Friday, May 28, 2010

Comics Reviews: DISNEY'S HERO SQUAD #5 and WIZARDS OF MICKEY #5 (Boom! Kids, May 2010)

There's no longer any serious doubt in my mind that HERO SQUAD has fallen WELL behind fellow "Disney departure" titles WIZARDS OF MICKEY and DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS on the old "like-o-meter." This week's issue of HS falls dangerously close to "worthy-of-MSTing" territory, while WIZARDS, despite serious inconsistencies in artistic quality and the creakiness inherent in its "from-one-venue-to-another" structure, has stabilized into a reliably satisfactory reading experience.

For a "significant" issue that finally allows us to see the effects of the assembled Ultramachine and reveals the identity of the "genius" responsible for inventing such a dangerous device in the first place, HERO SQUAD #5 is distressingly poor, especially in the realm of simple logic. Exactly HOW, may I ask, did Mickey, who was very clearly left behind when the Ultraheroes returned to Duckburg from The Sinister 7's island, manage to join them by the time they arrived to face off against The 7 at Villa Rose? (At least Scrooge, The Money Bin, and The Beagle Boys get a proper "blastoff notice" from the isle as a sidebar to the main action.) Gladstone/Cloverleaf's traitorous actions in HS #4 still haven't been explained, but neither has his apparent decision to break off from BOTH groups and "wait for the right moment to show everybody I'm the best of them all!". Given that Iron Gus accidentally captures all of The 7 save the renegade Emil Eagle by sheer, dumb good fortune (and isn't good luck Cloverleaf's shtick, anyway?), Clove is already halfway there without even trying. The powers of Eega Beeva's "Green Ultra-Suit" consist of the rapid quasi-magical deployment of... prehistoric animals, including a "Pleistocene flea" (sic) that can "disable all technological devices" (not even sic-worthy). Of course Eega is capable of time travel, so one can see him dipping liberally into the distant past, but why use only beasts from that period, rather than mixing in some uber-tech so as to keep foes (especially futuristic ones) honest? Eega's approach might be dismissed as an odd quirk of a character liberally festooned with same, but then we learn that Eega himself was responsible for building the Ultramachine... and that, when activated (by a desperate Emil, in this case), the device zaps Eega into "giant zombie" mode. That's the kind of super-weapon I want to create -- a machine the activation of which renders me completely incapable of controlling myself. No other issue of this title has pointed up so clearly the disadvantages of the "forced-serial" format. No doubt future chapters will provide us with some sort of explanation for Cloverleaf's behavior and Eega's frankly senseless tech, but cutting the story off before we get there leaves the reader completely baffled. The novelty of seeing Disney characters as superheroes has worn off; now it's time to get semi-serious and start putting the pieces of this increasingly schizophrenic narrative together.

In contrast to HS #5, WIZARDS OF MICKEY #5 features a refreshing number of "shout-outs" to earlier stages of the ongoing episodic continuity. Pluto, unseen since MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #296, finally joins (or, in the case of master Mickey, rejoins) "Our Gandalfian Gang," newly "pawed" with the power of lycanthropy. I'm not entirely comfortable with the explanation as to how Pluto gained this "talent" (nor was I aware that werewolves magically grew spiked helmets upon transformation), but at least Mickey appears to have the ability to control it (even during a full moon!), so it will probably come in handy as we proceed. Pluto helps Wizards of Mickey uncover the "monster scam" being run by Pete and The Beagle Brothers before we head off to a nice breather -- a party amongst the contestants in the sorcery tournament. We see some familiar folks here, including "Team Diamond Moon," "Team Jinx", and even the trio of soup-brewing sorcerers who originally told Mickey about the tournament back in #296. Though the ever-changing artwork makes it harder than it should to recognize some of these old faces, it's nice to see writer Stefano Ambrosio maintaining a throughline of characters, as well as theme. Sadly for WOM, Pete and The Beagles, newly sprung from gaol, also return, under the direct orders of this issue's most noteworthy returnee: The Phantom Blot. I'd still like to know how The Blot avoided Nereus' fate, but at least he's back, above-board, and undisguised, so another showdown with WOM will no doubt soon be upon us. Add the priceless revelation that Goofy -- after having previously considered a number of different occupations in lieu of sorcerer-dom -- now thinks that his true calling may be as a statistician, and how could I not enjoy this issue? (Technically, Goofy's actually a probabilist, since he talks about the chances of Pete and The Beagles escaping from prison. Let him perform a few hypothesis tests and/or sample surveys, and then I'll be completely convinced.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Trio of RIP's

Art Linkletter: The long-acknowledged king of "genial audience-participation-show hosts." I came along a bit too late to catch his radio/TV act and know him best for his best-selling book, KIDS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS (1957), a collection of anecdotes from his long-running show, Art Linkletter's House Party. The book was the national non-fiction best-seller for two years (!) and featured illustrations by Charles Schulz. I realize that PEANUTS was growing rapidly in popularity in the late 1950s, but there had to have been a fair number of folks whose first exposure to Schulz' work came here.

Martin Gardner: Gardner, who wrote the popular MATHEMATICAL GAMES column in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for 25 years, is my idea of a great mathematical role model, even though his mathematical training beyond high school was minimal. Gardner was the leading expositor of recreational mathematics in the U.S. for many years and also found time to write books of literary criticism on Lewis Carroll and G.K. Chesterton, guides to stage magic, debunkings of pseudoscientific claims of various sorts (think Penn and Teller without the F-bombs), and musings on religion and religious skepticism. Suffice it to say that he was a legendary figure in the mathematical community. We need all the well-rounded people we can get.

Howard Post: All the obituaries seem to mention his work on the syndicated comic strip THE DROPOUTS -- which I knew well from its run in THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER back in the 70s -- while relegating his extensive comic-book work to a secondary paragraph. This is too bad, as Post is arguably the funniest artist ever to draw for Harvey Comics. Not in the sense of his stuff looking strange, but in the sense of his stuff looking "ha-ha!". I never collected the comics in which his work most often appeared (HOT STUFF, SPOOKY, LITTLE AUDREY) and therefore did not really appreciate it until reading the HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS series from Dark Horse. Even his more "realistic" Harvey renderings were always slightly off the wall; take this opening splash panel of a 1969 story starring Sooper Hippie (really, would I make that up?) from Harvey's legendarily "yvoorg" (read it backwards) teen comic BUNNY:

Post also showed he could play it straight very effectively in the well-liked, though short-lived, ANTHRO title for DC Comics. All in all, a very distinguished career. Of the "core" Harvey Comics gang, only Sid Couchey, Ernie Colon, and seemingly indestructible editor Sid Jacobson now remain.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: KRAZY AND IGNATZ 1916-1918: "LOVE IN A KESTLE OR LOVE IN A HUT" by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Press, 2010)

Krazy and Ignatz, 1916-1918: Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut

Fifteen months after closing out the chronological reprints of KRAZY KAT Sunday pages, Fantagraphics doubles back to tackle George Herriman's earliest Sundays, plowing earth previously tilled by Eclipse Comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These World War I-era strips (and you can easily tell; Herriman makes far more direct references to WWI than he did to WWII several decades later) were the works in which the great creator vaulted out of the four-panel daily-strip straightjacket and began to flex his artistic muscles, attracting a crowd of admiring glitterati in his wake. Not that old habits were easy to break; for the first several months, Herriman treats the Sunday like a "super-sized" daily, breaking up the large black and white page (which ran in the Hearst papers' "drama and arts" section, the place where you see book reviews and crossword puzzles today) into a large number of smaller rectangular segments. Not until the Summer of 1916 does the artist begin to play with his format on a regular basis, and then all bets are off (though the number of "discrete intra-strip events" remains high; Herriman's more visually sumptuous poster-art phase wouldn't kick in until some years later). During these years, Herriman casts "Bull Pupp" as an officer of the law, turns the spare world of the KRAZY daily strip into something close to a mini-society, and establishes offbeat themes that would sustain many a gag in the years immediately ahead, such as occasional "just-so" stories (how the robin got his red breast, why the rattlesnake and garter snake are different, etc.). Most important of all, of course, he begins to flesh out the precise relationship between Kat, Mouse, and brick. (Offissa Pupp is on hand as well, but the jail routine hasn't quite jelled as of yet; he's still a pretty minor player, getting less mug time than, for example, brick magnate Colin Kelly.)

In his Introduction, Bill Blackbeard notes that regional Hearst editors, who had the freedom to juggle individual sections of their papers (though not the comics section), fought battles with the front office over the inclusion of a comic strip that baffled the average reader. Even those who read the spare, to-the-point KRAZY KAT dailies were disoriented, as Herriman introduced a whole new raft of characters and turned Coconino County into a real (or as "real" as such things can be) place. Once again, Hearst receives, and deserves, the credit for insisting that his editors keep the Sunday KRAZY in the paper. Blackbeard also attempts to trace the "first appearance" of Krazy back beyond his/her "commonly accepted" debut in the bottom part of Herriman's THE DINGBAT FAMILY in 1910. He digs up a couple of black cats who appeared (and even talked) in such early, extravagantly ephemeral Herriman works as LARIAT PETE, ROSY'S MAMA (aka ROSY POSY GRANDMA'S GIRL), BUD SMITH, and ZOO ZOO. But sometimes a black cat is just a black cat, and I don't see any real connection between these critters and "The" Kat of word-mangling, brick-begging fame. Blackbeard's on slightly more solid turf when he displays a BARON MOOCH strip of 1909 in which the black cat is finally referred to as a "Kat."

Saturday, May 22, 2010


My old colleague from "WTFB" is back with another Kim Possible story, one that presents me with something of a dilemma. On the one hand, it features good characterizations and displays Richard's immense erudition while (mostly) keeping under control the "info-dumping" tendencies that rather overwhelmed the final chapter of Richard's earlier "Claws of the Kitten." On the other, it forces me to buy into the idea of Kim interacting with... gremlins. To be fair, this isn't quite as big of a stretch as it seems. Though most of Kim's adversaries lived just inside the boundary of believability -- that is, if you crank current levels of scientific progress (for good or ill) up an additional "notch" or two -- Kim and Ron Stoppable did battle one regular villain (Lord Monkey Fist) who dabbled in the supernatural, and they met space aliens on one or two occasions. I think it's fair to say, though, that, like James Bond, Kim Possible seems to belong in a quasi-realistic setting and should not, as a rule, be mixing with genii, leprechauns, sprites, and other "fantastic" characters. Richard's interest in classic 1930s-model airplanes was a solid enough jumping-off point for a story in which Kim and Ron solve a mystery for a group of vintage-flyer enthusiasts. The gremlins simply make it harder to take the plot seriously.

Fittingly, Richard's version of the gremlins owes more to the Disney version of same -- the one that surfaced in a couple of WWII-era Disney comic books but was "talked to death" as a feature-film property before finally being shelved -- than to the wacky characters who appeared in several Warner Bros. cartoons. From what little I know of the Disney-flavored sprites, Richard seems to have characterized them quite well. The use of the little guys has a certain built-in advantage in that it gives Ron's pet mole rat Rufus a chance to shine; by helping the gremlins drive off a threat to their young ("widgets," in gremlin-speak), Rufus establishes "first contact" with them. The continuing existence of gremlins in the modern era, however, raises some questions. Do gremlins only hang around vintage aircraft? (I can see the Smithsonian Air and Space people laying in a BIG stock of insect repellent right about now.) If "Yesterday's Airport" were ever to close, then where would the gremlins go?

Richard does throw us a big, fragrant "red herring" before revealing the identity of the villain behind the plot against "Yesterday's Airport," but he never does clear up why the first suspect was such a pain. (Can there be such a thing as a negative "Mary Sue"?) He also gives Kim and Ron relatively little to do from a physical standpoint; the gremlins do the heavy lifting during the final "battle" (which really isn't much of one) against the bad guy. Overall, this story doesn't quite measure up to "Claws of the Kitten," despite its brisker pace and nice vintage flavor. But it still should be enjoyable reading for any Kim Possible fan.

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #354 (May 2010, Boom! Kids)

Attention, all Agency staffers and hangers-on: we are now in full Mobius-strip mode! After wrapping "Before the Premiere" in this issue, we glide straight into the next Double Duck story without even finding out how Donald solved the dilemma of fulfilling his "birthday mission" for Daisy. What there is of "Souvenir de Paris," however, amounts to little more than a canape; we barely stick around long enough to find out that our old friend Kay K/Red Primerose (1) has escaped from prison, (2) has joined the evil "Organization," and (3) is now skulking about top-secret think tanks in a form-fitting black body suit. What few Double Duck "filler stories" exist would not have made up the difference between the issue's full length and the length of "Before the Premiere Part 2," so I suppose that I understand the editorial decision, but ouch! talk about awkward...

My earlier speculations about "Premiere" resulted in some hits and some misses. The "Org" was interested in influencing the Clippedonian election results and did intend to exploit the crushing climactic crescendo of the opera to power the scheme. Conductor Felino Felinys' ultimate role, however, wasn't what I had expected. Nor did I expect that Donald would foil the plot in such elementary, yet entirely logical, fashion. Once Don realized that his triangle note was the "cherry on top" of the gargantuan musical sundae, phase one of his plan was easy to carry out. The second will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a cartoon in which the climactic sequence takes place in a hall with a giant chandelier. Nice job, Donald; you're actually showing more competence in this spy gig than in just about any other position you've ever held (though the owners of the Daisy Dairy Company might debate the point -- especially since you actually earned an executive position with that firm). I expect, however, that a revenge-motivated Kay/Red will provide you with by far your toughest challenge yet.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Homework Assignment: Before reading this entry, please read this posting by Joe Torcivia. You'll thank me in a minute.

In reading this collection of stories from LITTLE LULU #112-117 (October 1957 - March 1958), one can definitely sense John Stanley suffering an attack of the "chafes." Stanley was still a couple of years away from abandoning the title for good, but a certain restlessness is evinced by his busting out of the long-established "mold" in one or two places. Stanley busts the string of "poor little girl" story-telling stories with a vengeance in #117's "Bedtime Story," in which little Alvin insists upon telling Lulu a story for once. Not surprisingly, Alvin comes off as the "hero" and Lulu as a fallible sidekick. Witch Hazel appears at the end, but only for a bit of self-referencing humor as she wonders why Lulu isn't in control of the story. The tale has more of the feel of a FRACTURED FAIRY TALE than do most of the increasingly mechanical "story-telling" exercises than had immediately preceded it.

Alvin's seizure of the controls in "Bedtime Story" pales in comparison with the preceding issue's "The Secret Girl Friend." Here, Stanley takes his apparent mental inquietude into a whole weird new area. Lulu becomes convinced that Tubby has bought her a beautiful Valentine with the message "To My Secret Sweetheart." After working herself into a state of mild hysteria, Lulu is crushed when Tubby's gift proves to be nothing more than a simple, "generic" card. The heartbroken Lulu plots revenge until she visits Tubby's house and... learns that Tubby's "secret sweetheart" is his MOTHER.

Now you know why I wanted to "soften you up" with that creepy BUGS BUNNY story. Stanley's version, however, is, if anything, even creepier. Lula Belle is, after all, a teenager, whereas Tubby is a LITTLE BOY. Sufferin' Sophocles! The implications are staggering. Even if you regard "sweetheart" as a more neutral term of endearment than "girl friend," there's still Stanley's choice of a story title to consider. A scenario like this is even stranger coming from a well-established, generally "well-behaved" writer like Stanley than from some anonymous scrivener who took on the BUGS job as only one assignment among many. It leads me to believe that Stanley was beginning to "mentally check out" of the LULU "universe" long before he actually did so.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Review: THE AGE OF REAGAN: THE CONSERVATIVE COUNTER-REVOLUTION 1980-1989 by Stephen Hayward (Crown Forum, 2009)

Like Craig Shirley's recent book on Ronald Reagan's 1980 Presidential campaign -- which, interestingly enough, also took more time to be released than originally expected -- the second volume in Hayward's AGE OF REAGAN exacta is likely to stand for some time as the default pro-Reagan survey of its subject matter (in this case, Reagan's two terms as President). It also, like Shirley's volume, misses top-drawer status by just a hair. Hayward eschews the sophomoric language that Shirley occasionally used in favor of a straightforward narrative style, so the words aren't the problem. The real disappointment is how many important topics are either ignored entirely or skimmed over in passing, the victims of Hayward's relentless focus on the "twin peaks" of the Reagan era, the success/failure of "Reaganomics" and the events of the final decade of the Cold War. You'll find nothing here on the savings and loan crisis (which Hayward admits up front) but also nothing on South Africa, the great liberal foreign-policy obsession of the 1980s, and a surprisingly meager amount on the Religious Right, even in its somewhat fluid pre-Christian Coalition phase. The final chapter is also something of a letdown, primarily because Hayward spends so little time on linking Reagan's accomplishments to the triumphs and follies of the conservative movement today -- a linkage that he had explicitly promised to explore in some detail in the first volume.

Despite the holes in the narrative, Hayward does succeed in clearing the air of several misconceptions about the Reagan years. First and foremost, he dynamites any lingering impressions that "we all stood together behind the Gipper" as the Cold War wound down. The quotes from Vietnam-traumatized liberals and leftists about the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, Grenada, and similar would-be flash points are numerous, and damning. Oddly enough, Hayward makes no mention of Ted Kennedy's coziness with ex-KGB master Yuri Andropov, which would have fit right into his laundry list of defeatist declarations. A discussion of South Africa would also have been helpful here, as the huge amount of noise made about that country by the Left during the 80s would have provided a useful contrast to its deafening silence when it came to the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hayward gives Mikhail Gorbachev his proper due for helping to ease tensions and bring the Cold War to a virtually bloodless conclusion, but he also makes it clear that Reagan was anything but an amiable onlooker to these events; his resolve obliged the USSR to find a leader who would at least attempt to reverse the country's economic slide and compete with a newly confident America.

Hayward also nixes the notion of Reagan's second term as being a "failure" defined solely by the Iran-Contra scandal. 1985-89 saw the major breakthroughs with Gorbachev, the passage of a landmark tax-reform package that was thought to be impossible at the time, and the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, which has since led to the creation of a conservative alternative media, a luxury that Reagan himself did not enjoy. If Reagan's second term was a letdown compared to the first, Hayward argues, it was partially his own fault. In "Realignment Manque," the most provocative part of the book, Hayward takes the Reagan reelection campaign in 1984 to task for not attempting to "de-legitimize" the intellectually sclerotic Democratic Party and fighting hard for Republican gains in the Congress. Instead, Reagan encouraged Democrats to support him without leaving their own party and used the cheerful but vacuous theme of "Morning in America." Hayward's argument is hard to answer, but he does not really discuss why Reagan chose to campaign in this manner. My own view is that this was another example of Reagan going over the heads of the elite media and establishing a personal bond of trust with voters. By so doing, he was able to counteract media bias (which was plenty bad, though nowhere near as raw and ugly as that seen during the "W" years), but he did so at the cost of blunting the edges of his rhetoric.

Finally, Hayward muddies the expected good guy/bad guy domestic debates of the era by pointing out how often Reagan was at odds with members of his own party. Bob Dole may have been a good senator and an effective spokesman for Viagra, but he does not come off at all well here. The waterier RINOs of the Lowell Weicker/Charles Mathias ilk are treated even more harshly (not least by quoting Reagan's disgusted diary entries about them). Hayward likewise details the worries of conservatives that a legacy-haunted Reagan might be snookered into signing a bad arms-control bill with Gorbachev late in his Presidency. Despite making these points, Hayward mystifyingly fails to tie them together with observations on the modern-day GOP in his final chapter, "The Reagan Revolution and its Discontents."

Though it will probably not convince a Reagan hater to "join the church," Hayward's book is an effective first stab at a complete assessment of the man's Presidency. I think it is safe to say that better books on the subject are in our future, however.

The In-Laws Tout a Miracle Drug! (1950 Vintage)

Nicky recently purchased a January 1950 issue of LOOK magazine in which her grandparents, father, and two of her uncles appeared in an ad touting a keen new allergy medicine, Anahist. Note: no warnings or announced side effects anywhere in evidence! Talk about a wonder drug.

That's Nicky's dad Arthur next to her grandmother, the actress and acting teacher Lillian Green Caran. The other two boys are Nicky's uncles Ronnie and Rick. At this time, Nicky's grandfather Byron Caran was working as a studio musician in NYC. I wonder how the Caran family got tabbed (along with several other families) for this gig. Probably those nebulous, yet never-to-be-underestimated, "industry connections" were involved here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #391 (Boom! Kids, May 2010)

A honest-to-goodness fist-fight between Scrooge and John D. Rockerduck to close out "Around the World in 80 Bucks"? We should only have been so lucky. Instead, after John D.'s last desperate attempt to scam world-traveling Scrooge into spending money fails, Scrooge and Donald merely complete their trip (catching Rockerduck's hapless henchman Lusky in an act of direct sabotage for good measure), and Rockerduck is sentenced to eat four-and-twenty hats as a punishment. John D.'s creation of a phony "lost civilization" in Australia and an equally bogus "archaeologist" who needs financial assistance to uncover its supposed "treasures" is a clever notion, I must admit, but it relies heavily on Scrooge's not finding anything amiss with the fact that the "long-lost" Mu supercomputer is in pristine condition. Surely Scrooge has uncovered enough buried cities in his day to find this situation at least mildly suspicious? The plot point is rounded off in believable style (Scrooge passes up the proverbial "chance to make millions in the long run" because he's unwilling to pay the small initial sum for excavation), but the Antipodean artifice is simply too childish to be taken completely seriously. Lusky's final fouling-up flop gives rise to an additional annoying question: why should John D., who is well-known as a free-spending sort -- especially when it comes to one-upping Scrooge -- have relied so heavily on the actions of a single operative? Even Flintheart Glomgold was willing to splurge to the extent of hiring THREE Beagle Boys to help him try to keep Scrooge out of Macaroon in DuckTales' "Catch as Cash Can" serial. If this caper had been filmed, the use of Lusky as Rockerduck's main man "on the ground" would have rivalled the televised works of Irwin Allen when it comes to economy of casting.

Though it did have a handful of good moments -- largely thanks to occasional spasms of clever dialogue work -- "80 Bucks" makes it two "face-plants" in a row for the hugely disappointing Boom! version of $CROOGE. Purists may not appreciate the sentiment, but I think that the upcoming DuckTales-flavored issues will actually be more faithful to this title's distinguished past, if only because I expect them to demonstrate the true adventurous spirit that "80 Bucks" and the previous Scrooge vs. Magica story have so conspicuously lacked. So often DT has been accused of "sucking the life out of" Carl Barks' famed creations; I, for one, am looking forward to a couple of issues chock full of reverse vampirism.

Friday, May 14, 2010

RIP, Frank and Annie

Frank Frazetta's death on Monday the 10th affected me only tangentially in terms of my comics interests. I only knew him as the guy who painted the barbarians and so forth. Then I looked at a COMICS JOURNAL interview from 1994 and found myself filled with a "strange new respect." Here was a strong conservative who nonetheless assisted Al Capp on LI'L ABNER during the strip's liberal phase and cooperated with Ralph Bakhshi on the feature film Fire and Ice (1983). I only wish that we had that sort of ideological "cross-pollination" today. Your subject matter may not have been my "cup of mead," Frank, but rest in peace.

Speaking of conservative comics icons, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE has been cancelled by Tribune Media Services. The last strip will run (in fewer than 20 newspapers -- think about that for a moment and sigh) on June 13. The irony, of course, is that ANNIE is now getting the full, "from-strip-one" reprint treatment, thanks to IDW Publishing and its superb LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS.

In truth, Annie, Sandy, Warbucks et al. have been living on borrowed time since Harold Gray's death in 1968 and only managed to survive this long thanks to a few thick slabs of good old-fashioned luck. Consider:

(1) Between 1968 and 1974, the Tribune syndicate chewed up potential Gray heirs like Orson Welles buzzing through a Dagwood sandwich. David Lettick, one of the unfortunate souls who managed to snag the gig, drew terribly enough to be three decades ahead of his time. The Trib finally stopped the bleeding, at least for the moment, by rerunning old Gray strips for several years.

(2) Just when the novelty of the Gray reprints had begun to wear off, the musical version of Annie became a freak hit, prompting Leonard Starr to reboot the strip under the name ANNIE. The "gas fumes" supplied by the musical and the subsequent movie version of same -- coupled with the considerable talents of Starr -- bought the strip another couple of decades of life.

In 2000, writer Jay Maeder presided over yet another revamping of the strip, giving Annie a new wardrobe and an adult female sidekick who served as the Baloo to Annie's Kit Cloudkicker. (Better yet, imagine Baloo taking Gosalyn Mallard on as a partner.) I recall reading about this at the time and figuring that updating Annie into a streamlined, modern-day adventurer who could more easily "relate" to today's kids had at least a puncher's chance of being successful (or as successful as a modern, space-squeezed adventure strip could possibly be). Evidently, however, the strip became too simplistic, losing whatever adult audience it had retained from the old days, and proved unable to attract new, young readers. The eternal orphan has, at long last, been truly left alone... and the strip's current story line apparently won't even be officially resolved. I think Annie deserves better than that.

Book Review: CHURCHILL by Paul Johnson (Viking, 2009)

Johnson, the "great explainer" of modern times and expert dissector of the pretensions of modern intellectuals, has been coasting on his reputation of late. ART: A NEW HISTORY was robust (and colorful) enough, but I wasn't particularly taken with either CREATORS or HEROES. With this engaging "quick sketch" of the life of Winston Churchill, the author is back on form. Some snarky reviews to the contrary, this is not a hagiography, though it certainly gives Churchill the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Its simple goal is to explain why Churchill must be regarded as a major historical figure, regardless of what one thinks of the man and his policies.

The book divides neatly into two sections. Part one is a more or less straightforward biography which takes us up to the point at which Churchill first became Prime Minister in 1940. Johnson avoids the cliche of saddling Churchill with all the responsibility for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16, instead focusing on other, rather less dramatic examples of Churchill's tendency for occasional lapses in judgment. Foremost among the latter is Churchill's bull-headed defense of King Edward VIII during the 1936 Abdication Crisis. This stand had severe consequences for Britain, as Churchill became so unpopular that his (increasingly heeded) warnings of the menace of a rearming Germany were tossed aside as a result.

Johnson then devotes the bulk of the remainder of the volume to an analysis of Churchill's record as a war leader. Johnson sees Churchill as the "indispensable man," the key to Britain's survival, and lays out the reasons why. These reasons are generally convincing, though I wish that even more was made of the salient fact that Churchill regarded both forms of 2oth century totalitarian tyranny -- Fascism and Communism -- as equally evil. While always willing to "jaw-jaw" to preserve peace whenever practicable, he did not fall into the trap of "pas d'ennemis a gauche (ou a droit)" that hinders a sense of moral clarity. One wonders how history would have been altered had Britain and the U.S. heeded Churchill's advice and met the Red Army as far to the East as possible.

The book's ending is its weakest point. Johnson skims over Churchill's second premiership (1951-54) with indecent haste and concludes with a list of "lessons Churchill teaches us today." The latter has the tone of a particularly uninspired business seminar, while it is telling that Johnson prefers to tell us what Churchill did not do during his second turn at the top. (A.N. Wilson's OUR TIMES treats the second Churchill government in a considerably harsher manner, and, given the state of the war-ravaged country and Churchill's own age and weariness, Wilson's treatment rings a bit truer to me.) Happily, in an afterword, Johnson is generous enough to recommend more in-depth treatments of Churchill and his times. If CHURCHILL encourages the reader to forge ahead to these other works, then it will have done its job.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #706 (Boom! Kids, April 2010)

Andrea Castellan's "Mickey Mouse and the World to Come", which wraps in this issue, is the best original material Boom! has presented to date, and "there is no second" -- at least, not yet. The Rhyming Man's scheme to refashion the world to his twisted liking through his mastery of high-tech and "the world equation" comes to grief, as we all knew it would. Before "all iss done und said," Mickey, Minnie, and Eega Beeva get their heroic licks in, and, right at the climax of the action, a Tale Spin episode suddenly breaks out as King Kontinento of Illusitania and his daughter Silvy lead the Illusitanian Royal Guard in an aerial assault on The Rhyming Man's massive turbo-prop plane. "Rhymes" even wears a Napoleon hat and epauletted jacket and brandishes a sword for the occasion, coming off like a Don Karnage with a better grasp of poetic meter (though, in fact, his rhyming shtick does disappear at several moments, with Minnie inadvertently completing one couplet in the best Bucky Bug tradition). The "retro" look of the big air battle is entirely fitting, as this entire story is the functional equivalent of a Floyd Gottfredson adventure from the fanciful Bill Walsh era. "Casty" (with help from translators David Gerstein, Jonathan Gray, and Stefan Bronzoni) is clearly the best thing Boom! has going for it right now insofar as fans of "classic" Disney comics material are concerned, and Boom! just as clearly recognizes the fact, as WDC&S #707 will bring us a new Castellan adventure. My hope is that either "Casty" gets the entire book next time or we get a non-Mouse backup of higher quality than the woebegone and forgettable "Peg-Leg Pete and the Alien Band". (I mean, we never even got to see Pete actually perform in concert. We deserved at least that minor payoff.)

One minor quibble about Castellan's story coda. King Kontinento's decision to scrap the entire "World to Come" project is entirely understandable, coming complete with a "greenish" comment about humanity needing to realize that "we are zis world's guests, not its masters!". But did it really have to be "all or nothing"? Couldn't the technology be used on a smaller scale to fix earthquake faults, calm volcanoes, bring water to parched deserts, and the like? I think that there was room for consideration, at least, of the "Open your borders some of the time!" option (cf. the Speed Racer episode "The Fire Race")... provided that security was much tighter, that is.

Comics Review: STAR COMICS ALL-STAR COLLECTION, Volume 3 (Marvel Comics, 2010)

The "black holes" in the "Star Universe" are starting to show -- and NOT simply because Dave Manak, who'd later give us those memorably misguided team-ups between Richie Rich, Wendy the Witch, and New Kids on the Block during the Montgomery Harvey era, makes his debut in this collection (he writes the feature stories in TOP DOG #8 and #9). No, this third volume sees the final fruits of the first "original" Star title to depart the premises (ROYAL ROY, which ended with issue #6 in the face of threatened legal action by Harvey over Roy's extreme similarity to Richie Rich) and the dreaded insertion of (Gulp!) t-t-team-ups into the world of Star's flagship (IMHO) character, Top Dog. PLANET TERRY continues to be of consistently good quality, and Ben Brown's fine work on WALLY THE WIZARD is nothing short of a revelation to me, but these happenings do not bode well for what we now know would be these characters' rather limited futures.

The feature story in ROYAL ROY #5, "The Royal Olympics" -- a not-even-bothering-to-use-a-fig-leaf rip-off of an early-1970s RICHIE story, "The Rich Kids' Olympics" -- is the four-color equivalent of a finger in Harvey's eye as Star prepared to shutter up shop on its "prince of a boy," but Roy's career wasn't quite over yet. In TOP DOG #7, TD reprises his earlier role as operator of the government's "Brainstrain" computer and general trouble-shooter to dope out a solution to a "Crisis in Cashelot." To make this work, writer Sid Jacobson would have us believe that tiny Cashelot and its equally minuscule neighbor, Lessavia, are such key allies of the U.S. that TD -- who (in disguise, bien sur) had once used his amazing cooking (!) skills to short-circuit a dispute between an American diplomat and a representative of what is VERY strongly hinted to be the Soviet Union -- must be called into the "secret table service" once again. This is stretching credulity to the snapping point, but, as TD flippantly explains to (supposed) master Joey Jordan, it's "close enough for government work!" The predictable but enjoyable story at least allows Royal Roy to conclude his career on a relatively dignified note. Two issues later, however, TD gets a glimpse of his future when Manak's "The Great Museum Mystery" teams him up with Heathcliff. After TD's title had "wuthered" (sorry) away, he would serve as the back-up feature in Star's HEATHCLIFF title. Warren Kremer simulates George Gately's style with remarkable verisimilitude, but the character designs of Joey and TD obviously clash with those of Heathcliff (who's in his non-TV "silent" mode here) and his master Iggy. As if these two "special guest appearances" aren't enough, the in-panel blurb for TOP DOG #10 promises "the event of the year" -- a team-up between Top Dog and Spider-Man. What's next, TD donning a battle suit and zooming through the sky as he calls out to Joey, "You complete me!"?

Though Jon D'Agostino's inking may have helped, Ben Brown unquestionably deserves most of the credit for making his issues of WALLY THE WIZARD (here, #5 and #6) so enjoyable, largely due to his scripts. #6's "The Return of Merlin" offers up a clever, iconoclastic spin on the legend of the Arthurian wizard, who happens to be Wally's master Marlin's brother. Brown's Merlin turns out to be a conniving hustler who promises to save the kingdom from a threatening volcano while secretly planning to slip away with his payment. Marlin, for his part, being a "scientific" magician, stoutly avows that the best thing that the locals can do in the face of the danger is to make tracks out of the volcano's path. Marlin gets his comeuppance in the end, thanks to some quick thinking by Wally, but even the young apprentice's plan is delightfully unexpected. #5's "Kidnapped!", in which the haughty Princess Penelope is spirited away by the evil Vastar, isn't quite as distinctive, and Brown seems confused as to whether Vastar's magical ally Erasmo's "force field" is an incorporeal vapor or a literal "dome" (complete with a hole to allow smoke to get through!), but the artwork is still first-class, though a bit stiff in places. Brown maintains WALLY creator Bob Bolling's "non-Harvey-like" layout style and does it well. Indeed, his work here is so good that I'm all the more peeved that his earlier work on RICHIE RICH was so mediocre.

PLANET TERRY #5-#6 includes Terry's most straightforwardly heroic exploit to date, in which he helps a planet's inhabitants break free of the globe-girdling web of the deadly Tarantulugs and is rewarded with a substance that helps his big green friend Omnus recover from a near-death experience. #6 ends with the introduction of a comical detective character, Elvin's uncle Sam Space. Between #5 and #6, however, there is a single blank page colored green -- an editorial gaffe that's worthy of Montgomery Harvey at its most ham-handed. The misstep stands out in particular relief because Marvel, to its credit, has taken pains to present this material in a high-quality package. The Star line may ultimately have failed, but Marvel is giving today's readers an aesthetically pleasing glimpse of it.

Book Review: DAN DeCARLO'S JETTA (IDW Publishing/Yoe Books, 2010)

The first offering in IDW/Yoe's "Good Girl Art Library" takes the form of a handsomely mounted reprinting of all three issues -- officially tagged issues #5-7, but that's due to a little publishing chicanery from an era that, amazing as it may seem to us, shied away from making a big deal of "risky" first issues -- of Standard Comics' JETTA, an early product of the luscious pen of the young and ambitious Dan DeCarlo. DeCarlo had already established himself at Timely/Marvel with such "good girl" titles as JEANNIE and MY FRIEND IRMA when Standard asked him to develop its new epic of teenage hijinks in a then-far-distant 21st century. JETTA apparently failed to click with audiences despite DeCarlo's best efforts, but the title definitely presages the creation of The Jetsons a decade later... that is, if you can imagine The Jetsons projecting cultural cliches forward from the early 1950s, rather than the early 1960s, and tagging Judy Jetson as its focal character.

DeCarlo's most distinctive and viscerally appealing work is probably the pin-up art he did for 1950s men's magazines, but the best of that material lay some years beyond JETTA's debut. He had also just begun working for Archie on the original BETTY AND VERONICA title, and what little I've seen of that work indicates that DeCarlo was sticking fairly closely to the then-regnant Archie house style (which he would ultimately uproot and smarten up considerably). JETTA is basically a contemporary ARCHIE comic with a lot of in-panel clutter added, a lot of space-related jargon inserted as "hep" patter, some extremely short skirts on most women... and, I'm sorry to say, far less distinctive characters on the stage. Jetta, her boyfriend Arky (no coincidence, there!), her rival-of-sorts Hilaria, menacing teacher Miss Gorgon, teenage gizmo-whiz... uh, Gizmo... and the rest don't really spark to life at any time, even when the unusual setting is new and interesting, as in issue #1/#5. Sometimes, the uncredited writers don't even try to disguise character swipes; Jetta's well-meaning but slightly bumbling father is a fairly brazen copy of Archie Andrews' Dad. The "dead hand of the present" seems to lie on JETTA's futuristic setting a bit more firmly than it later would on The Jetsons, as reflected in the graffiti-scrawl on characters' "Jetmobiles" -- that particular craze was already old in the 1950's, having peaked during the "Swing Era" and the WWII years. Even DeCarlo's fine artwork is undercut in several places by the use of lesser inkers. Jetta is certainly a treat for the eyes, though, and the good cheer exuded by DeCarlo's art lifts even these predictable situations a bit above the level of the mundane.

The book makes "weight" thanks to an enjoyable Introduction by Craig Yoe and a series of Jetta portraits by a variety of contemporary "good girl" artists, which run the glamour gamut from excellent to hideous (the latter of which, by contemporary standards, might actually be preferred by some). All in all, it's an interesting portrait of a talented young artist turning a less-than-stellar concept into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Comics Review: WIZARDS OF MICKEY #4 (Boom! Kids, April 2010)

Our magic-mongering heroes open this issue by recovering the stolen dragon's egg from "The Iron Sorcerers." In so doing, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy demonstrate yet again that they've got plenty of old-fashioned ingenuity to complement their improving magical skills; they defeat the menacing "Warlock Robot" by attacking the fused metal creature's psychological Achilles' heel (and, yes, there really is one). Then, it's off to Castle Blackburg (and not a Hokie Bird in sight) for a planned rematch with the Tapestry Sorcerers, aka Team Tapestry. (Waitasec -- what about the much-stressed, relentlessly-repeated ground rule that "a team is eliminated from the sorcery tournament when it loses its Diamagic"? Didn't Team Tapestry lose its Stone Diamagic to Wizards of Mickey in that earlier match? Seems to me that the writers have lost the "thread" of their carefully-constructed premise. And that's my only weaving-related joke, I promise.) Black Pete and The Beagle Brothers finally reappear, this time running a "monster-hunting" scam and intending to add the people of Blackburg to their list of "connees." Pete evinces a complete lack of interest in the ongoing tournament; in the absence of The Phantom Blot's guiding hand, could he and The Beagles be "evolving" into a medieval version of their more mundanely crooked future selves? And... could a real monster actually be following Wizards of Mickey? If the plot gets any thicker, it will congeal, but WIZARDS continues to widen its lead over the flagging HERO SQUAD insofar as consistently high quality goes.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Comics Review: DISNEY'S HERO SQUAD #4 (Boom! Kids, April 2010)

All together now, kiddies: "LET'S LEVEL MOUSETON!" Well, a superheroic subsection of it, at least. The plot of the "Ultramachine" saga finally begins to move again as the Ultraheroes agree to turn over their Ultrapods to the Sinister 7 in exchange for the captured Mickey. This involves flying the 'Pods to the 7's island hideaway, where the contractually obligated double-cross awaits. Problem is, the newly-assembled Ultramachine doesn't work. Gladstone/Cloverleaf appears to turn traitor, confessing that a secret seventh 'Pod lies in Villa Rose. Granted, Clove's been sulking ever since that bout with Pete made him look bad, but would even Gladstone stoop this low? It doesn't matter in the end, as Emil Eagle goes Gladstone "one worse" by finally dropping the pretense and boldly announcing that he's abandoning his allies and going after the seventh 'Pod (the i.d. of which comes as a rather clever surprise) with the aid of his giant robot (which looks more like a tamed Transformer than the Master Cylinder-style gizmo that Emil, Pete, and Prince Penguin used back in MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #12). We get a nice payoff of the running gag about Scrooge's repeated escape attempts, and, praise be, it appears that Eega Beeva is finally going to do some legitimate battle, as he calls for the "Green Ultra-Suit" (whatever that may be) in the chapter's final panel. The Antonello Dalena artwork is just a shade above the South Park Colorforms level, though... and, after walking into a trap to rescue Mickey, why did the Ultraheroes leave him behind as they dashed back to home base?!

There's precious little to say about part two of the relentlessly mediocre "Origin of the Red Bat." Fethry doesn't even get the satisfaction of defeating The Beagle Boys legitimately; his victory over the would-be costume-party robbers (are the B-Boys really that hard up for capers?) is a stone fluke. Scrooge has the fitting reaction when Donald reveals the existence of the "masked duck": a simple "Oh." Darkwing Duck would turn up his sizable beak at the very notion of something like this being HIS origin story. Somehow, I think the upcoming DARKWING mini-series will be much more entertaining...