Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 19, "Mystery of the Deserted Village"

For the balance of the Summer, I'm going to try my level (or slightly lopsided, even) best to review at least two Kimba episodes per week. "Deserted Village" closes, in a manner of speaking, the loop that was opened at the end of the flashback sequence in "Journey into Time." Last millennium, as you recall, the adult Ur-Kimba was taken by the Kickapeel natives to the village near what would ultimately become Caesar's, and then Kimba's, kingdom. So how did the white lions actually come to "make the break" with the human world and settle in the jungle? And whatever became of those carefully preserved hides of generations of Kimba's ancestors?

We learn here that the hides have been zealously guarded for an undetermined period of time by Kimba's sister Leona (Sonia Owens). This is a radical simplification of the much gnarlier scenario presented in JUNGLE EMPEROR. Tezuka introduced Leona as Kimba's aunt, who had decided to stay behind in the native village after Caesar had acceded to the wishes of the local animals and became their ruler. Among the natives, Leona functioned as a cult leader/idol (albeit a more benign one than, say, Puffy Adder), complete with eager acolytes... including Kitty. (Kitty's original role will seem ironic indeed when you learn what transpires during the females' first meeting here.) In JUNGLE EMPEROR, Leona tried without success to convince Kimba to rule alongside her, and the two parted on somewhat less than amicable terms. Such is not the case in "Deserted Village," largely because the village in which Leona resides is now, well, deserted, and Leona, fixated on preserving the tangible evidence of the white lions' past, is perfectly willing to let Kimba leave to fulfill Caesar's dream. Indeed, Leona seems remarkably indifferent to anything going on outside her own tightly circumscribed universe -- rather the opposite of Kimba's expansive intention of civilizing the jungle, but certainly a reflection of the determined single-mindedness that seems to characterize the entire white-lion line. This obsession doesn't really cause problems here, but it certainly will during Leona's second appearance in "The Day the Sun Went Out." That episode is an absolute classic; this one doesn't quite rise to that level, but it's solid enough, despite a few continuity-related hiccups.

Many Kimba eps mix serious doings with slapstick, but the "cocktail" is particularly cockeyed here, thanks to the appearance of the strangest group of humans ever to impose themselves on Kimba's kingdom. No doubt, these folks were introduced to leach some of the starch out of a plotline that was already fairly well stiffened with exposition and the nastiest Kimba-Claw fight to date, but it would have been nice had the Snobbishes of Boston been able to contribute something to the party aside from making general nuisances of themselves (with one notable exception).


For the first time, Claw uses pure guile to try to get the best of Kimba -- and Kimba, bless his trusting heart, gives Claw's gang a clear shot at him, only escaping immediate harm thanks to Speedy Cheetah's disobedience. Then, completely out of "left jungle," in rolls the 1966 version of Pete's Mammoth RV with the exquisitely named Vera Snobbish (Billie Lou Watt), Ignatzo Snobbish (Gilbert Mack), and Ninnie (Sonia Owens) in imperious tow. Usually, Kimba one-shotters with "character-defining" names promise more than they can deliver, but (Ig) not so these Snobbishes; they are a hoot. Even their hapless retainers Rocky (Ray Owens) and Rollie (Mack) and the incongruously Southern-accented Chef D'Oeuvre (Ray Owens) are cleverly and humorously characterized, in both voice and dialogue. And, wonder of wonders, Ninnie appears to recognize that Western pop music has progressed well beyond the Twist by this time!

We once again get mixed signals regarding Kimba and friends' ability to converse with humans. Rocky and Rollie appear to have a delayed reaction to Kimba's verbalization (perhaps their brief, unexplained dance lifted them to a "higher state of consciousness" or something?), while Vera doesn't appear to regard her talk with Kimba as being unusual at all ("This lion can talk to me... but of course, I'm so well bred!"). Generally speaking, the Snobbishes aren't actually as haughty as their name would seem to imply, but perhaps Vera's failure to invite the "common" Speedy inside the RV reflects a certain class bias. Ignatzo bridges the gap nicely as he displays his kindly nature for the first time, unwittingly foiling his mother's plan to bring Kimba home with her...

...and then the drugs kick in. After the brief celebration of Frug-ality, Leona makes her memorable first appearance. The dramatic meeting of brother and sister might have taken place a lot sooner had it occurred to Kimba -- as it apparently did not -- that the Kickapeel village discovered by Livingstone and described by Roger Ranger in "Journey into Time" was the very same "deserted village" seen here. Even if Kimba had no way of knowing that a relative of his still lived there, wouldn't he have been just a bit curious as to the location of those hides? For her part, Leona seems to be completely unaware of her brother's activities taking place right next door. Unless she has been living as a complete hermit, I should think that she would have learned something by this time, if only by a chance encounter with one of Kimba's subjects. Or perhaps the animals in Kimba's kingdom have maintained some sort of long-standing taboo against going to the village; I don't know.


Eeeeeerowwww! Sexual tension rears its ugly maned head, and I'm not talking "palpitations of the heart"! But why was Kitty in the village in the first place?

There is a certain poignancy to Leona's tale of how Caesar left the village and took up the mantle of jungle lord. Recall that the descendants of Ur-Kimba had been in that village and protecting the natives for literally thousands of years. While it's certainly understandable that Caesar might feel the need (and responsibility) to rejoin the animal kingdom, I certainly don't get the impression that the natives "moved away to the city." More than likely, they were forced to become nomads, leading to the extinction of their way of life. There is a definite "Trail of Tears" vibe to that scene of the long line of natives stretching into an indefinable distance.

Leona says that she "stayed on" after Caesar left in order to care for the hides. Um, I thought that Caesar met Snowene after he had established his kingdom? Perhaps Leona is actually Kimba's step-sister. Leona seems to be considerably older than Kimba, so this is definitely a possibility, though it raises the question of what happened to the putative "first" Mrs. Caesar.

So what "plan" of Claw's did the humans disturb? The one that Kimba already knows about?
After Rocky and Rollie's attempt to capture Kimba leads to them earning another "daze" pay, the drugs kick in again... and they're heavy-duty ones, this time. The Snobbishes' RV suddenly becomes the inverse of a Gabriel's Horn; though it has finite surface area, it apparently has infinite interior volume, or at least volume enough to accommodate several different "Revolutions in Home Appliances" (thanks to conveniently looped animation cycles). I've heard of air conditioners going on the fritz, but never causing the floor to suddenly turn into a sheet of ice! Between the crazy cold snap, the Frugging furniture, and the sudden barrage of lame puns, this definitely qualifies as one of the series' weirdest scenes.

The Kimba-Claw battle that we have been expecting from the beginning of the episode turns out to be the duo's first really brutal one -- a clinch that Kimba only wins by "Samsonizing" his opponent and knocking over a bunch of presumably valuable native artifacts. (Cue Launchpad: "It coulda been worse... it coulda been somethin' new!") The ep glides to Earth with Leona remaining at her lonesome last. I wonder whether the folks who criticize Kimba for "talking to his dead father's hide" are quite as hard on Leona, who has merely dedicated her entire life to watching over a pile of pelts? Even Kimba seems to be a bit distressed at the thought of the life that Leona has to look forward to. Still, as I noted above, the siblings' fates are all of a piece with the white lions' historical sense of dedication to a mission... whether it be externally or internally directed.

Up next: Episode 20, "Restaurant Trouble"

Some Job News

Stevenson doesn't have tenure but I've just received the local equivalent of sorts -- a five-year contract. I will also be applying for promotion to Full Professor at the end of the Fall Term.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S UNCLE $CROOGE: THE MYSTERIOUS STONE RAY by Carl Barks and CASH FLOW by Don Rosa (May 2011, kaboom!)

This double-barreled, handsomely-packaged release pairs one of Carl Barks' early UNCLE $CROOGE tales (U$ #8, December 1954) with one of Don Rosa's early $CROOGE adventures (U$ #224, September 1987) -- and, perhaps surprisingly, the Rosa story is much the superior one.

The sole link between these tales is the spindly-shanked, big-beaked figure of a Duckburgian professor with a creepy hankering for cabbage, a bent for misanthropy ("There are too many masters in the world already, and not enough friends!"), and a certain tendency to neglect "the big picture." In Barks' "Stone Ray," the prof is hunkered down on a remote island with his stone-strewing scintillator, petrifying The Beagle Boys when they come to pillage the island (in one of the earliest indications that they are not 100% devoted to attacking Scrooge's fortune all the time). One Beagle escapes and manages to send out a message in a bottle, which the Ducks improbably find at exactly the moment when Scrooge is ordered to "travel to a windy place" to flush the gold dust out of his feathers. This is but the first of a number of contrived points that make the story one of Barks' wobbliest early $CROOGE efforts. Deleted panels from the story, reprinted here with accompanying commentary by Geoffrey Blum, indicate just how difficult it must have been for Barks to piece his storyline together in anything like an adequate fashion. Unfortunately, he was unable to fix one really bad gaffe; the professor turns off his machine while talking to Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L, apparently forgetting that this will allow The Beagle Boys to recover and take over the ray. I'm sure that Barks didn't mean to send the message that single-minded paranoia is always preferable to friendliness insofar as keeping up one's guard is concerned. Of course, it could be that the professor knew all along that he had the ray's ignition key in his pocket, but couldn't The Beagles then have overpowered their foes by sheer physical force and gotten hold of it? I don't see any ingenious Money Bin-style traps in the vicinity to even the odds. The artwork is beautiful, but the content is lacking, and it's rare that one can say that about a mid-50s Barks story.

Rosa brings back the cabbage-loving prof at the start of "Cash Flow," but only as a means of helping The Beagle Boys get their paws on a new invention, the "Neutra-Friction Ray." The Beagles bribe the prof with promises of cabbage and run off with their new toy to slip-slide their way past Scrooge's Bin defenses. The prof's oversight in "Stone Ray" makes it a little easier to accept the fact that he's forgotten about The Beagles, but it's still a bit tough to buy; a character as hypersuspicious as he would surely have stored them in a somewhat more easily accessible sector of his memory bank. Once the contrived set-up is out of the way, however, the tale takes off as a classic Scrooge vs. Beagles battle, with Rosa taking full advantage of his engineering background to craft funny/plausible physical scenarios. In stark contrast to his approach in "The Universal Solvent," he also gives the Ducks themselves plenty to do as they desperately try to stop the greasy goons from hitting liquefied paydirt. There's a hint at the start that Scrooge has this particular challenge coming to him; he brags about his youthful exploits to HD&L (as a coin-shoveling Donald snorts in the shadows) with even more self-satisfaction than usual, and, after brushing aside a "more typical" assault by the frustrated Beagles, he describes the crooks' threat to him as "ancient history." In the friction-free fight that follows, Scrooge, of course, is reduced to begging for assistance from Donald -- who extracts a promise of a rich reward that, not surprisingly, is foiled in the end. This is Rosa at his early best -- crafting a traditionally-themed story with a decidedly novel approach and relying on characterization, rather than spectacle, to buttress his work.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE: "RACE TO DEATH VALLEY" by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Press, 2011)

High-quality newspaper comic-strip reprint projects have become so commonplace in recent years that there may be an unconscious tendency among some readers to simply lump Fantagraphics' new FLOYD GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY in with the crowd. This temptation should be avoided with extreme prejudice. Of all the comics libraries I've seen, this one has by far the most complete and diverse collection of ancillary material. The intrigue of reading the earliest (1930-1931) MICKEY MOUSE strips (including a number written by Walt Disney himself) in restored and remastered form would have been reason enough to pick this book up, but the essays, commentaries, character sketches, and archival features all add immeasurably to one's appreciation of Gottfredson, the creator who invented the funny-animal adventure genre. Only some of the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS collections come close to this in terms of being a "total package." I'm glad to see Fantagraphics, which has dropped the ball badly on ancillaries in its COMPLETE PEANUTS series and has relied a bit too heavily on previously existing material in its POPEYE collection, taking the hint from IDW and rising to the challenge in the increasingly heated "reprint wars." Hopefully, the company will continue the trend in the upcoming Carl Barks collections.

The volume includes the pre-Gottfredson continuity-of-sorts "Mickey Mouse on a Desert Island" by Disney, Ub Iwerks, and Win Smith, but fittingly stows it away in the archival section. Instead, the first Gottfredson-influenced continuity, "Mickey Mouse in Death Valley," receives pride of place. Once Floyd takes over the writing duties from a too-busy Disney, the classic strip slowly begins to emerge, though, at this early stage, Gottfredson is just as interested in learning how his characters operate as in putting them through adventurous paces. "Death Valley" and the gypsy-infested "The Ransom Plot" are the only continuities here that can even tangentially be described as "exotic." Most of the rest of the action is set in and around the city that would become Mouseton and is rooted in quasi-domestic situations that could easily have arisen in contemporary cartoons: Mickey becomes a circus roustabout, tutors a laid-back boxing champion, helps Clarabelle Cow run a boarding house, etc. When he is responsible for dialogue as well as plotting, Gottfredson at first has a distinct tendency to overwrite, but he seems to be getting this tic under control by the volume's close.

The Mickey we see here is a slightly tamer version of the scrappy rapscallion of the early shorts, with one glaring exception. "Mickey Mouse vs. Kat Nipp" finds Mickey determined to best a pugnacious newcomer to the neighborhood by fair means or foul; a most disreputable battle of wits results. The scenario is a bit like Barks' Neighbor Jones stories in that Mickey more or less welcomes the antagonism and thus can be held at least partially responsible for a number of the things that subsequently befall him. Any number of cartoon stars have been made to look bad in this manner, of course, but seeing Mickey lean so precipitously over the "jackhasm" takes some getting used to!

Butch, a reformed moak who serves as Mickey's uncouth-yet-lovable pal in several 1931 stories, will no doubt be unfamiliar to a number of casual readers, but it's worth considering how the strip -- heck, how the history of Disney -- would have evolved had this character had more staying power. As it was, Butch sneaked his way into a publicity picture that was advertised in the strip and subsequently given away in the thousands, indicating that his fate was at a "tipping point" of sorts. He also appeared at the start of the "Circus Roustabout" continuity but then abruptly vanished, not to be seen again for many decades. What would have happened had Butch really caught on? Would the retention of Butch have meant that Goofy would never have been created? How would Butch's "dem, dese, and dose" patois have worn with audiences, compared with Goofy's hick accent? Would the fact that Butch was an ex-villain have ultimately been suppressed and Butch turned into a generic "lovable lug," only to have some "alternate-universe fanboy" later rip the scab off "the awful truth"? So might we speculate on how the history of America might have been altered had the Pilgrims landed on Manhattan Island, as they were supposed to.

Regarding the extras: The essays are a nice balance of single-story intros (by David Gerstein), reflective pieces (by Thomas Andrae), personal appreciations (by Warren Spector and Floyd Norman), and "out-there" esoterica ("interviews" with the cartoon stars). Among the particularly precious paraphernalia are some original penciled roughs by Gottfredson, the model sheet on which Ub Iwerks sketched the first images of Mickey and Minnie, and a cavalcade of covers from foreign reprint books, mostly Italian (I now begin to understand why Mussolini was so unwilling to ban the strip in Italy). There are thumbnail biographies of all the creators associated with the strip during this period, but, if you want to know exactly who was responsible for penciling and/or inking a specific strip, you'll only find that information in the table of contents. Likewise, it would have been interesting to have learned more about specific non-Disney creators who influenced Gottfredson's approach and humor style. For example, Gottfredson once cited the appearance of the black children "The Blots" in the strip JERRY ON THE JOB as having given him the germ of the idea that led to The Phantom Blot. It appears to me, however, as if that strip may have also influenced Gottfredson's frequent use of "nutty" background gags and signs -- perhaps even MICKEY's early style of lettering. Perhaps this connection should be explored in the future.

The GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY is off to a grand start and I dole out "gobs of good wishes" to everyone involved in the project.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Comics Review: DUCKTALES #2 (June 2011, kaboom!)


We now have the first tangible evidence that DUCKTALES will continue beyond the initial four-issue arc. I don't know how to take this news, to be frank. Obviously, I'm glad that Boom! is committed to the title's success (and, given the reasonably good direct-market sales of DT #1, they have pecuniary reason for so being). But Warren Spector has a L-O-N-G way to go to convince me that he can craft a decent comic-book adventure.

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Part two of "Rightful Owners" is a little more coherent than part one, but mostly because all the action takes place on the island of Rippon Taro, where Scrooge has gone to return the Candy-Striped Ruby (sic -- insofar as DuckTales is concerned, anyway). The whole premise of Scrooge bringing treasures back to their places of origin deserved more of a globe-girdling approach than the one taken here -- and the chapter ends with Scrooge, HD&L, Webby, and Launchpad apparently no closer to getting off the island than they were at the start. The big problem with the concurrent "Stranger Danger" in CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS has been that Ian Brill's narrative has moved too quickly, without enough meaningful connective tissue between parts. Here, by contrast, the plot's "feet" appear to be mired in a bog of the sticky peanut butter that Rippon Taro's sweets-loving King Fulla Cola likes so much. Spector does realize that Scrooge has only two parts to go and about umpty-ump hundred treasures to return, correct?

Battling Scrooge et al. for the prized peppermint pebble are Camille Chameleon and a gaggle of Beagle Boys looking and sounding like no Beagles I've ever heard or seen. The Beagles look, on occasion, a bit like the DT Beagles (I'd recognize Bankjob's humongous chin anywhere), but Jose Massaroli and Magic Eye Studios (sharing the artistic duties again -- and it's dreadfully easy to notice where they "exchange the ball"; see below) more often than not fall back on the tried-and-true clone approach. Given that Spector is trying to blend together the DT, Barks/Rosa, and Darkwing Duck "universes," this is not so offensive, but, if it's the approach used, then a Beagle who is obviously not Baggy should not be referred to as Baggy. And the B-Boys' "dem, dese, and dose" dialogue is way off the beam, unless they have all suddenly morphed into Bouncer or something.

As for Camille, given that her shape-shifting shtick is needed to fool Scrooge's gang during the course of the story, I suppose that she was a logical villain to use here -- but what are we to make of the fact that Launchpad can't recognize her voice? So, will the "mega-crossover event" promised to begin in DT #5 be taking place before or after the events of "Darkly Dawns the Duck"? If the former, then how will Spector explain away the meetings of characters who shouldn't have met yet? I do hope he's thought things over carefully -- though, based on the available evidence, I wouldn't exactly be willing to bet big money on it. I am also bothered by the fact that Camille's plan relies on her shape-shifted alter ego being able to convince the natives of Rippon Taro that Scrooge is a bad guy. No matter which version of "The Status Seeker(s)" you choose to pay obeisance to, I think that Scrooge's well-established good-guy credentials with King Fulla Cola should have short-circuited this scheme from the off.

One area in which Spector has remained rock-solidly consistent is in his depiction of "Webby the Scold." Yup, we get yet another scene in which Webby righteously reduces a chagrined HD&L to simmering silence, this time after they make a crack about taking Scrooge's yacht back from the Beagle Boys being "man's work." I suppose the boys were asking for it there, but for them to then completely defer to Webby in the execution of her plan is out of character. Rather, I would expect HD&L to agree to cooperate with Webby in the crafting and/or polishing of a plan. So, ya think Spector is trying to make a point here? Me, too.

The save-the-yacht scheme (which involves that pesky jellyfish, who's still hanging around hoping to pick off some candy) is accompanied by a jarring shift in art style, back to the style used in the first dozen or so pages of DT #1. Perhaps these two pages were Leonel Castellani's work, but Castellani didn't get credit for it. That isn't the worst of it, as Launchpad's attempt to land his plane in the jungle on page 19 suddenly becomes Colorforms time, complete with bigger panels and weaker figure drawing. I've resigned myself to the fact that Miquel Pujol is not in our artistic future, but couldn't we find one artist -- one single artist -- and stick with him? (Sorry for momentarily channeling Gadget, there.)

"What will the heroes do? What will the villains do?" asks Spector in the final caption box. As a cliffhanger, this is, to say the least, lacking, and it may also reflect Spector's uncertainty as to what he is trying to do. He had better pull things together quickly, or this golden opportunity to produce a high-quality DuckTales comic may go glimmering, independent of any editorial decisions.

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 18, "The Runaway"

We're back -- and it's time to get your emo on as we meet Gargoyle G. Warthog (Gilbert Mack), unquestionably Kimba's most schizophrenic one-shot visitor. Unlike Rancid Reekybird of "The Magic Serpent," Gargoyle, though goofily endearing at times, essentially brings a lot of the grief he suffers on himself, thanks to his absolute conviction that he's the ugliest creature alive. He doesn't openly threaten Kimba's rule, but, like later one-shotters Wiley Wildcat ("The Wild Wildcat") and Silvertail ("Silvertail the Renegade"), he poses an indirect threat to "the prince's peace." The manner in which he redeems himself is, quite frankly, a bit contrived, spinning as it does off of an out-of-left-jungle McGuffin ("The Animal of the Year Award") that is presented with much fanfare but basically did not really need to be introduced in the first place. Kimba is off his best form as well, planning questionable traps and defeating a one-shot menace (a bunch of anarchic mandrills called The Howler Gang) thanks more to sheer luck than anything else. You must admit, however, that, whether Gargoyle engages your rooting interest or irritates you beyond all reason, he will be remembered well after the ep's action has been forgotten.


The opening scenes with Gargoyle set the tortured tone: it's as if the souls of Goofus, Gallant, and a Wachowski Brother have all been poured into one pint-sized, wart-covered body. Gargoyle's relationship with the cute Wildey Boar (Sonia Owens) and his willingness to help Bucky with the fledgling post office show his tender and thoughtful side, his willingness to absorb punishment from Speedy Cheetah (Sonia's voice sounds even more Jimmy Stewart-like here than it did in "Fair Game"), Samson's dumber brother (Ray Owens), and the mama monkey (Sonia again) show his sadomasochistic side, and his viperish snapping at and fighting with the baffled Kimba display his nasty side. Even if Gargoyle didn't resent Kimba for being handsome, I think that he probably would have found some reason for internal turmoil and discontent. Some folks are simply like that. We are probably fortunate that he wasn't also a vampire.

When Mrs. Warthog (Sonia -- if ever she deserved an on-screen credit, it was here) is improbably "delivered" to Kimba's lair, we learn that Gargoyle has run away from home, but how long has he been hanging around Kimba's kingdom? Bucky, Dan'l, and Kimba seem to know him already, but only Dan'l seems to be fully aware of (and concerned about) Gargoyle's internal demons. Dan'l "older and wiser" status probably accounts for his ability to pick up on Gargoyle's mixed signals, but Kimba's comparative cluelessness indicates that he still has a ways to go regarding fully understanding the souls of his subjects. Tangible external threats and moralistic lectures on "proper behavior" are one thing, characters who bring their own demons with them quite another. When the alienated Wiley Wildcat happens along 10 eps down the line, Kimba proves better able to handle him (albeit in somewhat unorthodox ways). Perhaps his previous experience with Gargoyle was helpful in that regard.


Having already established their ability to "explain away" obvious on-screen fatalities, the Titan crew was clearly up against it when presented with Gargoyle's SM bent. I think they handled it fairly well. The bass-clarinet-based "Gargoyle's Theme" already served to lighten the tone, and the Titan gang kept the accompanying dialogue just a bit frothy ("You must be cracked!" sounds pretty benign to me, given Gargoyle's behavior). This made Gargoyle's ultimate breakdown and angry fight with Kimba seem all the more shocking.

The "jungle post office" was a throwaway detail in JUNGLE EMPEROR, and this is the only TV episode in which it figures prominently. The animals' later complaints about "breaking the law" regarding the delivery of mail shows just how "civilized" Kimba's kingdom has become by this time.

I'd take the Animal of the Year Award a bit more seriously if the "contest" for the award had lasted a bit longer than a day or two. That leaves a LOT of potential ballots uncounted, if you know what I mean.

It's a shame that The Howler Gang only made this one appearance. Their "we just want to watch the jungle burn" approach would have provided a good complement to the "foes with plans" (Claw's gang, Tonga) and the "internal opponents of Kimba's ideas" that dominated the antagonists' lineup. They seem to provide a pretty stiff physical challenge for Kimba, too, if only due to sheer numbers. But where are their number plates?

Given Mrs. Warthog's obvious affection for her schizoid son, Mrs. Boar's (Billie Lou Watt) crude insult may actually be the first time that Gargoyle has BEEN openly dissed in his life. Here is where most viewers will put aside the puzzlement and start rooting for him to prove himself -- though he will need one additional kick in his ovoid buttocks before he's ready to do so.

Really, Kimba... a hole in the ground covered with detritus is the BEST you can do against the Howlers? Do you expect all of them to fall into the pit like dominoes? You can hardly blame Gargoyle for messing up the trap. The excuse that Gargoyle "[wanted] to hide his ugly face" and flung himself in comes off as exceptionally lame (Gargoyle wasn't with the other animals when they made the trap, so how would he know where it was?) and almost an apology for an uncharacteristically feeble effort by Kimba.


After some tough love from Mrs. Warthog, we are now REALLY on Gargoyle's side, even unto supporting what amounts to a kamikaze mission against the Howlers. Kimba's comment about Gargoyle losing his chance to win the medal strikes me as remarkably short-sighted. I mean, he's just seen Gargoyle slapped down by his own previously-devoted mother; can't he say something a bit more compassionate?

The scene with Gargoyle and Wildey is really affecting. Wildey's plaintive "Please don't do that" as Gargoyle mashes his face into the rocks packs far more of a punch than any hysterical remonstrance would have. Then, Wildey's pitiful request for help seems to awaken Kimba to the true psychological importance of what Gargoyle is going through; he winds up pitching into the mocking Howlers in a positively Gargoyle-esque fashion. Some of the Howlers' rough treatment of Gargoyle was cut from the American dub (it can be found on the Extras disc in the Kimba Ultra Edition), but what remains on screen is nasty enough and makes me wish that Kimba had truly beaten up the gang, as opposed to driving it off through the fortuitous intervention of some angry bees. Amusingly, Kimba and Gargoyle are seen covered with nasty-looking sting marks in one scene, but Kimba is welt-free a second or two later. Ah, the therapeutic effects of the triumph of virtue.

We finish with a congrats-all-around scene very much like that of "The Magic Serpent," aside from the superfluous intervention of that doggone medal. Rancid didn't need any bauble to convince him to help Kimba and the birds against Puffy Adder. The coda does come with a good "sting in the tail" (sorry, I still have bees on my mind) thanks to the comments by Mrs. Boar. Hypocritical much? A good episode, on balance... and the "swinging version" of "Gargoyle's Theme" at the very end is a very fitting symbol of Gargoyle's new-found confidence and inner peace. He would appear off-and-on throughout the remainder of the series, but never as more than a background figure. The essential battle had, after all, already been won.


Up next: Episode 19, "Mystery of the Deserted Village."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Comics Reviews: MICKEY MOUSE #309 and WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #720 (June 2011, kaboom!)



All credit to Boom! for figuring out a way to squeeze the most out of its last two "classic Disney" comics releases. The second part of Romano Scarpa's adventure "The Treasure of Marco Topo" (1984) wasn't originally supposed to be in WDC&S #720, but the company wisely bumped a previously announced feature so as to slip Scarpa's entire story under the wire before the guillotine fell. (Those metaphors aren't mixed, they're positively tangled!). The last-minute switch actually wound up making a whole lot of sense, as Scarpa's tale, with its clever and entertaining crossover of the Duck and Mouse "universes," frankly deserved to appear in WDC&S, the omnibus comics title par excellence. "Here's to the greatest bunch of characters I know!" Mickey declares at the end of "Topo." If this is, in fact, fated to be the last original line of dialogue ever delivered in WDC&S, then it would be hard to come up with a more fitting one.

These last two issues' return to the "first principles" of Disney comics -- create funny and memorable characters, let 'em bounce off of one another, and watch what happens -- stand in marked contrast to Boom!'s original plans for these titles. WDC&S and MICKEY MOUSE both began life at Boom! as wholly unrecognizable entities -- WDC&S as the home of the Ultraheroes, MM as the home of WIZARDS OF MICKEY. Both "New Directions" were actually somewhat faithful to the spirits of the titles that housed them, just in completely off-the-wall ways. Once ULTRAHEROES and WOM split off to go their merry way (assuming that full-scale power-dives into the Earth's surface qualify even tangentially as "merry"), Boom! caught lightning in a bottle with Casty in WDC&S and kept MICKEY readable with a generally good mixture of new and old material. It wasn't enough to save the day, but "Topo" allows Boom! to cede its control of these titles with a considerable amount of grace.

The story of Mickey's search for a golden gondola ornament hidden in Venice by his ancestor Marco Topo contains surprisingly little "real" action -- at least, less than originally seems to be promised by a European treasure jaunt involving Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Scrooge, Brigitta MacBridge, Pete, Trudy Van Tubb, and The Phantom Blot. (Where are Donald and his Nephews, you ask? Let co-scripter Joe Torcivia enlighten you on that point himself.) A good portion of Part One is taken up by Mickey's wordsmithing neighbor's translation of Marco Topo's diary, and, once the gang gets to Venice, all of the action takes place in a single square in the city's Getto Novo district. Scarpa does pay good attention to local color in setting the action during the Carnival of Venice and using a real podium in the square as a key marker in the search for the ornament, but I rather wish that "The Maestro" had made use of a few more locations in his native city. What makes the story work are the believable interactions between the characters -- and here, Joe and David Gerstein shine. Everyone gets something to do (though The Blot spends most of his time skulking around in the background and muttering to himself before making one big push for the McGuffin near the end), and everyone is written perfectly in character. It "feels" very much like a modern-day version of the Gold Key PHANTOM BLOT comic, in which the writers effortlessly mixed and matched various characters to extremely good effect.

There are a couple of weak spots in the plot that Joe and David, try as they might, can't quite manage to paper over. If the spirit of Marco Topo is doomed to hang around the square until some descendant finds his ornament, then shouldn't Marco have made double-extra sure that his descendants would be able to find the instructions for locating the ornament a bit more easily? Even Mickey would have had a hard time finding Topo's diary had Pete not crushed The Mouse's newly-inherited "18th-century cupboard" with a steamroller and revealed the precious parchments "hidden in the paneling." At least Topo doesn't appear to particularly regret his foolishness, even getting into the spirit of the Carnival revelers who enjoy playing pranks on Mickey and his friends. A more serious (and frankly annoying) issue arises when the Carnival-goers greet Mickey's gang as...

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... stars of a reality series back home. Oog! Here, Joe and David were trying to make sense of the obvious fact that the Venetians clearly recognize Mickey and his gang as "celebrities" of some sort. However, I would have tried to tie the explanation into previously established Disney material, as opposed to riffing on The Jersey Shore. How about regarding the House of Mouse short cartoons as "reality TV" of a sort... or DuckTales as "The Further Adventures of the Famous Scrooge McDuck with a Camera Along"? We could then explain the presence of Trudy and Brigitta by positing that they appeared in "later seasons" of HOM and/or DT -- seasons that we unlucky denizens of "Earth Prime" never got to see but the inhabitants of "Earth-Disney" did. Anything is preferable to trying to figure out which of the cast members of Calisota Shore corresponds to "Snooki."

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Picked nits aside, this was a most delightful way to conclude Boom!'s tenure on the "classic Disney" titles. Uh... over to you, Stan? (And I don't mean Blather.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #13 (June 2011, kaboom!)

Now you're up against it, Darkwing. Your traditional-title cohorts are blowing the kaboom! popsicle stand (with the last one for the foreseeable future, WDC&S #720, being released just this week), and your sole remaining compadre in the Disney-comics corral is sporting a rather spavined look at the moment. You'd better be ready to flap and terrorize for all you're worth to keep your own title alive. At least Ian Brill and James Silvani are showing confidence that they'll be around for a while; they even go so far as to introduce a brand-new supervillain in this standalone issue's aptly titled "Done in One." And a decidedly "screwball" foe he is...

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The point-to-point tale of crazed simian relief pitcher Carmichael Q. Anthony (there must be a pop-culture reference in there somewhere... can anyone help?) is a refreshing relief from the character-choked, albeit entertaining, epics we've previously seen in this title. As a gimmick villain, he's certainly worthy of standing with such oddball infrequenters as Lillyputt and Splatter Phoenix. However, we may yet learn that his descent into obsessed madness as the junk-chucking One-Shot is in fact connected to a previous story, namely, "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings." Where else would CQA have gotten a coat that allows one to pull flotsam out of other dimensions... and that appears to tip the mind-muddled monkey over the mental edge? For all we know, all that stuff came from the immediate vicinity of the Universal Plug, but with some higher intelligence guiding it to Anthony. Is this Negaduck's way of once again making his putrid presence felt?

Surprisingly little is made here of Morgana's disappearance in DW #12, apart from Darkwing's futile attempts to contact her via psychic means at the beginning of the story. Once Launchpad and Gosalyn (1) bring the presence of One-Shot to the depressed DW's attention and (2) remind him of Morgana's "putatively last" request that he "always be himself" (simply watching several hours of cartoons at a stretch would have gotten that message across just as efficiently!), it's exaggerated action to the fore and Morgue to the rear of DW's consciousness -- at least until One-Shot is shunted to the pen (I had to use at least one baseball pun, didn't I?) and DW decides to make Morgana proud of him by... running for mayor? Apart from the obvious peril inherent in letting DW run any major operation, wouldn't this gambit completely obliterate his existence as Drake Mallard, obliging him to be in DW-mode all the time and at all hours? (Though I will admit that the whole "terror that flaps in the night" business has occasionally seemed to be strictly optional in this title.) Somehow, I suspect that the Darkwing I know wouldn't bounce back from the loss of Morgana quite this quickly. He wouldn't necessarily turn into Darkwarrior Duck, but the "recovery curve" would be steeper than this. Hopefully, in the midst of all the politicking and mud-slinging (none by One-Shot, however!), DW will keep "the search for Morgana" in the front of his easily-distracted mind.

Brill and Silvani continue to wrought well in this title, and a good thing, too -- their share of the load is about to get considerably heavier.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DVD Review: TANGLED (Disney, 2010)

It took me a while to catch up with Disney's 50th animated feature, but the wait was worth it, for the most part. Tangled, Disney's take on the tale of Rapunzel, was in preparation for a time as "long, long" as Rapunzel's golden tresses and wound up costing the studio over $250 million, but I would argue that the delay was the best thing that could have happened to the finished product. Its somewhat irreverent tone and mix of thematic elements owe a considerable debt to Shrek, but, by virtue of the fact that the film was in production for so long, the creators had ample time to winnow out the gross excesses and sillier anachronisms that plagued the later installments of the Shrek franchise. The finished product is fresh and contemporary, yet still recognizably "Disney" in its overall attitude and sense of "Heart."

I can't really call Tangled an innovative movie; those keeping score of the standard Disney-feature cliches will wind up filling in all the blanks on their paper. ("Forest rat" hero Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) at least relieves us of worries over one of the most prominent expectations by spilling the beans before the plot even gets started.) It's hard to tell exactly when or where the action is taking place; the kingdom of spirited-away princess Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is reassuringly medieval, but the palace guards wear Roman helmets and gear, the king and queen hoist vaguely Chinese floating lanterns as part of a ceremony commemorating their daughter's disappearance, and the local grog shop, the Snuggly Duckling, is filled with barbarians, Vikings, grand pianos, and humanoids who defy classification (the little guy with the beard and the bad teeth rather creeped me out). This "throw it all at the wall" approach works primarily because overt anachronisms are kept to a minimum. The dedicated horse Maximus -- part bloodhound, part posse, part Lassie, and all ham -- winds up outperforming all of the human characters, and without speaking a word of dialogue. (Think Prince Phillip's horse from Sleeping Beauty, only about 10 times more so.) The songs are pleasant but generally unmemorable.

Tangled is not a front-rank classic but will, I think, be fondly remembered in the coming years. And if Rapunzel is not initiated into the Legion of Disney Princesses in due course, well, I have a frying pan and I'm not afraid to use it...

Book Review: AMONG THE TRUTHERS by Jonathan Kay (Harper, 2011)

This was my main "down-time" reading matter during the Daytona trip -- and such a compelling read that I wound up reading the whole thing several times...


Every month, when a full moon is in the sky, Michael Medved presents his regular "Conspiracy Day" show, opening the airwaves to callers with all sorts of theories about "the hidden forces that shape our lives." This may sound akin to handing a baby a loaded gun, but Medved is of the opinion that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" and gives callers every reasonable chance to state their cases. So, too, did Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay when he tried to meet "Truthers," "Birthers," disbelievers in vaccines, and manufacturers of other conspiratorial confections on their own terms and understand where their views originated. The result is an ideologically balanced, eye-opening, and frequently alarming book that should be read by anyone who is concerned about the level of political and social discourse in America.

Kay provides important backstory about the development of conspiracism in Western societies, particularly the U.S., tracing many of the essentials of modern conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Bilderberg Group, the JFK assassination, and so forth to a basic template set down in the notorious PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION. Since the PROTOCOLS have long since been "outed" as a forgery, Kay suggests that the work be used as the basis of a college-level educational process that familiarizes young people with the details of conspiracy theories and how to recognize them. I'm not sure that a full-fledged "anti-conspiracist curriculum" would be tenable, but surely this would be a good idea for a freshman seminar. But even that approach may be subject to built-in dangers; Kay identifies postmodern academic modes of thinking as "accessories to Trutherdom" (along with the spread of modern media, particularly the Internet, and the rehabilitation of anti-Semitism on the Left in the guise of "anti-Zionism"), and an anti-conspiracist course would have to distinguish between healthy skepticism and self-examination on the one hand and outright nihilism on the other in order to achieve its desired goals. Strangely, given his belief that education is the key to combating conspiracism, Kay provides no footnotes or bibliography, so anyone who actually wants to try out a course like this is faced with the task of putting together a reading list on his or her own. (Kay has established a blog based on his work; perhaps he and others can build up such a reference list over time. I think it would be most helpful to anyone who wants to pursue Kay's suggestion.)

In Kay's "field guide" to various types of conspiracists, he covers most of the important psychological bases, from the contrarian ("The Crank" -- and those types inhabit the mathematical realm, as well!) to the rabble-rouser ("The Firebrand") to the leftover hippie type ("The Cosmic Voyager"). To his list I would add, "The Overconfident Specialist." How often have we seen individuals with great ability in one field completely toss their common sense to the four winds when they attempt to pronounce on some other topic. Think of various Hollywood actors and actresses' sometimes harebrained ideas about the way the world works, or, even more to the point, academicians' proclamations of "commitment" on matters about which they know little more than the average person but think they know more than they actually do.

Aside from the documentation problem, the major omission in Kay's work is the lack of attention he pays to the question of how/why people abandon the conspiracist mindset. In his final chapter, he argues that it is "impossible" to "talk a conspiracist down" once he or she has bitten on that proverbial blue pill, but, earlier in the book, he also mentions several people who "escaped." A fuller discussion of their experiences would have rounded out the book and given at least some hope to people whose loved ones may have fallen into the conspiracist mindset before an educational program could be put in place to set them straight.

The low ratings that this book has been getting on Amazon should be regarded as a complement to Kay, rather than a condemnation. He has done his job well and has produced a work that should become a standard reference for anyone interested in the development of the conspiratorial mindset, how it can infect rational social and political discourse, and how it can be combatted.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back from Daytona...

... and another bout of AP Statistics Reading. Next year, the show packs up and goes to Kansas City.

I'll be playing catch-up with reviews and such for a while.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK #367 (June 2011, kaboom!)

Reflecting Boom!'s odd treatment of the title, Boom!'s last issue of DONALD DUCK is only tangentially about Donald. Don only figures in a substantial way in the back-up reprint story, William Van Horn's "Tree's a Crowd" (DONALD DUCK #271, June 1989). This eight-pager presents a fairly standard short-story scenario -- a frenzied Donald tries to rid his yard of a tree that is home to various annoying pests and lives to regret the effort -- but punches it over thanks to a generous dash of that good old-fashioned Van Horn wit and energy. The captions are droll ("Donald recovers his aplomb and events resume!"), the gags are lively and physical, and Donald seems almost "cursed," with lightning literally "striking twice" at one point. Bill's artwork is not as polished as it would become, of course -- this story first appeared only a year or so after Van Horn made his somewhat underwhelming debut in a series of one-page gags -- but it's easy to see this lighthearted story as a harbinger of the goofy glories to come. I've been pretty hard on Van Horn's more recent stories, but this was a good choice of tale to go out on, if indeed we are going out into "that not-so-good night."

Pride of place in the issue is tendered to Daan Jippes' redrawing of Carl Barks' JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS tale "Whale of a Good Deed" (HD&L JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS #7, October 1970, original art by John Carey). Donald's contribution to the story is limited to an appearance in the splash panel -- a literal "splash" panel, in fact, with Donald and Scrooge commenting on the effects of a tidal wave that has struck Duckburg. Had the original script of this story been produced today, global warming would probably have been fingered as the ultimate culprit for the disaster. In the more eco-innocent days of 1970, however, it was enough for HD&L and their fellow Woodchucks and Littlest Chickadees to try to save a beached whale. The real intrigue here lies in their adversary: a vicious, mercenary Scrooge, who wants to render the beast into whale oil. This was the second JW story (the first being "Peril of the Black Forest") in which Barks used Scrooge as an eco-villain. I'm of two minds about this approach: it did provide Barks with a strong "hook" for his JW scripts and thereby served to prolong his comics career for a couple of years, but I also think that it is a rare case of Barks reacting to what he thought that his audience might find "relevant." Exchanges with fans reprinted in Michael Barrier's Barks book suggest that Barks decided to amp up Scrooge's nastiness primarily because of fan comments. Unfortunately, the approach quickly became rather mechanical. As an early example of the conceit, this story works rather well, with Jippes' new artwork, as always, adding to the attractiveness quotient (though Carey's art was actually pretty good itself). But the changes to the script are irritating. We didn't need to be told that HD&L were "saving the whales long before it became a cause" in the splash-panel caption; the story itself indicates as much. Similarly senseless is the change of the whale's name from "Muddy Dick" to "Muddy Mick." Unless someone really wanted to shoehorn a Mickey Mouse reference in there, this is an example of censorship of supposedly "offensive" material that isn't really offensive -- that is, if one is up on one's literary history.

The Boom! DONALD, like the Boom! $CROOGE, turned out to be a real mish-mash, though I must confess that I found the "Double Duck" stories to be much more palatable than I thought I would. The unlikely, yet enjoyable, sight of a semi-competent Donald who actually was capable of coming out on top thanks to his own actions was the key ingredient that made the concoction easier to digest. I honestly would like to see more of "Double Duck" (though God only knows what the venue would be). I was less enamored of the "Feathers of Fury" "fase," though the "Tae-Kwon-Duk" stories were good, thanks in large part to Joe Torcivia's scripting. The highlights of the all-too-brief "classics are back" era were Geoff Blum's imaginative "The Saga of Captain Duckburg," the "Pirate Gold" sequel (thanks again, Joe!), and the intriguing "Donald Duck, Special Correspondent," which fit the announced goal of printing rarities to a "rari-T." DONALD was not well served during the "Gladstone II" era, so this has to count as the best version of the title since the reprint-heavy "Gladstone I" days.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

KIMBA KONNECTIONS: PHILLIS: A MUSICAL DRAMA IN THREE ACTS by Billie Lou Watt, music by Martin Newman (Friendship Press, 1967)



Of all the "Kimba Konnections" that I've managed to "korral," this is the prize "maverick" of the lot: a brief historical play, distributed by the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches, that was more than likely written either during the production of Kimba or immediately afterwards. In view of the extensive Production Notes preceding the play, it was evidently intended for performance by church groups or amateur theatrical companies. Unlike other FP plays listed on the inside back cover of the 56-page pamphlet, however, it has relatively little theological/"current events" content, but is instead a pretty straight -- albeit highly simplified and somewhat fictionalized -- recounting of the story of pre-Revolutionary African-American poetess Phillis Wheatley.

The obvious question here is, why Phillis Wheatley? I wish I could tell you, but Watt's Production Notes give no hint. Nor is there a preface explaining the choice of subject matter and how it might be "relevant" to the theatergoers of 1967. The "Black Power" movement was at its peak at the time, but there's very little overt "militancy" in the approach taken here. The only detail that might have been adjusted in response to 1967 realities is the depiction of merchant John Wheatley, the head of the prosperous Boston household that purchases Phillis as a domestic slave in 1761. John and his wife "Mrs. Wheatley" (no, the latter never does get a proper name) have a contretemps over the propriety of owning a slave, and John later questions the efforts of his wife and children to educate Phillis, first on the grounds of Phillis being an African and then on the grounds of her being female. From the evidence that I could gather, however, John Wheatley was supportive of the idea of educating Phillis from the start, as opposed to warming up to the idea later, as he does in the play. I suppose that Watt reasoned that the play had to have a "racial heavy," at least for a while, to resonate with a contemporary audience. (Who knows but that memories of this Kimba episode might have played a role, as well.)



HOW many degrees of separation?

PHILLIS also fudges a bit when it comes to timelines and the poetess' ultimate fate, though the changes are fairly understandable in light of the play's overall positive tone. Phillis was only partially emancipated following the publication of her first volume of poetry, her trip to England, and her mistress' death; her full freedom would have to wait until John Wheatley had died. The premature shackle-busting is set to coincide with the coming of pre-Revolutionary War agitation: the Committees of Correspondence and the like. The intended symbolism is impossible to overlook. Likewise, it's not surprising that Phillis' unhappy "post-Wheatleys" life -- poverty, a husband jailed for debt, and ultimate death in childbirth -- doesn't get treated here. Less understandable is the complete lack of mention of Phillis' first great poem, a tribute to the great Methodist preacher George Whitefield following the latter's death in 1770. The poem that brings Phillis to the attention of Boston's leading lights (and ultimately leads many of them to vouch for her abilities in an Affidavit) is instead "Sons of Liberty." That's a reasonable substitution, but to overlook a significant poem with a religious theme in a play published by a church organization seems a little peculiar.

If Kimba had any sort of influence on the preparation of this play, it probably lies in the music. For such a short play, there are quite a few songs -- eight in all -- and several of them have a certain Kimba-esque feel, none more so than "Someday":

Using " 'way" in place of "away" is a definite Watt-ism; I can't count the number of times Kimba (or, for that matter, Astro Boy) shouted "Go 'way!" to a villain or pest during the series. Obviously, Billie Lou had the advantage of not having to match words to (or cover over) Japanese lyrics here.

Whatever reasons Watt had for writing PHILLIS, she definitely did her homework as it related to small details. Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley address one another quite formally, as husbands and wives were wont to do during the 18th century. Anachronisms, even mild ones, are noticeable by their absence. When the characters dance (and they do, on several occasions), they use dances of the period. The "other American heroes" (apart from the briefly-seen John Hancock) never do materialize, but Friendship Press may be at fault there for providing inaccurate-yet-eye-catching back-cover bumpf.

The genesis of this play will probably remain a mystery, but it's a fascinating curio nonetheless. I wonder how many times it was actually produced -- and whether Billie Lou herself ever tried to do so?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

ASTRO BOY BREAK!: Episode 11, "Strange Voyage"

When I purchased the first "Ultimate" set of Astro Boy DVDs several years ago, I was taking something of a shot in the dark. Not that I hadn't done this sort of thing before -- I purchased two volumes of THE CARL BARKS LIBRARY in 1985 on more or less of a whim. Back then, however, I had at least read some Barks adventures in digest form and was pretty sure that I'd like other Barks stories. In the case of Astro Boy, the presence of the Kimba dubbing cast and my positive impression of one Astro episode were basically all I had to go on. Historical interest, these eps would certainly possess. Consistent entertainment value? I wasn't so sure.

The first 52 episodes of Astro Boy were far more cheaply animated than a polished later effort like "The Terrible Time Gun." An average of only 4500 cells were used per episode. For a science-fictiony adventure cartoon, that didn't seem to promise much in the way of visual excitement. The earliest eps of the series are in fact rather "stiff in the joints" when it comes to action and (not surprisingly) voice performances. It was sheer novelty value, more than anything else, that convinced local stations to purchase the Astro package. With "Strange Voyage," however, the series first began to flash the qualities of "Heart" and thematic sophistication that would come to define it (and which Americans only got to see a portion of; NBC purchased 104 episodes for American distribution, but the Japanese series lasted 193 episodes, with many of the later plots achieving remarkable levels of complexity). The voice acting also begins to "ramp up" right about here, as Ray Owens, Gilbert Mack, and Billie Lou Watt begin to settle into their production routine.

Much like DuckTales, many of the early Astro episodes were based directly upon Osamu Tezuka's manga adventures. "Strange Voyage" was an adaptation of a 1959 tale, "Ivan the Fool," which was inspired by early Soviet successes in lunar exploration. Tezuka drew from H.G. Wells' THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1901) in hypothesizing the existence of a sublimating lunar atmosphere and the existence of exotic plant life that had adapted to the cycle of the lunar day. Arthur C. Clarke's EARTHLIGHT (1955) and Herge's TINTIN story EXPLORERS ON THE MOON (1954) had been kicking around similar ideas earlier in the decade, but Tezuka's take on the notion is particularly clever.

When adapting the story for TV, Tezuka made a small but important change: he relocated the action to a remote asteroid on which Astro and a small band of humans must land after a lunar trip has been aborted. Tezuka also eliminated the subplot in which a rescue ship is dispatched to save the castaways, which forces the group to use their own wits in an attempt to escape their celestial clink. These alterations has the side effect of lending even more emphasis to the subtheme that truly puts this episode "over the top" as a classic: the believable interactions among a diverse group of characters that are forced to cooperate to survive, a la John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). As in Stagecoach, the identities of the "good guys" and "bad guys" are not quite as clear-cut as it appears on the surface... and the ending packs more than its share of "justice served" in a manner that must have seemed shocking indeed to a contemporary audience used to happy, sprightly Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the mock-serious adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, King Leonardo, and others. It is for these reasons that I flag "Strange Voyage" as the first truly great episode of Astro Boy.

Note: This episode has been remade twice: once during the original run of the 1963 b&w Mushi Studios series itself (Episode 142, "Minya's Star") and once in color by Tezuka Productions in 1980 ("The Wreck of the Titan"). The original manga story can be found in Volume 4 of Dark Horse's ASTRO BOY reprint series.


In all other versions of "Strange Voyage," Lucky Louie the Lug (Ray Owens) is a short, dumpy man, while little Marble (Billie Lou Watt) is a young boy. Who knows why? Also, why are all of those men seeing off the haughty Mona Toujours (Watt)? We never learn her profession, but I have some uneasy suspicions on that score...

The opening announcement of "the first commercial flight to the Moon" -- not to mention the Taurus' brief flyby of a space station -- are strongly reminiscent of 2001 (1968). I wonder whether the passengers on the Taurus had the opportunity to enjoy Howard Johnson's cuisine and to "phone home" using The Bell System.

At this stage, Billie Lou Watt's Astro Boy voice is still somewhat "ball-shy." (For an explanation, see here.) Oddly enough, the higher-pitched voice -- which reminds me a bit of the lead singer of the Ran-Dells -- does seem to fit the wider-eyed, more doll-like visual version of Astro that we are provided with here. This would seem "cute," except that Marble (who makes Webbigail Vanderquack seem positively pessimistic and cynical) has already cornered the market in that particular area.

So why wouldn't the gatekeepers be given a physical description of Lucky Louie in case he tried to bluff his way onto the ship? Sometimes, Chief McLaw's (Owens) police force can be as dense as the police forces of Duckburg and St. Canard. The castaways don't get away easily on this score either; the first place that I would look for stolen diamonds would probably be an innocent kid's teddy bear. Blame my suspicions on this Duck story.

Billie Lou Watt does a super job delivering the tape-recorded message from Margo Polo (or Pogo, depending on source), but the time frame posited here seems a bit sketchy. One might be able to buy a mission to Mars "by 1969" -- the "Space Race" was galloping at a speedy enough clip at the time that anything seemed possible -- but a functioning sentient robot, even one as dense as Kris Kringle (Ivan)? Kris' physical appearance betrays the fact that he was designed and built by the Soviets, and, indeed, the female space traveler in the original manga story was a Soviet cosmonaut.

It may seem somewhat surprising that Tezuka would use overt Christian imagery (the cross on Margo's grave), but, in a late episode, the plot centers on a "crying" statue of Jesus! That one did not make the cut for American syndication.

This is one of the first eps in which Astro Boy formally assumes a leadership role, albeit out of sheer necessity. I wonder whether Tezuka was trying to draw an explicit contrast here between the selfless actions of the robot and the all-too-human bickering and "back-going-behinding" of the human cast. At least most of Our Gang wises up in time to make the flight out, with the singular exception of the greedy Rocco Gibraltar (Gilbert Mack). Lucky Louie may wind up in jail once the passengers get back to Earth (and why wouldn't he -- it's not as if his noble actions cancel out his thievery), but he will undoubtedly emerge from durance vile a better man, much like the safe-cracker Scrap in the later episode "Contest in Space." The ending does seem somewhat rushed, but, for 1963, this is a remarkably sophisticated piece of TV cartoonery.

Up next: KIMBA KONNECTIONS presents a musical drama by Billie Lou Watt... and then we return to KIMBA with Episode 18, "The Runaway."