Sunday, May 31, 2009

Goode for... Something

The Goode Family, Mike Judge's new series on ABC (Wednesday at 9pm), has a ways to go to measure up to King of the Hill, if the pilot episode is any indication. A lot of the gags poking fun at the pretensions of the left fell pretty flat. I'm reminded of Daniel Flynn's comment on Ayn Rand's work in his book INTELLECTUAL MORONS: "Rand's liberals are caricatures of real liberals, but that may be because liberals are themselves often cartoonish." The Goodes' characterizations are "cartoonish" in a way that those of Hank, Peggy, and Bobby Hill never were (though Bobby was a little bizarre at the start of the series, being hypnotized by ants and the like). I don't know how much potential for character development is there.

Towards the end of the episode, the father and daughter basically were on their own, and I think that was a good move. The Goodefather (hyuck) is basically Judge's Mr. Van Dreesen from Beavis and Butt-Head all over again, but seems a likable guy for all that. Bliss may be the character who, wittingly or un-, brings all sorts of non-progressive notions into the Goode's household and therefore will be forced to make real choices about her beliefs. On the other hand, Mrs. (I guess I should say "Ms.," eh?) Goode folded up like an accordion under societal pressure, taking straight to drink at one point, while Ubuntu the African adopted boy (a white kid from South Africa -- Nicky has a white co-worker from S.A. who resents the fact that the term "African American" is reserved solely for blacks born in the U.S.) seems positively weird, with his guttural dialogue and bizarrely deep voice. Given how Bobby started out, however, I would say there's some hope for Ubuntu.

In upcoming eps, I think that the creators will be well served to (1) give the Goodes some good foils and (2) anchor them in some definitive sense of "place." Goode needs some "pals" like Hank's. Perhaps the show can take a page from Hanna-Barbera's Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (viz., Harry Boyle's ultra-right-wing neighbor Ralph) and create a character who is both friends with Goode and an even farther-out liberal than him. The black neighbor who acted bemused when the Goodes tried to interact with him might be a good straight man. Then, to balance the ticket, how about a conservative friend who's a little less stereotyped than the church folks and their "purity ball." Mrs. Goode's "pressure group" at the Whole Foods-type store didn't impress me, but perhaps their personalities will be further developed down the road. No number of supporting players, however, will help if we can't get a feel for where, exactly, the Goodes live. Apparently, it's supposed to be a Midwestern town, so we're already fighting against "creeping generic syndrome" in a way that the Texan characters of KOTH never had to. I'm sorry that they didn't make it a true college town, as opposed to a town that simply has a junior college (Goode's employer) in it.

Best gags so far? (1) The dog Che's ravenous appetite for meat in protest of his unwanted vegan diet. Best illustration of the "Law of Unintended Consequences" I've seen in a long while; (2) Mrs. Goode's reacting to flag pins like Dracula to the brandishing of a cross. Those bits don't appear to have much room for further development, however, so the gag writers had better get busy. The pilot supposedly did rather poorly in the ratings, so the next couple of weeks will determine the show's fate. Remember how networks yanked shows like Capitol Critters, God, the Devil, and Bob and Clerks from circulation at the first signs of slippage. Hopefully, Judge's good track record will buy the show the time it needs to improve.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Last of the Allwine

Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey Mouse for the past 26 years, died of complications from diabetes on May 18. Allwine was fortunate in that, unlike his immediate predecessor, Jimmy MacDonald, he got a full and fair chance to display his talents in real, live (?) mass-marketed cartoons in which Mickey was actually allowed to BE Mickey, as opposed to a symbol/spokesmouse. Mickey Mouse Works (1999-2000) and Disney's House of Mouse (2001-2003), though their impact was somewhat limited by the ongoing decline of the Disney TV Animation operation and their own relatively rigid formats, hit the bullseye more often than not. Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), The Prince and the Pauper (1990), Runaway Brain (1995), The Three Musketeers (2004), and other such "one-off" efforts also merit praise. My one real regret regarding Allwine's sterling career is that Allwine didn't get a chance to star in an honest-to-gosh adventure series (one, perhaps, even based on the comic-strip stories of Floyd Gottfredson) on the order of DuckTales and other series from DTVA's "Golden Age." The occasional seven-minute clashes with The Phantom Blot or "costume dramas" on Mouse Works don't quite cut it. Allwine certainly had the chops and attitude to carry it off.

In tribute to Allwine, here's his duet with the great Tress MacNeille (as Daisy Duck) in a House of Mouse ep:

And how could I leave out the song's reprise with Minnie, voiced by Allwine's own wife of 20 years, the equally talented Russi Taylor (She originally had me at "Quackaroonie!", but I digress):

Condolences to Russi and the rest of the Allwine family.

Book Review: A. LINCOLN, A BIOGRAPHY by Ronald C. White, Jr. (Random House, 2009)

This being the bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, how could I not read at least one Lincoln biography? I learned of White's effort on The Michael Medved Show and was glad of the tip. It is a solid effort with good insights on the structure of Lincoln's speeches and his developing religious beliefs. The author's straightforward tone and generally formal mode of presentation hits the occasional jarring note --White's comment that historians have typically portrayed Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham as "a wacko" stands out like a particularly sore, throbbing thumb -- but the typical reader will feel as though he or she is neither being condescended to nor lectured at. Given the plethora of recent books purporting to "out" Lincoln as a socialist, tyrant, homosexual, etc., it's nice to read a narrative that takes Lincoln "as he is" and, while critical at times, fully recognizes and respects the pivotal role he played in the history of America.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: CHESTER GOULD'S DICK TRACY, Volume 7: 1941-42 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2009)

The Complete Dick Tracy, Vol. 7: 1941-1942

"Gould in High Gear" (so saith Max Allan Collins in the Introduction)? More like Gould popping the clutch, goosing the gas pedal, and otherwise struggling to get up to cruising speed as World War II -- and the cartoonist's most creatively fertile decade -- begin. What a piebald collection of continuities we have in this volume: the appearances of three of Gould's better-known grotesques -- Little Face, The Mole, and B-B Eyes -- mixed up with a clutter of ephemeral evildoers including, among other things, a gang that stages real accidents in order to collect "realistic" sound effects for radio shows, a knuckle-headed debutante who "takes care of" an incapacitated Tracy after the detective breaks his leg and otherwise makes his life miserable, and a couple of Orson Welles-lookalike actors who swing wildly between good-guy and bad-guy roles (as does the woman they both love). No wonder Gould decided to wholeheartedly traipse down the gimmicky-rat route once America's war began and he realized (as noted by Jay Maeder in his marvelous history of the TRACY strip) that he would henceforth have to be at the top of his game in order to compete with the real-world headlines.

Truth be told, Little Face and The Mole don't get a whole lot of interest to do during their moments in the sun (which seems an inappropriate phrase to use when The Mole is concerned, actually). The pico-panned LF is basically your bog-standard vicious gang boss, a dealer in "hot" diamonds to be precise. The most memorable thing about him is his long period of suffering after accidentally being locked in a deep freeze and suffering near-terminal frostbite during his attempt to escape the clutches of the law. (LF is ugly enough with ears, thank you very much.) The Mole, a long-missing criminal who operates a "hideout" for fleeing crooks and takes advantage of their plight to strip them of their ill-gotten gains, is barely established as an insane creep when a freak snowstorm and ensuing runoff causes his lair to flood (um... he's being hiding there for 15 years and this is just now happening for the first time?) and Tracy literally "crashes" his party. The hand-to-hand between Tracy and The Mole and The Mole's frantic attempt to escape are legitimately gripping, though, and Tracy even shows some compassion for the kook, giving him Christmas cigarettes, fruit, and candy in jail. I wouldn't call The Mole an "appealing" character, as Max does, but you can definitely sense Gould mulling over the possibility of bringing him back (and he would do so, in the early 1970s). B-B Eyes' caper is a little more imaginative and timely (dealing in black-market tires), and he gets to stick Tracy with one of Gould's goofiest death traps, encasing Tracy and Pat Patton in wax and planning to shoot them both into the path of a train. The little crook's heavy-handedly ironic demise is also noteworthy and memorable.

Of the minor-league villains dealt with herein, only the hooded-eyed Selbert Depool -- who looks uncannily like "Badman," one of the villainous opponents of "Super" Richie Rich and Cadbury back in the 70s -- rates any mention at all. For a supposed maniac who's escaped from an asylum, Depool is suprisingly lucid as he seeks to avoid capture following the murder of the rich uncle who'd sent him to the looney bin. With his eyes surrounded by what appears to be a permanent coat of lampblack, he'd seem to be easy for cops and others to recognize and apprehend, but whatever. After leaving a trail of corpses in his wake, Selbert falls victim to that dreaded trap, the deadly Mardi Gras parade float. Yes, really.

Physically, this volume brings the TRACY series in line with other ongoing IDW reprint projects, such as LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. The larger dimensions allow Gould's Sunday pages to be viewed without eye strain. The supporting features are stronger as well, with Collins' introduction being accompanied by an interesting Jeff Kersten essay describing Gould's working methods and life as a "gentleman farmer" in Woodstock, IL. With the immortal Pruneface (and wife) and Flattop scheduled to appear in the next volume, the format shift couldn't have come at a better time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Comics Review: LITTLE LULU: THE ALAMO AND OTHER STORIES (Dark Horse Press, 2009)

After wrapping up its numbered series of LITTLE LULU reprint volumes some time ago, Dark Horse steps beyond the black-and-white boundaries of THE LITTLE LULU LIBRARY and reprints LL #88-93 (1955-56) in color! Unlike the previous LITTLE LULU COLOR SPECIAL, the coloring here appears to be taken from the original comics (you can tell by the "stippled" faces and occasional boundary transgressions), which may tick off some sticklers. The quality of John Stanley's stories remains high, though Irving Tripp's artwork gets a little rougher towards the end (watch for the "non-pointy" noses to begin to appear) and Stanley's "story-telling stories" are now wholly reliant on Witch Hazel and Little Itch. The headlined story "The Alamo" (which concerns depredations done to Davy Crockett coonskin caps -- one of the few times, BTW, that Stanley seems to have paid the slightest attention to pop-culture fads going on around him) is actually buried in the middle of the book; I'd have preferred that Dark Horse continued the "tradition" of generic titles from the numbered issues. This will be a big summer for Stanley fans, as Drawn & Quarterly will soon begin issuing its JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY collections of Stanley's non-LULU work. The fact that Dark Horse will continue to release LULU collections is, of course, the best news of all.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Book Review: HERBIE ARCHIVES Volume 3, Introduction by Dan Nadel (Dark Horse Books, 2009)

Dark Horse wraps up the brief, yet memorable, career of Richard Hughes' and Ogden Whitney's obese, bizarre brainchild with this volume, which reprints stories from ACG's HERBIE #15-#23 (February 1966-February 1967). This period was the heyday of high-camp superheroics, exemplified by the Batman TV series. In the use of such outre villains as The Question Mark (a mechanically inclined fellow dressed in medieval garb who appears to suffer from a severe curvature of the spine) and Noodle Man (shaped like... well, you guess), we can see Hughes attempting to ride the wave as best he can. The problem is that, as I noted in my review of the two previous HERBIE volumes, the stories in which Herbie donned long underwear and took on the guise of the crime-fighting "Fat Fury" were actually the least interesting and most "conventional" of the HERBIE stories. Herbie's strange powers don't need superheroic window dressing, and, since everyone from historical figures to barnyard animals seems to know Herbie on sight anyway, what good will a mere toilet plunger and mask do to hide Herbie's I.D.? About the only really outrageous "Fat Fury" escapade is the mock spy story "Don't Mess Around with the Fat Fury!", in which Herbie matches what wits he has with a two-headed, extremely stereotyped Red Chinese agent named Foo Manchoo. Part of the "outrage" (at least for some people) may lie in the fact that Herbie ends up helping the troops in Vietnam.

The non-"FF" stories herein maintain the same level of lunacy that was seen in the comic's first 14 issues, though one can sense Hughes resting on his oars a bit in the increasing use of time-travel stories. (Oddly, even as Hughes pumps this pedal more and more, he throttles back somewhat on the use of contemporary pop-culture and political celebs that made the early issues of HERBIE so completely off-the-wall.) I'm not willing to hazard a guess on how long HERBIE would have lasted had ACG not gone out of business in early '67, but it's likely that its unique brand of craziness would have seemed a bit less funny as the 60s turned ever more sour and ugly. In that respect, if no other, HERBIE was probably fortunate to depart the scene when it did.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS VOLUME 5, THE HARVEY GIRLS edited by Leslie Cabarga, introduction by Jerry Beck (Dark Horse Books, 2009)

According to editor Leslie Cabarga, this will be the last HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS release for the foreseeable future. Before getting on to the material at hand, I wanted to make sure to thank Leslie, Jerry, and the folks at Dark Horse for a reprint project that, while far from flawless, surely did well by the "Harvey World" standbys. Hopefully the hiatus is strictly due to the economy and new volumes will appear anon.

Volume 5 is, of necessity, a bit scrapbookish, covering as it does the early four-color careers of three characters, of whom one (Audrey) never crossed over to visit any of the other Harvey stars (at least, not until she got a brief -- and quite enjoyable -- opportunity to pair with Richie Rich in the early-80's title RICHIE RICH AND HIS GIRL FRIENDS). While Audrey had a respectable run, I can't help but think that had Steve Mufatti, Larz Bourne, et al. not showed such fidelity to the world of the cartoon shorts in the early AUDREY stories, the feisty kid might have used the extra "wiggle room" to squirm out of her neighborhood and into team-ups with Dot, Lotta, and others, which would probably have prolonged her active career. As it turned out, once Audrey's neighborhood gang (Melvin, Tiny, and Lucretia) was introduced, the AUDREY books basically became Harvey's hermetically sealed version of LITTLE LULU -- fitting, in light of the fact that Famous Studios created Audrey to replace Lulu when they lost the rights to the latter, but ultimately damaging to Aud's reputation as a formidable character in her own right. There's no doubt that the artwork of Mufatti and Howie Post has it all over Irving Tripp (John Stanley's main illustrator on the LULU stories) insofar as liveliness and charm goes, but, especially after Lucretia and her Annie-like buck tooth arrive on the scene, it's tough not to look at Audrey and not think immediately of Ms. Moppet and her cronies. Even the use of the supposedly "black" Tiny -- admittedly, a rather bold move for the 50s -- has to be qualified somewhat, as Tiny looks more like a crew-cut white kid colored black than, say, the more obvious black child Bumbazine that Walt Kelly drew for the earliest POGO comic-book stories. These stories are lively and fun and partake liberally of the charming atmosphere of Aud's better cartoons -- I especially enjoyed the "dreamed" South Pacific parody with Aud as a native girl and Melvin as "Safety Pinsa" (get it?) -- but the aura of "knockoff" will always linger, and that's a real shame.

The volume's true revelation, from my point of view, are the earliest LITTLE DOT stories, in which Steve Mufatti does a complete makeover on the not-very-inspired character of the same name who had been a backup feature in SAD SACK for several years. Insofar as Mufatti was a major artistic influence on Warren Kremer, this relaunch was one of the key moments in the development of the "Harvey World" style. In his introduction, Jerry Beck describes Mufatti's artwork as "slightly anachronistic, recalling late 1920s and early 1930s cartooning." On the contrary -- though a guy who was supposedly born in 1880 and therefore would have been over 70 at the time he drew these stories, Mufatti was right on the cutting edge of kids' comics of the day. The early Dot is simply adorable (though Mufatti takes a story or two to settle on giving her one ponytail instead of two) without being "cutesy" in the slightest. Conspicuous by its absence in these opening salvos is the "dot obsession" that would come to define Dot's character in future years. According to "Alphabet Land," Dot's sort-of-origin story in LITTLE DOT #5, she didn't even originally have dots on her dress. "Pop Goes the Measles" (LD #13) is the first story in which Dot shows any unusual interest in dots at all, and there, she's merely marveling over the fact that she's developed a case of ultra-rare "black measles." Like several other early stories, "Measles" takes the form of a "tall story" that Dot tells to her friend Lotta and her soon-to-be-dropped friend Red. This is definitely Lulu territory, and I get the sense that Bourne and the other writers may have been scuffling to distinguish Dot from Audrey in a way other than the fact that she has scads of oddball uncles and aunts dropping in at all times. (Some of these early "relative adventures," such as the ones with mountain-climbing Uncle Alp, wire-walking Uncle Balance, and lion-taming Uncle Fang, start with Dot being all but shanghaied by her compulsive clansfolk.) By issue #16, Dot is trying to convince a bandleader to put dots on uniforms and dreaming of becoming "Queen of Dot-Land," and it's all downhill (rolling, naturally, since these are round objects we're talking about) from there. Stories by Sid Couchey, the artist most associated with Dot (and Lotta), appear at the tail end of the Dot section, but they're not from his prime period, in which Dot occasionally got to participate in stories extending beyond five pages. I would've liked to have seen "Dot's Rock & Roll Adventure," for example. Alas, Jerry and Leslie cut off their material at 1962.

Little Lotta runs the anchor leg of the volume, and, apart from being slightly smaller in bulk in the early days, she arrives on the scene pretty much fully-developed (stow the jokes about overeating, if you please!). There's no question in my mind that the fateful decision to allow Dot and Lotta to be pals (which they are from the very start, in LD #1's "Show Business") helped prolong the ladies' careers. A lot of the early LOTTA stories seem a little too willing to resort to the somewhat lazy "Lotta dreams up an adventure" gambit, but more fruitful developments, such as the introduction of Lotta's pint-sized boyfriend Gerald and her lively, irrepressible Grandpa -- for all intents and purposes, the "Harvey World"'s version of Poopdeck Pappy, and easily worth any two dozen of Dot's carload of uncles and aunts -- presage a career that, like Dot's and Audrey's, proved more than respectable. Like Dark Horse's fine LITTLE LULU volumes, this is an ideal collection to give a young girl who might be interested in comics, but, as Jerry Beck correctly notes, these stories will be enjoyable to readers of all predilections... not to mention both genders.