Monday, November 29, 2010

RIP Mary Margaret Lee

My Aunt Mary Margaret died earlier today after a long struggle with pneumonia. She was 65, which was remarkable in itself, given that she was born with Down's syndrome. My grandparents refused to institutionalize her, instead giving her as full a life as they could, including allowing her to work at a facility for mentally handicapped people. After my grandparents died, Mary lived with my Uncle Tom and Aunt Eileen in New Hampshire, but finally had to be put in a home after Alzheimer's took hold.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS by Michael Medved (Times Books, 1979)

Long before his talk show, RIGHT TURNS, Sneak Previews, or the hatching of the first Golden Turkey Award, Michael Medved was a successful author of/contributor to such non-fiction works as WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF '65 and THE PEOPLE'S ALMANAC. THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS is, in many senses, his most ambitious work prior to his recent spate of BIG LIES... books, and one that I wish he would consider updating at some point in the future. Spinning out of Medved's experiences working on the political campaigns of such notables as Robert F. Kennedy, THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS tells the story of the top aides of Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter: how they came to be so indispensable to their bosses, the kinds of influences that they wielded, and their lives after their days in the White House. Released just a few years after Watergate, the tome undoubtedly tapped into a new level of public fascination with the "powers behind the Presidential throne," but Medved is less interested in "juicy details" than he is in the nuts-and-bolts stories of how the aides did (or, in some cases, failed to do) their work. The result is a fascinating book, with a great deal of information being provided in a little space, though I'm sure that many of the findings have been superseded by the revelation of new information.

In compiling his book, Medved was fortunate enough to be able to personally interview such figures as Sherman Adams, Clark Clifford, Bill Moyers, Ted Sorensen, Dick Cheney... and the just-recently-unjailed H.R. Haldeman, who, if not exactly rehabilitated here, is at least treated in a fair manner. Medved's developing conservatism is on display in his rather rough handling of Colonel Edward M. House (Woodrow Wilson's foreign-policy guru) and Harry Hopkins (the man who "came to dinner" with FDR and stayed for several years) and his "storm warnings" regarding the problems that President Carter was then having with his White House staff. The most interesting parts of the book are Medved's treatments of the much-less-well-known 19th- and early-20th-century aides, starting with Lincoln's secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. The quality of these ronin run the gamut and then some, from utter venality (Ulysses S. Grant's showy pal Orville Babcock) to remarkable competence (George B. Cortelyou, who served McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt so efficiently that he earned a Cabinet post and was even considered to be a potential Presidential candidate at one time). Dated it may be, but this survey still repays reading today... except for those Cheney-loathers who may be aware of the fact that Medved was one of the first people to predict that Cheney (who straightened up Gerald Ford's slack White House operation) was destined to ascend to high office before long.

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #6 (November 2010, Boom! Kids)

No SPOILER SPACE needed here, remarkably enough. No violent jerks or jolts in the plot, no unexpected revelations or "unsolved mysteries," "daring-duck"-style or otherwise. Part two of "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings" simply shoves the story of Negaduck and Magica De Spell's plot to flood St. Canard with Darkwings of other dimensions forward a couple of paces. Well, that's not strictly true; we do learn that The Liquidator is not, in fact, responsible for the recent "violent water events" (though he did "get caught up in them," so to speak), but it's not yet clear how these events relate to the deluge of DWs, so that aspect of the plot is paralleling the main action at present, as opposed to being a main part of it. I also appreciate the additional "infor" on how Negaduck and Magica came to work together... and I especially appreciate the absence of any soap-opera "love interest" between the two malicious mallards. This appears to be a strictly mercenary match-up, which makes perfect sense given the characters involved.

The nature of the "infinite Darkwings" is as off-the-wall as you'd expect, showing a "commitment to diversity" that even the Green Lantern Corps would have a difficult time matching. Aside from the fairly standard spaceman, caveman, two-headed guy, etc. we are treated to a pack of flying monkey DWs (I guess they're considered to be equivalent to a single DW -- kind of like The Borg, only much cuter), a talking bowling ball DW, a one-eyed DW, a DW in a bizarre Stetson hat, a DW who looks like Fozzy Bear, a Silver Surfer DW... If it sounds like artist James Silvani has tried to toss in everything but the kitchen sink, well, he includes a kitchen-sink DW, too. Darkwarrior Duck and a DW dressed like The Quiverwing Quack (no worries, he's not in drag) also make what would have to be considered semi-canonical appearances. I've no idea how many of these... er... fellows will play major roles in the upcoming knock-down-drag-'em-0ut, but we're given heavy clues that "Gosmoduck" and the reformed Quackwerks "crimebots" will be joining Morgana in providing backup for DW, who seems to momentarily lose his sense of self (talk about something you thought you'd never see) before literally pulling himself together in the final panel. Let the battles begin!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #360 (November 2010, Boom! Kids)

A superb cover by the all-too-infrequently-glimpsed Pat and Shelly Block deserves better than serving as a "front" to the conclusion of the drab, desultory Oriental "dreamscapade" "Son of the Rising Sun." It's pretty much "more of the same" -- more bland art, more "smoochy-smoochy" between Donald's heroic warrior stand-in Tekka-Don and the amorous Dai-Chan (the real Donald should only wish that Daisy were this sexually aggressive!), more "red-hot bo action" (between Tekka-Don and the preternaturally lucky visiting Gander-Bei), more grumbling and grimacing from putative villain Shogun Scrooge-San (who seems to yield to Tekka-Don with embarrassing ease in the end), all culminating, of course, in the inevitable "wake-up call" for the snoozing Donald. No one's heart seems to have been in this exercise, a state of affairs which can best be observed in the clumsy way in which such an apparently simple matter as the nature of Gander-Bei's luck is handled. Tekka-Don's ultimate triumph over Gander-Bei is fueled by the fact that, as T-D gloatingly notes, "[Gander-Bei] used [his good fortune] to help a rat [Scrooge-San]!" and thereby "short-circuited" his luck's effectiveness. There seems to be a connection here to the notion, first seen in the DuckTales episode "Dime Enough for Luck," that Gladstone's luck turns sour when he "uses it for an evil purpose." Indeed, the circumstances in "Rising Sun" jibe more closely with that theory, since Gladstone didn't mean to help Magica De Spell steal the Old #1 Dime in "Dime Enough" (he was instead hypnotized into doing so), whereas Gander-Bei serves Scrooge-San as a willing hireling. But to make the theory work, shouldn't Gander-Bei's luck have turned bad during the first of his two fights with Tekka-Don? G-B wins Encounter #1 when Donald is foiled by a collapsing bridge, a natural thing to happen when a foe is "within the penumbra" of the gander's good fortune. Bout #2, however, finds Gander-Bei less willing to fight Tekka-Don, which, if anything, should have strengthened his protection against luck-leakage. Instead, everything goes wrong for G-B and T-D wins in a rout. The logic involved here is as tough to follow as the steps needed to solve one of those Chinese puzzles. Slack editing is also present in a visual sense; the editors forgot to remove the wooden "FINE" from the Italian original's final panel, perhaps because they didn't recognize what it was. The "Double Duck" stories had their share of soft spots, but "Rising Sun" under-performs even the least of them.

Happily, the ish's back-up story, "The Titan of Tae-Kwon-Duk", is much more like it. After the first page of the new story provides a clever segue from the events (such as they were) of "Rising Sun," we go off in a decidedly Barksian direction, with Donald, determined to show the scoffing HD&L that he can, too, be a martial-arts maven, bungling his way into unmerited status as a Tae-Kwon-Duck expert... and into a match with Goosetown's black-bearded black belt, Blutosaki. After benefiting from another slice of ludicrous luck that even Gladstone wouldn't sign for, Don finds that his dream of impressing the boys remains tantalizingly unfulfilled. With Donald having acquitted himself with honor in the role of Double Duck, it ought to be at least a bit dispiriting to see Donald cast back into the familiar role of a buffoonish blowhard, but, hey, it's certainly canonical -- and funny. Joe Torcivia festoons Gorm Transgaard's plot with references to Lost in Space, Star Trek, POPEYE (the aforementioned Blutosaki), and Osamu Tezuka, among many others, and Jose Maria Manrique's straightforward art is enlivened by the numerous background gags at Duckburg's "Tae-Kwon-Duk Dojo and Take-Out" studio. "Titan" is the best evidence yet that Boom! made the right decision when it chose to restore back-up stories to many of its titles. Before, if the main story happened to be a dog, then there was no escape from it until the next issue (if then, given Boom!'s early fetish for continuity). Thanks to "Titan," however, this issue manages to "socky-choppy" its way to a draw... or the Tae-Kwon-Duk equivalent of same.

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE ON QUANDOMAI ISLAND (November 2010, Boom! Kids)

You can read my piece-by-piece reviews of Casty's second American adventure (along with its backup, "Minnie Runs Out of Time") here, here, here, and here. Casty may have stumbled a bit with the recent "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare," but here, he's in excellent form. Casty might have gained an even larger (book-oriented) audience from this collected work had the cover price not been artificially inflated by 30 pages' worth of "previews" of other Boom! softcover collections. This colorful propaganda is a regular feature of the softcovers I've sampled, and, quite frankly, it strikes me as a major -- and, more to the point, inefficient -- waste of space. Why not provide a couple of pages of cover shots and brief blurbs (a la the last several pages in this volume, which cover some of the earlier soft- and hardcover releases), fill up a couple of extra pages with relevant ancillary material (e.g. a more extensive interview with Casty), and reserve the more substantial preview material for online display? Who knows -- the few bucks saved on the cover price might allow Boom! to snare a few extra readers who get hooked into Boom!'s regular titles as a result of enjoying the work of a fine Disney comics craftsman in a compact and convenient form. Just a thought, but, IMHO, a well-reasoned one.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A New Corral Opened, An Old Tradition Renewed

Last week was extremely busy for me, which explains the nine-day gap between postings. The period was not "all nose-to-the-grindstone, all the time," however. Nicky and I managed to get away for a couple of notable sporting events. One you may have heard of. The other... not so much, but it's a big deal in this particular "neck" of the Baltimore County woods.

On Monday the 15th, Stevenson's new Owings Mills Gymnasium hosted men's and women's basketball for the first time. A record crowd of 1,000 packed the place to watch SU's men battle Keystone College, preceded by the women taking on Arcadia University. Neither team won, but the improved atmosphere created by the shifting of game action to SU's residential campus will definitely give both teams a boost. It's clear already, in fact, that the men's team is quite a bit better than last year's shambolic 2-23 outfit with its occasionally misplaced sense of direction. The Mustangs have just finished going 2-1 in the eight-team Pride of Maryland Division III Tournament, which SU hosted. The women are 0-3 but at least have been competitive in all of their games, lacking only the ability to "finish." It should be an interesting season.

On Saturday, at the end of a hellacious week of work, Nicky and I joined the Notre Dame Club of Maryland on a "there-and-immediately-back-again" trek to New York and the new Yankee Stadium. Target: the first Notre Dame-Army game to be played in the South Bronx since 1969.  The site of the legendary old ball yard is now a barren, walled-off construction area (which, I'm told, is to be converted into a park of some sort) directly across the street from the gleaming facade of the new digs. As for said new digs... well. Mighty, mighty impressive. We did take the "high life" route -- eating dinner at NYY Steak, where the small plates are shaped like baseball diamonds (cute) and the noise exuded by the bar-hugging crowd was more akin to that of a neighborhood corner hangout (not so cute, given the price we paid) -- and thus did not quite have the "typical" fan experience, but it's clear that even the hoi polloi (or what passes for such in such an outrageously expensive establishment) are treated royally at the new Yankee. The concession stands, for example, are positioned so that people waiting in line for hamburgers, hot dogs, Cuban sandwiches, chicken, pizza, etc. only need to turn their heads to continue following the action. The seats are comfortable and the restrooms plentiful and reasonably clean. And, of course, there are many, many places where one can buy stuff... which, for this event, included Notre Dame and Army gear, stashed in and among the rows of Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and Javier Vasquez (Vasquez? Is Vasquez still in the league?) replica shirts. The game was technically an ND home game, so there were more Irish chatchkas on hand than Army baubles, but that probably would have been the case even if the game had been played on the plains up at West Point. Nicky and I contented ourselves with a couple of shirts and some small Yankee-themed Christmas gifts.

Our seats were out in left field, which, in this case, translated to being at about the 20-yard line. The gridiron fit quite nicely into the playing surface without the need for any crazy ground rules such as the ones that had been hastily drawn up for the Illinois-Northwestern game at Wrigley Field earlier in the day. The atmosphere wasn't at all the canned, corporate sort I had half expected; the crowd was noisy and lively (the presence of the ND Marching Band -- a real rarity for a regular-season game far from the Midwest -- certainly helped), and ND "rode the wave" to an easy win that continued their late-season resurgence. The concept of "subway alumni" may be a bit anachronistic, but there is evidently still a large reserve of good will towards ND in the New York area. Well, either that, or all the well-heeled alumni on the East Coast pounced on tickets that they wouldn't otherwise have had a chance to get for an Irish "home date."

Comics reviews should recommence later this week.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #397 (November 2010, Boom! Kids)

"We rollin' now!", as Bubba Duck might put it. U$ #397 keeps the recent "beat" of high-quality DuckTales-themed material going strong, grabbing us right from the get-go with Diego Jourdan's marvelous cover, a heartfelt homage to Carl Barks' cover to WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #108 (September 1949). Granted, I'm an easy "sell" for any product that takes the links between DT and the world of Barks seriously, but this goes above and beyond the call of artistic duty. This is one instance in which I devoutly hope Launchpad does NOT add to his crash total. (BTW, exactly where are LP's feet located? It was a tight enough squeeze when it was just Donald and HD&L, but now...)

Joe Torcivia does the dialogue honors for the lead story, Paul Halas, Dave Angus, and Jose Millet's "The Last Auction Hero." I can certainly vouch for the fact that Joe knows how characters in a DT story "should" sound as much as anyone does, and he hits the mark squarely here. Among other things, this is by far the best and most in-character use of the DT Beagle Boys that I've ever seen... and I write as one who's witnessed such wince-inducing horrors as Burger Beagle being presented as the brains of the outfit, so I doubly appreciate the accomplishment. Joe's very funny introduction to Part Two of the split story (if Harvey had ever re-introduced a continuing tale with "Okay, here's the deal!", I probably would've keeled over in a dead faint) is also a highlight, as is the rare (for a DuckTales story, at any rate) characterization of Glomgold as a mere "rival" of Scrooge's, rather than as a deadly, ruthless villain. (At the same time, Joe gives a shout-out to such TV episodes as "My Mother the Psychic" by having Flinty refer to having employed the B-Boys in the past.) There is a flaw in the plot, however, that not even Joe can do much with. At the outset, Scrooge is conflicted about trying to win the much-prized Wrathakhan Emerald in a "mere" auction setting: "I found every emerald I now own! Will a purchased gem really feel... the same?" Fair enough, and certainly in character for someone who prides himself on having acquired his fortune through old-fashioned hard work. After losing (!) the bidding to Glomgold, however, Scrooge trumps Flinty by finding a much bigger gem... by sheer, dumb luck, as the result of an avalanche triggered by the battling Launchpad and Big Time Beagle. How much pride could Scrooge honestly pry out of that non-feat and still remain true to himself? Yet, the multiquadzillionaire seems to have no problem whatsoever with how things turned out. This seems strange to me.

David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray return to handle the anchor-leg story, "Big Blimp in Little Trouble." I'm not sure who originally penned this Millet-drawn opus; the comic's credits claim it was Halas and Tom Anderson, while InDucks gives the honors to Gorm Transgaard. Whoever it was, he/they produced it during the very late stages of Egmont's production of DuckTales tales, and the story reflects a certain weariness. No DuckTales fan can read a story in which Scrooge tries to rekindle Duckburgians' interest in airship travel and not think of the TV ep "The Uncrashable Hindentanic." But there's no inadvertent disaster movie a-brewing here, nor is the McDuck Air Tours blimp filled with a gallery of memorably kooky characters. No, the folks traveling here are nice, mannerly "generic" dogfaces who sing parodies of Disney feature-film songs and the like. When Gyro Gearloose's gargantuan gasbag springs a leak, we are fed the lesson that "little things mean a lot" in a most heavy-handed manner. Still, thanks in large part to the efforts of David and Jonathan, this is a masterpiece compared to the DuckTales Studio stories that were run in the early issues of the Gladstone DUCKTALES title... and you can't go wrong with the occasional subtle reference to The Simpsons (see if you can find it!).

Dividing the two parts of "The Last Auction Hero" is the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the issue: a reprint of a two-page LAUNCHPAD AND GYRO gag written and drawn by William Van Horn. "A Dolt from the Blue" (original appearance in WDC&S #618, November 1997) was one of a series of amusing L&G gags that Bill penned as a follow-up to his quirky but highly successful collaboration with John Lustig in the later issues of Gladstone's DUCKTALES. There have been very few "running gags" of this sort in Disney comics -- the famous series in which Scrooge bilks the diner owner out of free coffee is probably the best known -- and, when you think about it for a bit, pitting Gyro's inventive know-how against LP's amazing ability to crash anything seems like a perfect backdrop to a gag series. I count the reprinting of "Dolt" as yet another promising sign that Boom! is quite serious in its apparent intention to give more of a "Gladstonian"/"Gemstonian" flavor to its "classic" Disney books.

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1977-78 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2010)

You can really sense PEANUTS starting to slip in this volume. Perhaps Schulz was suffering through the early stages of the "malaise" that infected American life during the Carter years, but the strip in this era could be fairly characterized as uninspired and uninspiring. Nothing sums up the funk as well as the irritating plethora of "Cat Slash Fever" gags in which the unseen "cat next door" responds to Snoopy's baiting by slashing various improbable designs into Snoopy's doghouse. This is probably PEANUTS' weakest running gag in my memory, not least because it tears equally sizable holes in Snoopy's carefully constructed character. Mischievous and impish the "humanized" beagle may be -- witness his frequent teasing of Lucy and security-blanket swiping -- but he'd have to be a purblind idiot not to realize that he's taking his life in his own paws when he ridicules the "stupid" cat. Even Sally's perpetual "punctuation practice" and Peppermint Patty's school-time snoozes are funnier than this... and yet, Schulz kept going to the well. It's as if he couldn't think of anything better to do.

Schulz' efforts to create new characters during these years also display a certain coarsening of the master's brush strokes. Tennis bitch Molly Volley is probably the strip's most unpleasant newcomer since Charlotte Braun (perhaps the two were related?) and, aside from being a "one-court pony" with literally no life in the strip outside of her sport, she has dated surprisingly badly. Schulz was clearly trying to spoof the "bad boy/girl" tennis stars of the 1970s with Molly, but the era of the abrasive tennis jerk has long since passed; annoying grunting while hitting a ground stroke simply can't hold a candle to whining and temper tantrums. Schulz enjoyed a bit more success with the creation of the stringy-haired Eudora, who befriended Sally at summer camp in '78 and subsequently moved into The Gang's neighborhood. With Sally having developed into a little cynic in many respects, Eudora restored a sense of the "ill-informed innocence" that informed the characterizations of the early Sally and Linus. Lacking a limiting shtick like "naturally curly" Frieda, Eudora would have seemed a natural to have become a permanent strip fixture as Sally's pal, but her career only lasted until the mid-1980s. I can't help but think that, had Eudora been introduced just a bit earlier in the strip's history, Schulz would have been more successful in creating a truly distinctive personality for her.

It can't be a coincidence that Schulz reprised/revamped a couple of continuities from the recent past during '77 and '78. There are definite echoes of the classic "Mr. Sack" story from 1973 in the kite-eating-tree-biting, EPA-hunted Charlie Brown's being dragooned into coaching baseball for a bunch of "tiny little kids." As in the earlier continuity, Charlie is believed to be something he's not -- competent -- and this time, he even gets to depart the scene with a "victory" of sorts. The best thing about the story, though, remains the tree-biting set-up. Snoopy's would-be wedding to a mysterious female beagle he met while on guard duty at Peppermint Patty's house lacks the panache of the "soft-pawed sweetie" continuity of the early 70s, perhaps because (at least according to David Michaelis' theories) Schulz wasn't working out clutter from his personal life as part of the creative process. Eudora and Sally meeting at camp, of course, parallels Charlie Brown and Linus meeting Roy and Peppermint Patty meeting Marcie (or a proto-version of same) during previous Summers. Oh, yes, and Spike briefly returns -- with Hogan's Heroes obsession intact, no less -- but Schulz was still some time away from fully committing to the character as a regular contributor.

Alec Baldwin provides a good introduction, and the production values are as handsome as ever, but this is probably the least satisfying volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS to appear to date. Not that it's Fantagraphics' fault, of course.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Comics Review: LITTLE LULU: THE BURGLAR-PROOF CLUBHOUSE AND OTHER STORIES by John Stanley and Irving Tripp (Dark Horse Books, 2010)

We're almost to the end, folks... according to Frank Young's STANLEY STORIES, John Stanley's long run on LITTLE LULU ended with issue #135, and this latest volume of LULU stories brings us up to LULU #129 (March 1959). I'm figuring that the next collection will be the last one, and it might not even be a "full package," since other creators apparently contributed to #134 and #135. It's become easy to take these volumes for granted, but, as one who'd had very little prior exposure to Stanley's LULU work, I really do appreciate Dark Horse's bringing it back into common circulation -- and in a portable, reader-friendly format, to boot.

Our latest package o' fun contains the usual ration of high-quality storytelling, plus, somewhat to my surprise, a couple of additional appearances by the cute little French girl, Fifi (whose last name, we learn here, is Fromage). GeoX thought that he had seen Fifi in other stories, and I'm happy to see his hypothesis verified. The final story in #129, the TUBBY tale "Big Dog," guest-stars The Little Men from Mars, who were, I believe, regularly featured in the TUBBY title. I don't recall seeing them in LULU before, however. Stanley obviously felt that people who read TUBBY were likely to read LULU and vice versa, which is solid puck in the eye to the notion that LULU was a "girls' comic" and TUBBY a "boy's comic."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Happy 30th, Blue Ribbon!

The college basketball season begins in earnest tonight with the 2K Sports "Coaches vs. Cancer" Classic. It's a good time to salute BLUE RIBBON COLLEGE BASKETBALL YEARBOOK on the occasion of its 30th edition. Literally "published out of a guy's garage" in the early days, the magazine has since swelled to 400 pages and covers virtually all Division I college basketball programs in detail.

It took me a while, but I finally obtained all the BLUE RIBBON back issues. The writing is a bit less quirky and a bit more "corporate" these days, there are fewer typos, and we even get the occasional splash of interior color. But the content still beats any other college hoops mag on the market (though THE SPORTING NEWS annual is pretty decent).

Stevenson opens its new gym for hoops next Monday with a men's-women's double-header. Nicky and I plan to be there.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

DVD Review: THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (Paramount, 1932)

In 1932, Cecil B. DeMille was as close to being in a "career crisis" as the autocratic director was ever going to get. Kicked out of Paramount in the late 1920s for his profligacy, C.B. tried going the independent route, a gambit which produced one substantial achievement and several dozen buckets full of red ink. A stint at MGM in the early days of "talkies" proved equally troublesome. Finally accepted back at Paramount, DeMille found himself subjected to fairly stringent budgetary restrictions, partially due to his past reputation but also due to the Great Depression, which had put all the major studios in a financial pinch. Undaunted, C.B. sought to capture some of the old fire by mounting -- of all things -- an adaptation of a 19th-century play about the persecution of the Christians under the reign of Emperor Nero. With the financial system in complete meltdown, a grim period piece of this sort might not be expected to be an audience-grabber. Against all odds, The Sign of the Cross proved to be a hit, resurrecting (no pun intended) C.B.'s career and proving that he could, too, direct good sound movies -- though DeMille's reputation as a director with a tin ear for good dialogue may also have begun here as well.

The MCA-Universal DVD that Nicky and I watched was the restored original version of the film, which was hacked and butchered mercilessly in the wake of the establishment of the Production Code. Knowing that the slightly hackneyed main story of Roman official Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) falling in love with the virtuous Christian girl Mercia (Elissa Landi) couldn't carry the entire movie -- especially so, given the bland dialogue that the two equally bland actors were forced to recite -- DeMille amped up the film's "decadence quotient" to a degree that seemed quite shocking at the time. Charles Laughton, urged not-so-subtly by DeMille to camp it up in the role of Nero, goes "whole hog" into "deliciously debauched" hamminess that includes barely veiled gay references, while Claudette Colbert "milks" the role of the haughty, sexy, slutty Empress Poppaea for all it's worth. And when I say "milks," I mean it literally:

That was real (powdered) milk, by the way. Filming this scene was apparently a smelly and thoroughly unpleasant ordeal for all concerned, but you wouldn't know it by Colbert's behavior. Colbert does give us a brief "nipple shot" for our trouble, at least. As for the other "decadent" Roman characters, suffice it to say that one of the most memorable classical cretins is a "dirty old man" who resembles a homeless Al Lewis.

In the case of the concluding Coliseum scene, in which Mercia's brave band of Christians (ultimately joined by Marcus, not so much out of a desire to convert to Christianity as an unwillingness to be without his lady love) are torn apart by wild beasts as just one portion of the "entertainment," DeMille strayed dangerously close to Freaks territory. A good number of these sequences were trimmed when the movie was reissued during World War II, being replaced by (of all things) scenes of fighter planes flying over Italy to the stentorian tones of a voice-over narration. The connection seems tenuous, and, anyway, the "gorilla attack" and "pygmy battle" scenes would probably have been better morale boosters than a boring bunch of planes.  Also cut from the original version of the film was a frankly dreadful "lesbian dance sequence" in which Mercia is urged to sin by an exotic dancer with the costume and eyeshadow of a flapper, a voice like a rusty saw blade, and the dance moves of a drunken king cobra. Is there an equivalent of saltpeter for lesbians? If so, then watching this sequence would certainly function as the practical equivalent of same. The only reason why this and other deleted scenes survived was that the DeMille estate possessed a copy of the original film, which it donated to UCLA for restoration.

The Sign of the Cross was condemned by numerous Church authorities at the time of release despite its supposed "pro-Christian" message. The clerics correctly recognized that DeMille seemed far more interested in depicting out-of-control, sadistic luxury than he was in helping the audience to get to know, and hence root for, all of the Christian protagonists. For all of Mercia's trials and tribulations, Stephan, a teenage boy who betrays his fellows under torture and later quails at the thought of death at the lions' jaws before finally seeing his martyrdom through, is easily the most "human" and least plastic of the Christians, who basically content themselves with talking "softly and meaningfully" and singing hymns to buck up their spirits. These faults in characterization, together with the Jazz Age-influenced clothing and the frequent overacting, make the film seem a bit dated today. For my own part, knowing how little money DeMille had to work with here, I'm amazed at how effortlessly the director was able to sustain the illusion of an old-fashioned epic. Thanks to his ability to discipline his tendency towards extravagance -- ironically, in a movie in which decadence was on display from first to last -- C.B. assured that his "probationary" return to Paramount would be a permanent one.

Book Review: HARVEY COMICS TREASURY, VOLUME 2, edited by Leslie Cabarga (Dark Horse Books, 2010)

The TREASURY series goes to the (Little) Devil in its second incarnation, a volume starring Hot Stuff. I'm less annoyed by a lack of artist credits this time around than I was with Volume One, if only because -- apart from the odd HERMAN AND KATNIP tale drawn by (I believe) Marty Taras -- this is a case of all Warren Kremer, all the time. This is a bit of a surprise in that Howard Post drew some of the best-loved Hots stories of all time, but I'm certainly not complaining, as Kremer's artwork during his amazingly prolific period of the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s is consistently outstanding, both in the Hots stories and in the devil's perpetual back-up feature, STUMBO THE GIANT. Thanks to Leslie Cabarga's decision to focus on Kremer's work from a relatively narrow period of time, this volume displays a bit less of the "aesthetic carnage" that I noticed in my lengthy review of Volume 4 of the HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS series, but only a bit. Witches, gnomes, trolls, brownies, talking animals, and other fauna of the "Enchanted Forest" variety are present in abundance, but they have to share space with human big-game hunters who wouldn't have been out of place in a RICHIE RICH story, dog-eared and dog-nosed beatnik painters, anthropomorphic ponds (!), woodworking tools (!!), and steamrollers (!!!), blue Moon-Men, and, basically, any other critter that would serve to help carry a story (all of the five-page variety here). It all makes for fun reading for young, old, and those in-between. Dark Horse only needs to provide credits and issue attributions to make the TREASURY series a worthy successor to the fine CLASSICS volumes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #712 (October 2010, Boom! Kids)

We now have incontrovertible evidence that the justly-praised Casty is not, in fact, bulletproof. I was considerably underwhelmed by the conclusion of "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare," and that was before I noticed that Magic Eye Studios' cover gives away the identity of the villain. Granted, he's not in his standard garb, but folks in the know will quickly recognize the "civilian" corpus of The Phantom Blot. Having infiltrated Project Space Hotel Olympus disguised as designer Alastair Zond and having "retrofitted" the orbiting hostel to fit the standard world-domination protocol, The Blot plans to hold the world to ransom with a "death ray." Hugo Drax would certainly be proud, but even the megalomaniacal villain of Moonraker didn't go to the lengths of redesigning his space station to look just like him. For a bad guy who's habitually hidden behind a cloak, advertising to the entire world what you really look like doesn't seem like the most intelligent thing to do.

My friend Brent Swanson once argued that, once The Blot was unmasked at the end of his origin story, he lost what made him special. I don't necessarily agree with that theory in general, but, in the case of this particular tale, I do see Brent's point. The unmasked Blot was fairly effective as the villain in the WIZARDS OF MICKEY continuity, but that was a "costume story" and such deviations from the norm were acceptable under the circs. Here, apart from the 50-cent vocabulary and the gargantuan, self-indulgent "personal ad," The Blot could literally have been any big-ticket baddie -- say, The Rhyming Man making his what-seems-inevitable-at-some-point comeback. As other comics writers and artists -- not to mention DuckTales and Mickey Mouseworks/House of Mouse -- have shown, there's a workable middle ground between rehashing the Floyd Gottfredson version of The Blot and using him as just another schemer in a violet sport coat and bumblebee turtleneck (hmm... perhaps The Blot should stick to what he knows, sartorially speaking, and remain in "basic black" at all times).

Casty also failed to take advantage of the large cast he introduced, Love Boat fashion, in part one. Everyone save Cassandra Dot bails when "the orbital stabilizers [are] destroyed," and, while Cassandra shows the ability to "grow" when she ignores her own far-fetched theories of aliens in favor of helping Mickey solve a very concrete mystery, adding stowaway Goofy to the mix doesn't really help much. Mickey even resorts to using his pal as an inadvertent "rogue missile" when beginning the fightback against The Blot. Additional business involving the passengers, however, wouldn't have fixed the flaw at the heart of the story.

The creeping "Gemstone-ization" of Boom!'s "classic Disney" output is amplified by this ish's backup story, the GOOFY four-pager "Tidy Friday". This vintage 1958 tale, in which Clarabelle tries to clean Goofy's apocalyptically messy house, is just the sort of nugget that a Gladstone or Gemstone issue of WDC&S would have tucked into the magazine. Had the story featured Donald or some other "non-Mouse-oriented" character, I would have been even more impressed. Onward to issue #715, in which the "classics" come back with a vengeance.