Sunday, December 28, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #383 (November 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

Don Rosa's "Guardians of the Lost Library" (1994) was created at a time when Keno Don was well into production of the initial chapters of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK. "Authenticity" was very much on Rosa's mind, as you can imagine, and the nit-picking desire for accuracy is certainly on display in this one-shot adventure. (In his companion text piece for this reprinting, Rosa even admits that he may have gotten a bit carried away.) Why, then, is "Guardians," which embodies so many of Rosa's creative weaknesses, such a beloved story? I think that the secret lies in the fact that Rosa was commissioned by Egmont to create it, as a tie-in for Norway's national "Year of the Book." Unlike LIFE OF SCROOGE, in which Rosa's tendency towards excess was limited only by his own imagination in stringing together incidents from Carl Barks stories, "Guardians" is a strictly "point-to-point" story with a certain inherent structure (telling the history of bookmaking and book collecting) that obliges the creator to focus on a single narrative that will justify that structure. And Rosa couldn't have picked a better one: an explanation of the tortured origins of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook. The story does, as Rosa admits, contain a lot of exposition, but it also contains plenty of action and physical humor (visited upon Scrooge, this time; the TV-addicted Donald stays home to "guard" Scrooge's Money Bin and thus avoids his standard Rosa-ration of abuse), and the partnership of Scrooge and HD&L is pleasantly reminiscent of DuckTales. The "reading is fun-damental" moral is obvious, but Rosa treats it with enough humor to make the pill go down easily. I can identify only one major area in which "Guardians" can be said to "flip over and burst into flames." The story makes clear the reason why the Guidebook contains such a plethora of obscure information, but, to be a proper guidebook for the Woodchucks, shouldn't it contain a lot of mundane matter, as well? A Woodchuck may need to translate ancient Etruscan one day, but he may also need to build a fire or make a knot the next; in fact, since most Woodchucks presumably don't have super-rich uncles who take them on globe-trotting adventures, I'd venture to say that the latter situation is much more likely. Perhaps this material is what a Nephew was referring to when he mentions that the founders of the Woodchucks "added lots of modern knowledge" to the Guidebook. One side-comment: Given the relentlessly secular nature of the Ducks' world, it was nice to see Rosa include a Greek Orthodox priest and a Catholic monk among those who assist Scrooge and the boys. Given the important role the Church played in preserving knowledge, using such characters would seem only natural, but Rosa deserves commendation for treating them in a non-snarky manner (though not without humor; e.g. the monks of the abbey of "San Slanti" would be right at home living in the Tower of Pisa).

The Dutch story "Gloom of the Unknown Author," by Ruud Stratman, Mau Heymans, and David Gerstein, is a very apropos follow-up to "Guardians" that takes as its cue a very simple question: How does the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook get updated each year? Like the question "What if one of the Nephews got tired of looking like his brothers?" in the DuckTales ep "Duck in the Iron Mask," this is one of those questions about the Ducks' world that, once asked, makes you wonder why it was never addressed before. It turns out that even HD&L and their "Grand Mogul" (what, no abbreviation?) don't know who's responsible. The lack of knowledge threatens the entire Woodchuck organization with a serious ontological crisis, while Donald figures that he can finally one-up the know-it-all 'Chucks by giving the news to the papers and Scrooge (of course) thinks that he might be able to profit somehow. The subsequent chase to track down the mysterious editor leads to another (and equally valid) question: even if the Woodchucks can find the "culprit," should they expose him? This straightforward tale raises a number of interesting questions about the ideals that uphold the Woodchucks and furnishes an interesting contrast to Rosa's highly entertaining, but nonetheless somewhat mechanical, expose of how the Guidebook originally came to be.

Compared to the stories that precede it, Kari Korhonen and Ferran Rodriguez' "The Senior Woodchuck" is 100% fluff, but it's still an enjoyable tale, though some of its details about the Woodchucks can be called into question. As you might surmise from the title, the plot revolves around Scrooge's attempt to crash the 'Chucks (as an honorary member). Of course, the ultimate reason for his effort is business-related. The mucky-mucks at JW HQ see this as an opportunity to get even with Scrooge for denying the 'Chucks land for camping and nature preservation, so they proceed to try to bilk him out of as many goodies as they can. Um, shouldn't Woodchuck officials be a little more upstanding than this? Likewise, Scrooge's being forced to work with a trio of inept Woodchucks as part of the "tests" he must perform makes me wonder how said 'Chucks were even allowed to stay in the corps. I mean, even Doofus proved his worth in DuckTales' "Superdoo!," and these fellows make Doofus look like a 10-star general. At least Scrooge winds up "getting what he deserves" in both a positive and a negative sense -- as do the conniving troop leaders. The fact that Rodriguez assisted Korhonen with the artwork may account for its "squashy" look. Personally, I'd prefer that Korhonen handle the art by himself.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Movie Review: BOLT (Walt Disney Pictures, 2008)

Disney's CGI feature Bolt contains little plot material we haven't seen somewhere before but remains a definite winner for all that. Disney TV fans are, of course, more than familiar with the idea of a supposedly "heroic" canine whose stardom has been manufactured by Hollywood; the Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers episode "Flash the Wonder Dog" and the 101 Dalmatians: The Series ep "Watch for Falling Idols" both gave the concept a thorough going-over. In those cases, however, the focus was on the loss of another character's (Dale's or Lucky's) faith in a supposed hero that turns out to have "paws of clay." Bolt's spin on the theme – that Bolt (John Travolta) has been conditioned to believe that his superpowers are real and that his mistress, Penny, really is in mortal danger – allows for a level of character development and self-discovery that Flash and Thunderbolt never had a chance to experience. (No doubt, this added layer of complexity owes something to the fact that Pixar's John Lasseter served in a supervisory capacity.) The manner in which Bolt is thrown upon his own resources is exceptionally contrived, and the unlikely allies that he meets – Mittens, a streetwise New York cat whose attitude towards Bolt is a fascinating mixture of fear, pity, contempt, and genuine concern, and Rhino, a nutty hamster who's a huge fan of Bolt the TV star – smack a little too much of formulaic casting (not to mention The Incredible Journey), but the cross-country trek that forms the narrative spine of the movie is executed with flair and great humor, with every character being given multiple moments to shine. Rhino's delusion-nourished one-liners are almost enough to carry the movie themselves… almost. I wish that the movie had dwelt a little longer on Bolt's gradual realization that he's "only canine," and the near-breakup of the traveling team is painfully predictable, but the denouement is impossible for even the worst cynic to resist. Certainly, the movie kept the audience with which I saw it emotionally involved to the very end.

I do confess to being a little baffled by the movie's conflicted view of the "flyover country" that Bolt, Mittens, and Rhino must slog and/or ride through (Bolt, after all, can't fly!) in order to return to Hollywood and "save Penny from the green-eyed man." The contrast between Hollywood phoniness (the technological and psychological manipulations that infest Bolt's TV series; the annoying agent who constantly tries to get the grieving Penny to forget her missing pal and literally "stay with the program") and the genuine connection between Penny and Bolt is crystal-clear, and the wholesome Middle America setting of the movie's final scene suggests that said setting is the perfect spot for such "authentic" emotion and, therefore, is morally superior to that of Tinseltown. Why, then, are all the human characters in this portion of the movie portrayed as being ugly, fat, oblivious, or a combination of all three? Were the writers conflicted – wanting to "only connect" with red-state America while, at the same time, proving incapable of purging those carefully nurtured mental stereotypes from their characterizations of the Middle American cast members? Or might this have been a case of Wall-E hangover? (At least these "plain folks" are capable of autonomous movement as they waddle to their RV parks and "Waffle World" restaurants.)

Apart from the debt that Bolt's plot may owe to those aforementioned humble TV episodes, I noticed a few other fairly suspicious "might-be" borrowings. Three trios of humorous pigeons – with each group emoting in a manner befitting its setting -- pop up in NYC, L.A., and the "down-home" setting of the final scene, but the fact that the NYC pigeons appear first and do GoodFellas shtick suggests that the writers may have had Animaniacs' "GoodFeathers" somewhere in the backs of their minds. Likewise, Mittens may not sing, but her general attitude (not to mention her underlying desire for a home) reminded me of Rita (though Bolt "def'n'tely" has little in common with Runt the sheepdog!). The claim made by some reviewers that Inspector Gadget's Penny and Brain inspired the characters of Penny and Bolt may also have some basis in fact, but the fact that Animaniacs is a little more contemporary may make my case just a bit stronger.

Bolt was accompanied by a "Cars-Toon" in which Mater is pitted against an arrogant Japanese car (voiced by Robert Ito, who the bloody heck else?) in a race to the top of the Tokyo Tower (which couldn't possibly have been built by the inhabitants of a world of cars without any hands, or… but those who know me already know my fundamental beef about Cars). I assume that the "globe-trotting" aspect of this action-filled short ("filled"? More like stuffed and oozing out of the side, like the jelly in a jelly donut) is meant to be a foreshadowing of Cars 2. If so, then I think Pixar may have some problems piecing together a coherent plot that lives up to its usual high standards in the areas of character development and audience involvement. Toy Story 2 managed to do it by introducing some winning new characters, and I suspect that Cars 2 may have to do the same thing, or it might end up resembling the live-action Speed Racer all too closely.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Brace of Holiday Book Reviews

Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a great New Year!




How well I remember my Dad warning me against majoring in what he called "farts and litters" in college! Ironically, as a longtime member of the Jesuits, he himself had a classical education, including a healthy dose of readings from what used to be known as "the Western canon" but what is now sometimes disparaged as the roll call of "the dead white males." In A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: THE RISE, FALL, AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT BOOKS (Public Affairs Books, 2008), Alex Beam provides a lively and entertaining survey of the mid-20th-century push to make the "canon" accessible to a mass audience, in the form of Encyclopedia Britannica's GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. The "Great Books" still serve as the focus of the traditional "core curricula" at such schools as Columbia University, St. John's College, Shimer College, and Thomas Aquinas College, but they have largely been abandoned elsewhere for reasons more or less convincing. The drive to make the likes of Faraday, Gibbon, and Aristophanes (... "ridiculous"!! Hi, Odd Couple fans!) after-dinner reading for middle-class families turned out to be a non-starter, though some aging acolytes have kept the flame burning with "Great Books Discussion Groups."

In retrospect, the original GREAT BOOKS collection had two fatal flaws: It provided absolutely no ancillary material to help inexperienced readers cope with obscure language and concepts (let's not even talk about the misguided inclusion of classic texts of science and mathematics; I've read excerpts from these and trust me, you MUST have a guide to get through them!) and the quality of its printing was atrocious (minuscule type, double-column format). That being said, I happen to think that a judicious use of readings from original sources is a necessary part of liberal education. You simply need to avoid the trap of providing "too much of a good thing."

Thanks to the work of Allan Bloom and such defenders of the traditional academy as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, defenses of the "Great Books" have come to be associated with political conservatism. Beam seems to think that this is a strike against them, and this is the one major flaw in his argument. Why should he be so surprised? Colleges have trivialized and dumbed down their curricula to such an extent that SOME form of dissent is inevitable, and, given the prevailing political ethos on modern campuses, it is natural that conservatives should be placed in the position of defending what has been dismantled. Nor is the current "Great Books" movement a political monolith. Some "Great Books" schools have a conservative political bent, but St. John's and Shimer, among others, do not. Judging by the anecdotal evidence Beam provides, participants in "Great Books Discussion Groups" include a fair number of people on the left. The whole idea of using "Great Books" is to bring fundamental ideas into the spotlight for open and vigorous debate, and that's something on which both fair-minded liberals and fair-minded conservatives should be able to agree. Let's use readings from original sources more often in ALL colleges, I say. Just don't expect me -- or anyone else -- to read Apollonius' CONICS without a few judiciously positioned nets.




Anyone interested in the future of conservatism ought to read Claire Berlinski's THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE: WHY MARGARET THATCHER MATTERS (Basic Books, 2008). Thatcher is both loved and loathed, and both for good reason. Taking power in Britain at a time when the country was an absolute basket case, the grocer's daughter realized that extreme measures were needed in order to pull Britain off the downward path of socialism and liberate the considerable entrepreneurial energies of its people. She ultimately succeeded, but not without causing dislocations and fundamental changes that, by contrast, make Ronald Reagan's strides forward to "morning in America" look like a cakewalk. Her imperious personality only made her drastic policies seem all the more drastic. There is an important lesson to be learned here: any really profound change away from socialism and towards capitalism will make permanent enemies, so any politician who seeks to make such changes must either be able to ignore the critics or transcend them.

Berlinski interviews both allies and adversaries of Thatcher, including an interesting visit with some former miners whose lives were changed forever in the wake of the failed miners' strike of 1984. Berlinski's sympathies obviously lie with Thatcher, but she gives Thatcher's enemies a fair chance to be heard. I happen to agree with Berlinski's summation that while current geopolitical issues (radical Islamic terrorism, which Thatcher frankly failed to recognize as a big threat) may seem to have little to do with the Cold War milieu in which Thatcher operated, the eternal appeal of the secular religion of socialism (especially when it forms an "unholy alliance" of expediency with Islamic enemies of the West, as detailed by David Horowitz and others) will always make Thatcher's ideas and experiences relevant. This is a very well-written book with a very important message.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #698 (November 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

A real hodge-podge of an issue this time, so I'll start with my favorite "supplementary" feature: the SCAMP tale "Useful Things (and How to Use Them)" by the creative team of Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Daniel Perez, who brought this character back to the American comics pages in such delightful fashion in WDC&S #665's "Just Like Pop." This tale is less ambitious than that one but no less charming for all that. Jock is ashamed to admit that he doesn't know the purpose of an old metronome he's found, so he and Scamp set out to discover what it can be used for. We get some nice cross-references to the rotating animal supporting cast of the SCAMP daily strip as a gopher and Cheeps the bird make brief appearances. Mr. Ger-r-r-r-stein tr-r-r-ries a bit too har-r-r-r-rd to mimic Bill Thompson's Scottish accent for Jock, but that's hardly a fault.

The issue actually begins with a couple of items that are almost as "dated" as the early-1900s milieu to which Jensen, Gerstein, and Perez have returned Scamp and friends. Carl Barks' "Donald's Bay Lot" (1944) features an "explosive" climax as Donald goes to rather extreme lengths to make a shabby beach shack, sold to him by a sleazy real-estate agent, a more attractive item for buyers. Since this was a wartime story, I'm surprised that Don didn't wind up arrested for unauthorized misuse of government -- or would that be enemy? -- property. Part one of the Floyd Gottfredson MICKEY MOUSE strip continuity "The Boxing Champion" (1931) casts us back even further in time. Mickey plays something of a secondary role here to Ruffhouse Rat, who bears the proud title of "heavy-light-weight champion," though how he earned it I don't want to think; he exercises while reading Shakespeare, gets battered by fence boards and chickens, and uses heavy hammers to crack nuts. Mickey, tasked with managing this paragon's next bout, learns to his dismay that the opponent is "gorilla-grappler" Creamo Catnera. The "coming next issue" blurb indicates that Creamo will wind up fighting Mickey, rather than Ruffhouse, so Creamo should at least get some sort of reasonable challenge, if only because Mickey is nimbler. I can't help but think that Gottfredson was influenced in some way by the contemporary THIMBLE THEATER Sunday strip's use of Popeye as a "s'prize fighter"; many of the boxing and training gags are in the same spirit as Segar's.

The next story, "Donald Duck's Fouled-Up Fairy Tale," is the subject of this issue's cover, which highlights Daisy and her nieces. I wonder when April, May, and June last appeared on a cover? David Gerstein told me that this was one of the earliest stories he wrote for Egmont, and it's a good one, though a little contrived. AM&J, who are presently working through an obsession with fairy tales, decide to dress up and act out some of the stories, even as the on-the-lam Beagle Boys seek to raid the Ducks' "getaway cabin" while clad in animal disguises. Interestingly, the Beagle Boys appear to think that lions qualify as common "forest critters" in this particular neck of the woods. Did I say a little contrived? I stand corrected. You can pretty much figure out what goes down from here. Donald seems unusually competent in this story, figuring out that the "animals" are actually Beagles in disguise and dispatching several of them with fairly extreme prejudice. Daniel Branca's artwork is great, as usual. David was still smoothing out the rough edges in this story -- he wouldn't get nearly as cutesy-wootsey as this in most of his later efforts -- but you can see the promise.

After Scamp and Jock's "metro-nomadic" search and a two-page BRER RABBIT story, we come to the ish's one undeniable stinkeroo, Pat and Carol McGreal and Vicar's DONALD DUCK story "The Fizzy Pop Fiend." Donald's obsession with the titular soda pop wouldn't be funny even if it were original, which it isn't; see Barks' "Bubbleweight Champ". "Unca Donald's got a problem!", HD&L intone as their addled uncle becomes increasingly desperate in his quest to acquire enough Fizzy Pop labels to make a killing in a sweepstakes in which the big prize is a year's supply of the sugary substance. The boys, Scrooge, and Daisy finally perform an "intervention" and have Donald sent to a health farm, where he's soon on the "Road to Wellville." But there's still the result of that contest to consider... Suffice it to say that this story is struggling for scraps of humor when it uses a massive belch as a centerpiece of one scene. We're also expected to believe that Donald's spilling some Fizzy Pop in a very small area of Scrooge's Money Bin obliges Scrooge to have "every bill" in the Bin dry cleaned. The McGreals appear to be aiming for a somewhat cynical ending, but it doesn't come close to the overall nastiness of "Bubbleweight Champ," in which Donald was characterized as completely pathetic, rather than merely obsessed. "Fiend," I'm sorry to say, is one soda story that was "flat" from the very beginning... and, with that, I'll mimic Dale from the Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers episode "The Case of the Cola Cult" and bid you "soda-long" for now.

Bunnies Plugged

I wouldn't recommend "Comparison of Side Effects between Buprenorphine and Meloxicam Used Postoperatively in Dutch Belted Rabbits" as leisure reading, but this paper, soon to be published in a journal of veterinary medicine, will mark my second authorial credit in a peer-reviewed journal. Thanks go to Dr. Diana Scorpio at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for allowing me to provide statistical analysis for this project. More credits may be forthcoming, as both of my Independent Research students from the fall semester stand an excellent chance of getting cited on papers that include their data analyses.

See you later this evening with a new Disney comics review.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S CHRISTMAS PARADE #5 (Gemstone Publishing, December 2008)

After a one-year hiatus, XMAS PARADE returns with an excellent, though at times deuced peculiar, collection of holiday stories. The lead-off reprint of Carl Barks' "The Thrifty Spendthrift" (1963) is actually the most "normal" thing in the ish, and that's saying something, considering that Scrooge is under hypnosis most of the time and Donald and HD&L spend several pages dressed up in bird costumes. Having learned nothing from his disastrous experiment with a toy hypno-gun eleven years earlier, Donald attempts to use a "hypno-ray" bamboozle his tightwad uncle into buying him scads of Christmas gifts. Thanks to innocent interference by HD&L, however, Scrooge's intentions wind up being "fixed" on the Duchess of Duckshire's dog. Soon Scrooge is busily gathering up the components to bring the famed presents named in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to life, while a frantic Donald, assuming that the gifts are for him -- and that he'll get stuck with the room-and-board bill for hosting all those dancing ladies, piping pipers, leaping lords, etc. -- is just as busily trying to sabotage him. Don drafts his Nephews as the "three French hens," and he, himself, suits up as the pear-tree-perching partridge just to cut down on the expenses he expects to have to shoulder. Compared to such Barks Christmas classics as "Letter to Santa" and "A Christmas for Shacktown," "Spendthrift" has the story content of the average fluffernutter, but this ultra-lightweight story still manages to entertain. A rather mournful note is struck in the first panel when Scrooge makes a reference to John F. Kennedy ("My money! It vigahrizes me to dive around in it like a porpoise!"). Barks completed the story in the summer of '63, but it was published the month after Kennedy was assassinated. I believe that several DC Comics stories featuring JFK as a supporting player also came out after the President's death.

The 1954 Italian story "Memoirs of an Invisible Santa" is so bizarre that it makes "Spendthrift" seem like poker-faced drama. Goofy's home-brewed perfume, meant as a gift for Minnie, winds up turning both him and Mickey invisible (apart from their feet, that is -- we have to have some way of tracking them, right?). While the perdu pals search for a way out of their dilemma (and spook a healthy portion of Mouseton in the process), Minnie, Daisy, Donald, HD&L, and Scrooge wait with increasing impatience for Mickey and Goofy to keep their promise of meeting them for a Christmas Eve party. The gang gets so steamed that they start hurling insults at the absent pair, even as the newly-solidified duo return to overhear. Soon, a full-blown pah-rump-a-pum-rumpus erupts, complete with snowball fight. Will tempers cool before the clock strikes Christmas? And why is the fact that said clock (another Goofy project) is running faster than normal a key to making the season bright once again? It's always a treat to see the Duck and Mouse characters interact in a full-length story, but we're about as far from "Mythos Island" territory here as can be imagined -- rather, think Home Alone without the "cuteness" of the Culkin-crooks conflict. The suddenness with which M&G's pals turn on them is rather jarring, even considering that the Italian comics do tend to make their relationships a little rockier than American readers are used to. It's well drawn by Romano Scarpa and expertly dialogued by David Gerstein, but it definitely falls in the "more weird than truly hilarious" category.

The zaniness continues as Pat and Shelly Block and Tino Santanach's "Cookery Countdown" somehow contrives to make Donald's purchase of a new set of crockery a mechanism for getting orbit-bound shuttle astronauts a real Christmas dinner. In Stefan Petrucha and Jose Ramon Bernardo's "Better to Give Than to Deceive," we appear to return to familiar "true meaning of Christmas" territory as Mickey teaches spendthrift Horace Horsecollar a lesson about buying presents for himself as opposed to others, but that's only setting us up for Kari Korhonen's "Mr. Clerkly's Christmas", one of the cleverest subversions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL I've ever read. Amazingly, Korhonen manages to do the deed without making any character look truly "bad." After a local TV crew catches a stressed Scrooge cursing out Christmas as "a lie... empty sentiment wrapped in tinsel!", the negative publicity imperils a business deal the tycoon's got cooking. A seemingly contrite Scrooge invites the newsies to his Money Bin to learn how "generous" he truly is to his employees, but Clerkly inadvertently curdles the eggnog, and Scrooge responds by ripping his faithful clerk a new... er, page out of the account book. Is Clerkly truly Scrooge's Bob Cratchit? A series of unlikely coincidences lead the increasingly guilt-ridden Scrooge to believe as much... but he's got a surprise coming to him. Some may regard Korhonen's ending as cynical; I prefer to think of it as realistic, given what little we know about Clerkly (not to mention Scrooge himself). In light of the current economic crisis, you might even find yourself thinking that Clerkly does, indeed, have a point. This story shows that you can do an effective CAROL parody without relying on mean-spirited or gross humor, and, for that alone, I'm grateful.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fanfic Review: KIM POSSIBLE in "THE CLAWS OF THE KITTEN" by Richard Smyers

Those who, like me, toiled for years in the fruitful vineyard of the Disney TV-themed a.p.a. WTFB (1992-2003) will readily attest to the extremely high quality of the fan fiction produced by such writers as Kim McFarland, Michael Demcio, the late Jim Kellogg, and others. WTFB may be gone, but some scriveners are still pushing the pen (or clicking the keyboard) to great effect, as witness this story from longtime member Richard Smyers. The a.p.a. went under just as Kim Possible -- arguably, the last truly outstanding show to be produced by Walt Disney TV Animation -- was hitting its stride, so Kim, Ron Stoppable, and company never got a fair chance to strut their stuff on WTFB's spiral-bound pages. Richard gives us a peek at what we may have missed with this excellent effort, which stays faithful to the generally light-hearted spirit of the source material while including somewhat grimmer subject matter.

For those interested in dipping into this fanfic, I won't dilute the wine by giving away any plot points, but suffice it to say that the daring Kim gets to play a "role" here that more than a few Disney feature-animation characters have had to shoulder. And she carries it off quite well, I might add. The one-shot villain, Al Capone wannabe Al K. Trazz, seems very much like an overstated TV villain at first, but behind the corny dialogue lurks a deadly serious bad guy who has very nasty plans for the entire planet if he doesn't get his way. A number of Kim's regular adversaries get face time as well, and I'm pleased to report that the petty bickering that frequently characterized their relationship on TV has been preserved here (though their ultimate "fate" is a pleasant surprise). Kim, Ron, Wade, Rufus, and Kim's family members are all very well characterized, including a few folks whom I don't recall ever having met on the small screen (they may have appeared in episodes I missed; I don't know). The only real debit is a somewhat talky last chapter that follows up one of the most emotional moments that these characters have ever experienced with what feels, for all the world, like an extended version of a "coffee scene" from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Richard is always careful to add dashes of verisimilitude and "little known facts" to his stories, but here, the placement of the material seemed awkward. Still, any KP fan is bound to love this story. Better yet, Richard promises more tales to come. The spirit of WTFB refuses to die!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #382 (October 2008, Gemstone Publishing)

A "Festivus" issue (see my post on WDC&S #697) suffused with the worthy, yet occasionally treaclesome, sentiment of characters learning "the true meaning of the holiday season" leads off with something brisk, bracing, and decidedly UNsentimental -- Carl Barks' "The Money Champ." This 1959 story marks the second appearance of Flintheart Glomgold, and, within its panels, the South African squajillionaire who'd acted simply as Scrooge's doppelganger during the first go-round begins the long slide into sinfulness. Challenging Scrooge to another "contest for the money championship of the universe!" -- this time, it's a straightforward pileup of the two ducks' riches (converted into silver dollar form) at a Duckburg airport -- Flinty cheats in order to prosper. The avaricious Afrikaaner uses transparent aliases to hamstring some of Scrooge's business enterprises, puffs up his own money pile with the help of an air pump, and buys a witch doctor's "shrinking juice" in order to shrivel Scrooge's tycoonhood. Glomgold does appear to realize, on some level, the damage he's doing to his soul, worrying "I've betrayed my dear old mother's fondest hopes [and] turned myself into a scoundrel!", but, once he buys the Jivaro Juice, there's literally no turning back. (In a symbolic assertion of his "good-guy" status forever after vis-a-vis Flinty, Scrooge proudly refuses to buy any of the witch doctor's wares when he gets the chance to do so.) By the time of his third appearance, Flinty had turned into a murderous thug, and his subsequent persona on DuckTales wasn't much nicer. For all intents and purposes, this is a Scrooge solo -- Donald and HD&L play a decidedly secondary role -- and it's one of Barks' better long stories from the late 50s, though there are a few glitches here and there. (Why, for example, does Glomgold fret over "going to jail" after Scrooge literally kicks his butt on the final page? Did he actually do anything illegal that the authorities knew about?) The cynical characterization of the Duckburg populace as a fickle mob that alternately glories in Scrooge's status as "money champ" ("The only claim to glamor Duckburg has!" frets one native) and sucks up to Flinty when it appears that he's going to win is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the tale.

For the balance of the issue, it's ho-ho-hold back no attempt to tug at the heartstrings as Scrooge and Donald get lessons in Christmas-ology 101 in a trio of decent, though predictably mechanical, stories. Jens Hansegard and Jose Massaroli first serve up "Scrooge's Workshop," in which Scrooge, obsessed with the "menace" of a gift-giving, uncompensated Santa, takes advantage of a legal loophole and literally takes possession of Santa's toy factory. The new Claus is most definitely not the same as the old Claus, hatching a scheme to deliver gifts throughout the month of December and (horrors!) ask for payment in return. This works about as well as might be expected, but Scrooge is thankfully jolted back to sanity by the sight of an elf-made toy train, which reminds him of a gift he got as a wee lad. Next, in the Daniel Branca-drawn "The Great Lot Plot," Donald is shamed into aggressive solicitation for a phony charity, goes ballistic when he learns the truth, yet exits the tale with a new-found compassion for "Duckburg's dreariest." David Gerstein tries to pump some extra life into the modest storyline with some turbo-charged dialogue but unfortunately overwrites some of it, to the extent that it's very hard to imagine the characters actually speaking their lines. Hansegard then returns (with Vicar and John Clark) in "The Madness of King Scrooge," which finds Scrooge being forced to give out largess to Donald and his Money Bin staff in order to maintain his status as "King of Christmas" at the Billionaires' Club Christmas fete. Determined to stop Donald, at least, from "squandering" his $500 bonus, an increasingly frantic Scrooge tries repeated subterfuges to con his nephew out of the money. He relents, however, after he learns that Don used the funds to finance a family Christmas party -- and included Scrooge as one of the gift recipients. Scrooge really gets off lightly here, considering the extreme lengths to which he goes to get his money back; why, he even manages to turn a profit in the end! But only at Christmastime, it would seem, can a one-panel penance reap such rich rewards. Overall, this isn't a bad issue, but last week's CHRISTMAS PARADE (which I'll review soon) certainly qualifies as a more memorable Yuletide reading experience.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 3: "LET'S YOU AND HIM FIGHT!" (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to a burgeoning pop-culture phenomenon of the sort that Popeye had become by the early 1930s. Bluto, Popeye's eternal antagonist on both the large and small screens, provides the menace in "The Eighth Sea" (1932), this latest Segar collection's first extended narrative. The hulking, black-bearded pirate scourge does enjoy the privilege of an extended fistfight with the sailor man (nearly getting permanently dispatched by the terrible force of Popeye's "twisker sock") but consequently suffers the relatively placid fate of being set adrift in a lifeboat, along with a band of thugs that had stowed away on Popeye's ship in hopes of glomming onto a "vast treasure." That was it for Bluto's comic-strip career, but the Fleischer Studios just happened to be starting its series of POPEYE shorts at the time and latched onto the big brute as an ideal foil.

"The Eighth Sea" cabooses neatly onto a lengthy, though sometimes wandering, story in which Nazilia's King Blozo returns in triumph to his country with gold to prop up his pathetic economy, survives an attempted coup and an electoral challenge from the cigar-chomping General Bunzo (his commander during "The Great Rough-House War"), and then agrees to sell an outlying island to Popeye, who's intrigued with the notion of setting up an entire nation from scratch. "Popeye, King of Popilania" definitely points toward the later "The Dictator of Spinachovia" but lacks the topical satirical sting of that story, including only a few passing references to the Depression (e.g. Popeye ensures "prosperiky" for his new realm by turning a horde of invading jaybirds sent by the jealous Blozo into a Shmoo-like source of all manner of salable products) and wedging in a severely silly subplot in which Popeye lures bachelors from Nazilia by offering them the matrimonial services of a tribe of "wild women." Presaging the denouement of "Spinachovia," Popeye ultimately gives up on nation-building and generously turns over his kingdom to Blozo, who's watched his land depopulate as a result of Popeye's eccentric, but genuine, largesse. Perhaps Popeye had come to realize that government will always turn out "punk" regardless of whether its leader is a two-fister straight-shooter like himself or a whining worrywart like Blozo. "Spinachovia" would hone this point to a rapier's keenness a few years down the line.

The last story in the volume, besides introducing another key member of Popeye's extended "tribe," illustrates Segar's nimbleness as a story-teller, in the sense that he knew when to cut away from a less-than-inspired plot and go in an entirely different direction that ultimately netted vast profits. After returning from Popilania/Nazilia, Popeye (joined by Wimpy, who'd made his first extended appearance in the daily strip in the role of the ineffective "commander" of Popilania's minuscule army), accepts Castor Oyl's offer to invest his profits in a newspaper. The ensuing reporter-and-photographer gags evidently didn't excite Segar, who executes a neat swerve by having Popeye receive a mysterious package. Inside is Swee'pea, who will, of course, become Popeye's child-ward forever after. (Segar obviously loved the "package" gambit, as he also used it to introduce Bernice the Whiffle Hen and Eugene the Jeep. No wonder; it's a sure-fire way to build suspense and make a new character's appearance seem like something really out of the ordinary.) Swee'pea is being pursued by agents of his "superstitious" homeland of Demonia, who regard the infant as a "lucky gift from the gods" on account of the seven moles on his back. The Demonians inflict such a series of head-blows upon Popeye that the sailor suffers a supposedly fatal case "bonkus of the conkus." Even when mentally addled, however, Popeye holds his ward in an iron grip, braving a sojourn in the desert (and an attack from a goon sent to track him and Swee'pea down) and finally curing himself through sheer willpower. Segar puts the cap on this extraordinarily detailed "diversion" by bringing Popeye home to take over a small-town newspaper.

In this era's Sunday strips, Wimpy really comes into his own as the ultimate sponger, driving Rough-House to distraction (and even into a hospital at one point!) and even discomfiting poor Popeye at times. The "s'prize fight" theme gradually fades into the background as Segar prepares for "Plunder Island," his greatest Sunday continuity (and, arguably, his most famous story), which will be reproduced in full in the next volume. (In a sort of anticipation of that epic, Segar sends John Sappo and Professor O.G. Wottasnozzle on a lengthy trip to Mars and Venus in THIMBLE THEATRE's always-entertaining Sunday-page companion strip.) And that's not all, folks; we close the volume with a series of never-before-reprinted strips from early 1933 in which Popeye and friends experience the Chicago World's Fair in their own unique way. These strips appeared in the sports sections of the Hearst newspapers, which perhaps explains why Segar was willing to dare convention (not to mention evoke nausea) by having Olive Oyl emulate Sally Rand and perform a fan dance. Popeye likewise "has his way" with a series of chorus girls and dancers, as indirectly indicated by the fact that a whole slew of them cry at his departure from the Windy City in the series' final strip. Between this additional newspaper exposure, the debut of the Fleischer cartoons, and the canonical newspaper strip, 1933 might be considered the peak year of Segar's career -- except that some of his greatest narratives were still over the horizon. Save for yet another obscure and muddy introductory spiel by Donald Phelps, this would be an absolutely perfect package of classic comic-strip entertainment.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #697 (Festivus, 2008*, Gemstone Publishing)

* No, this isn't a Seinfeld reference... but how else can I describe a comic with an October cover date but a Christmas theme?!

A first-class holiday (ah, that otherwise annoying euphemism seems to hit the mark in this case) issue leads off with one of my favorite "low-key" Carl Barks seasonal stories, 1954's "Submarine Christmas." This could have been so much sappier than it actually was, but Barks treats Scrooge's decision to abandon his undersea search for a sunken, money-laden McDuck Industries steamship and improvise a Christmas celebration for Donald and the Nephews with a directness that seems quite appropriate for Scrooge's no-guff character. The good fortune that soon follows makes for one of the most delightful endings of any Barks story. The one criticism I would make is that Donald's forgetting to mail HD&L's letter to Santa introduces a "fantasy element" that really didn't have to be there. Barks famously used Santa in the classic long story "Letter to Santa" and in "Toyland", a FIRESTONE GIVEAWAY story originally written by someone else, but otherwise steered clear of directly involving the jolly old elf. HD&L's explosive reaction to Don's brain-lapse suggests that Santa is the only possible source for presents, which he obviously is not. It would have been better had the boys simply evinced depression and then dutifully provided Scrooge with the midnight (I guess) snack that pricked the old miser's conscience. Aside from this one nit, the story is near-perfect -- beautifully written and just as beautifully drawn.

Noel Van Horn next serves up a new holiday classic in the sprightly and imaginative MICKEY MOUSE story "Tradition." (No, Tevye is not involved. How could he be?) Mickey, it seems, has a most unusual holiday habit -- hunting for a Christmas tree "high atop Mt. Ominous!" and then using it as a toboggan to slide back down to Mouseton, where eager citizens await his return. This time around, the Mouse runs afoul of an obsessed dealer in artificial trees who wants to sell Mickey one of his charlatan conifers. The pushy pseudo-pine peddler is exceptionally reminiscent of those "one-shot loony" characters that so thickly populated Papa Bill's older stories, though Noel, true to his somewhat more subdued approach, dispenses with outright insanity for the most part. Very funny stuff, though Noel once again gets a little wordy with his dialogue.

The 1970s Dutch BIG BAD WOLF story "So Bad He's Good" is the only story in the issue sans even the remotest holiday trimmings (unless you reflexively mumble "... so be good, for goodness sake!" after reading the title), but it's so attractively drawn (by Robert van der Kroft) and so expertly dialogued (by the modern "Big Bad Wolf Dialogue Daddy," David Gerstein) that it's a welcome visitor here. Arm-twisted into performing bad deeds to prove his "goodness" on Zeke's inverted scale of values, Li'l Bad finally hits on a satisfying solution: save the Pigs and thereby disobey his Dad (by doing good deeds) to show that he's truly "bad"! Got that? A simple enough idea, but very, very well executed. Van der Kroft's Li'l Bad isn't as cute as Cesar Ferioli's, but he's close.

"All Work and No Christmas," by Janet Gilbert and Vicar, is the only questionable story in the holiday stocking, on a philosophical level at least. Consumed with the development and subsequent marketing of a new computer game, HD&L forget all about Christmas and claim to be too "busy" to engage in the usual festivities. It takes a cooperative effort from Donald, Daisy, Grandma, Gyro, and Scrooge to break the spell, but my main gripe lies in the fact that HD&L went so far off the rails in the first place. "Comical obsession" plots are all well and good when Donald is involved, but the down-to-earth HD&L?? It's also hard to believe that HD&L would become such big moguls so quickly, moving from backyard (in this case, actually, bedroom) inventors to inhabitants of a snazzy office building in the span of just eight pages. I didn't like this sort of thing in the DuckTales episode "Yuppy Ducks," and I'm not buying it here, either.

Of the grab bag of short stories that fill out the balance of the ish, the best item is Sarah Kinney and Miguel Martinez' "Cabin Fever." It's the familiar situation of two characters (Mickey and Goofy) getting stuck in a snowed-in cabin and rubbing one another the wrong way, but with an extra edge to it given the nature of the characters involved. "You haven't even started to be as irritating as I know you can be," Mickey groans as he starts to panic, and M&G are about to engage in all-out snowball warfare when they discover that their dire situation isn't nearly as dire as they'd thought. I wonder how long M&G will take to forget this unpleasant sojourn and reboot to their default settings. In Lars Jensen, David Gerstein, and Marsal's "The Great Swap Flop" (and how are you today, Mr. Lockman?), Donald strings together a chain of commitments to others just so he can avoid shoveling his own snow-filled walk. You just know that it has to snap back on him at some point. Another Dutch "Swamp Folk" tale dialogued by Gerstein has Brer Fox dressing as Santa to trick Brer Rabbit, only to run afoul of Brer Bear. Bucky Bug returns in a story dialogued by Donald Markstein, as he and his snowbound pals are forced to blast their way to freedom using New Year's fireworks. Finally, a one-page gag by the 1930s British Disney artist Wilfred Haughton, "Snow Use," makes an extremely obscure point with the assistance of an extremely out-of-place British householder.