Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Bubba's Big Brainstorm"

OK, Greg, "Bubba's Big Brainstorm" is certainly no classic, but "the worst" DTVA production until the era of Quack Pack?? I can't go that far.

I completely agree with Greg and GeoX that the subtle-as-an-icepick-to-the-head anti-intellectual theme of this ep is completely wrong-headed. The ideological objections to "Brainstorm" as some sort of right-wing commentary on the fecklessness of intellectuals are, however, way off base. Why else would Frank Welker have essayed a voice-parody of William F. Buckley, of all people, as the voice of the super-smart Bubba. This was, I would assume, an attempt to make Bubba seem all the more repulsive to the (not-entirely-inconsequential) adult segment of the DT viewing audience. Actually, I find Welker's Buckley parody virtually the only thing to truly enjoy about this episode. But its use does rather undercut any attempt to fasten a "quick and neat" ideological label onto the production.

Just wait till you review "Yuppy Ducks," Greg.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: RASCAL RACCOON'S RAGING REVENGE! by Brendan Hay and Justin Wagner (Oni Press, 2011)

What would be the consequences if Wile E. Coyote finally did manage to destroy and/or eat the Road Runner? Or if Elmer Fudd's aim at Bugs Bunny were for once true? This ambitious graphic novel tackles the great philosophical conundrum of Toon-dom, and, when all is said and done, counts as at least half of a success. The immediate fallout from "Meanie" Rascal Raccoon's presence at the demise of "Merrie" Jumpin' Jackalope (and I'm wording that description carefully for a good reason, as you'll see) is funny and very believable, while Rascal's subsequent sojourn into the world of the human "Pen Men" to give his broken life some new purpose (and, just perhaps, to win over Jumpin' ex-wife and Rascal's ex-flame, the luscious, hot-pants-sporting Janey Jackalope) is... well... philosophically problematic, at best. At the very least, the latter adventure opens up a very big can of worms regarding the extent to which the denizens of "Toonie Terrace" possess free will or are the puppets of forces beyond their control. Writer Brendan Hay's overarching approach is "whatever works... and is funny," but I wasn't entirely convinced by his explanation of the dilemma, and the ending is particularly underwhelming. Still, thanks in great measure to the charming artwork of Justin Wagner, this is a fun read and well worth an investment by anyone who enjoys those Golden Age Toons of yesteryear.



It's fitting that Rascal Raccoon -- who actually looks a lot more like Wile E. Coyote with a ringed tail than an adult version of, say, POGO's Rackety Coon Chile -- gets the title to himself. Though a "Meanie," complete with a cloud-shrouded dump of a lair on the literal "bad side" of Toonie Terrace and a big line of credit with the gadget-suppliers at Pits (get it?), he's actually pretty likable from the off. His crabbiness is understandable, given Jumpin' smart-aleck comments and annoying, Newton The Centaur-esque repeated-phrases shtick ("You old wheeler! You old dealer!"), and despite the occasional (OK, make that reasonably frequent) moment of despair, he seems to enjoy his scheming in a manner that Wile E. never did. It's almost too bad, therefore, that he doesn't actually cause Jumpin's death; he's simply "present at the de-creation" when the despised "jerk-a-lope" is struck by a couple of semis (I assume that Hay was being ironic here, recalling how often Wile E. was smashed into by trucks, trains, etc.) The other Meanies, of course, treat Rascal like a hero... but then, he realizes just how empty his life has really been. I imagine that the guilty knowledge that he took credit for the kill-shot was a major reason for Rascal's quick degeneration into a bar-haunting ne'er-do-well.

Rascal's pal Monty Boombast (imagine a combination of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Speedy Gonzales -- and then stand back) triggers a new ambition in the ex-"arch" (short for "archenemy," don'tcha know) when he tells Rascal about the "magic pens" that the "Merries" get from allies in the mysterious world of the "Pen Men." This is cleverly played as a creationist vs. evolutionist conceit (Rascal thinks that Toonies evolved from "silent, black and white animals" rather than being "creatified" by some outside agency) and gives Rascal a new target to pursue, but it also begins to blur the distinction between the world of the Toonies and the world of humans. The point of cartoons like Duck Amuck and Comicalamities is that the breaking of the divide between worlds was portrayed as atypical. Here, the barrier seems more like a permeable membrane.

Rascal gets Jumpin's ex Janey to lend her "magic pen" to the cause by claiming that he wants to bring Jumpin' back to life, and away the duo go into a human world that, at times, seems almost as cartoony as that of Toonie Terrace. The expected amount of fun is poked at theme parks ("Toonie World"), Korean assembly-line animation studios, clueless CEOs who are living off the progeny of long-dead creators, "furry" fans and cosplayers (a bit of a surprise, actually, given the outfit that published this book), and overwrought cartoon fans with too much time on their hands. (The mock-critical essay "The Rise of Rascal Raccoon" that follows the story reminds me of nothing more than a cross-breeding of the notorious "Elmo Aardvark" article that ran in WILD CARTOON KINGDOM and the "Please Get a Life Foundation" segment that ran on Animaniacs.) We also get some teasing hints (though no more than that -- this isn't one of Oni's regular titles!) that, despite Janey's understandable anger at Rascal for taking the credit for her husband's death, they might actually strike up a relationship at some point. The problem is, I can't really get a handle on how, exactly, the human creation of "Toonie Treats" led to the "real" denizens of Toonie Terrace going through their repetitive paces, or even if there was a cause and effect relationship. Case in point: Rascal looks horrified when he watches some old cartoons and rips into the CEO for "allowing" him to sustain all that punishment. He even clearly references one of the injuries he's seen. But, in the very next panel, the CEO claims that "nobody [at the studio] makes you do anything." I confess to being as confused as Rascal was. Some references are also made to the fact that Toons have a harder time bouncing back from pratfalls in the human world than they do in Toonie Terrace, which shows at least some awareness of the dilemmas involved here. To be frank, though, I think that my friend Matt Plotecher did a much better job of handling this matter when he brought Darkwing Duck into the Rescue Rangers' world in his fanfic "There and Back... Again?".

Not surprisingly, Rascal finally slips back into "Meanie" mode and creates a monster that's destined to destroy Burbank... until Rascal himself has a change of heart and literally erases the monster himself, nearly killing himself in the process. (Luckily, Janey helps him step back from the brink.) Vowing to get out of the "arching" business for good so he can be "the only idiot in control of me" (but I thought the human world had no control over him?), Rascal returns with Janey to the world of the Toonies...



... just in time for Jumpin' to come back to life. And Rascal doesn't even seem to be that surprised by the development. Say wha'? Rascal, the other "Meanies," and the grieving "Merries" sure didn't evince any such advance knowledge of Jumpin's eventual return earlier in the story. The return to the status quo ante is certainly consistent with the "permanent reset button" used in classic Toons past, but, in this context, it comes totally out of left field. Since he has renounced "Meanie-dom," Rascal now faces a life of inventive tinkering (with, it must be said, at least some hope of success). It could be counted as a happy ending for him, but, from my perspective, the tale just sort of peters out. Rascal even figuratively throws up his hands when he says that, despite his apparent success in building a "video thing" that literally allows the Toonies to see their own cartoon adventures, he "still doesn't quite get the rules" of how the two worlds relate. You and me both, pal.

Despite its flaws, RASCAL RACCOON'S RAGING REVENGE! is very enjoyable. On a slow day during a comics convention, you might even be able to get a really good discussion group going amongst your Toon-fancying peers as to how to untangle the various philosophical issues raised herein. Or, you might just enjoy looking at Janey Jackalope in hot pants. It's your choice... and that's a good thing.

Monday, January 23, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 48, "The Red Menace"

We've seen fires in Kimba episodes prior to this one -- the "chungle fi-yah" that the crazed Herr Director sets to add realistic drama to his movie in "Two Hearts and Two Minds," the somewhat gratuitous and melodramatic blaze served up at the climax of "Diamonds in the Gruff." "The Red Menace," by contrast, sets up a can't-miss battle between Kimba's kingdom and a potentially deadly conflagration as its sole raison d'etre, and the result is one of the series' most visually impressive and emotionally freighted viewing experiences. The sense of peril is heightened by a curious conceit in which the characters seem to find it difficult to say the very word "fire," much as the wizards in the HARRY POTTER novels tried to avoid saying "Voldemort" whenever possible. Fittingly, just as Harry Potter was the most willing to avoid euphemisms of the "You Know Who" variety and speak the true name of the evil that threatened the wizards' world, so Kimba, the Harry-figure of this particular "universe," calls the perilous blaze "fire" more often than anyone else. Add one great act of compassion, one moment of intellectual inspiration, and the direction of a monumental feat of natural engineering that would put most human techies to shame, and Kimba comes out looking mighty good here... even though he is actually helpless during the most dramatic sequence of the ep.

Peewee the elephant and his mother (given the name "Patsy" here) return here for the first time since "Too Many Elephants." They're not actually subjects of Kimba's, preferring instead to live with other elephants in nearby Gullygap Valley, but there is abundant evidence that Peewee and Patsy have been in contact with their old friend since they left the game preserve...

Link to episode at Hulu

As in "Volcano Island," we get a nice use of real (tinted) fire-and-smoke footage to gin up the opening scenes of fire-fleeage. Even so, the pyro-dramatics were hardly necessary, as the first couple of scenes are more than frightening enough. Dot, Dash, and Dinky's "isn't this neat?" reaction again firmly establishes them as distinct juniors to the more responsible Kimba, who leads the charge to find Peewee. It's clear that, even though Peewee and Patsy have chosen to live in Gullygap Valley, they must have gotten word to Kimba at some point about their current whereabouts, else how would Kimba and D-cubed even know that Peewee was there?

I would have been keenly disappointed had Kimba's getting his tail singed been played for laughs. No doubt, had Pauley or Bucky accompanied Kimba on this mission, the animators would probably have tried to squeeze out a few yocks at their expense. No, this episode, like the "red menace" itself, definitely "means business."

When Peewee is located, he immediately starts up with one of this episode's lone debits, the "Goody gumdrops!" conceit. The "gumdrops" references will all too quickly be smashed into the ground like a lost Jujube flattened on the pavement by the feet of dozens of heedless passersby. Apart from the fact that Peewee shouldn't even know what a gumdrop is, the ootsey-cutesy sentiment seems like too obvious a bid to tickle the child audience into replying, "Aw, that Peewee is so silly!" Given his rather annoying, high-pitched voice, Peewee was already fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously; this "gumdrops" business sure doesn't help his cause.

Technically, I suppose that Kimba was taking an ethical risk in offering Kelly Funt's grazing grounds to the Gullygap elephants. Seeing as how Kelly's herd is not formally a part of Kimba's kingdom, it could be argued that Kimba was being a little presumptuous here. But remember that Kimba was willing to feed some of the animals' precious stock of seeds to help keep one animal alive in "Jungle Thief." The occasional hiccup-ep like "The Return of Fancy Prancy" aside, it isn't in Kimba's nature not to be compassionate in a situation like this.

Kelly Funt (Ray Owens, this time) is both more "Irish" and considerably more truculent than he was in "A Friend in Deed." If the episode had gone on longer, would he have started ranting and raving and going purple in the face (or at least the trunk) at some point? I'm glad we never had to find out. Kelly's selfishness is truly infuriating here. Check out the nasty trunk-whip that he gives D-cubed. I'll bet that Dinky's snout ached for weeks.

Kimba and Peewee's aborted "night grass raid" permits us to wave a final goodbye (or should that be good riddance?) to Tom and Tab, as they blow the whistle on the former for no reason other than to be contrary. And then Kelly's cold-bloodedness really comes to the fore, as he traps Kimba and Peewee in the ruined tower "dungeon" even though he must be aware that the fire is approaching. At the very least, he knows that the fire is close enough to have forced Peewee's herd to abandon Gullygap Valley. This may be the nastiest thing that any animal who is not an out-and-out villain has done during the entire series.

Funny thing about the elephants' dungeon... in the manner of Daffy Duck's "one-off act" at the end of Show Biz Bugs, the dungeon can only be closed once! How did the elephants incarcerate their enemies before they initiated this rockslide?

Barks fans know the emotional drill of the subsequent scene. We don't see a single sight with the impact of the flames licking at the bunkers where the Ducks have buried themselves in "Vacation Time," but the fact that Kimba and Peewee essentially must trust to good fortune to survive the fire, without making any last-minute preparations, almost makes up for it. Billie Lou Watt's dramatic coughing and hacking is both a great job of acting and a case for sober reflection, given that she would die of emphysema many years later. I can just imagine her inhaling an extra portion of cigarette smoke to help put this scene over...

The other animals' rush to the rescue of the trapped pair is similarly packed with pathos and excellent acting. Kimba and Dan'l's reunion is exceptionally poignant, with Kimba uncommonly tearful, questioning the "foolishness" of his own heart, and "Uncle Dan'l" literally acting like a wise, forgiving old uncle. Kimba's emotional "delayed reaction" may partially stem from his realization that he is well and truly lucky to be alive, and that his well-meant generosity came close to depriving the jungle of its leader. Kimba's tears here are those of a mature leader with many responsibilities, rather than a child. A "Heart-ful" scene, with emphasis.

And speaking of "delayed reactions," Kimba now has his own "Vacation Time Donald" moment as he recognizes a way to use the jungle's own natural resources to hold back the blaze. This is arguably even more impressive than Donald's famous brainstorm, in that Kimba has absolutely no civilizational accouterments on which to draw. This is going to be an appeal to sheer animal muscle-power... and, frankly, the animals' ability to put together their firewall with such dispatch is nothing short of mind-boggling. Tezuka must have been kicking himself that he didn't think of using such a dramatic sequence as part of JUNGLE EMPEROR. The theme of cooperation and hard work has rarely been as gloriously on display in Kimba as it is here. You might argue just a bit for the work that the animals put in to build the amusement center in "Jungle Fun," but there's really no comparison... the survival of the jungle itself is at stake here.

The ep now begins to parallel the climax of "Diamonds in the Gruff" in earnest (and not simply because of the fire) as Kelly Funt takes the Gruff role and rumbles with it. Given the truly despicable nature of his earlier actions, Kelly's "face-turn" here is fairly remarkable. He doesn't even wait until after the emergency is past to issue a formal apology to Kimba and Peewee, as Gruff did to Kimba in "Diamonds." No doubt, it was the added muscle-power of Kelly's herd that allowed Dan'l "rescue truck" to come to the aid of Kelly, Kimba, and Peewee with such incredible dispatch, and for the animals to complete the firewall just in time to beat back the blaze. The ancient Egyptians who stood in awe of the Ur-Kimba in the flashback sequences of "Journey Into Time" would have been better served to have "prayed up" this bunch of critters to help them build the Pyramids!

Unless Kimba imparted some information about incredibly fast-growing grass to Peewee and his herd, I don't see how the Gullygap elephants' going back to their burnt-out home constitutes a "happy" ending. ("We'll work hard to make Gullygap flourish again... unless we starve to death first!") The more proper ending would have been for Peewee's herd to join Kelly's, with perhaps an "advance party" being sent back to Gullygap to scout out potential locations for planting grass or starting a farm. But Kimba just loved using those endings of one or more characters leaving the scene while other characters bid them goodbye, so what's another such wrapup? Not a perfect episode, but pretty doggoned close, I'd say.

Up next: Episode 49, "The Sun Tree."

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Comics Review: PEANUTS #1 (January 2012, kaboom!)

Seems I fibbed -- in a retroactive sense -- regarding my earlier proclamation, based on the rather unimpressive PEANUTS #0, that I would confine my future PEANUTS purchases to the Fantagraphics reprint series. I'd completely forgotten that I had preordered PEANUTS #1 in PREVIEWS. When the book arrived in what has recently been a cold and bare pull box at the store, I decided to give the title one more whirl. And "one more" will probably hold good, though #1 is legitimately better than #0. The two original leads, "Music Goes Round" (which I'd probably have titled "Music in Mind," since it has to do with a popular song that gets passed around from character to character like a bad aural penny) and "Cat Cash," feature ingenious visual effects and some more than competent sham-Schulz artwork. The use of musical staves in "Music Goes Round" pays homage to a longstanding PEANUTS tradition, and Frieda and her long-unseen "amazing spineless cat," Faron, are welcome visitors in "Cat Cash," wherein Lucy tries to cash in on a promised reward for finding the lost kitty and dragoons an unwilling Snoopy to help her do it. Lucy also shows us "How to Draw Charlie Brown" (an ironic choice, since Charlie of the famously round head was always among the toughest characters for Schulz to draw) and sprinkles her demo with the expected insults. Three vintage Schulz Sunday gags (including the famous "Am I buttering too loud for you?" gag, which Schulz literally recycled many years later with different characters) round out a pleasant enough package. Pleasant, but not "special" enough to justify any further contributions to kaboom!'s coffers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE by Frederick Brown (Knopf, 2010)

Americans are by now familiar with the so-called "culture wars" pitting the "red states" against the "blue states." In late 19th century France, the divide was between the tricolore and the fleur de lis, between those determined to firmly establish a secular French Republic and those who wished France to remain true to its heritage of "throne and altar." The most notorious flare-up on this front was the Dreyfus Affair, but even works of literature, natural disasters, great feats of engineering, and expositions celebrating French progress became "cultural footballs" during this time period, as Frederick Brown relates in this engrossing work.

The book's narrative "spine," so to speak, is formed from descriptions of three famous fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900. The longest-lasting by-product of these events was the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. We think of the Tower today as the veritable symbol of Paris, if not France itself, but, for those who had never fully accepted the radical surgery that the Revolution had performed on French society, this thousand-foot spire was an unwelcome interloper in an ancient city that had already lost a good deal of its medieval character, thanks to the damage from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the suppression of the Paris Commune. Insults hurled at the Tower included "a disgraceful giant skeleton" and "an odious column of bolted metal" than even uncouth Americans wouldn't stoop to create. More bizarrely, the Tower was held up as the product of a conspiracy of "cosmopolites," i.e. Jews. Just as anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany before Hitler, so, too, did French anti-Semitism predate Dreyfus. Indeed, the feelings were arguably more bitter in France, because of the longstanding alliance between French government and the Catholic Church. With powerful republicans pushing to separate Church and State in France -- and finally succeeding in doing so in the early 1900s -- traditionalists felt besieged on political, religious, and cultural fronts. The Dreyfus Affair combined all three elements, which helps explain what, to a non-Frenchman, must seem its mystifyingly lengthy half-life.

Brown does a fine job of summarizing the main points of L'affaire, but it is only one of the many featured elements here. Renan's LIFE OF JESUS is seen as an important turning point in the accelerating secularization of French culture, in addition to being a landmark in Biblical criticism. The early struggles of the ill-fated Third Republic, plagued from within by instability and corruption and from without by threats from Left and Right, not to mention the occasional would-be Bonapartist figure (cf. the dilatory General Georges Boulanger), are discussed in considerable detail, as are the financial disasters of the Union Generale and the Panama Canal Company, which at once left the door wide open for political and social corruption and stoked the fiery fantasies of those convinced that Jewish financial intrigue was to blame for the companies' downfall. The most chilling tale of all, from a modern perspective, may be the treatment of a disastrous 1897 fire that destroyed a Parisian charity bazaar sponsored by wealthy Catholic ladies. Hardly were the corpses identified and laid to rest when populists and Catholics alike were busily using them as political pawns, with the former describing the proletarians who rushed to help fight the fire as the "true heroes" of the disaster and the latter eulogizing the victims as martyrs who had died to atone for a sinful nation that had turned away from the true faith. The rapid politicization of Hurricane Katrina is uncomfortably close to this and, furthermore, suggests that, with secularists increasingly identifying themselves as members of one American political party and religious believers as members of the other, America may be headed for the same unholy combination of combined religious, political, and cultural disagreement coming to be seen as the natural order of things. If anyone believes that this is a good thing, Brown's book -- and a bit of reflection on the subsequent history of France in the 20th century -- will quickly convince him or her otherwise.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 47, "The Cobweb Caper"

"Dangerous Journey" alone excepted, "The Cobweb Caper" is arguably Kimba's finest hour in a "classically heroic" sense. It's all the easier to root for the jungle prince here because he is forced to shoulder a heaping burden of adversity, both physical and psychological. Indeed, the key to saving the jungle from the predations of a vicious giant spider (Gilbert Mack, providing a far nastier variation on his Boss Claw voice) is a suggestion that Kimba makes while he's literally "out of his head." To be sure, many other animals pitch in to help -- given Kimba's parlous condition throughout the ep's midsection, they're forced to do so -- but the day isn't saved until the feverish, palsied Kimba lends a paw under the most challenging of conditions. Kimba doesn't truthfully get to fight here, but the ordeal that he must undergo is worth at least one or two punch-ups.

The episode's effectiveness is sharpened by the fact that Kimba must duel the spider all by himself during the eerie opening sequence. Thanks to some superb visuals and a bravura performance by Billie Lou Watt, an aura of tension, terror, and stress is sustained from the start. The sense of dread and impending doom is almost that of a high-quality horror movie... and, fittingly, Kimba must fight through one particular moment of horror that's arguably one of the most dramatic of the series.

As was the case at the beginning of "Running Wild," Kimba appears to be "tuned in" to danger menacing his subjects. By this time, I can easily believe that he's developed something of a "sixth sense" concerning what's going down around him. Speaking of senses, I have to assume that Kimba used his sense of smell to deduce that Boss Rhino and Samson were among the "web-fingered." It's not as if he were given any clear visual cues.

The spider's working methods seem a little peculiar. He seems content to leave certain animals right where they were neutralized (even unto apparently freezing them in mid-stride -- I didn't know spiders could do that), but he immediately takes Kimba to his lair. Does the spider have some inkling that Kimba is a jungle authority figure?

Whence the "sparklies" that we see when Kimba is spirited away, and, later, when Kimba is hanging upside down in the spider's den? Unless we've suddenly returned to the City of Gold or the Atlas Mountains, this is probably just an animation effect. Billie Lou almost plays it too casually when Kimba realizes that he's been caught in a spider web; the sweat pouring off Kimba at that moment suggests that he's far more scared than Billie Lou's "Well, how about that?" reading of the lines would suggest. BL will make up for this soon enough, though.

You almost have to laugh at the sight of Kimba's "inchworm" escape... that is, until you recognize that Kimba was never close to being this vulnerable when he was battling the Destroyers from the Desert or the lizards on Stony Mountain. In those cases, at least, he was fighting straight-up battles with all of his physical faculties at the ready. Even the baby Kimba tussling with the turbulent sea in "Go, White Lion!" had his entire body to work with. All that keeps Kimba from becoming an immediate canape at this juncture is sheer determination.

Sadly, we get cheated out of a chance to see how Kimba managed to escape the raging river. Not that this is anything new; remember how the scene of Kimba and the chief lizard tumbling into the gorge in "Dangerous Journey" was ruthlessly slashed? It's not as if anyone is going to "attempt these stunts" at home...

Kimba's shocked reaction to the possibility that all of his friends and subjects may have been destroyed is simply marvelous. Indeed, the pic below may be my single favorite still of the series. You can see horror, fear, and determination in Kimba's eyes as he pledges to "stop the spider" from further mayhem, even as he's grieving over what he believes to be the death of (1) his friends and (2) his whole dream of a jungle civilization. Better yet, you can hear these various emotions in Billie Lou's voice. No "Blah-la-la"-ing a la "Destroyers" here! Similarly, the "big gulp" that Kimba gives before tearing into the cave, fully prepared to fight the spider to the death, is parsecs removed from the comedic gullet-bobbing that he gave before going in to retrieve Tom and Tab from the Cavern of Goldopolis. It turns out to be a false alarm, of course, but Kimba has rarely been as unequivocally admirable as he is here. This is what true leadership is all about.

Cheshire Cat in reverse: notice how Kimba's subjects materialize in the cave, first their eyes and then their bodies! A nice trick if you can manage it.

Kimba's rather shamefaced apology to Dan'l marks the debut of a cute, albeit late-arriving, conceit: he refers to the baboon as "Uncle Dan'l." That phrase will pop up in several of the other remaining eps. I'd enjoy the phrase better if it had been used at the start of the series and then slowly phased out. Kimba honestly should not still be in an "old mentor/young mentee" relationship with Dan'l at this late stage of the game. Of course, recent eps have mixed depictions of a mature Kimba with portrayals of a childlike Kimba with no apparent rhyme or reason, so "there you go," as Greg Weagle would say. Dot, Dash, and Dinky's babyish caterwauling at least firmly establishes that they are not supposed to be nearly as mature as Kimba in this setting.

The run-up to Kimba's getting zapped by the tsetse fly nicely contrasts Dan'l's knowledge about the hidden dangers of jungle life with Kimba's still-healthy portion of civilizationally-shaped naivete. Still, it might have worked even better had Kimba been stung when he was a much younger cub, as opposed to the adolescent he is now. I certainly would think that Dan'l would have had some cause to warn Kimba about the danger prior to this. Isn't the jungle simply crawling with flies?

It strikes me that Kimba, having had no prior opportunity to develop any sort of immunity to animal African trypanosomiasis, should have been laid even lower by the tsetse's bite than he was. Kimba goes off the beam right away, which would appear to indicate that his system was completely unprepared for the shock, but, despite the loopiness and the perspiration, he never appears to be that close to death. He probably has those "hardy white lion genes" to thank for the tsetse's striking him such a glancing physiological blow.

After a pointless scene reminding us that the spider is really, really mean (was this some sort of flashback?), Kimba inadvertently provides the solution to the animals' dilemma when he gives Dan'l the idea of using spider wasps. (By the bye, those little buggers really are what Dan'l would call the spider's "pizen," and they do build mud hives, so thumbs up for the zoological shout-outs!) The others intend this to be Kimba's only contribution to the anti-spider campaign, but he ditches the humorously fatalistic Harry Hedgehog ("You're supposed to stay here and rest, but you're not going to, are you?" -- LOL!) and wobbles off to help out. Even in his poor condition, Kimba seems to realize that he's in no shape to battle the spider one-on-one; he merely serves as a decoy while the animals pepper the monster with wasps. He does, however, almost give the game away when he gives Dan'l instructions while the spider is right there to overhear them. Turnabout becomes fair play as Kimba repays Dan'l for previously taking care of him by hitching a ride when the spider appears to be bearing the baboon away to his doom. Then follows a cliff's edge climax a la "Monster of the Mountain"... and, while there don't appear to be any out-of-place piranha fish awaiting the spider in the river, even the Titan crew wasn't willing to muddy this obvious kill with any verbal qualifiers.

The ending scene could have been stronger; despite his ordeal, Kimba should certainly be able to recognize the difference between dangerous and benevolent beasties. But there's precious little to dislike here. It's a good omen for what will prove to be a rock-solid conclusion to the series.

Up next: Episode 48, "The Red Menace."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bearing Gums

On Friday, I had some plastic surgery done on the gums in the lower right corner of my mouth. Specifically, a piece of tissue was taken from my palate and grafted onto my gums to combat a receding gum line.

I have to wear a plastic, form-fitting palate cover for a while and also avoid chewing on the right side of my mouth for a couple of weeks. I'm managing OK, though "th" sounds are going to be tricky for a bit.

Book Review: HERGE, THE MAN WHO CREATED TINTIN by Pierre Assouline, translated by Charles Ruas (Oxford University Press, 2009)

It won't surprise you to learn that the release of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's TINTIN movie has been accompanied by an upsurge in publications (or reprints of publications) devoted to both the intrepid reporter and his rather unassuming creator. This particular biography has been available for several years and is a fairly decent starting point for those who want to learn more about Georges Remi and how Tintin and his "world" came to be. Numerous flaws plague the narrative, however. These include both avoidable errors of fact (such misspellings as "Charles Schultz" and "Max Sennett"; Richard Nixon's historic first trip to China being dated 1976, rather than 1972) and a somewhat shaky English translation by Charles Ruas, which, bizarrely, includes dialogue from the TINTIN books in addition to the main text. The English TINTIN translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner have been available for many years and are superior to Ruas' versions in every particular. It is not clear why they were not used.

Assouline is at his best when describing Herge's wartime and immediate postwar activities, which are, to say the least, controversial. While making it clear that Herge was not an active collaborator during the German occupation of Belgium -- he avoided politics in his wartime stories and "merely" published in an "officially sanctioned" newspaper that was subject to Nazi censorship -- the author extends the "gray area" of passive collaboration to somewhat wider dimensions than I have seen in other publications. Herge was very solicitous of old friends and associates who had much more involvement with the occupation regime, and he became well known after the war as a willing source of aid to those on employment blacklists. This reflected Herge's personal loyalty and stubbornness more than it did his political views, but it also left him open to similar, albeit non-government-sponsored, excommunications. (LE SOIR, the "compromised" paper for which Herge worked during the war, did not even mention his name for more than 20 years after the liberation of Belgium.) Herge's feelings of resentment and persecution are understandable, but so are the feelings of some of his critics that he managed to get off lightly and was essentially "saved" by the popularity of TINTIN.

Herge's "dark years" of the late 40s, during which he suffered greatly from depression and worked only in fits and starts as a result, also acquire a far more sombre hue in Assouline's narrative. That Herge was overworked (due to his duties as artistic director of the new TINTIN magazine and the need to reconfigure older stories for the reprint market) is well known; I did not know, however, that he felt so far gone as to seriously contemplate emigrating to Argentina (a rather questionable choice, given the famed ex-Nazi exodus to that country). Herge also tried to interest the Disney studios in his creation, only to receive a rebuff. Not until the Herge Studios became formally organized as a support group in the early 50s did original TINTIN stories resume a reasonably steady pace of production. Even then, Herge's output noticeably slowed down after 1950, as his standards for starting and executing new narratives became more and more unforgiving.

Despite the factual goofs, I would recommend this bio for those with a budding interest in Herge and the TINTIN phenomenon. A definitive critical biography, however, lies somewhere in the future.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

RIP Vicar (Victor Arriagada Rios)

Along with Daniel Branca, Freddy Milton, Daan Jippes, and Volker Reiche, Vicar was one of the Disney Duck artists who brought (non-reprinted) quality back to American Disney comics, thanks to Gladstone Comics' extensive use of his work during the line's first (1986-1990) incarnation. His myriad efforts remained a mainstay of all American Disney lines up through and including Boom! (cf. the stories drawn by him that were dialogued by Joe Torcivia).

The best way that I can describe Vicar's style is that it was the Duck-comics' equivalent of "comfort food." He didn't wow me with a splashy early effort, as Don Rosa did with "The Son of the Sun", or Kari Korhonen did with "Sons of the Moon". His work never possessed the slickness of Branca or Cesar Ferioli, or the cuteness and cleverness of Massimo Fecchi. The most memorable Vicar stories were generally memorable because of the extra ounces of oomph that his co-creators gave them (hi, Joe!). But he was steady and reliable, and his stuff was always high-quality. Indeed, it's thanks to him and his fellow Gladstone "creationists" that I came to expect high-quality original work in American Disney comics as a matter of course. Those with longer memories (hi again, Joe!) can attest to the fact that there was a time when the hope of once again seeing anything close to Vicar-level quality in American Disney comics seemed like a true pipe dream.

Book Review: BRINGING UP FATHER: FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA by George McManus (IDW Publishing, 2009)

This particular release in the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS series slipped by me when it got into circulation a few years back. I finally got the book from my local store at a drastically reduced price.

BRINGING UP FATHER is well-known to comic-strip fanciers as a long-lived (1913 to 2000) and stylishly designed gag strip about the portly little nouveau riche Irishman Jiggs, trying manfully to maintain contacts with what the 1913 readership would call his "crowd" and the 2000 readership would term his "posse," all the while dodging the persistent efforts of his would-be socialite wife, Maggie, to force him to accept a place in high society. The ethnic angle and slightly antique sensibilities of the basic plot (which creator George McManus apparently cadged from a turn-of-the-century play called The Rising Generation) date the strip to a considerable extent. What comics fans treasure about BUF is McManus' "clear line" art style (which had a profound impact on TINTIN creator Herge, among others) and ingenious use of Art Deco details that gave a unique look to his backgrounds and decor. Later in his career, McManus would add a considerable amount of whimsy to this artistry, staging gags in background paintings, having characters play with the panel borders, etc. In the 1939-1940 time period covered in this volume, however, the artist was still playing it relatively straight, the occasional abstract background aside.

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA collects BUF's arguably most famous version of a continuity. To call it a strict continuity is a stretch, since it's primarily a string of gags attached to a common theme, like Christmas tree lights on a cord. The theme, however, is first-rate, with McManus sending Jiggs, Maggie, their lovely and somewhat haughty daughter Nora, and Nora's new husband Lord Worthnotten on a madcap cross-country trip. This was an ideal opportunity for McManus, a natural showman and self-promoter, to drum up additional attention for the popular strip, as various American cities clamored for the honor of being included on the itinerary. The trek included not one, but two trips to Washington, DC, where Jiggs, in his time-honored manner of making high-ranking friends simply by "being himself" (just imagine, Jiggs got there several decades before such a sentiment became de rigueur on too many animated TV shows to count!), got to enjoy a friendly visit with FDR and to share his preferred repast of corned beef and cabbage with well-padded Vice President John Nance Garner. The storyline spanned both the daily and Sunday versions of the strip, and McManus let himself go in several memorable Sunday splash panels, depicting the control room and a panoramic view of Hoover/Boulder Dam, Times Square, Independence Hall, and numerous other vistas. Most of the gags, to be honest, are pretty elementary, with a lot of "isn't he stupid" laughs being had at the expense of the genial, but hopelessly out-of-his-elegant-element, Lord Worthnotten. But, in truth, this is pretty much the way the rotund McManus "rolled" at all times: frosted-cake artwork, meat-and-potatoes (or corned-beef-and-cabbage) subject matter.

The volume ramps up to the cross-country trip with a bundle of 1939 Sunday pages (under the generic title of "Love and Marriage") and a series of '39 dailies that feature, among other things, visits from (1) Maggie's narcoleptic brother, who is always seen from the back in a prone position, and (2) Jiggs and Maggie's dimwitted son Sonny, his wife, and the couple's new baby, whom the readers are encouraged to name in a contest ballyhooed by the Jiggses themselves. I'm glad that these additional materials were included; they allow those unfamiliar with BUF to become comfortable with McManus' style and approach before reaching the "main event." Essays by Bruce Canwell and Brian Walker do a fine job of sketching out McManus' career, the important contributions of McManus' longtime assistant Zeke Zekley (whom King Features Syndicate inexplicably passed over as successor to McManus following the latter's death in 1954), and the origins of the BUF concept.

I must confess to still being puzzled by one thing about BUF. I was always under the impression that Jiggs became rich by winning the Irish Sweepstakes, yet, in Walker's essay, McManus is quoted as claiming that Jiggs earned his fortune by parlaying his early career as a hod-carrier into that of a wealthy "brick manufacturer and salesman." Since Jiggs is frequently seen working at an office in the strip, the latter explanation seems to be more plausible. I still do see the "got rich quick" version in descriptions of the strip, however (e.g. the entry in Wikipedia). This issue is not a trivial one. If Jiggs really did travel the Scrooge McDuck road to wealth, as opposed to the Tommy Blurf one, then Maggie's relentless hectoring of her hubby would seem several thousand times more ungrateful, since it was precisely his hard work that gave her such a comfortable lifestyle. It would also make more sense for Jiggs to feel so strongly about being allowed to hang out with "the boys at Dinty Moore's" if wealth had suddenly been thrust upon him, leaving him no time to adjust. Did McManus selectively edit the story of Jiggs' rise as time went on? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a comic character's backstory was tweaked during a strip's run. If future BUF volumes follow -- and I certainly hope that they do -- then perhaps the disparity between these two "origin stories" can be discussed in more depth.