue of $CROOGE, at least, though I might have to dig out a micrometer to measure the actual amount of improvement. I'm happy to report that neither the lead story, the French-produced "The Pyramid of Prak-Ti-Kal," nor the recycled DISNEY ADVENTURES backup, Doug Murray and the Jaime Diaz Studio's "A Switch in Time," are disfigured by any of the obvious mischaracterizations that crippled #392's lead, "The Everlasting Coal." There's a bit of sloppiness on display in "Prak-ti-Kal" when two Beagle Boys (one of whom is Burger) plan to follow Scrooge, Launchpad, and HD&L into the desert in search of the mastheaded mastaba, but two entirely different Beagles (Bouncer and... I think it's Baggy, judging by the shirt cuffs, but it's kind of tough to be sure) actually wind up doing the dirty work. I put this down to artist Jose Maria Carreras not being entirely comfortable with the distinctive looks of the DT Beagles -- a strike against the tale, to be sure, but not a mortal mistake. A few debatable notions can be found in "Switch," as well, but they're not that egregious. No, the real problem here is that the stories simply aren't very original or very interesting. Whoever is writing the dialogue (and he/she/they really earned his/her/their pay this time -- "Switch" is far more heavily rewritten than was "The Littlest Gizmoduck" in #392) is making a yeomanlike effort to keep things light, funny, and in the general spirit of the series, but there's only so much that can be done with such predictable source material.

Is there a coincidence in the remarkable... similarity of the manner in which Pharaoh Prak-Ti-Kal's buried pyramid is found to the discovery of the cenotaph holding Collie Baba's treasure in the opening scenes of DuckTales: The Movie? Unfortunately, the rest of "The Pyramid of Prak-Ti-Kal" isn't much more original, tossing in an extra dose of extreme silliness (a prank-loving pharaoh who possessed the technology to mass-produce rubber spiders??) for bad measure. The ending has also been seen before in venues ranging from the DT episode "The Curse of Castle McDuck" to the Tale Spin classic "In Search of Ancient Blunders." The story is readable, but you can't put it much higher than that. "Switch," meanwhile, gives us the old job-trading ploy, with Scrooge responding to the threat of imminent departure by disgruntled employees Launchpad and Gizmoduck by suggesting that the two fill each others' shoes for awhile. (Actually, with Gizmoduck, the proper term would be "wheel," but that's not really relevant here, since, when Launchpad dons the Gizmo costume, he always stands on his own two feet. It's funny and all, but isn't quite accurate.) With Fenton Crackshell's troubles limited to a couple of shots of the panicky accountant trying to fathom a plane's control panel, the ensuing action is pretty much the "Gizmopad" vs. Beagle Boys Show, with Gizmoduck predictably taking over near the end to save the hapless LP's bacon. The rewrite makes several noticeable improvements on Murray's original and both pays tribute to Fenton's former job and slips a fast one past the "Guardians of Good" when Crackshell sighs, "I'll never be a pilot -- I just don't have the beans for it!" The familiar plot, somewhat tired sight gags, and peculiarly bland characterization of the bombastic Gizmoduck, however, result in an average story, at best. And I'd really like to know how Fenton managed to give LP all the necessary information about the Gizmosuit without compromising his secret identity. The TV series made considerable hay out of the secret-ID notion in one of its better second-season eps; alas, no comic-book story ever tried to duplicate the feat, and this would have been a good opportunity to do so.

The switch to DuckTales material does not seem to have goosed $CROOGE's sales to any considerable extent. For sure, if the quality level does not pick up soon, there is likely to be no improvement in the foreseeable future. And then what will Boom! do with $CROOGE? In the meantime, I will continue to hope for better things to come.

European Trip Diary, Part 2: A Full Day in Budapest (July 9)

After a good night's sleep, Nicky, Mom, and I meet in the New York Palace's breakfast rooms and partake of one of our "semi-packaged" trip's key perks: an all-stops-out, included-in-the-price buffet breakfast. And we're not just talking "breadels," mini-muffins, and stale coffee here, folks. I've seen Golden Corrals with a narrower selection of menu items. In addition to cereal, juice, milk, coffee, fruit, yogurt, and croissants -- the standard lineup for what's commonly known as a "Continental Breakfast" -- the spread includes Hungarian and Italian cheeses and meats, prepared salads, compotes, scones, and cakes. These big breakfasts will prove to be a real money-saver as time goes on, since we will generally be able to "get away with" only one additional main meal each day.

Our first "target" of the day is one of Budapest's landmarks -- Heroes' Square on the city's original "Millennium" Metro line. This line dates back to the late 1890s and has carefully maintained decor and scrubbed wall tiles to match, but graffiti is still visible on the subway car. The same holds true, remarkably (and depressingly) enough, at Heroes' Square itself, despite the much nicer, parklike neighborhood. Given that the square commemorates the great heroes of Hungary's past, this is a little like someone spray-painting the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. One object that the vandals haven't disfigured is the imposing central monument representing the seven Magyar tribal leaders who founded what would become Hungary over 1100 years ago. You can easily imagine these fellows spurring their horses on in pursuit of Ring-bearing Hobbits in their off-duty hours.

The broiling sun soon convinces us to get off the shade-less square and find a cooler place to explore. The Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, which flanks the square on one side, seems like a good choice. A surprise awaits us, however: no air-conditioning! We'll need a water break before we're through with our exploration of the exhibits. An English-speaking docent gives us a brief introductory tour before leaving us in the "Old Masters" section, which features a wide variety of paintings from the 14th through the 19th centuries. The "Masters" include Velasquez, Goya, Tintoretto, "El Greco," Gainsborough, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. These great works are, for the most part, left to brave the overheated conditions AND hot, incandescent overhead lights without any protection! Granted, the Museum is scheduled to undergo "renovations" soon, but what about the damage being done in the meantime? It's enough to cause an art-lover to despair...


Luckily, Rodin discontinued his usual practice of using me as a life model before going on to sculpt "The Thinker"

Right around the corner from the Fine Arts Museum is our lunchtime destination: Bagolyvar (Owl's Castle). This restaurant holds the unusual distinction of having won awards for the best place in Budapest to have a "power lunch," while, at the same time, having all of its food cooked and served by women, giving it a special "Mom's homemade" touch. The place's spread-eagle appeal is further illustrated by the giant plush figure of the 2010 World Cup mascot by the door coexisting with coy advertisements inviting "soccer widows" to come in for food specials during the tournament. Nicky decides to fulfill one of her culinary missions and have schnitzel, while I content myself with barbecued pork, garlic mashed potatoes, and the obligatory cucumber salad. For the three of us, the bill comes to about $55 US. Not bad, all things considered.



Having penetrated deep into Pest, it's now time to hie ourselves across the Duna to "Old Town" Buda and the Castle District. We take the Metro down to the river and walk across the famed Chain Bridge, taking care to keep in the shade as much as possible (which isn't easy at this torrentially warm time of day). Then, it's up the equally famed Budavari Siklo (funicular railway) to the Castle... come along with us for the ride!




We now begin to feel the effects of the unseasonably hot weather. We do manage to visit the courtyard of the Royal Palace, St. Matthias Church with its distinctive tiled roof, and the terrace at Fisherman's Bastion -- memorable sights all -- but we intersperse our wanderings with frequent breaks and one pit stop for water and sunscreen lotion. Nicky and Mom are having some trouble walking on the cobblestoned streets, as well. We finally decide to cut our losses and catch a bus to take us to Moszkva ter M2 Metro station, a Communist-era eyesore built like a badly-fashioned bundt cake. From there, we travel to downtown Pest and the Central Market -- sort of the Budapest equivalent of Baltimore's Lexington Market, only with much more class and much less crime -- but we get there only five minutes before the place closes. We take that as a suggestion to take a break back at the Palace.

A further word about the M2 Metro line. American lawyers would wet their drawers dreaming of potential personal-injury lawsuits if they saw how this line's escalators operate. The steps move at least twice as fast as an American escalator's -- and there's no disclaimer included to warn the terminally dim of the potential danger. Nicky took a video of one escalator ride; if you listen closely, you can hear the air whistling!



The New York Palace's pride and joy is the New York Kavehaz (Coffee House), a sip-and-sit salon where literary movers and shakers liked to gather during the halcyon days before World War I. It went into a long decline, along with the hotel itself, before the recent renovations restored it to something closely approximating its original splendor. Since the only other eating place "on site" has a dress code, we have our "snack-in-lieu-of-dinner" at the Kavehaz. Here is where I have my obligatory plate of authentic Hungarian goulash -- which many people think is a stew, but is actually more like Chunky Soup (did I really just draw that analogy? My bad). The place is pricey on the real New York level -- 16,000 forints (about $60) for what amounts to a deconstructed (the technical term is "reduced") sandwich, a cold plate, a plate of soup, two ice cream dishes, and drinks -- but we aren't cheated in terms of quality. I was a bit disappointed, however, with the repertoire of the piano player we shared with the snootier establishment next door. He could have done so much better than cycle through show tunes and tread-worn movie themes... like, play some Liszt, for example?




Before we went to the Kavehaz, we received an unexpected but gratifying piece of news: we've managed to make contact with my relatives! Before the trip, Mom had written my cousin Agnes (Agi) using an address Nicky had obtained from the internet. The letter arrived and was "processed" just in time for our arrival. Agi's husband Csaba, who speaks English, left a message with the front desk asking for a meeting. Mom calls Csaba, and we're now set to meet everyone at 5 pm in the lobby of the Palace, after the three of us take a planned side trip to Szentendre, an artists' colony a few miles up the Duna. We're not sure exactly who is going to be able to attend, but, whatever the lineup, it will be a much anticipated event and one that I'm so glad has finally come to pass.

Up next: Szentendre; Margaret Island and some heartfelt moments with the relatives.