Saturday, December 13, 2014

DUCKTALES Fanfic Review: "The Lost Tomb of Pharaoh Sedqaduck" by "Stretch Snodgrass"

And so, we trudge back into the DuckTales fanfic salt mines... or, should I say, the sand dunes!

Needless to say, adventure in desert settings are nothing new to our feathered Disney friends, either in print or on screens both small and large.  Carl Barks' first full-length solo adventure story took Donald and HD&L to a reasonably authentic Egypt, and, when Disney Movietoons decided to mount a DuckTales feature film, writer Alan Burnett spun the plot out of Scrooge's quest to find the lost treasure of Collie Baba.  There are, of course, numerous other examples of the "Ducks in Egypt" trope in both media.

I bring this up because our "writer of interest," one "Stretch Snodgrass," picked a surprisingly well-worn trail on which to follow his muse.  He's not trying to do anything Earth-shattering in "The Lost Tomb of Pharaoh Sedqaduck" -- just tell an entertaining comedy-adventure story in the classic DT tradition, complete with copious references to DT episodes past.  He succeeds rather well, particularly in the clever manner in which he stirs an unexpected guest-star character -- one who (1) had only one featured role in the TV series and (2) has rarely featured in adventures of any stripe -- into the mix.






THE STORY:  With "long-lost map" in hand, Scrooge travels to Egypt to seek out the titular cenotaph, the last resting place of Sedqaduck, the "unlucky" 13th Pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty, and his "greatest treasures."  His companions on the journey are HD&L, Launchpad, and... "Uncle" Gladstone??  (Yep, that's what the boys call him.  Personally, I take the idea of Gladstone being the Nephews' uncle as seriously as I do that of Daisy being the boys' aunt.)  Unsurprisingly, Gladstone isn't initially keen on the idea...after all, it sounds too much like work.  Scrooge ultimately convinces Gladstone to come along by challenging his ganderhood, or something close to it, and away they go.  Flintheart Glomgold and Bankjob and Big Time Beagle get wind of Scrooge's destination in "Master of the Djinni" fashion -- via a newspaper photograph that reveals the details of Scrooge's map ("When will Scroogie learn not to leave his map in plain sight?" cackles Flinty) -- but, after a half-hearted attempt at attacking Scrooge's party at an oasis literally blows up in their faces, the baddies (somewhat surprisingly) drop clean out of the story.  Instead, we simply follow Scrooge's party as they reach and explore the long-hidden, seriously eerie Valley of Pharaoh Sedqaduck.  But why has Gladstone's luck suddenly turned sour?  And why is Scrooge so heck-bent on convincing Gladstone that his luck isn't bad, all the while scotching any overt mention of "thirteen," "luck," and similar words freighted with intimations of good or bad fortune?...

PLOTPretty doggone solid, with some effective suspense and scares, though some of the plotting could have been improved. (**** out of *****)

If you choose to read this story, don't be initially put off by "Stretch"'s staccato style, or the manner in which he tells the reader some fairly basic information about the characters (e.g., that Huey, Dewey, and Louie wear red, blue, and green).  Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded, especially once the gang starts the actual pyramid hunt.  This is more of a straightforward "there and back again" storyline than the plots seen in "Master of the Djinni" or even DuckTales: The Movie.  It has some longueurs, but "Stretch" keeps up some good, in-character banter between the Ducks, though his funniest material is unintentionally so (see WRITING AND HUMOR below).

As is the case in so many Barks adventures, Scrooge doesn't actually wind up carting home the complete treasure.  In place of it, he gets what are for all intents and purposes "parting gifts," courtesy of the ghost of the departed Pharaoh.  Considering that these items are designed more to educate the world about the cloudy history of Sedqaduck's unfortunate reign than they are to enrich someone, Scrooge accepts them with considerable grace... which is more than one can say about, for example, his petulant reaction to "love, the greatest treasure of them all" in "A DuckTales Valentine."  True to his nature, though, he does find a way to profit in the end.

For a story rated the equivalent of "E for Everyone," there is some seriously creepy material here.  The discovery of a group of skeletons from an unsuccessful expedition by medieval Arabs to plunder the valley comes as a considerable jolt.  The shock would have been more severe had the corpses been found by the Pharaoh's tomb, as they by all rights should have been, given that Scrooge interprets the map as saying that "the curse of death falls only upon those who violate the Pharaoh's final resting place."  Since the skeletons were found a good distance away from the pyramid, I sense a disturbance in the plot structure here, though it's not quite bad enough to raise the dead.

In addition to harboring dead would-be looters, the Valley of Sedqaduck is also noiseless.  Various fauna are present, but they don't make a sound.  Scrooge hand-waves away the Ducks' ability to make themselves heard by suggesting that outsiders who enter the Valley aren't affected, while Dewey appeals to "an ancient Egyptian magic spell."  Dewey's dodge works for me, especially in a world that contains Magica De Spell.

The creepiest detail of all, however, is the simple fact that Pharaoh Sedqaduck and his entire royal retinue are still present in spirit form, tending to the evergreen gardens and keeping the buildings in perfect condition.  The "curse" on anyone entering Sedqaduck's tomb is supposed to last for 13,000 years, or until the world ends (nice escape clause, that).  Presumably, therefore, the ghosts will continue to perform their janitorial services until that time.  But what happens then?  Will Sedqaduck and his people consider that to be "game over" and vanish, leaving the Valley to succumb to the elements?  That seems like an unhappy ending (for them) to me.  Or will the fact that Scrooge has peacefully brought the truth about "unlucky" Sedqaduck's reign to the outside world give the spirits a reason to rise to the heavens, in the manner of "The Garbled One" and Khufu in "Sphinx for the Memories"?

Unfortunately, "Stretch" seems to have forgotten to edit an early detail about the lost tomb's location.  Scrooge originally gleans from the map that the tomb is "inside a mountain," whereas the actual pyramid is in a valley surrounded by cliffs and "mountainous" sand dunes.  We could attribute this goof to Scrooge's misreading of the map, but, when your fact-checkers have the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook at hand, I doubt that any such slip would have slipped by.

The final scene has something of a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea "coffee scene" ((c) Joe Torcivia) vibe, in that we find the Ducks back in Duckburg and discussing their adventure over a meal at Quack Maison. (Remember?  That was the place where Gladstone and Scrooge went to eat breakfast in "Dime Enough for Luck" and that unfortunate "clerical error" concerning the restaurant's "millionth customer" took place).  It's decent, but also something of a letdown, given that the Ducks had already had dinner at the place earlier in the story, at the time when Scrooge finally convinced Gladstone to join the adventure.  I appreciate "Stretch"'s willingness to exploit Gladstone's one DT appearance to the hilt, but bringing the Ducks back to QM might have been going a dish too far.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the plot is the quick dismissal of the villains.  In truth, they don't actually get to do much of interest. However, there is a most intriguing moment when Bankjob, remembering how Scrooge saved him, Babyface, and Bugle/Bebop from the pirates in "Time Teasers," suggests that the baddies ask Scrooge for assistance in getting back to civilization.  Glomgold is having none of that, preferring a long, hot, and problematic desert trek to lowering himself to ask Scrooge for aid.  Had the bad guys actually joined Scrooge's party, the conflict between Flinty's pride and greed might have made for an interesting subplot. (Admittedly, it might also have interfered with the subplot that was already present, which I'll discuss under CHARACTERIZATION).  Instead, "Stretch" dismisses the villains with a couple of paragraphs of narrative.  I suppose that "Stretch" felt that the adventure simply "had" to include an appearance by familiar villains in order to seem "authentic."  There are plenty of examples to the contrary, though, and, all in all, I think that "Stretch" should have let the Ducks handle this one by themselves, with no opponents save the elements... and the internal conflicts.

CHARACTERIZATIONPretty solid, as well, with the only possible question being how we are expected to regard Scrooge's behavior towards Gladstone.  (**** out of *****)

"Stretch" does a pretty decent job with most of the basics here. The Nephews may consult the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook a few too many times -- I'm sure that their native intelligence could have helped them to figure out that pyramids were never used as homes, and that water, however brackish or distasteful, is essential for life to flourish in the desert -- but they make up for it late in the game by doping out Scrooge's scheme re Gladstone (about which more in a moment) all by their lonesomes.  Launchpad is Launchpad, 'nuff said, while Gladstone, appropriately enough, is given his slightly softer, more laid-back DuckTales persona, as opposed to the more obnoxious characterization introduced by Barks.  On the unlikability scale, whining a bit about tramping through the desert and making a couple of self-satisfied remarks about his luck seeing him through don't really amount to much.  "Stretch" even provides Gladstone with a new (and atypical) vulnerable spot, in that the gander takes umbrage at Scrooge's questioning of his bravery on more than one occasion.  Scrooge hasn't been concerned (at least openly) about others' cojones since "Christmas on Bear Mountain."  But Gladstone's determination to prove Scrooge wrong reflects another side of his overweening pride... one that is less smug and more proactive.

The big character-related question arising from this epic is how, exactly, we are expected to react to Scrooge's subterranean decision to bring Gladstone along as a kind of "anti-bad-fortune fail-safe" to sense the "curse" that is supposed to lie on Sedqaduck's tomb -- and, more significantly, his determination to keep his reasoning under wraps until after the fact.  Scrooge figures that, if there really is such a "curse," then Gladstone's luck will sense it and try to keep him and the other Ducks safe by any means necessary... including bouts of bad luck.  Gladstone's increasing gaffe-proneness as the Ducks close in on their goal, and the result of the final advance towards the tomb, tend to bear out Scrooge's theory.  But can this honestly be said to be "square dealing" by Scrooge, even though his intention was an honorable one?

Complicating our interpretation of Scrooge's behavior is a scene that occurs as the Ducks prepare to go into the Valley.  A panicky Gladstone is (understandably) worried that another "Dime Enough for Luck" scenario may be playing itself out, but Scrooge bluntly dismisses his concerns and gives Gladstone his personal promise that the gander's luck hasn't really turned bad.  The narrative presents this as an example of Scrooge's commitment to straight dealing with others, which, given the underlying subterfuge that the old miser is practicing, doesn't quite ring true.  Gladstone makes the point that Scrooge, who "[denies luck] even exists" (I guess the Old #1 Dime is just a cherished memento in this version of DT continuity?), couldn't be expected to understand how luck works.  Scrooge is obliged to rely upon sheer force of will to convince Gladstone to believe that Scrooge is telling the truth.  Our... uh, hero, ladies and gentlemen?  The jury may have a hard time reaching a verdict on that one.

Personally, I think that it would have made far more sense for "Stretch" to have had Scrooge tell Gladstone the truth up front, using logic to convince the gander that he will be in no danger precisely because Gladstone's luck will protect him by going bad at the appointed time.  That would have made for an interesting psychological conflict for Gladstone, who is so used to being benefited by his luck that he might find it hard to wrap his mind around the concept of bad luck doing him some good.  Using that subplot in place of the "Scrooge rather clumsily conceals the truth for everyduck's own good" would have been much trickier for "Stretch" to do, but it would have avoided the somewhat awkward characterization of Scrooge that the "subterfuge" angle forced the author to use.

A coda regarding Pharaoh Sedqaduck himself: The dead ruler's appearance in ghost-guise is brief but memorable.  During the adventure, we learn that the "unlucky" ruler was not a bungler so much as a ruler who had the misfortune of facing a large number of enemies without the resources to keep them at bay. Sedqaduck shows that his troubles have not robbed him of a certain sense of humor when he disses Launchpad for having complained earlier that Sedqaduck's museum of artifacts was "dull."  The greatest ruler of ancient times he wasn't, but he certainly doesn't come off as a dope on the order of Barks' spendthrift King Nutmost the Rash ("A Cobbler Should Stick to His Last," UNCLE $CROOGE #25, March 1959).

HOMEWORKDone to a turn.  (***** out of *****)

From the opening gong, references fly thick and fast -- and they're far from being the standard references to previous desert adventures that you might expect.  The aforementioned references to Scrooge's map-mistake in "Master of the Djinni" and Bankjob's remembrance of Scrooge's generosity in "Time Teasers" certainly got MY attention, and some other clever ones are worthy of special mention.

(1) Gladstone refers to the Ducks' near-death experience in "Too Much of a Gold Thing" as an example of how dangerous adventuring can be.  Makes you wonder: how widely did news of the Ducks' travails in the Valley of the Golden Suns actually spread?  One can understand Scrooge wanting to keep the Valley's fate a secret from the general public, just in case some crazies decided to imitiate El Capitan and dig endlessly (and futilely) for riches in the ruins.  Any acquaintances whom Scrooge trusted with the info were undoubtedly sworn to some form of secrecy... and it's therefore surprising that Scrooge didn't shush Gladstone (or even whack him with his cane) when Gladstone mentioned the adventure at the Ducks' table at Quack Maison.

(2) Glomgold reacts to Bankjob and Big Time's bomb-bungling by grumbling, "Now I know why you two never work together!" -- which, in fact, they never actually had before, unless you count that mob-scene in "Full Metal Duck" (which was itself a skull session, as opposed to an actual gig) and set aside the comic-book story "The Great Chase" (preferably, at a VERY great distance).  Given that Bankjob and Big Time are actually among the more competent of the DT Beagles, their treatment here seems a bit uncharitable of "Stretch."

(3) To while away the time during a long flight, Launchpad tells Gladstone tall tales of his exploits, among which is his "harrowing hiatus with the Harpies" ("The Golden Fleecing").  Evidently, to Launchpad, any adventure you can walk away from is a tale-worthy one, even if one's role in it is somewhat, well, embarrassing.  Speaking of which, Launchpad invokes the "Any crash you can..." mantra a couple of times here.

You do have to respect a writer who treats canonical series material in such ingenious and imaginative ways.

WRITING AND HUMORAcceptable at best, and most of the humor is of the accidental variety.  (*** out of *****)

From the spellings of certain words such as "tonnes" for "tons," to the use of the phrase "the lot of them," to Scrooge's reminiscence about picnicking in a country "kirkyard," I gather that "Stretch" is probably a native of the British Isles.  "Stretch"'s writing gets the job done, but it does fall victim to the occasional dropped comma and misspelling.

One must give kudos to "Stretch" for having the daring to try to reproduce the Ducks' "synchronized snoring" in prose.  It results in an unintentionally humorous bit:

"Huh," snored Scrooge.

"Shhhh[,]" continued Huey.

"Quack, quack," slept Dewey and Louie respectively.

That last sentence reads as if "Stretch" is using "to sleep" as a verb capable of taking a direct object.  What would such objects be, I wonder?

I also found the following throwaway paragraph amusing.  Read this, and see if you don't get a distinct impression of Launchpad being pwned:

Scrooge divided the adults into three watches: Gladstone first, as he liked to stay up late; Scrooge last, as he usually woke up early, as "the early bird catches the worm"; Launchpad received the difficult midnight and early morning hours, because it was the only one that was left. 

QUESTIONABLE MATERIALNone, aside from the aforementioned scares and ghosts (which aren't actually all THAT scary).

OVERALL***** out of *****.   N&V RECOMMENDED.

While not spectacular by any means, "The Lost Tomb of Pharaoh Sedqaduck" is a fun read and displays commendable effort.  If you like classic "lost-ruby jungle plunges" with a couple of intriguing (though somewhat problematic) twists, then you should enjoy this story.

NEXT FANFIC UP:  "The Sincere Fraud" by "Commander."  In the not-to-distant DT future, the Nephews' mother Della returns... after a long stay in jail.  I got a BAD feeling about this, Mr. McDee...

1 comment:

Pan Miluś said...

Actually in some translations (German as I recall) Gladstone, as well Fethry are deferred to as "Uncles".

While HD&L call Gladstone by his frist name in Polish translator, in Poland for example is normal to call cousin from older generation an "uncle". For example I call my grandmothers, sister dauther "aunt".