Friday, March 30, 2012

So... Who's Don Rosa Rooting For?

Tomorrow's Final Four presents an unusual situation: a national semifinal game that will probably wind up getting more attention than the Monday-night championship game itself. Kentucky and Louisville, playing in the first game, jus' plain don't like each other, as the average Kentuckian might put it. The hard feelings go back to the days of Adolph Rupp, when UK was the #1 power in college basketball and wouldn't deign to play an in-state rival unless it was absolutely forced to. Back in March 1983, the teams played in the Mideast Regional final, the first time they'd met since 1959. The hype this year is tremendous because the stakes are so high, but, IMHO, some of the edge has been taken off due to the fact that the teams now play on a yearly basis. In '83, there was legitimate uncertainty as to how the teams would match up.

(John Tesh interviewing a basketball coach? Shouldn't he be conducting operations in a "kiss and cry" room?)

Fittingly, the '83 game went into overtime, leading to one of the most one-sided extra sessions I've ever seen. If there were a mercy rule in college basketball, it would certainly have been applied here.

The present UK/U of L set-to has given rise to the standard complement of media stories about crazed fans taking the rivalry too far. This bizarre tale, for one, gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "kidney punch." Nicky has gone so far as to predict that there will be at least two fatalities attending the game in Kentucky, plus one in New Orleans, where the game is being held. Let us devoutly hope that the "under" prevails in that particular wager. Restricting my own soothsaying to the games themselves, I'm picking UK to beat U of L and Ohio State to defeat Kansas in the other semi, with UK taking the (non-Mega-Millions) jackpot on Monday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Defining Digest-cy Down?

There hasn't been much comics-related news of late, nor have I made many (um, make that any) major purchases at the store in recent weeks. Things will start to pick up again in April and May as Fantagraphics and IDW release several volumes in their "continuing series," including the final volumes of the POPEYE and KRAZY KAT Sunday-strip collections. There was also some happy news in today's PREVIEWS: Classic Comics Press is officially soliciting the collected BUCK O'RUE by Dick Huemer and Paul Murry for release in late June or early July. If we can't have new Disney comics, then seeing this little-known early-50s work from a pair of old-line "Disney Masters" is the next best thing.

There's still no indication as to when Ape Entertainment will restart its "rebooted" RICHIE RICH title. Indeed, if the latest Ape releases and solicitations are any indication, then the company appears to be pulling back a bit on its RICHIE commitment, in the manner of a "shrinking violet." Symbolic of the horticultural hesitation are the RICHIE RICH DIGEST releases that have just recently begun to appear. Now, when I think of a comics digest, I think of a chunky collection that delivers fair value for the money: WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST from Western Publishing, the "classic" Harvey and "Gladstone I" digests, Gemstone's DONALD DUCK ADVENTURES and MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES... and, yes, I'm even willing to throw in DISNEY ADVENTURES, provided that we only count the issues with Disney Afternoon -related material. For Ape to be flogging these 48-page (!) slick-cover pamphlets as "digests," however, I have to stretch the definition of "digest" so far that it snaps back into my face like an over-strained rubber band.

Ape's Web-site description of RICHIE RICH DIGEST is, to put it charitably, somewhat misleading. The "wealth" of additional RICHIE material that appeared in the one RRD issue that I perused appeared to consist of nothing more than one five-page Warren Kremer-drawn story, plus a gag or two. If Richie were that "wealthy," then he'd be forced to run Rich Rescue 24/7 just to make ends meet. What Ape should have done here is obvious -- collect all the parts of the initial RICH RESCUE saga into a trade paperback, perhaps throwing in a few "classic" adventure stories to "make weight." How hard can a decision like that be to make? Or, maybe there's an ulterior motive for Ape's apparent madness. Perhaps Ape's elongated re-release of the early RICH RESCUE material is an attempt to stall for time while the final details (whatever they might be) of the regular title are being worked out. If so, then the company is going to as absurd an extent as did Fenton Crackshell when he was trying to delay getting shot by the Banana Republic firing squad in "Allowance Day."

Wait, it gets worse! Here is the blurb for RICHIE RICH GEMS TREASURES (sic??), solicited in this week's PREVIEWS...

Get ready for thrills and chills in this collection of stories taken from issues #44-47 of the critically acclaimed RICHIE RICH GEMS title! This collection reprints the 4 new stories that were done by Richie Rich's creator Sid Jacobson with art by long-time fan-favorite Ernie Colon! Each issue reprinted digitally re-colored classic RICHIE RICH stories, and there are short stories from the all-new RICHIE RICH: RICH RESCUE series!

The fact that the original Jacobson/Colon stories are headlined takes a bit of the sting out of the revelation that RRGT will be reprinting material from... a reprint title. What really concerns me is the inclusion of RICH RESCUE material. Um, wouldn't this include some of the same material that was just recently reprinted in RRD? How many "variations of repetition" are you planning to feed us, guys?

At this point, Ape is my only source of new newsstand-style comics, so you'll pardon me for getting a bit exercised over exactly what the heck is going on here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: THE LANGUAGE WARS by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011)

Hitchings, previously the author of a fine book on the history of Samuel Johnson's famous DICTIONARY, here traces the "history of proper English" in a highly anecdotal, but equally enjoyable, volume. Cultural declinists who are convinced that our society is becoming ever more illiterate thanks to slipshod education and the growing dominance of electronic media will perhaps be heartened -- though only a bit, I would imagine -- to learn that writers, readers, and thinkers have been worrying over the state of the English language for many hundreds of years. Despite numerous attempts -- some well-mounted, some far-fetched -- to encase English grammar, spelling, and rules of usage in some sort of rigorously defined and maintained carapace of regular rules, the language and its structure have continued to mutate, and this process is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Hitchings' goal is to describe "how we got here," and this he does quite admirably.

Hopkins mediates the eternal argument between descriptivists (those grammarians who merely want to describe the language as it is actually used) and prescriptivists (those who seek to discover the rules that the language should follow) in a fair manner. Though perhaps leaning a bit towards the descriptivist side, he provides an even-handed treatment of the innumerable grammars, spellers, dictionaries, style guides, and other devices that writers have used to beat English's idiosyncrasies into something resembling a manageable form. The names and dates flash by so quickly that it is very easy to get lost, especially when no facsimile pages or similar visual materials are provided to illustrate the tomes being described. The book's reassuringly chronological approach also breaks down near the end, as Hitchings diverges into discussions of profanity, politically correct speech, irritating phrases, and the potential (mis) use of the language for propaganda purposes. Any language buff or avid reader, however, will find much in this book on which to reflect and ponder.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To the Sweet 16

Seven of my "Sweet 16" teams made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, including three of my Final Four teams (but not, alas, the team I picked to go all the way). At this point, the Tournament seems to be Kentucky's to lose. I have no particular animus against Kentucky, but I would prefer that coach John Calipari's questionable employment of one-and-done mercenaries not be rewarded with an NCAA title. Given the fact that Calipari teams at UMass and Memphis had their Tournament runs expunged from the official records for various violations, might the ultimate 2012 champion turn out to be "Vacant"?

RIP Sid Couchey

I really should have checked in a little sooner with my reaction to Mark Arnold's report of Sid Couchey's death. Blame the travails of real life. I was fortunate enough to get to speak with the old LITTLE DOT and LITTLE LOTTA master (well, if anyone was indelibly associated with those gals, then Sid certainly qualifies, the relative paucity of Couchey stories in Dark Horse's HARVEY GIRLS collection notwithstanding) and am glad that he finally began to get some recognition for his long service to Harvey Comics towards the end of his life. Of course, befitting the long history of screwups and gaffes that seem to plague all "official" Harvey projects, the professional bouquets didn't come without their share of thorns. Witness Ape's butchering of Sid's last name and inexplicable confusion of his art style with that of Ernie Colon in the recent VALENTINE'S SPECIAL! issue.

I only occasionally wrote about Couchey's work in my RICHVILLE RUMINATIONS column for THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES!; he did a fair number of RICHIE RICH stories, but not a lot of adventure tales, which tended to be my focus. But one of his rare long RICHIE stories made such a marked impression on me that it was one of the first adventures I discussed in considerable detail. I already mentioned it in my previous Couchey-related blog entry, but, in tribute to Sid, here's my complete writeup on "Crash Landing" (RICHIE RICH #43, March 1966), freely adapted from my original article in THFT! #15 (Summer 1994). After reading my piece, I think you'll appreciate my observation that this tale "seems to inspire a weird fascination in those who learn about it." The specific feelings of fascination that are felt will be, of course, up to the nature and beliefs of the reader.

When Richie's new "atomic jet" crashes on poor, desolate, Communist-bossed Port Atlantic Island, Richie and his crew (faithful butler Cadbury, tough-guy pilot Bull Dolan, Chef Pierre, and a few Rich Aviation grunts) are taken prisoner by "the people," a.k.a. a wild-haired, nasty, Moscow-trained ideologue named Quagmire, who has the "Republic"'s ineffectual President Belden under his thumb. Richie and friends seem up against it, but, at a show trial, they quickly win the hearts of the people by proudly describing their lives in America. Richie's employees boast of the possessions and rights that "working men" can have in America, while Richie praises his great, "far from rich" friends Gloria, Freckles, and Pee-Wee. Not satisfied with merely justifying the capitalist lifestyle, Richie proposes that the islanders build a dam to catch rainwater for their crops, using the gunpowder that Moscow had sent the island to protect it from "imperialists." In the course of the dam-building, Richie shows his character by (1) saving a young man from a fall off a cliff and (2) cheerfully dancing with a peasant girl, who is amazed that someone so rich would do such a thing. The fulminating Quagmire determines to foil the dam plans, using characteristically Orwellian phrasing to justify the deed.

The bad guys are caught and thwarted and are sentenced to be shot as traitors, but Richie pleads for clemency, drawing a remarkable confession of guilt out of Quagmire -- which leads to the ultimate establishment of a newly democratic country:

"Simplistic and cliched!" Of course. But I think that this tale shows exactly why Richie is such an appealing hero in his adventures. Throughout, he displays courage, compassion for others, and quick thinking and helps the Port Atlantic Islanders penetrate the cliches of propaganda by demonstrating that capitalism doesn't inhibit the growth of character. Notably, he does not even mention his own vast wealth during the court-trial scene; his main concern is how Communism affects others.

The pilot Bull Dolan provides a humorous counterpoint to Richie's earnestness by displaying a "hit 'em in the gut" approach to confronting the Reds. Not that Bull actually does any real fighting; his "combat" is pretty much confined to verbally sticking up for his boss Richie and his fellow crew members. In the funniest scene of what is a pretty poker-faced story, Bull slaps down the well-meaning, but weak-kneed, Belden's claim that "you have given the lie to Red propaganda... yet the idea of Communism still sounds good to us" with a sarcastic "Born losers, eh, Mr. President?" Even Richie calls Bull out for that crack, but it's hard not to chuckle at its comical straightforwardness. Couchey's RICHIE, DOT, and LOTTA tales very rarely included memorable one-shot characters, but Bull is one of the very best.

The weirdest thing about "Crash Landing" may simply be the bare fact that Couchey drew it. His minimalist, stylized artwork, which works just fine for five-page gag stories, would seem to be out of its element in the service of a tale like this, yet Sid somehow manages to pull it off. The simplicity of the artwork seems to complement the earnestness of the story line in a most unique manner. Anonymous and frequently patronized Couchey and his fellow Harvey artists may have been during their primes, but the "classic" Harvey titles are chock-full of intriguing little gems like these.

Thanks, Sid, for all the memories.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bracket Update II

Another 9-7... but the record is irrelevant at this point, since both Missouri and Duke fell and fell hard. I picked Mizzou to win the national championship and they lost to Norfolk State. But the MEAC has pulled this sort of 15 over 2 surprise before (Hampton in 2001, Coppin State in 1997). Lehigh's upset of Duke in Greensboro, by contrast, came from somewhere left of left field.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bracket Update

9-7 on the first day. I suppose that it could have been worse, but that "whimmish" pick of Harvard to get to the final eight looks really bad now. I also lost Long Beach State and Wichita State from my Sweet 16.

I've got only three upsets picked for today -- South Florida over Temple, Texas over Cincinnati, and N.C. State over San Diego State.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gentlemen (and Ladies), Start Your Brackets!

In lieu of typing out my picks for the NCAA Tournament, as I did last year, I'm simply displaying my entry in the ESPN Bracket Challenge. Click on the image for a better view. The slenderest limb onto which I crawled this year was picking Harvard to get to the Elite Eight; I think that Syracuse's loss of its best big man to academic ineligibility gives the Crimson a good puncher's chance of getting past the Orange. Notre Dame is probably good for one win, no more, but that's still a lot better than the sub-NIT fate that seemed to be in store for the Irish after their terrible start.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: THE LAST GREAT GAME: DUKE VS. KENTUCKY AND THE 2.1 SECONDS THAT CHANGED BASKETBALL by Gene Wojciechowski (Blue Rider Press, 2012)

What makes a great game? I think that we would all agree that the three essential components of a classic contest are:

1. Something important must be at stake.
2. The game must feature compelling characters.
3. The game must feature one or more "iconic moments."

On all three counts, the 1992 East Regional final between Duke and Kentucky easily qualifies, which is why a book commemorating the 20th anniversary of the contest is a worthwhile endeavor. Some fairly knowledgeable hoop-heads have even gone so far as to nominate the game as the greatest college basketball game ever played. But a "game that changed basketball"? "The LAST great game"? Gene Wojciechowski's editors didn't do him any favors by engaging in such overinflated ballyhoo, nor did Wojciechowski make any particular effort to justify the buildup during the course of his narrative. The overkill is a shame, because, on balance, this is an excellent, well-detailed description of The Events Leading Up to Christian Laettner's Game-Ending "J" (coming soon to an NCAA Tournament commercial bumper near you!).

THE LAST GREAT GAME spends the vast majority of its time telling the parallel tales of Mike Krzyzewski's building of a basketball dynasty at Duke -- with particular attention being paid to the assembling of the pieces of Coach K's first national championship team in 1991 -- and Rick Pitino's reconstruction of a Kentucky program shattered by scandal in the late 80s and left with a rag-tag bunch of marginal players. Both of these stories are well-known to college basketball fans with a sense of history, and Wojciechowski does a very good job of retelling the tales for a general audience. The parallelism, however, ultimately makes for some structural difficulties as the March 28, 1992 date of the Regional showdown at Philadelphia's Spectrum arrives. No sooner has Wojciechowski started to tell the story of the game from UK's perspective than he has to shift into "reverse" and start setting up the pins all over again from the Blue Devils' point of view. I found this approach unnecessarily maladroit. It doesn't help that Wojciechowski's description of the game itself, given the game's supposed earth-shaking nature, is surprisingly sketchy. Granted, I've read other books about famous games that err on the side of providing TOO MUCH detail, even unto recounting the fate of every single dribble, fast break, and shot, but the Duke-UK contest was intriguing enough on strategic, tactical, and emotional levels to warrant a somewhat more comprehensive treatment -- and not one divided in twain for no reason. Thankfully, the entire game is readily available for viewing through the NCAA Vault portal, so you can easily parse it for yourself.

Wojciechowski's treatment of Duke and UK is pretty even-handed, but I say that speaking as a neutral. As can be seen in the fanbases' wildly disparate interpretations of such notorious in-game moments as Christian Laettner's "stomp" on UK's Aminu Timberlake, it wouldn't have been easy to have come up with a description that completely satisfied all parties. Perhaps Duke gets a little more of the oxygen, but that's only because (1) Krzyzewski had spent more time at Duke than Pitino had at UK, (2) Wojciechowski simply had more to write about Duke's Final Four runs of the late 80s, its 1991 championship, and the 1992 Final Four in which Duke defended its title against Michigan's "Fab Five." It's hard to spot any true unfairness towards either side in the narrative.

You'll be seeing highlights from this game out the wazoo for the rest of your life, so, to get the most out of the references, I'd recommend that you give this book a look while waiting for the NEXT "great game." And you can bet that there will be one.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Some Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed my lengthy dissection of the Kimba series, both the high and the low points. For my part, I now have a newfound appreciation of just how gnarled and convoluted the show's continuity truly was. How hard it must have been for the Titan dubbing crew to put the pieces together "on the run," as it were. Though I certainly took my share of shots at the many holes in their jury-rigged construct, the fact that the Titanistas were able to make the progression of the series seem at least faintly plausible is no small achievement.

I haven't had that much exposure to Leo the Lion (Mushi's follow-up series starring an adult Kimba, which didn't make it to North American TV until the 80s) or the various efforts to "reboot" the original Kimba scenario, such as the 1989 version of Jungle Emperor. To learn more about those efforts, I suggest you pay a visit to Craig Anderson's fine Web site, a link to which you can find in my links list. I will note that, well-meaning though these efforts may have been, they never came close to winning my heart the way that the '66 series did. The "Americanized" Kimba may have been lighter in tone than Tezuka may have wanted, but it was a cut above the majority of American Toons of the day in terms of legitimate "Heart." Even today, the most affecting scenes of the series pack a substantial punch.

My respect for Kimba's ability to pluck the "Heart"strings becomes even more evident when you take a gander at my list of the Top 10 Kimba episodes. I must confess to having had a preference for eps in which Kimba, though challenged and forced to prove his worth as a hero both morally and physically, actually behaves like a hero. Eps in which Kimba acted in a "childlike" manner were wholly "successful," in my view, only insofar as Kimba was able to surmount some kind of challenge that forced him to exhibit some level of emotional maturation. In that respect, "Jungle Thief" stands as unquestionably the best of the "young Kimba" episodes, with "The Insect Invasion" taking runner-up honors. "Journey into Time," with its overtone of moral seriousness (the "race" issue) and imaginative use of original Tezuka source material, is a pretty easy pick as the series' very best ep, though the visual beauty and excitement of "Dangerous Journey" run "JIT" a close race.

10. "The Insect Invasion"
9. "Monster of the Mountain"
8. "Go, White Lion!"
7. "The Cobweb Caper"
6. "City of Gold"
5. "The Day the Sun Went Out"
4. "The Wild Wildcat"
3. "Jungle Thief"
2. "Dangerous Journey"
1. "Journey Into Time"

I'll continue to post the occasional Astro Boy or Flying House review on this blog as the fancy strikes me, but, for now, I'll "retreat to Duckburg" and begin to ponder how I'm going to fete the 25th anniversary of DuckTales, a task that I should begin to tackle sometime this Summer. My "debate" with Greg Weagle over the merits of "Duck in the Iron Mask" went well enough that I'm thinking of doing the same thing with the other DT eps, perhaps throwing in a few belated comments about GeoX's reviews while I'm at it. Any other suggestions as to how I might handle this task would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 52, "Silvertail the Renegade"

"Silvertail the Renegade" is yet another episode that really should have been shoved back a few places in the chronological episode queue. This doesn't come across at all in the manga, in which Kimba is a leading "adult player" from the very beginning. On TV, by contrast, Kimba starts off by engaging in kiddie hijinks with pals Dot, Dash, Dinky, and Dodie, which lead to (1) the first, brief encounter with the titular Silvertail and (2) an unpleasant rendezvous with a hive of "bees" (or, perhaps, of spider wasps left over from the aftermath of "The Cobweb Caper"). Fearing "punishment" from Dan'l, the badly-stung Kimba literally hides under the bed -- in his case, a pile of leaves -- and is only rousted out when Dan'l comes to tell him that Silvertail has arrived in search of assistance. Assuming that Kimba has "been up to mischief," Dan'l gives him a sound thrashing, not even stopping to listen to Kimba's explanation. This is even more painful to watch than it must have been for Kimba to experience.

Even after recovering from his embarrassment (and his variegated sores), Kimba is strangely passive and lets other animals take the initiative in the fierce debate over whether or not to protect Silvertail (Gilbert Mack), an aging lion who has sought refuge in the jungle after raiding a village and incurring the wrath of its inhabitants. The affronted villagers promptly form a posse that displays all the legendary persistence of the "guys" who chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As Pauley Cracker argues that Silvertail should be turned over to the humans for his crimes and Dan'l Baboon counters that the old lion deserves protection, Kimba just sort of fades into the background. Not until near the end will the jungle prince leap into the fray, fighting the posse's hounds and borrowing a strategem from Macbeth, of all places, to get close to the unwelcome visitors and stage a counterattack. In the meantime, it's Dan'l who is the prime mover, stashing Silvertail in a cave with a sulphur spring that's supposed to keep the dogs from picking up the lion's scent.

Whereas the TV Silvertail is a rather generic, somewhat whiny lion with Gil Mack's standard old-guy voice, the Silvertail of the manga looks a lot more feral, hungry, and desperate. To extend the Shakespeare parallels, the fact that the unknown manga artist draws Silvertail with his mane askew may signify that the lion is at least partially insane, much as Ophelia's loosening of her hair in Hamlet indicated that she was going round the bend. For sure, Silvertail's attack on Dodie in the TV episode is much less frightening than this one.

Kimba does fight Silvertail briefly on TV during this first encounter, but Silvertail turns and vanishes rather quickly, not showing up again until he arrives at the animals' jungle-clearing meeting place. In the manga, once Kimba pitches into Silvertail for the first time, the latter stays on the scene for the rest of the story. Notice, as well, that Silvertail appears a bit more willing to stand up for himself (at least verbally) during this initial scene. The TV version of the character, by contrast, displays no apparent free will of his own, allowing himself to be directed by Dan'l and others at all times.

Pauley's point about the entire jungle being put in danger by the presence of the renegade is certainly well taken, but it's hard not to regard his negative attitude here as being the "dark side" of his loyalty to Kimba in such episodes as "Destroyers from the Desert" and "Jungle Thief." It's probably easier to imagine Dan'l having this opinion, especially in light of his appeals to "The Law of the Jungle." Perhaps Dan'l saw something of himself in the over-the-hill lion, a "there but for the grace of Kimba go I" vision? Or perhaps he remembered that Kimba's father Caesar was also in the habit of raiding human villages for his own purposes? The jungle animals ultimately divide over the dilemma, and we even get the standard "quarreling" scene that featured so prominently in eps like "Battle at Dead River" and "The Return of Fancy Prancy." Unfortunately, the scene is given a semi-comical tone that really doesn't fit the mood of this episode, with Pauley and his allies literally walking all over Dan'l on their way to lynch, er, serve walking papers on Silvertail. (Since Pauley neglected to consider that he doesn't know where Dan'l hid Silvertail, the march turns out to be a very short one.)

Kimba finally gets involved as it becomes more and more obvious that, despite Dan'l's best efforts, the posse is willing to go to any length -- including attacking any other animals that get in its way -- to hunt down Silvertail. After Kimba's attack on the dogs fails to convince the interlopers to leave, Kimba hatches the scheme of having the animals disguise themselves as trees and bushes and sneak up on the bivouacked posse, the better to catch its members by surprise. This is pretty ingenious, I guess, though it relies heavily on the posse simply staring in slack-jawed puzzlement as the animals perform their Birnam Wood act, as opposed to figuring that something is amiss and firing into the foliage. After Kimba and his subjects overpower the posse, Kimba launches into "improbable" speech and scares the group's imperious leader (Ray Owens) into agreeing to leave on the condition that Silvertail never raid the humans' village again.

The standard-issue "departure while Kimba and his subjects stand watching on a cliff" ending scene is given a little extra twist by the brief sight of Silvertail, the "redeemed" renegade, bowing his head and shedding a tear. The extra helping of pathos makes one wonder: to what extent has Silvertail's spirit been broken by his crimes? Will he be able to fit into Kimba's civilization as easily as some other newcomers have?

I'll be back this weekend, or early next week, with some final thoughts.