Monday, April 30, 2012

Comics Review: RICHIE RICH GEMS #47 (Ape Entertainment, 2012)

"Aliens and robots" are the focus in the latest issue of RR GEMS, but for longstanding Harvey fans, at least, the true novelty unearthed here has very little to do with "little green men" or "buckets of bolts." Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson's latest new offering, "Aliens Have Landed!", with its contrived scenario of a group of larcenous Hungarian illegals posing as green-skinned invaders ("aliens," get it?  Get it?), would rank as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill, slightly illogical quickie were it not for a shocking throwaway revelation.  Something immediately seems to be up when Reggie's Dad, Reginald Van Dough, appears in several early panels as an apparently subordinate business associate of Mr. Rich.  This is strange, inasmuch as the business affairs of the elder Rich and senior Van Dough very rarely intersected in the "classic" comics.  The cruel truth soon emerges; in pleading with Richie to satisfy the aliens' demands for cash, Reggie admits that the Van Doughs can't help with the payout "since the recession killed our business and my Dad has to work for yours!".  I believe that "stunned silence" is an appropriate response here.  The revelation is especially shocking in light of the fact that, since Reggie's mother Vanessa is Mrs. Rich's sister, the Van Dough family should presumably be wealthy independent of any business ventures on Reginald Van Dough's part.  Please don't tell me that Reginald VD blew his family's fortune on dubious business ventures!  I could believe that of John Larroquette's Laurence Van Dough in the live-action Richie Rich movie, but not of the fellow who deserved some sort of "Job Memorial Medal" for enduring his son's pranks and tantrums for so long.  Does this mean that Reggie and his sister Penny -- who was just recently "formally reintroduced" to a 21st century audience in RR GEMS #46 -- will be forced to *gulp!* take  part-time jobs in future "neo-classic" stories?  The possibilities are intriguing, to say the least.  I just wish that Ernie and Sid had shed a bit more light on what exactly happened here.  Given Sid's track record as both writer and editor, of course, there's always the distinct possibility that the next new story will simply return us to the status quo ante

"Classic" RICHIE tales featuring space aliens very, VERY rarely worked, so I'm glad that Ape saw fit to give us Dom Sileo's "Stowaways to Zod" as the issue's featured reprint.  In that tale, would-be "crooked genius" I.Q. Braynee (villains with such obvious names very rarely wind up delivering the goods that their monikers promise) and his thieving band are merely playing at space-invading.  (Say, wait a sec... wasn't that the theme of Ernie and Sid's new story as well??  Well, in this case, I'd rather endure a semi-do-over than read a full-length piece of extraterrestrial foolishness on the order of Ben Brown's two-page "The Woolies."  Creating a highly dubious alien race for the sake of a lame last-panel gag... please.)  Interestingly, the main "robot"-themed reprint herein, Ernie Colon's "Servo," also deals in fakery, with Mr. Rich (and, by proxy, Richie) pulling Cadbury's chain by introducing him to a supposed "perfect servant robot" that just may have designs on Cadbury's job.  Anyone familiar with the RICH RESCUE material released to date (and who isn't -- we've spent so much time together already, in various forms and venues) will not be surprised to learn that the obligatory RESCUE reprint used here is Tom DeFalco and Armando Zanker's "Ma Ma My iRona."  In that one, you may recall, Reggie won the services of iRona for one day by bidding one million dollars.  I guess the Van Doughs have yet to feel the recession's bite in the RICH RESCUE world.  As to when said world will resume operations...?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, 1983-1984 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2012)

I'm wending my way back into unfamiliar territory as the march of 1980s PEANUTS continues.  The latest PEANUTS collection that I ever read (as opposed to possessed; that volume came from the library) topped out at about the midway point of this volume, roughly late 1983.  Thus it was that I bailed at just about the time when Snoopy's heavy-eyelidded, floppy-hatted brother Spike had established a new venue for gags and situations in the desert country outside Needles, CA.  Actually, this is giving the eternally passive Spike a little too much credit for proactivity; it's more like Omniscient Creator CMS established the site for him. 

Surprisingly, I was able to extrude more entertainment value out of my first extended exposure to Spike than I had been led to anticipate.  Part of the reason may be that I interpret the world of Snoopy's bro as something of a satirical comment on the suburban fantasy world that ol' Snoop had long since built and grown to dominate.  The first extended "desert continuity" in this volume finds "Foreign Legionnaire" Snoopy and his bird-troops marching to Spike's rescue after they learn that Spike is "surrounded by coyotes."  Of course, we never see the coyotes; instead, we see Spike sitting in the middle of a ring of rocks.  And that's pretty much all Spike does; he simply sits there like a lump and waits for Snoopy to bombard him with cans of dog food, can openers, tea bags, etc. and finally "chopper" to the rescue.  There's something ineffably pathetic about Spike's extreme phlegmatism in this situation; he's not taking imaginative advantage of his surroundings and molding them to his needs, he's letting his fantasy surroundings control him.  The subsequent gags in which Spike talks (er, thinks) to cacti have a very similar feel to them.  Is Schulz suggesting here that a fantasy existence can be carried too far?  Just as Snoopy's blossoming as a major character grew out of Schulz' restlessness with his reputation as a highbrow thinker and philosophizer and his desire to simply have some fun with his characters, did Schulz decide to develop Spike when thinking up interesting new occupations and personae for Snoopy had become a chore rather than a delight?  (This was, after all, the era in which Schulz was willing to "sell out" to the extent of creating the infamous Flashbeagle.)

Back at our familiar suburban popsicle stand, most of the attention centers on Peppermint Patty and Marcie.  Schulz may not have been aware that he was sending mixed messages by having Patty actually fail her grade (so, all those D-minuses, screwed-up book reports, and sleeping jags finally had tangible consequences??  Who knew?) but then get to go on a trip to Europe with her Dad on the suggestion of the school psychologist.  ("Every time I try to figure that out, I get dizzy!" grouses straight-A student Marcie.)  Schulz sidesteps the potential awkwardness of putting Patty all by her lonesome in a class full of unfamiliar kids by having the "snoring ghost" of Patty's past curricular pratfalls convince the spooked school authorities to let her move up a grade after all.  Patty also subjects Charlie Brown to a new form of sporting humiliation by hiring him for her baseball team -- as a costumed mascot.  Working off the "Mr. Sack" premise of a decade before, it's somewhat surprising that "hidden" Charlie doesn't turn out to be the best mascot ever.  Speaking of "Mr. Sack," it's a wonder that Schulz didn't feel the need to hide his own head in a bag after brazenly recycling a previously-used gag (Lucy's building of a head-standing snowman that has "all the snow [rush] to his head") in the strip of 1/7/84.  This will not be the last time that the aging Schulz, that most conscientious of all comic-strip creators, carbon-copies something from his past.

Leonard Maltin's introduction is enjoyable and entertaining -- and that, of course, is the only novelty we get when it comes to "packaging."  I hate to say it, but THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, taken as a whole, now looks pretty drab and bare-bones compared to the more elaborate and ancillary-heavy approaches taken in most of Fantagraphics' and IDW's other ongoing reprint series.  Since we've come this far with no substantive changes, I'm guessing that the current TCP format will be employed to the bitter end.  Fine by me; the contents, after all, are still very much worth reading, though the strip's glory years have now passed.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Entertainment for the "Math"es

Last weekend, Stevenson hosted the Spring Meeting of the MD-DC-VA Section of the Mathematical Association of America.  Translation:  about 150 faculty and students from colleges and universities throughout the region descended upon the Owings Mills Campus for food, drink, quantitative enlightenment, and the renewal of old and/or continuing professional ties.  The visitors included my old colleague from Virginia State University, Dr. Dawit Haile, seen below on my left.  


... And, yes, that's the familiar profile of Nicky standing by the table.  She helped us out registering attendees before the Friday-night banquet and also with the book sale during Saturday's meeting.

This meeting was originally proposed by both myself and Dr. Susan Slattery as a way of "introducing" SU's Math Department, not to mention the school itself, to the wider mathematical community.  No such meeting had ever been held on our campus before.  Dr. Slattery's death in August 2010 left me to chair the planning committee and to try to draw together the many dozens of logistical threads that bind together a successful enterprise of this type.  With the help of other faculty, staff, and students, I think that we pulled it off quite well indeed.  The comments from our visitors were uniformly positive.  Well... some wished that they had been allowed to park directly in front of the School of Business and Leadership Building, where most of the events of Saturday morning and afternoon took place.  That night, unfortunately, was THE game of the year on the SU sports calendar: the men's lacrosse match with Salisbury.  Even the honored guests had to take a back seat to the tailgaters who had long since claimed the parking field by the SOBL for their pregame activities.  We wound up having the visitors park in the Mustang Stadium parking lot and take shuttle buses up the hill to the main campus.

So, how do mathematicians spend their time at these meetings?  Well, eating and drinking (the latter very much including extensive consumption of coffee, of course), attending talks by faculty and students, buying books at the book sale... and, as is traditional at our Section's Spring Meetings, mounting "just for students" contests.  "Radical Dash" is our version of The Amazing Race, with teams of students being given different quantitative tasks to complete over the span of the meeting.  These included figuring out how to move water in large containers from one place to another, using smaller containers.  It's not as simple as it sounds, which may explain why students seem to have perpetual trouble with those pesky "mixture" word problems you find in algebra texts. 

And what would a gathering of enlightened wits such as ourselves be without a smokin' hot game of Jeopardy!  Only in this case, the categories include such "audience-targeted" fare as "Hey, Baby, What's Your Sine?".  We held this event in the SOBL's Pugh Courtroom, a space normally used for mock trials by Paralegal and Forensics students, which allowed the judges to really get into the judgmental spirit by sitting where "Your Honor" would normally sit.  Imagine Alex Trebek as Judge Judy...

I felt a great deal of satisfaction at the end of the meeting.  Best of all, perhaps, I felt that Susan Slattery would have been proud.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

RIP Dick Clark

You probably know about most of the things he did; here's one role that you may have forgotten about, or, for that matter, may never have known about. An extremely funny one, at that.

I was never much of an American Bandstand watcher -- I knew better than to try to extend that Saturday-morning cartoon-watching time into the early afternoon -- so my primary exposure to Dick Clark came through The $25,000 Pyramid and his New Year's Eve shows. While I admired his willingness to appear this past New Year's Eve, I couldn't help but wince when I saw what had become of him. Sadly, "eternal youth" can only be sustained for so long before the heavy hand of Time descends.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Comics Reviews: RICHIE RICH GEMS #45 and RICHIE RICH GEMS #46 (Ape Entertainment, 2012)

Left hand, meet right hand. Right hand, meet left hand. Now, why don't you guys start cooperating and help the good folks at Ape tighten things up a bit?

There's a vague hint at continuing attempts to construct "themed issues" in these latest issues of RR GEMS, which hit stores only a week apart. "Spooky houses and are-they-or-aren't-they ghosts" take the fore in #45. Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson, whose new efforts in these two issues are pretty decent under the circs, dish up the imaginatively monikered "Haunted Rich Castle", followed by a reprint of the not-so-bad Dom Sileo-drawn story "His Great-Grandfather Ghost" (RR SUCCESS STORIES #30, January 1970). In a nice contrast which, I'm quite sure, was entirely unintentional, "phony ghosts" play a role in one tale but not in the other. I'll leave you to read the ish to find out which is which.

#46 "sarves" up "pirates" as the leitmotif. Ernie and Sid first pit Richie, Gloria, Reggie, Freckles, and Pee-Wee against the Geometric Triangle's "Perilous Pirates of Bony Island." The bombastic buccaneers are characterized with a fair bit of cleverness; the hapless salt guarding the kidnapped kids, for example, folds like the proverbial mainsail and lets them go after Reggie scratches out a check for... ONE THOU-SAND DOL-LARS!! The abruptness of the four-page tale's ending, unfortunately, forces Sid to wrap things up in a noticeably precipitate manner, using a gambit that is uncomfortably similar to the one seen at the end of "Haunted Rich Castle." In the spirit of Samuel Johnson's commentary on PARADISE LOST, I've never wished these new Ernie-and-Sid efforts to be any longer than they are, but "Bony Island" sorely needed an extra page or two to give us a better payoff than the one we received. "Bony Island" does have the advantage of looking good by contrast to the subsequent reprint of the late-70s Ben Brown ten-pager "Pirates." This isn't the worst Brown story from that fallow era in "classic" Harvey history -- it helps that it's told in flashback to Colonial times, featuring Revolutionary-era equivalents of Richie and Reggie -- but I could have suggested a far more entertaining "classic" pirate story. Say, something like Sid Couchey's "Of Parties and Pirates," or even the SUPER RICHIE story in which Rippy and Crashman had to battle fake pirates. (Hey, based on GEMS #44, the latter would have been the fairest of game.)

The back matter in these issues is actually more intriguing than the featured material -- both for good and for ill. The seemingly obligatory obeisance to the "all-new" RICH RESCUE (read: "recently published for the first time, but technically part of a 're-imagining' of the 'classic' RICHIE characters, so we can still call it 'new' and look ourselves in the face in the morning") brings back two of the better backup stories: "Uncommon Cents" (RR RICH RESCUE #3) in #45, "Give a Dog a Bone" (RR RICH RESCUE #4) in #46. Admittedly, "Bone" is memorable primarily because it slaps us violently upside the chops with the appearance of Dollar's hitherto-unseen canine buddy Buck, whom we are apparently expected to recognize, but it's always nice to see James Silvani's artwork again. As for "Cents," I'd like to think that it was reprinted as a tribute to Earl Kress, who died shortly after it was published, but... well, I think I'll count this as another case of "unintentional intentionality." Ernie Colon's well-aged "Careful with Money" in #45 and his "Talk of the Season" in #46 -- the latter, one of the very rare stories headlined as featuring Mrs. Rich -- are also welcome sights.

On the debit side, Ape continues to have all sorts of trouble identifying the artwork of Sileo and Brown, especially the former; "His Great-Grandfather Ghost" is identified as Warren Kremer's, while a one-page Sileo gag in #46 is attributed to Colon! These were drawn in roughly the same era, so wouldn't they have appeared similar to the editor, or the compiler, or whoever dealt the mess? And, as the saying goes, the similarities don't end there. The early-60s Colon gag "The Sound of Money" in #45 is exactly the same gag as the one listed as "Gumdrop Serenade" in RR GEMS VALENTINE'S SPECIAL. Well, I can CERTAINLY see how THAT could have happened; the gag was colored by two different people (Paul Little and Dustin Evans), and they, rather than the editors, were apparently responsible for catching the oversight. People, you are publishing one RICHIE RICH reprint title! It shouldn't be that hard to keep track of what has recently been released.

The big surprise in these books -- indeed, the biggest (good) shock I've had as a result of reading any Ape RICHIE offering -- comes in the middle of #45 with the reprinting of Colon's "Richie Rich Meets Penny Van Dough" (RR SUCCESS STORIES #27, August 1969). My RICHIE collection is pretty extensive, but the birth of Richie's cousin and Reggie's sister Penny is one that seems to have passed me by.

Harvey's "classic-era" promise (which Ape rather mystifyingly retains -- though I have an idea or two as to how they could fulfill it; see below) actually wasn't "cashed in" (heh) until several years later. I am unaware of any other appearance by Penny until Colon's "Bad Penny!" (RR FORTUNES #6, September 1972), at which time she was redesigned to look more like Cindy Lou Who. Future renderings of young Miss Van Dough worked off the same basic template, though the face was turned into something a bit less "cartoony" and the trademark Van Dough freckles tended to come and go, depending, I suppose, upon how lazy and/or forgetful the inker was on that particular day.

The more-than-obvious question here is: What plans could Ape possibly have for Penny Van Dough -- to be specific, in new stories? Well, no one asked me, but here's a suggestion: Age her a couple of years and let her be a feisty, tomboyish, "Gosalyn-esque" little girl who wants to tag along on Rich Rescue missions, to the great consternation of all concerned parties. This would help to make Reggie a more sympathetic character, even as the far more harshly characterized Reggie was in the "classic" stories featuring Penny; it would provide a character who is appealing to kids on the lower-age end of the "young reader" distribution that is the focus of Ape's efforts; and it would be a great in-joke tribute to longtime Harvey readers who remember Penny as a baby. Of course, this all assumes that Ape put some kind of thought into why it reprinted the first Penny story, complete with its text-box pledge. The thought of... say it with me, now... "unintentional intentionality" should never be far from the surface of one's mind where Ape's handling of RR GEMS is concerned.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Special "Friend of N&V" Post! (Book Review: THE TECHNOLOGISTS by Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2012))

As I learned most memorably following my review of kaboom! DUCKTALES #3, a fair number of people follow this blog. I really appreciate the continuing interest and thank all those my visitors for their "virtual patronage." Even so, a recent email commenting on some of my comics posts came as a huge surprise. The correspondent was Matthew Pearl, a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author, recognized authority on the works of Dante and Edgar Allan Poe, and, as I learned, a big Duck fan. He offered to send me his latest novel, THE TECHNOLOGISTS, and I accepted with glee. I've just finished reading the work -- as you might guess from the nature of many of my book reviews, it's the first novel I've read in a fair amount of time -- and what better way to recommend it than to say that it is a novel that many Duck fans would probably love. No, not because the characters go in search of a long-lost treasure, or even (as would probably be more apropos given Pearl's interests) the literary wares hidden in an ancient library. It is Pearl's careful attention to meaningful detail, plus his deft mixing of real-life historical personages with well-crafted fictional creations, that should raise a smile from anyone raised on the works of Barks, Rosa, and company.

Pearl has carved out quite a niche for himself as a writer of "historically-based mystery thrillers." His first big success cast such literary lions as Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell in the roles of detectives using their knowledge of Dante to investigate murders based on scenes from THE INFERNO. (I believe that the phrase "Write what you know" applies here.) Later works centered around the strange death of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens' last novel. As can be gleaned from the title, THE TECHNOLOGISTS is a slightly different breed of cat.

In 1868 Boston, the struggling Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate its first senior class. MIT's novel approach to education and its piebald student body -- which includes working-class "charity scholars," black-sheep offspring of scandalized Brahmin families, and even a brilliant freshman woman -- have put it in very bad odor with a number of institutions and groups in the city, including the haughty denizens of Harvard (then a rather retrograde institution more interested in classical and spiritual education than in applied science) and local labor agitators worried about lost jobs (some things never change, I suppose). When a series of bizarre "scientific disasters" strike the city, MIT's already-shaky image takes an even harder hit. Feeling a sense of obligation to MIT and to its ailing President William Barton Rogers, a group of MIT students decide to investigate the phenomena themselves -- and to try to stop the "experimenter" before he strikes again, or the dream of this new Mecca of technological education is dashed for good...

THE TECHNOLOGISTS does take a while to pick up steam (hyuck!), so much so, in fact, that I was occasionally reminded of another real-life, Boston-based cataclysm. But if you stick with the narrative and allow the characters and the richly filigreed detail of the narrative to grow on you, then the urge to read on will quickly become irresistible. A number of major and minor characters, including the idealistic President Rogers, Ellen Swallow (the aforementioned pioneering female, who really was restricted to her lab and not permitted to attend classes with the male students) and a number of other MIT students, imperious MIT professor and future Harvard president Charles Eliot, and cantankerous, anti-Darwinian Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, are drawn directly from life. Pearl does takes some understandable liberties with character portrayals for the sake of the narrative. For example, Agassiz, as the representative of the "old-fashioned science" hired by the police to conduct the "official" investigation, is presented as something of an archaic, ineffectual figure, the better to use as a foil for the MIT "Technologists." Agassiz may have gotten evolution wrong, but I don't think that he was quite the bumbling fusspot depicted here. But, of course, Teddy Roosevelt wasn't wholly the semi-comedic blusterer of Don Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK, either. (See what I did there? I told you Duck fans might appreciate this.) No matter who the character is, Pearl pays attention to diction and tone; everyone sounds as if they belong in 1868. This is no small matter.

"Steampunk" is a rather nebulously defined term, but I certainly think that parts of Pearl's tale would qualify as such. Diving suits, submarines, and steam-powered robots are among the wonders glimpsed here, and the "experimenter"'s nefarious deeds involve enough 19th-century verisimilitude to seem legitimately achievable. The would-be climactic attack is as close as a 19th-century city would probably get to "mass destruction." The identity of the "experimenter" is expertly concealed by a series of ingenious red herrings.

The one feature of the book that I honestly didn't much like was the "rivalry" between the main hero -- MIT senior, "charity scholar," and former Civil War POW Marcus Mansfield -- and the pompous Will Blaikie, head of Harvard's notorious secret society, Med Fac, and denigrator of all things Tech. Some of the "confrontation scenes" involving the pair and their friends and allies, to be honest, had something of a Dover Boys flavor to them. (Or perhaps 19th-century college life really did have a cartoonish aspect. I wasn't there. Heck, I didn't even attend a university that had fraternities.)

If you are up for a "thinking person's thriller," then THE TECHNOLOGISTS may be for you. Thanks again to Matthew for giving me the opportunity to read it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

RIP Donald Markstein

Some time ago, Don Markstein stopped updating Toonopedia, his indispensable online Toon reference source. Since new Toons are being born (if that's the proper word) all the time, I remember wondering whether Don was OK. Then, earlier this week, I read of Don's untimely death at age 65 following a long battle with respiratory problems.

Markstein cofounded the long-running cartoon APA, APATOONS, and the classic comic-strip reprint magazine, COMICS REVUE, but I know him best for penning a number of very good Disney comics stories for Egmont, many of which saw the light of day in America during the Gemstone era. He impressed me immediately with the HORACE HORSECOLLAR story "King of the Bungaloos" in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #635 (August 2003). The most impressive thing of all -- at least, it seemed that way to me at the time -- was the mere fact that someone actually wanted to WRITE a modern HORACE HORSECOLLAR story. The amusing tale of rough-hewn Horace's being fingered as the monarch of a far-off nation foreshadowed Don's ultimate niche, that of a MICKEY MOUSE specialist who enjoyed bringing back classic characters in various guises and combinations. Markstein played no small role in the remarkable revival of Mickey's viability and popularity as a comic-book character during the last 10 to 15 years. Getting to see the rest of Don's stories in a newly-revived American Disney comics line would be the best possible tribute.