Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Boner! (...huh-huh, huh-huh-m-huh-huh-huh...)

Not much comics news to post about of late, but I wanted to take special note of the 100th anniversary of one of baseball's most notorious controversies... the fabled "Merkle's Boner" play in a game between the Giants and the Cubs at the height of the 1908 pennant race. The CHICAGO TRIBUNE had an article about Fred Merkle's notorious gaffe (if gaffe it truly was -- opinions differ to this day) on its Web site this morning, and many other outlets are doubtless making mention of the centennial, especially in light of the fact that the Cubs have a legit shot at winning the World Series for the first time since that fateful season. The "Boner" has been a focal point of some notable literary works, including one of my favorite baseball books -- G.H. Fleming's THE UNFORGETTABLE SEASON -- and a more recent one called CRAZY '08 that I've been meaning to read but have not yet gotten around to perusing.

The Baltimore Comic-Con takes place this weekend. I hope to have some pics & news for you soon afterward.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Treading "HO"

A week without any posts, but my comics "inbox" is currently empty and I haven't yet started on my next reading "assignment": MEANWHILE..., R.C. Harvey's monstrous biography of Milton Caniff. I may get started on that one tomorrow, as a breakdown of the water supply has caused classes at the Greenspring campus of Stevenson to be cancelled until tomorrow evening.

On other fronts, I'm obviously delighted that Notre Dame has started 2-0 following last season's train wreck. Not even Charlie Weis' ugly ACL injury could stop the Irish from avenging a couple of recent beatdowns at the hands of Michigan. I'd still be plenty happy with 7-8 wins and a minor bowl game from this rebuilding team... The Phillies' sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers cost Milwaukee's manager his job and propelled the Phils into a good position in the wild-card race -- not to mention the division, which the Mets seem to be in the process of coughing up for the second straight year. The Phils have handled adversity well this season... success, not so much. They just need to take care of business on the road this week.

Nicky asked me to let you know that Rick Wright, keyboardist for Pink Floyd, passed away today at age 65 from cancer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Irritant Jones (Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #693 [June 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

The only thing more intimidating than this issue's cover -- in which a menacing Neighbor Jones bears down on a desperate, soccer-ball-dribbling Donald – is the prospect that Don's eternal antagonist actually fancies himself a soccer enthusiast. Next thing we know, he'll be taking over as sponsor of The Riverside Rovers. The "classic" and contemporary Jones are both featured here, with Carl Barks' "The Purloined Putty" (1944) and Michael T. Gilbert and Paco Rodriquez' modern confection "The Odd Couple" bookending the issue. Both tales are chock full of gags more suited to an animated cartoon, though Barks' effort has a nastier edge to it. Gilbert (who seems rather above using such a trite and obvious story title) dumps Don and Jones onto a cruise ship as the unlikeliest of cabin mates. Battles over the possession of waffles, of all things, put the two neighbors at loggerheads. After Jones (in a somewhat contrived fashion) falls overboard while sandwiched inside an inner tube, the captain and other passengers quickly suspect Donald of foul play. To clear his name, Don goes to Jones' rescue, but the duo must contend with an exaggeratedly cartoony shark before they can get back to peaceful battling on board ship. "Putty" finds Donald and Jones at war over a precious can of caulk. The "back-at-cha" gags escalate until both reprobates are sunk in a pit filled with the gooey stuff. Leaving aside the obvious question of how Don and Jones could be expected to breathe for the duration while covered with hardened putty, this is pretty much the quintessential Barks Jones story. Well, that, or 1943's "Good Neighbors." Your mileage may vary.

Mickey also features in a pair of stories here, though the spotlight on the second actually falls more on faithful Pluto. Noel Van Horn's "Prometheus" finds Mickey, Horace, and Noel's oddly coherent and grammatically correct Goofy caught out in the wilderness with a storm coming on. No problem, it would seem, as each character has a special talent to employ for just such an occasion: Mickey is a whiz at finding safe campsites, Horace can gather firewood like nobody's business, and Goofy has "the power to ignite the densest wood!" This is a "pride goeth" sitch if I ever saw one, and, sure enough, the trio of overconfident outdoorsmen barely manages to survive the night, thanks to a series of potentially deadly blunders. Mickey ends up being the "fall guy" of sorts, but only because his goof happened to be the last -- and the most destructive. The much sedater "Once Upon a Dog," by Jeff Hamill and Cesar Ferioli, is a "Rashomon-comes-to-Mouseton" scenario, with Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Clarabelle, and Horace all claiming to remember how Mickey came to acquire his beloved pooch – and each of them getting the story only partially right. Pluto tells us… or should that be "thinks us"?... the real scoop on how he helped to save Mickey from death at the hands of Pete and subsequently "adopted" his master. Ferioli sculpts Pete and his unwilling seaman henchman in classic 1930s style, befitting the era that saw Pluto's real debut, and he also tributes Pat McGreal by drawing him into the story as a butcher victim of puppy Pluto's food-filching.

Thanks to LAST KISS, John Lustig may be better qualified to write a DAISY DUCK'S DIARY entry than anyone has ever been, and he's in top form in this ish's "Are You Really You?", drawn with great panache by Daan Jippes. Daisy and a Donald attend a masked ball where they run into a "hussy" (so labeled by an angry Daisy because she's wearing the same dress as Don's prize-hungry girlfriend) – and her husband, a lookalike for the costumed Donald. Donald, for his part, is petrified at the thought that his superior in the "Manly Men Marching Society" might spy him in his effeminate getup. Let the mistaken identities and misunderstood gestures commence! Lustig's "calm and rational" "diary entries" contrast dramatically with Daisy's actual behavior. Jippes' rendering of a ballroom-girdling fight brings Barks' famous "Back to the Klondike" panel of Scrooge's fight in the Black Jack Ballroom immediately to mind. Lightweight stuff, but very expertly done. A 1947 LI'L BAD WOLF story drawn by Paul Murry fills out the book, and it's not half bad itself, as Zeke finds trouble when he attempts to swipe from JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and con Brer Bear out of his cow in exchange for supposedly "magic" beans. At this early stage of his career, Brer B. appears to have a little more brain power than expected. Still, this early melding of the "Bad Wolf" and Song of the South universes holds promise that was amply fulfilled in subsequent years.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Call from Sid Couchey

I'm temporarily postponing my review of the June issue of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, and for a darn good reason. This past Thursday afternoon, I received one of the biggest surprises of my 30-plus years as a card-carrying comic-book fan when I got a phone call from former Harvey Comics artist Sid Couchey. Sid -- the definitive artist for LITTLE DOT and LITTLE LOTTA comics in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and a regular delineator of RICHIE RICH stories during those years as well -- certainly wasn't the first pro with whom I'd ever exchanged words, nor even the first Harvey creator; I'd both spoken with and written to RICHIE RICH comics great Ernie Colon back in the early 80s. What made this contact unique was that I'd never had any dealings with Couchey whatsoever.

Sid was responding to my most recent RICHVILLE RUMINATIONS column in issue #70 of Mark Arnold's fanzine THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES!. In that piece, I corrected an error made by Jerry Beck in the introduction to the RICHIE RICH volume of Dark Horse's ongoing HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS series. Jerry had claimed that "Couchy" (sic) drew the first RICHIE story in RICHIE RICH #1 (December 1960), when, in fact, Ken Selig did the honors. The goof struck me as especially peculiar because, as I noted, "Couchey's artwork is so distinctive that it's practically impossible to misidentify, even if one tries." Here's a sample of Sid's angular, uniquely stylized -- er, stylings -- from the 60s RICHIE tale "It's a Wild Idea":

In an earlier THFT! column, I'd labeled Couchey "the Grandma Moses of comics," and hopefully you can see why. Sid brought that comment up, by the way, but not to criticize me for it... simply to note that his home in upstate New York is not that far from the real Grandma Moses homestead.
Sid is pushing 90 but is still quite active locally and is preparing to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. (If you can believe it, he actually proposed to his wife Ruth through the medium of a LITTLE LOTTA story in a 1960 issue of LITTLE DOT.) I'm glad that he has gotten some attention for his work in these latter days, especially since most of his comic-book labors were devoted to characters who were, shall we say, not among the most inspired creations Harvey ever midwifed. As a loyal RICHIE RICH reader, I certainly saw plenty of the dot-loving Little Dot and the food-guzzling, super-strong Little Lotta, but only as five-page backup features in the RICHIE books. Couchey hardly got to do any 10- or 15-page adventure tales with these characters; one of the very few exceptions was a clever DOT story produced during the heyday of The Beatles, entitled (logically enough) "Dot's Rock 'n Roll Adventure":

Most of Sid's RICHIE RICH efforts were five-page quickies as well, but occasionally he'd be called upon to pen a longer story, and he did produce some excellent ones. At the top of this list is "Crash Landing" (RICHIE RICH #43, March 1966), a frankly weird, yet unsettlingly memorable, tale in which Richie and some companions crash on a Communist-run island. Without tearing down a single wall -- or even rhetorically urging the Commie leaders to do the same -- Richie and friends convince the government to reform itself. Don't laugh; Sid and his writer somehow made it all work. (How else were they supposed to pull it off -- by liberal use of radioactive cigars and poisoned beard trimmers?)

During our brief chat, Sid came across as a thoroughly nice man. I am flattered and grateful that he was moved to contact me, and I do intend to keep in touch with him. I've said it before in other venues, and I'll say it again: "My life as a fan" has led to some of my most cherished friendships and some amazing encounters. This one, though, truly knocked me for a loop.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Super "Duper" Issue! (Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #378 [June 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

Enough "fast ones" are pulled in the latest issue of UNCLE $CROOGE to satiate even the most jaded thimblerigger or scofflaw. Scrooge himself gets the proceedings off to a sleazy start in the 1962 Italian story "Taking the Plunge," in which he strongarms Donald into taking the place of a missing cliff-diver who entertains guests at Scrooge's Mexican "mega-cafe." To make sure Don doesn't weasel out, Scrooge employs a guardian goat to watch him -- a quintessentially loopy touch from a decidedly weird era of Italian Disney comics. After one dive to near-doom, Don falls into the clutches of the Beagle Boys, who're seeking sunken treasure ships and are nabbing divers to do their "clean" dirty work. Scrooge and the goat climb to the rescue, helped in no small part by the convenient fact that the Beagles' hideout is literally on the other side of the mountain from the original diving site. That's either arrogance on the part of the Beagles or laziness on the part of writers Abramo and Barrasso; I suspect the latter. Scrooge claims the treasure, but, before cashing in, he "gets his" for being so sneaky -- and no prizes for guessing how he pays for his sins. Romano Scarpa and Rodolfo Cimino handle the artistic chores and do a good job of making the goat a legitimately amusing character.

Scrooge, Donald, and the Beagles are again on hand for Marco Rota's "The Legend of the Spanish Fort," with each using the services of Seminole Indian guide Foxy Badger to seek out an abandoned Floridian outpost. The B-Boys use it to cache stolen loot, while Scrooge and Don are intrigued by Badger's tale of a legendary lost Spanish treasure supposedly hidden at the fort. Badger requests no pay for his services and disappears at odd moments, which leads the reader to believe that a con job is afoot long before Badger's ulterior motive is revealed. The story is decent enough but never really takes off, and it's tough to decide whether to blame the measured pace of Rota's original narrative or John Clark's blase dialogue.

In Carl Barks' 1961 tale "Boat Buster," a conniving Scrooge seeks an "edge" that winds up cutting both ways. Determined to show that McDuck Super-Zow Gasoline performs better than the Ramfire Petrol manufactured by combative tycoon John D. Rockerduck (whose only appearance in a Barks story this was), Scrooge enters a boat in the Yellowrado River Water Derby. Alas, Scrooge makes the foolish mistake of trusting to luck to choose his driver, and Donald gets the duty. Don does his legitimate best despite suffering the expected setbacks (with the Nephews amusingly ready to help him in a pinch with backup plans), but Scrooge wants the sure win and gives his gasoline to 98 of the other 100 boats in the race. Improbable disaster ensues, and guess whose craft Donald winds up piloting home? I'm tempted to compare this story to the LAUNCHPAD McQUACK epic "Fool for Fuel" that I dialogued for Gemstone not too long ago, but I'm not going to go there. "Buster" isn't one of Barks' best, but not even a healthy dose of Rockerduck's "Hypersonic Element K" would've helped the original plot of that LAUNCHPAD story very much.

Michael Gilbert and Euclides Miyaura's GYRO GEARLOOSE tale "Leonardo da Gearloose" provides a nice contrast to the sleazy doings seen elsewhere between these covers. Determined to become a multifaceted creator in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci, Gyro takes up painting, but he can't seem to shake free of a mindset devoted to "science, science and more science!". Gyro's yen to transcend his role as "gadgetman" has been explored before, of course, in stories like the classic DuckTales episode "Sir Gyro de Gearloose" (hmm, methinks Gilbert might have been influenced by that ep's title, at least). In this case, I have to agree with Donald and Daisy: even a modestly imaginative Gearloose invention is inherently more artistic than the "throw-up art" championed by Gyro's demanding art instructor, Mr. Slapdash. I'd rather go to "Gyro's Scientific Art Gallery" than a showing of most modern art any day of the week.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Weekend Update

The first week of Fall term went well, and Nicky and I enjoyed a restful weekend by taking in a pair of much-talked-about movies -- the first in the theater, the second at home (thanks to Netflix). Both were excellent, in their own wildly disparate ways.

Tropic Thunder has been attacked for disrespect to the mentally handicapped (Robert Downey Jr.'s method-acting character's advice to his colleague Ben Stiller not to "go full retard" when playing such a person), stereotyping of blacks (Downey's attempts to match his new skin tone with phraseology and mannerisms that he thinks blacks "should" have), and even anti-Semitism (Tom Cruise's obscenity-spouting money man), but anyone with a brain cell knows what the true target of this foul-mouthed satire is: modern-day Hollywood. The movie overstays its welcome by 20 or 30 minutes, but most of it rings true, albeit in comically exaggerated fashion. The flick appears to have split the viewing audience into those who regard it as a classic and those who regard it as much ado about nothing. Personally, I think Thunder could have throttled down the action sequences -- how ironic that a spoof of big-budget war movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) ended up falling into the same trap and degenerating into a cacophony of noise and violence -- and still made its points in perfectly acceptable fashion. Still, if David Zucker's upcoming An American Carol, the Michael Moore satire, is as successful as Thunder in skewering its particular sacred cow, then it will be doing quite well indeed.

The 2007 sleeper hit Juno got a lot of praise for its surprisingly (given the film's offbeat sense of humor and equally askew title character) pro-family theme, but I thought the movie did certain other things even better. I could certainly relate to Juno as a character -- not exactly troubled (pre-pregnancy, anyway), but someone who doesn't really seem to fit into any of the myriad cliques that shape life at a typical high school. I didn't act so consciously against the grain while growing up -- certainly not to the extent of inventing a sui generis way of speaking -- but there were Junoesque moments, to be sure. The scene in which Juno eats outside the cafeteria while sitting in a trophy display case resonated with me based on direct personal experience.

John Podhoretz's excellent review of Juno for THE WEEKLY STANDARD pointed out another overlooked theme of the movie: Adults who act like adolescents are asking for trouble. The would-be adoptive dad of Juno's child tries hard to connect with the teenager but ultimately doesn't have the staying power to go through with the adoption or try to patch up a tetchy marriage with a demanding spouse. Sooner or later, you have to grow up and put childish things, if not aside, then, at least, in a less accessible corner of the room.

Coming this week: reviews of the June-dated issues of Gemstone Comics.