Monday, November 28, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 40, "The Troublemaker"

"The Troublemaker" is an exquisitely exasperating episode of Kimba. Many of the series' episodes, good, bad, or indifferent, dote on mixing frequently serious subject matter with slapstick-style humor. In this ep, however, the two strands don't just clash, they positively annihilate one another, in the manner of matter and anti-matter. Remember how "Volcano Island" divided neatly into a lame, slapstick-y prequel and a dramatic, adventurous wrap-up? "The Troublemaker" is a 21-gun salute to that ep's cherry bomb. (Have I used enough strained metaphors already?)

Two pictures will sum up the problems I have with this episode:

The tone of the early, supposedly "humorous" material is much too strident and shrill. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Benny the ostrich (Hal Studer), the "cute" sower of discord amongst our happy band. Benny can actually be seen in numerous episodes before this one -- which begs the question of where in "true" Kimba continuity this ep should be placed -- but, in all of those instances, he kept blessedly silent. Suffice it to say that Studer does as much here to make Benny a loathsome pest as he did to make Wiley Wildcat a quasi-likable rogue. Benny's grumpy grandpa Big Ben (Gilbert Mack, using his standard-issue old-man voice) isn't quite as irritating as his grandson, but he sure as shootin' has his moments.

In previous episodes, Kimba occasionally displayed "paws of clay" in terms of judgment. Here, for what amounts to the most minor of peccadilloes, he is made the "fall guy" to a positively painful extent. Since Kimba is quite clearly presented as a "minor," in a manner akin to such "school-based" episodes as "City of Gold," a number of the gags are evidently meant to reduce him to the "junior-league level" of Dot, Dash, Dinky, and Kimba's other young peers. But when the (supposed) adults start to pile on... well, that's a lot more problematic, particularly when Kimba snaps back into hero mode later in the episode when fighting a vicious bunch of wolves. The violent jerks and jolts in tone here go well beyond the standard boundaries and make for, IMHO, a less than satisfactory whole.

Link to episode at Hulu

Pretty brutal opening, no? The zebras' fate at the paws of the wolves here is far grimmer than it seemed to be during the brief flashback sequence in "Jungle Thief." The wolves (or wild dogs, for the nostalgic among you) seem a much more formidable threat here than they do at any other time, because they display intelligence (cf. luring the zebras into the trap at the water hole) in addition to the usual ferocity. They come off as much more than just a bunch of scavengers. Indeed, they might even have deserved a continuing role as an "outside-the-lines" menace to counterbalance Claw's jungle-focused scheming.

The gang's decision to camp near the water hole despite the warning signs is NOT a good sign for the episode. Does Kimba have "rocks in his head" to match the ones he piled together to make that egress-less shelter? More so than in "Volcano Island," this "school field trip" seems like a Junior Woodchucks-style campout, complete with specific tasks for the small fry to perform.

Kimba's sparring with Dinky, messing up his own picture, lazily rolling away, and then letting the eager Benny do his work for him sets up the premise: Kimba's "supposed to be a kid" here. All well and good, but Kimba will come to pay dearly for what amounts to a very minor sin. If he'd picked a fight with Benny, now that would have been truly childish. Notice that, from almost the very beginning, Studer has trouble giving Benny's voice a consistent sound.

Big Ben's constant bellowing of "BENNNNY BOOOOYYYY!" may cause some viewers to tear out their hair (or the plumes from their tail feathers?) before the ep's conclusion. Even more bothersome to me is the old goat's immediately deciding that Kimba must be up to no good. Even Boss Rhino wasn't that bull-headed. In a sense, Big Ben's funny proclamation, "I won't allow anyone to tamper with my grandson's ignorance!" rates as a joke told on himself -- if he had any sense of humor, that is.

We start to sense that "the fix in in" regarding Kimba as "fall guy" when Bucky doesn't seem to comprehend that it was Benny's mere presence, rather than Kimba's work-shirking, that caused Big Ben to come a-running. Big Ben didn't even find out about Benny's desire to become an artist until after the ostrich chieftain had arrived and trashed the camp. Then, after Kimba avoids further trouble by returning the recalcitrant Benny, he gets dunned for "causing [a] commotion" that was essentially nonexistent. I honestly don't blame the embarrassed Kimba for dropping the ear-shutters over his eyes at this point.

After Benny returns again and sustains his not-particularly-gruesome injury, we devolve to something between farce and "pathegy." Benny squalls in chalk-screeching-on-blackboard fashion, Bucky and Pauley irrationally blame Kimba for everything (I don't think that even "Dubya" got this much undeserved opprobrium), and the jungle prince is reduced to the role of "bootlicker." The other kids, at least, do not merely parrot the "all Kimba's fault" meme, as Dot says that Benny's injury was due to his own carelessness. So what excuse do the supposed "adults" Bucky and Pauley have for piling on?

The "blame game" is finally called -- and none too soon -- when the gang agrees to help Kimba return Benny after the latter is found in Kimba's jungle. Kimba rightfully looks relieved at this turn of events. Now, we kick into high-gear action as the wolves attack and our friends are forced into Fort Apache mode. Dot nails down the change in tone as she verbally slaps down Benny's previously "cute" squalling and directly (and entirely correctly) blames him for causing all the trouble. I'd like to think that Benny's subsequent disappearance to get help from the ostrich herd was motivated by this long-delayed comeuppance.

We now get, in quick succession, one of the series' most effective uses of weather to build drama (the sudden storm and flash flood literally washing our heroes out of hiding; the sodden chase; the abrupt return of sunshine) and one of the most vicious one-on-one fights of the series (Kimba vs. the leader of the wolf pack). It's all very impressive, and yet... and yet... I'm still smarting from the load of laugh-out-loud (not!) silliness dumped on us in the episode's first half. I do wish that Mushi had toned down the slapstick a bit and set up the dramatic scenes with more finesse. Then, the eye-popping scene of Kimba suddenly acquiring "spider-sense" and running on the side of a wall might have seemed more like the display of a hitherto-unrealized new power and less like another bit of random, off-the-wall goofiness. I will give full marks to Dot, though, for flashing some "grrrrl power" and pitching directly into the wolves to help Kimba while Dash and Dinky apparently hung back to kibitz, or something. At least one character in this ep improved her overall standing with the audience.

The ostriches' run to the rescue has always bugged me for a very simple reason: why should Big Ben, who hasn't evinced an iota of concern for Kimba and friends up until this point, suddenly want to come to their aid? Could Benny possibly have been so persuasive that he was able to overcome all that antagonism so quickly? Unfortunately, the dialogue between Benny and Big Ben is not one of the "deleted scenes" of Kimba, but, in a sense, it should have been.

Kimba absorbs a final jab in the closing scene as Bucky (rather implausibly) plays disciplinarian in the classroom. Here, however, Kimba was acting like a child, and the admonition is much milder in tone than the unfair abuse that he was obliged to swallow earlier in the episode. This moment presages the much more charming, and much more thematically coherent, "Kimba the Kid" episode "The Balloon That Blows Up," which is right around the corner. If this episode proves anything, it is that balancing the twin notions of Kimba as jungle prince and Kimba as callow youth is an exercise in equipoise worthy of Karl Wallenda... and it's all too easy to slip.

Up next: Episode 41, "Destroyers from the Desert"

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1981-82 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2011)

PEANUTS edges into the Reagan years with a few quasi-classic storylines and a distressingly high "chaff" quotient. The best of the former show a creator who is still very much capable of sniffing the wind and sensing the Zeitgeist without becoming a prisoner to its trendy fads and fashions. The justifiably famous sequence in which Peppermint Patty "runs with" Marcie's fanciful claim that a butterfly "turned into an angel and flew away" after landing on Patty's generously-sized nose gives Schulz an opportunity to take on religious hypocrisy and annoying talk shows (was "Sparky" channeling the future here, or what?). Schulz also takes a poke at the emerging regime of political correctness when Charlie Brown's baseball team is forced to temporarily abandon its sandlot home due to some well-meaning adults' imposition of newly-defined "safety standards." But, for every first-class story line like this, there are a string of scattershot gags about the Beagle Scouts, Peppermint Patty and Sally's schoolhouse stupidity, Linus' legal quotes, Lucy's beanbag sulkage, or those consarned Snoopy relatives. The latest addition to the "Snoop Pack" is Marbles, the naive, clueless brother who reacts with disbelief to Snoopy's World War I Flying Ace playacting. Seeing as how both Spike (as an infantry "blighter") and Belle (as a Red Cross nurse) actually get roped into a World War I adventure here, perhaps Marbles should count himself fortunate that he was merely cast as an "observer."

Schulz must have been one of the very few Americans who felt pangs of nostalgia for the late 70s at this time, judging by his decision to resurrect some plot ideas and characters that we thought had been left for dead alongside the twitching corpse of Jimmy Carter's "killer rabbit." Peppermint Patty and Marcie again take jobs as caddies, while Snoopy gets to play a mixed doubles tennis match with a somewhat porkier Molly Volley against the perpetually whining "Crybaby" Boobie. Meanwhile, Peppermint Patty revisits her humiliation at the "Ace Obedience School" by bidding her school goodbye and switching to the "Ace School for Gifted Children," where she thinks she'll get armloads of gifts. Not all of Schulz' digs back to the past are quite this desperate; "Pigpen" and Violet unexpectedly pop up a couple of times.

Lynn Johnston's introduction is a real bright spot, probably the best of the entire COMPLETE PEANUTS series. This isn't surprising in light of Lynn's close friendship with Schulz and the fact that FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE began to take off as the strips in this volume were first seeing the light of day. Since Johnston made the decision to retire her strip a couple of years ago, I might have liked to have seen a few of her thoughts on why she chose to do so, given that her main creative mentor, Schulz, refused to quit until he had no other choice.

Book Review: CHESTER GOULD: A DAUGHTER'S BIOGRAPHY OF THE CREATOR OF DICK TRACY by Jean Gould O'Connell (McFarland Press, 2007)

The title pretty much says it all, but the accompanying illustrations make the package worthwhile. O'Connell, the founder of the DICK TRACY Museum in Woodstock, IL, where Gould dwelled for most of his working life, sketches a heartfelt and loving tribute to her father that perhaps spends a bit too much time on describing the building of and renovations to Gould's rural homestead but makes up for it with many other interesting anecdotes. The real treats are the many vintage photographs, drawings, strips, and other matter that give the TRACY fan a more thorough glimpse into Gould's early career than has previously been available. Here you will see Gould's drawings for various college publications at Oklahoma State University, his charming panel feature IN THE SPORT SPOTLIGHT for an Oklahoma City newspaper, several examples of his oddball 1924 "talking animal" strip THE RADIO CATTS (including the one in which the Catt family permanently "morphs" into human beings right before your eyes), and several of the sixty (!) different strip ideas that Gould fired off to Captain Joseph Patterson before the legendary TRIBUNE/DAILY NEWS syndicate chief famously wired him that "your Plainclothes Tracy [sic] has possibilities."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 39, "Running Wild"

I got yer Thanksgiving turkey one day early, folks!

I'll never forget the first time that I saw "Running Wild," no matter how hard I try... and in this instance, you'd better believe that I've tried! This was one of the last eps I was able to track down during the "bootleg VHS" era, so you can imagine how delighted I was to locate it. Without having watched it first, I screened it for both myself and my longtime friend Joe Torcivia. Even as Kimba and company struggled to stop a mystifying antelope "stampede" (you'll understand the use of the quotation marks soon enough), I had no reason to doubt that the doughty jungle prince would ultimately save the day. It was, after all, what he did. Then the "crisis" came... and Kimba, to my utter horror, fell apart like a certain, long-forgotten Bonkers spear-carrier.

Every time I watch "Running Wild" now, I feel like channeling the Carl Barks Nephews during the sing-song, complete-the-sentence era: "Oh, the mortification! Oh, the humiliation! Alack! Alas!" As for Joe, I don't think that his opinion of Kimba has ever been quite the same. (Or perhaps my episode commentaries have swayed him on this matter. He can certainly enlighten me if that's the case.)

Believe me, I'd love to pass off Kimba's behavior here as being the result of an early episode being recorded out of order. In fact, there are a handful of hints that the bawling Kimba who lit out for the hills here was, in fact, supposed to be a fairly young cub. Still, there is no getting around the fact that the animals' farm, the restaurant, and even the new spirit of cooperation between Kimba and Boss Rhino are all clearly referenced, so it would be a stretch to regard the Kimba of "Running Wild" as being an insecure neophyte.

I don't know when the Titan crew got their paws on this episode, but it's apparent that they, too, didn't quite know how to handle the negative portrayal of their series' hero, or the undeniable fact that Kimba's last-ditch effort to save the antelope herd from self-slaughter was an "incomplete success" in the ignoble tradition of the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. A note of desperation can clearly be heard in the use of unnecessary narration and Dan'l's well-meaning, but frankly false, claim that "just a very few" antelope went to their doom as a result of Kimba's breakdown and the subsequent delay in sending out a "mass rescue mission." The ending is pure slapstick, which makes what has gone before all the harder to stomach. The worst episode of Kimba? Admittedly, it's hard to under-perform the likes of "Catch 'Em if You Can" and "Scrambled Eggs," and this ep is certainly better than those. But it leaves a much nastier aftertaste.

All things considered, Kimba's introduction as the jungle's "danger detector" -- a leader constantly on the alert for real or potential threats -- turns out to be ultra-ironic.

The impressive introduction of the antelope is accompanied by a brass-driven musical theme fully worthy of a John Barry score for a James Bond film. These opening scenes are so visually arresting that I'm surprised that no amateur detective ferreting out parallels between Kimba and The Lion King has remarked on their areas of similarity to the famous wildebeest stampede in the latter film. The major difference, of course, is that the antelope technically aren't stampeding as of yet. The scenes make up for the lack of frantic action with ingenious visual effects that convey the proverbial "sense of impending doom."

Bucky gets quite a lot of screen time here, and some amusing bits of characterization as well. His rough treatment of the antelope as they trample over the farm could be considered an overcompensation of sorts for his sense of "shame" at his "relatives'" bizarre and destructive behavior. Bucky's post-passage tantrum, culminating with the inadvertent beat-down of Kimba and the anti-climactic "...Where'd you come from?", is also quite funny. During the ensuing round of bickering between Bucky and Pauley, Kimba is strangely passive -- not a good sign! Then Bucky lives up to the latter half of his writer's bible description as "a fall-guy and optimist" by rushing off to make another attempt to stop the herd. Bucky may be a bungler, but he always means well.

Methusaleh's "info-dumping" contribution here isn't nearly as impressive as it was in "Legend of Hippo Valley." The accompanying visuals aren't as clever, for sure, but I'm actually much more perturbed by Methusaleh's apparent indifference to the fates of other creatures. So, fine, Methusaleh is a sleepy old hermit and basically wants to be left alone; why is he so dismissive of what might happen to one of Kimba's staunchest (albeit highly fallible) allies, to say nothing of the thousands of antelope that are headed for a watery death (in Lake Victoria, perhaps)? Show some frickin' empathy, you senile old furball.

The ep now marks time in rather infuriating fashion, with the "rescue" of Bucky taking entirely too long -- or weren't you hoping for a few more "herd-surfing" scenes besides the nine or ten Bucky gave us here? The rescue scenes don't do a very good job of logically leading us up to Kimba's breakdown. It's very difficult to see how the actions of Kimba, Boss Rhino, and others specifically caused the antelope to begin to stampede (in a rather genteel manner, but still...). Had Kimba done something in particular to spark the degringolade, then the resulting "shock" might well have been "terrible" enough to cause him to snap, and we would have had a bit more sympathy for him. Instead, Kimba's crash lands awkwardly somewhere between "hissy-fit" territory and "self-pity" land.

The subsequent visuals in Kimba's lair are very peculiar (not to mention positively painful to watch). For one thing, Kimba seems to shrink before our eyes, and not just psychologically:

Dan'l is later able to pick him up by the tail and paddle him with no apparent effort whatsoever. So what is being suggested here? That this is supposed to be taking place during the earliest days of Kimba's reign? Then why did he previously have his larger, more adolescent bodily form? Perhaps the Mushi artists were literally trying to show that Kimba's failure of leadership has "reduced" him in the eyes of others (think of the many American cartoons and comic strips in which an embarrassed character is depicted as pint-sized). If so, then their symbolic "joke" flew about 10 feet over most people's heads.

If Kimba's body is smaller in the lair scene, then his actions suggest that his soul has shrunk to the size of a pea. Snidely dismissing the fate of the antelope as no longer his business? Spitefully pitching into Dan'l for "daring" to be so "bold" as to punish him? Humiliation piled atop humiliation. Even Kimba's resulting recovery and rededication to the task at hand are partially blighted by (1) his inexplicable decision to make a pit stop at the restaurant for some sustenance and (2) his subsequent tearing off by himself without stopping to call upon the aid of other animals (luckily for Kimba, they followed him anyway). Unless Kimba specifically ordered some Super Goobers, I don't see the point of any of this.

Giving the phrase "tarrying at the flowing bowl" a whole new meaning.

The episode now tries to make up for lost time -- and face -- with a frantic finish. Even Ray Owens' superfluous narrative description of the goings-on smack of a carnival barker's strenuous efforts to convince passers-by that big doings are afoot. The construction of the last-ditch barrier (which, despite its apparent construction by means of throwing random boulders and logs into the canyon, winds up having a remarkably coherent appearance), the build-up to the arrival of the charging antelope, and the dramatic "structural failure" are all well-choreographed, lending a genuine sense of tragedy to what had so recently seemed like farce. Still, there's no way that the hordes of antelope who hit the water qualify as anything like "a very few" of the total herd. Kimba and friends are ultimately reduced to literally throwing objects on top of the remaining antelope in order to chase them away from the water's edge. More than a few antelope lives were probably snuffed out as a result. Hardly the climax of a triumphant, exquisitely executed rescue effort.

We get a few yukkity-yuks at Bucky's expense to close matters out, but the pitifully small number of antelope who are even on hand to participate in the farming lesson is anything but a joke. In a sense, the "downer" ending of "Running Wild" is an admirable reflection of Kimba's willingness to craft a story in which the good guys don't score an unequivocal victory. The problem here is that Kimba, thanks to his mid-course spin-out, didn't actually deserve such a victory. You'll forgive me if I don't exactly find that comforting.

Up next: Episode 40, "The Troublemaker."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #18 (October 2011, kaboom!)

Strangely enough, there hasn't been a lot of reaction to the windup of the story that concludes in this final kaboom! Disney release. Far more attention, it seems to me, has been directed to the peculiar conditions under which "Dangerous Currency" was created. Go read the comments on The Old Haunt (the Darkwing Duck message board) if you don't believe me. I'll put that squabble aside and concentrate on the tale itself. That is, if I can ever get over the terrific headache that DARKWING #18 gave me...



This issue bears the artistic earmarks of a rush job. James Silvani does stick in a characteristically large number of character cameos, but they are all concentrated in one scene (or, to be completely accurate, a succession of brief scenes within a larger scene) and are not augmented by the many massive, detail-laced crowd scenes that graced "The Duck Knight Returns," "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings," and at least a few portions of "Campaign Carnage." Were it not for a sprinkling of background figures here and there and the presence of Scrooge's Money Bin, I would have thought that Duckburg was the Darkwing TV show's empty-streeted version of St. Canard. Come to think of it, the bare-bones TV version of St. Canard does make a cameo appearance of sorts here... but it's not THE "Regularverse" St. Canard. (Confused yet? Just wait.) The final two pages, which ought to have been a triumphal wonder, are clunkily staged and seem almost tossed off. They indicate that Duckburg and St. Canard are quite literally right next to one another, which makes that Thunderquack trip that the gang took in DT #6 seem rather unnecessary. Or maybe this was meant to be some sort of metaphorical scene, with Duckburg in daylight and St. Canard in darkness (for the "terror" to "flap in")?

Right off the bat, we get the obligatory Negaduck meme explaining how he was the ultimate fountainhead of the evil-establishing slime. There's a nice tie-in here to Negs' "Tron-split" fate at the conclusion of "Infinite Darkwings"... but why would he and Morgana both have been sent to an eerily sterile version of St. Canard? Perhaps this is the "Multiverse"'s version of Limbo? I'd personally have liked it much better had the duo simply been left floating in the object-choked "tweener-space" that we saw in "Life, the Negaverse, and Everything." As things turn out, the only real reason for the creation of the "holding city" is to give the good guys a place to dump the baddies when all is said and done without actually destroying them. Not that that action doesn't come without its own set of difficulties...

The best moment of the issue comes when Darkwing yanks Morgana back into the "real world" (which one?? I'm losing track), knowing full well that this will also allow Negaduck to escape the nether-dimension (or whatever). It's also a pleasant surprise -- to the reader, that is -- to learn that Magica De Spell had used a slime-flavored "foof bomb" to put The Phantom Blot under her power from the beginning. This may just be Magica's "proudest" moment ever, manipulating a villain for whom even Negs evinces a certain amount of respect (which is reciprocated -- The Blot refers to Negs as "Mr. Negaduck" at one point). Remind me again why this uber-Magica needs Scrooge's Old #1 Dime -- much less the help of the rest of the "League of Eve-il," who contribute absolutely nothing of note to the proceedings?

The reason for the exceptionally contrived "yell at the slime and it's neutralized" idea suddenly becomes clear when Donald is revealed as Scrooge's mysterious Agent 44. The discipline of the Navy (heh...) falls away as Donald implores the citizens of Duckburg (including such welcome figures as Glomgold, Bubba, Gandra Dee, Doofus, Duckworth, Gladstone, and even the transformed Genie of DuckTales: The Movie) to rabble-rouse and beat back the glop. A fun excuse for a slew of cameos, but savor the moment -- the rest of the issue is, quite literally, a mess, and not just because the villains literally decide to pool their resources and congeal into a single pool of slime, leading to a series of chaotic fight panels. Incredibly, Darkwing gets Negaduck to put his guard down by summoning up the power of "nice" and telling the latter that his real weakness is that he's never had any friends. I can imagine a certain purple-clad character using that approach, but it ain't DW. That giant sucking sound you hear isn't just the weakened Negs and his "partners in slime" literally being "drained away" into the conveniently available "wasteland city" of St. Canard; it's the last shred of dignity that was left in this well-meaning, but horribly constructed, story arc gurgling down the toilet. At least Scrooge and DW get to exchange a "heartfelt handshake" at the end. Imagine the two inhabiting this picture, with the body of the kaboom! Disney line at their feet, and you've about got it.

I can't help but think that the fate of Negaduck, Magica, The Beagle Boys, The Blot, and the "League of Eve-il" may have been intended as a big ol' bird-flip to someone. Despite my fervent wish that the end of "Dangerous Currency" not leave any loose ends behind, we close the books on the kaboom! era with a whole bunch of important villains... um, where, exactly? At least the rest of The Fearsome Five didn't get dragged along for the ride. Ironically, their defeat and "depowerizing" at the end of DT #6 apparently saved them from a fate that may actually BE worse than death... that is, if American Disney comics don't get back up off the canvas from yet another would-be knockout blow.

I may post some wrap-up comments on the entire Boom!/kaboom! experience in the near future. I do want to thank all those responsible for the DARKWING comic for a clear, if ultimately blighted, aesthetic triumph that was one of the highlights of Boom!/kaboom!'s all-too-brief moments as a first-class Disney comics operation. Perhaps we can do it again sometime? Or, at least, some of us?

Comics Review: PEANUTS #0 (November 2011, kaboom!)

My reaction to kaboom!'s PEANUTS graphic novel HAPPINESS IS A WARM BLANKET could charitably be described as lukewarm, and I was hoping for better when I decided to sample this $1 preview issue of the line's new PEANUTS title. No such luck. "Carnival of the Animals" and "Woodstock's Nest," the ish's two original stories, pale in comparison to the vintage Charles Schulz Sunday strips that accompany them. What I was hoping for here was a melding of the admirably faithful artwork of WARM BLANKET with the more adventurous story sensibility of the old Dell/Gold Key PEANUTS title, in which the characters frequently got put into situations that would never have occurred in the newspaper strip. The only glimmer of Dell/GK-style daringness comes in "Carnival of the Animals," when Charlie Brown, offended at Violet's cutting comment that he doesn't possess Snoopy's sense of imagination, imagines himself doing "lots of things... great things... important things," including conquering a mountain and flying a jet. The problem is that this is used as a throwaway moment; during the Dell/GK era, Charlie might actually have gotten to fly (or at least sit in) a real jet. We don't even get residual fancifulness in "Woodstock's Nest," which could just as easily have been lifted from several weeks' worth of connected Sunday strips. Irritatingly, four precious pages at the end of the book are wasted on a "preview" for the long-since-released WARM BLANKET. Much as I hate to say it, I think that I'm going to stick strictly with Fantagraphics' COMPLETE PEANUTS series.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 38: "Volcano Island"

With the next three episodes of Kimba, the sledding gets a little rough... though we only have to endure half-an-episode's worth of lousiness here before the day is somewhat saved in the "second act." For its first 12 or so minutes, "Volcano Island" is a muddled mess of terrible puns, unsatisfactory slapstick, contrived conflict, irrelevant historical asides, and, arguably, the most senseless fight that Kimba will ever have to wage. Then the mountains start belching fire and brimstone, and the story becomes a straightforward, well-staged rescue mission, during the course of which Kimba and the recalcitrant Boss Rhino finally reach what appears to be a permanent modus vivendi. The breakthrough moment would have been even more meaningful had the duo's physical battle not been used to "re-establish" a conflict that had already been simmering for some time and did not really need to be "ginned up" in any way.

Once again, "teacher" Bucky plays the role of camp counselor, with Kimba as one of his charges. Reminds me of the opening scene of DuckTales' "Superdoo!". Admittedly, Bucky isn't the most effective leader, but this ep shakes him off with surprising swiftness. He hardly appears after the opening scenes at the island.

An island where amphibious fish evolved from... non-amphibious fish?! Amazing. Unfortunately, the startling biological implications of the fishes' abilities on land are ignored in favor of a torrent of fish puns. Ever willing to see the good in all jungle fauna, Kimba sticks up for the fish even after all the drowning attempts, with Bucky's angry suggestion to catch them "with a hook" (where would he get one?) calling forth one of the most peculiar facial expressions that the jungle prince will ever pull:

Maybe I should throw this open for a caption contest. What IS Kimba trying to "say" here?

I wonder whether the kids' idea to build a playground was influenced by the recent construction of the "amusement center" back home. They even build a water slide. Cubs and fish bond, fight off the moonlighting Tom and Tab's abduction attempt... and run smack into Boss Rhino's bullheaded (rhino-headed?) demand that his cousin (Gilbert Mack) needs the whole damn island in order for the latter's missus to have her baby in peace. The solution to this "dilemma" is SO ridiculously obvious: find a secluded spot on the other side of the island (which is large enough to accommodate several volcanoes, it should be noted) and let the kids play in peace.  Fer gosh sakes, Kimba even offers to pull the kids off the island until the baby arrives! So what is there to fight about?! But the challenge is duly delivered.

As can be seen from his dejected appearance following his talk with Dan'l, Kimba clearly understands that his upcoming struggle is completely senseless. He does perk up a bit after the chief fish (Mack) tells him about Aeslop the Smart, though it's hard to see how the tale is directly relevant to Kimba's situation. Kimba, after all, has already demonstrated (in "Restaurant Trouble") that he can best Boss Rhino in a one-on-one fight, and so wouldn't necessarily have to depend upon "trickeration" to defeat his adversary, as Aeslop did. I think that the intent here was to set Kimba up as facing "impossible odds" against Boss Rhino, but the existence of that earlier fight undercuts the message.

I love the brief but charming scene in which Kimba awakens, yawns, and stretches at the cliff's edge at dawn. Not that it makes the ensuing set-to any more palatable. Boss Rhino's desire to make this silly quarrel a "fight to the finish" simply applies another twist of the knife. After the pair have beaten on each other for a while, Kimba summons the spirit of Aeslop by... spotting a chance to call off the fight and trying to take advantage of it. Not that Aeslop actually did that, or anything like it, during his tussle with Goblin, but, amazingly enough, Boss Rhino not only "calls" Kimba's bluff, he folds completely! I guess that Boss meant to say "no FOLDS barred." So what was the point of all this, again??

...While Kimba discovers the disadvantages of trial by combat.

Mercifully, nature now intervenes (actually, I'm surprised that Dan'l didn't initially attribute all that rumbling to the Devil), and Kimba whips his jungle charges into rescue mode. Judging by what will ultimately happen to the island -- and by how close Kimba's jungle apparently is to the island -- I'm actually surprised that Kimba's kingdom didn't turn out to be the object of a rescue mission itself. Kimba evinces a clear sense of responsibility towards the creatures who live in the danger zone. I wonder whether he would have done so had the kids not visited the area recently. Perhaps one of the "lost episodes" of Kimba (yeah, I wish...) concerned the animals' first visit to the island and their initial encounter with the fish, of whom they are clearly aware at the start of this ep.

At 16:45, Kimba displays his tool-making skills (and not for the last time) as he quickly puts together the rescue raft with no help whatsoever from the Unseen Omniscient Builder Guy. Now the visuals really start to become quite spectacular, so much so that you can almost ignore the repetitive "pew-pew-pew" of the falling chunks of flaming debris. This shot is particularly splendid:

The unusual cast of Kimba's iris is a nice touch, amplifying what must be an impending panic attack. Kimba fights it off, though, and joins forces with Boss Rhino to bring the Cousin Rhino family to safety. Boss Rhino appears to fall back into jerk mode when he snaps at Kimba for touching the baby, but this is actually just the flip side of Boss' stubbornness; he is fiercely loyal to his charges.

After a lengthy trial by fire and about five climactic, "I REALLY mean it this time!" eruptions (one of which includes some red-tinted footage from a real eruption), Volcano Island finally goes the way of Gusto's, and we get the obligatory "everyone bonds in the end" conclusion -- though Boss Rhino, of course, has to have the last word, albeit a humorously forceful one. This would have been a classic had we not wasted so much time with that battle that should never have been fought; a simple squabble over territorial rights would have set up the cooperation angle just as effectively and not left us shaking our heads at the absurdity of it all. At least the episode redeemed itself at the eleventh hour. The next two eps won't be so lucky.

Up next: Episode 39, "Running Wild."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Comics Review: DUCKTALES #6 (October 2011, kaboom!)

Why, oh why was this snazzy James Silvani cover relegated to the "B" leagues? The "A" cover, also by Silvani, shows a mixed bag of DuckTales and Darkwing Duck villains (including Glomgold -- and where's HE been?) treating Scrooge's Money Bin as a swimming pool. At least the "B" has an image that's at least tangentially related to the main storyline of "Dangerous Currency," though I'm beginning to wonder whether Magica even needs the Old #1 Dime, given what is revealed herein about her suddenly burgeoning powers.

DT #6 is pretty much S.O.P. for this concluding arc -- spasms of wild, magic-flecked action interwoven with "meaningful," often heavy-handed dialogue between the principal stars. Oh, and we mustn't forget the obligatory "groan-inducing continuity gaffe." Sadly absent is the funny, character-driven repartee that made the first half of DARKWING DUCK #17 so fun to read until the bottom fell out of the barrel in the latter stages. Some absent friends (well, one foe-turned-friend and one foe, to be specific) finally reveal themselves at issue's end, but so much of DT #6 is so over-the-top that the reappearances actually have less impact than I would have hoped. Toss in a heapin' helpin' of "What th' --?" moments, and that overall "Marginal" grade is definitely teetering on the brink as we head to DW #18 and the "we-sure-hope-it's-grand" finale.



OK, Negaduck ultimately being responsible for the slime, I can believe. But dragging a seemingly drugged Morgana back into the "Regularverse" behind him? Is Morgue in his power now?

In the first several pages of DT #6, Darkwing acts like, pardon the language, an utter jackass. Bitching about the "common" appearance of Gyro's lab? Has regular interaction with unusual sources of technical miracles (read: Honker) taught him nothing? And then, when Scrooge shows his guile by displaying a container of captured slime (how Scrooge got it, I have no clue, but he's nothing if not resourceful), DW explodes, "You old fool! You've doomed us all!!" Um, no, he hasn't, DW; you did make it safely back to Duckburg with the slime in tow, after all, so doom does not necessarily follow. This would have been a great moment for Launchpad to have "dialed back" to an earlier part of the story and seriously questioned his loyalty to DW, as opposed to Scrooge, more fervently than ever before. But LP does nothing of the kind. Nor do we see another hint of the clever byplay between Gosalyn, Webby, HD&L and Honker (the latter four happily restored to themselves, that's one comfort) that so brightened DW #17. At least the kids fared better than Mrs. Crackshell, who, after returning to Duckburg with the gang, abruptly disappears -- but not before revealing the slime's one weakness. It loses its potency if you yell near it. Yes, really. So what happens if a villain has it, or is near it, and proclaims victory in a loud and strident voice, as we have already seen on several occasions? And if you think THAT'S contrived...

The "cleaning R2D2, only to reveal a secret message" scene in Star Wars will never look "forced" to me again after reading the clumsy-beyond-belief revelation of Magica's "master plan" (what, and she didn't clue in Xanatos while she was at it?). Why would Magica need Fenton to "authenticate" the Old #1 Dime -- the same Fenton who once used the dime for an "emergency phone call," let us not forget -- much less drag him with her into the boundless corridors of time? How did the slime "bond" with the Gizmosuit in the first place, and why would said "bondage" allow the suit to broadcast what appears to be a computer projection of The Plan? And, judging by the Ducks' reactions, HD&L apparently knew that Fenton was Gizmoduck all along. Sigh. I hate those "What the hell, I'm only writing about cartoon ducks!" moments.

The rest of the ish is a mishmash of an awkward conversation between DW and Scrooge (about the propriety of bringing the kids along on adventures, this time) and a monster mash-up on the streets of Duckburg, culminating in the villains' "sliming" of Scrooge's Money Bin (with all this power at their fingertips, why bother stealing mere money anymore, guys?) and Negs' and Morgue's descent from a sky-portal that Matt Plotecher is probably regretting not copyrighting at this point. There is a level of budding apocalypticism here that worries me, and we haven't even begun the final chapter yet. Please don't tell me that there's going to be some mega-event in DW #18 that will throw both series' continuities into hotchpot and leave us poor fans high and dry just as the kaboom! era expires? At this point, I'm simply hoping for a "safe landing." Unfortunately, Launchpad's at the controls.

Book Review: RATIFICATION: THE PEOPLE DEBATE THE CONSTITUTION, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier (Simon and Schuster, 2011)

There are many, many books on the shelves about the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but surprisingly few on the contentious process by which the document was ratified by representatives in the various states. Maier's book admirably fills that gap, managing to make the lengthy, and frequently dry, debates in the ratification conventions come to life. In the course of winning the war of words, the pro-Constitution forces were forced to achieve a higher level of understanding of the meaning of the historic document, a vantage point that would serve the new United States well, most significantly in the adoption of amendments which would ultimately become known (though not until a while later) as the Bill of Rights. They also learned that simply relying on an urban-dominated majority to quickly ram ratification through (as was the case in Pennsylvania) could not serve as a global strategy. In the tense, near-run ratification fights in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, in particular, argument and persuasion, plus a healthy respect for the legitimate points raised by the "Anti-federalists" -- points that managed to breach the dike of a largely biased and hostile popular press -- were required to carry the day. Maier is at her best when describing the struggles in these three key states, in which old Revolutionary War allies frequently found one another on opposite sides of the debate. She also explains in some detail why the proponents of ratification found the sledding to be the toughest of all in Rhode Island and North Carolina, both of which took a while to accept the reality of the Constitutional regime. This is a highly readable and important contribution to the historiography of the early American republic.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Foot Fault

On Friday morning, I fell down the front steps of our house and sustained a badly sprained right ankle. I'm supposed to stay off my right foot as much as possible for the next two weeks. After watching my game, but spastically inept, efforts to manipulate a set of crutches, Nicky went out this morning and rented a "knee-walker" that will enable me to scoot around campus a little more easily. It'll be a bit dicey, but I'll manage...

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE, VOLUME 2: TRAPPED ON TREASURE ISLAND by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Press, 2011)

Volume 2 of Fantagraphics' GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY, which takes us up through the beginning of 1934, maintains the high production standards and copious ancillaries of the first volume. Its most signature achievement, however, is the delicacy with which it defuses the explosive racial stereotypes that litter "The Great Orphanage Robbery" and "Treasure Island," the two lengthy stories that take up much of 1932. "Presentist" hand-wringing and moral preening is kept to a minimum, and the black caricatures -- the "Uncle Tom" costumes that our heroes don to raise funds in "Orphanage Robbery," the incongruously Southern-accented cannibals of "Treasure Island" -- are "explained" and placed in historical context in a straightforward fashion.

As GeoX's exhaustive analysis of "Orphanage Robbery" makes clear, that story's cachet has mostly to do with the "notorious" blackface bits; the story itself is "bitty" and constructed in a rather ramshackle fashion, with a bizarrely cruel edge to boot. (It'll be harder for me to rip on the ineptitude of the police forces of Duckburg and St. Canard in the future after seeing what passed for "justice" in 1932 Mouseton.) "Treasure Island" isn't much better, but, as that story draws to an end, the classic MICKEY strip of the 30s literally begins to take shape with the arrival of Ted Thwaites as Gottfredson's inker. For some reason, Thwaites has not yet been included among those creators who rate mini-bios in the back of the book. I certainly hope that this oversight is remedied in the next volume, for the "slicker" look of the post-1932 MICKEY owes quite a bit to Thwaites.

"Blaggard Castle," with its ante-upping themes of mind control, madness, murder, and would-be world domination, is rightly flagged as a turning point in terms of the strip's being able to handle more "serious" themes. A few seams, like those in the Frankenstein monster's neck, still show; what good would it do for mad Professors Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex to sanction widespread homicide after receiving their "food, and jewels, and gold"? Have the crack-brained schemes of Big-O and Claw taught us nothing? As effective and chilling as this Gothic tale is, the classy "The Mail Pilot" has echoed more insistently down through the years, featuring as it does (1) the debut of Mickey's aerial ally Captain Doberman, (2) the birth of the surefire theme of Mickey getting into a great adventure while trying to master a risky trade, and (3) the first use of the "sky pirate" theme in a Disney context (cf. TaleSpin and Treasure Planet). I'd put this tale up against any of the stories in the "daring aviator" strips of the time insofar as quality and excitement are concerned. "Mickey's Horse Tanglefoot" and "The Crazy Crime Wave," the last two stories in this volume, are similarly polished and professional, with the latter introducing Dippy Dawg (Goofy) as the "Perfect Fool Foil" who will tag-team with Mickey throughout most of the rest of The Mouse's comics career. To be sure, Dippy isn't as endearing in "Crime Wave" as he would become -- an indignant Mickey literally boots him out of doors at one point -- but the classic cast is now rounding nicely into shape. Even the mini-continuity "Pluto and the Dogcatcher," which bridges the gap between "Blaggard Castle" and "The Mail Pilot," contains more than its share of interesting features: to wit, a Pluto who "thinks out loud" (was Gottfredson the first creator to show a dog doing this?) and a dogcatcher who resembles a lower-class version of Pete (as if such a thing were possible).

Tom Andrae's opening essay emphasizes, with good reason, how Gottfredson "spun off" many of his early narratives from the plots of animated cartoons. IMHO, however, the MICKEY strip truly became "great" once Gottfredson gained the confidence to craft his own plots. In that respect, "The Crazy Crime Wave" may be the single most important story in this volume. Unlike some of the earlier, choppier "original" stories, "Crime Wave" doggedly follows a single throughline to an amusingly clever payoff, and the gags sprinkled throughout are character-based (Mickey vs. the arrogant big-city detectives Barke and Howell; Mickey in "wars of wits" with his unarmed ally Dippy), as opposed to being inspired by animated slapstick. Having established to his own satisfaction that he had found a winning formula that would work on the printed page just as well as Mickey's rowdy early cartoons worked on the screen, Gottfredson leaves "Crime Wave" well positioned to move confidently into his -- and the strip's -- golden years.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Mustang Band's Last (Football) Bow

Stevenson's home football slate is now complete. While the growing pains are more than evident in the team's current 2-7 record, the trajectory for SU's fledgling marching band has been up, up, up. The band has maintained a consistent core routine throughout the season but has steadily embellished it, leading up to this 10-minute performance in last Saturday's final home game against Albright.

Plans are afoot to have a pep band at the basketball games this winter, so the band members should be able to maintain their chops in preparation for 2012. Great job, guys!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 37: "Legend of Hippo Valley"

If I were a philosophy professor and taught an ethics class, I'd want to use this episode as fodder for discussion. It's that good -- a fascinating "ethical dilemma" story packed to the brim with more "serious" content than just about any TV-cartoon ep I could name. Among the issues tackled here are: (1) the nature of good public policy -- specifically, whether the dire needs of the many should outweigh the desires and beliefs of the few; (2) the corrosive effects of religious hypocrisy; (3) the clash of mutually uncomprehending cultures; (4) the nature and importance of forgiveness. Lest you think that the "thinks" being "thunk" here are wholly highfalutin, Kimba and his subjects are also faced with executing a daunting task of engineering. Put it all together, and it's essentially the Kimba version of Bridge on the River Kwai. And I'm not just pulling that particular analogy out of my ear; I first got the idea that this ep could be used as an instructive tool when I remembered a sequence from the Alec Guinness classic (specifically, the business where Guinness has his war of wills with Sessue Hayakawa's Japanese prison commandant over the matter of officers performing manual labor) that I saw in a high-school theology class.

Much as I'd like to, I can't classify this episode as flawless, primarily because Claw makes an appearance after suffering his "definitive defeat" in "Jungle Fun"/"The Pretenders." Granted, Claw cooks up most of his villainy behind the scenes, which would make sense if he no longer felt capable of directly challenging Kimba one-on-one after the events of the two-parter, but the scenarists can't resist just one more tussle between Kimba and Claw -- and to call it perfunctory would be giving it too much credit. The opening and closing scenes are a little draggy (though the opening at least does a good job of establishing mood), and the plot's logic isn't completely airtight. That is about all that there is to rue here, however, and it's more than outweighed by the massive amount of good in this highly memorable ep.

We never do find out exactly WHY the monkeys are jumping up and down on the hollow log. Is this meant to be an equivalent of the Ben-Hur galley-slave scene, with the monkeys setting a work tempo? Then why isn't anyone following it?

The animals' attempt to alter the river's course for purposes of irrigation demonstrates just how sophisticated Kimba's kingdom has become since the days of "Jungle Thief," when the only responses to a drought were to turn to subsistence agriculture and otherwise pray for rain. The alteration of a natural landscape (for better or worse) is a sign that civilization's grip on the jungle world has become secure.

The scene in which Kimba and Dan'l explore Hippo Valley is creepy and effective, though that interminable "side-to-side-swinging shot" of the "crumbling" cliffs bespeaks just a bit of visual cheapskatery. There's nonetheless something bothersome here; surely, the duo must have visited the valley, even in passing, long before this? According to the maps that the ep helpfully provides for our convenience, the place is immediately adjacent to Kimba's kingdom. I call Kimba and Dan'l's unfamiliarity with the terrain a "security lapse," even though the hippos who give the valley its name are not antagonistic. At least, not most of the time...

Hippo Boss has a different voice (by Hal Studer) here than he did in his most recent star turn in "Jungle Justice," but he still sports the same laid-back attitude. As in his dealings with Clunker in the earlier episode, he "doesn't want any trouble," even to the extent of treating Kimba's accusation of a hippo attack with considerable restraint. Boss' attitude is a little more problematic here, though, because Tusker (Ray Owens) appears to be (1) a regular herd member, unlike the "newbie" Clunker, and (2) a past source of trouble (notice how quickly Boss calls out the sneak after Kimba and Dan'l have left the premises). Were Boss any kind of proactive leader, his next move would be to let Kimba know that Tusker's gang was responsible for the attack, but no such admission is forthcoming (a good thing, too, otherwise we'd have many minutes of dead air on our hands). Boss' responsibility for the coming trouble is therefore considerable. This is one case in which the "in, but not of" dwelling-apart nature of the hippos' relationship with the rest of the jungle shows to distinct disadvantage.

Old Methuselah (Gilbert Mack), the former "Bushdaddy" of "The Wind in the Desert," now makes his first appearance as the living, breathing repository of jungle history, and the tale he spins is a good one. Certainly, it's the series' best use of an "African tribal" motif; in its use of semi-stylized figures, the scene bears a certain resemblance to the opening El-Ahrairah sequence of the cinematic Watership Down. The sudden refreshing of the well when the old hippo (Studer) arrives is, however, problematic. The well presumably dried up because the Kurdus refused to share their water with a stranger, and, as we'll see, the valley's "curse" can only truly be broken by what is in effect an atonement for that "original sin." By contrast, the sudden interposition of a "miracle" that saves the old hippo -- the event that turned the valley into the hippos' "sacred place" -- seems to happen simply because it needs to in order to set the plot's main conflict in motion.

One could get a great debate going, not on Kimba's laughing dismissal of the "curse" of Hippo Valley -- his disdain for supernatural phenomena has long since been established -- but on his apparently casual off-the-paw decision to continue trying to flood the valley, which would essentially flush the hippos' holy ground to hell in order to bring on high water. Should Kimba have been more sensitive to the hippos' feelings here? Does the "for the greater good" argument, um, hold water? Would Kimba's decision have looked better had he made a more strenuous effort to establish a closer "governing relationship" with the semi-autonomous hippos? There is plenty to chew on as we swing into the "action-oriented" portion of what has, up to now, been a very "talky" episode.

Evidently fully convinced that he's on the right course, both logistically and morally, Kimba flashes an unusual amount of "attitude" in the ensuing scene. Giving his subjects a serenade on the "birdophone" is not exactly S.O.P. for our normally proper jungle prince. Then, when Kitty arrives (how did she find out that Kimba needed help? Did the "mail stork" intervene here?), Kimba essentially uses sarcasm in order to shame the other animals into helping him and his lady love tote them rocks.

Hippo Boss' recognition that "the greater good" may require the use of the "sacred valley" comes too late as Tusker forcibly takes command of the herd and, full of apparent righteousness, calls the other hippos to a holy crusade. (Tusker must have felt himself possessed of a sudden spasm of "divine" strength here, else how could he have drubbed Kimba and Kitty so easily?) The truth then dribbles out as we learn that Tusker's "hippopietistic fidelity" is basically a cover for a supposed alliance with Claw. Move over, Tartuffe, you have company. Cassius sounds even more sinister in this scene than is his normal wont; he almost sounds as if he's channeling Mephistopheles. It seems fitting under the circs, given Tusker's religious posing.

Give Claw at least a tiny bit of credit; he must really like (or lust after) Kitty a lot in order to completely blow his scheme in favor of a mad "heroic" dash to save her. The best thing about the ensuing "fight," by far, is the little butt-shimmy that Kimba gives us before pitching into his arch-enemy. He's an "old paw" at this sort of thing by now. Alas, the sound then mysteriously snaps off (was there a problem with the original soundtrack at this point?), and the ensuing chase sequence looks more like a level of Donkey Kong. I half expected to hear a "Pew-pew-pew..." sound effect when Claw fell into the river and drifted out of our lives.

The exchange between Dodie and the defeated, but newly repentant, Hippo Boss is my favorite scene in the episode. The imaginative lighting effects behind Dodie are a particularly classy touch... and thank goodness that the soundtrack stayed away from an intrusive musical underscore. There was no need to hammer the point home. The same understated drama is on display when Boss decides to sacrifice the valley in order to help the other animals and save the farm. The good he does pays off, as the "curse" is definitively shattered once and for all. The episode... well, just sort of peters out from there, but in a pleasant sort of way, so I don't mind the shapelessness too much.

No doubt you're wondering, "What became of Tusker?" Good question. Did he have to pay for his treachery, face a little bit of "Jungle Justice"? This isn't the same as forgetting about Mr. Potter at the end of It's a Wonderful Life; Tusker actively conspired with Kimba's main adversary, fer gosh sakes. Given Kimba's generous nature, Tusker probably stood a chance of being forgiven, but the hippos would have had just as much to say about Tusker's fate, and I doubt that they would be as willing to acquit him. Here is where the larger theme of the ep may have come into play. Might Hippo Boss, having now recognized the virtue of forgiveness, have convinced his fellow hippos to let Tusker off lightly, or at the very worst banish him? If so, then the lesson really did take -- and the animals of Kimba's kingdom would have proven themselves to be more "civilized" than many of the human societies that they are striving to imitate. Sounds like a good note on which to dismiss the class...

Up next: Episode 38, "Volcano Island."