Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Duck in the Iron Mask," part three

Huey backs up into the GARGOYLE STATUE OF GREEN FEAR and gets scared of it and they bump into each other and fall down the roof as the harpoon manages to latch onto the roof end gargoyle statue (in gold this time). Huey and Louie hang onto the rope as they climb down onto the street. 

As noted in my last post, any idea that Disney is unduly "protecting" the Nephews is pretty much shot to hell by this whole sequence. Basically, only good fortune saves Huey and Louie's tail feathers here.

they bump into the FAKE GREEN CLOAK OF EVASION and then into the PUPPET GUY OF DEATH as it comes down towards them much to their horror as the segment ends 15 and a half minutes in. Okay; now this episode is starting to really go south for me.
This is a pretty weak cliffhanger, made weaker by the fact that the Toon Disney version deleted the scene where Huey is lighting a match.

So we cut to outside on the streets as Huey and Louie are dressed up as Muskteers [sic]; only color coordinated. Okay; I cannot take them seriously as Montedumians in those outfits.

I always found it fairly amazing that the boys found form-fitting Musketeer garb with the "correct" colors. Even more amazing, Dewey suddenly appears in similar garb later in the ep. That bothers me far more than the simple fact of their wearing Musketeer garb, which, it should be noted, does seem reasonable in this "land-out-of-time" setting.

Scrooge then goes to the iron barred window and hears the nephews as they are at the bridge. He asks where Dewey is and they tell him that he is still locked in the castle. Louie doesn't know what to do because Dewey has the rescue plans part of the triplets. See; this is why I like Kit: one character, jack of all trades. Simple enough.
Actually, I'm more surprised by the fact that Huey and Louie, who are plenty intelligent themselves, couldn't figure out a plan of their own. At the time I first watched this ep, I put the "blank-drawing" down to old-fashioned panic. Huey and Louie are young kids, after all. Still, the fact that Dewey possesses a unique ability ties in nicely to the story's theme of "individuality within teamwork."

Scrooge proclaims that they can chip through a brick since the cement is old; but Roy proclaims that they need tools to make that work. Scrooge tells him to use his iron beak like a woodpecker. See; if they had bypassed all of this nephew in the guestroom, this spot would still work. But no; we have to do a contrived angle of Dewey being pissed off for looking like Huey and Louie so the MORAL OF THE STORY is met. 
Well, in order for Scrooge's plan to work, the prisoners have to have someone to help them out of the tower. I can't see them jumping down from that height by themselves, can you?

So we logically head to the entrance of the CASTLE OF DOOM as the babyfaces practice the fine art of not being seen. And then we cut back to the ultra moronic and ultra contrived hallway as the pig furry wakes up and checks the eye peeper again only to see three mirrors of Dewey's image waving at him. Count Ray deserves what he is ultimately going to get for his moronic decision to please Disney's hell bent rules to protect the nephews. 
As previously noted, Glut cleaned up this loose end pretty effectively.

The pig closes the eye peeper and tries to go back to sleep but the MOAN OF DOOM beckons and he is scared as the DUCK IN THE IRON MASK stalks towards him. The pig furry runs away which makes ZERO SENSE (I thought he was part of Pietro's army? unless he was PART of Count Roy's court and was decieved as the rest of the villagers.)
Perhaps the guard was worried that Roy was bent on revenge?

So we head into the throne room which so happens to gain a square table and chairs despite not existing in the room earlier in the episode. Lord; please take me now! This joke of an episode was nice for a while; now it's time to mercy kill it.
I'll give you this one, Greg. At least the staircases are still there...

Ray gets his epee as the adult babyfaces back into the corner while the heels advance and then here come the nephews as they throw golden epees to the babyfaces. Oh; that wasn't contrived in the very least; no siree. And Dewey is now wearing that silly outfit.
The last part of this is easily the most contrived. An old castle in a quasi-medieval country surely should have a few spare swords lying around.

We then get a shot of the nephews as Dewey gives the signal and Huey and Louie grab the big ass ax and they chop the rope which so happens to contain the CHANDLIER [sic] OF DEATH and it drops onto the heels. Okay; that was lame, although it was probably needed to redeem Dewey in the writer's eyes. I thought his contrived plan to escape was the redeeming factor? 
I think that Dewey had already redeemed himself by his decisions to (1) use his individual ability to concoct an escape plan and (2) use the fact that he is identical to his brothers to make the plan work (thus rejoining the "team," as it were). The "chandelier kill" was icing on the cake by comparison.

Count Roy is back to normal as he blows off his evil brother (yeah right? Pietro's the REAL EVIL ONE in this episode) as he tells him never to return; or he becomes the Duck In The Iron Pants. Ummm; why not just put him in their as punishment?! I know Roy is supposed to be fair; but Ray put him into the mask; so Roy should wear the iron pants. Fair is fair right?!
I think this was meant to be a tribute to "The Duck in the Iron Pants," a Barks story in which Donald uses a suit of armor to invade the Nephews' snow fort.

So we go to the SCENE CHANGER OF DOOM as the helicopter rises into the air BEFORE HAPPY HOUR (sunset) as we head inside the passenger area as the nephews thank Dewey for the contrived escape plan. Which wouldn't have been needed if Ray wasn't such an idiot and Dewey wasn't so thin skinned. Dewey thanks them and thinks the costumes are great. They clash swords and cut a Three Muskateers [sic] promo as Louie proclaims that Dewey is one of a kind. You wish Louie; you wish. Dewey agrees with them and more as the helicopter flies northwest to mercifully end the episode.

I think this is a neat little scene, especially the ending exchange. As a team, the boys are "one of a kind," with each being an amalgam of high-spirited child and reasoning adult. At the end of this episode, though, they have a newfound knowledge that individual specialties can make a team work even better. The dysfunctionally "different" Nephews of Quack Pack should have been so fortunate.

All the longtime Duck fans I know have absolutely no problem with the "Nephew identity angle" being made the core of this episode. Indeed, I think that longtime Duck fans probably appreciate the (at the time) unprecedented "departure from book" far more than the average viewer who comes upon the episode "cold." In that respect, I can understand Greg's reaction. In his "summary line," Greg does admit that the story contained relatively few logic breaks and good animation (though I think the latter could have been a bit better, myself). So I'll put our "dispute" down to a simple difference in perspective based on our past experiences with the Ducks. Unfortunately, I think that the continuing flow of new comics material after DuckTales ceased production has had the effect of erasing memories of just how good DT stories such as "Mask" tended to be, both as "generic" animated plotlines and as Duck stories.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Duck in the Iron Mask," part two

As before, Greg's comments are in boldface.

[Count Roy's evil twin] Count Ray is sleeping as Scrooge runs to him to greet him and Count Ray uses his webfeet to push him away. It's clear from the very start that this is Count Ray because Count Roy clearly sounds more like the Brain and this voice is far from close. Personally; Count Ray should have also been voiced by Maurice LaMarche; if only to reduce the clear signs that he isn't Count Roy to just one feature: The mustache.
Now here, I think Greg hits on a legitimate weakness. People (and ducks) do change over the years, so Roy might have let his mustache grow, but Arte Johnson (the voice of Ray) could have tried to sound a little more like LaMarche's voice for Roy. Or LaMarche might have been asked to do Roy with an "evil" twist. Perhaps if Johnson had dispensed with the cheesy Frenchified accent...

And here comes probably the silliest and as you will see; stupidest decision Count Ray makes as he doesn't want to put children in prison. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PUTTING CHILDREN IN PRISON?! I mean; what about Molly Cunningham in Flight of the Snowduck and Kit in Citizen Khan? Why are these two bears getting the adult treatment and yet Disney is protecting the nephews? I think they can handle prison time given Duckworth's Revolt. And it just kills Count Ray as a heel right out of the starting gate with the next sequence involving the nephews later on. Count Ray's image would be hurt see. Riiiiiggggghhhhhtttt. Tell that to “Get Tough On Crime” Republicans Count Ray. They get the uninvited guestroom of course as he has the evil laugh.

Honestly, comparing this situation to those found in the two TaleSpin episodes and "Duckworth's Revolt" is a case of juggling apples and oranges. In "Flight of the Snow Duck," Molly was imprisoned in Thembria, a totalitarian country where illogical things happen as a matter of course. In "Citizen Khan," Kit and Baloo were taken prisoner as part of a criminal enterprise. As for "Revolt," HD&L and Duckworth might have been kept in a prison-like cell when the Vegedonians made them slaves, but the imprisonment proceeded as a result of the slavery.

Ray's appeal to "protecting his image" is actually a very clever way of displaying his excessive self-regard (remember, Ray is playing the role that the notably immodest Louis XIV played in Dumas' MAN IN THE IRON MASK). We see later in the ep that the Monte Dumians are not fooled by such ruses. The fact that the "uninvited guest room" is the functional equivalent of a prison -- without admitting as much -- actually increases Roy's menace, making him seem more devious and sinister (a tough trick given the broad way in which Johnson plays him).

BTW, I don't think that Glut came up with the names "Roy" and "Ray" by accident. "Roi" is the French word for king.

So we head to the GUEST ROOM OF DEATH as the pig musketeer opens the door (the guest room looks really reasonable making the whole punishment even more absurd in hindsight.)

It may have furnishings, but the functional equivalent of a prison is still a prison.

LP then notices a brick coming out of the wall (which he confuses as the wall closing in which Scrooge gleefully corrects) and it gets pushed out and here comes the DUCK IN THE IRON MASK (the duck like MASK OF VULCAN gives it clear away)...

Here's the other (minor) flaw of the episode: Count Roy aka T.D.I.T.I.M. picks just this time to break through the wall and into Scrooge and Launchpad's cell. Perhaps no one had been held there previously, and so Roy was taking advantage of the situation, but you'd think Roy would have been trying to escape from the get-go. Judging by Roy's ragged clothes (which, as Greg correctly points out, do change color on either side of the commercial break), he's been there for a long while.

Scrooge blows him off because he doesn't scare him. Scrooge points the cane and then Maurice's voice beckons as it is clearly Count Roy in the iron mask. How obvious can you get?! See what not having Count Ray being voiced by Arte Johnson can do for you? It creates some suspense for this moment. Otherwise; there is nothing and the whole greeting becomes just there to suck. Then again; I should expect nothing less from Don Glut.
Well, Scrooge doesn't think it's Roy at first, which indicates that his memories of Roy's voice may be a bit fuzzy. So this exchange actually helps explain away the earlier logic break occasioned by the difference between the brothers' voices. This wasn't Glut's first attempt to sidestep an apparent logical impasse, as we'll see below.

The pig wakes up as Pietro asks if they have been fed and the pig proclaims that they have not. Pietro likes that; which makes him the best heel character by proxy. When a Pete clone is the best character of the episode; you know this episode is in trouble. Pietro opens the eye peeper and the nephews call him a big bully. That is sort of underestimating the thug isn't it guys?! Pietro blows them off because they are only here until they becomes adult and can be put in a real prison. Yeah; how contrived is that?! 

It's pretty disturbing, actually. It implies that they got "life" -- for bogus charges, no less. That's almost as bad as the way Molly, Baloo, and Wildcat got treated in "Flight of the Snow Duck."

The eye peeper of doom get closed as Louie proclaims that they need to get out of here and Dewey is good with escape plans. Dewey goes over to the mirror and has a MIMI JOKE ZONE PLAN in mind as he takes off his stupid outfit and tells the nephews to take off their hats so they look really alike. 

Believe it or not, Duck fans have studied Barks stories and come to the conclusion that Dewey is usually portrayed as being "the most imaginative, inquisitive, and crafty" of the Nephews. Not that I believe that Glut was consciously aware of this, but the gimmick ties in with one very important point: Dewey may be upset that he looks like his brothers, but his own personal talent for devising escape plans turns out to be key in the end. That's a neat way of pointing out the importance of individuality.

...the nephews run into action as they place three mirrors in front of the door (huh? I didn't see A mirror in the place let alone three; logic break #3 for the episode).

There are actually two mirrors next to the bed, and there was probably a third out of sight somewhere. Maybe it's the one Dewey is changing in front of (or not: I see a door in the background).

Louie then makes my day by pointing out the OBVIOUS LOGIC BREAK in the plan and Dewey blows it off because he's been on duty all night and doesn't care what they are wearing. Umm... no; it's because he would be REALLY STUPID. Only less stupid than Count Ray of course.

No, if the guard had been ALERT and FULLY AWAKE, then the plan would have relied on him being stupid. The "Have they been fed?" exchange establishes that the guard sleeps on the job (even when standing up!), so I count this as an ingenious way of counteracting the "obvious logic break," using a pre-established character trait (the guard's dozing). Barks would probably have been proud of this dodge.

Huey throws the HARPOON ROPE OF DOOM up the chimney and it latched onto the top of the roof with a thud as the pig musketeer wakes up and of course he goes to the eye peeper and sees three mirrors with Dewey waving at him. Now you would think that the MIRRORS OF VANITY would have given away the fact that there is something wrong with this picture. I mean; the mirrors are CLEARLY seen as such. And of course; the pig buys into it hook, line and sinker. Damn you to hell Don Glut!
If he's tired, he might just focus on DEWEY, rather than the mirrors.

Sadly; Huey backs up into the GARGOYLE STATUE OF GREEN FEAR and gets scared of it and they bump into each other and fall down the roof as the harpoon manages to latch onto the roof end gargoyle statue (in gold this time).

Forget about the pros and cons of "putting kids in prison"; the sequence on the roof shows that the creative powers behind DuckTales had no problem whatsoever with putting HD&L in jeopardy. I mean, Huey and Louie are stumbling around on a slanted roof at night and in clear danger of falling to the street below. It's not Kit Cloudkicker jumping or being thrown off the Iron Vulture, I'll admit, but I think I'd classify it as a pretty scary moment. In fact, it's scary enough that I doubt the good folks at BS&P would pass it nearly as easily today (sigh).

Stay tuned for the conclusion!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Duck in the Iron Mask," part one

Here's part one of my response to Gregory Weagle's review of "Duck in the Iron Mask". Greg's comments are boldfaced.

This episode is written by Don Glut (?!!)...After he went through his stint in writing animation episodes; he went on to do documentaries and Agony Booth bad horror flicks including Countess Dracula's Orgy of Blood, The Mummy's Kiss (and its sequel), The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula, Dinosaur Valley Girls, Blood Scarab and the Vampire Hunters Club. Umm; yeah...These movies are stuff that I'll let Albert Walker and his gaggle of ranters at the Agony Booth touch because they are the experts and I'm not see. I agree with Chris Barat: What in the world was Disney's hiring practices back then to get these kind of writers on board?

I think the more relevant point regarding Glut's participation here is his long career as a comic-book writer for such titles as CAPTAIN AMERICA and VAMPIRELLA. He was quite active as a comics fan during the "Silver Age" and therefore must have had some exposure to Carl Barks' work. I don't know the precise backgrounds of a lot of the freelancers who provided scripts for DuckTales' first season -- though I know more than I did 10-15 years ago -- but I'd be pretty confident that a majority of them read and enjoyed Duck comics. In that sense, folks like Glut were good choices to help adapt Barks' world to TV.

The nephew on first base calls for time and the nephews have a conference at the plate as the pig fan cannot tell them apart. Funny since they had zero trouble figuring it out in Take Me Out Of The Ball Game. Then again; I'm dealing with the same writer who wrote [and directed] Dinosaur Valley Girls; so I shouldn't be surprised.
The Junior Woodchucks' ballgame here isn't quite like the match against the Beagle Brats. The stadium's bigger and the fans are further from the action, so it's not surprising that they can't pick up what Greg notices next...

Dewey looks out as I see logic break #1 for the episode already. In Take Me Out of The Ball Game; they were wearing the same red sleeves on their shirts. In this episode; Dewey has blue sleeves, Huey has red sleeves and Louie has green. And the crowd and announcer somehow cannot tell them apart. Oh; this is going to be a fun episode to mock; I just know it. 

I never noticed this myself until now, so I wouldn't "pile on" the fans and announcer for missing it too.

Dewey is sick of people getting them confused all the time. Funny since this wasn't a real problem until now. Sure; I have my problems telling them apart in Time Merit [sic] Adventures; but that was the exception. 

My longstanding take on the decision to focus an ep on HD&L's identical nature: Why hadn't someone thought of it before? It's a perfectly legitimate springboard for a character-driven subplot. Barks never called attention to it, and Don Rosa's "An Eye for Detail" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #622, March 1998) -- in which we learn about Donald's uncanny ability to tell the boys apart (without the benefit of "officially" color-coded clothing, that is) -- was still 10 years away. The real stroke of genius was Glut's embedding of the "why do we look alike" subplot in a larger plot based on Dumas' novel THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, which pivoted on the supposed existence of a twin brother of Louis XIV, whose existence had to be concealed from the public. Had the idea popped up in a completely unrelated story, then the claim of contrivance would have been much more solid.

So we head to Scrooge's Mansion as the nephews whine about the loss as Dewey still thinks it's unfair that they look alike. Geez; can this get any more contrived. I mean who cares? Yeah; I made fun of the nephews for not being nearly as cool as Kit [Cloudkicker]; but the Ducktales nephews are still good enough. Besides; I think the DT nephews should watch their Quack Pack counterparts and I think that alone will change their tune. No matter how moronic Mr. Glut gets. And I see mistake #2 for the episode as Louie calls them twins. Um; no, it's triplets. Unless Triplets is copyrighted for some reason. 

One important point here is that the boys are several years younger than Kit. I've always thought of them as being in the 10-11 year old range. Kids who are that young and are identical triplets (Louie's "The three of us are twins!" is pretty clearly a joke [and a funny one]) might well have a dispute of some sort over the issue. And if it's a choice between some mild bickering and the boys splitting into the threesome seen on Quack Pack, then I'll take the bickering every time.

Oh lord; if Glut makes it to have Scrooge not tell them apart; I'm going to strangle him. Thank goodness Don Glut didn't go there; yet. 

And he never does. Scrooge may not have Donald's "eye for detail" regarding HD&L, but at least he knows enough to crib by peeking at their sleeves.

Scrooge and [Count] Roy are kissing cousins it seems as [Scrooge] flips onto the staircases and demonstrates his sword slashing skills because they didn't have a worry in the world. I guess Scrooge was a child back then.

It'd really be a challenge, I think, to fit Scrooge's friendship with Count Roy into the popularly accepted "timeline" of Scrooge's life and times (thank you, Mr. Rosa). Scrooge has his spectacles in the fencing scene, so it couldn't have been that long ago.

So Huey and Louie are on the platform waiting for Dewey and here comes Dewey wearing the most absurd outfit in history; before we saw Kit wearing a pickle and seal outfit. Dewey is merely a clown who is trying to convince me in a contrived way that he stands out in a crowd. Kit wore the seal and pickle outfit because he's an animal lover and an insane sadist. I mean that outfit would be outlawed by the FASHION POLICE OF LAW; not to mention that this whole thing is seriously out of character for the nephews in general.

It'd definitely be out of character for Kit to wear Dewey's disguise, but remember, Dewey is several years younger. The boys are intelligent and mature for their years, it's true, but if Gosalyn Mallard can obsess over zombie movies and essay silly disguises, then Dewey's capable of wearing a silly outfit as well. The spats and bow tie are a bit of overkill, though.  I should point out at this juncture that Russi Taylor's voice acting for HD&L in this ep is among her best efforts of the series. She had to switch emotions off and on time and again and did a superb job of it.

Scrooge tells Launchpad to be careful because the kingdom is so small; he might miss it. I think Scrooge should be careful in asking to Launchpad to land the helicopter period. Of course; I guess Scrooge assumes that the helicopter has no wings; so LP cannot crash it. That kind of logic died a long time ago Scroogie. We do a cockpit shot as Launchpad tells him not to worry because he won't miss it by much. 

I can think of several "helicopter crashes" for Launchpad during the series, such as the near-operatic crash that destroyed Scrooge's new bank near the beginning of "Hero for Hire." It wasn't a lapse of logic so much as Scrooge "teeing it up" for LP to deliver one of his best one-liners.

And then we go to the side shot outside and of course the engine starts to sputter. Why is it that when something crashes in this show; it's NOT because LP is trying to crash it on purpose and it's some stupid mechanical failure?

Uh... LP tries to crash on purpose? Granted, he has a fatalistic streak about his crashing (from "Top Duck": "The ground and I are like two irresistible forces, destined to keep meetin' again and again!"), and sometimes he takes over the controls when a crash seems inevitable (as in "Duck to the Future"), but LP's ineptness isn't purposeful, I don't think.

Scrooge tells him to do something and Launchpad is doing something which is what he does best: crash. See; this is why I think the fuel line clogging is an obvious hoax.
Sounds like LP's fatalistic streak is kicking in to me.

Everyone pops out from their hiding places and somehow; the helicopter lands without any damage to it whatsoever. I see Scrooge has invested in LP crash proof materials. 

Can you blame him, really?

The platform opens with a thud as Pietro's (Will Ryan I bet since it sounds like Dogface Pete and probably looks like Dogface Pete only in Muskerteer [sic] gear.) voice beckons and the nephews look out. And it does look like Dogface Pete (plus purple feather of doom which is dangerously close to sending Michael Eisner out of the Phantom Zone.) as he is writing a ticket of charges on his scroll. He demands to see the driver of this contraption. Launchpad and Scrooge walk out as LP blows Pietro off (I'm guessing Chris Barat would have him as Petero which makes the pun better I do believe.) and Pietro stuffs tickets into his mouth to shut him up.
It's Captain Pietro, all right, and a great "costumed role" for Pete, one which puts his current "Doc Ock" turn in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES' "Ultraheroes" story arc to shame. They even give him a darker tint to fit into the Iberian/Italian/??? milieu. Will Ryan, being a big Barks fan, really puts his all into his few appearances as Pete, though Jim Cummings created a more memorable persona for the character in Goof Troop and House of Mouse.

Only three charges against LP as Scrooge reads them from his mouth. Okay; the disturbing the peace one is understandable; operating an illegal contraption is a bit of an ass and crashing in a no crashing zone is redundant. The fine is only $2000 which is pretty generous actually. And knowing Don Glut; I'm betting Scrooge gets pissed off big time on that. And damn you Don Glut as Scrooge get stuffed another 500 bones for squawking which is also redundant since disturbing the peace would cover that charge.

As we quickly see, the "zone" thing is a running gag. And why shouldn't Scrooge squawk over a $2000 fine -- he's gotten bent out of shape over far smaller sums than this. If he didn't, he wouldn't be Scrooge. "Contraption" relates to the fact that Monte Dumas is a backwards (in terms of technology) country, and it, too, pops up again before the episode is over.

Part two upcoming!

Friday, October 23, 2009

What Was That "Mask" Manhandling?

Over the last several months, I've enjoyed reading and commenting on Gregory Weagle's "rants" (read: reviews, but of a very unique type) on episodes of DuckTales. Greg has previously done the other "Golden Age" DTVA series, so I was familiar with his style, and, by and large, I tend to agree with his assessments of individual episodes. This past week, however, we finally "crossed swords" over the episode "Duck in the Iron Mask." "Mask" has always been one of my favorites, but Greg heartily disliked it.

This happenstance dovetailed ("ducktailed"?) with a suggestion by my good friend and fellow DuckTales devotee Joe Torcivia -- with whom I wrote an index to the series back in the day -- that I use my blog to "revisit" the series. With DT's silver anniversary a mere three years away, why not look at the episodes afresh and see whether my opinion of them has changed (and, if so, why). Thanks to the Internet and other resources that were not available at the time we did our index, there should be something meaningful to add to the commentaries on most, if not all, of the episodes. Work-related time constraints preclude my starting this work until at least the beginning of 2010 -- and, with Boom! Comics having restarted the American Disney comics "engine," I may be even more hard pressed to get the work done than I'd originally anticipated. Greg's review of "Mask," however, provides me with the perfect opportunity to do a "dry run" of sorts, in the guise of defending my particular view of this ep. I will split my response into several parts, all of which I hope to complete over the next couple of days.

A while back, I wrote a rather heartfelt piece for THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES! in which I decried the lack of respect and recognition given to DuckTales these days. The specific context was Gemstone Comics' decision to reprint Marv Wolfman's lackluster multi-part serial "Scrooge's Quest" over Bob Langhans' far superior -- and far truer to the spirit of the TV series -- "The Gold Odyssey." Justice was eventually done, as "Odyssey" got a trade paperback of its own, but the larger point still holds. This terrific series -- the trigger for the TV-animation boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s -- needs to be celebrated whenever possible. Hopefully, you'll enjoy the "revised standard version" of my "take" on what I consider to be one of the show's most imaginative and entertaining episodes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Movie Review: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959, Columbia)

I normally prefer movies with clear heroes and villains -- and why not? That's why folks go to movies, to escape muddy reality for a while. Every so often, though, a "gray-shaded" film deserves -- and earns -- my praise. Thus it is with Anatomy of a Murder, at once the most universally acclaimed film of director-producer Otto Preminger's roller-coaster career, one of James Stewart's last great movie roles, and one of the better courtroom dramas ever committed to celluloid. I saw it once a number of years ago, and the film, if anything, improved upon renewed acquaintance (via Netflix). With the storytelling IQ of Hollywood currently as low as it's ever been -- it's even lower than Hollywood's moral tone, if possible -- Anatomy's willingness to confront its audience with legitimately adult themes and its lack of a clear-cut ending are very refreshing.

Based on a best-selling novel, Anatomy features Stewart as an easygoing Michigan lawyer who's asked to defend an Army officer (Ben Gazzara) who shot a bartender who'd supposedly raped the officer's wife (Lee Remick). There's no "mystery" here; Gazzara did the deed. The question is, how can Stewart get him off? Ole Jimmy resorts to "dissociative reaction," a version of the tried-and-true insanity plea, but he's up against it when the local (and spectacularly inept) DA imports a hotshot barrister from the mean streets of Lansing (George C. Scott, in his first major movie role). As the trial plods forward (but don't be alarmed; even the most mundane of the courtroom scenes attract one's attention), it becomes clear that (1) Stewart has at least a fighting chance of saving Gazzara and (2) the truth of Gazzara and Remick's stories is, at the very least, debatable. Histrionics are kept to a minimum, though both Stewart and Scott get to at least worry the scenery once or twice apiece. Humor is provided by the tart comments of Stewart's long-suffering secretary (Eve Arden) and, less palatably, by the bumbling of Stewart's alcoholic partner (Arthur O'Connell) and a somewhat more casual attitude towards the aftermath of rape than would probably be tolerable today. Interestingly, Preminger doesn't show the closing arguments, instead allowing Stewart, O'Connell, and Arden a lengthy scene in which they ruminate about their glowering, somewhat unsavory client's chances. The twist ending, however, quickly makes up for any disappointment and provides just the right cap to a film in which very few characters turn out to be what they originally seem.

This is a movie that practically begs for a post-viewing debate. Was "justice" done in the end? If so, then to/by whom? The then-daring use of such words as "spermatogenesis," "sexual climax," "bitch," and, worst of all, "panties" pales in comparison to the legitimate questions about the pros and cons of jury trials that Anatomy raises. Stewart, the closest thing to a "hero," quickly wins our support with his folksiness and quick-wittedness, but even he must resort to courtroom tricks (such as the old "I'll ask an out-of-order question that the judge will gavel down but the jury will nonetheless hear and perhaps remember at verdict-cutting time" ploy) in his battle with city-slicker (or should that be "small state capitol slicker"?) Scott. Stewart's own father was so upset at the "dirty" content of the film that he refused to see it and even encouraged others to boycott it. Nevertheless, Stewart's performance is so good that he probably deserved the 1960 Best Actor Oscar over Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur). The latter film, however, was an Oscar juggernaut that would have put the evil mutant of the same name to shame.

I can't say that the movie is particularly well shot or scored, but Preminger's directorial skills were never considered to be that great, anyhow. The use of "natural sound" in the courtroom backfires, to a certain extent, due to echoes, and O'Connell's character is involved in a very clumsily staged car accident (oh, those wacky drunk drivers!). Preminger at least partially makes up for this with some inspired, even quirky casting. A young Orson Bean (as an Army doctor), Howard "Floyd the Barber" McNear, and a typically pompous and officious Joseph Kearns (no doubt warming up for his impending battles with Jay North) all make appearances. In the oddest casting decision of all, Preminger, who'd originally wanted Spencer Tracy or Burl Ives to play the part of the drolly amusing judge, finally gave the part to Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer who'd defended the Army against Joe McCarthy's red-hunting a few years earlier. Welch wasn't a complete neophyte, having hosted an episode of Kraft Television Theatre a few years before, and he handles the part very competently. The squalling jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington (who makes a cameo appearance as, what else, a jazz man) screams "Beat Generation" and won't be to everyone's taste, but it seems to fit the film's gritty, somewhat seedy ambiance reasonably well.

This is definitely a "must-see" film. For an additional (and very good) discussion of Anatomy, click here. (And, Joe, be sure to take a look at the trailer above -- you may recognize one of the voices you hear.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #384 (October 2009, Boom! Kids)

For the foreseeable future, this title will be Boom!'s monthly bouquet tossed to the "old sourdoughs," the die-hard Disney Duck fans who cheered "Gladstone I," took a roller-coaster ride with Disney Comics, gradually became disillusioned (if not outright disgusted) with "Gladstone II," and cherished the effort put into the Gemstone books. The Boom! $CROOGE, like the Gemstone version, will concentrate on European stories in the Barksian mold, so the "x-factor" in its success will be the quality of the translation and dialogue work. Gemstone's scripts are a tough act to follow, though, and U$ #384 doesn't even come close. Toss in an egregious formatting decision, and this issue stands as the weakest Boom! has released to date.

Apart from the three-tiered format, there's little to distinguish this ish's first story, "Uncle $crooge and the Ghostly Carriage," from a mid-rank Gemstone space-filler. Per-Erik Hedman provides the plot and Wanda Gattino the Daniel Branca-esque artwork for a relatively straightforward tale in which Scrooge, Donald, and HD&L, closely tracked by Magica de Spell, head to Germany to investigate rumors that a castle Scrooge has just purchased holds a treasure, secreted there by the pile's late owner, a count. The title bar (Huzza! The title of a story, finally displayed in all its glory!) cleverly features some "Scooby-Doo Font" lettering, but there's nothing phony about the count's ghost, though the Ducks do find that the villagers' claim that he's been haunting the place while driving a spectral schlepper isn't exactly accurate. Magica's presence is due solely to the highly dubious theory that Scrooge feels safer about leaving his Money Bin if he brings along his "magical" dime. Between screeching ineffectively, blowing up a few "poof" (sic) bombs, and losing her "magic bag" (what, is she cribbing from Felix the Cat now?), Magica's more of an annoyance than a true menace here. Unfortunately, thanks to the relatively prosaic dialogue, the Ducks aren't characterized with any more vim than Magica. It's a competent effort, but we've come to expect more from our $CROOGE stories.

"The Ghostly Carriage" does have one inestimable virtue -- it begins and ends in this issue. Such, shockingly, cannot be said of its follow-up story, "Salt and Gold," another Hedman-Gattino team-up which immediately succeeds "Carriage" in Duck-time. This time, the Ducks, joined by Gyro, are off to Krakow, Poland to investigate a story that Copernicus' assistant Krzystof may have possessed the knowledge to turn salt into gold. (Actually, Gyro quotes Copernicus as having said, "If anyone can make gold out of salt, [Krzystof] can!" which merely indicates that Krzystof was the most likely lad to succeed; it doesn't guarantee that he actually achieved success.) Having recovered her runic rucksack, Magica follows apace. Gyro is given access to the Copernicus archives because to his "reputation in scientific circles" (I thought he was a glorified backyard inventor? Won any Nobel Prizes lately, Gyro?) and briefly gets to wield a neat little device that helps him scan and locate documents in a flash, but the Ducks quickly fall under suspicion when a priceless book vanishes (it was actually stolen by Magica). Scrooge and Donald are apprehended as HD&L and Gyro escape... and, folks, that is where it ends, "to be continued next month." After only six pages, mind you. This is easily the clumsiest "continued story scenario" I've ever seen in a Duck comic. Wasn't there some short Egmont story that could have filled this gap? If the two stories were linked to begin with, then why print them in a book with limited space, as opposed to a $CROOGE trade paperback or extra-size issue? Boom!'s displayed several traces of haphazard organization in all of its releases to date, but this one is by far the most troubling.

As mentioned in my previous post, Don Rosa provided the cover for the special Baltimore Comic-Con edition of this issue. The two other cover variants were drawn by Daniel Branca (see above, following the first paragraph) and Tino Santanach (see immediately above). Since my local comics shop is closed for renovations right now, I won't be able to get either of these regular releases for a bit, but I greatly prefer the clean, easy-to-scan Branca cover to the cluttered Santanach version. I'm glad to see that Boom! intends to continue the practice of giving Egmont stalwarts pride of place on $CROOGE covers. The book's interior, however, needs a bit of work.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #699 (September 2009, Boom! Kids)

After visiting with Boom! Kids Editor Aaron Sparrow at the recently-wrapped Baltimore Comic-Con, I feel considerably more at ease about Boom!'s stewardship of the "classic" Disney comics license. There's every reason to believe that Boom! will take its stewardship seriously and do its best to make these books appealing to readers of all ages, experience levels, and tastes. There's definitely a "period of adjustment" ahead, though, a state of affairs that WDC&S #699, Boom!'s first stab at the most precious of all American Disney comics heirlooms, makes painfully clear in places.

Compared to MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS' "Wizards of Mickey" storyline -- which is, after all, following on the heels of the McGreals' "Shambor" stories, and thus posits a role for Mickey and his pals that isn't completely unprecedented -- "Ultraheroes," the multi-part saga which will occupy WDC&S for most of the upcoming year, represents a radical departure. Apart from Super Goof, none of the "Disney heroes" introduced herein (amidst a flurry of explanatory boxed captions from Sparrow) are at all familiar to most American readers. Heck, Fethry Duck, Gladstone Gander, and Gus Goose are getting to don cape and cowl for the first time! "Duck Avenger," Donald's superhero guise in the Italian comics, got a brief look-in in the Gemstone pocket books, but that hardly counts, especially given the circulation figures for those titles. The good guys are brought together by a strangely well-spoken (as in: NO "p"ing at the start of his words!) Eega Beeva, who needs their assistance to prevent his "Ultramachine," a device he'd brought from the future, from falling into the proverbial "wrong hands." Said hands belong to The Sinister Seven, a gang of costumed villains commanded by Emil Eagle and including The Phantom Blot, John D. Rockerduck, Peg-Leg Pete (who actually has both legs and, thanks to a Dr. Octopus-style set of appendages, a number of spare arms), and, as I've mentioned previously, a couple of characters whom I don't know from Adam. Scrooge and the Beagle Boys get dragged into this nest of vipers (via a teleportation of the Money Bin) simply because Scrooge had found a piece of the "Ultramachine" on his property and was using it as a "cozy" for his Old #1 Dime. Magica would have been excited as all get out had she, as she SHOULD by all rights have been, been included in this calamitous coven of criminals. She might also have provided Emil with a more logical method of getting the dime than bringing Scrooge and his Bin right into the Sinister Seven's lair.

Needless to say, Part One of "Ultraheroes" (which, like the first part of "Wizards of Mickey," doesn't have an actual title) spends most of its time getting the plot up to speed. Rather awkwardly, it cuts off just as Eega is about to spill the beans (or a handful of them, at least) to a quorum of the "Calisota Superheroes" (Gladstone and Gus still being en route). We do learn that at least one character (Donald) has visited Eega's high-tech hideout before, presumably on some sort of mission. (We also learn that Don's "super" identity hasn't hiked his brain power, as he doesn't recognize Daisy in her guise as... um... "Super Daisy.") The artwork, by Ettore Gula, Roberta Migheli, and Stefano Turconi, is good, solid, modern Italian stuff. Saida Temafonte is back on dialogue duty, and he (she?) seems a bit more willing to go beyond the cut-and-dried than was the case in "Wizards of Mickey," dropping in a couple of good verbal gags and references to Calisota, Mouseton and, if you can believe it, St. Canard. Temafonte still has some work to do, though, as witness the Sinister Seven's reaction to Emil's obligatory announcement of the group's plan for global domination: four straight panels of "Ha! Ha! Ha!"s (including one in which the nogoodniks go "Ah! Ah! Ah!", which was probably left intact from the original Italian). A few touches of sloppiness, such as a couple of signs still bearing Italian messages, are worrisome, but I found this opening salvo more entertaining than the first chapter of "Wizards." I could ask for a little more of a Darkwing Duck or Freakazoid! approach to the occasional attempts at humor, however.

Though I won't be able to get to the comics store before week's end, I'll be reviewing UNCLE $CROOGE #384 in the next day or two, thanks to Boom!'s distribution of a special Comic-Con edition of the book, complete with a cover by Don Rosa.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1973-74 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2009)


This latest collection's cover (Woodstock's tiny head casting a far-too-large shadow) and introduction (by Billie Jean King, who, unlike a number of the folks whom Fantagraphics has dragooned into providing PEANUTS-related musings, actually knew and was good friends with Charles Schulz) are first-rate, and several of this volume's continuities are among the most ambitious and/or outlandish "Sparky" ever concocted, but one could reasonably argue that Schulz' creation reached a "tipping point" in the mid-70s. Whether it was due to the overuse of Snoopy and Woodstock, the introduction of several less-than-stellar long-running gag themes, or an increasing amount of reliance on what one might call "the PEANUTS of the absurd," one can detect a certain coarsening of the master's touch. For sure, the intelligentsia of the era had moved on to new favorites, particularly DOONESBURY, perhaps reacting to Schulz' refusal to touch upon the partisan rancor and ugliness of the Watergate era. Schulz, who'd made frequent references to Vietnam, hippie culture, space travel, feminism, and the like just a few short years before, completely eschews topical material here, apart from one stand-alone gag in which Sally worries that her school desk has been "bugged." Instead, he indulges in such transient personal passions as running Snoopy through a large number of gags involving tennis, the artist's latest pastime. PEANUTS was never truly about "relevance," but Schulz' decision to shrink the borders of his "universe" marked a definite shift in his thinking. Many later references to pop culture in the strip would be much more exploitative in nature, in the manner of a "hit-and-run" late-night comedian, and lack the cleverness and subtlety of Schulz' work of the mid-50s to the early 70s.

The "rare gems" (you're welcome, Patty) in this collection are a trio of legitimately memorable, and even touching, continuities. The most famous of these is probably "Mr. Sack," in which Charlie Brown begins to envision every round object he discovers as a baseball. He even picks up a seamed rash on his head. Sent off to summer camp as a palliative, the embarrassed Charlie, wearing a sack over his head to hide his rash, quickly becomes the most popular kid in camp! "A prophet is without honor save in his own country," a bemused Charlie sighs regarding his improbable apotheosis. This story is most famous for its completely unexpected ending gag, which, though it resolves nothing insofar as Charlie's malady is concerned, drags in a familiar media figure to provide what, for Schulz, was "shock value." In a sense, however, this story may have ultimately sent Schulz down the wrong path. Charlie's problem is so weird that it might as well have happened to Snoopy, who's long since carved out his own little fantasy-laden "sub-universe" in the PEANUTS gang's neighborhood. There's the rub: what makes "sense" for Snoopy may not work quite as well for the "real" kids. It was soon after this that Schulz introduced one of his zanier notions, the "talking" school building that drops bricks on people it dislikes. More were to follow.

Much more conventional, but every bit as well executed, is the five-week story of Peppermint Patty preparing to enter a "skating competition." Patty is assisted (and, sometimes, hindered) in this project by Marcie and Snoopy, both of whose relationships to the peppy one change dramatically during this era. Marcie is still rather obsequious and still makes with the "Sir"s, but she's far more willing to confront her flighty friend on issues of importance -- none more important than when she forces Patty to realize that Snoopy is actually a dog. Marcie also learns that Patty doesn't have a mother, which leads to a warm moment when, following a botched attempt at making Patty a skating dress, she has her own mother fix the problem. Finally learning that Snoopy is a beagle doesn't prevent Patty from turning to "coach" Snoopy for help in getting ready for the "skating competition" -- which, needless to say, has a funny twist that knocks Patty for a loop.

Finally, there's the "Guest of Honor" continuity from early 1973, in which the gang, wonder of wonders, decides to give Charlie Brown a testimonial dinner in honor of his efforts as a baseball manager. The affair (complete with master(?) of ceremonies Joe Shlabotnik -- who, no surprise, gets lost on the way) ultimately falls apart after everyone realizes that pretending that Charlie is a figure worthy of honor is hypocrisy. There's a real bite to this story, one almost duplicated by the late-1974 tale in which neighborhood snowman-building is "organized" to the point of having leagues, referees, and parental support groups. In between, however, there are rather too many gags about novelist Snoopy's bad puns, Peppermint Patty's classroom denseness, Rerun's near-death experiences on his mom's bike, and, of course, Snoopy's tennis-playing. It's still great reading, of course, but a few cracks in the foundation are now apparent.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Review: THE HISTORY OF THE BEANO (D.C. Thomson and Waverly Books, 2009)

This lavishly illustrated volume traces the saga of Britain's most durable and popular weekly "comic paper," which debuted in July 1938. My own view of British comics, apart from the sober-sided JUDGE DREDD, could never be mistaken for rampant enthusiasm. The few contemporary British "funnies" that I've seen have struck me as indifferently drawn (and tending towards a certain sameness of style, to boot) and thematically shallow. Being a comics scholar of sorts, I brushed up on my basic knowledge by consulting various sources but was never tempted to imitate my friend David Gerstein and plunge into wholehearted fandom. THE BEANO, however, does seem to be one comic that has held up well over time, despite dramatic changes in taste and, I still stubbornly maintain, a definite "regression to the mean" in terms of unaninimity of drawing style.

This book identifies the 1950s as THE BEANO's "Golden Age," which sounds mighty familiar; on this side of the pond, the same sort of nostalgic glow shrouds memories of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES and UNCLE SCROOGE. For sure, the weekly's best artists were on the job during that time: Dudley Watkins and Ken Reid, in particular, can certainly be rated with any American comic artist of that period. Compared to Dell's omnibus "funny animal" titles, which shifted character lineups only at intervals, THE BEANO's roster contained more turnover than a typical "banana republic," though such long-running stalwarts as Biffo the Bear, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx, and Dennis the Menace (no, not the Hank Ketcham character -- the British version, "the world's wildest boy," looks like the unkempt love child of Ernie and Bert and lives to pester people to distraction) served as anchors amidst the phoenix-like rises and falls of lesser lights. Somewhat to my surprise, THE BEANO, up until the mid-1970s, also featured action-adventure strips, including a couple that brushed up against the superhero genre (e.g., BILLY THE CAT, about an acrobatic youth who fights evil while dressed up in a cat suit -- Selena Kyle must not have been amused). When these strips left the premises, the "creeping sameness" that I mentioned earlier appears to have become the mag's "default setting". The strip samples featured herein show a pretty dramatic falling-off in quality as we enter the 1980s.

Though reading this book has given me a new-found sense of respect regarding THE BEANO's long-lived, much-loved stars, I still can't rate them on the same level with the best of American "funny comics." The reason is simple: American "funny-animal" heroes could -- and did -- engage in all manner of adventure stories, whereas it's impossible to imagine the stars of THE BEANO pulling off such a trick. Indeed, given the magazine's maintenance of its short gag-strip format for so long (slightly more elaborate versions in "annuals" aside), the thought of stretching the characters' boundaries to such an extent seems never to have occurred to the editors and writers. Of course, I can't fairly criticize THE BEANO for what it never saw fit to attempt, and what the magazine did choose to do, it did reasonably well. In that respect, its 70-year life span is a tribute to the simple virtue of recognizing what your readers want and giving it to them on a regular basis.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #296 (September 2009, Boom! Kids)

The good news about Boom!'s first "classic" Disney release is also the bad news: it's a thoroughly professional, completely workmanlike -- and relatively uninspired -- effort. That immediately gives Boom! a solid head start on Marvel-Disney's ghastly DISNEY AFTERNOON title. However, Boom! still has a ways to go to catch up to the first incarnation of Gladstone Comics or the early issues of the better Disney Comics titles. Peg MM&F #296 at the "Gladstone II" level, and you've about got it. (Actually, Boom! may be a notch above that. Since overt plumping for the remainder of the Boom! Kids line is limited to several discreet ads at the back of the book, signs are hopeful that the company won't go the Bruce Hamilton route and try to sell us unwanted collectibles, or something similar. Judging by Editor Aaron Sparrow's heartfelt column describing Boom!'s desire to get kids to read comics again, the motivations here appear to be thoroughly admirable.)

I wasn't pleased by Boom!'s decision to start its "classic" Disney releases by playing games with cover variants. I simply accepted the issue the store had held for me, and it appears that I got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. "Cover A" has a nice pose of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in their "Wizards of Mickey" garb, standing in front of what appears to be a leftover set from Lord of the Rings. If you're a kid and grabbing this book "cold," you may be a little confused as to why MD&G are doing the Harry Potter "thang," so I would have liked a small explanatory cover blurb. "Cover A," however, is far less confusticating than "Cover B":

Mickey dominates this cover to such an unhealthy extent that it's rather difficult to figure out what the heck he is, in fact, supposed to be. We get less of a feel for the "...and Friends" portion of the title, as well.

Part one of "Wizards of Mickey" is trumpeted with a nice, full-page set of credits, but, strangely enough, without an official title. (Even more of a reason to put that blurb on the cover, I deem.) Writer Stefano Ambrosio and artists Lorenzo Pastrovicchio, Roberto Santillo, and Marco Giglione penned the original story for the Italian TOPOLINO, so we're immediately hip-deep in the three-tiers-per-page format and artwork heavily influenced by the semi-exaggerated style of Giorgio Cavazzano. The story art is fine; the English translation, by Saida Temafonte, not so much. Judging by the flat, spare dialogue (check the amount of white space in those dialogue balloons) and unimaginative character names (neophyte wizard Mickey's nemesis is... "Peg-Leg Pete the Great"? Not too much of a stretch, eh?), I suspect that Temafonte simply did a literal translation of the original Italian dialogue. If one were dealing only with generic characters, this would be fine, but the sole hint of characterization amongst the "Big Three" is Goofy's use of "Hyuk!". There are a couple of hints that Temafonte may be drawing upon fantasy literature -- the tale is set in the "Dolmen Empire" and Donald's pet dragon is named "Fafnir" -- but such spasms of creativity are set alongside such generic descriptors as "Hawk Pass" and "The Valley of Solitude". Only when Mickey, who's traveled to the capital of Great Haven to recover the rain-making Diamagic crystal that Pete took from him, is harassed by magic-mongering street vendors does the tale briefly sputter to life with a handful of funny verbal gags. Then it's back to table-setting as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy meet, exchange notes, and decide to band together to enter a sorcery tournament and win Diamagics. Temafonte closes with a "next exciting episode" promo that reads like something lifted from Underdog, and we're left to wait for the real action to begin in the next issue (whenever that is -- I'm assuming MM&F will be a monthly, but there's no indication of that fact in the indicia).

This first Boom! offering was mildly enjoyable, but it's not hard to pick out ways in which the experience could be improved. Above all, more effort needs to be put into the translation. Perhaps other hands will be translating the Ultraheroes epic in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES and the Double Duck story in DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS. If Temafonte's name appears there as well, however, I'll start to worry that Boom! is going for a cheap solution to the problem of turning translated dialogue into dialogue that is fun to read. A glance at the efforts of Joe Torcivia, David Gerstein, Jonathan Gray, and others who turned out first-rate Gemstone scripts might do Boom! some good. Boom! may want to go its own way with these "themed" titles, but there are other ways in which it can learn from the past.