Sunday, September 18, 2011
Comics Review: DISNEY'S FOUR COLOR ADVENTURES, VOLUME 1 (July 2011, Boom! Studios)
For all the optimistic good cheer evident in David Gerstein's introduction, I think that we're more likely to see the deployment of a FIFTH color than to see a follow-up to this collection of American Disney comics rarities. That's not to say that the reprintings of ONE SHOT COLOR COMICS #4 (February 1940) and ONE SHOT COLOR COMICS #13 (1941) -- to give these tomes their rather awkward "official" names -- aren't heartily appreciated. As, respectively, the first all-color English-language Disney comic and the first comic-book adaptation of a Disney (sort of) feature film, they deserved to be brought back into the light.
COLOR #4 is as meat-and-spuds as it gets -- a great, quivering, 64-page hunk of DONALD DUCK daily-strip reprints from early 1939. The strips are presented one after another, without even the slight attempt at gag-dividing that was seen in the first two issues of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES. With the idea of American Disney comics being so new at the time, I wonder how many readers unfamiliar with the nature of the DONALD strip thought that the "narrative" was "mighty confusing." While the collection of work by Bob Karp and Al Taliaferro (..."with Carl Barks"? Why wasn't that explained?) suffers from the same "law of diminishing returns" that plagued "Gladstone II"'s relentless reprinting of old strips in its DONALD DUCK title, the gags are somewhat easier to take now that Donald has graduated from his previous stint as "The Compleat Asshole" and is now starting to faintly resemble the harried suburban Everyman and ineffective parental figure whom Barks would inherit and raise to a higher creative plane. The Nephews (whose earliest appearance in the SILLY SYMPHONIES DONALD Sunday strip are also reprinted here, complementing an informative article on Taliaferro by Thomas Andrae) have likewise been toned down from their earliest, most "hellionish" incarnation and are now just as likely to flummox Unca Donald, or innocently get him into trouble, as to actively torment him. Sometimes the point of a gag has curled up and died in the intervening seventy-plus years -- when was the last six-day bike race YOU saw? -- but most of them are pretty decent, even today.
COLOR #13 is a fairly thorough "panelization" of the various featured items in The Reluctant Dragon (1941), now perhaps best remembered as (1) the first appearance of a Goofy "how-to" short ("How to Ride a Horse"); (2) the first big-scale "How it's Made" tour of the Walt Disney Studio, as experienced by humorist Robert Benchley (who himself famously pioneered the "how-to" genre in a series of live shorts); (3) the film that came out during the bitter Disney strike of 1941 and thereby mocked its own "just one big happy family" pretensions. David Gerstein describes how artists Irving Tripp and Jack Hannah relied on storyboard materials to produce this pioneering effort, but Tripp almost takes it too far in his adaptation of "The Reluctant Dragon" itself, drawing "backgrounds" that are more like a rumor and using pose after pose that appear to have been cadged directly from the 'boards. This can also be seen in Tripp's adaptation of "Baby Weems," but that was presented in the movie in storyboard format to begin with. "Dragon" was more ambitious and deserved better, but instead, we get static poses and text, text everywhere. Several full pages include just one smallish character drawing afloat in a sea of explanatory verbiage. It's as if we've gone back to the dawn of the comic strip at times. At least the figure drawing is good. Jack Hannah's putative rendition of the Donald short "Old MacDonald Duck," which was also presented in rough format in the film, and "How to Ride a Horse" (artist unknown, according to inDucks) look a bit more like many of the original Disney comics that would be coming down the pipeline in the early FOUR COLOR days, though there is still lots of text. (I do hope that the letterer got paid more than anyone else for this issue.) There's an unexpected bonus in the form of a text adaptation of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia (1940), the first attempt of several to put this story into comics format, and a column about Fantasia (which was then in the process of bombing big-time at the b.o. in first release) by Leopold Stokowski. Since The Reluctant Dragon was seen as a "cheater" by many critics at the time, the inclusion of the Fantasia material here may have been an effort to give the Dragon adaptation "class by proxy," not to mention convince just a few more folks to go see Fantasia in the process.
Boom! has made many missteps in its handling of the Disney characters, but one can't really fault the company's archival efforts, nor the high quality of the CLASSICS hardbound line. Had Boom! refrained from reprinting everything it released in the early stages and reserved the collections for "special events," perhaps its bottom line would have been boosted and the traditionalist fans whom the company turned off with its radical "new directions" would have been sufficiently mollified to support the company. Sometimes, I think that Donald's Nephews should have been named Coulda, Woulda, and Shoulda when they appeared in Boom! releases... If this is, in fact, the last of the vintage wine, then it was a generally enjoyable potable on which to part ways.