Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK ANNUAL #1 (March 2011, Boom! Studios)

The first issue of DW ANNUAL wastes little time in making an impression with a superb lead story, Ian Brill and Sabrina Alberghetti's "Toy With Me," which examines Quackerjack's motivations and psyche to a hitherto unprecedented extent -- all the while sticking faithfully to the continuity established in "The Duck Knight Returns." I know that annuals are popular places for trying "something completely different," but, given that Darkwing's "universe" is pretty "bizarro" to begin with, I appreciated the effort made here to deepen the established characterization of the terrible toy-titan.

Readers of "Duck Knight" will recall that Quackerjack finished the story in a bad mood (and that's putting it kindly), but the paranoid control freak on display here has entered a danger zone that even Negaduck rarely set webs into. We learn from Quacky's ex-girlfriend (?!) that his promising gig with Quackwerks blew up over his overpowering desire to control his surroundings, which made it hard to him to play nice with others. It's no surprise that Quacky should gravitate towards manipulatives (read: toys that he can unquestionably control) and create a world as he thinks it should be, rather than deal with the world as it is. Here, though, Quacky ups the ante by developing a gizmo that turns humans themselves into toys. By taking over World of Whifflecraft HQ, he intends to extend his sway -- and get revenge on those pesky video-game competitors besides -- by "trinketizing" brain-dead interactive gamers in scores of St. Canardian basements. This is all quite believable given where Quacky's head is right now, but I have to wonder: if Quacky wants to control his environment to such an extent, then why did he so readily join The Fearsome Five and take orders from Negaduck for so long? The question is probably moot at this point; it's hard to imagine Quacky operating as anything but a lone wolf for quite a while after this. Of course, given the final panel, he may not be operating much of anything for a while. (Was THAT a creepy conclusion.) DW does have a "Battle of the Banana Brains" showdown with Quacky, but the hero's presence is almost a sidebar to a story that focuses relentlessly on the villain. That's a good use of the annual format, I'd say... take advantage of the extra space and create good jumping-off points for future stories. Nice artwork by Alberghetti, too.

In the issue's final eight pages, we "web-kick it old school" with Darkwing's creator himself, Tad Stones, writing "The Untimely Terror of the Time Turtle." In case Tad ever has to quit his day job, I think he has a future in comics. "Turtle" reads like a condensed version of a TV episode, with DW vs. Villain (the time-traveling Chronoduck) as the main feature and Drake fighting with Gosalyn over a potential pet as the relationship-driven subplot. (But what's up with that hallucinatory opening, with Gosalyn wearing the jungle-priestess getup, the snake crushing DW, and the DW logo being crossed out? Was this supposed to be a glimpse into Gos' disturbing fantasy world? Or instead of having "spirit," perhaps Gos has been imbibing "spirits.") James Silvani does the artistic honors and packs the cages at the pet shop full of Disney critters past (and no, he does not go the easy route and stick the Rescue Rangers in there; good for him). A four-page Stones essay on "The Origin(s) of Darkwing Duck" wraps up an entertaining, and even somewhat thought-provoking, ish.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Final "WT4?!"

Connecticut, Kentucky, Butler (!) and... VCU (!!!)? Who saw that coming? (Aside from the two people out of 5.9 million who got it right in ESPN's Bracket Challenge, that is.) This means that we're guaranteed to get a "good vs. evil" final matchup between a plucky underdog (though I'm not sure Butler has fit that description for a while) and a power program run by a shady operator. Such a Manichaean climax seems appropriate for such a wild NCAA Tournament. I'm throwing up my hands on picking a winner: I think that any one of these four teams could win. Pressed to choose, I'd pick Connecticut and VCU to meet in the final, with UConn winning, but don't hold me to that. Please.




An update on the Stevenson basketball situation: The women's coach has retired as well, so next year will mark a complete "regime change."

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #717 (March 2011, Boom! Kids)

Some of my fondest memories of modern American Disney comics involve those issues in which William Van Horn presented us with an "old-fashioned ten (or thereabouts)-pager" in the lead-off position. As the unquestioned modern master of the short, humorous Duck tale, dating back to his breakout stint in Disney Comics' DONALD DUCK ADVENTURES, Van Horn eminently deserved such positioning, and he continued to merit such historically significant treatment for much of his post-Disney Comics career. That makes it tough for me to say this: "Scrooge for a Day," Van Horn's first lead-off effort for Boom!, may be the worst story he's ever done in this particular format. This isn't simply a creator repeating past ideas, as Bill has occasionally done; this is a complete and total misfire.

One thing I've always liked about Bill's work is that he "does it his way," to steal a line from Frankie Blue-Eyes. He hasn't attempted to play to the gallery of uberfans, as Don Rosa has often done, but has instead mined his own quirky vein of humor, critics be damned. Here, however, his solitary approach appears to betray him. I don't know whether Bill knew of Brigitta MacBridge before he created the hideous, Scrooge-chasing Voracia Duckworst, or he simply didn't care that the position of "annoying female pursuer of Scrooge" was already taken, but Voracia is a dreadful character, an oblivious buffoon who makes Brigitta (who has some cachet as a successful businesswoman, not to mention a decent amount of charm) look like a prize catch on The Dating Game. Why Voracia became interested in Scrooge in the first place, we're never told, and that makes her obsession with old McDuck all the creepier; to be frank, she comes off like a stalker. The speed with which Voracia switches affections from Scrooge to Rumpus McFowl (who'd agreed to help his "bro" ditch the pest by disguising himself as Scrooge (!) and trying to alienate her) casts further unpleasant aspersions on her mental state. As for Rumpus, well, he's a slightly disreputable character anyway, but what did he do to merit this treatment? For his pains, he gets to be chased to Tierra del Fuego while Scrooge chortles gleefully in the shadows. Even the small details are lacking here; to carry off a labored series of pratfalls that are supposed to tick Voracia off, Van Horn must needs create a table of unwrapped pies sitting outside a bakery window (on a city street?) and a gutter containing enough water to completely drench Voracia (who, of course, loves the experience). Truly, the Darkwing Duck episode "Double Darkwings," with its strained conceit of the much bigger Launchpad McQuack serving as "Darkwing Decoy," was more entertaining than this. Luckily, more hitherto-unseen Van Horn stories are on the way, and they can't arrive soon enough for me.

The story that should have been the lead here is -- no fooling -- Freddy Milton and Daan Jippes' DAISY DUCK'S DIARY entry, 1981's "Coat of Harms." This gem, expertly dialogued by David Gerstein, takes the standard "Daisy the stuffy clubwoman" conceit and ruthlessly smashes it to pieces -- along with poor Daisy, who does achieve redemption in the end but spends most of the tale learning first-hand what agony she has put Donald through in the past for various club-related activities. (She even realizes it during her traipse through the gauntlet, not that it does her much good.) The recovery and splicing of the torn remnants of Daisy's Needlepoint Club's banner becomes an overblown project on a par with the cleansing of the Augean Stables, and Daisy adds to the over-exaggeration with some suitably apocalyptic lines. The sentimental ending, in which "the tatting girls" realize that they've completely lost sight of the whole reason for their club, is a little soupy, thanks to the presence of a doe-eyed young "trailer-park rat." To be fair, though, Barks was not above resorting to such "a child shall lead them... to change" moments in his stories, so it's all good. There is a fair amount of depth to this story: keeping faith with tradition is all well and good, but one shouldn't come to obsess about the process at the expense of the product. The tales of the Pharisees and Jesus come to mind. The 3o-year-old story is so good that I'm surprised that "Gladstone I" didn't print it way back when; it would seem to have been right up the company's alley, especially early on when it was reprinting Jippes stories in bunches. Better late than never!

The balance of the issue is taken up by a Floyd Gottfredson MICKEY MOUSE Sunday-page gag from 1934 -- with Mickey in "rapscallion mode," tweaking Clarabelle and Horace's relationship just for kicks -- and "Donald Duck's Surprise Party," a four-pager from a 1948 premium comic (for Icy Frost Twins Ice Cream Bars). This last, drawn by Pogo's papa hisself, Walt Kelly, is a cute curio but doesn't contain much nutritive value, mimicking the ice cream that the Nephews are obsessed with stealing and Donald is equally determined to protect. The really weird thing about the tale is that there's no mention of a "surprise party" ANYWHERE... not even a simple line about Don wanting to save the ice cream for his birthday, or something. Nor does any story in the REST of the 16-page giveaway appear to have anything to do with a "surprise party." Was simply getting ice cream itself that much of a special event in 1948? Perhaps so.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 8, "The Insect Invasion"

A third straight good-to-excellent episode -- and this, despite a couple of fairly major "softenings" of the Japanese original -- this outing nonetheless features some rather controversial moments, namely, Kimba's first series of extended interactions with... his dead father Caesar's hide. These moments are sufficiently peculiar that they have even been used to label the entire series as an example of "Bad TV," which I think is ridiculously harsh. In fact, I have a perfectly solid interpretation of these scenes that should help leach a good portion of the "weirdness" out of them. More on that below.

The opening sequence of Kimba, Leopard (Gilbert Mack), Cheetah (Hal Studer), and Linda Lynx (Billie Lou Watt) trying to stomach skunk grass actually has more of a point than giving the actors a chance to display on-cue, overstated gag reflexes. The three meat-eating spear-carriers continue to appear off-and-on during the ep as a semi-humorous counterpoint to the otherwise serious goings-on. Interestingly, the later food-themed episode "A Revolting Development" takes much the same approach, with a goofy-looking lion being responsible for sowing discord among the offspring of the carnivores.

If you think that Kimba's reaction to Dan'l Baboon's suggestion that the animals "give up this farm idea" is a bit overstated, you shouldn't feel ashamed. According to Craig Anderson, Dan'l's actual (and far dicier) proposal was for Kimba to return to Caesar's old policy of stealing farm animals for the meat-eaters to consume. I thought that the idea was to free the farm beasts, as hinted at in "Go, White Lion!"? That would put Samson's actions in "Great Caesar's Ghost" in something of a different light. If Caesar really had such a policy, then you can hardly blame Samson for bringing the "sacrificial mules" with him; the water buffalo must have figured that Kimba, being Caesar's son, undoubtedly had the same policy. Craig reports that the 1993 redubbing of Kimba contained the harsher version.

Apparently, a certain species of crow really is indigenous to the part of Africa where the events of Kimba are supposedly taking place. No white feathering is visible on screen, though.

Are you as creeped out by the dream-image of the ravenous Kimba as I am? He never showed such a mouthful of fangage before, and he never would again. The scene provides a great segue into Kimba's first big "hide-bound" soliloquy... which strikes me as nothing less -- and nothing more objectionable -- than Kimba praying to his version of a religious relic or icon, the one tangible remnant of his ancestry. A few episodes down the line, "Journey Into Time" will flesh out the white lions' backstory and lend further credence to the idea that Kimba's actions here are simply a tactile honoring of the past, while "The Mystery of the Deserted Village" will introduce Kimba's sister Leona, whose devotion to the white lion hides is even fiercer than his own. Add on the fact that the TV series is simply reflecting a key detail of Tezuka's manga, and I don't really see what's to object to here... unless you're a writer of a guffaw-inducing pop-culture book with only a nodding acquaintance with the subject matter, that is. The fact that Ray Owens' Narrator speaks a few soothing words of explanation, however, indicates that the Titan crew was at least a little squeamish about the "ghoulish implications" of this scene.

Talk about creepy... the noise accompanying the "insect invasion" puts one in mind of some sort of alien attack! Later in the series, the insects would be described as "grasshoppers," but they look and "feel" a lot more like locusts (the connection to the Biblical plagues of Egypt is striking).

Cheetah's comment about "eating" the invading insects should have been expanded upon, since it is here that the carnivorous animals discover that they actually can stomach an insect diet. This convenient nutritional "swerve" would help to sustain relative harmony until a permanent solution to the meat shortage is found in "A Revolting Development." Perhaps Cheetah's smacking his chops was originally his announcement that insects are actually quite tasty (at least compared to skunk grass).

What is it about zebras "bailing" when the going gets tough? Do their two-toned bodies reflect a certain two-facedness? Besides, as vegetarians, they shouldn't be the ones abandoning the fields; it would have made more sense had the knuckle-headed meat-eating trio of Leopard, Cheetah, and Linda Lynx thrown in the towel. Notice that Dan'l softens what would appear to have been a pretty angry reaction from Kimba. I gather that "To the wild dogs with you, then!" was probably the gist of Kimba's original dialogue. Luckily, Kimba quickly shifts into proactive planning mode and puts in motion his elaborate plan to foil the second invasion...

...which he begins to lose faith in just at the moment of truth, leading to another "seeking of the hide." This second scene is carried off absolutely beautifully, though one piece of business is omitted; namely, a brief song from Kimba. Here is the Japanese version of the deleted scene.

As charming as this is, I don't think that it compares with the stark power of Billie Lou Watt's superb recitation, delivered without any background accompaniment. This strikes me as not exactly the ideal moment to deliver an "I Want," "I Wish," or any other Disney-esque musical number. This is Kimba briefly losing confidence and then demonstrating the truth of the old adage that true courage is doing what you need to do despite your fears... with the clock literally ticking outside. Doing it verbally is far more effective, I think, especially in the manner in which Kimba shifts from talking to/about Caesar to talking about himself and what he needs to do. Then, Kimba literally dons the mantle of his father and returns to lead his subjects. A wonderful scene.

The final victory is pretty straightforward in its presentation (and keep in mind that the insects are trapped in that cave -- that'll come up in several later eps). The very last scene, however, provides a significant "talking point" for those of us who believe that The Lion King was inspired by (nice version) or cribbed from (nasty version) Kimba. The episode "Round Springfield" of The Simpsons appears to have made direct reference to this "cloud scene." For some reason, however, most of the parallel-drawing attention appears to have gone to the final panel of Tezuka's JUNGLE EMPEROR. The animated version of the "cloud scene" seems to be a bit more relevant to the situation, I think, especially with its admission that the "white lion's burden" has well and truly now been passed. The appearance of Bucky and the three meat-eaters -- friends once again, rather than predators and prey -- provides a nice, circle-closing extra touch.

Up next: Episode 9, "The Flying Tiger."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Public Paper Presented for Perusal: Primary Purveyor Pleased as Punch

The March issue of the online JOURNAL OF STATISTICS EDUCATION has just appeared, featuring a jointly authored paper based on research that I did with a student and a Johns Hopkins gynecologist last Spring. I'm listed as primary author because this is a "statistically focused" paper. A more "scientifically focused" paper is currently in the works.

You can thank Nicky for getting me to finally put this thing on paper (or on screen... whatever), and the end product turned out quite well, I think. You're more than welcome to take a look at it, since JSE is available to anyone.

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #10 (March 2011, Boom! Studios)

Despite what James Silvani's "A cover" might suggest, part two of "F.O.W.L. Disposition" runs its relatively sedate course without any tangible evidence that Steelbeak is planning to "play foul" (heh) with his unlikely ally Darkwing. (Of course, Steelbeak does spend a good portion of the issue half-conscious, so make of that what you will.) F.O.W.L.'s plot to unleash Duckthulhu on an unsuspecting world does progress, up to a point: viz. a half-nightmarish, half-ridiculous vision of the monster's possession of the Muddlefoots. (I do hope that Ian Brill has something good planned for Drake Mallard's neighbors; they haven't received much love in this title thus far.) Most of the ish's other events are of the "maneuvering-the-pieces-on-the-chessboard" variety. Quiverwing Quack (the real one, not the extra-dimensional Darkwing who was featured a couple of months back) and her confrere The Arrow Kid deploy themselves to F.O.W.L.'s hideaway, where they promptly run into one F.O.W.L. agent whom I'm not surprised to see again, plus two others whose appearance did surprise me. Given that Quiv is prominently featured on the planned cover to DARKWING #11, I suspect that the upcoming battle will take up a good portion of next month's issue. The pace is so leisurely here that Launchpad and Morgana even get to "exchange notes" about their feelings of loyalty towards DW.

One interesting happening herein is the OUT OF NOWHERE introduction of a new F.O.W.L. agent, who shares Steelbeak's doubts about the wisdom of "Project Duckthulhu" and joins forces with Steelbeak and DW at F.O.W.L.'s lair. The really notable thing about the curvaceous, cat-suited vixen Femme Appeal (think The Avengers' Emma Peel) is that she appears to have taken a wrong turn backstage; she's so realistically drawn that she belongs on the Tale Spin set! I have to wonder how well Femme can adapt to the "wilder and crazier" world of Darkwing, where characters can be "pancaked" (or, in the case of DW here, "accordionized") and bounce right back to full health in the next scene. Even Steelbeak appears to notice the clash of styles, as he surprisingly doesn't seem to have any romantic interest in Femme at all. (Or perhaps he tried that a while back... which might explain the metal beak?) We also get a glimpse of F.O.W.L.'s "Main Room," which is so packed with spy gear and quasi-magical devices (such as the "medicine ray" that restores Steelbeak to full health) that DW is fully justified in wondering how he ever managed to hold his own against the organization. This ish fills in background details on F.O.W.L. and its ways quite superbly, but substantial forward plot motion awaits #11.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: MELVIN MONSTER, VOL. 3 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)

By the time these stories from MELVIN MONSTER #7-#9 (1967) were published, John Stanley had pretty clearly fallen out of love (or, given that we are in the twisted "monster world" here, perhaps I should say "fallen out of hate") with the project. With the solitary exceptions of two gags at the end of MELVIN #9, "human beans" are nowhere in evidence in these three issues, so we get no further enlightenment on how the denizens of Monsterville interact with the human world. Instead, Stanley seems content to "ring the chimes" ("toll the bells"?) on a small handful of themes that are just sturdy enough to sustain extremely brief stories. We do get a little bit of closure on the theme of "witch-teacher" Miss McGargoyle's trying to keep Melvin from attending grade school; the old bat finally gives in and allows Melvin to "graduate," but soon the kid is back, asking to attend high school (made so because Melvin raised the "Little Black Schoolhouse" off the ground on boulders; not one of Stanley's more inspired moments, I'd say). Also, the story "Supermonster," with its theme of a giant monster who needs to be pacified at regular intervals to prevent him from waking up and wreaking havoc, bears a frankly unsettling resemblance to the Gummi Bears episode "Let Sleeping Giants Lie". A childhood comics-reading memory bubbling up in the brain of the TV writers, perhaps? Still, even half-speed, deracinated Stanley is better than the majority of works by other comics writers. I'm still hoping for the second volume of THIRTEEN GOING ON EIGHTEEN, D&Q!

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE #306 (March 2011, Boom! Studios)

Yes, it's definitely "Recreate the Experiences of Disney Comics Publishers Past" Month at Boom! Right on the heels of DONALD DUCK #364's channeling of the spirit of "Gladstone II" comes this latest issue of MICKEY, which reads like nothing less than a "short-stack" edition of a Gemstone comic -- right down to its "bringing back" a visiting character who'll be a complete mystery to anyone who hasn't read her one previous appearance during the Gemstone era. Byron Erickson and Paco Rodriquez' "Catch as Cat Can" features the return of Katarina Kodorofsky, the sexy professional art thief (Inducks calls her a "spy," but that's a stretch) who unwillingly teamed up with The Mouse in WDC&S #687's "Claws of the Cat" (read my review of that first appearance here). We do get an "editorial box" alerting us to Katarina's origin story, but we're not told where the story can be found. (Query: Did Chris Meyer assume that readers would look this appearance up online and therefore didn't feel the need to state a specific issue?) More problematic is the fact that Mickey's ending quip to Minnie will literally make no sense to anyone who hasn't read "Claws," since it is a direct call-back to the conclusion of the earlier story. I appreciate Boom!'s interest in linking what it is presently doing to the work of previous publishers; I just wish that there were a slightly smoother way of doing so.

At the start of "Catch," Kat seems to have reverted to her "default setting" of mistrusting Mickey as an "amateur" art-crook-chaser, claiming that she needs his body rather than his mind (it's NOT what you think, OK?!). Not until we are well into the story do we learn the reason for Kat's unwilling request for assistance: Mickey's presence will help her cover for an embarrassing personal weakness. Or so she thinks. The criminal opposition (a crooked Egyptologist who's been stealing priceless Egyptian antiquities) is, as it turns out, less interesting than the intriguing relationship between Kat and Mickey, which is kneaded and rekneaded in line after line of dialogue. I like Kat because she is a very different sort of ally for Mickey -- a character who could very easily be an adversary if the tables were twisted slightly -- and it's a real shame that, at least according to Inducks, no further stories featuring her have been published. But I do wish Rodriquez would ditch the "poofy lips" once and for all. Perhaps we could send both Kat and Lotus Blossom to the Nip/Tuck guys before they come "on stage" again.

The backup GOOFY story, "Spaghetti and Goofballs," continues the Gemstone vibe by making strenuous efforts to ape one of the enjoyable Sarah Kinney Goof-tales that Gemstone favored us with. The tale even includes references to Doc Static and Goofy's "favorite cartoon critter," Flip the Fish, both of which became very familiar to American readers during the Gemstone era. Unfortunately, writer Maya Astrup is no Sarah Kinney. Apparently having concluded that Goofy's famed "eccentricity" is actually out-and-out insanity, Astrup presents a Goof who becomes obsessed with creating "stuck-together spaghetti" sculptures, to the point that he literally can't stop. Oh, and he cooks the spaghetti in a machine that he "doesn't know how to stop." Uh, what? This is simply too weird and contrived to be believable, even on what passes for "normal" Goofy terms. Goofy doesn't even sound right, speaking perfectly good Mousetonian English. Oh, well, not every Gemstone GOOFY story was a ten-strike, either... and the featured story is strong enough to make MM #306 an overall winner.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 7, "Battle at Dead River"

Let's do a mind exercise: Carefully fillet the memory of Kimba's first encounter with rival lion Claw and his minions in "The Wind in the Desert" out of your cranium. Store it in whatever recess in which you imagine the abandoned "super miniature bomb" of that episode currently resides. Now, you're ready to watch a brand new (and, aesthetically, far more pleasing) "Claw origin episode." The ep's title is a bit deceiving: the headline "Battle" is little more than a speedy skirmish, and most of the real "action" centers around Claw's puppet-master Cassius' sneaky efforts to sow discord among the animals in Kimba's kingdom. The real headline here concerns the debut of Kimba's future girlfriend and (in later Tezuka JUNGLE EMPEROR continuity) mate/queen Kitty (Sonia Owens), who starts off in full-fledged Perils of Pauline mode before showing some spunk down the stretch, a hint as to the rather formidable character she will eventually become.

From Pauley Cracker's comments, it would seem as though animals developed the idea of having "human-like weddings" independently of any input from Kimba. You'd expect Kimba to be playing a "justice of the peace"-style role here, but he appears to be a mere spectator and good-will-wisher. That is, until Tom and Tab show up and Kimba shifts into the "jungle protector" setting. Compared to Kimba's first tussle with Claw et Cie. in "The Wind in the Desert," this "revised standard version" has some definite advantages. In "Wind," Claw has supposedly taken over the jungle in Caesar's absence (need I mention the similarity to Scar's assumption of command once Mufasa is killed and Simba decamps in The Lion King?) with what would appear to be little or no resistance. This gives Kimba the chance to literally "replace his father" by ejecting the usurper, but, in order for it to work, you have to be willing to accept that the other animals were too cowardly to try to protect what Caesar had built. I greatly prefer the idea that Claw is an interloper who wants to horn in on what Kimba has already begun to construct. This gives Kimba's subjects a chance to prove that they're on Kimba's side by fighting against Claw, as they do on several occasions in this episode.

Claw's "attentions" towards Kitty in their first meeting are patently creepy, and made doubly so by Kitty's almost painful naivete ("I really don't understand what's going on"? REALLY?). With airborne assistance, Kimba stops the assault, shows his first sign of affection for Kitty (licking her wounded paw), and, once you learn that they are both orphans, you just KNOW that they are fated to be together. If my copy of JUNGLE EMPEROR is complete, then this was far more of a formal "first meeting" between Kimba and Kitty than Tezuka ever envisioned in print. There, you suddenly find the two lions conversing at the side of a river (remember that imagery) without any explicit "introduction scene." After this elaborate, pleasing set-up, it's a little surprising that Kitty drops completely out of the ep for a while, as villain-seeded "inter-jungle conflict" comes to the fore.

Kudos to Kimba for that lightning-quick deduction that the spreading of Orchid's (Billie Lou Watt) scent was a red (or black-and-white-striped) herring, but I think Sherlock Holmes himself would have been at least a bit reluctant to jump to that conclusion quite so rapidly. No doubt Kimba knows something personal about Orchid, who must be a voluntary immigrant to the jungle, since skunks aren't native to Africa. Or perhaps Orchid's a strange African mutant of some sort, since, in one scene, he appears to be as large as Kimba.

As serious as the animals' internal dissension becomes, you have to admit that it's pretty funny to watch and listen to ("You'reafatlittletunnelfiller!"). Even Pauley starts a fight with Bucky for no apparent reason other than it's "the thing to do" at the present time.

After Kimba catches Cassius, Tom, and Tab doing their dirty work, the white lion reveals his unfortunate penchant for standing on the edges of cliffs when villains are in the vicinity. The flaw would be even more cruelly exposed in "The Hunting Ground," but the goof is egregious enough here, because Cassius has already revealed himself to be untrustworthy. This leads to the "overlapping-dialogue-animal-circle" scene, which is, like the earlier conflict scenes, both disturbing and funny. It's also distressing in that Kimba has already proven his bona fides on a couple of occasions; why is everyone so quick to think that Kimba has wrecked homes, especially since Kimba himself had already suggested that the earlier vandalism was faked? Even Dan'l Baboon, who really should know better, gets sucked into doubting Kimba. The dumb comments about Kimba doing the deed because he "has no family" points up how absurd this whole debate really is. After that performance, I'd have scattered, too, when Claw arrived, out of sheer embarrassment if nothing else.

Kimba takes cares a' Claw wit' his patenked twisker sock. Arf, Arf, Arf, Arf!

Thanks to Orchid's remarkable ability to locate Kimba at just the right moment, we finally head for the promised "Battle." We never do learn what Claw's "demonstration of power" was, but Kitty's self-sacrificing decision to yield to Claw's wishes for the sake of the other animals is (ironically) her first real show of strong character, showing the qualities that will ultimately make her an ideal mate for Kimba. Funny how, when sex is at stake, Claw suddenly decides to defy Cassius' advice.
Ray Owens' Narrator makes Dead River, "where Claw's power is at its greatest," sound like Sauron's Mordor. In truth, despite the physical prowess Kimba shows in his chop-socky, Astro Boy-flavored bout with Claw, Kitty strikes the key blow of the battle by attacking Claw "from the flank" in true "Law of the Jungle" style. Like DuckTales' Webby, Kitty suffers some from having a high-pitched, overly "sweet" voice -- had Watt done the voice and (presumably) made Kitty sound like Astro Girl, the problem would have been even more acute -- so I really appreciated a good, savage moment like this.

The episode's coda is "time-filling" with a definite purpose -- in this case, giving Kimba and Kitty a further chance to "bond," providing psychological table-setting for the lions' next encounter, and rubbing away the episode's sharper edges, as we see animals who had earlier been involved in conflict now living in peace. (Was that monkey fight actually a family squabble between husband and wife?) The scene with Caesar, Kimba, and Snowene is clearly Kimba's idealized dream of what his life should have been like, but that didn't prevent some YouTube commenters from zapping the show for committing a continuity violation. I will admit that Kimba's specific comments are a little squirrelly (how could he say "They were so good" if he never knew his father, except by reputation?), but I'm willing to give both Mushi and the Titan crew a pass on this one. The dreamy theme music employed here, which will also be used in the future (unfortunately, with vocal accompaniment on at least one occasion), allows us to float out of the episode with a sense of contentment -- not to mention anticipation for Kitty's inevitable return.

Remember that "side of the river" comment? This is a scene from the coda.

Next up: Episode 8, "The Insect Invasion"

Book Review: E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE, VOLUME 5: "WHA'S A JEEP?" (Fantagraphics, 2011)

The "penulkimate" POPEYE reprint volume contains my personal favorite of all of Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE narratives, the story that introduced Eugene the Jeep. The "magical dorg" (well, so claimed Popeye in the Fleischer cartoon that brought Eugene to animated life) with apparently limitless powers represented Segar's boldest venture to date into the realm of pure fantasy. For that reason, no less a POPEYE fan than Charles Schulz thought that the Jeep's creation was a mistake, in that Eugene's presence gave Popeye a "four-dimensional escape hatch" that the two-fisted sailor hadn't needed in his earliest adventures. I can see Schulz' point, but it needs to be remembered that Segar had barely begun to develop Eugene as a character before the cartoonist died. Had Segar passed before he'd had a chance to use Wimpy as anything other than a funny-looking boxing referee, what would be our collective memory of the hamburger-munching moocher -- assuming we had any at all? I think that, given time, Segar would have found an appropriate niche for the Jeep that would have allowed Eugene to contribute to Popeye's adventures without devolving into a universal panacea. Eugene's appearances in "The Search for Popeye's Poppa" (which is also reprinted in this volume) and, later, "Mystery Melody" and "A Sock for Susan's Sake" give us no real reason to suspect otherwise.

The Jeep story is modest in scope but contains all the familiar Segar ingredients: human frailty among our protagonists (Olive and Wimpy playing the horses to try to cash in on Eugene's ability to predict the future), a suitably nasty villain (the money-grubbing Chizzleflint, who knows the Jeep's secret [one of them, anyway] and wants possession of the "aminal"), social satire (the air-headed professors who try and fail to explain Eugene's powers), and a knock-down, drag-out "fight at the finich" between Popeye and a hulking goon whom the Jeep has incorrectly predicted will defeat the sailor in the ring. In order to give Popeye the ultimate victory and yet preserve Eugene's rep for "veraciky," Segar executes one of the neatest bits of continuity that I've ever seen in a comic strip. I won't give it away, but suffice it to say that, if you look closely, Segar "shows" why the Jeep was mistaken well before the actual explanation is revealed. I can't help but compare Segar's work here with that of the admittedly masterful Floyd Gottfredson in "Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot." In order to help Mickey escape one of The Blot's death traps, Gottfredson cheats and introduces a knothole that magically appears on the floor between one daily strip and the next. It would have been easy enough for Segar to have concocted a strained rationale after the fact -- and such a scheme might even have been expected of a creator whose narratives tend to ramble from one incident to the next -- but Segar carries off the explanation with a remarkable deftness.

This volume's other "major event" is the introduction of Popeye's incorrigible, irascible father, Poopdeck Pappy. "The Search for Popeye's Poppa" isn't one of Segar's stronger seafaring tales -- the only "menaces" in sight are a Scooby-Doo-style "phony ghost" and a rubbery "guardian octopus" that might have given even Cecil B. DeMille pause -- but it gets the job done in a workmanlike fashion, with Pappy being taken home to be "civilized." The stubble-chinned Pappy is a "beard" in both a literal and a figurative sense; with Popeye having been toned down considerably by this point, Pappy allows Segar to keep some of the sailor's more dubious traits on display without Popeye himself having to display them. For his part, Popeye is now noble enough that he refuses to join Olive and Wimpy in gambling on the Jeep's predictions, citing the need to set a good example for the little 'uns. This last may be Segar's ironic comment on the creative box into which Popeye's huge popularity had by now placed the cartoonist.

The collection opens with the drawn-out conclusion of the "Popeye's Ark"/"Spinachova" continuity. I think it's fair to say that Segar let this story drag on a bit too long; the business involving Popeye's "sheeps"' search for wives is particularly tedious, and Segar evidently felt as much, since he veers off course for a bit to indulge in some gags involving Popeye's efforts to help Spinachovan farmers. The pace picks up when neighboring Brutia invades Spinachova; it's as if Segar is picking up vibes of what was to transpire in Europe a year or two later. During the war, Popeye shows that a slightly-less-than-100-proof sailor man can still be quite funny when he knocks a Brutian battleship out of commission by unscrewing all of its bolts. Still, Segar wraps up the arc so quickly after Spinachova "wins" (so to speak) the war that I get the impression that he was vaguely dissatisfied with it. Despite all the gags about Popeye the "dictipator," was Segar aware that he, unable or unwilling to do a really stringent satire of 1930s power politics, had chosen to fight with a rubber-bladed knife? Most of the actual humor of the story is aimed at Popeye's terminally stupid "sheeps" and their all-but-complete helplessness. This could be taken as a comment on the folly of 193os mass movements, even democratic ones. (In his ART OF THE FUNNIES, R.C. Harvey makes the case that Popeye's quick creation of a "republic" by switching his cap for the topper of a "presidink" represents a critique of FDR's New Deal.) But if making sport of the foolishness of the "masses" is the primary focus of one's satire, then aren't you indirectly arguing that heavy-handed leadership is actually necessary in order to accomplish anything? No wonder Popeye repeatedly confessed that he was leaving Spinachova "disgustipated"; Segar's vision, taken to the extreme, is a decidedly bleak one.

In the Sunday strips of this era, with Segar basically forsaking continuity for a gag-a-day format, Wimpy really comes into his own. The moocher is an ideal hook on which to hang elaborate schemes involving the procurement of food, shelter, cigars, or any combination thereof. Indeed, Wimpy is such a parasite that it's a wonder that the restaurant he operates for a bit lasted as long as it did. Back-up strip SAPPO, meanwhile, goes into something resembling "hibernation mode" as Segar reduces it to a single-tier format and does a string of strips involving John Sappo creating caricatures out of letters, numbers, and "inaminate" objects. Segar would have one final SAPPO continuity salvo to fire before the end, however, so perhaps he was simply hoarding his dwindling physical and mental reserves at this time.

This volume contains some of the best ancillary material of the series. Richard Marschall's introductory essay on Segar's gift for characterization is, Heaven be praised, actually intelligible. We also get a gallery of adverts for the strip from contemporary newspapers and, best of all, a magazine article detailing Segar's many hobbies, which included fishing, hunting, and woodworking. Segar appears to have been both a well-rounded man and a bit of a publicity hound. He definitely understood "synergy" (I have no earthly idea how Popeye would pronounce that), with Popeye occasionally introducing himself in song a la the Fleischer cartoons. Hopefully, we will get even better extras in volume six, the reading of which will be a decidedly bittersweet experience. What a Segar Popeye of the 1940s and 1950s would have resembled, I can't imagine, but it's a shame we never got to find out.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Field of 68

Here are my picks for this year's NCAA Tournament, with judicious comments included:


Texas San-Antonio over Alabama State
Clemson over UAB

SECOND (but it's really the first) ROUND:
(12) Clemson over (5) West Virginia
(4) Kentucky over (13) Princeton
(8) George Mason over (9) Villanova
(1) Ohio State over (16) Texas-San Antonio
(2) North Carolina over (15) Long Island
(6) Xavier over (11) Marquette
(7) Washington over (10) Georgia
(3) Syracuse over (14) Indiana State

THIRD (but it's really the second) ROUND:
Clemson over Kentucky
Ohio State over George Mason
North Carolina over Xavier
Syracuse over Washington

Ohio State over Clemson
Syracuse over North Carolina

Ohio State over Syracuse

I see no obvious reason to pick against the Buckeyes, especially once young but raw Kentucky blows up against an underrated Clemson team.


North Carolina-Asheville over Arkansas-Little Rock

(9) Old Dominion over (8) Butler
(1) Pittsburgh over (16) North Carolina-Asheville
(10) Michigan State over (7) UCLA
(11) Gonzaga over (6) St. John's
(2) Florida over (15) California-Santa Barbara
(3) Brigham Young over (14) Wofford
(13) Belmont over (4) Wisconsin
(12) Utah State over (5) Kansas State

Pittsburgh over Old Dominion
Michigan State over Florida
Gonzaga over BYU
Utah State over Belmont

Pittsburgh over Utah State
Michigan State over Gonzaga

Pittsburgh over Michigan State

The scab gets ripped right off this weak region in the very first (sorry, second) round. A lot of other folks are picking Belmont and Utah State, but I'm expecting Michigan State to make its patented charge as well. Pitt was very fortunate to get seeded #1 here and will get to its first official Final Four (1941, with its eight-team field, doesn't count).


Virginia Commonwealth over Southern California

(4) Louisville over (13) Morehead State
(12) Richmond over (5) Vanderbilt
(2) Notre Dame over (15) Akron
(10) Florida State over (7) Texas A&M
(11) VCU over (6) Georgetown
(1) Kansas over (16) Boston University
(3) Purdue over (14) St. Peter's
(8) Nevada-Las Vegas over (9) Illinois

Louisville over Richmond
Notre Dame over Florida State
Purdue over VCU
Kansas over UNLV

Purdue over Notre Dame
Kansas over Louisville

Purdue over Kansas

Notre Dame has overachieved massively this year, but I think that two wins is about their limit, especially since they'll be facing Purdue in the Sweet 16. Purdue has a chip on its shoulder from ND refusing to play it for many years, plus Purdue is simply the better team. No one else seems to like Purdue as a Final Four possibility, but the Boilermakers are long overdue for some good Tournament fortune. Plus, Kansas usually finds a way to mess up a good thing, unless it's playing a team that can't shoot free throws AND uses ineligible players (hi, Memphis!).


SECOND (only here, it's the first) ROUND:
(7) Temple over (10) Penn State
(2) San Diego State over (15) Northern Colorado
(3) Connecticut over (14) Bucknell
(6) Cincinnati over (11) Missouri
(4) Texas over (13) Oakland
(5) Arizona over (12) Memphis
(1) Duke over (16) Hampton
(8) Michigan over (9) Tennessee

THIRD (only here, it's the second) ROUND:
San Diego State over Temple
Cincinnati over Connecticut
Arizona over Texas
Duke over Michigan

San Diego State over Cincinnati
Arizona over Duke

San Diego State over Arizona

It may seem strange to pick a team that is 0-6 all-time in the NCAAs, but IF SDSU can get out of the first weekend, then I think that the Aztecs have a definite advantage playing in Anaheim in the Regional and will advance to Houston. Arizona will also benefit from playing close to home in upsetting Duke.

Ohio State over San Diego State
Pittsburgh over Purdue

Ohio State over Pittsburgh

Actually, I'd prefer that Pittsburgh won, but OSU is better and should triumph.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK #364 (March 2011, Boom! Kids)

Talk about reviving memories of Disney comics past -- with a capital "P"! This issue resembles, not a Gemstone book, but a "Gladstone II" offering, with the more recent of the two featured stories dating all the way back to 1951. That would be "The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill" (WDC&S #135, December 1951), at once the second appearance of The Beagle Boys and the first appearance of Scrooge's hilltop Money Bin. Before you begin to complain about "yet another" reprinting of an "over-reprinted Carl Barks story," you should know that this historically significant tale has been reprinted only once before in regular comic-book form, back when "Gladstone I" was just getting started and clearing the treasures off the "high shelf." The Beagle Boys had first menaced Scrooge's money (then in a street-side location that Scrooge described as both a "safe" and a "money bin") in #134, and their rapid return shows how quickly Barks had realized that he had potential "keeper characters" on his hands. Lots of famous firsts in this one -- the Ducks' first traipse through Scrooge's sign-studded mine field; the first view of the interior of the Bin (which seems pretty barren at this point, apart from the variegated traps that Scrooge has strewn about the place); and, last but certainly not least, the first "utter destruction" of Scrooge's fiduciary fortress. The original Bin looks nothing like the later, sleeker version, being basically a gigantic safe, complete with immense combination dial (which is supposed to be twirled by whom, exactly? It's not like Scrooge to create a dingus like that just for show). Barks reruns the "Beagle gather up loot while Scrooge chases Donald" ending of the story in #134, which was somewhat unlike him, but it's hard to miss the obvious glee he must have felt in falling upon two devices that would carry him through many, many $CROOGE stories to come.

The first installment of Federico Pedrocchi's 1938 adventure "Donald Duck, Special Correspondent" -- actually, the first fourteen installments, since the pioneering Italian story originally appeared in one-page dollops in the prewar Italian Disney magazine PAPERINO -- belatedly fulfills wishes that Duck fans have harbored since 1994, when Pedrocchi's "Donald Duck and the Secret of Mars" was reprinted in DONALD DUCK #286. My original thought concerning this caper, in which Donald and Peter Pig (Donald's co-star in The Wise Little Hen [1934]) take jobs as investigative reporters and "invade" a war-torn, vaguely "Mittel-European" country to snap a picture of a reclusive general, was that Pedrocchi must have been influenced in some way by either Floyd Gottfredson's MONARCH OF MEDIOKA or Herge's KING OTTOKAR'S SCEPTRE. Evidently, however, I may have been giving Pedrocchi too little credit for creativity:

(1) The TINTIN theory won't fly, given that OTTOKAR didn't begin serialization in Belgium until August 1938, whereas "Special Correspondent" started running in May.

(2) If Pedrocchi was influenced by Gottfredson, then it must have been accomplished by reading the daily strip, since MEDIOKA didn't begin running in TOPOLINO until July.

Wherever Pedrocchi got the germ of this idea, it definitely reads like a MICKEY adventure story, only with Donald in the role of the protagonist. Pedrocchi's art is far more static and "talking head-ish" than Gottfredson's, but the supporting dog, cat, and monkey characters look just like Gottfredson extras, and David Gerstein does a good job of preserving the sound of a late-1930s Mouse epic while avoiding anachronisms. This last is particularly important, as the story, though entertaining, is definitely a relic of its era, perhaps even more so than the more outwardly fantastical "Secret of Mars." I don't mind the serialization so much in this case because the story was originally meant to be cliffhanger-filled -- and we end with a good one. This is another Boom! issue sure to please "old sourdoughs."

Friday, March 11, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 6, "Jungle Thief"

I've got plenty to say about this one, the first truly outstanding Kimba episode since "Go, White Lion!" -- and I hold that latter opinion despite the presence of an inordinate amount of narrative "piddling-around" that could only have been originally intended as padding of some sort. When the plot does move, however, it moves with considerable gravitas. Aside from introducing one of Kimba's signature civilization-building initiatives -- the animals' (decidedly non-Orwellian) farm -- the episode provides legitimate fodder for a philosophical debate over a decision that Kimba makes in the midst of a deadly crisis. The decision represents Kimba's definitive break with any lingering temptation to cede anything to the time-honored "Law of the Jungle," but it also nearly backfires, bringing Kimba as close to complete despair as he would ever get in the series. Suffice it to say that this ep is simply packed with "Heart," and that, at at least one moment, said "Heart" is very close to breaking.

From a personal perspective, "Jungle Thief" is special to me because it features the single most iconic image of Kimba that I managed to preserve from my youth. I don't recall exactly when I first saw the ep in syndication, but it must have struck me with a considerable impact.  Even during Kimba's "wilderness years," when the show had vanished from broadcast TV and was not yet available on VHS or DVD, I could bring it to mind. As fate would have it, when I started collecting the episodes in the 90s, this one eluded me far longer than did most of the others. That made my joy in finally seeing it again all the more heartfelt.

Ray Owens' opening narration, with its dramatic declaration of "Africa!" at the start, must also have been lurking in the shadowy recesses of my memory. On my first re-viewing of the episode, I immediately recognized it as something I'd heard before and was promptly filled with "a wild surmise" that this ep might be something special. Good music and visuals help to make this one of the series' most effective curtain-raisers.

Kimba is learning quickly, as he's already recognized two key principles of effective leadership: (1) plan for the future; (2) what they don't know won't hurt them (more than they are already hurting, that is). Unfortunately, as everyone from Richard Nixon to Jim Tressel could tell you, the cover-up winds up being worse than the actual crime. Kimba's debate with the supposed Samson (Ray Owens, using a completely different voice and shifting back into antagonistic mode) shows the pressure that trying to maintain a well-intentioned deception has placed on him. You can definitely hear the strain in the voice of Billie Lou Watt (who's in superb form throughout, BTW) as the white lion throws a small portion of his weight around. Luckily, Tiny Hippo (Sonia Owens) manages to bail Kimba out, but keep this early "pressure point" in mind.

Kimba's decision to start the farm makes perfect sense in view of his admiration of various facets of human civilization, but did he really need to be told about such initiatives by Dan'l Baboon? Didn't Kimba see modern farming in action in the World's Fair sequence of "Fair Game"? Likewise, Kimba really should have been ready with a comeback when Dan'l presented a "rain dance" as man's "first response" to a drought. The explanation may lie in the fact that, according to Craig Andersen, "Jungle Thief" was recorded in early December of 1965, making it one of the very first eps "in the can." It's therefore highly probable that this ep was produced before "Fair Game." How I wish we knew more about those production dates!

The brief fire sequence, though effective, basically kills time until Kimba and Dan'l Baboon discuss starting the farm, just as the earlier post-"Bucky and Pauley snooze" tracking shot (complete with scenes very similar to those seen in the opening) spins footage between the establishment of the drought/food crisis and the other animals' discovery of the stolen food. Delaying tactics of this type will, alas, appear again.

The zebras' brief "mutiny" is far more serious than Samson's personal "mad-on" in "Great Caesar's Ghost," for it marks the first time that a whole sector of "animal society" has lost confidence in Kimba's plans. Were it not for the conveniently-prowling pack of "wild dogs" (which would also pose a threat in a couple of future episodes), Kimba's leadership would have been put to its severest test yet. But Kimba will soon be providing a scourge for his own back in...

The "farm groundbreaking sequence" just goes on and on, complete with goofy slapstick mayhem. It's an important step forward for Kimba's kingdom, to be sure, but did the physical work deserve that much screen time?

One could object that planting seeds (from flowers? Are the animals intending to become Lotus-Eaters?) with no immediate hope of rain is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse, but Kimba wouldn't be Kimba if he weren't proactive. Kimba's comment regarding the elephants' refusal to help -- "They don't believe in what we're doing" -- sounds believably plaintive.

The introduction of the plight of Hedda Riverhog (Sonia Owens) starts the "deeper" movements of the plot in motion. Kimba's nobly self-sacrificing (and, later, nobly forgiving) behavior towards Hedda provides a direct challenge to the "Law of the Jungle," but a far bigger one quickly follows when Kimba puts the entire "farm operation" in peril in his efforts to help Hedda get well. Is the life of one creature worth risking the needs of the many? Under "Jungle Law," clearly not, so Kimba is truly flouting "established standards" here. And the strain it is putting on him is obvious; he keeps his head down after delivering the seeds to Hedda (under cover of dusk, it should be noted) and then gets his dream-lecture from Dan'l. When your chief adviser is questioning you to this extent, you know you are taking a big chance -- one that even Caesar, with his lack of exposure to human mores, would probably not have taken. The plaintive clarinet music accompanying Kimba's actions only serves to spotlight the "moral island" on which he has placed himself.

The next five minutes or so lift "Jungle Thief" to the status of a stone-cold classic. Kimba's departure in search of more seeds (and vindication of his bet-it-all gamble) is symbolically perfect; he plods away with head bowed, then we see him break into a steady run, showing a renewed determination to atone for what even he must now suspect may be a terrible mistake. (Notice the way Dan'l grinds his teeth in response; that's no fatherly remonstrance Dan'l is projecting.) Kimba's journey through the parched, yellow landscape comes to an emotional climax when he fruitlessly climbs the barren tree and, for a moment at least, both looks and sounds utterly defeated. The dramatic "swoop-in" leads to the "money shot" that haunted me all those years...

I have to admit, it still gives me chills. That sunburst effect behind Kimba's head only adds to the impact.

What better character to cut to in order to "break the tension" than Pauley Cracker? Pauley's tantrum, so wildly overplayed by Gilbert Mack, lightens up what is actually a very serious moment... the moment at which "the light goes on" and the other animals see the tangible evidence (to wit: a recovered, but penitent, Hedda) of the positive effects of Kimba's rejection of "Jungle Law."

The climactic "wild dog attack" and the "let the rains come down" coda would had to have been spectacular to match these scenes, and -- well, they aren't. The "wild dogs" are basically a device to (1) get Kimba knocked out so that he could wake up "dramatically" a bit later on and (2) give Hedda a chance to physically atone for her thievery and pay Kimba back... and did we have to see so many scenes of the "dogs" chasing the animals? There were so many "chase" shots, in fact, that the other animals' subsequent refusal (excepting Hedda, of course) to lend Kimba a hand in fighting seems almost disrespectful. At least Pauley, he of the self-righteous tirades, might have deigned to assist Kimba. (I've heard of "chicken hawks," but "chicken parrots"?) The coda is little more than a random set of "rain"/"celebration" scenes, but we do get to hear a nice sample of Watt's "Gatling gun" laugh for Kimba at the very end. To be sure, if Kimba ever deserved to end an episode with a hearty laugh, then this would be the one. Despite its flaws, this ep is a wonderful example of Kimba at its "Heart"-felt best.

UP NEXT: Episode 7, "Battle at Dead River."