Thursday, October 9, 2014

A POST "DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE" PERSPECTIVE: "The City Under the Ice" (Gladstone DUCKTALES #12, March 1990)

There's a good deal of irony packed into that William Van Horn cover image.  Those of us who remember the original DUCKTALES comics line -- the one that Disney more or less forced upon a reluctant Gladstone Comics in 1988 as a way of promoting the red-hot TV series -- mentally divide the 13 issues that followed into two groups:

(1)  The Disney Studio stories, some of which directly adapted episodes of the series, such as "Armstrong" (DT #1) and "Jungle Duck" (DT #2).

While the adaptations may not have been top-notch, they were pure genius compared to the original Studio stories that followed -- stories that were notorious for gaffes in characterization (e.g., Webby calling her grammy "Mrs. Beakley" in "The Crown Jewels Affair" [DT #4]) and an UTTER, as opposed to a partial, lack of inspiration.  Just about the only things that these issues had going for them were the lively and detailed covers by Daan Jippes.  It certainly wasn't Daan's fault that these eye-catching covers promised adventure and excitement that the stories inside so miserably failed at delivering.

(2) In the back of DT #6, backing up yet another blah Studio lead, was an intriguing bauble that pointed directly to DUCKTALES Mark 2.0: "Coin of the Realm," a ten-page tale written and drawn by Bill Van Horn.  Recall that, up to this point, Van Horn was known to Gladstone readers primarily as "the guy who does the fillers and gag pages."  The former included a couple of humorous GYRO AND LAUNCHPAD four-page stories in DT #4 and 5.  "Realm" was of an entirely different scope and immediately seemed more entertaining than any of the mush and dribble that had been regularly doled out to us.

And so, beginning with DT #7, Van Horn -- with occasional assistance from John Lustig -- began to produce lead stories for the title.  These quickly became so popular that, when Gladstone temporarily reverted to Studio fodder with DT #9's "The Oil Pirates," the dropoff in quality was almost jarringly noticeable.  Van Horn was back on the job in DT #10, producing "The Whistling Ghost," a 16-page feature story that brought back Baron Itzy Bitzy, the whistling flea character that Bill had introduced in one of his non-DUCKTALES efforts.

Van Horn would likewise provide the lead stories for issues #11 and #13, the last of which, "The Billion-Bean Stampede," may well be the most memorable of all of these highly quirky efforts.  For sure, it had the zaniest cover.

These romps are warmly remembered, not least because they cemented the bond of fondness between American Disney comics fans and Van Horn, who, unlike Don Rosa, didn't make a splashy debut, but patiently worked his way up the ladder and amassed good will a bit at a time.  (Somehow, I think that Scrooge would approve.)  And yet... and yet... as enjoyable as these stories were, I think that fan-friend Pete Fernbaugh was correct when he said that they came across as VAN HORN stories more than they did DUCKTALES stories.  Van Horn seemed uninterested in using any original DuckTales creations other than Launchpad.  While Bill handled LP quite well, his approach seemed uncomfortably close to the lazy Studio practice of creating a DT story simply by plugging LP into the Donald slot in an otherwise conventional "Scrooge and the Ducks" narrative.  (The GYRO AND LAUNCHPAD stories, by contrast, didn't seem quite so atypical, primarily because Van Horn knew how to take advantage of Launchpad's nature and abilities in such a specialized setting.) Needless to say, there was never anything conventional about Bill's approach, but, the more he tried to "wacky" things up by dropping in zany rock concert promoters, lively legumes, and so forth, the more his tales got pulled away from anything resembling what DuckTales had given us during its wide-ranging first season.

The bottom line is that neither of the aforementioned groups contain what one might characterize as a legitimately authentic, high-quality comic-book adaptation of the TV series.  Pretty unfortunate for a title that was supposed to be providing readers with the equivalent of the DuckTales animated experience, only on the printed page.  But then, we get to issue #12, which... stands apart.  Boy, does it ever.

During the last several months in which it held the Disney comics license, Gladstone had converted its titles into a double-sized format, the better to pump out as much "classic" material and heretofore unseen overseas delights as possible before the "window of opportunity" closed and the Disney Company took over.  (These included lengthy stories by the Italian great Romano Scarpa, who was a complete revelation to us notoriously insular Americans at the time.)  In DT #12, Gladstone finally took full advantage of the extra space to showcase "The City Under the Ice," a 39-page French story.  I wonder how many folks saw the Van Horn cover, immediately began thinking of the crazy scenarios and gags that "Silly Billy" might be able to stage in that gelid setting, and then really froze up when the first page of "City" displayed "something completely different."

According to Inducks, "City" is the second longest standalone DUCKTALES comic-book story ever produced, trailing only "The Curse of Flabberge," which David Gerstein so memorably "reimagined" for Boom!'s UNCLE $CROOGE during its DuckTales phase.  The creation of the story was very much an international affair. It was written by Frenchman Patrick "Zack" Galliano, whose previous authorial credits included PIF LE CHIEN, a creation of the French Communist paper L'HUMANITE; penciled by the Spanish artist Maximino, who did quite a bit of work for Mondadori, the Italian Disney comics publisher at the time; and inked by the staff of the Barcelona-based Comicup Studio.  Oddly enough, a similar combination of French, Spanish, and Catalan talents worked on "The Curse of Flabberge."  The artwork for "City" is a little rougher and livelier, all things considered.

The "Americanization" of the story was done by Gladstone and Disney Comics stalwart Dwight Decker.  During the Gemstone and Boom! Comics years, we got used to imaginative, reference-packed transformations of the utilitarian English dialogue that was normally provided to scripters.  Even the more sedate efforts along these lines had a touch of class.  (At least, I like to think that I provided one.)  Decker's translation, while sturdy enough, is more of the vanilla variety, though he does throw in a contemporary reference to some briefly famous pop star whom I don't have the time to research right now.  I wonder whatever happened to the guy.

While it certainly doesn't have the sheer scope of "The Gold Odyssey," or even the more modest "Scrooge's Quest," neither is "City" a sprawling, shambolic wreck on the order of "Rightful Owners."  The best praise that I can offer to it -- praise that will seem more meaningful when you consider when this tale was produced -- is that it gets the DuckTales aspects right.  It has a few quirks of its own, but the plot is easily recognizable as one that might have sprung up in an episode of the TV show, the characters involved are bang-on in character, there is a splendid reference to an infamous event that occurred on screen, and there's a pleasing mix of action and humor.  For that reason, I consider "City" to be the first TRULY successful DUCKTALES comic-book story to appear in America, at least when "successful" is interpreted in a strictly DuckTales-oriented context.


We start with that classic McGuffin: a long-lost, well-hidden treasure map.  During the skateboard mishap pictured above, the ambulating Eskimo drops a bone that proves to be hollow.  The map inside points the way to a stark Arctic peak on Chilblain Island where (according to... no, not the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, but a convenient Arctic exhibit at the Duckburg Museum) a legendary "sun of gold" once fell and is now buried beneath the ice, along with the artifacts of a "mysterious civilization."  (Hey, if Golden Sun worship can occur on one peak, then it certainly can on another.)  Unfortunately, the Beagle Boys get wind of the find, as well, thanks to their capture of the unfortunate Eskimo.

Yup, them's the DuckTales Beagles, all right. And they're all in character, too, suggesting that Decker must have been paying attention when he viewed whatever episodes he viewed in order to prepare for this gig.  This should NOT be passed over lightly.  Not after a later story like "The Great Chase" (Disney Comics DT #16, September 1991, written by Frank Ridgeway of "Bermuda Triangle Tangle" fame) gave us the memorable sight of a kick-ass, take-charge Burger and a whimpering Big Time and Bankjob deferring to him. As things turn out, the Beagles of "City" will have far more to offer to the discriminating fan than simply looking and acting as they ought to.

Up in Canada's Northwest Territories, a somewhat headstrong Launchpad gets involved in a fracas at a honkytonk -- it isn't explicity referenced as such, but I think we all know better -- and is bailed out by Walking Mountain, a giant, stone-faced, and inscrutable Native American.  The grateful Ducks invite WM to accompany them to the treasure site... which, when you come to think of it, is rather peculiar.  He turns out to be helpful at various times and utters some (yep) appropriately inscrutable remarks, but welcoming the assistance of a complete stranger was, shall we say, not S.O.P. in the TV adventures... or in Carl Barks' adventures, for that matter.

The heart of the story features the Ducks' journey to the legendary Bear's Tooth peak and the Beagles' various efforts to stop them.  We start with a pretty bog-standard version of the "paper-thin disguise" routine...

 Well, their number plates aren't visible, at least.

... which leads to sabotage, a crash, and an unpleasantly close encounter with a polar bear.  The Ducks get out of the fix when Scrooge resorts to the somewhat extreme tactic of lighting the crashed plane on fire "to scare the bear away."  The Ducks' on-board flares subsequently go off, alerting a passing ship to their presence.  As solutions to dilemmas go, this is closely allied to suicide.  But then, the "Type A" Scrooge of this story would probably be tunnel-visioned enough to try it.  We soon see more evidence of Scrooge's mental state when Scrooge poor-mouths in dramatic style in order to rent a snowmobile at a lower-than-rock-bottom price.  A bit over the top, perhaps, for the Alan Young DuckTales Scrooge, but, hey... it's in character.

Upping the ante, the Beagles track the Ducks' snowmobile with one of their own... armed with a gun, no less.  Chisel McSue would be proud, fellas.  Walking Mountain displays some fancy driving in order to get the gang out of harm's way, but the Ducks soon discover that the Beagles had sabotaged their gas cans back at the Eskimo town.  Left to starve and/or die of cold on the Arctic ice, Walking Mountain suggests a rather unusual tactic to attract animals that could (per the JW Guidebook, which HD&L belatedly consult here) be used for food:

Another in-character moment.  It's easy to imagine Launchpad getting into the spirit of things that way.  Alas, the ululations only serve to "attract" the Beagles' ice-breaking submarine. (Did the Beagles have their working boots on in this story, or what?  Makes some of their feebler second-season efforts seem all the more annoying, doesn't it?)  Thrown into the sub's brig along with the Eskimo, the Ducks have little to do but wait out the ride to the Bear's Tooth.

As the Beagles prep for treasure-hunting, Walking Mountain gets his funniest moment of the adventure:

Thanks to a conveniently placed thin crust of ice, our heroes are sent hurtling down, down... to this:

So, where's the gold?  The Ducks find out when they discover a hidden laboratory, a high-tech sarcophagus, and its completely unexpected owner:

Yes, folks, it's an alien, a Thulian (clever reference, that) who was left behind by an exploration party that had to retreat because of the cold weather.  Inouk was put into the deep freeze with the understanding that his friends would ultimately come back to get him.  The "sun of gold" turns out to have been the golden spaceship that brought Inouk and his people to Earth.  You realize what that means, Scroogie: these guys live on a planet where gold is so common that it can be used to build spaceships -- not the "structural metal" of first choice for me, but to each his (or its) own -- and therefore...

And Scrooge didn't even go through the intermediate stage of hiccuping: he went right to a dead faint.  Any direct reference to "Too Much of a Gold Thing" can't get enough praise from me.  This was the point at which I knew that Dwight Decker had REALLY, REALLY taken his responsibilities seriously. Bless him.

At this point, you're probably wondering whether the story is going to end in the cataclysmic manner of "Gold Thing."  Well, the Beagle Boys are tooling around while operating heavy machinery.  What do YOU think?  

The Ducks' plight isn't as desperate as it was in "Gold Thing," but it comes pretty close.  As if to make up for the shortfall, the mode of the Ducks' salvation is a bit more esoteric than Launchpad flying in the transport plane just in the nick of time.  Here, Inouk flies the gang out of danger using his "golden egg" sarcophagus (which turns out to be a small spacecraft, as well) as the City of Gold, in the manner of its namesake in a Kimba the White Lion episode, collapses into oblivion.  Scrooge takes this development with considerably less grace than he did at the end of "Gold Thing."  Perhaps writer Galliano was letting his inner "L'HUMANITE contributor" out for a little holiday here.

The story's final two pages are a bit displeasing, if only because:

(1) The Beagles are allowed to scuttle away, more or less scot-free.  After that performance, they deserved the dignity of a stay in a luxury high-security prison, at the very least.

(2) Inouk's "rescue ship" just happens to have been located on the Moon all along -- a fact of which Inouk himself appears to have been completely unaware when he went into hibernation mode.  What the heck, was this supposed to be a "monolith test," or something?  Why would Inouk even need one, since his civilization is capable of space travel?

Yeah, I'm just as confused as you are, buddy.

The fact that I have to pick such a tiny nit in order to give "The City Under the Ice" anything less than unqualified praise indicates just how strong this story really is.  It's easy to understand why it sort of flew beneath the radar at the time of its release: Van Horn's multiple stabs at the DUCKTALES lead story naturally left more of an impression than this one-shot, and Gladstone Comics itself was just about to go into its own form of "prolonged hibernation."  But let's give credit where credit is due.  Speaking strictly of DUCKTALES comic-book stories that appeared in America, "City" is one of the very few that can be said to have done full justice to the TV series.

"Golden Sun."  I like the sound of that...




My apologies for making you wait so long to see this.  Hopefully, you'll find the wait to have been worth it.  In my next comics review, we'll catch Disney Comics' DUCKTALES title on a similar back end, so to speak, and look at how the book's 18-issue run ended with Bob Langhans' post-"Gold Odyssey" offering, "A Dime in Time."  Is there any way that Langhans could have lived up to the standard set by "Odyssey"?  We shall see.


Elaine said...

Re: your second nit.... I did not understand Inouk to say that the rescue vessel on the moon had been there all along (i.e. for ten thousand years), just that it was *now* there and was "waiting for my awakening." Not all that clear to me why they were waiting and unable to wake Inouk up themselves...but I still assume that they came to the moon to pick up Inouk relatively recently. (He said, in his earlier explanation of the past, that he expected his friends to come back for him eventually.) And he needs them to come back for him because he can't blast off from the planet himself. To blast off from a planet's surface, at least with their technology of 10,000 years ago, they needed someone to remain on the planet to work the launch controls. One assumes their technology has advanced over the last ten millenia, and they can now leave earth with Inouk without leaving someone else behind!

Pan Miluś said...

That "Offcharacter badass Burger" story you mentioned looks more like artist by mistake drawn Burger in place of Big-Time and vice-versa (and maybe mistaken Bankjob for Bouncer)

Ryan Wynns said...


I'm really glad that someone has finally not just thoroughly covered this story (as you certainly have), but that it's actually been recognized AT ALL. (I've been meaning to review it on my blog literally for years now, but there's really little I could say that you haven't.) Usually, the narrative is "Gladstone did the Disney Studio and then the Van Horn stories, and then Disney Comics did the Wolfman/Quartieri and Langhans/Quartieri serials, which were closer to the TV show", and completely leave out "City Under the Ice". I've long felt it deserves recognition as the first REAL DuckTales comic to appear in the U.S., and now, thanks to you, that recognition has been made. (In my "History of DuckTales Comic Books" series, I specifically skipped past it because I was planning on following up with a post/review spotlighting it. I hinted at this at one point, but then that whole project fell in the rear-view mirror.)

Though the stretchy, exaggerated art is more akin visually to the sitcom second season than the adventure-oriented first, the story itself is by all means deferential to the first. However, it's not stylized to the extent of some of the modern European stories (like some of those featured in Gemstone's digest) that draw the characters with a "boxiness" that brings to mind the 101 Dalmations animated series. The liveliness and energy actually works pretty well as far as capturing the action-adventure dynamics the series was always going for, even if the art isn't as realistic and beautiful as gorgeous. The splash panels are striking and narratively on-beat anyway. I was eight when Gladstone's DT came out, and I distinctly remember being completely engrossed in this story, in true can't-put-it-down fashion. I remember that that month's Cross Talk noted something along the lines of, "The creators have done a good job of capturing the flavor of the series", to which mental reaction was akin to, "Boy, did they ever!"

-- Ryan

Ryan Wynns said...


I remember being very pleased with how accurate the Beagles were in appearance and dialogue-wise. (Kudos to Dwight there.) Interestingly, though the story's original French printing was in 1988, they used the Bigtime-Burger-Baggy-Bouncer configuration, which actually didn't really become common on the series until the second season. By whatever act of fortune, that REALLY worked out well!

I almost want to express some contention on how Launchpad is characterized as a klutz more than he should be (anticipating his dumbed-down Darkwing Duck reincartion, actually), but in the way he's drawn, that mix of swagger and bravado, a big heart, naivete, and aloofness that defined the original conception of the character really comes off. So overall, I approve.

The absence of Webby and to a lesser extent Mrs. Beakley makes this not as first season adventure episode-esque as it could be, in all honesty. My more thick-headed, younger self would've said, "No Webby or Beakley? We're better off for it!" Really, my problem with Webby has always been more how she was used in the marketing and merchandising of the series, making it seem more childish than it actually was. (Some of the Disney Adventures comics followed suit, unfortunately.) The series itself, especially in the first season, found a good, tasteful place for them as part of the cast. If the creators of "City Under the Ice" HAD chosen to use them, I feel they would've achieved a similar balance. Webby and her "grammie" by no means made "Too Much of a Gold Thing" "girlie"; on the contrary, they functioned in at as full-fledged characters. There's no reason they couldn't have had a similar place in this story.

For the record, despite their similar backgrounds, "City Under the Ice" seems to have been a one-shot production (its first printing:, whereas as "Curse of Flabberge" was part of a series of Disney Afternoon-based stories that appeared in a series of specials in Europe (but the special were printed in a different order depending on the country). I covered that series a couple of years ago here:

-- Ryan

Daniel J. Neyer said...

Very good review; I agree with Ryan about Launchpad being somewhat slighted in the story; in my opinion, he should been the driver during the wild snowmobile chase, not Walking Mountain--allowing him some in-character white-knuckle heroics to balance out the bungling he engages in throughout the story.

Other than that, City Under the Ice is definitely the best of the non-Van-Horn stories published during Gladstone's Ducktales run; I recall acting out imitations of this game with my rubber Disney Duck figurines as a five-year-old fan; the ice-slide sequence (which would have looked great in animation) found its way into most of these ripoffs, the ice being represented by various living-room cushions. None of the Jaime Diaz Studios stories were "honored" in this way, so even at that age I must have recognized Ice's superiority.

In re: the Beagles in this story; as Chris noted, they're amusingly in-character and are at the same time effective villains, showing that the Ducktales versions of B-Boys CAN work well, if handled right. I still recall being appalled by that Great Chase story, with Burger taking the lead, when I first read it--and I remember wondering how a grown-up story writer could make such a mistake when any Ducktales-watching kid could spot the mischaracterization in a moment.

The ending of this story, with the space alien arriving to take the heroes to safety at the destructive climax, and meting out justice (of a sort) to the villains (the escaping B-Boys do get loudly "zapped" by Inouk's ship), has always made me think of the Tintin comic Flight 714, in which a Russian scientist and his extra-terrestrial contacts show up to help Tintin and company escape an erupting volcano, and visit punishment on villains who are fleeing by sea. Given that Ice's author was French, and knowing Tintin's popularity in that country, I can't help but think that this part of the story was either consciously or unconsciously influenced by Herge.

Chris Barat said...


If "The City Under the Ice" truly was meant to be a one-shot, then I'm frankly surprised. France and other European countries had DUCKTALES and DISNEY AFTERNOON themed mags at the time; why couldn't LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY have produced more of this type of story to fill the international market? Or was it simply assumed that the "Curse of Flabberge" series was enough?

One other interesting feature of LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY during the DUCKTALES era was a fairly lengthy series of one-page gags featuring Launchpad ("Flagada Jones"). These were probably the French equivalent of those Van Horn GYRO AND LAUNCHPAD gag stories. Perhaps I can reprint and translate some of those for my blog.


Chris Barat said...


"The ending of this story, with the space alien arriving to take the heroes to safety at the destructive climax, and meting out justice (of a sort) to the villains (the escaping B-Boys do get loudly "zapped" by Inouk's ship), has always made me think of the Tintin comic Flight 714, in which a Russian scientist and his extra-terrestrial contacts show up to help Tintin and company escape an erupting volcano, and visit punishment on villains who are fleeing by sea. Given that Ice's author was French, and knowing Tintin's popularity in that country, I can't help but think that this part of the story was either consciously or unconsciously influenced by Herge."

Ha! That never occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense!