Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: NANCY, VOLUME 3 by John Stanley and Dan Gormley (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)

John Stanley continues to exude a sense of "liberation" in these stories from Dell NANCY #170-173. Evidently attempting to make a point, he leads off each issue with a wildly fanciful story in which Nancy, despite her own best efforts, is forced to brave bizarre perils in her friend Wednesday Addams', um, Oona Goosepimple's creepy mansion. This is the sort of stuff that Stanley had previously been obliged to run only in the backs of his issues of LITTLE LULU, plus a handful of issues of the TUBBY title. The weirdness seems to leach into other stories, as well; Nancy and Sluggo play ring-toss with hula hoops and a flag pole in #171's "The Hulahoops," Nancy's cat and bully Spike's dog converse with each other (in thought balloons, to be sure) in #173's "The Kitty's Collar," and a teeth-grindingly self-pitying Nancy literally clads herself in "sackcloth and ashes" in an effort to move an unyielding Aunt Fritzi in #170's "Nancy and the Cold Dinner." There is a zaniness here that many of the later issues of LITTLE LULU conspicuously lacked. Great fun, especially for those who've ever nodded their way through a series of Ernie Bushmiller's stultifying comic-strip gags.

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 36: "Monster of Petrified Valley"

This episode has gradually grown on me over time. Watching it cold, you're likely to find special guest star Colosso the Brodo Bird (Ray Owens) more than a little irritating, rather like an oversized Bubba Duck without the latter's childish charm (or all those pop-culture references). Despite the effort to put something of a "smiley spin" on it, the ep's ending is definitely a downer. With repeated viewings, however, you'll begin to notice, and appreciate, some good voice-acting performances and to become intrigued by the ep's slightly different "take" on the overarching theme of Kimba's introduction of "civilization" to the jungle. Kimba has nothing but good intentions here, to be sure, but Colosso might legitimately be considered one of the "victims" of the the former's determined push for a "new jungle order." If you squinch up your eyes long enough to "see red," you might even catch a glimpse of an inherent critique of cultural imperialism, of the nasty fallout that often results from a "clash of cultures," especially when one side holds all the important cultural advantages. "Petrified Valley" isn't a classic, but there's more substance than one would expect in what basically amounts to a series of (theoretically) comical misunderstandings.

In eps like "Petrified Valley," "City of Gold," and "Legend of Hippo Valley," Kimba appears to be completely unaware of certain "local myths and legends." You'd hope that it would take something less than a crisis (the danger to peril-braving Charley [Ray Owens] and Harley [Gilbert Mack] Cheetah, who appear to be "splitting the difference" of the standard "Cheetah" character between them) to get Kimba up to speed on what are, after all, potential sources of trouble and rancor in and around his kingdom.

Kimba's typical reactions to stories of monsters, spooks, and legends are relentlessly rational. It's amusing to note, though, that he's at least willing to accept the possibility that a monster of some sort might be menacing Charley and Harley. Dan'l, by contrast, immediately ridicules the notion -- a rather amusing face-turn coming from a character who was so quick to attribute earthquakes to the Devil in "The Gigantic Grasshopper."

So who told Kimba how to get to Petrified Valley, anyway? Did Pauley impart the info between sneezes but we somehow missed it?

The voice of Harvey Hedgehog (Billie Lou Watt) seems a little different here, a little higher-pitched than normal, though it's pretty much of a "tomato"/"tomahto" distinction. This will be one of little Harvey's biggest roles, so it makes sense to bring him on stage early in the proceedings, even if it's just for a "Chinese restaurant menu" gag.

Keep those rumbling rocks at the entrance to Petrified Valley in mind; you're seeing them for a reason. The Narrator helpfully tells us what anyone can plainly see, namely, that some sort of gas is responsible for the paralyzed state of the other animals in the Valley (who include among their number "dead ringers" for Cassius and Gargoyle G. Warthog). This makes Kimba's realization of the danger less impressive than it should have been. Perhaps the Narrator's spiel should have been replaced by Kimba doing some verbal, off-camera detective work to figure out what is going on. Not that Kimba himself seems to have much to worry about from the gas -- he does fall down for a moment, only to just as quickly right himself. Do I sense a cut here?

Colosso's sudden, and suitably dramatic, appearance on the scene begs a thunderingly obvious question -- why isn't HE affected by the gas? We learn in just a little while that he lives in a cave, but even that location wouldn't be safe, since the gas issues forth from "cracks and crevices" in the Earth, presumably including subterranean ones. It seems irritatingly convenient that the only two critters who don't seem to mind the miasma are precisely the ones we need to get the main plot moving.

Kimba's brief laughing jag is a wonderful "humanizing" moment for our jungle prince. He's flashed a good sense of humor in past episodes, to be sure, but that was always tempered by the essential seriousness of his character and the burden of his civilizing task. Here, we're suddenly reminded that he is just a kid, or at most an adolescent, and therefore prone to laugh at silly sights despite himself. (Billie Lou's performance of the laughter is great, too.) Kimba then frees the trapped, and extremely embarrassed, Colosso by nearly killing him with a giant boulder. Too funny.

Could it be that Colosso isn't aware of the effects of the gas, despite having lived in Petrified Valley for so many years? "I guess I just paralyzed [Charley and Harley] with fear"... so how does he explain all those other animals lying around? As we'll see, obliviousness is probably Colosso's most distinctive character trait. Scrooge should have saved his irritated comment re Bubba: "I know, I know -- he does'nae understand!" for the Brodo Bird.

So what sort of critter is Colosso, anyway? We get a hint when Dan'l tells the story of the Brodo Birds and their forced exile from Madagascar. The Brodos developed in isolation, so it is quite possible that they are direct descendants of some sort of prehistoric creature. My best guess is that the Brodos are an evolved form of Archaeopteryx, the "missing link" between reptiles and birds. The episode confuses the issue a bit by showing Colosso slavering over flowers and a would-be meaty tidbit (Harvey Hedgehog), leaving open the question of whether he is a plant-eater or a meat-eater.

I am extremely grateful that the Titan crew did not try to "sing over" the chorus of children's voices during the singing sequence. In this case, it made sense to preserve the original Japanese background chorus of "Sing a Human Song" from "A Human Friend." The downside is that we get an additional earful of Colosso's maddening "Lo-Lo-Lo" song. I believe that the term "earworm" was invented for just such situations as this.

Kimba's generous but misguided attempts to "enable" Colosso's, er, eccentricities begin to backfire in a major way just as "the rainy season" kicks in. In truth, it's rather tough to assess the amount of "blame" that Kimba deserves for bringing Colosso back to the jungle with him. The problem is that we never actually saw the conversation in which Kimba made, and Colosso presumably accepted, the offer of jungle citizenship. Did Kimba, remembering Colosso's earlier lament that he "[wished he] had some friends," mistakenly take Colosso's benign (read: oblivious) indifference for acceptance of the offer? Or did Colosso leap at the chance to leave? For this to be a tragedy -- and it ultimately turns out to be one -- we really need to see the moment in which the fatal mistake was made. Barring that, Kimba's efforts to make Colosso feel at home seem like thoughtful gestures that simply don't work out the way they ought to.

Ironic, isn't it, that a representative of the very species that "felled"... er, "got rid of"... er, "took care of"... the Brodos comes to Colosso's defense when everyone else is ready to run the clueless creature out of Dodge without a second thought. Extra points go to Harvey for being so forgiving, but wouldn't landslides in the Valley in past "rainy seasons" have been an issue long before this? This reminds me of the DICK TRACY villain The Mole, who suddenly began having trouble with melting snow flooding his hideout at the exact moment when Tracy was trying to track him down.

Once you get another glimpse of the wabbly rocks in Petrified Valley, you just know what the denouement is going to be. Dan'l can "Monday-morning QB" all he wants about his belief that Colosso "would have wanted" to be "felled" on his doorstep, but Kimba's yell of despair at Colosso's fate is the true end of the ep. There's no question that Kimba feels some share of responsibility for what happened to the Brodo, that he regards the incident as one of his few outright failures. The fact that Kimba probably can't put his paw on exactly why he should feel at fault for what is basically an unfortunate accident makes his "roar of regret" all the more painful. It's another great example of how this "kids' cartoon," despite all the editorial attempts to soften the blows, was able to tackle big ideas and powerful emotions with remarkable thoughtfulness and subtlety.

Up next: Episode 37, "Legend of Hippo Valley."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 35: "The Pretenders"

Refer to last week's entry to get caught up to speed on the first chunk of this wildly uneven two-episode tale.

After we learn of Kimba's near-fatal accident at the end of the extended flashback, everyone seems to remain in a bit of a daze for a while. Kimba's lair is suddenly perched on the edge of a precipice, presumably to lend the long, slow tracking sequence even more drama and pathos than one would expect it to have under the circumstances. For purposes of security and safety, I can think of a whole lot of reasons not to have Kimba's home in such a place.

In all honesty, despite his shaky opening response to the faithful Kitty, Kimba doesn't seem all that badly injured. We see a bandage on his leg, a few dirt streaks, and that's about it. For sure, it won't take him very long to snap back to full strength. In their brief (and utterly pointless) dialogue following the lair scene, Bucky, Dan'l, and Pauley actually come across as far more somnolent and mind-croggled than our wounded jungle prince. C'mon, Gil, "I'm afraid he's plotting some kind of revenge" shouldn't sound so, well, wistful.

Kimba's "He must really have changed... but completely!" is a fascinating line to me. Out of nowhere, Billie Lou Watt suddenly tosses off a bit of slang that was 20 years out of date at the time this was recorded. It's like a character in a WWII-era movie suddenly breaking into a chorus of "Vo-do-de-oh-do," or a "contemporary urban dancer" abruptly adopting trash-bag pants and an open vest. (Magic shoes optional.) Then, when you factor in the odds that a lion in the middle of Africa, even one with an ultra-rare gift of speech, would come up with such a phrase independently... But if you think this was anachronistic, well, just wait until the curtain goes up on Tom and Tab.

OK, I'd almost be willing to accept T&T magically producing hats and canes out of nowhere, since they are arguably the most consistently "Toony" characters on the show. In their effort to convince the jungle youngsters that "the bad guys have all the fun," it would have been perfectly fine for T&T to have play-acted in exaggerated fashion, perhaps mutating themselves into "international objects" along the way. But I defy even the staunchest proponents of the "anything goes in Toontown" theme to explain how the hyenas managed to stage THESE "antihero animal antics" in the manner depicted.

The Wild West and Kimba do NOT mix! 'Nuff said.

Well, this sequence actually did work for me, at least a bit. I like the character design on Captain Kidd's cat a great deal; this character might even have worked as a legitimate "furry" somewhere else.  Perhaps he could have done a walk-on on some series like Cats & Company.  But, still, we are supposed to believe that the boys were somehow able to stage a SEA battle on a stage in the middle of the jungle... and how did T&T learn of all these characters, anyway? Did they visit the Jungle Library where Roger Ranger got his reference materials?

All of a sudden, I'm nostalgic for the Al Vermin era of Bonkers.

One unfortunate side effect of this entirely-too-long side trip to Toontown is that we never actually get to see how Cassius, T&T, and Claw managed to lure all of Kimba's subjects into being captured. Distracting the children, I can see the logic of that, but where were all the adults while this was going on? And how did Claw et Cie. instantly manage to construct a massive rocky barricade, complete with sturdy wooden gate, around the amusement park? After this cascade of improbabilities, I can almost understand Kimba's seemingly foolish decision to try and smash the gate down himself. In such a seemingly random "universe," why couldn't Kimba pull off such a feat? Perhaps if he hadn't been so *ahem* "badly hurt," he might have done it.

In his dialogue with the wrathful-turned-tearful Kimba, Claw drops the pretense that he wants to "rule" the jungle in a manner even remotely close to Kimba's. Earlier, Dan'l reported overhearing Claw say that, with the other animals imprisoned, he "[wouldn't] have to hunt for his food." Now, every animal for roughly 75 miles around must have heard Claw threaten to "destroy" the others unless Kimba abdicates. Strangely, however, Claw will soon be trying to arm-twist Kitty into becoming the "queen" of a presumably functioning kingdom. So what would Claw and Kitty be ruling, exactly? Maybe he needed to consult with Big-O on that matter before proclaiming his enmity to the assembled masses.

Kimba's breakdown and sad, silent retreat are the first truly powerful scenes in what has, up to now, been a crazy quilt of an ep. In "Running Wild," just three episodes down the line, Kimba will suffer an out-of-nowhere emotional collapse that is so over-the-top and improbable, it's actually half-comical. Here, Kimba isn't bawling, he's legitimately weeping for what he clearly believes is the death of his dream. Also, there's a real sense of finality to Kimba's gradual, self-sacrificial disappearance into the wilderness. Not until "Destroyers from the Desert" will Kimba appear to be so thoroughly vanquished.

So, we're now officially in "action drama" mode, right? Wrong. We still have to endure one final gag-stuffed sequence in which Claw piddles away virtually all of the dignity that he had managed to earn through his fearsome performances during "Jungle Fun" and the park-gate scene. If anything, Kitty doesn't slap him down hard enough for making such an ass of himself.

And I thought tigers... I mean, Tiggers... didn't live in Africa.

If you have good eyesight, then you may have seen The Black 4 snatch Kitty and haul her under the gate and inside the park. Like their sudden appearance at the end of "Jungle Fun," what they were doing there wasn't explained. Now, following up on Cassius' whistle, we should have gotten our formal introduction, or a reasonable facsimile, to the conniving quartet. The lyrics (translated below the Youtube of the deleted scene) don't explain why the B4 are specifically working for Claw, much less what they expect to get out of the deal, but they do clearly establishes the leopards' freelance brand of villainy.

Living in the dark, we are the Black Four. Come to us and tell us what you want. We specialize in... Doin' dirty business in style! The infamous shadow of evil. Yes, we are the Black Four. Excuse us, but we have to go. We're off to do another job... We'll get it done... Piece of cake!

Or not. The B4 give a much better account of themselves in battle during "The Day the Sun Went Out," and one reason may be that they are working for themselves in that situation. Amazing how self-interest focuses the mind and toughens the sinews... just as the threat of being eaten galvanizes Kimba's subjects into putting up a much stiffer fight against Claw and his minions here than they did in "Gypsy's Purple Potion." Kitty leads the charge, flashing her most ferocious fighting skills of the series. Next in line for awards are, if you can believe it, Dot, Dash, and Dinky, who alternate stomping on Tom and Tab with treating the hapless hyenas as literal punching bags -- a little less impressive than the brave attack at the start of "Jungle Fun," perhaps, but impressive nonetheless. I only wish that more animals had been given a chance to visibly pitch in, as opposed to fighting in the "FCC-friendly dustcloud of doom" (thanks, Greg).

Characters seem to be able to "teleport" to where they need to be with shocking ease in this ep. How did the B4 track down Kimba so fast? How did Dan'l manage to find Kimba equally fast? Above all, how did Kimba locate that "weak spot in the wall" so effortlessly, after spending several minutes beating his brains out in a frontal assault? The fight between Kimba and Claw is the most vicious one of the series -- check out the bit in which Claw grabs Kimba in his maw and worries him like a Jack Russell terrier manhandling a chew toy -- but, even here, Kimba doesn't really maul Claw as much as out-wrestle him. The beaten Claw's tottering rise to his paws, however, underscores this as being the evil lion's "ultimate defeat." He would indeed appear again, but never again would he pose such a dire threat to the peace and safety of Kimba's jungle. We may also safely assume that the amusement center would endure for the duration, thereby cutting off Claw's source of food and, presumably, forcing him to ultimately "abandon the field" for purposes of survival.

Dan'l and Kimba provide a fitting end to a schizophrenic story by, respectively, spouting off a Revolutionary War-era non sequitur and channeling "Fair Catch Corby" for no apparent reason. Surely, the most "epic" story of the series -- in structure, if not in content -- deserved a better wrap-up than this rather lame coda. Or, perhaps the very pointlessness of the ending makes a point. All that Kimba wanted to do with his amusement park project, after all, was to allow the animals to enjoy a little harmless and, yes, pointless fun while engaged in the arduous task of building a civilization. Not every vestige of "human civilization" worth imitating has to possess gravitas, after all.

Up next: Episode 36, "Monster of Petrified Valley."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #17 (October 2011, kaboom!)

Reading DARKWING #17 is like watching a baseball player hitting a dramatic homer... only to trip and fall on third base. For two-thirds of its length, part two of "Dangerous Currency" is a delight, giving us the inter-character byplay that was so conspicuous by its absence in DT #5 -- and it's high-quality banter, to boot. Then we get, in rapid succession: (1) a truly bizarre out-of-character comment from Darkwing (granted, it's delivered under some duress, but still); (2) the admittedly hilarious, but logically off-the-wall, "drop-in" of a nearly forgotten DuckTales cast member; (3) a factual goof to rival DT #5's "revelation" that Drake and Fenton don't know each other. I still give the ish a "thumbs up" on balance, but the overall arc to date a grade of "Marginal"... mainly because I don't know whether the good points or the factual flubs will wind up tipping the scales.



The kids' dialogue in the early stages is GREAT. I've always wondered how Gosalyn and HD&L, those two (or, technically, four) wonderful exemplars of youthful proactivity, would react to one another if they ever got together. As impressive as the Nephews' track record is, Gos is a phenomenon, to quote (with a wince) Gil Mack in "Jungle Fun," "like which they never have heard." Huey's reaction, "Never seen a girl do something like that before. I... liked it!" was a true spit-take moment, not least because it was so believable. It also stands to reason that Gos would know something about HD&L's adventures thanks to her friendship with Launchpad, so her baiting the boys into trying to get a sample of The Phantom Blot's "evil ink/slime" wasn't simply a shot in the dark. Webby then gets a shining moment when she calls Gos out on not helping HD&L ("You seem to like getting your hands dirty...") and implicitly defends the Nephews for at least trying to get the sample. Add on Honker's obligatory creation of a "miracle" (a high-tech dowsing rod made from scrap? Has he been channeling Gadget?), which produces a near-swoon from Webby and legit admiration from the other kids, and you have a superb example of what this storyline ought to be emphasizing... wild action as rendered by James Silvani, yes, but with ample helpings of "Heart" and character.

The adults' palaver -- at least most of it -- ain't bad either. Scrooge reacts in humorously deadpan fashion to his immersion in the wild world of St. Canard ("Oh, good... I was worried when something weird didn't happen for a couple of seconds"). Launchpad realizes that he may have to choose between past and former "masters." The villains get some brief but effective verbal "love," as Bushroot asks the obvious question -- what does The Blot want with St. Canard, anyway? -- and the "Fearsome Five-minus-The-Most-Important-One" and the "League of Eve-il" begin to craft their own shadowy agendas. Best of all, DW is far more in imperious character than he ever was in DT #5... at least, until Fenton/Gizmoduck appears (OUT OF NOWHERE, but I've come to expect that in this title), the "slime" turns Gizmo into a monster, and DW is on the verge of being choked by the ravening "roboccountant." What the frag is DW talking about when he says that Fenton/Gizmo "seemed to have it all, yet always acted so humbly"?! Even worse, that DW wishes he could be the same way?! It's bad enough that St. Canard has been turned into a monster citadel, now pod creatures are invading as well...

The emergency airlift of Mrs. Crackshell was such a funny "you gotta be kidding me!" moment that I originally didn't fully process Mrs. C.'s comment to Fenton/Gizmo: "So that was YOU gallivanting around in that tin can?" I thought she was only referring to the present predicament until I realized the awful truth, that this was another dreadful continuity gaffe. *Grumble grumble*, someone really needs to watch "Super DuckTales" and educate themselves. And I was so loving this issue, too. Even the transformation of HD&L and Honker into "famous monsters of Disney filmdom" seemed a bit suspicious after that, in the sense that all other characters who "got dirty" were transformed into amped-up versions of themselves (though The Liquidator has actually had powers over hot and cold water ever since his origin episode "Dry Hard"), while HD&L were completely "made over" into Chernabog, Monstro, and Maleficent (dragon version). Can you blame me for being a little antsy about the permanence of DW #17's uptick in quality?

BTW, props to Sabrina Alberghetti for a charming Cover B that manages to trump even Silvani's Cover A!

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOLUME 12: 1948-1950 by Chester Gould (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2011)

"Characters count" and "the family is the focus" as Chester Gould brings his prime creative decade to a close. The villains in this latest volume will be unfamiliar to most -- Sketch Paree, the nutso wardrobe designer, is only remembered because he was one of those picked as a goofy bad-guy spear-carrier in UPA's Dick Tracy Show -- but they're a solid enough crew, all things considered. The big events here, though, are the introduction of one major new character, the shocking departure of another, and the (seemingly?) out-of-nowhere permanent "joining" of the strip's two original principals.



As Max Allan Collins notes in his introduction, the replacement of Pat Patton with Sam Catchem as Tracy's partner does indeed give DICK TRACY an important shot of adrenaline -- not to mention an authentic tang of ethnicity. I always got the impression that Sam's "Jewishness" was gradually sanded off over time, but, in his earliest appearances, the wise-cracking, freckled, knobby-nosed cop is like nothing the strip has seen before (on the side of the law, at least). Patton is not forsaken, becoming police chief after a crushed Chief Brandon "retires himself" due to guilt over feeling responsible for the murder of the blind young inventor Brilliant. Having never seen this "transition sequence" before, I was amused to see how quickly the long-time bungler Patton evolved into a "senior officer" type. It's not a matter of weeks, as Jay Maeder claimed in his strip history; it's literally a matter of days. When he introduces Catchem to Tracy, Patton is already passing himself off as a personnel expert in knowing just the sort of sidekick Tracy now needs. This from a guy who started his career peering into a keyhole with a known murderer on the other side of the door...

The death of Brilliant at the hands of the ruthless gang boss Big Frost is one of the most shocking examples of Gould's creative profligacy. Having created one of those "accommodating sources of miracles" who could have served the strip for decades, in the manner of Gyro Gearloose or Hedgerow Huppy, Gould jettisons Brilliant without an apparent second thought. In an era that emphasized relationships, however, this was admittedly a very effective way to demonstrate the frailty of the "social compact" and the family unit at the hands of crime. The after-the-fact revelation that Brilliant was Diet Smith's son only adds to the sense of real tragedy. Something of the same sort of fragility is on display when B.O. Plenty exiles himself for a while in the mistaken conviction that he has committed murder, leaving Gravel Gertie and little Sparkle behind to (rather ineffectively) fend for themselves. At least B.O. was allowed to return in one piece.

There is less reliance on "grotesques" here, apart from Wormy Marrons (of the striated kisser seen above) and the comically obese diet-racket fraud Pear-Shape, a Gould caricature. More believable heavies such as Big Frost, the hard-boiled shop thief Mousey, and the haughty femme fatale Sleet reflect the brassier, less sentimental tenor of the late 40s that was reflected elsewhere in phenomena like film noir. Sketch Paree turns out to be something of a pathetic figure, the rare case of a TRACY villain who is certifiably insane; with his "dry-land-drowning" water mask apparatus, he comes off as a sort of French version of the early Joker. As the "modernized" rogue's gallery indicates, Gould is perfectly comfortable with his place in the wider culture at this time, seamlessly integrating parodies of such celebrities as Spike Jones and Arthur Godfrey into his narratives, and giving "Spike Dyke" and "Ted Tellum" meaty, multi-faceted roles to boot. After the decade of success that Gould had just enjoyed, he was certainly entitled to feel confident that he had the pulse of the public.

The 1940s draw to a close with Tracy's long-delayed (to the point of parody, yet!) wedding to Tess Trueheart. In view of Gould's working methods, this may well have been an off-the-cuff decision, but I find it suspiciously convenient that the wedding takes place as, quite literally, the LAST major "action" of the 40s. Was Gould doing it to "reshuffle the deck" for the upcoming decade? Whatever the reason, it did no real "damage" to the strip, as Li'l Abner's wedding to Daisy Mae did to LI'L ABNER, mostly because Tracy and Tess had always been an "item." It also, of course, reinforced the "family bond" theme that so dominated this period.

Onward to the 50s with this outstanding reprint series!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 34: "Jungle Fun"

Kimba is chock full of continuity -- however confusing it may sometimes be -- but "Jungle Fun" and its follow-up episode, "The Pretenders," mark the only time that a single storyline was extended over more than one ep. The circumstances -- Claw's "ultimate" attempt to defeat Kimba once and for all -- certainly hold the promise of a tale with an epic sweep and a "conclusive" feel, a la Gummi Bears' two-parter "King Igthorn." Alas, "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" mimic "King Igthorn" (at least, the original American broadcast of same) in a more unfortunate manner; Claw would make another appearance in "Legend of Hippo Valley" just two episodes hence, while Tom and Tab still have several appearances to go. The current reconstruction of Kimba's chronological timeline was arrived at by several parties after plenty of discussion and debate, but I can't help but wonder whether these two eps should have been positioned just a bit later in the series' run.

Future return engagements by "decisively defeated" villains are far from being the only major problem here. During the production process, the Titan dubbing crew appears to (1) have had second thoughts about presenting the story as a "formal" two-parter and (2) have gotten extremely skittish at the thought of winding up "Jungle Fun" with a cliffhanger in which Kimba is seriously injured. The decision to wait to reveal Kimba's near-fatal accident until the end of a flashback sequence at the start of "The Pretenders" stands as arguably the most questionable editorial decision that the Titanistas ever made. Aside from failing to give the audience the benefit of the doubt for being able to stomach an episode's fading out on the image of a prostrate Kimba, the move badly mucks up the introduction of a significant new set of supporting characters: The Black Four, a Beagle Boys-esque quartet of "villainous hireling" leopards who have apparently accepted a contract from Cassius to take Kimba out. I say "apparently" because the dirty deed is conjured out of the narrative equivalent of thin air, literally leaving the audience gasping, "Huh?!?". The B4 never do get a proper introduction, not even the improper one that was provided in the form of a surrealistic "sing-and-sashay" sequence in "The Pretenders" but was clipped for time (or, perhaps, in despair that the musically challenged Titan crew wouldn't be able to hack what would have been a hellaciously tricky job of dubbing). The leopards with the nasty attitudes and the Jimmy Carter pearlies would have to wait until "The Day the Sun Went Out," in which they freelance and torment Kimba and Leona ("Mystery of the Deserted Village") for more or less the hell of it, to craft their most lasting impression on the audience.

Mushi Studios' handling of this ungainly project is itself far from adroit. Characters appear in two places at once, or appear in a setting before we actually see them arriving at said setting. Big chunks of both "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" are devoted to filler material, including a simply dreadful song by Sonia Owens (as Kitty) in "Jungle Fun" and a must-see-it-to-believe-it vaudeville routine in "The Pretenders" that absolutely MUST have been dreamed up under the influence of some very strong hallucinogens. The filler would have been packed even tighter had the Black Four "trip" been taken. Plenty of visual imagination is on display in these sequences, but they do tend to detract somewhat from what we really want to see, which is a truly epic set-to that decides once and for all whether Kimba or Claw will rule.

You might think that I'm setting these eps up for an unholy panning. But... in the manner of a baseball team rallying dramatically in the late innings, the latter stages of both "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" make up, to a considerable extent, for all the goo, dribble, and artistic faux pas in what has gone before. The conclusion of "Jungle Fun" gives the frequently buffoonish Claw a rare chance to come across as legitimately menacing and presents Kimba with a true ethical dilemma, the resolution of which is executed to near-perfection. The fight sequences that wind up "The Pretenders," meanwhile, while perhaps falling short of what they could have been, are certainly vicious enough, with Kitty, in particular, getting in her most memorable licks of the series. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but in the manner of a bag of Cracker Jacks -- some of the best stuff can be found at the bottom.

"For those just tuning in" -- and, it would seem, all the "slow learners" in the audience -- the Narrator helpfully presents a potted backstory. I would have liked the monologue better had parts of it not been written in the manner of a primer aimed at really small children. "Kimba does not want to fight, but Cassius does!" And cookies are a sometime food. I get it.

The fact that Kimba's supposed "friends" appear useless enough to be intimidated by Tom and Tab, of all critters, does not bode well... until Dot snaps out of what had appeared to be a pothead's trance and "winks" Dash and Dinky into surreptitious action. D-cubed actually wind up contributing quite a lot to the cause of good in this story, so bully for their bold moves here, but would the kids really be the first choice of attackers in an ambush such as this? If the Narrator's claim that Kimba gives special protection to the smaller animals is to be taken at face value, then the larger creatures in that knot of allies should probably have taken the initiative in defense of their prince. Bucky, in particular, seems to have slipped back into his inert "City of Gold" state, at least for the moment.

Holy Vlad the Impaler, Cassius teased a literal staking of Kimba for a moment there! The panther's target, moreover, appeared to have been right between Kimba's eyes. Excuse me if I regard Cassius' taking of "a different fork in the road" as something of a cop-out.

At the same time that Dot, Dash, and Dinky are bravely piling into Tom, Tab, and Cassius, they also seem to be in the silhouetted crowd that is seen celebrating at 2:33. Phooey Duck, anyone?

Tezuka's Leo built many things to benefit his kingdom, but nothing so apparently frivolous as an "amusement center." Sure, Kimba means well, but the notion smacks more than a little bit of "bread and circuses." Kimba appears to be feeling his oats a bit, as, for the first time, HE is taking the initiative against Claw, actively provoking the latter by choosing to build the park in Claw's hunting ground. Kimba's use of the phrase "whether he likes it or not" is an edgier addendum to that now-classic scene with Wiley Wildcat and almost sounds like a challenge to Claw... who, surprisingly enough, appears to be quite well-prepared for such a challenge, judging by how roughly he treats Cassius for "failing to follow orders." Claw definitely sounds much more like an actual menace here and much less like a blustering puppet. But the best from Claw in this ep is yet to come.

So, following their atypically cocky leader's lead and throwing Claw-caution to the winds, the gang commences to build the park and... Uk-wuk?!

Can upended... beans spilled! Kitty will indeed receive an invitation to join the festivities, and Tom, Tab, and Cassius will indeed join the fun as part of a devious plan to sabotage the works. But they haven't done so yet. Who was at fault here? I'm guessing Mushi, since I doubt that the Titan gang had the extreme editorial freedom to shift entire sequences hither and thither. Clip and trim, perhaps, but not perform such wholesale internal restructuring.

The gun-jumping gaffe aside, I think that the park-building sequence is one of the more pleasant filler sequences in the series. Gil Mack is in good voice, though the lyrics probably needed a bit of polishing ("Like which you never have heard"?), and we get a whole bunch of cameos by guest stars past: Gargoyle G. Warthog and Wildey Boar, Speedy Cheetah, Allie the Alligator (still wearing the bows), Wiley Wildcat... it's almost like the crowd scene at the end of DuckTales' "Till Nephews Do Us Part," on a somewhat smaller scale. Where the head-bobbing, buck-toothed Happy Hooligan wannabe came from, however, I have no clue. I don't think that was a Tezuka cameo.

After Tom and Tab abruptly revert back to "standard factory setting" with their cheesy tree disguise, Sonia Owens BURSTS OUR EARDRUMS with her channeling of some ungodly combination of the vocal stylings of Bea Benaderet and Liv "The World is a Circle" Ullmann. "Kitty's Theme" was originally written as an instrumental, and IT SHOULD HAVE STAYED THAT WAY. Sorry, Billie Lou (and Sonia), but it's the truth. At least we get a brief, semiconscious cameo from Uncle Specklerex out of the deal. It appears that Uncle S. has mellowed considerably in what one would presume is now his extreme old age.

The "Attack of the Crow-nes" makes for a pretty good action sequence, though I wonder why Cassius never made use of these "allies" until now... and since when can crows decimate entire trees like an army of invading locusts/grasshoppers? It's also a little unclear as to why Cassius suddenly appears in the scene -- at least, until things calm down a bit and we learn that Cassius actually intervened to "save" Kimba and Kitty from a Hitchcockian fate. After Cassius spins his tale of woe, Kimba, to his credit, doesn't fall for the ruse right away. It's at least plausible that Kimba's ultimate decision to let the supposed ex-villains prove themselves by helping to build the park stemmed from his memory of the captured poachers' treatment in "The Last Poacher." I'd call this an example of "subconscious continuity" at work.

Another animatory goof: while he's carrying the log, Cassius suddenly reacquires his claws, on one paw at least (16:44).

Starting with CT&T's aborted kidnapping of Kitty, the ep kicks into high gear. Kimba demonstrates just how serious things have suddenly gotten when he reacts to Cassius' attempt to ambush him in the cave. Rather than fight Tom and Tab, Kimba simply runs them over like so much Astroturf. I think this is the moment where, as Greg Weagle would put it, T&T lose all their heat (or, rather, as much heat as they still possess by now) as threats. Cassius poses more of a challenge (I thought that he couldn't fight without his claws?), and Kimba, for once, lays aside the ju-jitsu and the humanoid punches and grapples with the panther in a vicious manner befitting a noble beast of the jungle.

Speaking of beasts, Claw now makes his most dramatic, and effective, entrance of the series. I have no idea where the demonic light suddenly came from -- did a marshmallow roast just break out somewhere in the canyon? -- but the shadow on Kimba beautifully amplifies the dilemma that the latter now faces. There's no better way to demonstrate that this is Kimba's version of the invitation to "go over to the Dark Side."

The ensuing "I'd be no better than they are if..." scene is far better than most of that ilk, in large part because Billie Lou underplays the emotion so well. Claw then nails his dismount with the mocking laughter following "Give us another chance!". Kimba and friends seem legitimately frightened and/or appalled by Claw's cold-bloodedness:

And after all this, Cassius and T&T's "true reformation" actually seems believable. Will it "take"? What do you think?

Unfortunately, the rest of the ep is compromised by the snipping of the accident scene, as we fade out on the Narrator's innocuous, and somewhat strained, simile. You can see the actual ending here (2:50-3:35). Two comments before we flash the "To Be Continued" sign: (1) How did The Black Four DO that?! Do they have an "in" with a supplier of plastic explosives?! And I thought that Cassius' possession of human traps was questionable. (2) Why do Cassius, Tom, and Tab look so appalled at the carnage? After all, they... but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves...

To Be Continued Next Week, Same Blog, Same Jungle, with Episode 35, "The Pretenders."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Comics Review: DUCKTALES #5 (September 2011 [at least in theory], kaboom!)

kaboom!'s final kabash!, the "Dangerous Currency" crossover event, begins brightly enough with James Silvani's once-in-a-lifetime Cover A... and I mean that "once-in-a-lifetime" bit sincerely. After all, how else could you squeeze any additional DuckTales and Darkwing Duck principals into that rectangle. (Well, perhaps Bubba Duck and Tootsie could have been shoehorned in there in place of Moby Duck, who was probably shocked, shocked!, to find his name listed in the casting call here.) Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck is also absent, but that oversight is explained inside... or perhaps "explained" is putting it too strongly. Try "clearly referenced, but, to find out more, you'll have to continue reading." And that's not the only unexplained mystery in this baffling first chapter.



Well, it didn't take long for the "sitching rotation" of Warren Spector, Ian Brill, and James Silvani to throw out the first gaffe -- and it was a big one. So Drake and Fenton have never met, eh? A lot of "fanboys" and "fangirls" who aren't even particularly geeky beg to differ. The blooper is particularly bothersome because Fenton, who's apparently been off on a proverbial "secret mission" (and without the Gizmosuit!) for some time, says that he knew where to find his "old pal" Launchpad. How could Fenton have such knowledge and yet be unaware of Drake's existence?

If the "retconning" of Drake and Fenton's first meeting is a clear mistake, no matter how big of a DuckTales and Darkwing fan you are, then Drake's comparatively casual revelation of his secret identity to Scrooge seems almost calculated to set the serious Darkwing "bugs" to buzzing -- as indeed it has. There is something truly surreal about this sequence, and that doesn't even count the leaf-leviathans that have been created by the release of The Phantom Blot and Magica De Spell's "slime" (to what ultimate end, we are given ABSOLUTELY no idea as of yet) and are wrestling HD&L in the foreground. Consider that, while Drake's "reveal" has gotten almost all of the critical heat, Scrooge and Launchpad jointly blew Fenton's own secret ID just a few panels before, in such a transparent manner that even Drake immediately picks up on it. Was this an authorial case of, "Once you lose it, what does it matter"? Also noteworthy is the fact that Scrooge atypically doesn't seem to be particularly bothered by the Nephews' desperate struggle, preoccupied as he is with arguing that Gyro Gearloose needs to be brought to St. Canard.

Scrooge's characterization in DT #5 has also come in for something of a roasting (mmm... roast duck...), but abruptness and a touch of asperity strike me as reasonably believable reactions under the decidedly weird circs. Scrooge's response to Gosalyn's revelation that she had had possession of the Gizmosuit seems a little puzzling, however. What exactly is Scrooge reacting to when he declares, "You did the right thing, lass"? Gosalyn's admission that she tried to be a hero in the suit, or her new-found desire to see the suit be returned to Scrooge? Since Scrooge uses the past tense, I'm guessing that it's the former, but shouldn't the mere fact that Gos had the suit make Scrooge suspicious about how it fell into her hands in the first place? At least Scrooge and Gos get to have a nice verbal exchange, which is more than I can say for the kids as a group. Scrooge gets to declare his admiration for Gosalyn, Gyro and Honker get to repair the Gizmosuit together (and apparently bond as "kindred spirits" pretty quickly), but the kids don't get a chance to do what we've always wanted to see them do, which is to actively put their heads together and work as a team. We do see HD&L, Gosalyn, and Webby cooperate to lasso the Beagle Boys at one point, but the brief bit is given no setup whatsoever. Action needs to be mixed with character exchanges, or this will be a real lost opportunity.

Megavolt, working in cahoots with the B-Boys (who are Barksian clones once again, BTW), gets the funniest moment in the book when he momentarily swoons moonily over the revamped Gizmosuit. This is a funny call-back to the TV episodes in which Megs fell in love with and/or liberated light bulbs and other electronic devices. The bit really stands out because, to be honest, there isn't nearly as much humor in the script as one might expect. Perhaps reacting to the gravitas of the historic crossover setting, some characters seem more formal than is their wont. Megavolt describes himself as being "pretty offended" that he wasn't told about the Gizmosuit before; wouldn't a phrase like "You guys really busted my bulbs!" have been more fitting? And since when have you heard a Beagle Boy use a word like "elated," especially after Spector had gone the "dem-dese-'n-dose" route with the B-Boys during "Rightful Owners"? The stiffest line of the ish, however, is delivered by Cinnamon Teal, a member (along with Camille Chameleon and, strangely, F.O.W.L.'s own Ammonia Pine) of Magica's "League of Eve-il." Cackling with the gals over... well, something or other... Cinnamon declares, "It's been a long journey towards this." By all means, babe, fill us in when you get the chance, OK?

I still think that The Blot and Magica have the potential to be a great team, but the unleashing of "apparently pointless evil" (The Quackwerks Building and other "international objects" turning into monsters) seems a lot more like a Negaduck-style scheme to me. The scheme makes for some great visuals -- and Silvani, assisted by Jose Massaroli, deals out some nice eye-candy, with colorist Braden Lamb also doing excellent work, especially in the early, eerie "transformation scenes" -- but not a whole lot of legitimate momentum leading into part two, which is scheduled to appear this coming week in DARKWING DUCK #17. I'd be quite happy if kaboom! took only four weeks to finish this arc (and, in fact, DUCKTALES #6 is already being solicited in this very issue, which is a good sign in that regard). For good or ill, I've mentally "moved on" and am ready to see the kaboom! era end.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 33: "Jungle Justice"

Here is the literal antipodes of last week's "The Last Poacher" -- the Kimba episode that eluded my grasp longer than any other. In fact, I don't believe that I ever saw it until I purchased The Right Stuf's Kimba box set.

I'd like to report that this "last dram of the coconut milk" was a hidden masterpiece, but, in all honesty, it's a pretty cut-and-dried, no-frills ep -- with one significant caveat. After the series has already lavished all sorts of attention on Kimba's attempt to supersede the age-old "Law of the Jungle" and establish the rule of something close to "human law" in the jungle, "Jungle Justice" pops out of the brush and delivers a big ol' raspberry to the very notion of such a hifalutin' scheme actually succeeding. Despite Kimba's efforts to give the arrogant, decidedly unlikable "special guest hippo" Clunker (Gilbert Mack, reusing his voice for Billy Bully and Big-O the Bad Baboon) a literal "fair trial" after the latter is accused of spiriting away little Harold Heron (Billie Lou Watt), the "courtroom scene" dissolves into indecorous chaos, to which Kimba himself ultimately lends a paw or three. Moreover, Kimba's Perry Mason-esque last-second presentation of some new evidence (1) doesn't stop the degringolade and (2) only becomes available in the first place because of Kimba's survival of a "trial by combat" in a neighboring jungle. If martinis were as well-mixed as the messages here, then we'd probably all be barflies.

Link to episode at Hulu

Watching the visually impressive opening storm scene makes me wish that more episodes had centered on the animals' being faced with challenges posed by nature itself, rather than some human or beast with malevolent intentions. The storm merely serves to set up the ensuing action, but it's an eye-grabber -- and don't forget Kimba's rescue of the helpless chipmunk; you'll see something similar, and rather more significant, a bit later.

At 3:45, after the Herons mention Clunker for the first time, we abruptly move forward in time to Clunker's trial, and... wait, Dan'l is ALREADY prepared to pass sentence on the recalcitrant hippo?! First strike against the judicial system. True, Dan'l wanted Kimba to let "The Law of the Jungle" take its course as far back as "A Human Friend," but surely he's learned to accept Kimba's more humane way of handling things by now, else he wouldn't have been put in charge of the trial in the first place. But Kimba only just now begins to act as Clunker's de facto attorney, so I guess that Dan'l has been taking the Red Queen's advice on how to supervise a trial.

Hippo Boss (Ray Owens, at least this time around) is an interesting sort of "tweener" character. He's not nearly as antagonistic towards Kimba as Boss Rhino, or as hard-headed as Kelly Funt, but neither could he be considered an actual ally of Kimba's. Mostly, he and the other hippos simply want to be left alone. We'll learn in "Legend of Hippo Valley" that the hippos have a distinct set of mores and taboos that have been in operation since long before Kimba, or even Caesar, came to the jungle, and of which even Kimba seems to be ignorant. Here, however, Hippo Boss' laid-back approach to "internal discipline," which might not have amounted to much trouble had it been kept "in-house," has had a "slopover effect" that now threatens the peace of the rest of the jungle. I'd like to believe that Hippo Boss took this as an indication that he needs to be more cognizant of the wider world, but, as we'll see in "Legend of Hippo Valley," the lesson didn't stick for very long.

After watching Harold Heron and "squadron" in action, I'm almost prepared to grant Clunker a pass on that revenge business. "Harmless prank," my tail feathers. Of course, Clunker quickly boots away whatever sympathy he has engendered by stubbornly refusing to own up to his obvious dread of thunder and lightning. It's already clearly evident that Clunker, for all his big talk, doesn't have the internal workings to do anyone in, even an annoying pipsqueak with a bent for attempted asphyxiation.

"The Top Rungle Jungle" sounds more like a Speed Racer place-name than a Kimba place-name to me. It also sounds like a more "upwardly mobile" version of Kimba's jungle, a place where the "best of the best" animals congregate... which spells trouble for the citizens who occupy the lower rungs, like the chipmunk for whom Kimba does a good turn. The burly hippo King Blackbrows (Ray Owens) certainly evinces a superior attitude, as he insists that Kimba fight and beat him before he's willing to give Hilda Heron (Sonia Owens) "permission" to deposit her evidence. (So who gave Hilda "permission" to leave the jungle during the storm in the first place?) It's tough to know how to parse this scene. Despite the mocking laughter and the tough-guy persona, I don't get the impression that Blackbrows is really all that antagonistic towards Kimba; he is merely following what I assume is "standard jungle policy." Could this be an ironic comment on Kimba's determination to fashion his own jungle in a more humane image? If Kimba is allowed to do that, after all, then what's to prevent another jungle from charting out its own course? After our favorite white lion plays Androcles and he and Blackbrows are saved from the monster vines (man, even the plants in this jungle have an attitude!) by the "Gang of Fang," Blackbrows suddenly goes all "nice guy" on us, even asking Kimba to make a return visit someday. Somehow, I don't blame Kimba for letting that invitation die on the (monster?) vine.

No sooner does Kimba secure and present his evidence, of course, than the carefully constructed "legalistic web" that the animals have constructed to adjudicate such disputes falls apart, and everyone commences to a-fightin'. Note that, for all the yelling and threats, it is Kimba who literally strikes the first blow when he pitches into the hippos, so he's anything but an innocent bystander in this case. I gather that we're supposed to regard Harold's sudden reappearance and the ensuing reconciliation between the herons and the hippos as a "happy ending," but it is "happy" only in the strictly negative sense of not being "sad." Quite the cautionary tale, isn't it?

Up next: A KIMBA two-parter! Episodes 34 and 35, "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders."