Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: CONTESTED WILL: WHO WROTE SHAKESPEARE? by James Shapiro (Simon and Schuster, 2010)

This is a solid introduction to the lengthy history of the controversy over whether a man named "Shakespeare" (or "Shaxberd," or "Shakspere," or whatever you fancy) really wrote the plays attributed to him. Though Shapiro comes down strongly in favor of the orthodox view, he takes the arguments in favor of such claimants as Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere seriously and lets their advocates (which include such "big bugs" as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud) have their say. Shapiro traces the origin of the authorship question, ironically enough, to the 18th-century scholar Edmond Malone, who is best known today for wrecking the "house of cards" built by the fraudster William Ireland, who had forged what he claimed were a whole treasure trove of newly-discovered Shakespearean documents. Malone may have done this important service to the scholarly world, but, in his early speculations that Shakespeare may have reflected his personal circumstances and specific life-events in his plays and sonnets, he may also have opened the largest, roilingest "can of worms" in the history of literary criticism. Shapiro argues that many of our assumptions about what modern authors "must" be revealing in their works can't automatically be used to describe an author who operated in a very different time. He also does his share of "grunt work" by digging up contemporary references and other material to buttress his claim that Shakespeare was indeed responsible for his own works -- though it is increasingly clear that he collaborated with other playwrights to a much greater degree than the "Bardolaters" of generations past were willing to admit. I highly recommend this enjoyable book to anyone with an interest in Shakespeare.

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #301 (October 2010, Boom! Kids*)

The conclusion of "300 Mickeys" -- the "Clone Saga" that should, by all rights, have been devoured in one gulp in MM&F #300 -- is served up "cold pizza" style in this issue. The "Mickey-Me's" created by Eega Beeva's "Pduplication Ray" do their expected slapstick "thang," including putting the real Mouse and Eega on trial for "[planning] to unmake us!". There's actually something of an edge to this silly business, in that Mickey and Eega realize that eliminating clones would be akin to murder (or, in Stefan Petrucha's slightly more decorous phrase, "taking lives"). Fortunately, Eega has access to all manner of convenient technological problem-solvers, and one of them saves the day, giving the multitude of Mickeys their own "space" while ridding Mouseton of a grave threat. Left unexplored is the question of how an entire planet of cocky, strong-willed Mice will manage to govern itself. Petrucha and Cesar Ferioli make the most of this one-joke idea, but I still shake my head at Boom!'s decision to serialize this tale.

The back side of the book is given over to the opening stanza of yet another serialized scenario, Sergio Badino and Giorgio Cavazzano's 2007 Italian story "Legend of the Robo-Presidents." We come to issue's end just as the vacationing Morty, Ferdie, Mickey, and Minnie have tumbled into the bowels of Mount Rushmore (think I'm kidding? One of Mickey's nephews wonders whether M&F have found "some President's small intestine") and discovered a clutch of mechanical gear. I sure as shootin' hope that we aren't headed for something as silly as that KIM POSSIBLE digest story set in Washington DC which climaxed with several national monuments coming to life and fighting. Given that M&F are depicted as video-game-obsessed, however, I fear that joystick manipulation of a "National Treasure" may be in our immediate future. BTW, you can tell that this story is a foreign import even if you aren't hep to the Italian drawing style; several panels are devoted to an explanation of who's depicted on the monument. Oddly enough, the "rock-star Presidents" are depicted in humanoid form. Considering that DuckTales showed duck-billed Presidents on Mount Rushmore in the episode "Ali Bubba's Cave," this comes as something of a surprise. Though Barks did depict a human "Senator Snoggin" monument in one of his 50s "ten-pagers," so perhaps the DuckTales "Mount Rushmore" ISN'T the Duck-and-Mouse-world equivalent of Mount Rushmore after all, but a duck-centric facsimile... uh, my head hurts.

* For some reason, the cover logo is that of Boom! Studios proper, as opposed to Boom! Kids. I don't know what to make of this; it may be an oversight, or something more.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Boom! Primps its Paradigm


This week's issue of PREVIEWS magazine, soliciting comics orders for January 2011, may reflect at least a portion of Boom!'s promised "2.0" upgrade. The ballyhooed "great leap forward" may, in fact, end up being a pivot back to the past. The blurbs for WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #715 (why am I getting peckish for an Oh! Henry bar right about now?) and MICKEY MOUSE #304 (you read it right -- no ...AND FRIENDS) proclaim "Classics are back at BOOM!" The real news, of course, is that these classics are appearing in slick-paper format, rather than hardback collections. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of WDC&S' first appearance, WDC&S #715 will feature works by Carl Barks, Don Rosa, Gil Turner, and Daan Jippes, while MM #304 will feature "the first complete reprint" of Floyd Gottfredson and Bill Walsh's "The Pirate Ghost Ship" (aka "The Isle of Death") since 1944. Evidently, the reprints in WDC&S #78-80 (1947) and GLADSTONE COMIC ALBUM #17 (1989) didn't reproduce every jot and tittle of the original story. UNCLE $CROOGE #400, scheduled for release in February, will follow up on these issues with a double-sized special release.

Obviously, I'm pleased that Boom! is going in a more Gemstone-like direction, at least for the time being. but some things could be improved. The key to bringing back some of the "old sourdoughs" who may have abandoned the field in disgust will be to print material of the "classic" vein that Americans haven't seen before. Don't get me wrong, it'll be great to see "The Pirate Ghost Ship" again, but I'd rather see hitherto-unprinted William Van Horn stories and the like. I'm also bothered by the fact that Boom! can't seem to completely rid itself of the "multiple covers" obsession. WDC&S #715 will have two cover variations, one a parody of the cover to WDC&S #1 by Van Horn, the other a "character mash" by Jippes. That gambit went over like a "foil-embossed" balloon when MM&F #300 was released, and I'd really hate to limit myself to only one of these two fine pieces of art, but how else to send a message to Boom! that this collector-driven drivel must stop?

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The October Boom! issues appear to be edging a bit closer to that Harvey Comics-style marketing approach that I suggested in an earlier post. We now have an "Upcoming from Boom! Kids" section on the letters page with small reproductions of the covers of the month's Disney and Pixar releases, plus a "spotlight" item (in this case, the collected DOUBLE DUCK Volume 3). Disney Comics did much the same thing in its heyday but accompanied its full-page spread of covers with a one- or two-column summary of what was actually in each issue. There are still a couple of pages of ad space to work with, so why not put them to even better use?

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #5 (October 2010, Boom! Studios)

Part one of "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings" -- the follow-up to the monstrously successful "The Duck Knight Returns," Boom!'s first inarguable Disney comics smash -- kicks off the DW "regular series" in fine style. The book packs the same potent combination of welcome character revivals, stylish James Silvani artwork, and spot-on (albeit occasionally puzzling) Ian Brill scripting. The much-anticipated alliance of Negaduck and Magica De Spell actually takes something of a backseat here to the return of DW's lady love, Morgana McCawber, in a most unexpected (and not a bit unsettling) condition. Evidently, the "Quackwerks Era" Drake Mallard's breaking of ties with his crime-fighting past was even more comprehensive than we had thought. More anon following the...

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Negaduck and Magica, as you might imagine, make a cute couple, though they actually perform little to no "hands-on villainy" here. Instead, they appear to be going the "Flash the Wonder Dog" route, seeking to queer the resurrected, newly-popular DW (who now appears to be operating in broad daylight as well as at nighttime -- talk about a shift in the basic paradigm!) with his St. Canard public by plucking Darkwing "equivalents" from various dimensions and more or less letting them run riot in DW's "Regularverse" city. I'd think that Negs would prefer hands-on destruction to this indirect approach, but perhaps his time in the Quackwerks prison has forced him to do a re-think of sorts. Brill appears to be drawing his characterization of Magica from DuckTales rather than Barks, with the sorceress speaking in the Natasha-style broken English she employed on the TV series and even using the fedora-wearing Mr. Poe (not Ratface) as her inter-dimensional DW-fetcher. This characterization of Magica makes it a lot easier to imagine this storyline in animated form.

The unfortunate Morgana's fate seems a bit unsettled at the moment. According to Launchpad -- who, you may recall, was put in charge of Quackwerks by Scrooge (and has, to my amazement, NOT caused a new "financial meltdown" as of yet) -- Morgue was brainwashed by Taurus Bulba and then locked up. Or perhaps she was locked up and then brainwashed; I'm not quite clear on the sequence of events here. In any case, the zonked Morgue is something of a loose cannon, causing magical mayhem simply by sneezing. Fetching his girlfriend from the slammer, DW tries multiple means to snap her out of her trance. He finally does so through the fantasy-tinged means of weeping and having one of his tears land on her beak. What caused the crying jag was not Morgana's present condition, but DW's sad memory of leaving Morgue as part of his unpacking of his "former life." Sorry, DW, I know that you were depressed about losing your raison d'etre and all, but this was just plain cold. Eek, Squeek, and Archie were right to be pissed off at you. Look for the upcoming alliance between DW and Morgana to rekindle some of those old feelings... but can Morgue ever really forget this snub, I wonder? She'll have to do so for the moment, at least, because DW seems very reluctant to let "Gosmoduck" in on the action. Unless Fenton hurries back from that accountant's convention REAL fast, Morgana would appear to be DW's main ally in a fight against the Negaduck-Magica duo. Can't you just visualize the inevitable Magica vs. Morgue "sorceresses' showcase showdown" now?

Thanks to the issue's ending scene of St. Canard's police commissioner (who bears a strange resemblance to a dog-nosed Commissioner Gordon) declaring the "menace" DW a "public enemy," it appears that DW will be forced to "flap only in the night" for the foreseeable future. "My kind of odds!" DW might well crow. But there does seem to be one wild -- and wet -- card in the mix. A throwaway gag of a taciturn fisherman being pulled into Audubon Bay wouldn't seem to have much to do with the main action were it not for the fact that The Liquidator is suspiciously absent from a brief jail scene in which Quackerjack, Bushroot, and Megavolt are present. I know enough about Brill's plotting style already to guess that this probably was NOT a coincidence. What role will Licky play? Can't wait to find out... and this is one continuing story that I don't mind Boom! unspooling.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #359 (October 2010, Boom! Kids)

What's that strange feeling washing over me like soy sauce being drizzled slowly over steak teriyaki? Can it really be nostalgia for the not-so-long-ago days of Double Duck?! You'd have had a hard time convincing me that I'd be experiencing such emotions back when I first learned about the Donald super-spy arc, but the pallid first chapter of "Son of the Rising Sun" -- aka "Donald Duck, Master of Kung Fu" -- has dredged them up. Even scripter David Gerstein seems unable to inject any legitimate life into writer Ennio Missaglia and artist Valerio Held's wan saga.

What is most disappointing about this effort is that the main adventure is not about Donald at all. I was expecting to see another example of Donald having to respond to the challenge of mastering another skill set normally considered above his "pay grade," as he did under the aegis of The Agency. The prospect of Donald learning martial arts actually held even more promise for real character development. After all, Double Duck had already been a successful agent prior to his memory being erased, whereas Don is simply his usual fumbling, boastful self at the start of "Rising Sun," mocking HD&L's karate training and claiming that he could do just as well. Taking this familiar, hapless version of Don and turning him into a confident martial-arts master could lead to some good gaggery and a bit of legitimate character growth. Instead of this potentially spicy scenario, however, we get a mouthful of plain tofu. After wrecking his leg with an ill-advised karate kick, Donald simply dreams of becoming "Master Karateka," a lowly tax collector-slash-"warrior" in feudal Japan who becomes a "lone wolf" in order to help lovely Dai-chan's village resist the depredations of greedy Shogun Scrooge-San. (He's also after Dai-chan herself, as the multiple panels featuring puckered beaks and goo-goo eyes rather heavy-handedly attest.) Marco Rota's tales of Donald's ancestor Andold Wild Duck come quickly to mind, especially since Scrooge-San makes reference to a fortune-teller telling him that Scrooge McDuck would be one of his lineal descendants. (I didn't know that Don Rosa's Duck Family Tree had roots that grew all the way through the center of the Earth, clear to the Orient.) "Rising Sun," however, doesn't measure up to Rota's cycle of tales. Andold and his supporting cast were strong enough to carry stories all by themselves, whereas Missaglia's unimaginative approach is simply to plug contemporary Duck characters into the Japanese setting and hope for the best. Also, needless to say, Rota's artwork is vastly superior to Held's.

There is still a possibility that the remaining 14 pages of the 36-page "Rising Sun" will yank us back to the present day and give the real Donald a chance to shine. Given Missaglia's predictability in this first installment, however, I somehow doubt that the samurai will come riding in to rescue us in the nick of time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is Boom! REALLY a Bust? No, But...


While I'm trying to find the time to catch up on my comics reading, I ran across this take on Boom!'s handling of the Disney comics line. I'm definitely in agreement with "The Hyperionites" on the issue of Boom!'s reliance on continuing story lines. Not that Boom! should abandon the notion entirely -- I'm fine with the serialization of Casty's stories in WDC&S and the treatment of the material in DARKWING DUCK in a manner more befitting a superhero -- but there's no point to running multi-part stories simply for the sake of running multi-part stories. For sure, MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #300 would have been a lot more special had Boom! run "300 Mickeys" in its entirety. Of course, the book would have been more expensive, but Boom! seems to have no problem raising the prices of individual issues for the flimsiest of reasons ("foil-embossing," anyone?). Asking readers to pay an additional $1 or $1.50 for a complete, "300-friendly" adventure wouldn't have cost too much in terms of circulation.

One reason for hope regarding the issue of "lack of sufficient content for the money" is that we are starting to see backup stories with a fair amount of regularity. The reduction of advertising pages is a welcome trend, as well. No longer do we see multiple pages bringing the latest MUPPETS-related releases to our attention. In fact, I think that Boom! would do well to imitate Harvey Comics (which "The Hyperionites" correctly finger as a very kid-friendly line) and put "coming issue" information for all of its Disney-Pixar releases on a special page, together with brief blurbs about what's in each issue. Even Star Comics did the readers that favor.

Boom! can certainly improve how it packages and markets its collections. The article's praise of Bongo Comics' trade paperbacks is interesting in that Bongo has done nothing but reprint SIMPSONS COMICS issue-by-issue -- just as Boom! was doing with its entire line at one point. And therein lies the difference: be judicious about what recently published material you collect. It's clear that Casty and DARKWING (plus, I imagine, RESCUE RANGERS when it becomes available) are Boom!'s strongest selling points at the moment, so, by all means, give those works a handsome paperback treatment -- but DON'T reprint every single story arc separately; try to package where appropriate. Also, Boom! should consider giving those willing to buy the paperbacks something extra -- perhaps a potted history of the Darkwing Duck TV series (which would also fit well as part of the collection of DARKWING stories from DISNEY ADVENTURES that Boom! will be letting loose in a couple of months) or a longer interview with Casty. As for the hardbacks, I'm already on record as favoring classic, Gemstone- and Gladstone-style material for those, should Boom! see fit to revive them.

Perhaps Boom! will address these and other issues during "Boom! Kids 2.0" next year. The mere fact that they're going through such an exercise suggests that they're ascending a "learning curve" of some sort. Only time will tell whether said "curve" leads to the plateau of Shangri-La or to a plummet off a cliff.

A "Disney Princess by Proxy" Gets Aid & Comfort

This was a pretty rough weekend for a Notre Dame graduate and Philadelphia sports follower. I was able to put it in perspective, though. My niece Zoe broke her arm in a playground mishap, and said appendage is now in a cast. Her family is now living in the Orlando area, so she was able to seek aid and comfort from some friendly folks in the neighborhood...

Zoe's "boo-boo" casing was also signed by Minnie Mouse, Peter Pan, and others. No amount of "magic dust" can replace good, old-fashioned modern medical healing, however.

In other medical news, Nicky is about a week to 10 days away from finally being able to walk unaided. She will be joining me tomorrow at Susan Slattery's memorial service on the Stevenson campus. We've also been invited to a reception with the family at Gramercy Mansion, a bed and breakfast across the road from the college.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: HARVEY COMICS TREASURY, VOLUME 1, edited by Leslie Cabarga (Dark Horse Books, 2010)


By and large, Jerry Beck and Leslie Cabarga did a fine job of repackaging old Harvey Comics material in the HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS series. They got some facts wrong -- Harvey projects, no matter who helms them, seem to attract factual goofs as readily as I attract mosquitoes on a hot summer evening -- and got some (largely undeserved) criticism for reprinting most of the material in black and white, but I gave them all due praise for bringing this enjoyable material back into circulation. Now that Dark Horse has decided to follow up the CLASSICS series with a line of less expensive, but full-color!, 200-page TREASURY volumes, one would think that I'd be ecstatic. Sorry to say, despite the generally high story quality in this first CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST AND FRIENDS issue, I'm less enthusiastic than expected... for in terms of granting due recognition to creators, or even simply telling us when and in what issues these stories first appeared, we've taken a big step backwards to the days of the original Harvey Digest line. Even the LITTLE LULU series gives basic info on creators and issue numbers. If you have kids, however -- or are a kid at heart -- you'll enjoy these whimsical, clever, and entertaining tales.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #396 (Boom! Kids, October 2010)... plus just a tad extra

How strange... "Messes Become Successes," the follow-up to "Like a Hurricane" (Boom!'s catch-all title for the first four DuckTales-themed issues of UNCLE $CROOGE -- the better to package the unrelated stories in a trade paperback) was supposed to begin here, but you wouldn't know it from looking at the title page, which simply lists the titles of the two featured stories. It couldn't be that Boom! realized in the nick of time that not enough people would catch the reference to the rarely-heard second verse of the DT theme song! Could it? Or perhaps Launchpad obliterated the relevant copy when he crashed into the wall in James Silvani's amusing cover. (Was it really only nine years ago that TaleSpin was pulled off the air in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? And now we see this scene on a Disney comics cover, and no one probably batted an eye.)

Picking up where the ambitious, and generally successful, "The Eye of Flabberge" left off, #396 gives us a decent-to-good pair of Launchpad-focused stories, both of which were produced for Egmont in the early 1990s. Happily, given how late in the Egmont/DT production game they were created, "Lovelorn Launchpad" and "Double Indemnity" show plenty of enthusiasm, due in part to artist Millet's expressive artwork. It also doesn't hurt to have old reliables David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray back on dialogue duty -- though, if they were in fact responsible for "Lovelorn Launchpad" as well as "Double Indemnity," then they have a major temporal gaffe to answer for. Scrooge loaning the crash-prone Launchpad surplus warplanes for a "tax write-off" is a clever idea... but surplus Boer War planes (sic) that look like they were rejects from Rosie the Riveter's production line?! I could sooner believe that Snoopy's doghouse actually IS a Sopwith Camel.

"Lovelorn Launchpad" finds LP head over brown-booted webbed heels in love with comely pilot Bedelia Airheart... so much so that he tracks her to the forbidding Hamalaya Mountains, where she's disappeared while trying to set a speed record. It should be noted that LP's attitude towards women was anything but a settled issue in the TV series: he chortled "Usually it's the girls chasin' me!" in "The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan," fell hard for the exotic seer Sen-Sen in "The Duck Who Would Be King," and desperately welcomed possession of the Gizmosuit in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity" because "At last I'm gettin' the girls!"... and all of them, somehow, seemed in character. Here, too, the inept earnestness of LP's efforts to "save" the inconvenienced, but otherwise unimperiled, Bedelia (who ends up saving LP instead) flows naturally from the pilot's eternal willingness to laugh at danger and his equally persistent fallibility. I could have done without the walk-on by a particularly silly version of (I guess) the Abominable Snow...uh...woman -- suffice it to say that the Barksian version of the character seen in "Lost Crown" has little to worry about, even when it comes to impressing males -- but this is a cute story that succeeds in its modest goals.

"Double Indemnity," originally written by Bob "The Gold Odyssey" Langhans, is a little more ambitious than "Lovelorn Launchpad," if only because Magica De Spell is involved, but its logical holes make it hard to take too seriously. Magica's creation of a Launchpad clone who will waylay Scrooge during a trip to Faroffistan and steal the Old #1 Dime would have made for a great TV episode, but the mechanics of said cloning are Rube Goldberg-esque in their lack of plausibility. Why would placing a lock of LP's hair in the clone's pocket "activate" the simulated simpleton? Wouldn't the genetic info in the hair have to literally be part of the clone? Among other things, this gives Scrooge, HD&L, and Launchpad a convenient way of stopping the simulacrum without rendering it a pulpy mess, and the dubious deus ex machina is duly delivered by LP (who'd earlier been transformed by Magica into a simply hilarious "McQuack-friendly version" of a pigeon, complete with red topknot and brown booties). Gerstein and Gray do a wonderful job of characterizing the fake LP, making him gum up his catchphrases and such. Evidently, the "Nega-LP" (actually, given his inadvertent gaffes, he's more of a Launchpad McNothing, a la the Fred and Barney clones created by The Great Gazoo) should have slowed down when he speed-read the wall chart with Launchpad's characteristics on it. The story's ending is a jumble of chaotic action that simply cried out for a televisualization of same, but I'm not complaining; too many DT comic-book stories have simply gone through the motions without trying to capture the sheer energy that made the show so enjoyable. This issue is much more like what I had hoped UNCLE $CROOGE would be when it switched to DT mode. At least we're somewhere close to that point now.

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Boom! Kids has released a "teaser" promising something called "Boom! Kids 2.0" for 2011. It's hard to know exactly what that means in terms of new material; RESCUE RANGERS debuts at the end of the year, but that isn't even a Boom! Kids comic, technically speaking (nor is DARKWING DUCK). Things are definitely looking up for the "old sourdoughs," however, at least in the short run. According to August Paul Yang, who attended a Boom! panel at the recent New York Comic Con and wrote up a report on the Disney Comics Mailing List, Boom! Kids will be feting the 70th anniversary of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES with some special issues featuring (to borrow a phrase from the post-"Implosion" version of Disney Comics) "The American Masters." This seems a lot more promising at first blush than the inappropriate, coitus interruptus-inflected manner in which MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #300 handled the "300 Mickeys" story. Now, only let Boom! bring back some version of the hardback "Classics" collections to mate with Fantagraphics' launching of the Floyd Gottfredson library, and I'll accept the "upgrade" most cheerfully.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mid-October Clearance!

Sorry for the lack of activity of late. Here are some quick updates on recent doings:

(1) Stevenson's official memorial service for Susan Slattery is scheduled for Tuesday, October 26, at 12:30. This means that I may have to do something I very rarely do: cancel class. My Basic Stats class meets 12:10-2 Tuesdays and Thursdays. I currently have a test planned for Thursday of that week, so I may be able to cut the Tuesday class short without sacrificing too much in terms of new material. Of course, the time of the service could be changed in the meantime.

(2) This Friday afternoon, SU science students will be making artificial reef balls for the Chesapeake Bay, a project that Susan had been working on before her accident. I should be able to help out for at least part of the time.

(3) Nicky is doing well but still can't go back to work. She has another follow-up visit with the surgeon in early November. As for my hernia issue, I've scheduled my surgery for mid-December, after winter commencement. Hopefully, I'll recover quickly and be able to enjoy Christmas, though, if I get any heavy boxes for presents, someone else will have to lift and carry them for me.

(4) Congrats to the Phillies for their NLDS win. I think, however, that their upcoming NLCS with the Giants will be the toughest pre-World Series challenge they've had in the last three years. Their offense is too inconsistent for my taste.

(5) Next Monday, I turn 48!

Book Review: THE 100 GREATEST LOONEY TUNES CARTOONS, edited by Jerry Beck (Insight Editions, 2010)

Herein lie the considered opinions of numerous gurus, animation figures, and fans as to the 100 best Warner Bros. short cartoons (and, yes, Merrie Melodies are considered to be Looney Tunes for the purposes of this volume; let's don't be too pedantic). I don't have many complaints with most of the choices that were made. Certain characters, such as Pepe Le Pew and Foghorn Leghorn, get rather short-sheeted, but, then again, they're not among Warners' most inspired creations. The small number of Coyote and Road Runner epics that made the list is a little more surprising, given Chuck Jones' exalted reputation. I'd prefer to think of this as a simple realization of the severe limitations of those rigidly structured, mercilessly repetitive little enterprises. Far better for the critics to draw from the deep, nourishing well of the 1940s and early 1950s, when the Warners cartoons were at their very best. (And... of course... Baseball Bugs is among those drawn. For me, that cartoon is like the wanted poster that gets attached to people's legs during John Ford's The Informer. I simply can't escape it, either on TV, in print, or in puzzle form at the old Warner Bros. store in Manhattan. Ask Joe Torcivia about this sometime if you don't believe me.) Most of the critical comments are cogent, and only a few fly off into a postmodern Wackyland. This book really should be reissued in a larger, handsomer form at some point... and wouldn't it be great if a future edition could also include DVDs with the 100 greatest Loonies on them?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Review: THE KING OF KINGS (Pathe Exchange, 1927)

Here is the first fruits (I thought the "Biblical language" was appropriate) of my recent reading of Scott Eyman's fine biography of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille's lavishly produced tale of the life of Christ was produced after the director had been dismissed from Paramount and had opened his own production facility, a la Sam Goldwyn. Unfortunately, DeMille's dream of freedom was turning to dust even as DeMille's crew were turning the cameras to film this epic. Even before King wrapped, DeMille had been forced to merge his outfit with several other companies, including Pathe, which wound up distributing the film. For all of the chaotic circumstances surrounding its production -- not to mention DeMille's taking of a few extreme liberties with Scripture with the avowed purpose of compelling people of all religious persuasions to follow the narrative -- King still holds up reasonably well today. I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, but I did see Franco Zeffirelli's acclaimed mini-series Jesus of Nazareth back in the 70s, and that's the best cinematic depiction of Jesus' life that I've ever witnessed. King, however, would have to rank second.

DeMille quickly puts his own stamp on things by opening with a Technicolor orgy sequence in which Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) is "re-imagined" as a glitzy prostitute in love with Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut) -- and royally pissed that Judas has thrown in his lot with some "carpenter." This conceit can be put down to DeMille's own idiosyncratic reading of the Gospel narrative. Specifically, the director believed that Judas simply had to have an ulterior motive for his treachery against Jesus. After Jesus (H.B. Warner, in his most famous role) evicts the Seven Deadly Sins from Mary M., Judas, who believes that Jesus is destined to establish a Jewish kingdom independent of Roman rule, begins to simmer with resentment, leaving him easy prey for the bribe offered by the conniving high priest Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut). Evidently, DeMille didn't suffer much opprobrium for going so far afield with his theorizing. He did, however, get attacked by some for anti-Semitism, much as Mel Gibson did for The Passion of the Christ. Here, it seems that Cecil outsmarted himself. So determined was DeMille to avoid blaming "the Jews" as a people for Christ's death that he loaded virtually all of the responsibility for the Passion on the shoulders of Caiaphas, making the priest a greedy power-monger and suck-up to Rome. All this did, however, was remind people of the stereotype of the "greedy, conniving Jew." Sometimes you simply can't win.

Once the events of Holy Week begin, DeMille's narrative becomes stiffer and more formulaic, though he does appear to have great fun staging the earthquakes, lightning, and other natural disasters that followed Christ's death on the Cross. Prior to the Jerusalem sequence, however, DeMille includes several delightful touches that "humanize" the story without sticking out like a sore thumb. For example, after a very Little John-esque Peter (Ernest Torrence) finds a coin in a fish's mouth with which to pay Caesar's tax, a pair of Roman soldiers toss out their hooks and try the same thing, even violently shaking the fish they catch as if it were a piggy bank. I have to admit, I laughed out loud at this. Later, there's a cute sequence in an olive grove in which a little girl asks Jesus to "cure" her doll of its broken leg. Jesus taps his chin for a moment before resorting to... not a miracle, but a quick fix with a needle and some thread. (A needle? In Roman-era Palestine? That makes almost as much sense as the modern-day pencil that Matthew uses to take notes of the goings-on.) Before starting to shoot the film, DeMille avowed that he wasn't planning to make a sanctimonious movie in which people act stereotypically "holy." King is a bit more reverent in a traditionalist sense than, say, Jesus of Nazareth, but sanctimony is relatively muted.

This DVD was originally part of a two-disc set, paired with the 1961 film of the same name. Extras are relatively sparse: a contemporary trailer with shots of the Gaiety Theatre on Broadway (where the film had its exclusive NYC run), some still paraphernalia from opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theater (where King was the featured attraction), and some telegrams from DeMille discussing the film's opening. I would have liked to have seen some information on the differences between the film's full-length version (which is presented here) and the general-release version, which is considerably shorter. How did DeMille decide what scenes to cut for the shorter version?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #711 (September 2010, Boom! Kids)

We literally "blast off" to another Casty adventure with part one of "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare," which looks, at least at first blush, to be a melange of The Love Boat, The X-Files, Lost in Space, and Galaxy of Terror (without the alien worm rape scene and the disembodied, maggot-covered arm, of course). "Utterly ordinary everyman" Mickey is the odd mouse out in a bunch of A- (or at least A-minus) listers taking a space-shuttle trip to the newly launched Olympus Hotel, the world's first space hostel. But has the grandiloquent Olympus been infested by "space monsters"? Mickey's companions include a lunkheaded "Heismouse Trophy" winner, a bubble-brained actress, and an hysterical pseudo-journalist who's made her literary fortune off of books drumming up belief in extraterrestrial bogeymen, so Mickey is the prime candidate for the "Mystery Inc. Debaffler Award" almost by default. I'm already suspicious of the muckraking journo Cassandra Dot (should be pronounced with a long "o", I assume), who would certainly stand to personally profit from any "discovery" of space aliens. The fact that Olympus designer Alistair Zond happened to be "outside" just at the moment that a threatening message appeared is also troubling, though I can't see yet how he would gain any advantage from scaring customers away from his own creation. Dialoguists David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray are supplanted for this go-round by Stefania Bronzoni, who's done a decent job thus far. Indeed, botoxed B-list babe Bella Breakhearts gets off a priceless line when she screams, "What's going on here? I demand easy answers!"

Because it's close to Halloween, I suppose -- at least, the two aisles in the local supermarket that have been given over to candy, costumes, and such suggest as much -- the back of the book features a reprint of "Tomb of Goofula" (Disney Comics GOOFY ADVENTURES #17, October 1991), a four-page story produced by the team responsible for creating THE TOMB OF DRACULA (1972-79) for Marvel: writer Marv Wolfman, penciler Gene Colan, and inker Tom Palmer. This was quite literally the last story ever to appear in GOOFY ADVENTURES, as the title was then canceled as part of the notorious "Disney Implosion." It got a (tiny) cover blurb but, sorry to say, fails to live up to whatever modest expectations there might have been for such a short story. Indeed, it points up one of the flaws that, two decades later, has become apparent regarding the Disney Comics era: Great comics creators don't necessarily make great Disney comics creators. Wolfman, whose Disney Comics track record was mixed to say the least, wends his weary way through some fairly predictable gags (and yes, the groan-inducing "baseball bat" gag is included, though at least "Mickey Harker" comments on the predictability of that occurrence). Goofy irritatingly substitutes "Ah" for "I", which seems more appropriate for Foghorn Leghorn, and there's a pretty bad continuity gaffe involving a "will" that Mickey Harker must fill out before entering Castle Goofula. The artwork is decent but a little cluttered. It's nice to see Boom! dipping into the Disney Comics archives, but I'd like to see something with a little more bite (hyuck!) in it next time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: EMPIRE OF DREAMS: THE EPIC LIFE OF CECIL B. DeMILLE by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

The legendary director is at last ready for his own close-up as Eyman -- with excellent biographies of John Ford and L.B. Mayer already under his belt -- draws upon previously unavailable archival matter to craft this fascinating volume. My only real quarrel with the book is its title, which seems a little... I don't know... cotton-candyish for such an imperious figure. Much better would have been something simpler like "Director" or "Showman." C.B. was perhaps the major figure in the development of the "cult and culture" of the Hollywood director (or, as he was originally called when preparing his first feature The Squaw Man, "director-general") and, as Eyman makes clear, he was a legitimate artistic pioneer during the silent era, introducing challenging and daring subject matter (miscegenation, the challenges facing married people) in addition to technical tricks. During the sound era, DeMille broadened his canvas and made the "epic" his own while, at the same time, paying less and less attention to realism in scenario and dialogue. This went against the grain of contemporary practice and ensured that C.B.'s films would often go begging for critical acceptance, but, when all the elements were in place, his films were among the most effective, exhilarating, and memorable ever made.

Eyman makes a number of the same points that Simon Louvish did in his 2007 biography, but is considerably easier on DeMille's politics and personality in general. The fact that Eyman was writing a bio authorized by the DeMille estate may have influenced the tone of the book somewhat, but the manuscript is certainly not sycophantic; rather, it is, as the slogan goes, "fair and balanced," which is all that one can ask when it comes to such a controversial figure. I gather than Eyman is probably a liberal, but his treatment of DeMille on political matters is eminently even-handed, just as it was in the case of L.B. Mayer. DeMille's famous decision to refuse to pay a $1 fee to the American Federation of Radio Artists to support an anti-"right to work" campaign -- which cost him the right to ever appear on radio and TV in a non-publicity-related capacity for the rest of his life -- is put in its proper perspective as a decision based on principle, though C.B.'s general anti-union sentiments are also made quite clear. DeMille's support of loyalty oaths and such during the blacklist era is qualified by his decision to give work to such "tainted" actors as Edward G. Robinson. The weirdness of DeMille's personal life -- he was a devoted family man who also kept a trio of mistresses on the side -- and the man's legendary tantrums get a full airing, but so too do C.B.'s frequent kindnesses and generous dealings with associates and acquaintances. The relationship between C.B. and his brother William and the description of DeMille's capable handling of his role in Sunset Blvd. are particular highlights of the narrative.

This book got me so zizzed up that I've asked Nicky to put some DeMille movies in her Netflix queue. You'll be seeing reviews of them in this space soon.

"How I Hate Him!"

Sixty years ago tomorrow...

Ten years after the end of PEANUTS and Charles Schulz' death, the strip is still very much a part of my fannish life, thanks to the ongoing Fantagraphics reprint series. The latest volume (1977-78) currently sits on my dresser, awaiting only the time to read it.

My tribute to Schulz in PASSIONS #19 summed up what I owe to the man as well as anything could; here's an excerpt:

From my earliest days of intellectual self-awareness until the time I entered high school in 1976, PEANUTS was by far the biggest "Toon influence" in my life. It wasn't so much that I chose to guide my life according to the precepts handed down in the strip -- though, in those somewhat troubled years, I frequently identified with the hapless, oft-depressed and despairing Charlie Brown or the sensitive, intellectual Linus -- as much as the simple fact that I devoured all PEANUTS material that I could get my hands on... In the absence of any steady competition -- aside from a few TV cartoons like "The Flintstones" and "Kimba the White Lion" that couldn't be taped in those pre-VCR days -- PEANUTS represented my first real exposure to no-holds-barred, ravening fandom. The fervor only started to cool after I started collecting comic books in 1975, and, more significantly, as I started to glide into puberty and my teen years. PEANUTS was never considered a mere "kids' strip," even in its less intellectually sophisticated first half-decade or so, but, identifying PEANUTS as I did so strongly with childhood activities, it's perhaps not surprising that I counted it among those "childish things" I had best put aside in this brave new world.

My "ultimate fan dream" in those years was a complete collection of PEANUTS, but perhaps it's just as well that I had to wait until my forties to see one. I have much more appreciation now for the full range of Schulz' development of the strip and possess a greater ability to put his works in perspective with those of other favorite creators of mine. Despite the fact that my favorite era of PEANUTS will always be roughly 1955-1975, I'm bound and determined to slog through Fantagraphics' reprinting of the looming "Flashbeagle," "Snoopy Relatives" and "Tapioca Pudding" era of the 1980s and give even that relatively fallow period a fair chance to win me over. (The 1990s were better, thanks in large part to Schulz' decision to stop drawing the strip in that rigid format of four increasingly tiny panels.)