Sunday, August 28, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 29: "The Nightmare Narcissus"

Things looked dicey for a while there insofar as a Kimba posting this week was concerned, but the damage from Irene was less than expected, and the power outages were limited to a few seconds at a time. So I'm back with the last posting before the academic year begins... which, ironically enough, is about an episode in which the forces of unnatural nature threaten Kimba's kingdom.

The old OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE listings would have flagged "The Nightmare Narcissus" as "drug use motif." Oddly enough, the jungle animals' falling victim to the effects of the mind-altering scent of a monster plant isn't the creepiest aspect of this tale, not by a long shot. That particular palm goes, petals down, to the completely bizarre appearance of the giant narcissus, which looks nothing like a true narcissus but instead could give Audrey her/itself a stiff challenge in the "comically horrible" sweepstakes, with its cackling, ravenous mouth and poofy lips. Since the plant turns out to be the product of human genetic engineering, besting it would seem to be an ideal place for Roger Ranger to lend a helping hand (as opposed to the somewhat contrived way in which he has served a deus ex machina purpose in several other eps). What I like about the ep is the fact that Kimba and friends ultimately rely on their own efforts, their native wits, and a slice or two of good fortune to get the job done.

The opening "under the influence" scenes just go on and on... and we'll be getting more of them later in the episode. Normally, I'd knock these as excessive filler, but they do perform a service, setting the tale's decidedly creepy tone. The "scary Kimba" we see here has clearly lost his wits and so isn't quite as frightening as, say, the "newly carnivorous Kimba" seen in the nightmare sequence in "The Insect Invasion." But he's certainly disturbing enough.

This is Sniffer's biggest role by far. The snuffling sage (with yet another different voice, this one a slightly "lunkish" one by Gilbert Mack) gets the distinct honor of accompanying Kimba to the first encounter with the narcissus, and his reason for doing so is entirely believable. I'm not sure what kind of animal Sniffer is; he makes reference to a "dogcatcher" later on, but he doesn't look anything like a wild dog, much less a domesticated one. Perhaps he was genetically engineered, too? During the opening sequence, watch for a brief "fourth wall" moment when the addled Sniffer literally breaks through the background at one point.

Kimba and Sniffer have good fortune to thank for their escaping the first narcissus, but Kimba quickly shifts into proactive mode once he learns of the sinister mission of visiting evil scientist Dr. Mendel Spees (Ray Owens).  BEST... VILLAIN'S NAME... EVER!! Sorry to say, that's the best thing that the good/bad Doctor has going for him. His characterization will turn out to be a bit of a train wreck before all is said and done, so his inexplicably driving his jeep over a cliff and crashing is a foreshadowing of sorts. Evidently, Dr. Spees didn't have the same advance scouting that Professor Madcap of "The Flying Tiger" enjoyed, so he doesn't know anything about Kimba or his kingdom (though he is another human who isn't fazed by Kimba's ability to speak). Not that it would have mattered much if he had.

Kimba's assault on Dr. Spees -- complete with the strangely cartoony "turning red all over" bit -- is vicious enough as it is, but it was actually toned down by the Titan crew. In the original script, Kimba responded to Roger's intervention by threatening to hurt his longtime friend if he got too close. By contrast, the dealings with Professor Madcap now seem like a reasonable palavar over a polished conference table. The big difference, I think, is that Madcap sought Kimba out and asked him if he wanted wings, whereas Spees goes the "lab rat" route.

Thanks to Spees' dumb-as-dirt revelation about the narcissus seed, the animals get a chance to seek out the second narcissus before it grows enough to find them. We still wind up getting yet another long "under the influence" scene, though Kimba, given fair warning this time, uses force of will to fight off the deadly scent. Seeing as how Claw was able to decimate the non-drugged, Kimba-less jungle population in "Gypsy's Purple Potion," Kimba's mass beatdown here loses at least some of its ability to impress, but perhaps Kimba deserves extra credit for having to overcome the effects of the narcissus on his subjects. We know that Spees must have been mightily impressed, because he does a completely un-telegraphed 180 ("Good has triumphed over evil... OH, THOSE POOR ANIMALS!") in a rather ham-handed effort to turn him into a Madcap-figure of sorts. It doesn't work, nor does it deserve to.

I really appreciate the idea that the animals discover and exploit the secret of static electricity for themselves, as opposed to having Roger play Mr. Whoopee. Kimba doesn't have any real reason to feel sheepish when Roger gives the more technical expo after the fact. Besides, Dan'l had already discovered a way to protect the animals from the scent, otherwise the animals wouldn't have been able to safely get close enough to the plant in order to find out the plant's weakness. Kimba also got plenty of aid when he physically attacked the flower in order to distract it from discovering "where's the rub." So, despite Kimba's quick insight, this truly was a team triumph.

Spees' revelation that he works for "the Reds" leads me to believe that the "enemy troops" he'd wanted to attack with the narcissus were nothing less than our troops in Vietnam at the time. This political affiliation might also help explain Spees' schizoid behavior; after all, he's used to cogitating in "doublethink."

Overall, just an OK episode, but hang on: we're ramping up to another fairly lengthy stretch which includes a number of classic or near-classic efforts.

Up next: Episode 30, "Adventure in the City."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hatch-Down-Battening Update

Irene is coming and we're hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. Stevenson has already cancelled opening-day classes on Monday; let's hope that's the extent of the disruption. As for losing power, we've got our fingers crossed, but also have an arsenal of lanterns, flashlights, and such at the ready. If you have to deal with this, good luck and be careful!

Book* Review: HARRY THE K: THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF HARRY KALAS by Randy Miller (Running Press, 2010)

* Of the electronic persuasion, that is. This is the first book that I've purchased and read on my recently acquired Kindle. Nicky has had one for some time, but, occasional technophobe and full-time nickle-nurser that I am, it took some persuading on her part -- along with a fall in the device's price, of course -- before I was willing to take the plunge. By that time, there was an ulterior motive, as well. Some of you know that I've been working on a book -- a history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament -- since some time between the date of the Earth's cooling and the good Dr. Naismith's finalization of the rules. At least, it seems that long sometimes. In any event, after trying to place the book with several publishers but having no success, I've decided to go the e-route and publish it to Amazon in Kindle-ready format (in parts, to be sure -- it's MUCH too long to be published as a single e-entity). In order to do this the right way, I wanted to make sure that I understood Kindle formatting and other issues related to electronic publication. Getting one of the things seemed like a logical way to start.

Oh, the review... This is a warts-and-all biography of the much-loved Phillies' radio and TV broadcaster, presented with honesty but no sense whatsoever of score-settling. We learn of Kalas' generosity to fans, colleagues, and the wider community, but also learn the details of his drinking, his womanizing, and a nasty feud with fellow Phillie broadcaster Chris Wheeler. I had heard about the latter from afar, having moved away from the Philadelphia area by that time, but it appears to have been far more unpleasant than I'd suspected. Author Miller is a newspaper reporter, and it shows sometimes to a rather troubling degree; the start of each chapter reads very much like the start of a brand-new column, with characters being reintroduced to us on a constant basis. This made the narrative flow of the book rather awkward. There are a number of typos and factual errors, as well. Still, there is much to enjoy here, especially for a Phillies' fan.

I distinctly recall watching the TV broadcast of the opening of Veterans Stadium in 1971, which was also the first time that Harry appeared as a Phillies' broadcaster. I subsequently spent more than a little time during my teenage years in the audiovisual company of Harry, Richie "Whitey" Ashburn, Andy Musser, Wheeler, and, later, a just-learning-the-ropes Tim McCarver -- easily, the best baseball broadcast team that I ever heard. Harry's career, of course, was much more diverse than most, as he also did voiceovers for NFL Films, NFL game broadcasts, various national and local commercials, Philadelphia Big Five basketball, and even Notre Dame basketball and (replay) football broadcasts. After missing a chance to broadcast the 1980 World Series due to network restrictions, a much older, clearly-flagging Harry finally cashed in by getting to do the 2008 Fall Classic. He died the following Spring, in the broadcast booth before a game in Washington. He will always be missed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

kaboom! Goes the Dynamite -- FOR REAL??

DUCKTALES #4, the immediate successor to the utter disaster that was DT #3, was originally scheduled to be released this week. Curious thing, though... I could find no sample preview of the issue on the Boom! Web site or anywhere else. I checked the "Extended Forecast" lists at ComicList (see link below) and was presented with this shiny nugget of news:

DUCKTALES #4: Release date TBD (to be determined)
DUCKTALES #5: Release date 9/14/2011
DUCKTALES #6 (last issue): Release data 10/12/2011

Wuh-oh! I've never seen anything like this in my time. (Perhaps someone more familiar with the Whitman Comics "plastic bag" era has; Joe, David, how about you?) Since #4 is the final issue of the "Rightful Owners" arc, something major must be up here. A couple of suggestions for the delay, suggested by me and others on the Disney Comics Forum:

(1) DT #4 was SO HORRIBLY DREADFUL that even Boom! wasn't willing to try and release it, especially in light of the fallout from DT #3.

(2) Someone at Disney got wind of the abysmal quality of DT #3 and nixed the publication of DT #4 until it could be reviewed for, as they say, "quality control purposes."

(3) Disney may be so appalled by DT #3 that it pulled the plug on kaboom! Disney comics two months before the scheduled end of the line.

What say you?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #15 (August 2011, kaboom!)

Well, THIS title certainly isn't embarrassing itself as the kaboom! Disney line recedes slowly into that good night. Then again, what would you expect from a "flapping terror" who tends to inhabit said night?

The issue is a decided step up from the somewhat meandering #13 and #14, finally locking in the arc's main villain and also featuring a whole bunch of guest-starring villains, mostly from the shallower end of the DARKWING-foe wading fool. The appearances of a couple of "off-site" characters, however, come as a total surprise...



Hands up: who had The Phantom Blot making an appearance in DARKWING DUCK even BEFORE any sort of crossover arc began? Anyone? And he's not even wearing his trademark cloak, but instead is in civvies as "Bob" (I suspect a reference to this story may be intended), an unscrupulous "campaign adviser" to DW and Launchpad's desperate political foe, Constance X. Dention. Why The Blot should even care about the identity of St. Canard's Mayor is beyond me at this point, but Mickey's great foe evidently thought the matter important enough to plant the seeds of super-villainy in the minds of One-Shot and Cat-Tankerous. I would buy the notion of The Blot leaving ink everywhere he touches a bit more easily if the semi-liquid Blot of ULTRAHEROES lore were responsible, though.

We also get a surprise appearance from Doofus well in advance of what I anticipated would be his return in the DW/DT crossover. Doofus was famously mischaracterized in a number of his comics appearances, such as the ones written for the Disney Studio program by Vic Lockman, but this is easily his most "recognizable" appearance outside of his role in Bob Langhans' "The Gold Odyssey." (We're also teased with a possible appearance by Gyro Gearloose and his Helper, but that turns out to be a somewhat contrived "red herring.")

Right now, oddly enough, the Blot doesn't appear to be the biggest threat DW faces. That particular dishonor goes to Suff-Rage, the purple-Q-tip-headed babe whom we saw ranting in several panels of #14. In order to test DW's mettle, Suff-Rage gladdens the hearts of DW "fanboys" and "fangirls" everywhere by bringing back a whole bunch of "Barely-Remembered Supervillains," including Tuskernini, Jambalaya Jake and Gumbo, Lillyputt (that's the way I spell it), Moliarty, and The Bugmaster. Actually, I should think that Tuskernini and Moliarty would be insulted at being lumped in with those other folks, especially since they were originally supposed to be two of the major villains in the TV series. And it's a real stretch to call Jambalaya Jake a supervillain of any kind (heck, he barely qualifies as a villain). Still, it's great to see these characters again, even if they did turn out to be "figments of the imagination."

I have little doubt that Suff-Rage, whatever her present form, will turn out to be Morgana; I can't imagine Ian Brill letting the missing-Morgue plot thread hang past the end of the arc. But it would be a shame to limit The Blot's contribution to this arc to "mere" campaign-related shenanigans. That would be like using the proverbial elephant gun to shoot at mosquitoes. This arc hasn't been quite as consistently interesting as the others, but I have faith in Brill and James Silvani to steer us home in an entertaining fashion. Such could not be said of the creators of other kaboom! Disney comics I could name...




Old Walt Disney TV Animation hand Mike Peraza has recently posted some interesting material related to Double-O-Duck, the prototype for Darkwing. Check it out here. In my clippings file, I have only one such piece of artwork: this illustration from a January 1, 1990 article in ELECTRONIC MEDIA magazine.

It's interesting to note that the proto-Gosalyn in this pic has the same pigtails as the one in the "tomboy bakes a cake" sketch from Peraza's site. Evidently, it took a while to (1) simplify the character's design just a bit, (2) give Gosalyn red hair. In color, the original version of Gos looks a little like a cross between a pigtailed Webby and a female version of Gene, the genie character in DuckTales: The Movie.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 28: "The Wild Wildcat"

"The Wild Wildcat" certainly isn't the best episode of Kimba, but it's probably my personal favorite, the one I never get tired of watching. Here are three main reasons why:
(1)  Kimba, after so many episodes in which his "direct" leadership skills (decision-making, fighting, etc.) take center stage, finally gets to employ some "indirect" psychological "strategery" to accomplish a goal. Aside from being fun to watch, this illustrates (yet again) just how different Kimba is from his father Caesar. It's impossible to imagine Caesar handling the bad-boy Wiley Wildcat (Hal Studer) in anything like the manner that Kimba handles him here. This flexibility speaks well for the future success of Kimba's civilizational enterprise... though, as we'll see, he could have laid the groundwork for his unusual gambit just a little more expertly.

(2)  Hal Studer's Wiley Wildcat simply MAKES this episode. In their history of Kimba, Fred Patten and Robin Leyden make the point that Studer, who was added to the production team primarily to voice Roger Ranger, "wasn't a 'man of a thousand voices' as a good voice actor has to be." That was pretty much true, as far as it went, up to this point in the series. However, with Wiley, Studer begins to show that his "chops" aren't quite as limited as all that. I've been watching online eps of The Flying House, in which Studer has far greater voicing responsibilities, and can vouch for the fact that Studer handles multiple voice changes extremely well in that series. "The Wild Wildcat" may, in truth, have been Studer's breakout ep as a legit voice actor, though the full fruits of that revelation wouldn't be harvested until a decade-plus later.
(3) For a tale prominently featuring a semi-comedic supporting player in Wiley -- a character whose broader attributes could have easily tipped the scenario over into farce or slapstick -- the episode includes some shockingly savage moments: a possible attempted rape (!!!), an attempt at vigilante justice, and dramatic night-terrors. You can easily imagine a Wiley-like character turning up in a mid-60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon and causing comedic chaos, but he certainly wouldn't have gone through the wrenching transition that Wiley does here. Rarely do we get a clearer picture of the essential difference between Kimba and many of its animated contemporaries on American TV.

We start with another memorable nocturnal curtain-raiser, albeit one with an immediate continuity goof (the food that Wiley swipes from the busily "fourthmealing" chimps suddenly changing from fruit to some sort of liquid). I assume that Kimba overheard Kitty's cries for help before being alerted by Bucky, which would explain why he's sufficiently steamed to resort to ramming the tree in which Wiley is perched. The "lunar revelation" is pretty much a waste of time -- even when he's a shadowy figure, we can already see that Wiley is some sort of cat -- but this scene effectively establishes Wiley's antagonistic, semi-anarchic character without a lot of explanatory verbiage.

Kitty probably concealed some of the details of Wiley's attack when telling Kimba and the others, but the sheer gratuitousness of the assault (after all, Wiley could just as easily have grabbed his food and run away after Kitty addressed him) makes it all but certain that it was at least partially sexual in nature. Of course, had Kitty spilled all the beans right away, Wiley wouldn't have lasted beyond the first commercial break. As for Kitty's established fighting skills (cf. "Battle at Dead River," "Two Hearts and Two Minds"), I imagine that Wiley simply caught her by surprise, else she'd have put up a much fiercer struggle.

After Kimba is charged by his lady love to forgive Wiley, some of the other animals who didn't get the memo apparently attempt to subject the caged Wiley (so who constructed that cage, anyway? The "Omnipresent Yet Unseen Builder Guy"?) to a jungle version of a lynching. Pauley and Bucky's participation in the vigilantism is somewhat strange in that they were present when Kitty issued her request, so they shouldn't be so surprised when Kimba reminds them of Kitty's wish. Would Pauley getting hit by a rock do that much to change Bucky and Pauley's minds? Knowing Pauley's temper, I suppose it's not impossible. And it gets worse; the "chase him away with a landslide!" business is pretty clearly a fig leaf to cover for an attempted stoning. Perhaps the other animals gleaned more from Kitty's story than we thought (or else the jungle "rumor mill" has been acting up like the "magical mill" in Don Rosa's "Quest for Kalevala"). In any event, Bucky and Pauley are quick to reverse course and sign off on Kimba's determination to make friends with Wiley. (Which, by the way, is not precisely what Kitty requested; you can forgive someone without befriending them, after all.) The out-of-nowhere "elephant stomp" (I suspect a cut here) is a fitting footnote to a decidedly queer scene.

Now Kimba steps well beyond the friendship initiative by inviting Wiley to stay with him at his lair... and sleeping close enough to the interloper that I can easily imagine activists starting a petition to have Kimba and Wiley "come out" like Bert and Ernie! I know that Kimba is devoted to Kitty and wants to respect her wishes, but this seems... excessive. The weird dream sequence with the "Mallet of God" (and does THAT seem like an appropriate trick for the decidedly Toonish Wiley to pull) features another cut, though you have to look quickly in order to glimpse the evidence:

So why is Kimba wearing boxing gloves here? *crickets...* Perhaps he got a few nocturnal licks in on Wiley, but the Titan crew considered the notion of Kimba fighting in such a manner to be distasteful. Heck, Kimba has punched foes before this with his bare paws, and we took no particular notice of it.

My all-time favorite "ROTFLMAO" moment from Kimba:

KIMBA: And this is our farm, where we grow food for the animals.

WILEY: Yeah. Sure.

Aside from being delivered perfectly by Studer, that second line deflates the whole noble notion of the animals' farm at one stroke. After Wiley does some more dirty deeds to further establish his badass bona fides, we get another classic line, Kimba's "'re gonna be my friend, like it or not!" This could have been much more risible than it is (and, in fact, Nicky always brings this line up to me as one of the reasons why she doesn't think much of Kimba), but Billie Lou Watt delivers it just right, with enough of a clenched-teeth sound to get across the extent to which Kimba's devotion to Kitty is clashing with his irritation at Wiley. For his part, Wiley could have "abandoned the field" long before now, so we already suspect that he is not quite as antagonistic towards Kimba as he's let on thus far.

"And what's more, I'm gonna give you birthday and Christmas presents every year, so there!"

We finally learn about "the roots of Wiley's rage" starting with the school scene (you know it's a good episode when the voice actors are singing this well). The Hanna-Barbera-ish "Heeeesssshhhh!" takes a little of the edge off Wiley's visceral reaction, but only a little. The ultimate revelation of Wiley's psychological torment is handled a bit crudely -- it was thoughtful of the wildcat to unwittingly uncover his past to Kimba in such complete, easily digestible sentences -- but it's worth it to hear Billie Lou's beautifully performed subsequent rumination about Kimba's mother, complete with flashbacks to "Go, White Lion!" Note that Kimba suddenly starts talking in a somewhat childlike manner when he remembers "the people [taking Snowene] away in the big ship that went down in the ocean." It's as if he is connecting with Wiley's scarred soul and trying to understand it as a child would. Wiley's need for love is far more affecting, I think, than Newton's simple need to establish honest relationships in "The Chameleon Who Cried Wolf." It certainly presents a challenge to Kimba...

... who responds with the "feline see, feline do" routine (throwing in a "sudden reappearance" worthy of Droopy for good measure) and subsequently bonds with Wiley in that spasm of random destruction, all to get on the wildcat's good/bad side. There's one big problem with this psychologically rich initiative: Kimba apparently does NOT fully clue the other animals in on what he's doing. This comes back to bite him in a big way when the hunters occupy the deserted village (guess Leona was on vacation, huh?) and Kimba's subjects are reluctant to buy his non-explanation as to why the interlopers suddenly became enraged. At least Wiley responds to Kimba's efforts by trying to butter him up a bit. That claim of his that he went into the camp to avenge Caesar, combined with the twisting of the knife regarding Kitty ("we couldn't be friends anymore, could we?"), sounds awfully manipulative to me, and Kimba apparently recognizes the fact (a dubious "Uh huh..." delivered perfectly by Billie Lou).

Wiley's subsequent leaf-turning actually comes in two stages: the obvious one (his decision to go back and save Kimba from the hunters) and a more subtle one, in which Wiley runs off because "I bring [Kimba] trouble." The latter demonstrates that Wiley really has developed a friendship with Kimba, though he's still not willing to admit it. With the rescue mission, by contrast, Wiley shows that he now knows how to live in community with others in a spirit of cooperation. The apology to Kitty completes the cycle (and also shows that Wiley has retained some of his more forceful traits, albeit in attenuated form), and we are led to assume that Wiley will take his place as a valued member of the jungle community... though, sadly, he will never be a featured player again.

The "fourth-wall-busting" paean to motherhood is a rather peculiar coda (and might be challenged by more than a few folks!), but this is a thoroughly satisfying episode that, like such previous classics as "Jungle Thief," keeps overt "pawsticuffs" to a minimum and concentrates instead on the emotional underpinnings of Kimba's rule and the traits that make Kimba such a wholly appealing protagonist. It's definitely on my "short list" of the best Kimba episodes.

Up next: Episode 29, "The Nightmare Narcissus".

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chicago et (non) Cetera

Two years after Hippiefest 2009, I, Nicky, and Nicky's uncle Jeff (this time, accompanied by Nicky's cousin Stephanie) finally followed up with another visit to Baltimore's Pier 6 for another nostalgia-flavored concert. Actually, Nicky and I did have one false start earlier in the Summer when we tried to attend a gig featuring Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. That was during the period of extremely hot weather, however -- if you live on the East Coast, then you probably remember which one -- and we couldn't stay past the end of McDonald's set. I can't say I enjoyed that experience. Seeing Chicago, however, more than made up for it. It was decaffeinated Chicago, to be sure, since lead vocalist Peter Cetera hasn't been with the band for some time, but everyone else was there, with considerably less hair and apparently mellower politics (they even displayed an American flag during the encore!) but still giving forth that distinctive and enjoyable horn-flavored sound.

Speaking of horns, that's where I have a connection to Chicago, of sorts. Supposedly, while the band was developing at DePaul University, they sought brass instruction from a young priest, Fr. George Wiskirchen. Fr. Wiskirchen later served as assistant band director at Notre Dame for three decades. When I attended ND, Fr. Wiskirchen directed me in the concert band and brass ensemble.

The band opened with "Make Me Smile" and pretty much played straight through for two hours or so, with occasional breaks for solo performances and the like. Breaking the official Pier 6 policy on videography, they invited the audience to take all the pictures and videos it wanted, since "it all winds up on Youtube in the end anyway." Matters were sufficiently relaxed that, as part of an ongoing benefit for Susan G. Komen for the cure, some schmo who had won an auction on the Chicago web site got to perform a dangerously realistic version of karaoke by signing the Cetera part in "If You Leave Me Now." He didn't do half badly, though his voice was about a half-octave lower than it needed to be, almost as if he were trying to "Elvis" the thing up.

Guest vocalists aside, there was far less "cheese" visible here than during Hippiefest, where several of the participants self-consciously treated their performances as something of a joke. The only tacky moment came when the band did "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" to promote their upcoming Christmas album. That wouldn't have been so bad, except that a lighted Christmas tree was carted on stage and the boys goofed around with it a bit, including a run-around-the-pine-perimeter routine ("Rockin' Around," get it?) that got positively Little Black Sambo-esque before the end. The song sounded good, at least, so I don't think we're looking at a Yuletide disaster of Dylan-esque proportions here. What made this so irritating in retrospect was that the band later only performed part of my favorite Chicago song, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" -- the fast part -- to end the performance. What's the point of doing the fast part without the slow part? It's like turning on the car and instantly accelerating to 55 mph. I would gladly have traded a couple of those scampers around the tree for a full version.

Are we ever going to see bands like Chicago again? I seriously doubt it. Music is simply another mass-produced item now; Nicky and I are constantly joking about how every young male or female singer sounds the same. As for rap and hip-hop, no comment. This "sunset glimpse," however, was great.

Monday, August 15, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 27: "The Chameleon Who Cried Wolf"

Finally have some time to get back to these. Remember that promise that I would be returning to the one-episode-per-week routine? Well, that's rescinded for just this one week. I plan to write up Episode 27 tonight and Episode 28 later this week.




In the next two episodes, we meet two of the most "memorable" one-shot characters that Kimba ever presented to us. I put "memorable" in quotes because the meaning of the word is different depending on the particular ep

Newton (Sonia Owens), the lying chameleon, is two characters in one (protective camouflage taken to an extreme?). He's extremely sympathetic on one level, but the other level is the "circle of Hell" into which you want the whiny, wheedling, kvetching little guy to be thrown, at least on occasion. The character's bifurcated nature proves equally frustrating for Kimba, who undergoes a minor sort of "meltdown" (which I'm sure the Titan crew softened up considerably from Mushi's original intention) and needs a verbal poke in the ribs from his girlfriend Kitty in order to get his head back on straight. Some of the aspects of the plot and the story structure are frankly inexplicable, if not downright irrational, so I can't honestly rate this as a first-class episode. But Newton alone certainly makes it "memorable." (There's that word again.)

There's a meaningful scene missing in Newton's opening "whine-o-logue" that would have helped to tee up his psychological predicament more effectively. Where the "Batman spin" was inserted here, there used to be a scene in which a hawk attacks a large snake at a waterfall. The foes battle and ultimately tumble, intertwined, into the foaming pit below. Without this setup to establish the world of "nature red in tooth and claw" within which Newton feels besieged, you get the impression that he's complaining about the mere SIZE of things.

Newton's "tear creation" gives away the store regarding his flexible honesty, but really, I would have preferred this to have been revealed by the character's later actions. Besides which, it's unnecessary, since Kimba has already welcomed him to the jungle. This is the first hint that Newton's lying has become an addiction of sorts, in the same sense that Dijon was hooked on thievery.

The first couple of tall tales that Newton spins illustrate a major problem with the episode -- the circumstances surrounding Newton's lies are not introduced in a particularly artful or logical way. The first one involving the ornery, mustachioed (huh?) Gaboo (Gilbert Mack) is introduced reasonably well, in the sense that we see Newton issue the initial fib, but Newton must be pretty fast to have been able to hide in the bush after telling all the other animals about Kimba's phony "plight" who knows how many meters away. The second phony scare, the one about the hunters, works less well; I'm a bit perturbed that no effort was made to explain how Newton started this latest rumor. Jumping from the animal train wreck to Kimba's browbeating of Newton is extremely jarring and makes Kimba look like more of a heavy than he really is (at least at this point).

At this point, Newton should probably be thankful that he isn't a bug.

Dan'l Baboon provides a segue into a sequence that winds up being an "origin story" for Newton's dishonesty, though it certainly doesn't seem so at the start; it begins as something of a symbolic montage (grasping trees, cloud monsters) of Newton's "sad life" in the wild before segueing into the real past. I gather from Newton's exchange with Gaboo that the characters already knew one another, so perhaps Newton was an inhabitant of Gaboo's neighborhood "down the river," and this fib-frenzy began only recently (which would explain why Gaboo was so bound and determined to get Newton to begin with). If so, then Newton's "fall from grace" was probably more like a plummet, as he now freely admits that he may be incapable of walking the straight and narrow, even when he wants to.

So Uncle Specklerex hasn't been feeling well? News to me. If Specklerex is under the physical weather, then Newton's psychological health appears to be ten times worse, as he lies to get out of playing with Kimba, Kitty, and the others, though he has absolutely no reason to, especially considering the "stakes" involved. Now Newton is acting like a pre-AA alcoholic with his "lying to himself."

I've watched the "Kitty attack... or whatever" sequence many, many times, and I'm still puzzled as to what the script was meant to convey. Did Tom, Tab, and Claw represent Newton's visualization of the lie he intended to tell, but wound up changing? Were the villains present at all? Did Newton see the three "nega-amigos," or did he see the same wolves as Kitty? My best guesses are that (1) Kitty really was attacked by Claw and his henchmen; (2) Newton didn't see Claw's gang or the wolves, because he was busy spinning his latest (unrelated) story; (3) Kitty managed to get away by herself and told Kimba so; (4) Kimba is cheesed off primarily because Newton's latest bid for attention may have caused him to be unaware of Kitty's peril. I'm at a loss to explain why the Titan crew couldn't convey such a relatively simple chain of events more effectively. Perhaps this ep was a rush job, or something. In any event, Kimba has now "had it up to the proverbial HERE" and we're ready for some Cat Scratch Fever.

This was a ticklish scene for Billie Lou Watt to pull off, and I think she performed it well. Using "you are" instead of "you're" in "now you are getting me very angry" was a good, subtle way to show that Kimba was trying to keep his temper in check without having him raise his voice. Then, when Kimba shows his fangs (and was probably making a serious threat to Newton's well-being in the original script), the impact is softened, but not entirely eliminated, by Kimba's sentence of banishment. For a small creature in need of protection from "The Law of the Jungle," what punishment could truly be more horrific than being ejected from the one jungle where such protection is guaranteed as a matter of course?

Kimba's "repentance" scene (from which I got my Blogger avatar, in case you didn't notice) includes a sudden cut from Kimba's "Oh!" moment to the flashback of Kimba and Dan'l discussing Newton's need for help. This also could have benefited from a dialogue cleanup, in that the subsequent scene shows Kimba loping with something of a downcast expression away from Kitty and Dan'l; it's almost as if he's slinking away in shame. Evidently, Kimba originally got a sharper reprimand from Kitty than the one the Titan gang provided. Perhaps she originally said "Some leader... don't you remember that you yourself promised to help Newton?" Works for me, especially since the search for Newton more logically begins with the shot of Kimba running at top speed. Billie Lou tried to mask this fact by giving the search a one-word false verbal start, but there really was no need to cover Kimba's posterior here. The damage had already been done, in a sense.

We now get the familiar Aesopian scenario of Newton finally telling the truth (about the wolves -- or, more accurately, jackals, but then, you've never heard of a story titled "The Boy Who Cried Jackal," have you?) and no one believing him. The interesting question here is why Kitty was the first to change her mind. You could always call her on being terminally naive, but my belief is that her status as an outsider made her more willing to entertain the possibility that Newton was being honest. She hadn't seen Newton in "dishonorable action" before that one banishment scene. "Pawsticuffs" ensue, with Newton finally discovering the extent of his "secret power" and mending his fences with Gaboo in the most directly meaningful way possible. Gaboo in turn shows his quality by forgiving the chameleon. After all of those confusing plot points, you certainly can't fault the nice, neat way in which the loose ends were tied up here.

Newton's post-battle offer to leave Kimba's jungle shows that he has a ways to go in the "building self-esteem" department... and, to be fair to him, Kimba never actually says that Newton is welcome to stay; he simply indicates that the animals will want to apologize and throw Newton the victory party. But I think it's safe to assume that Newton was, in fact, permitted to remain and will subsequently simply blend into the jungle background, much as he changes colors to match the tints of the different animals marching in the parade. Though I can think of a few eps in which that "tongue trick" might have come in handy...

Up next: Episode 28, "The Wild Wildcat."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN by Scott Miller (2011, Random House)

The most remarkable thing about Miller's eminently readable discussion of the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 is how little attention is paid to the deed itself. Miller is about more here than a "tick-tock" retelling of a sad event in American history; he places the assassination squarely in context by devoting the majority of the book to a survey of McKinley's highly consequential Presidency, the growth of the anarchist movement in the U.S., and the aimless Czolgosz' gradual absorption by the anarchist subculture. The Haymarket bombings and trial, the Cuban insurrection against Spain, the Spanish-American War, the career of Emma Goldman, and the establishment of an American empire are among the topics covered here, with chapters generally alternating between the McKinley material and the anarchist/Czolgosz matter. Once you get used to the book's structure, the narrative flows reasonably well. In intertwining the McKinley and anarchist threads, Miller in no way argues that Czolgosz -- who, while a shiftless loner, appeared to be eminently sane -- killed McKinley because of opposition to imperialism. However, the juxtaposition of the two stories leads the reader to wonder whether the social inequalities and unrest of the turn of the 20th century, coupled with what the American Left at the time thought was an unseemly grab for worldwide power by government and business working in harmony, provided the necessary spark for Czolgosz' solitary explosion.

I'm pleased to see that Miller resists the temptation to resort to common stereotypes and characterize McKinley as a cipher or a simple puppet of big business. McKinley was definitely in the Calvin Coolidge mold when it came to economics, but he had a distinctive common touch that the taciturn Coolidge generally lacked. His treatment of others -- especially his invalid wife -- was genuinely thoughtful and touching. He was also far from a passive spectator to the Spanish-American War, as some have claimed. As Miller demonstrates, once the pacifistic McKinley decided that the war with Spain needed to be prosecuted, he was willing to go beyond the war's original aims, with the result that America acquired the Philippines and Guam, in addition to carving out a distinctive "sphere of influence" in Cuba. It's not surprising that Americans reacted so vehemently to his death, with citizens of Buffalo (where the assassination took place) seriously threatening to lynch Czolgosz and the government casting a general dragnet for anarchists.

Like THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN, THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN is a choppy, but very valuable, window into 19th-century America.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT CHRISTIANITY by Dinesh D'Souza (Regnery, 2007)

I have to admit up front that I haven't read any of the works of the "New Atheist" authors who are the prime target of D'Souza's modern-day stab at a Christian apologetic on the order of C.S. Lewis' famous works. Taken strictly as a face-value argument that Christianity provides a more coherent and satisfying explanation for the natural world, human behavior, and human origins than atheism, D'Souza's work has a number of fairly obvious holes. Most of these relate to the fact that, while a number of his points in favor of religious belief score effectively, they might not convince a skeptic that a belief in Christianity necessarily must follow. For example, I agree with him that the "Big Bang" theory of the universe's origin is an exceptionally strong argument for some kind of "prime mover." Jumping from that to a belief in Christian doctrine is a "leap of faith" which some may not be able to make. Likewise, D'Souza makes good use of Immanuel Kant (and provides a nice refresher course in the ideas of the great philosopher, besides) in arguing that there are limits to what human reason can grasp, but is this a positive result arguing for the specific identity of what we can't grasp? Generally speaking, D'Souza is better at parrying the slings and arrows of atheist opponents than at racking up scoring thrusts of his own. As a Christian, that's not to say that I don't appreciate his efforts.

Where I believe that D'Souza is on absolutely solid ground is when he attacks the atheist "meme" that Christianity is guilty of uniquely monstrous historical crimes. Crimes there certainly were, but to try to explain away the mass murders by the totalitarian movements of the 20th century as some sort of indirect manifestation of the religious impulse, as some atheist writers have tried to do, is downright dishonest at its heart. Fascism and Communism were a perverted, secularized version of the religious impulse, rather than the real thing itself, and the scale of magnitude was immensely larger. Islamic radicalism is a sort of monstrous mutation of an actual religious faith with political radicalism and, as such, has provided a lot of the fuel for the atheist bandwagon in recent years. Christianity, however, continues to receive the lion's share of cultural criticism. While his arguments certainly could have been stronger, D'Souza's book repays reading by believers and nonbelievers of all stripes.

Ape Doubles Our RICHIE Pleasure

The other "white bootie" has dropped at Ape Entertainment. Starting in November, Ape's RICHIE RICH will become an ongoing series, AND the company is also restarting a Harvey-era RICHIE title (RICHIE RICH GEMS) to reprint some classic tales. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon will be providing new stories to the latter title. It seems a bit strange to me that RR GEMS will lead off with SUPER RICHIE reprints -- I'd think that Ape would want to remind folks of what the "genuine, original" Richie looked like first -- but if the stories are pulled from the earlier, more successful portion of the "Green and Yellow Tights & NO KEPS!" era, then I'll be happy.

My major hope regarding RR GEMS is that some serious effort is made to provide writer, artist, and original publication-date credits as a matter of course. Harvey tried to provide some credits in the late 80s and early 90s, during its "fin de semi-siecle" period, but the results always struck me as being rather "patchy." RR GEMS is a golden opportunity to educate a whole new generation of readers as to the entertainment value of the old comics, and I hope that Ape doesn't miss its chance to spotlight the great Harvey creators along the way.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A SUPERBOOK SIESTA: The Titan Crew Return in an Early-80s Bible-Themed Anime Series

I knew nothing about Superbook (or its sequel-of-a-sort series, The Flying House) until I met Ray and Sonia Owens in the mid-90s. The Owenses were living in Virginia Beach at the time, and that city, as you may know, is the headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN, working in tandem with Tatsunoko Studios -- the animation outfit that created Speed Racer -- originally created Superbook to proselytize Japanese families and teach them about the Bible. The show wended its way to many other countries as well, premiering in the U.S. in early 1982, and is still in circulation in numerous places. It's also been updated in CGI format (not too well, I'm told).

Reconstituted as Echo Productions, the Superbook production team reunited four of the five performers who'd worked on Astro Boy and Kimba all those years ago: Billie Lou Watt, her husband Hal Studer, and the Owenses. Only Gilbert Mack was not part of the rotation, and he still made occasional guest appearances. The Owenses' daughter, Helena van Koert, took Mack's place. Other "Americanized anime" hands such as Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr pitched in on occasion, making Superbook a delightful audio mashup of some of the most beloved anime series of the 60s.

In its first season, Superbook's structure was pretty basic: "Typical kid" Christopher Peeper (Billie Lou Watt) and his friend Joy (Sonia Owens) are whisked by the magical "Superbook" (the Bible) to various events in Biblical history, mostly drawn from the Old Testament. The kids, accompanied by their "guardian robot" Gizmo (Helena van Koert) -- who started life as one of Chris' toys (does that really make any sense?) -- interact with the Biblical heroes and play roles (sometimes shockingly significant ones) in the unspooling of many famous tales. The high degree of interaction between the kids and the Biblical figures must have made some people at CBN nervous. The second season completely rebooted the concept: now, Chris and Joy stayed at home and watched on a computer as Gizmo, Chris' dog Ruffles, and Joy's little brother, who'd been magically sucked into the past by some unholy combination of spiritual might and computer snafu, wandered around ancient Israel while "true-life Bible stories" were taking place elsewhere. I never found this revised concept to be convincing, even in such a highly fanciful context. The Flying House, which concentrated on the New Testament and the story of Jesus, returned to the "direct interaction" approach and stuck with it -- with considerable success.

You can see "sanctioned" clips from season one at CBN's Superbook Classic Web site. I'll just note a few additional points here:

(1) As you might expect, Billie Lou uses her Astro Boy and Kimba voice for Christopher Peeper. It's a little raspier than it used to be, but still immediately identifiable. What amuses me about its use in Superbook is that Chris is not exactly your standard goody-two-shoes kid. He feuds constantly with his Dad, the persnickety Professor Peeper (Ray Owens), and cannot always be trusted to do the right thing right away. I find it funny to hear that voice used, if not exactly for evil, then certainly for something other than unalloyed good.

(2) Sonia Owens' Joy sounds W-A-Y too much like an adult woman. The Titan/Echo crew were caught between a rock (Simon Peter?) and a hard place here; Sonia's voice for Kitty would have sounded too cutesy, Billie Lou also had difficulty doing convincing young-female voices, and Helena Van Koert apparently couldn't come up with a compromise voice. The Flying House, which also has a young girl as a main character, falls victim to the same problem.

(3) I'm currently watching streaming vids of The Flying House, and, to be honest, it is superior to Superbook in virtually all aesthetic particulars. The scripts (which were done by our friends at Titan/Echo in both cases) are better, and the draftsmanship is vastly better. Superbook, however, seems to be much more fondly remembered for some reason. Maybe it's because of the simple charm of the original concept. I'll be getting to The Flying House before long and will elaborate on the comparison at that time.

UP NEXT: We return to KIMBA with Episode 27, "The Chameleon who Cried Wolf."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: WALT DISNEY TREASURY: DONALD DUCK VOLUME 2 by Don Rosa (June 2011, Boom! Studios)

This package of fun -- if repeated abuse of Donald's corpus, soul, and everything in between represents your idea of "fun," that is -- reprints Rosa's DONALD DUCK stories from 1990 to 1995, starting with "The Money Pit," which holds a fair bit of cachet as (1) the only Rosa story that Disney Comics published during the pre-"Implosion" period and (2) the story in which Rosa casts a few thinly-veiled shots at the pretensions of comic-book collectors. Rosa's soapbox bit seems more convincing now that we're on the post-"burst" side of the "collectors' comics will put my kids through school... or not" bubble.

After barely surviving the collapse of the "coin mine" that he's greedily dug inside Scrooge's fortune, Donald then must face the fallout from the disastrous consequences of his efforts as "The Master Landscapist," Rosa's stab at doing a Carl Barks "mastery" story. Subsequently, Don gets to plunge from the heavens in "The Duck Who Fell to Earth", brave a harrowing turn as a would-be window washer in "Incident at McDuck Tower", and compete against Gladstone for Olympic glory -- with disastrous results -- in the special tale "From Duckburg to Lillehammer." Reading these stories in sequence, it certainly seems as though Rosa had it in for poor Donald on some level. Perhaps he was working out his frustrations regarding Disney's art-return policy?

Donald does get two chances to shine here. In "Super Snooper Strikes Again," Donald's second opportunity to chug the magic isotope and become a superhero turns out as well as you might expect, but the Nephews evince a newfound respect for their uncle's frequently doomed efforts to do the right thing. We get a much stiffer slug of the same sentiment in "The Duck Who Never Was," Rosa's contribution to Donald's 60th birthday celebration, in which Donald gets the "George Bailey" treatment and "magicks" his way (or hallucinates his way, thanks to a blow on the head; it's not entirely clear what the truth really is) to a dreadful, Don-deprived Duckburg. There is a distinct streak of nastiness in this story, with Rosa apparently attempting to do the worst he possibly can (in Duck fans' eyes, anyway) to the beloved Duck characters. Which is the worst -- a clueless hayseed Gyro, a trashbin-dwelling Scrooge, a tarted-up romance-novelist Daisy, or *ugh!* a trio of obese, belching Nephews who make the Quack Pack Nephews look like positively admirable fellows? Should I really have to choose? The nightmarish Duckburg seen here makes a far more vivid impression than did even Potterville in It's a Wonderful Life, since we had all of the flashback material available there to ground us in the reality of Bedford Falls. In "Never Was," by contrast, the attack is on all of our fond memories of what the Duck characters really are like, and the contrast is therefore all the more horrifying.

The comics material ends on a high note with "The Lost Charts of Columbus," Rosa's excellent sequel to Barks' "The Golden Helmet." I reviewed this story upon its 2008 reprinting in Gemstone's THE BARKS AND ROSA COLLECTION VOLUME 3; you can read those thoughts here. Stubborn cuss that I am, I also regard "On Stolen Time" as a sequel of sorts, in this case to the DuckTales episode "Time Teasers." Don, if you're reading this, you can enlighten me, but the time-stopping watch in your story is an exact match of the device in the TV episode.

Production-wise, this book maintains the high standards of Volume 1 and makes a few improvements besides. "The Money Pit" is colored much more appropriately than it was by Disney Comics -- no more Ducks with blue eyeballs! The binding could be better, but that's only a relatively minor quibble. The major question before the house is, are we ever going to see a Volume 3?