Thursday, October 30, 2008

1980... 2008... Coincidence?? (yep)

I'm a lot luckier than many Phillies fans... I've been fortunate enough to see four of the Phils' six pennants and, best of all, both World Series titles. In 1980, I was a college freshman and every game (especially in the memorable 5-game NLCS against the Astros) seemed like life and death. This championship run was a comparative stroll, as the Phillies went 3-1, 4-1, and 4-1 in three postseason series (not exactly Moses Malone's famous "fo, fo, fo," but close enough) and finished with 24 wins in their last 30 games, a sizzling .800 clip. The catch was that the offense produced only in fits and starts, so it seemed as if the road was much rougher than it truly was. The pitching was the real difference, especially the bullpen.

The Phillies' victory parade will be tomorrow, on Halloween -- entirely fitting for a franchise (and city) bedeviled by so many sports-related "ghosts." Wish I could be there, but instead, I'll be doling out Halloween Mini-Comics to costumed cherubs. This year, I'm giving out both the usual DONALD DUCK comic (this one containing an original story by Marco Rota) and a PEANUTS Halloween special produced by Fantagraphics. Have a safe and happy (and hopefully, not too gluttonous) holiday. I'll be back this weekend with (at long last!) new reviews.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kept in Soggy Suspense

I haven't posted in a while due to work demands and -- no surprise here -- the fact that I've been following the Phillies in the World Series. Well, after last night's rain-blotched buffoonery, the Series is in limbo, and who knows when the fun might resume.

Some have claimed that this situation is a first for the Series, but there have been any number of games played in suboptimal conditions since MLB decided to start playing Series games at night in 1971. I remember Game 1 of the 1979 World Series in Baltimore, when the Pirate starter hurt his arm because of the cold conditions. Even the "old days" had their share of slopfests; just read descriptions of the messy final game of the 1925 Series if you don't believe me. If the Phils and Tampa have to wait until Thursday to secure at least reasonably marginal conditions, that'll be fine with me. It's just hard to wait extra long for that elusive championship...

I should have a few reviews up this weekend.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Mocha Ado About Nothing (Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #380 [August 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

Carl Barks' one-page "filler" gags, like those produced by his contemporaries at Western Publishing, generally rated a few chuckles and then were quickly forgotten by readers impatient to get on to meatier fare. Honorable exceptions were the quartet of gags Barks produced between 1952 and 1956 on the theme of Scrooge tricking a diner counterman out of a free cup of coffee. Aside from being clever gags in and of themselves, the gags made a cogent point about Scrooge's personality: rather than being annoyed by his unwillingness to pay for the java, we marvel at his sheer ingenuity (and, by so doing, gain additional appreciation for his "sharper than the sharpies" philosophy). Given the popularity of these gags, it's somewhat surprising that an entire story on the theme wasn't produced until 2006, when Kari Korhonen brewed up "A Case of One-Cupmanship." Joe Torcivia's inspired dialogue -- which Joe admits flowed quite naturally from Kari's natural humor sense and pacing -- only serves to accentuate a plot that takes the simple scenario of the diner gags and runs with it as if it had received an extra shot of espresso. Scrooge has "unbent" to the extent that he's willing to pay 75 cents for a cup at Joe's Diner, but he more than negates the largesse by commandeering Joe's prize booth and digesting the daily papers at his extreme leisure. With the percolator-predating pinchfist oblivious to the situation, a desperate Joe hatches scheme after scheme to turn the tables (those not bolted to the kitchen counter, that is). The harried hash-slinger only succeeds in alienating the rest of his clientele without budging Scrooge. By the end, you're definitely rooting for Joe to have just one small victory, but his final effort backfires when his niece Carrie unwittingly duplicates his strategy. You'll have to buy the comic (and DON'T try to scam the dealer out of it, either! He has to make a living!) to find out how everything shakes out. Barks' original diner gags, reprinted in order of original appearance, are sprinkled throughout the issue, with Kari and Joe's gem at the end.

The front of the ish isn't bad, either. Don Rosa's 1993 story "Island at the Edge of Time" was one of the last stories Keno Don produced before committing himself to "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck," and its refreshing lack of pretension is just one of its virtues. Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold race to the Pacific to claim the rights to a newly formed volcanic island that's literally oozing solid gold. The kicker: the infant islet is perched on the International Date Line, so who really did "get there first"? The sadly bungled "Ali Bubba's Cave," the final chapter of DuckTales' "Time is Money" saga, should only have handled the denouement so well (though the ultimate fate of the island is clearly telegraphed for those paying attention). Rosa cleverly injects himself directly into the story through the medium of an extraordinarily verbose third-person narrator, whose constant references to "Time!" finally prompt a frustrated Scrooge to bust the "fourth wall."

Per Hedman, Travis Seitler, and the artistic team of Francisco Rodriquez and Enriqueta Perea next serve up a somewhat truncated but nonetheless entertaining epic, "The Legendary Crown of Queen Kazabra," in which Daisy is possessed by the war-mongering spirit of the headlined monarch during Scrooge's hunt for Kazabra's buried riches. Unfortunately, all of the armored Daisy's "yeeks" and "screeches" can't drown out the little voice in my head that keeps asking: How could a "barbarian warrior queen" have existed anywhere near Duckburg? (And I thought the "Mad Duke of Duckburg" in Barks' "House of Haunts" was a stretch.) I put this questionable conceit down to the fact that the story has a European origin.

After the Beagle Boys are forced to break back into jail to tie up their latest caper in Pat and Carol McGreal and Nunez' "Back to the Big House," we get a hidden gem, the Dutch story "The Treasure of Alexander the Great." It's easy to be put off by Jose Ramon Bernado's strange-looking art and plot-spinner Piet Zeeman's unseemly haste to get the main event underway (to wit: thanks to Gyro's convenient appearance with a "time shifter" device, Scrooge, Donald and HD&L are whisked off to Alexander's time before the first page is turned), but stick with the story and you'll be rewarded. Scrooge/HD&L and Donald, having returned to ancient Macedonia to discover Alexander's supposed cache of loot, soon find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the war between Alexander's army and King Darius' Persians. What's more, thanks to Scrooge and Donald's advice, the armies are soon resorting to such anachronistic innovations as gunpowder and steerable battle wagons! "The Battle at Hadrian's Wall," Vic Lockman and Tony Strobl's fine late-60s venture into ancient Britain, had much the same ambience as this story, but "Alexander" is much subtler and cleverer in its humor (as rendered by the dialogue of John Clark). The ending twist is quite ingenious, as well. With a "cup of coffee to go," it makes for a fine conclusion to a strong issue.

Phil 'er Up

Obviously, I'm delighted that the Phillies copped their sixth National League flag the other night by completing a systematic dismantling of the Dodgers. I'm following the action from a bit of a psychological remove, though, thanks to lingering resentment over the 1994 strike. My interest in baseball has never really recovered from that incident. In 1993, 1983, and, of course, 1980, the affairs of the Phillies really were life or death type stuff. Not so now. That being said, I'm hoping Philly finally gets that long-delayed parade.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Ills of Discovery (Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK: THE BARKS AND ROSA COLLECTION, VOLUME 3 [September 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

It would seem a tall order to top "The Golden Helmet," one of Carl Barks' all-time best Donald and HD&L adventures, but here's one instance in which Don Rosa unquestionably rose to the challenge of crafting a worthwhile -- even inspired -- sequel to a beloved classic. 1997's "The Lost Charts of Columbus" has its weak spots but still holds up remarkably well, even though Scrooge -- who made such a memorable addition to Keno Don's earlier "Return to Plain Awful" -- is nowhere in evidence. With the assistance of some intriguing bonus material, the two tales of would-be North American conquest form the strongest BARKS AND ROSA COLLECTION release to date.

"The Golden Helmet" has a fail-safe core plot notion: he who can claim title to the titular bauble, secreted on the island of Labrador in AD 901 by early Viking discovers of North America, will gain possession of the whole blinkin' continent, thanks to an earlier "Code of Discovery" enacted by Europe's rulers a century earlier and (helpfully) never repealed. The pickle-pussed Azure Blue, buttressed by his shifty lawyer Sharkey, so claims, and two representatives of the Duckburg Museum -- the elderly curator and lowly guard Donald -- head for Labrador to thwart the villains' plans by securing the helmet for themselves. Barks, in his prime artistic period at the time this story was created, really lets himself go in the Newfoundland scenes, crafting awesome land- and seascapes that he freely admitted were inspired by Hal Foster of PRINCE VALIANT fame. It's the characters, though, who really give this epic legs. Azure Blue, oddly enough, is probably the weakest of the lot; for all his grimacing menace, he's basically just a bully and con artist, not unlike Chisel McSue in Barks' later "Horseradish Story." Sharkey, with his comical snout and bogus Latin phrase-making, is something else again. The old curator also gets some memorable moments, in addition to which he, like Donald and Sharkey (and even Huey -- for a moment, at least!), gets the dubious opportunity to fall under the "spell" of the helmet and claim the auriferous armor for his own. Each character who gets "helmetized" spins his own fanciful fantasy of what he'll do with absolute power over North America; Donald, of course, gets the most outlandish one, with his goofy notion to tax the population for every breath they take. For his sins, Don gets to experience isolation (having the self-important Sharkey along almost doesn't count) and near-starvation before HD&L arrive to bail him out. Donald's subsequent refusal to continue the charade (despite Sharkey's protests) shows that he's learned his lesson well. Classic stuff appears on literally every page, and the story as a whole is a masterful mix of speculative history, action, suspense, and humor, with a poke or two in the ribs of "human nature" tossed in.

Prodded by his Norwegian editor to do a sequel to "Helmet," Rosa, perversely, came up with the idea of creating artifacts antedating (and thereby negating) the Golden Helmet's power-granting... uh, power. The need for such a trinket arises after Gladstone Gander (who else?) fishes the sunken helmet out of the deep during a trip to Newfoundland with Donald and the Nephews. Gosh all fishhooks (a phrase that seems quite apropos in this case, BTW), the Ducks' grizzled fishing guide turns out to be Azure Blue, and no sooner do we digest that highly unlikely intelligence than another "wouldjabelieve" moment socks us upside the head. Riffling through Junior Woodchuck documents in Canada, the (for the moment) blissfully ignorant HD&L discover old documents of Columbus revealing that he knew all along that land lay in the path of his westward journey. Columbus' collection of ancient maps yield several additional prior claims to discovery of the continent, and the race for control of North America's destiny is on again in earnest. (According to reprinted pages from the original version of the story, also reproduced herein, Akers MacCovet, the crooked real-estate agent from "His Majesty McDuck," was slated to be part of the lineup. It sure would've made logical sense, but MacCovet was dropped from the final version.) As the Ducks and Blue and Sharkey (who break their partnership and just as quickly re-form it when conditions are right) tussle over relics of Ireland, China, and Phoenicia and race from Mexico to Egypt to Cape Cod and back again, characterization takes a decided back seat to action and gags, but there's more than enough of the latter to satisfy anyone. The kicker is priceless, though I did "ding" it back in the day for political correctness. It doesn't seem nearly as irritating now, just a cute way of negating the Chris Berman-esque, "BACK-BACK-BACK" theme of temporally retreating relics. In his comments on "Charts," Rosa admits that it took no small amount of contrivance to get his plot underway, but, once it does, it "rolls" rather like the ancient Chinese stone wheel that Donald's butt spends a portion of the story uncomfortably wedged inside. Rosa does a nice job of tying the story in with his equally fine "Guardians of the Lost Library," as well.

Horizons Unlimited

Stevenson University's "Expanding Your Horizons" event came off quite smoothly yesterday, with 150 middle-school girls invading campus to take hands-on science and mathematics workshops from female professionals. No small amount of thanks is due to Nicky, who coaxed several of her colleagues at Johns Hopkins to provide presentations. One of them (on fashion science, from a chemist who works for Proctor & Gamble) turned out to be the hit of the day. Not having the proper chromosomes to engage in direct participation, I contented myself with watching several activities and ferrying the keynote speaker from her hotel to the campus, and thence to the airport. A repeat engagement next year seems almost certain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cheering for Old Notre Duck (Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #379 [July 2008, Gemstone Publishing])

Critical opinion on this issue's featured Carl Barks reprint, 1965's "The Phantom of Notre Duck," seems to be decidedly mixed. One online post I found termed it "the worst" Barks story ever done (worse than "Interplanetary Postman"? I think not!), and I get the impression that it's knocked down a few notches because of (1) the seemingly anachronistic setting of a "legendary" Duckburgian cathedral and (2) a general lack of gravitas, the hooded Phantom aside. It certainly bears many of the hallmarks of Barks' "camp" years -- slangy dialogue, gags better suited to an animated cartoon, and such like -- but it hangs together fairly well and ranks as one of my favorite late Barks efforts, sort of a comedic version of "The Old Castle's Secret." The Phantom's theft of a special fife that Scrooge is now using to activate his vault door seems at first like a straight "raid-the-Bin" notion, but it turns out that the black-clad brigand has very unusual plans in mind for the money he plans to swipe. (Unfortunately, despite the memorable "unmasking" scene at the end, the Phantom doesn't really have a distinctive characterization, which is probably the tale's biggest flaw.) As for Notre Duck itself, the vast cathedral is far more believable as a modern setting than is the absurd "castle of the Mad Duke of Duckburg" in the vastly inferior "House of Haunts." Barks takes obvious pains to present the interior of N.D. as "museum-like" rather than tied to any sort of religion, but the "wishing fountain" in which Scrooge wishes to "dunk" his fife for luck is pretty clearly a "holy water font" by another name, and, in the scene in which a howling Scrooge is hanging from the ceiling by a rope, one can see an altar-like shape in the background. An agnostic Barks may have been, but I appreciate these touches.

In a rare solo appearance, Magica essays time travel in Paul Halas, David Gerstein, and Jose Massaroli's "The Taxman Cometh," the better to catch a younger and unsuspecting Scrooge off guard and snatch the Old #1 Dime. Are you pondering what I'm pondering -- namely, the extreme similarity to Don Rosa's "Of Ducks, Dimes, and Destinies"? Perhaps thrown off by guilty feelings of plagiarism, Magica messes up her metric units and winds up in medieval Italy, where she's arraigned as a "witch" (such an insult!). The local tax collector spares her in exchange for her becoming his magical "enforcer," and all goes well until the taxmen raid a real witch. As Magica gets blown back to 2008, we get a clever reminder that Magica, unlike "the great witch Arcadia," is actually a self-taught dabbler in sorcery (or even worse -- remember the gadget she used to throw foof bombs in her origin story?).

Gorm Transgaard, John Clark, and Cesar Ferioli next serve up a superbly-drawn (surprised? Hey, it's Ferioli!) but only moderately inspired caper, "Wreckered Time." The title pun is actually the best thing the opus has going for it. Reliving his glory days as a "Master Wrecker," Donald faces ruin after Scrooge debuts the Kapow-3000 Wrecking Robot (a "Giant Robot Rubbler," if you will). In desperation, Don sabotages the robot's public demonstration, the robot sustains damage and goes on a rampage, and... you can pretty much fill in the rest. At least Don doesn't get stuck with the bill for damages in the end, thanks to timely intervention by HD&L. It's OK, but there are simply too many familiar ideas from past stories here for me to give the tale full marks.

Remember those William Van Horn gag stories from the "Gladstone I" era in which Launchpad tested planes for Gyro? In Bob Langhans and Jose Millet's "I of the Storm," the pair get to experience an actual adventure together. Helper accompanies them on a daring trip through a forming hurricane, and that actually turns out to be a major plot point, albeit one that isn't paid off until the final panel. Forced to take refuge inside a volcano (shades of the DuckTales episode "Launchpad's First Crash"!), LP and Gyro ride their disabled plane to safety with the help of a giant parachute (the script calls it a "balloon") filled with hot gases. Believe it or not, I first saw that gag in a RICHIE RICH story in 1975, and it still works for me, however physically improbable it may be. I appreciated seeing this story if only because it's sort of a "warmup act" for the impending release of the trade-paperback version of Langhans' Disney Comics-era epic, "The Gold Odyssey", which is by far the best adaptation of DuckTales to the four-color format.

We close with John Lustig and Esteban's "A Soft Job for a Hard Head," where we get to find out how Scrooge would fare without his faithful secretary, Mrs. Quackfaster. After she quits over Scrooge's refusal to grant her her first raise in two decades, Scrooge trusts to "the next person I meet!" to fill what he considers an easy position. Along comes Donald, and his stint at the desk goes about as well as you'd expect. It turns out that Mrs. Q. has such a way with paperwork (which overwhelms Scrooge, Don, and HD&L in her absence) that she almost comes off like one of the Rich family's "perfect" servants. Fenton Crackshell's ability to count quickly doesn't come close, if you ask me -- and, if you consider Scrooge as a "big tycoon" rather than a miserly oddball, then Mrs. Q's skill seems even more vital. This story would have been even better had the art not been quite so crude. Even so, it's a good capper on a very solid issue.

Well, At Least The Stock of the Phillies and Irish is Up...

I'm trying bravely not to get too giddy about the Phillies' chances in the NLCS against the Dodgers. The Phillies' come-and-go offense is prone to lengthy collective funks, and that's not a recipe for postseason success. But one can always hope, can't one?

Notre Dame is 4-1 and heading into a stretch of road games, starting this weekend vs. North Carolina. The Irish are maturing quickly, and my hoped-for record of 8-4 and a decent bowl game both seem within reach. In November, Nicky, my Mom and I will be at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the Navy game.

No classes tomorrow due to Yom Kippur. I'll be back in a bit with a review of UNCLE SCROOGE #379.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #694 (July 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Gemstone finally shifts into "catch-up" mode in this issue -- not in the cover date, but in the hastily revamped contents of what is now technically a "September" issue. Along with the classic Walt Kelly cover featuring teacher Donald creating impromptu dunce caps, we get a pair of Duck stories with distinct "schooltime" themes, albeit not in the lead slot. Pride of place instead goes to William Van Horn's "Lost and Clowned," a genial take on the tried-and-true "mastery story" that has the lazy, yet self-assured, ambience of a Bing Crosby solo. Donald excels in business as a master finder of lost objects but gets off on the wrong track after he mistakes a vintage radio broadcast for a real announcement about an on-the-lam crook who's a "master of disguise." Given the painful potential of Donald's mistaking unlikely individuals for the nonexistent bad guy, Don gets off relatively easily, absorbing only a flip from a midget jujitsu artist, a brief dust-up with a dog, a load of garbage dumped on his head, and a brief ride on a laundry cart. He even gets to capture a real fugitive before all's said and done. Bill is now well and truly into his "mellow phase," but the tale's still mildly entertaining for all that.

Noel Van Horn's "Fame" finds Mickey opening a training school for aspiring young performing artists... naaahhh, Disney's already beaten him to it with all those doggoned High School Musical kids. Rather, this tale, like the "origin of Pluto" story in the previous ish, is a narrative told (and mangled) from multiple perspectives. Doc Static, Goofy, and Horace would like Chief O'Hara (and us) to believe that Mickey collared The Phantom Blot in what Horace calls, with typical understatement, "a display of courage unparalleled in the annals of heroism!" The truth is rather more prosaic, as a fuming Mickey, determined not to wear a mantle he doesn't deserve, explains to Minnie after the fact. Noel has a way of sticking Mickey into unusual, uncomfortable situations -- and not simply physical ones, as demonstrated in "Stir Crazy" with Mick's long sojourn inside the barge -- but his honesty here neutralizes any momentary embarrassment he might have suffered as a result of what Minnie correctly terms "the need for heroes."

In "A Niche in Crime," HD&L try to help Donald in his new job as a beat cop by regaling him with tales from the files of "Pup Cop," a comic-book dog clearly modeled on Scooby-Doo (check out the lettering on the cover of his title!), but Don resists their advice until he has little choice. The added "infor" helps Donald capture a would-be art thief who turns out to be drawing inspiration from the same source. Good story by Lars Jensen and Chris Spencer, decent dialogue by David Gerstein, and appealing art by Vicar, but the fact that Donald ditches his cop suit for "plain clothes" (read: his normal apparel) early in the story seems a bit peculiar to me -- almost as if Lars and Chris wanted to do a straight "Donald-as-detective" story but couldn't figure out how to make it work.

A two-page MINNIE MOUSE gag from 1932 by Floyd Gottfredson (the early Mickey really could be a pest, couldn't he??) and a slightly silly SUPER GOOF story by Donald Markstein pitting SG against a two-headed man provide appealing but forgettable "wrapping" for the issue's two school-themed tales. In Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard's "The Blackboard Bungle," Fethry's bringing the out-of-control (human) pupils in his "School of Progressive Self-Thinking" to Donald's home for a house-slash-field trip goes about as well as you might expect, though Donald does get a chance to literally get some licks in before he forces the well-scrubbed brats out the door. Too bad Kinney didn't think to throw in some "New Math" gags, or else this might have been a perfect parody of the silly "do your own thing" schools of the 60s. As it is, it's still superior to just about any episode of Quack Pack you could name.  We kick back a couple of decades for Carl Barks' 1946 story "Playing Hooky" (aka "Freight Train to Pickleburg") as HD&L make an attempt (their first in a Barks tale) to cut school under Donald's watchful eye. The reason is a little more straightforward than in later stories in which the boys will claim that they've already gotten far more education from "life experience" than they could ever get in a stuffy classroom. Here, they simply "hate" school in the time-honored (?) tradition of pre-pubescent boys everywhere. HD&L elude several would-be interceptions by Donald and head to Pickleburg on top of a freight car, trailing 40s slang in their wake. Tossed off by an uncooperative crewman, they soon find themselves lost and hungry in the middle of what will undoubtedly become the Duckburg "exurbs" in modern times but is now just a literal wasteland. Donald brings them home, but not before donning a disguise and literally making HD&L choke on the bitter dregs of their would-be deception. The boys get the "last icks" in, however. It's old-fashioned Don vs. HD&L comedy that would have worked just as well in an animated cartoon, provided that we could actually understand the Ducks' dialogue.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Charm City Con, take VI, and more

My sixth visit to the Baltimore Comic-Con was easily the most prosaic. With Gemstone not troubling itself to reserve a table, there was no natural "nexus" to which to repair. Sorry, but Don Rosa's personal niche doesn't count. (Not that I wasn't happy to see Keno Don after his recent eye surgery; he seemed to have little difficulty sketching and signing pics for the fans who dropped by to say hi. Of course, doing the detail work required for another story is on another level of difficulty entirely.) Joe Torcivia, David Gerstein, and Jonathan Gray were staying at David's apartment in York, so it took them a while to get down to the Inner Harbor on Saturday and Sunday -- especially on Saturday, when rain lashed the area. As a result, I was on my own a great deal of the time. I picked up a comic here and there, concentrating mostly on nabbing back issues of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES featuring SCAMP stories by Al Hubbard. That being said, I was most pleased to find an inexpensive copy of Dell LUDWIG VON DRAKE #4, in which Scamp appeared in an APRIL, MAY, AND JUNE back-up story drawn by Tony Strobl. Why, you ask? Well, (1) Strobl didn't draw Scamp that often, and (2) Scamp normally exists in a world of humans, so this appearance has a definite "Elseworlds" flavor to it.

I also registered something of a "protest" by purchasing DVD collections of Disney TV's Kim Possible and Wuzzles, "unauthorized" though they were. I am getting fed up with Disney DVD's reluctance to release the remaining volumes of episodes of the WDTVA "Golden Age" series and figured, why not give the laggard unit a poke in the ribs of sorts?

On Saturday, Joe, David, Jonathan, and I had a nice dinner at Burke's, still a favorite downtown restaurant of mine after all these years. Everyone seems to be doing well, and David reported that Gemstone is hauling tail to catch up in its release schedule. The July issues were released last week, with Gemstone shuffling the pre-announced contents to take the publishing delays into account. Reviews will appear in this space anon.

UPDATE (8/16/14):  Sadly, Burke's closed on January 1, 2011.