Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Special "Blast From My Past": DIALOGUE

Hope that you and your family enjoy the holiday... and that 2009 FINALLY sees the completion of the "Golden Age" Disney Afternoon DVD releases!

This piece first appeared in issue #15 of the APA WTFB, released in February 1996. Original contents © 1996 Christopher E. Barat. Revised contents © 2001 Christopher E. Barat.
[Note: The first three lines of this thing are taken verbatim from an actual encounter that I recently had with a student. Rather than stewing about it, I've decided to have a little constructive fun with it.]

SCENE: A computer lab in the Virginia State University Mathematics Department. Dr. Barat and a New (Female) Student are both sitting at terminals, doing some work.

NEW STUDENT: Excuse me, are you a professor here?

DR. BARAT: Yes, my name is Dr. Barat. I teach in the Math Department.

NEW STUDENT: YICK! You know, I always hated math, 'cause I was never any good at it!

[Flash of an interdimensional gate opening: a large number of "Disney Afternoon" characters appear, to the sound of a thunderclap]

SCROOGE MCDUCK: Curse me kilts! We canna let this insult pass, can we, lassie?

GADGET HACKWRENCH: Golly, no! We've got to help our old friend, Chris!

DR. BARAT: What are you guys talking about?

SCROOGE: This student has joost insulted math, lad! Canna you respond by telling her how important math is to us Disney Afternoon characters?

DR. BARAT: Hmm, the comment was so remarkably inconsiderate that I was simply too stunned to think of that approach! Why don't you guys handle it -- I have to finish this syllabus.

SCROOGE: Gladly! Young lassie, wi'out a clear understanding of math, none of the Disney Afternoon business folks could keep their financial books in order!

PETE: Or cook 'em!

DAVID XANATOS: Exactly. An understanding of the intricacies of financial manipulation -- or, should I say, management -- requires a thorough grounding in algebra, calculus, and other types of mathematics.


OWEN: It would seem as though those who actually put businesses' plans into operation and oversee their day-to-day tasks need a firm grasp of mathematics, as well.

FENTON CRACKSHELL ["popping up" in typical fashion]: You can count on that!


REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: Yes, of course! I have to do all the meaningful work around Higher for Hire, so of course I had to pick up math along the way.

GADGET: Golly! And if you want to get into engineering, or inventing, or maybe even tinkering, you have to know something about math! Otherwise, your left-nozzled framistan won't have the proper quasi-lateral dimension to fit into your right-handed doodlethingie... or something. Wait, I can fix that...

GYRO GEARLOOSE: Don't worry if you can't get all those technical terms quite right, Gadget. We inventors still need to have a good, practical understanding of mathematics in order to purchase enough supplies, make adequate plans for building our inventions, and determine whether or not we can make a profit by building them!

NEW STUDENT: Gee! I thought that maybe if I majored in Engineering Technology, I could avoid taking all those math classes and just take Engineering classes.

GRUFFI GUMMI: You gotta face it, kid -- even if you want to get into a job like carpentry and home repair, you gotta know something about making measurements, and that's math.

KIT CLOUDKICKER: And if you think that a keen job like airplane navigation will get you out of math class -- forget it! Navigators have to learn just about as much math as anyone in order to figure out where they're going and how to get there.

LAUNCHPAD MCQUACK: Ya mean, I've been doin' math all this time and didn't even know it?

DARKWING DUCK: Quite true, LP! Even we crusading canards have to conquer calculus! Otherwise, I'd never be able to figure out how to maximize the number of 8 x 12 glossies I can produce to spread my fame around St. Canard, given limitations on film budget, exposure size, camera aperture size, and...

Enough's enough, Darkwing! If that didn't convince her of the virtues of math, probably nothing will.

PRINCESS JASMINE: If nothing else, she should think about taking mathematics as part of a well-rounded education. We in Agrabah should know -- we and the other Arab cities are busy helping to preserve Greek mathematics right now.

NEW STUDENT: Hmm...I still don't know if math courses are worth it...

BONKERS D. BOBCAT: Kid, kid, kid, of COURSE it isn't worth it. Why, when I got to be a Toon Cop, I didn't need to know a THING about math!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The STANDARD Deviates... into Disney Comics Territory, that is!

My eyes bugged out when I received the latest issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD and turned to the concluding "Parody" page. Whatever mischievous soul is responsible for that regular feature really did himself or herself proud with "Scrooge McDuck Writes to The Treasury." Not only do the "panel grabs" from Don Rosa stories suggest that the writer has followed Disney comics at least since 1987 (the year of Rosa's debut), but several references are made to DuckTales -- the obvious one regarding Launchpad McQuack, and the subtler one mentioning that Donald is in the Navy. I'd like to think that Scrooge is recognized by most well-informed consumers of pop culture, but I wonder how many readers found themselves baffled by all the other names mentioned here.




Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Tomorrow, to celebrate the holiday, I'm planning to post a piece from the days I wrote for the APA WTFB.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I wouldn't accuse Chester Gould of resting on his oars, exactly, but January 1938 - July 1939, the period covered in this volume, wasn't a prime time for Gould or Dick Tracy. Sure, the volume starts off with a bang (once we've gotten the obligatory intro by Max Allan Collins and a brief piece on Tracy collectibles) as Tracy helps the Coast Guard bust Stud Bronzen, a depraved seaman who's in the dirty business of smuggling emaciated Chinese men into the country. Thereafter, however, we're forced to thrash through a few racketeering capers, spend time with a hideous gas-station stick-up man named Scardol (could he be considered Gould's first truly "grotesque" villain, insofar as the featureless "Blank" of a few years earlier was less ugly than unnatural?), and tap our thighs with impatience as a crooked pilot named Whip Chute tries to impersonate a visiting "Bovanian prince" and abscond with some loot. A wispy-haired, slightly decadent poison-gas manufacturer named Karpse is the only truly interesting villain in the lot besides Bronzen, and that's only because (as Collins notes) he spends a good part of his story posing as a thoroughly respectable citizen -- even engendering a little sympathy after he gets badly scalded while working at Mrs. Trueheart's bakery. (As it turns out, that little incident presages Karpse's dreadful demise after his fraud is uncovered.) Alleged "comic relief" appears in the guise of the slightly twee Brighton Spotts, an amateur detective who fancies himself capable of helping Tracy with his cases; Spotts pals around with Junior Tracy for a while before Gould drops him, but he doesn't improve with additional exposure. The "Bovanian" story and Karpse's peddling of poison gas to other nations reflects Gould's increasing concerns about the international crisis and impending world war, but the artist still has one foot in the "tommy guns" era and isn't quite ready to ditch the Dillinger/Baby Face stuff in favor of the rogue's gallery that would make him famous. The next couple of volumes will mark the shift into Tracy's peak period, and I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #381 ("September" 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Happy 80th, Mickey!




Alas, poor Donald -- even when he succeeds by failing, he winds up... well, failing. Such is the intriguing premise of this issue's main story, the ingenious Italian effort "Breakfast of Champions" by Bruno Concina, David Gerstein, and artist Lara Molinari. Desperate to counteract John D. Rockerduck's aggressive marketing of his marmalade Vita-Jam, Scrooge strikes out in his efforts to purchase celebrity talent to hawk McDuck Marmalade, mostly because he's unwilling to pay the going price. Scrooge settles for the inevitable LCD (that's "least common denominator" for the layperson) in the ever-indebted Donald, who proves to be a surprise success by -- surprise -- totally fouling up a variety of attention-grabbing "extreme" stunts. Finally admitting, "I should really let you stay you!", Scrooge lets his bumbling nephew have his own fallible head. "Failure is victory! Black is white!" smiles Donald as his popularity soars... but then comes the inevitable crash. Don't worry, I won't spoil the surprise for you, but Donald is tangentially responsible for his own demise, though it comes as the result of another character's actions. Molinari's lively artwork channels that of Giorgio Cavazzano without being overly derivative, and Gerstein packs in references to Barack Obama, Al Pacino, Vic and Sade, and The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy in the course of his merry labors.

"Half-Baked Bakers," a brief four-page story by Frank Jonker, Mau Heymans, and John Clark, returns us to something resembling familiar ground as Scrooge challenges Donald and Gladstone to show their business mettle by operating competing pastry shops. Don's performance, of course, founders on the reefs of Gladstone's luck, and Gladstone winds up outperforming Tim Hortons -- to his ultimate dismay. With the 1952 Carl Barks classic "Spending Money," we're back to the theme of an improbable Donald crash-and-burn. Scrooge is rapidly running out of room to store his money, so the troubled tycoon engages Donald to spend some of it for a wage of 30 cents a week. Unfortunately, the ensuing uber-splurge winds up enriching, you guessed it, a bunch of businesses controlled by Scrooge. Donald really deserved a "thank you" for a good try, as opposed to the caning he's about to receive at story's end. If this is unfair, then Don's fate in Jens Hansegard, John Clark, and Tino Santanach's "Cleaned and Intervened" is enough to make you cry. A doctor orders Scrooge, who's "never taken a day off" (I suppose all those treasure hunts counted as business trips, then?), to spend a day at a health spa or be forcibly hospitalized, and casually fingers Donald as the "aggressive young man" to take over for the duration. Scrooge, who's nothing if not obsessively hands-on, disguises himself as a cleaning woman, sneaks away and spies on his nephew, and sabotages what looks like an attempt to con Donald into a bad investment. Don turns out to be right about the proposition after all, leaving Scrooge a babbling wreck. No, I don't feel sorry for Scrooge here -- I feel sorry for Donald, who misses out on a chance to make far more money for Scrooge than he would have at any old pastry shop.

The book closes with "Homeward Hound," an "origin story" for Bolivar, Donald and HD&L's lumbering St. Bernard. We learn that "Bolly" hails from the Heather Hill Kennel (do I detect a spoof of Snoopy's Daisy Hill Puppy Farm?) and comes from a whole family of famous rescue dogs (with names of famous South American heroes, natch). Don and HD&L return to the scene of the whelping in the course of trying to locate Bolly after the depressed dog has run away. Until the very end of the story, it appears that Bolly got shortchanged in terms of inheriting noble qualities (unless a bottomless appetite counts as one), but we finally learn that he has one very large asset that even his brothers do not possess. (The ultimate reason why Bolly displays such a trait is one of the funniest things in the story.) Fine dialogue by David Gerstein and lively artwork by Maria Nunez (normally a Beagle Boys specialist) nicely complement Kari Korhonen's solid, and generally believable, story.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #696 ("September" 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Two days hence marks the 80th anniversary of the release of Steamboat Willie and the debut of Mickey Mouse, the fount from whom all other things Disney flowed. What better way to celebrate the occasion than to... er, bring back a singularly irritating character to torment Mickey and his friends? Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli give Mickey "An Impish Bad Birthday" in this issue, and, if a complaints window for such "gifts" existed, I'm sure Mickey would be heading there even as we speak. The painfully derivative "imp from the 11th dimension" "blunks" back into Mouseton, causing Mickey to skip an entire day and thus miss his birthday. When Mickey tries to outsmart him by claiming that his friends had planned a later birthday party, the punk pixie turns everyone present into manifestations of their "worst personal nightmares" and deposits them in the monkey cage at the zoo. Several pages of tedious non-shenanigans precede the inevitable moment when the bumptious brownie is sent packing by being forced to unwittingly do a backwards recital of the phrase on his "magical jar." By that time, in the words of Gilbert Gottfried's Mr. Mxyzptlk, I really do "need a barf bag!" Ferioli's superb artwork is literally the only thing this story has going for it. Well, that, and a moment of curious candor from Minnie. After the imp has zapped Mickey and Minnie into baby clothes, the two mice re-raiment themselves and take off in pursuit of him, with Minnie commenting, "It's a good thing I keep a spare outfit at your house!" Hmmmm, how conveeeeenient! Spare bows I can perhaps understand, but what would a spare outfit be doing there, unless....?!?!

Luckily, part two of Romano Scarpa's "The Sacred Spring of Seasons Past", which takes up most of the last half of the issue, saves Mickey's bacon insofar as a fitting tribute is concerned. (A vintage Floyd Gottfredson Sunday-page reprint doesn't hurt, either.) The standard Scarpa strangeness more than manifests itself in the person of an obsessed sea captain in search of Moby Dud, an albino sardine. Rest assured, however, Cap'n Ahab (yes, really) has a significant role to play before story's end. Mickey, Atomo Bleep-Bleep, and absent-minded antique dealer Heath O'Hara wind up losing out on a really big haul, but, thanks to the generosity of the guardian "wandering ghost" of the long-lost Native American treasure -- who had been obliged to wander the earth to complete his bungled mission -- they do come out ahead on the deal. Jonathan Gray's dialogue is top-notch, as always.

Donald, as is proper on this occasion, has a low-key role in the issue. In Carl Barks' 1947 story "The Cantankerous Cat," Don and HD&L's plans to get a good night's sleep before a fishing outing are wrecked when a stray cat Don's bull-headedly insisted on taking in (much as he insisted on trying to tame an untamable wild colt in a story a few years earlier) howls from dusk to dawn. The trip goes on, with Donald and the boys punch-drunk from lack of sleep, but Don still hopes to get some use out of the annoying cat. He doesn't, of course. The funniest thing about the story is the weird dialogue that Don and HD&L use when they're trying to stay awake to fish. (I've never said anything like they did when I've been sleep-deprived, but I may have thought it.) Continuing on the theme of pestiferous animals, Travis Seitler and Mau Heymans' "Playing Possum" finds Donald trying ineptly to take care of an opossum (named Pogo, man, what a stretch!) the Nephews have brought home as part of a school project. As with Barks' cat, Don's knuckleheaded consideration backfires on him, as he takes the possum's "playing dead" for the real thing and winds up bringing a whole slew of others possums into his home to make up for the "damage" he caused. A David Gerstein-scripted BIG BAD WOLF story with an "election" theme (to wit: Zeke wanting to get elected to the Forest Council but needing the Three Pigs' votes in order to succeed) wraps an ish that would have been better had that annoying BATMAN supporting-cast ripoff not been on hand.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Comics Review: DISNEY'S DUCKTALES: THE GOLD ODYSSEY (Gemstone Publishing, October 2008)

Bob Langhans' justly famed seven-part epic, which ran in Disney Comics' DUCKTALES title from December 1990 until the middle of the following year, finally gets the one-volume graphic-novel treatment it's so long deserved... in a manner of speaking. Publication of this issue was delayed, and the wait turns out to have been hardly worth the trouble, as Gemstone's packaging bears all the earmarks of a rush job. Pages six and seven of Part Three, "The Once and Future Warlock," are reversed, and splotchy, mottled coloring mars the presentation in several places. Most disappointing of all, absolutely no ancillary material is featured -- not even an explanation of who Bob Langhans is, much less why his story set the standard for adaptations of the DuckTales TV series to comic-book form. Even Marv Wolfman got to speak his piece in a foreword to the previously published (and inferior) "Scrooge's Quest." The missed opportunity is a real shame, as Langhans' story proved to be the first truly successful serialized Duck tale, a key precursor to Don Rosa's THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK and similar projects down to the present day.

How well does "Odyssey" hold up almost two decades later? Well, it's a decent Duck adventure, but an outstanding DuckTales adventure -- and the distinction is important. Disney Studio stories in the late 1980s based on the TV series were uninspired finger exercises. John Lustig and Bill Van Horn did far better by the characters in their series of stories for "Gladstone I," but those tales were sui generis, full of quirky humor, and, for all their high quality, not really reminiscent of any TV episode. "Scrooge's Quest" captured the broad outlines of the show, but was totally lacking in the finer details, most fatally in the area of characterization. Langhans' plot can be faulted in places, but his characterizations are spot-on from panel one (and not just because Scrooge drops the occasional Scottish-ism, either). Launchpad is particularly well captured, issuing a steady stream of believable one-liners and exuding that recognizable McQuack bravado. Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold are equally well realized. Even the Nephews sound as they "should" in the DuckTales context, making references to monster movies, rock videos, and similar stuff. Read Langhans' dialogue, and you can bring the voices of Alan Young, Terry McGovern, Russi Taylor, and Hal Smith to mind with no effort at all.

Langhans' decision to end each part of the serial with a cliffhanger was an inspired idea that paid off handsomely; it's still the most memorable aspect of the story. More subtly, Langhans ups the danger quotient across the board. The evil Druid who temporarily takes possession of Doofus' soul in "The Once and Future Warlock" should have been so lucky as to suffer the fate of El Capitan in the TV series' "Treasure of the Golden Suns." Rather than being doomed to search for treasure forever, the nasty necromancer gets buried in a cave-in -- and he's not digging his way out anytime soon! An alien monster conks out after flying out of the atmosphere and into space in pursuit of our space-traveling friends. Glomgold is left to die in a malfunctioning spacecraft by space pirates and later narrowly escapes being stranded on an alien planet. Huey appears unconscious with blood on his forehead, for crying out loud (he later claims that he was faking it, but I don't buy it, somehow). The TV series rarely played this rough, but it works superbly on the comics page. (The Jaime Diaz Studio artistically renders every scene in its standard straightforward, literal fashion, which somewhat undercuts the tension in places.)

For all the story's good points, I get the distinct impression that Langhans improved generous chunks of his plot. The true "core" of the story -- Scrooge, Launchpad, and HD&L's voyage into space to rescue Glomgold, who'd been attempting to locate a "golden moon" that had showered Earth with chunks of the valuable stuff from the Arctic to England -- doesn't begin until Part Four, and it ends at the beginning of Part Six. The early battles against a pack of Arctic poachers, a gaggle of rather unpleasant, tradition-obsessed natives, and the devilish Druid are interesting enough, but the presence of Doofus (beginning in Part Two), in particular, seems somewhat contrived. Not that I begrudge Doofus his one moment of genuine four-color glory after eons of either being patronized or mischaracterized (as a Junior Woodchuck troop leader in Vic Lockman's stories), but, after he suddenly appears in Gyro's lab, accompanies the gang to New Swampadonia, and is rescued from the Druid, he... uh, completely vanishes from the story. Wouldn't he want to see the full adventure through after all that? (Maybe he remembered his bad experiences during the trip-to-Mars TV episode "The Right Duck" and declined the space jaunt on principle.) The space-jinks are great -- and "junk collector" Captain Finna, alien innkeeper Ito, and ruthless rat-oid pirate Omio Rexx are all excellent supporting characters -- but Part Seven returns us to Duckburg for a somewhat-less-than-riveting battle between Scrooge and the Beagle Boys that links into the epic's "hunt for gold" theme in a particularly far-fetched way. Even the cliffhanger to end Part Six (with the splashed-down Ducks about to be run over by a *gulp!* speeding ocean liner!) is a downer. Just a little more focus on Langhans' part could have made this story truly great and fully worthy to stand with Barks, Rosa, and the other masters of the four-color form. Nevertheless, it's still an ideal encapsulation of the qualities that made DuckTales so wonderful.  For that alone, it deserves to be cherished by Duck comics fans of all persuasions.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1969-70 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

This latest PEANUTS collection features an unquestionable "tipping point" -- and you can get a hint as to what it is by checking out the front cover's featured player. No, it's not the high point of the "World War I Flying Ace" era; in fact, the fad that had begun in '66 quietly exited the scene during this period. (The brooding 6/1/69 Sunday strip could be taken as a formal recognition of the fact. When the "Flying Ace" returned to the strip a decade later, the bullets and dogfights were dispensed with in favor of a more wistful, nostalgic approach.) But there's no question that Snoopy becomes the strip's primo star during the height of what Sally memorably mischaracterizes as the "Age of Aquariums." Other characters get memorable moments within these pages, of course, but Snoopy gets far and away the most meaningful "panel time."

Many longstanding Snoopy-related themes that would carry PEANUTS through the next decade and beyond are first introduced here. The horde of identical birds that had long interacted with Snoopy is finally pared down to a single companion, Woodstock, who henceforth will serve as ol' Snoop's "Bird Friday" and silent (apart from the occasional outburst of crooked vertical lines) partner in countless strips. Snoopy's persistent efforts to wade through those infamously "dark and stormy" opening sentences and gain fame as the "world's greatest novelist" also begin during this time. Most symbolic of all are the trio of continuities that I'll call "The Head Beagle Trilogy." In round one, Frieda, making her last valiant effort to get Snoopy to chase rabbits, commits a fatal faux pas by reporting his lax attitude to "The Head Beagle." She thereby becomes a pariah (perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the naturally curly one dropped out of the main cast soon thereafter!) as Schulz builds the "fear factor" up to comically grotesque proportions. A most unsatisfying concluding strip, however, leaves the reader with a sense of letdown. Ditto the second series of strips, in which the H.B. assigns Snoopy to a "secret mission" on the playground. Schulz again drops the ball by allowing Snoopy to linger there for only two days' worth of strips before getting chased away. Finally, Schulz decides to cut to the chase and make Snoopy HIMSELF the Head Beagle. This works out much better, though it does seem rather strange that the H.B. is apparently responsible for the activities of all dogs throughout the world (!). The not-yet-named Woodstock has his most memorable "anonymous" role as Snoopy's secretary; that gig would linger beyond the end of the continuity (not to mention be featured in the feature film Snoopy Come Home several years later). After Snoopy gets stripped of his title (for cracking under the strain and seeking asylum with Peppermint Patty), Schulz mines a few more continuities out of the situation. The most memorable of these finds the deposed kingpin invited to speak (?) at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, only to be caught in the middle of a riot protesting the plight of Vietnam "war dogs." Readers of David Michaelis' SCHULZ AND PEANUTS will recognize this as the story in which Schulz was supposedly "mirroring" his concurrent affair. (I won't comment on that here, but does anyone remember that Snoopy had been ready to get married to that "skating/beach beagle" a few years before? And I don't even want to think about what Snoopy's fling with "three airline stewardesses" might represent.) Perhaps in reaction to all this overheated material, Snoopy's next major "role" after the "Daisy Hill Riot"/"love affair" sequence was the far more prosaic one of a "world-famous grocery clerk."

Snoopy's "journeys to places unknown" also result in several memorable continuities in this volume. First, the beagle goes on an unsuccessful journey to find his mother. Snoopy would meet plenty of relatives -- too many, in fact -- in the years just ahead, but the time for doing so was not quite ripe. Then, in late 1970, Snoopy helps Woodstock walk (note the verb) south so that the bird "won't upset the ecology." The pair get only two blocks from home, but Snoopy's kidnapping by an over-eager little girl would be used again during Snoopy Come Home. (The girl isn't quite as wacky here as she is on screen; in fact, she goes nameless and only appears in two panels.)

Snoopy dominates the proceedings, but Charlie Brown and Linus get to star in what is undoubtedly the volume's most inexpressibly sad continuity: the sudden departure of the Little Red-Haired Girl from the neighborhood. Tragically, Charlie can't bring himself to speak to his icon, even at this juncture, and the angry Linus flips out, screaming his frustration at his tongue-tied friend and even threatening Lucy when she happens to get in the way. Linus gets in one final lick, too, kicking Charlie in the butt a few days later after the wishy-washy one begins mooning over "what might have been" yet again. Was this continuity ever reprinted in books? If so, I never saw it. I can understand cutting out the gags in which Charlie falls headfirst out of a ski-run chair lift and jumps headfirst off a baseball backstop, but if the book publishers really did ignore this sequence out of some misguided sense of sensitivity for Charlie (or for Linus' reputation), then they missed a trick.

Several stand-alone gags illustrate the conservative vision at the heart of Schulz' work, even as he tried to understand -- and, in certain instances, co-opt -- the rebellious spirit of this famously turbulent time. The "Love Balloon" gag of 4/19/69 could almost be taken as a veiled rebuke of the hippie-ish sentiment that "love is all you need." Even more memorable is the strip of 7/30/70 in which Schulz ever so delicately skirts the issue of abortion. "Your ignorance of theology and medicine is appalling!" snorts Lucy after Linus wonders aloud what would happen if a couple decided not to have a baby "waiting to be born" in heaven. "I still think it's a good question," muses Linus, and the question still bedevils our society to this day.

Fantagraphics' presentation is the same as it ever was, including the obligatory introduction, this one by Mo Willems. It's substance over style all the way, only now the substance comes packaged in black-and-white spotted fur, for the most part. Essential, as always.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Book Review: MEANWHILE... A BIOGRAPHY OF MILTON CANIFF by R.C. Harvey (Fantagraphics Press, 2007)

This meaty slab of a book consumed a great deal of my attention over the course of two recent weeks. It doesn't usually take me that long to finish a reading job, but this one deserved the extra attention, for which all credit is due to R.C. Harvey, the respected comics scholar who labored over it for such a long time. Caniff, creator of TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON and the acknowledged grand master of the now-all-but-defunct continuity adventure strip, deserved a big, sprawling biography detailing his many services to the profession and to American culture in general, and Harvey certainly delivers the goods with this blockbuster.

In many respects, this is the exact opposite of another recent cartoonist's biography, SCHULZ AND PEANUTS. Harvey eschews psychological theorizing in favor of what he himself terms (in the Foreword) "a reportorial stance" -- just the facts, please. Not that the author's admiration for his subject isn't obvious at every turn. It helps that Caniff was a most admirable and honorable man who contributed massively to bucking up morale during WWII and later did yeoman service in support of the armed forces during the Cold War. Caniff's lush drawing style and trademark "snappy patter" set the pace in adventure strips from the late 30s, when TERRY AND THE PIRATES blossomed, through the late 60s. Harvey arguably denotes a little too much time to describing how Caniff (who left TERRY and the Tribune-News Syndicate for the Field Syndicate in the interest of gaining greater personal control over his work) developed and launched STEVE CANYON in the late 40s and not quite enough space to a completely thorough discussion of TERRY, but he hardly gives the latter short shrift.

The book is not without an element of artistic tragedy, in a manner of speaking. Caniff's smart-alecky humor and the joyful camaraderie displayed by his characters fit perfectly with the Zeitgeist of the 1940s, when America was forced to fight for its survival but managed to keep its sense of humor while doing so. In the 50s, however, Caniff may have committed a misstep when he turned Steve Canyon from a free-lance globetrotting pilot into a troubleshooter for the Air Force. In the Vietnam War era, it was all the easier to dismiss Caniff's old-fashioned patriotism as jingoism when the hero of the strip wore clothes provided by Uncle Sam. Caniff never really did recover from the loss of popularity he suffered during the late 60s and early 70s. By the time STEVE CANYON staggered to the line in 1988, Caniff was resorting to dream sequences and the like in an effort to capture at least a small portion of the old magic, to no avail. The comics medium had changed on the old master, and not for the better. Harvey's description of Caniff's final years is at once poignant, frustrating, and elegaic.

Be prepared to linger over these pages, but rest assured, it's definitely worth the time and effort.




It's a full rich week at the comics shop with the announced releases of the newest issues of UNCLE $CROOGE and WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, the delayed appearance of the collected DUCKTALES: THE GOLD ODYSSEY, and -- if Fantagraphics ain't woofin' -- the release of Volume 3 of the E.C. Segar POPEYE collection. Between those tomes and a few items still to be read, I've got more than enough reading material to assuage those post-election blues.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween Hash-Over (Comics Reviews: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #695 [August 2008, Gemstone Publishing] and DONALD DUCK HALLOWEEN MINI-COMIC)

Every October 31st, talk-show host Michael Medved and his wife Diane put aside the issues of the day and argue the pros and cons of America's zaniest, most content-free holiday. Michael thinks it's a waste, Diane insists otherwise. Well, the lead stories of both of these Halloween-themed comics (you shouldn't let the August cover date of WDC&S fool you by this time) appear to be engaged in the same wrangle, using Donald as a cat's-paw. Marco Rota's "The Halloween Huckster," the lone offering in Gemstone's annual trick-or-treat giveaway, finds Donald ridiculing the holiday as kid's stuff and wondering how any adult could take it seriously. The grinning, glad-handing Kasper Kanterville, door-to-door "spooktacular salesman," spins Don's attitude around 180 degrees by displaying his quick-change costume transformations. Soon, Kasper and Don, clad in costume, are darting around Duckburg racking up scares by the score, including "attacks" on Scrooge, Daisy, Grandma, and Gyro. They finally meet their match, so to speak, when they invade a supposedly "haunted" house that's been staffed by HD&L for the duration and stuffed with fake frights for passersby. From the beginning, Kasper seems rather too enthusiastic for his narrowly defined job, so the ultimate revelation of his "true identity" is not really a surprise. For a Rota gag story, however, this is pretty decent, and much of the credit should go to David Gerstein, who provides the dialogue. Rota's plotting is sufficiently uneven that it needs the support of a strong dialoguer, and David certainly comes through here, peppering the dialogue with references to color-coded terrorist alerts, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Barack Obama (one scare at a time, please, David!). The tale is an excellent choice to advertise the advantages of Gemstone comics to newbie kids.

The contrast between Don's grumpiness at the start of "Huckster" and his behavior in Terry Laban and Paco Rodriques' "Trick or Treatment" in WDC&S #695 couldn't be starker. A fanged, cloaked Don actively participates in trick-or-treating (!), even pushing HD&L beyond the natural level of their willingness to engage in such activities. Don's desire to beg from just one more street lands him in a peck of trouble when he meets Bella, a sexy female in a witch costume. The nubile necromancette prevails upon Donald to be her date at a Halloween party (hopefully Daisy never gets wind of this), and the ghouls and goblins at the fete prove to be, you guessed it, the real thing. The unsuspecting Donald is soon being used as a pawn in a gambit to foil the schemes of Bella's horny (there's no other way to describe it) sister, who has used a spell to steal away Bella's vampire boyfriend but then quickly sets her overheated sights on Don (thereby giving Bella the chance to neutralize the other enchantment). Amazingly, Donald doesn't lose his temper over being exploited in such a fashion, though steam does come out of his head in one panel. I guess the "spirit of the holiday" was still in possession of him. The "spell" holds until Don is zapped home, at which point he has a delayed reaction and ends the story a quivering mass of nerves. Artistically, Bella has the same virtues and flaws as Rodriques' Lotus Blossom -- a real babe, but with disconcertingly "poofy" lips. I never liked it when Minnie displayed those big lips in the old days, and it's still rather a turn-off. Don's childish glee in trick-or-treating is sort of in character for him, I suppose, but I think that his cynicism in "Huckster" is a little more believable.

Most of the rest of the stories in WDC&S are Halloween-related by proxy, with one major exception. That would be Romano Scarpa's "The Sacred Spring of Seasons Past, part 1", dialogued with flair by Jonathan Gray. Atomo Bleep-Bleep, having been introduced to American audiences in MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #11, makes his debut in a standard comic here. He, Mickey, and Chief O'Hara's absent-minded, antique-dealing cousin Heath end the table-setter in hot pursuit of a Native American clad in prehistoric garb who's made off with an artifact that could unlock the secret of how North America was settled via Alaska -- not to mention provide a key to finding the immigrants' treasure horde. Unbeknownst to the trio, the thief has stowed away in their rickety biplane (where's Launchpad when you need him?). The story has that tell-tale Scarpa weirdness smeared all over it but looks very good otherwise. Elsewhere... Tom McKimson draws a good BRER RABBIT story from 1946 in which the bun visits a witch to get his mental mojo back. Turns out he never really lost it. Carl Barks' "Going Buggy" (1947) is related to Halloween only in the sense that HD&L and Don both get to dress up in wacky costumes. HD&L get most of the duty, donning bug costumes to convince their uncle that his home-brewed bug spray has created mutant vermin. Don gets wind of the subterfuge and scares the bejeezus out of the boys with a bird costume. He gets a rump full of buckshot for his pains but does come out on top in the (ouch!) end. Don's "win" is entirely justified in this case, of course, because the boys started the whole thing. Finally, Kari Korhonen and Vicar dish up a one-page gag in which Donald forces HD&L (who are wearing the same Halloween costumes they sported in Barks' "Trick or Treat") to leave their treat-friendly neighborhood and even -- horrors! -- suggests that they skip the usual door-to-door routine entirely. Don isn't being a Scrooge or the Halloween equivalent thereof; he's merely redirecting the boys' attention to Grandma Duck's "one-stop trick-or-treat pigout!". What fun, a pro-gluttony gag. Wasn't the point of those Halloween mini-comics to discourage people from giving kids too many sweets?