Friday, April 29, 2011

East of the Meyerhoff, South of the Border

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this Spring's last few installments of the 2010-2011 Baltimore Speakers Series at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was the culinary preliminary. The Meyerhoff is located in an area where convenient dining options are few and far between, so getting a bite, getting to the Meyerhoff parking deck, and getting in line for the opening of the doors was always a bit of a problem in the past. In late February, however -- on the very day of a Speakers Series event, in fact -- Mari Luna "Cocina Mexicana" Bistro opened on the site of an abandoned eatery across from the Meyerhoff. We'd seen the "coming soon" signs and were glad that the Latin-themed mini-chain -- which also includes the original Mexican Grill in Pikesville and a Latin Grill in Old Town Pikesville, both of which we've visited and enjoyed (not to mention brought family members and visitors to) -- was filling a need. We did not, however, expect to literally be the FIRST CUSTOMERS TO BUY FOOD at the newly-opened Bistro. (Someone did get there ahead of us, but they stuck to drinks.) Word about the new place spread quickly, and, by the time we went to the Meyerhoff earlier this week to see Howard Dean and Karl Rove spar in the final Speaker Series program, Nicky had to call ahead just to get us "squeezed in" at a high-seat cocktail table. Between the Speakers Series, the concerts and related events at the Meyerhoff, and the presence of the University of Baltimore right next door, "founding chef" Jaime Luna appears to have a "license to print pesos" for the foreseeable future, the economy and stratospheric local rents permitting.

The original Mari Luna was and is the kind of "neighborhood Mexican joint" that the local Mexican people frequent, while the Latin Grill pilfers from the cuisines of South America and Panama as well as Mexico. The Bistro hovers somewhere in between. It has a more "traditionally Mexican" menu than the Latin Grill, but nothing among the tacos, enchiladas, and burritos appears to be "standardized." This week, for example, I ordered the three-taco platter. Out came a tray divided into three compartments, with each holding the fixings for one taco (chunked beef, chicken, and pork with pineapple). In place of the "stand & stuff" variety of taco shell, I got a trio of soft tortillas. This made it a little difficult to eat the blamed things without fixings slipping out the ends (though, admittedly, this is a standard problem for even the most conventional of tacos). The tacos were accompanied by a little guacamole salad, rice, and beans, all quite artfully presented. Other taco varieties on the menu include duck, lamb, and cow tongue... again, not exactly "standards" from the Taco Bell drive-thru board.

On opening night, Nicky and I wanted something a little more substantial and got what Nicky likes to call "big food." Carne asada for me, a pork leg/shoulder for Nicky. The chefs must really have been trying to impress their first "eating" customers, for they provided a "most grandiloquent effulgence of comestibles." See for yourself:

And we were naive enough to have gotten an appetizer before this! Nicky left some of the pork dish uneaten in self-defense so we could have some coffee and dessert (hazelnut-filled chocolate cupcake; creme brulee trio with a caramel glaze). On our second visit in March, we consciously dialed it down, with Nicky getting a variety of enchiladas and me getting a burrito. I've heard of stuffed burritos, but the miniature Yule log that was served to me was stuffed with enough stuff for a pair of meals. This past week, we essayed an offering from the Bistro's guacamole bar -- in this case, a clay pot filled with guacamole mixed with bacon bits and cheese -- before I proceeded to the tacos and Nicky to the Carnitas Urupuan (a new import from the original Mari Luna's menu). That seemed to be a reasonable amount of food for the price (about $75 for the both of us, again including coffee and dessert).

One criticism that may fairly be made of the new Mari Luna is that the kitchen seems to be pulling its punches when it comes to spices. The original ML has your more typically spicy Mexican fare, but the Bistro seems to be holding back a little for the preponderance of gringos in the concert- and speech-going audience. Nicky noticed this more than I did. I put my less sensitive palate down to years of growing up in Delaware at a time when Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell routinely ranked on the lists of "best local Mexican restaurants" and the best Mexican place in the area (the now-defunct El Sombrero in Newark, near the University of Delaware campus) was as well known for Indian food as for Mexican food.

We do not plan to renew our subscription to the Speakers Series for 2011-2012, so our next visit to Mari Luna Bistro may well be for the newly-established Sunday Brunch Special ($25.00 per person). In the Summer, the restaurant will also feature an outdoor dining patio. Future visitors to Owings Mills, beware; you are likely to get the "Mari Luna Bistro Experience" the next time you come see us, no matter what form it may take!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #11 (April 2011, kaboom!)

At the conclusion of part three of the entertaining "F.O.W.L. Disposition," the "other tentacle" finally drops and Duckthulhu, with Darkwing's unwilling cooperation, finally rises. But will the unlikely partnership between DW and Steelbeak "go into overtime" in an attempt to manacle the monstrosity? I'll explain what I mean by that after some



Well, I always kind of suspected that Steelbeak was handing Darkwing a line, but it's to the credit of Ian Brill's writing that the half-anticipated double-cross still comes as something of a surprise -- more due to its timing than anything else. But now that Steelbeak has helped manipulate the "Purple Pawn" into place as the final piece of the elaborate puzzle of raising Duckthulhu, he appears to be having second thoughts. Did the "philosophizing" of a few pages earlier, in which Steelbeak admitted to Darkwing that the partnership had been "a lot of fun," actually leave an impression on the "Beakster"? Or is he just worried about getting his comb mussed during the overblown supernatural fallout? We shall see.

Femme Appeal does get a little of the wild 'n crazy "DW universe" treatment thanks to a freeze ray, but that's hardly as humiliating as being pancaked or "accordionized." Likewise, when Ammonia Pine whacks her with a mop, Femme simply goes down for the count without any histrionics or cartoon stars. There appears to be more to Femme than meets the eye (which is enjoyable enough!); she "blows her cover" to help Quiverwing Quack and Arrow Kid escape from Pine, an odd choice of words unless Femme actually happens to be a SHUSH agent working deep undercover. I hope she figures significantly in the climax, because, like the much-mourned Ms. Vixen of MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES fame, this is one fox who may only get "redd" once. More details below...

Quiverwing and Arrow Kid finally get some major action in the title, battling Pine and the two "slacker" mentalists from "Heavy Mental," interacting with Femme, and facing down a cluster of Egg Men (well, actually Gosalyn handles the down-facing). Even so, I feature their cover primarily because it's an appealing image; as of yet, they haven't had much to do with the main plot. Given that Morgana is now near the scene, I smell a major team-up coming, perhaps with Femme and even Steelbeak added to the party to help bail out the currently helpless DW. Hey, it worked in the previous story arc, why wouldn't it work here?





It's now very much of an open question as to how much longer the kaboom! DARKWING -- indeed, the entire kaboom! Disney line -- will continue. This month's PREVIEWS (for comics scheduled to be released in July) features a sharply reduced kaboom! output in which the three TV-based titles are still on hand, but the "classic" Duck and Mouse titles have been jettisoned, with only a couple of reprint tomes left on board. The suddenness with which the elaborately propagandized "Boom 2.0" relaunch appears to be have been dry-docked strongly suggests that the hulking "300-pound mutant" in the room, namely Disney's new "family member" Marvel, is at long last making its presence felt. There are, however, conflicting reports as to how long, exactly, Boom! holds title to the Disney properties it still has. I know no more about the true situation than anyone else, but my present opinion is that Boom!, now that it has gotten its act together and created a very enjoyable line that blends aspects of Disney Comics and Gemstone Comics, should be permitted to finish out its "term of duty" at the very least.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK #365 (April 2011, kaboom!)

I must admit to being far more impressed with Federico Pedrocchi's 1938 adventure "Donald Duck: Special Correspondent," the second half of which appears in this issue, than I would have guessed I would be, even given the promise of "The Secret of Mars." The artwork is a little on the pedestrian side, but the storytelling remains first-rate to the end. Donald even gets to use his brains in a scheme to trick Sargassian General Sour into thinking that the sailor-suited fowl is the reclusive General Sweet. At a time when the movie Donald was still locked into predictable displays of "hilarious" temper and the Donald of the Al Taliaferro comic strip spent most of his time being frustrated by foes both animate and in-, treating Donald as being fully capable of carrying a serious adventure was a legitimate departure. Were it not for the somewhat stiff artwork and a comparative lack of humor (though David Gerstein does a great job of papering over the latter fault), "Correspondent" would rank with some of the better Gottfredson adventures.

In his review of "Correspondent," GeoX discusses the sociopolitical ramifications of the story (hard to ignore, given that Pedrocchi was publishing in Mussolini's Italy during the omen-filled late 1930s) in some detail. One interesting point Geo makes is that the choice of "good guys" and "bad guys" in this story is completely arbitrary; Donald and Peter Pig wind up helping Sylvania, but primarily because that happens to be the country that houses the reclusive General, and even the Sylvanians (more specifically, their justice system) give the boys a hard time at first. While Gerstein does a beautiful job with the dialogue at virtually all points, I think that his choices of the names "General Sweet" and "General Sour" for the opposing commanders somewhat obscure this point. Those names lead us to support the former (despite his unwillingness to reveal himself) and suspect the latter, when, in fact, there's no real difference between them and the "non-causes" their armies espouse. Something more neutral like "General Frick" and "General Frack" would have been better; unfortunately, that particular pairing has already been taken, but I'm sure that a similar pairing could have been doped out.

The rear of the book features a true curio: a retelling/rehashing/carbon copy of "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold" in the decidedly disposable form of a 1947 one-tier giveaway comic that was placed in Cheerios boxes. Jack Hannah, Carl Barks' artistic partner on the original "Pirate Gold," returns to do the honors for the imaginatively titled "Donald Duck and the Pirates" and performs reasonably well, to the extent that the artist/animator remembers which leg the grizzled old parrot Yellow Beak carries his peg on more consistently than he did in the original story. The script, attributed to Chase Craig, holds absolutely no surprises, being a radical simplification of the treasure-hunt scenario of "Pirate Gold." Even the villainous Black Pete's more slovenly grammar reflects a simpler mind at work. It's being overly complimentary of "DD and the Pirates" to describe it as a sequel to "Pirate Gold," as David Gerstein notes in an afterword; the real thing, a 1962 Italian story, will be appearing in DD #366 next month. Consider "DD and the Pirates" an appetite-whetter -- say, for a non-discriminating kid eating cereal.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 11, "Catch 'Em If You Can"

We return to Kimba with... sigh... the first episode of the series that I honestly, truly don't much like at all. Not that I'm minimizing its importance -- it is here that we finally learn what happened to Roger's girlfriend Mary after "A Human Friend," thereby accreting an important subplot (based on Tezuka's manga, though with a few cosmetic differences) that will sustain all the way through Episode 45, "Such Sweet Sorrow." Indeed, most of the episodes that contribute to the subplot are adapted fairly directly from incidents in Tezuka and, as such, work quite well. Our very next episode, "The Hunting Ground," is one such. But this is the first time that we get to see Mary in her new, amnesiac guise as the blood-lusty Captain Tonga, matriarch of the killing fields, er, Hunting Ground. We should have gotten much better than the irrational, patchy mess we're handed here. (At least we can't blame the manga for any of this; this was a made-for-TV plot.)

Rebecca Cunningham could take lessons from THIS "Boss Lady."

In "Such Sweet Sorrow," we learn that Tonga was adopted by the former head of the Hunting Ground located near Kimba's jungle kingdom. In the manga, Mary became the head of a tribe of natives, so I get the "retrofit." What is much less clear is Tonga's actual role. Sometimes, she acts like the boss of a giant chunk of African real estate; at other times, she seems to be an employee, albeit a key one. In this very episode, Tonga is definitely in "Boss Lady" mode; she already has sufficient "pull" and "name recognition" to confiscate free lands willy-nilly, put up fences, and organize a hunting contest that attracts hunters from all over the world. That must have been one speedy adoption process. More infuriatingly, Tonga seems to already know all about Kimba BY NAME here, although her stubble-bearded adjutant (Gilbert Mack) doesn't do the formal intro until early in "The Hunting Ground" (which leads me to believe that this episode actually should have postdated "Ground" in the current "official" Kimba continuity). Far MORE infuriatingly, Tonga (along with one other human character, as we'll see) can HAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH KIMBA and doesn't even appear to take notice of how bizarre that is. Irrational, did I say? Hang on, it gets better (or worse)...

Link to episode at Hulu

It does take a while to complete, but I do admit that the opening sequence that introduces the three hunters -- Dr. Bazooka (Ray Owens), Billy Bully (Mack), and The Great Gusto (R.O. -- hopefully, Allen Saunders and Elmer Woggon weren't too offended) is cleverly done. As Narrator, Ray rarely got the chance to employ outright sarcasm, and he seems to relish the opportunity here. The twangy "secret agent" music in the Dr. Bazooka scene and the presence of Tezuka in the circus crowd (look for the big-nosed guy in the beret) are also nice touches. It seems like carping to point out that these three guys are not exactly created in the classic image of a "hunter." Strange, too, that Billy appears to be the only one who was told about Kimba beforehand (unless he's referring to a generic lion). If Tonga really wanted Kimba to be captured, then she probably should have briefed all three hunters in advance of their trip.

Gil Mack makes rather a meal of his brief appearance as Pauley Cracker, perhaps to make up for the fact that no other regular cast member appears in the episode.  Gazello (R.O.) and Sandy (Mack), the two main Hunting Ground refugees to appear, are suitably pathetic that they make Kimba's single-minded, solo-flight determination to stop Tonga's encroachment seem all the more heroic and admirable... but who the heck gave Tonga the AUTHORITY to indulge in such barbaric actions? It can't possibly be that easy to snaffle up unclaimed jungle land, can it?

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the strange-looking things that buried the guy at Gusto's circus... I'm not even going to try to explain that myself. Just read this.

"Great" Gusto, my bobble-topped red mob cap. It took... yes, I checked... exactly 40 seconds for Kimba to go from meeting Gusto to knocking the big bruiser out by hoisting him on the petard of his own "magic knife." It's hard not to feel cheated by this. Kimba actually impressed me far more by performing that straight-up-in-the-air leap into the tree when he was about to be run over by the Samson clones. Eat your heart out, Herr Director!

Maybe the "magic" part of Gusto's knife was its ability to convince
Kimba to do a take like this.

Right after the non-confrontation with Gusto, we get another tooth-grinding moment when Tonga (1) declares that she "wants to bag [Kimba] all by myself" and then turns right around and (2) orders her adjutant to "march forward and get that lion!" Isn't that just like a woman, as men used to say. What makes this worse is that Sonia Owens, bless her, roars out her lines like a drill sergeant. Again, Sonia almost did her job too well with both Mary and Tonga.

Kimba and Sandy's conversation seems to be taking place in the middle of the Maginot Line, or something. Why all the "traps" if the whole purpose of the Hunting Ground is to allow visiting hunters the chance to bag wild beasts on their own? And then one of the guns renders Kimba "The Lion in the Plastic Bubble." Makes perfect sense... provides just the right setting for Tonga and Kimba to have their first, wholly illogical conversation.

The idea that Tonga has a group of cowed animals ready to do her bidding is canonical; the jungle-princess Mary had the same menagerie in JUNGLE EMPEROR. Indeed, one of these semi-slaves, the lioness Bella Donna, will play a key role in "The Hunting Ground," just as she did in the manga. This sequence wastes some screen time, but there's nothing egregiously wrong with it. But then, Billy Bully's ego takes over, he frees Kimba with the promise of letting the lion go permanently free if he can win the mano-a-pawo that Billy's been itching to have from the start, and the duo mosey on off to...

... the CONVENIENTLY AVAILABLE WILD WEST AFRICAN SALOON, COMPLETE WITH SWINGING DOORS, GAUDY CHANDELIER, AND BAR. And so a Kimba episode irretrievably "jumps the shark" for the first time. Even the Titan crew must have thought this business absurd, else Kimba wouldn't have tried to paper over the implausibility, however feebly, by calling the place a "house." The delayed-reaction nature of Billy's demise is funny, I must admit. And after two episodes full of humans who give the entire race a bad name, Billy's acceptance of defeat and encouragement of Kimba are refreshing. But BOY, did this scene cause the old eyes to roll when I first saw the episode.

The confrontation with Dr. Bazooka is better than the one with Gusto, but that's about all it has going for it... that, and the saw-blade attachment on Bazooka's hover-car that serves as a neat call-forward to one of the more memorable accouterments of Speed Racer's Mach 5. If Dr. B. isn't smart enough to recognize that the barrel of the vacuum gun is pointed away from him when Sandy threatens him, then he can't be much of a real threat, can he?

... And the remaining two minutes (again, I counted) of the episode is basically filler of the freed denizens of the Hunting Ground returning to Kimba's kingdom. Tonga supposedly was going to pursue Kimba after he escaped, correct? Yet she does not appear again after the confrontation with Kimba and Billy (the silhouette doesn't count). The ending scene of Kimba et al. running at the camera even reuses the animation that was seen immediately after that earlier confrontation scene. It's almost as if the animators realized that this ep was beyond saving and threw in the towel. Thankfully, it wouldn't take Tonga very long to at least partially redeem this dreadful "first impression."

Up next: Episode 12, "The Hunting Ground."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE #307 (April 2011, kaboom!)

The "MOUSE MEN" tour continues with this issue's first-ever American reprinting of Bill Wright's "Jungle Magic" (1948). Of this 20-page story, I knew only the cover seen above, so I figured there must be something horribly "offensive" in it that precluded its reappearance, else we would certainly have seen it before now. And, yes, there are jungle natives about, but all it took to make them presentable for the hypersensitive 2011 readership was a quick, neat "lip-bob" and a recoloring in flesh-tones. Their dialogue was standard English, so that wasn't a problem. Of course, there's also the stereotypical Mexican helicopter pilot who ferries Mickey and Goofy to the Orinoco Valley... Well, however the story made it through the gauntlet, it did so, and it's a pretty good read.

"Jungle Magic" is one of those stories triggered by Mickey's employment in a "one-shot" job; in this case, flower buyer for florist Dan DeLion (clever name). When a filthy-rich customer demands an ultra-rare black orchid, DeLion feels duty bound to honor the store's commitment to customer satisfaction and sends Mickey and Goofy to the Orinoco to scout out the sprout. Wright stories usually feature very satisfactory banter between Mickey and Goofy, and this one is no exception; no "Useless Goofy Syndrome" here! Indeed, Goofy's sudden obsession with wanting to keep his shoes shined proves to be the key to getting Mickey and Goofy out alive with the ensconced efflorescence. The plot twists are fairly predictable, and there's no "Magic" to be seen anywhere (given the boys' resort to trickery to save the day, "Jungle Juke" might have been a more fitting title), but there are few real weaknesses. Wright adds a comically macabre touch by putting some scattered bones beneath the bowers of a "man-trapper tree" that nearly swallows Goofy and several of the natives.

The 1932 Floyd Gottfredson gag "Trade Secret" that wraps the book hides a seed of Depression-era seriousness within a husk of jollity, as a poor kid barters with Mickey to get an ice-cream cone. Before long, so many kids get the same idea that Mickey has to go into another line of work!

Comics Review: HAPPINESS IS A WARM BLANKET, CHARLIE BROWN "by" Charles M. Schulz (2011, kaboom!)

I saw this item solicited by "The Comics Line Formerly Known as Boom! Kids" some time ago and ordered it, intrigued by the notion that it was "an original PEANUTS graphic novel." That wasn't strictly true. The project is actually based on a recently released direct-to-video animated special (called a "movie" here, but, at 46 minutes, basically a traditional TV special on steroids) and draws heavily upon a couple of early-1960s PEANUTS continuities in which Lucy tries to force Linus to kick his blanket habit. The return to a tried-and-true strip theme provides an excuse for directors Andy Beall and Frank Molieri to use character models from the days of the earliest Mendelson-Melendez specials, not to mention bring such "old-fave" characters as Violet, Patty, and Pig-Pen back into circulation and give Snoopy a chance to act like a four-footed dog first and foremost. (Strangely, however, they also give Woodstock a brief cameo and let Sally call Linus by the anachronistic moniker of "Sweet Babboo.") In the graphic novel, artists Bill Scott, Vicki Scott, and Ron Zorman use a similar style, and their work is certainly superior to that typically seen in the old Dell PEANUTS comic books drawn by Dale Hale.

The problem -- if the graphic novel is an accurate transcription of the video -- is that writers Craig Schulz (Sparky's son) and Stephan Pastis don't really sustain any momentum in their narrative. They drop more-or-less random gags into the "story" whenever it takes their fancy, making Linus' desperation over having his blanket buried, having Lucy make it into a kite and let it fly away over the sea, etc. seem less pressing than it truly should be. Apparently, the video even includes a version of the very first PEANUTS strip from 1950, which would seem to defeat the purpose of setting the clock back to the era of Camelot. I know that some of the lesser PEANUTS specials noodled around with strings of gags before progressing to their "story lines," but I don't recall individual gags being fired "salvo-fashion" in this manner, and the gag-strings usually had at least some distant connection to the overarching theme. I suspect some self-indulgence was at work here, with the writers telling each other, "Gee, I sure loved that gag when [fill in a favorite gag here]; let's put it in."

The climax, with Linus defending his blanket-loyalty by pointing out how many of his peers also exhibit insecurities, also strikes me as wrong-headed. Craig and Stephan were obviously thinking of Linus' recitation from the Gospel of Luke from A Charlie Brown Christmas when they sketched this bit out. The problem was that Linus was using his "bully pulpit" to explain the true meaning of Christmas there, as opposed to lecturing his pals on the universality of insecurity. Linus even goes so far as to say, "Do you want to see me end up like Charlie Brown?" which, if I were Charlie Brown, would have been reason enough to knock his (block)head off, not least because Linus is arguably the one PEANUTS character who gets along reasonably well with Charlie. The "anti-hypocrisy" cant should have been limited to Linus' canonical, low-key pointing-out of his "blanket-hating grandmother's" coffee fetish. But then, the fact that the story was several narratives glued together, rather than a narrative with a single focus on Linus vs. his grandmother, would have become all the more apparent.

I don't think that I'll get the video to create a "matching set" with the graphic novel. Thanks to THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, the original material that forms the majority of the events herein is readily accessible (not that it wouldn't have been anyway; these stories were in numerous reprint collections prior to TCP). The folks behind Warm Blanket obviously have their hearts in the right place; what I'd suggest is for them to marry heads and hearts more devotedly next time and use a Schulz narrative as a starting point for a legitimately "original" production.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Like Father, Like Son, Like Brother, Like Brother

Using a photo from my Dad's journal, Nicky created a neat juxtaposition of pictures of my Uncle Laci, my Dad, and me and my brother Andy. Who says history doesn't repeat itself!


I remember March 30, 1981 quite well. I had come back to my dorm at Notre Dame in mid-afternoon for some reason and learned that President Reagan had been shot. On TV, the footage of the shooting was shown over and over, and there wasn't much hard news available besides that. I would have stayed to watch, but I had a physics recitation session to attend. Our professor came in at the start of the session and told us that the President was in surgery. (No, the session wasn't canceled, but, if we'd known how serious Reagan's condition was, it probably would have been.) That night was the NCAA championship game between Indiana and North Carolina, and it was touch-and-go right up until game time as to whether the game would be played. By then, Reagan was "out of danger," at least such was the story at the time.

The story of Reagan's survival of John Hinckley's assault -- which, let it not be forgotten, cut down three other men and would have claimed the President as a fourth victim had it not been for quick action by a Secret Service agent and heroic efforts by a team of medical specialists at George Washington University Hospital -- finally gets the book-length treatment it has long deserved, thanks to Wilber. This effort will likely remain the touchstone account of the shooting for some time to come. The book suffers some from the inherent "...and then X happened" weaknesses of "tick-tock" reporting, but Wilber does sketch in enough background on Hinckley and his bizarre crush on Jodie Foster, Reagan's earliest months in the White House, the key Secret Service and White House personnel, and so forth to prevent the blow-by-blow 3/30/81 narrative from seeming to exist in a vacuum. Wilbur also does a good job of depicting the chaos at the White House as the unprecedented emergency, with its serious 25th Amendment implications regarding the temporary relegation of Presidential duties, unfolded. It's unfortunate that all that people remember of that particularly controversy is the serio-comic moment of Alexander Haig declaring himself to be "in control."

If I have one specific criticism to make, it is that Wilber does not do enough to capture the broader national reaction and impact (apart from news reports, of which Frank Reynolds' on-screen blow-up over incorrect reports that Reagan's wounded press secretary James Brady had died is certainly the best remembered). The controversy over whether or not to play the IU-UNC title game was not a trivial one, raising as it did unpleasant memories of the NFL's decision to play regular-season games on the weekend of the JFK assassination in 1963. The last Final Four consolation game ever to be played, between Virginia and LSU, was also allowed to go on, though the stands were all but empty. (John Feinstein tells this story in some detail in his book LAST DANCE.) In all other respects, though, the story of what could have been a very dark day in American history is well-told. This is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the Reagan Presidency and the 1980s in general.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

ASTRO BOY BREAK!: Episode 77, "The Terrible Time Gun"

I just recently purchased Volume 2 of The Right Stuf's Astro Boy ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION. Together with earlier purchases of the Kimba the White Lion ULTIMATE set and the complete Speed Racer, this pretty much "cleans the rack" of all the series from "The Golden Age of Americanized Anime" that I absolutely, positively would want to own. Marine Boy, Gigantor, even the exquisitely obscure but generally high-quality Prince Planet... all would be nice future additions to "the pile" but are strictly negotiable. I think I can safely say that I've got The Big Ones.

I don't remember watching Astro Boy as a child. Osamu Tezuka's most beloved character was well represented on Delaware Valley TV, to be sure, as one of the featured stars of WPHL-17's Wee Willie Webber's Colorful Cartoon Club. (Ironic title, since a number of the anime imports on Webber's multi-hour show, including Astro Boy, were black and white.) But I don't have one memory of Astro Boy that sticks in my mind in the manner of the dramatic swoop-in shot of the despairing Kimba on the tree limb in "Jungle Thief." The first Astro Boy ep that I can positively say that I remember watching is Episode 77 (of 104), "The Terrible Time Gun," which I got on a two-episode VHS tape some 20 years ago, in the first flush of my renewed love affair with Kimba. With the purchase of the second ULTIMATE set, I was able to view a remastered version of the ep, and it was a pleasant reunion -- not least because "Time Gun" bears distinct similarities to one of the best DuckTales episodes, "Sir Gyro de Gearloose."

By the time "Time Gun" was made and debuted in 1964, Astro Boy's success upon its American debut in the Fall of 1963 had convinced NBC -- which had purchased the rights to the show on a tip from a network executive who'd seen it on the Japanese first run -- to lend Tezuka's fledgling Mushi Studios a hand in the form of financial assistance to upgrade the quality of the outfit's animation. The extra polish is evident in this episode, as is the complete ease with which the American dubbing crew (Billie Lou Watt, Ray Owens, and Gilbert Mack; later assisted by Peter Fernandez of Speed Racer fame) were now handling the characters. Billie Lou's voice for Astro, originally a bit higher and more childlike, had now modulated into something very close to what Kimba's voice would eventually be. Aside from the obvious "drawback" of a lack of color -- which really shouldn't be considered a drawback, and probably isn't at this point in our cultural history (whatever became of the colorization fad, anyway?) -- and somewhat slower-moving and stiffer animation, the major areas in which Astro Boy fell short of Kimba by '64 were the use of stock musical accompaniments and sound effects. These didn't become quite as cliched as they did at, say, Hanna-Barbera, but they do reek a little bit more of the assembly line. The long periods of time during which we hear no background music or sounds at all are also quite noticeable after listening to the grand orchestral accompaniments of Kimba. In all thematic essentials, though, the Astro Boy of "Time Gun" is a mature, highly confident, and very intelligent series.

Obviously, there is a big difference between Gyro Gearloose wanting to go back in time to a simpler era in which he can hone his "romantic, anti-gadgetary" side and Dr. Tempo (Gil Mack) sending Astro and Astro's mentor Dr. Elefun (Ray Owens) back in time as part of a nefarious plot. But both Astro and Gyro react to the situation in believable ways -- Astro, by gently besting Sir Swingle (Mack) and quickly making friends; Gyro, by attempting, in his clumsy way, to fit into King Artie's kingdom of Quackalot, even as Artie's subjects (most of them, anyway) are wowed by his "magic."

I find the relationship between Astro and King Canute's (Owens) daughter Philomena (Watt) to be quite charming -- not to mention unique. Astro getting involved with a human female in this way is something I've not seen in any other Astro ep. At one point, you even see Astro with his arm around the princess!

The arrival of the conniving Sir Shifty (Mack) and Marvin the Magician (Owens) provides the ep with its "on-site" villains but also represents something of a downtick in complexity from the character dynamics in "Sir Gyro." Moorloon, Quackalot's wizard, does not start out as a baddie but falls victim to a combination of the villainous Lesdred's blandishments and his own jealousy at Gyro's "gadgets" upstaging his magic. Marvin, by contrast, is in cahoots with Shifty from the very start. "Time Gun," however, makes a more out of the direct conflict between science and magic than "Sir Gyro" did, thanks to Shifty's challenge of Dr. Elefun and the ensuing contest. Elefun, of course, isn't really manipulating scientific principles in the way Gyro demonstrated magnetism and the like to Artie's court; he's simply taking advantage of Astro's inherent powers (on Astro's suggestion, notice; an indication of how Astro was learning to take the initiative by this time). But the effect on the crowd is the same.

I just love the little hop-step that Astro does before vaulting into flight. The series' cruder animation of earlier eps wouldn't have permitted that sort of character-driven bit, and it would even have been notable in a Kimba episode.

With Elefun's attempt to recreate the "atomic crystals" and make his own Time Gun, we see the use of science paralleling that of magic, rather than being intimately tied in with it as seen in "Sir Gyro." Mark Zaslove's script for the DuckTales episode was one of the series' very best, so it's a rather unfair comparison, but the fact that the two episodes can even be compared in a serious manner is a tribute to how well Astro Boy was being written by this time (by Fred Ladd, I do believe, though the voice actors were probably adding a lot of their own material by now).

The sudden appearance of the "army of robots" is the one aspect of the script that I can't really understand. Or, perhaps I DO understand it; it provides Astro with metal minions to mash during the battle at the end of this segment. But I don't get why Dr. Tempo would want to send back all of these buildings and gear. If someone, ANYONE, could unlock the secrets of the robots and their accompanying machines, then wouldn't that "tear" the proverbial "hole" in "the fabric of time" and irretrievably influence the future? Even the clueless Shifty finds it easy enough to direct the robots to attack Canute's castle. Dr. Tempo is mad, I get it, but, as the saying goes, he's not stupid. (BTW, I didn't realize that robots could feel pain in their posteriors like that.)

Marvin's funny attempt to hypnotize Astro provides the last direct conflict between science and magic... and, as before, science doesn't exactly win. All that knocks Marvin out of the game is a simple principle of reflection. A clever climax, but not really on a par with Gyro and Moorloon "making up" and combining their abilities to stop Lesdred's invasion of Quackalot.

Another bit of marvelous animation: Elefun and Astro's return to the present through a wormhole, or through the auspices of LSD, or something. You can see the same animation when Dr. Tempo sends the duo back in time. Rather ambitious and effective for a mid-60s b&w series, wouldn't you say?

I wonder how Dr. Tempo managed to cow all the other employees of the Institute of Science into letting him have the director's chair. Perhaps it's everyone's day off and he's simply pretending to run the show in his own bubbly little world? Yes, that would fit his loony m.o., all right. The confrontation with Tempo is over a little quickly and the ending is rather weak, but this episode holds up exceptionally well... as do a large number of the other Astro Boy eps I've watched, including some of the more crudely animated ones. I'll try to bring some of the more notable Astro's to you from time to time as I progress through the Kimba oeuvre.

Next time: Back to "Kimba" with Episode 11, "Catch 'Em if You Can."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kimba Konnections: (1) From Atom to Astro... and Beyond? (2) The Proto-Pauley?

In order to supplement my reviews of Kimba the White Lion episodes, I've been diligently searching the 'net for interesting tidbits about the talented crew who gave vocal life to these wonderful characters (and, I should also remind you, did virtually all of the writing, as well). I've uncovered some real gems -- including a play written by Billie Lou Watt (yes, really!) -- and will be sharing them with you from time to time. Here are two good ones involving Billie Lou and Gilbert Mack.

Review of "E = MC Squared" by Leon Morse,
VARIETY, June 15, 1948

E = MC Squared, described as a "living newspaper on atomic energy" (doesn't that sound like something a Bill Walsh character would have created in a late-40s MICKEY MOUSE strip?) was an "experimental theater" production starring E.G. Marshall and a bunch of spear-carriers... with one B.L. Watt receiving third billing. Here's why:

"A charming atom"... was this an early appearance of what would become the voice of Astro Boy and, later, Kimba? It wouldn't surprise me. Billie Lou was very active in radio commercials as well as stage work during this period. Her stage career was considered promising enough that she received two write-ups in LOOK magazine (issues of 1/22/46 and 6/24/47). I don't have those, but perhaps I can get them from ebay or some other source and share them with you.

Also during the 1940s and 1950s, Gil Mack mixed extensive work on radio with stints recording for Little Golden Records. One of these gigs was a sound presentation of the classic Little Golden Book THE SAGGY BAGGY ELEPHANT (1947), the tale of the hapless pachyderm who is heckled for his looks before meeting other elephants that make him feel like he fits in. One of the main hecklers is a noisy parrot, voiced by guess who:

The voice is a little higher, but it's definitely a call-forward to Pauley Cracker.  And, yes, "Mitchell Miller" is indeed the famed "Sing-Along" guy.

This coming weekend: We take an ASTRO BOY BREAK before getting back to KIMBA.

Comics Review: CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS #5 (April 2011, kaboom!)

For those of you (provided you actually exist) who wish the Rescue Rangers' "universe" were more like Darkwing Duck's, the new C&DRR story arc, premiering with this issue's "Stranger Danger," appears to be created with you in mind. A pack of Nega-Rangers tasked (by themselves or someone else, I don't know which yet) with "disposing" of the regular Rangers! A family of Muddlefoot-esque rodents! Mindless mayhem in the form of a jerry-built threshing machine that the "Danger Rangers" use to... er, thresh stuff! Bizarre gaggery with Gadget using Chip and Dale's "unique chipmunk ability" to cram loads of stuff into their cheek-pouches and create a giant wad of gum that stops the DR's monster machine dead in whatever tracks it was making! Things got so Darkwing-like, I made a special check... and, no, while Ian Brill is still writing this book, James Silvani has not begun to draw it (though he does provide the "B" cover to the issue). Instead, Leonel Castellani draws the first three pages before giving way to someone named Ricardo Garcia. I'm not ready to ask for Garcia's head to be brought to me... yet. The characters tend to lunge on- and off-model, but, on balance, Garcia's work isn't too terrible. I do hope that Castellani returns quickly, however.

The brutal simplicity of "Stranger Danger"'s plot -- Danger Rangers cause mayhem with an infernal device, several Rescue Rangers (Monty and Zipper) are imperiled as a result, Gadget tinkers her way to a rescue -- leaves plenty of "wiggle room" for asking all kinds of irritating questions about where, exactly, this arc will go. Why are the DRs bent on "disposing" of our heroes? (That point isn't even entirely clear; the Gadget-equivalent, a dark-haired mouse chick with rings in her ears, seems to be more interested in meeting Gadget than mashing her. Likewise, the "Monty-dark," a muscular tortoise named Orgo, seems quite pleased to watch Monty in action... before trying to slice him to bits, that is.) Since the DRs evidently know where the RRs hang out -- they wouldn't have started on their attention-grabbing joyride in this neck of the park besides -- why didn't they simply find out where the RRs live and zero in on them? Or is the whole point behind their name that, while our Rangers exist to help people in trouble, the DRs exist to get people into trouble, even as a side effect? That would definitely be a Negaduck-style twist. In contrast to "Worldwide Rescue," where the reassembling of the Super Key was made the focal point from the start, this story could literally go in any direction. It'll be interesting to see where Brill takes it.

As for the aforementioned Muddlefoot types -- to wit, sports supplies (for rodents?) salesman Ed Burrowgood and his vacation-seeking nuclear family, complete with wide-eyed tot and slacker son -- they are brought on stage primarily to serve as an excuse for two con-artist rats, who will evidently be the Chip and Dale placeholders of the DRs, to make fools of the real C&D by making the latter look bad. This business was actually reasonably funny, despite the obvious attempt to stretch the Darkwing parallels too far. The only negative was that the rats behaved pretty much the same, whereas the pair really should consist of distinct types. Perhaps a further elaboration of their characterizations will be provided in future installments.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"From Szeged to Innsbruck"

This weekend, Nicky and I visited my Mom in Wilmington and took home a hardback copy of a very special Barat family document -- my Dad's journal describing his escape from Hungary to Austria in 1949. We had had it translated from Hungarian some years ago, but we wanted to put it into some sort of permanent form. This hardback edition includes lots of pictures of my Dad and his family dating back to his childhood and his time in the Jesuit order, plus a foreword and afterword by Mom.

All of the grandkids are getting copies as well. They will never get to meet Dad, but now they'll know his remarkable story.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 10, "Two Hearts and Two Minds"

It was clear from their first meeting in "Battle at Dead River" that Kimba and Kitty were fated to be together, and the highly enjoyable "Two Hearts and Two Minds" wastes little time in taking the lions' relationship to the proverbial "next level." Kimba's concern for Kitty's safety leads him to leave his jungle and serve as a "free agent of justice" for the first, but certainly not the last, time. As a "perk" of the trip, we get glimpses into the past lives of Pauley Cracker and Kimba's parents. Not much to dislike here -- except, well...

Disclaimer: The actions of human beings in this episode are not meant to represent the actions or attitudes of ALL human beings. Some human beings are NOT gun-toting maniacs, warmongers, tyrants, and/or firebugs. The Management thanks you for your patience and understanding in this matter.

Remarkably, this won't be the only time that a plot is set in motion by a piece of baggage dropped from an airplane (cf. the later "Diamonds in the Gruff"). The obvious question arising from this opening sequence is, why doesn't Kimba go to "rescue" Kitty right away? Well, he's obviously confused and/or puzzled, and who wouldn't be? Despite Kitty's look of fright in the picture, she is not in any clear danger, and Kimba has never before departed his jungle kingdom for voluntary outside adventures (the shanghai job in "The Wind in the Desert" doesn't count, of course). Ultimately, his unquestioned subconscious attraction to/desire for Kitty, so memorably displayed in his clay-tinted dream, his night-sweats, and the much-discussed "palpitations of the heart," points him in the right direction, though it takes some additional verbal prodding from Dan'l Baboon, Pauley, and Bucky to finally get him to go. This sequence is handled in just the right way, getting its points across with relatively sparse dialogue.

In the depiction of the lantern-jawed Director's Assistant (Gilbert Mack), we get the first hint that humans are not going to come off well in this episode. Getting the bag back by shooting Bucky would seem a rather distasteful act, but this guy seems to relish the prospect. With Kimba in his sights, he appears to get even more excited. And if you think this was an overreaction under the circs, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The funny/tragic/semi-absurd tale of Pauley and Pauline (Billie Lou Watt) raises a lot of interesting questions. Was the city in which Pauley's hotel was located the same "city near the coast" where Kimba washed ashore and later met Roger Ranger and Mr. Pompus, as described in "Fair Game"? It would seem reasonable to me, especially since Caesar's jungle kingdom appears to be a stone's throw (or grenade's lob) away. Do hotel managers in that part of the world routinely have guns at hand that shoot plastic bags suitable for trapping macro-sized vermin? Do even mild-mannered-looking pet-shop owners eagerly pack heat at a moment's notice? And have you EVER seen as extreme a deus ex machina as the war that breaks out just in time to save Pauley's hide? (That's the fastest-growing "no man's land" I've ever seen, by the way.) It's hard not to feel sorry for Pauley, or not to feel outraged at the dreadful show that the human characters put on here. It's enough to convince one to, as Ralph Kramden said in that letter to his boss, "turn in your membership card in the human race."

One has to admit that Caesar comes off a bit like a bully when he meets the heart-broken Pauley. This is probably the biggest difference between Kimba and his father. Caesar is the pioneer who takes the lead in building a better animal civilization, and, as we all know from stories of the American frontier, pioneers can be a bit rough around the edges. Kimba's sojourn in civilization has "put him more in touch with his softer side," as the pop psychologists say. For all his abruptness, Caesar must have a softer side somewhere; otherwise he wouldn't have fallen for Snowene so quickly. He just has a harder time showing it. (Did an episode of Dr. Phil just break out?)

Pauley's experience in civilization helps to explain some of the more subtle elements of his personality. Living in a city has given the parrot the patina of sophistication, but the extent of his knowledge is limited, no doubt because his master wouldn't let him off that perch. Remember his "France is the capital of..." knowledge-mangling in "Fair Game" and his goofed-up mention of the "heepticopter" in Part One here. Also, as Kimba's "Are you kidding me?" reaction and Bucky's open scoffing at the start of Pauley's tale reveal, Pauley clearly has a tendency to... exaggerate for effect, no doubt partially due to his opinion that he knows more than he really does. This isn't the sarcastic braggadocio of Aladdin's Iago, quite, but it's along the same lines. Happily, it's usually harmless, rebounding against Pauley and no one else. It also can be used for good; witness Pauley's memorable over-the-top tantrum in the third act of "Jungle Thief."

Upon reaching Kitty's jungle, we meet Herr Director from Hell (Ray Owens), who immediately pitches into a hilarious dialogue with the hapless Lantern Jaw over the propriety of using an orangutan in an African shoot. This routine could almost be considered a meta-comment on the series' questionable but defiantly consistent use of animals that, in all honesty, shouldn't appear in a show set in Africa.

Herr Director finally got his chance at an Oscar when
the award for Best High Jump was instituted.

Herr Director's mindless manipulation of nature to suit his own purposes is taken to its natural extreme when he orders the "chungle fi-yah" that serves as the major danger in act three. Judging by Lantern Jaw's reaction, he must be a closet firebug on the order of Carl Barks' Benzene Banzoony. Roger Ranger would have to be in the next ten episodes in order to make up for the damage these fine specimens of humanity have done to our collective reputations in this episode. (Unfortunately, the next ep will be almost as bad in that regard.)

In a sense, Kitty gets the best of both worlds during the climactic action; she gets a chance to pitch into the humans herself before Kimba does and thereby earns permission to play "damsel in distress" after she's captured and caged. Kimba's dramatic vocalization in the helicopter would have had more impact had he not been seen conversing easily with James Brawn in "The Wind in the Desert" (can we just write most of that episode off as "fiction" and be done with it?), and, after all the movie crew have done, warning that he "might get mad" falls a little flat. Here is where some Caesar-like harshness would have been entirely appropriate, especially after we see that last shaky hand raise the pistol from behind the sandbags (in a helicopter?). Instead, the men get to "run away" sight unseen, leaving the rest of the episode to the funny Pauline payoff and the brief, but charming, scene with Kimba and Kitty indirectly expressing their love for each other. A neat, decidedly heartfelt episode.

Up next: Episode 11, "Catch 'em If You Can"... BUT FIRST, a few new "Kimba Konnections" to report, plus an ASTRO BOY BREAK!

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #402 (April 2011, kaboom!)

Yes, you read that correctly -- the lower-case "k" and all. kaboom! has gone the dynamite, and the old Boom! Kids label has been officially replaced with what is no doubt intended to be a groovier, ginchier form of product branding. I don't know; when I hear the word "Kaboom," I immediately think of a WIC-approved cereal. At least the awkward mixture of Boom! Kids and Boom! Studios titles that grew out of the expansion of the Boom! Disney comics line has been discontinued, and all titles are now literally on the "same page."

Brand-new branding its stylish Marco Rota cover may bear, but this first kaboom! ish is strictly old-school UNCLE $CROOGE fare. Indeed, if you had to pick a quintessential Carl Barks "ducks traveling the world in search of lost treasures" story, "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone" (U$ #10, June 1955) would surely be on the short list. Don Rosa's caboosing one of his best Barks "sequels," "A Letter from Home" (aka "The Old Castle's OTHER Secret"), onto "Stone"'s backside only adds bonus points to what is one of Carl's best-beloved efforts. As the Ducks scramble all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean trying to track down the whereabouts of "the stone that turns all metals gold" -- trailed at every turn by the diminutive, dogged Monsieur Mattressface of the "International Money Council" -- Barks gently educates the readers without clobbering them over the head with too much book-larnin'. The "Duck Man" does slip once by positing the existence of a Roman "Emperor" long after the fall of the Western Empire -- it would have made sense had the 12th-century scholar who had possession of the stone brought it to Byzantium. This is only a minor fault, however. The Ducks' braving of the legendary Labyrinth is one of the classic Barksian set-pieces, and Scrooge -- of course -- is forced to give up his great prize in the end, in this case because it might literally destroy him by turning him to gold. The best aspect of the story, it seems to me, is the manner in which HD&L track down Scrooge after Monsieur Mattressface has informed them of the danger of using the stone too much. The boys realize that Scrooge wouldn't buy metal to turn to gold, he would go where metal is free for the taking, and they head their uncle off at the junkyard. Little character-based touches like these are what make the best Barks stories special... and this is most certainly one of the best.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Review: ENDGAME: BOBBY FISCHER'S RISE AND FALL by Frank Brady (Crown, 2011)

Frank Brady, author of PROFILE OF A PRODIGY, one of the best books on the rise of Bobby Fischer to the World Chess Championship in 1972, is "back at the board" with a full-length general-reader biography that completes Fischer's bizarre odyssey to (and beyond?) "the edge of madness" and the man's pathetic end as a stateless, anti-Semitic quasi-hermit in Iceland, the site of his great victory. Brady certainly knows as much about this strange genius as anyone, and he does deliver a readable book, but the end product is not what it could have been, thanks in large part to Brady's patchy (to put it mildly) and occasionally cynical (to put it harshly) use of material from PRODIGY. A "newbie" unfamiliar with chess literature will no doubt have a more positive opinion of the work.

To give him his due, Brady does expand upon some events that were only touched upon in the earlier book. He gives a good description of Bobby's childhood and fleshes out such incidents as young Bobby's appearance on the TV game show I've Got a Secret in the late 1950s, but skims over some others that would appear to be particularly germane to the theme of Fischer the tortured genius. Why not more on Ralph Ginzburg's ATLANTIC MONTHLY interview with Fischer from 1961, a piece which did considerable damage to Fischer's reputation very early in his career? Brady describes the Fischer who appeared in that portrait as "homophobic" and "misogynistic" but doesn't give us any particulars. When the subject turns to Fischer's amazing run through the qualifying rounds prior to his 1972 duel with Boris Spassky, Brady suddenly "becomes a camera," reproducing entire passages from PROFILE verbatim. Other writers have been able to dig up much more information on the Fischer-Spassky match (especially now that the old Soviet archives have been opened) and produce highly enjoyable works. The fact that Brady did not avail himself of these new data was highly disappointing.

Fischer's post-1972 life makes profoundly depressing reading, and Brady's book is at its most interesting (in a perverse sort of way) here. While he had a certain ability to charm people, Fischer's devouring need to control all aspects of his environment ultimately drove all but the most loyal of his compatriots away. His late-in-life anti-Americanism (e.g. his notorious cheering for "death to America" after 9/11) is attributed in part to a late detonation of warnings about "FBI snooping" passed on by Fischer's leftist mother, but the cynic in me is more inclined to blame his legal quarrels over money and unwillingness to pay taxes. (This is, after all, a man who wanted to be paid more for a chess championship defense than Muhammad Ali and George Foreman got for their "Rumble in the Jungle.") There is something touching in Fischer's desire to find romantic love as he aged, but in all other respects he is a particularly noxious example of how genius can destroy itself from within. I certainly think that there will be better Fischer biographies in the future, but this is a good "first draft" of Fischer's twisted history.