Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The "Boarder" That Won't Leave

Earlier this Summer, Nicky and I spent several weekends repairing the peeling tar paper and rotting wood that made up the outer facade of the house's addition.  We took down the old stuff, attached new wood and a metal lattice, and covered the lattice with cement so that the facade would match that of the rest of the house.  We also replaced the old registers that allowed air to escape the large crawlspace beneath our bedroom.  However, we have not as yet replaced the wooden door guarding the only accessible entrance to the crawlspace, and it appears as though someone has taken advantage of it.

The owner of those "headlights" is a cat that we've glimpsed a couple of times out of doors but can't reach in the crawlspace because it's sitting too far back.  While we try to decide what to do with the interloper, we've given it a "peace offering" of some food and water in an effort to show it that we mean it no harm.  The gifts have been accepted with alacrity, but we remain in a state of stalemate, so to speak.

Book Review: IGNITING THE FLAME: AMERICA'S FIRST OLYMPIC TEAM by Jim Reisler (Lyons Press, 2012)

Yes, I've got the Olympics on my mind, and I've just finished another worthwhile read delving into the modern Games' frequently strange and curious past.  This time around, the focus is on the 14 young men who formed the American team for the 1896 Athens Olympics.  Though these fellows rated a TV mini-series not so long ago, author Reisler goes that fictionalized effort one better by coupling the story of the recruitment, travels, and triumphs of the U.S. contingent to a quick survey of the development of the modern Olympic movement and the role that American academics, in particular, played in organizing the team and encouraging its participation.  In the late 19th century, thanks to the opening of such schools as Johns Hopkins, MIT, and the University of Chicago, American higher education was trending towards the sciences and other "modern" fields, but classical scholars were still a substantial presence on the typical campus. Some, such as Princeton's William Milligan Sloane, the first president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, jumped at the chance to assist the Greeks in their revival of the ancient Games.  To be sure, some of Sloane's peers were less than enthusiastic about allowing their athletes to go off on what was seen as a purposeless junket; James Connolly, the modern Games' first champion, actually had to drop out of Harvard, never to return, after his request for time off was denied.

The somewhat ramshackle, ad hoc nature of the first modern Olympics is exemplified by American Robert Garrett shockingly winning the discus competition over two Greeks... after having started practicing with the regulation Olympic discus just the day before.  Garrett's victory, however, was one of the key events that cemented a bond of friendship between the enthusiastic American athletes and the Athenians who attended and supported the Games.  The Greeks were especially pleased that the Americans' participation kept the 1896 Games from being an all-European affair.  Despite being skunked in most of the track-and-field events, the Greeks famously got one back on the Americans when Spiridon Louis won the inaugural marathon.  Political disagreements and spats born of envy were conspicuous by their absence, however, and the goodwill fostered by the 1896 Games helped sustain the Olympics during the lean decade that followed, until the events of London 1908 put the Games on solid footing for good (albeit also putting bitter national rivalries in style).  The modern Olympics may never have been truly pristine or innocent, but Athens 1896 was as close as they ever got to being so, and the Americans played no small role in making it happen.

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S UNCLE $CROOGE: ONLY A POOR OLD MAN by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

Remarkable timing, I must say -- Volume 12 of Fantagraphics' BARKS LIBRARY, containing the first six issues of UNCLE $CROOGE (yes, I know that "Only a Poor Old Man," "Back to the Klondike", and "The Horseradish Story" were technically FOUR COLOR releases, but we aren't fooled, are we?), being released in exquisite conjunction with the heavily-Barks-flavored early entries in my DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE.  I wish it were something more than a mere coincidence, but, sadly, no such luck (Old-#1-Dime-fueled or otherwise).

These are the legendary tales and gags that transformed Scrooge McDuck from an intriguing supporting player in Barks' DONALD DUCK stories and "ten-pagers" into comicdom's great champion of high adventure and low (yet surprisingly amusing) cheapness.  There's really no need for me to add to the piles of praise that have been justifiably heaped upon these efforts, except to note that Fantagraphics' production values easily live up to the high standards set in the first released volume of this series.  In this case, that even includes posing a stiff challenge to Duck fans' eyeballs and reproducing the exact same coloring schemes from the original Dell comics.  Did the color of Scrooge's broadcloth coat really travel the precipitous route from red-with-green-trim to green to plum to red to blue over such a short span of time -- sometimes changing from feature to feature within a single issue?  Did the Beagle Boys really have blue sweaters in "Only a Poor Old Man" before switching over to their trademark red/orange?  Yes, and FG faithfully depicts every single twist and turn.

I was a little disappointed to see that George Lucas' foreword tribute to Barks is "merely" a reprint of the piece he wrote for the Celestial Arts book in the early 1980s.  C'mon, George... to cadge a metaphor from "Only a Poor Old Man" (not to mention a certain tangentially related DuckTales ep), a lot of water has crashed through the dam since then.  Don't you have any updated insights to provide to us, on the order of those you imparted to eager fans during your triumphant revisiting of the Star Wars "universe"?  (Or perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.)  The Story Notes continue to be quite good, though I can certainly see the point made by other reviewers who wish that the Notes for a particular story could precede that story.  It is a little awkward to have to flip back to the rear of the book to read the Notes.  That being said, the Notes section also presents visual, as well as textual, information, such as story panels, covers, and, in the case of "Back to the Klondike," some redrawn "lost" art (which is incorporated quite magnificently into the reconstructed original tale, I might add).  It is difficult to see how all of this could be broken up and presented on a story-by-story basis without making the job of reading even more confusing and wrecking what is presumably one of FG's aims, namely, to give the reader something as close to the original Dell-comic reading experience as possible.  Perhaps FG should consider putting a discreet footnote at the bottom of the title page of each story, indicating where the Notes for that story can be found in the back of the volume.  The purists may not like the move, but it may serve to satisfy more people.

Friday, July 27, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 3, "Sweet Duck of Youth"

I still lack a positive confirmation of my speculation that the DuckTales production crew got most of its early "Barks-adaptation fodder" from Celestial Arts' UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES.  However, I can offer up the Internet-delivered tidbit that Jymn Magon, a longtime Barks fan, brought volumes from Another Rainbow's CARL BARKS LIBRARY to some of those early production meetings... and that some of his colleagues weren't impressed.  Sorry to say, I can't currently locate a direct link for a relevant quote.  Perhaps someone can provide one.

Speaking of Barks adaptations: When writing our DUCKTALES INDEX, Joe Torcivia and I coined the awkward, yet apropos, neologism "semi-adaptation" to describe the occasional DT episode that contained bits and pieces of Barks material but did not count as a flat-out adaptation.  "Sweet Duck of Youth" is the first such example to be produced -- a tale flavored with essences of Barks' story "That's No Fable!" (UNCLE $CROOGE #32, December 1960) but, shall we say, pointing in a completely different direction.  GeoX correctly IDs the Florida swamp setting and the Fountain of Youth as the two main similarities between the stories; I would also posit that the old swamp dweller's use of a conquistador disguise may have been inspired by the presence of the two young-old soldiers Pedro and Pablo in Barks' story.

"Sweet Duck" isn't a classic by any means, but it's gained a bit of gravitas with time, not least because it features the debut of Launchpad McQuack and the brief appearances of several other series players, some culled from Barks (Gladstone Gander) and some emphatically not (Doofus, Quacky McSlant, Vacation van Honk).  Launchpad's persona at this early stage is still under construction, and it's intriguing to witness the ways in which his performance in "Sweet Duck" deviates from the future template of "good-natured, crash-prone incompetent."  The theme of a despondent Scrooge feeling his years and rushing off to try to find the long-lost Fountain, only to ultimately discover that (all together now!) "you're only as old as you feel," seems as cut-and-dried now as it did 25 years ago, but you do have to give DT some credit for grasping the "age" nettle at such an early stage.  The idea of centering a late-80s animated series around a crotchety, old, cane-toting, Scottish-accented duck was unusual enough; now they have to go and remind viewers of just how old he is?  By contrast, writers Ken Koonce and David Weimers, who will come to cast two very, very long shadows over the course of the development of DT's style of humor, play things fairly close to the vest in their first go-round when it comes to verbal fireworks; they concentrate on the development of mood and atmosphere, as opposed to packing the script with one-liners.  Their plot line is "thin" (GeoX) and their wrap-up of the story is decidedly perfunctory and unsatisfactory (Greg), but some high-quality animation and background work from TMS help with the mood-setting. 

In retrospect, the opening "Scrooge's birthday party" scenes, which seemed either pointless or mystifying at the time when "Sweet Duck" was originally aired in mid-season, look like a tentative, toe-dipping attempt to give the audience a soft-pedaled introduction to several new players.  Granted, said players make no real impression on the proceedings, but you can sense the DT crew trying to get the audience acclimatized to the looks of these folks.  Gladstone, of course, would later get a featured role in one ep and an extended walk-on in another, so I find it somewhat ironic that this classic Barks character is the one "new guy" who mysteriously disappears from the proceedings in mid-stream...

(insert relevant "... is a form of work" joke here) ...  while Quacky and VVH remain on the scene throughout.

It's difficult to figure out why Quacky and VVH were brainstormed into existence in the first place -- or, more to the point, how the DT crew thought that they could be used on a regular, or even semi-regular, basis.  I mean, "mere background characters" wouldn't rate pictures and character write-ups in the "show bible" unless the creators felt that they should get fairly substantial roles, right?

   I askew...what kind of story angle would YOU use to give this guy a starring role? 

Well, he might have worked better as one of Herb Muddlefoot's long-lost relatives.

Heck, Quacky doesn't even stand at an angle in his first "crowd scene," which rather defeats the purpose of using him in the first place.  Without that self-defining shtick, he just looks like some homeless duck who wandered into Scrooge's mansion from off the street.  Evidently, even at this very early stage, the DT crew were already rethinking the whole idea of making Quacky any sort of major player (though he would get a clever bit at the start of "Home Sweet Homer" and, much later, would even appear in a couple of comic-book stories).  VVH would fare a little better, getting several speaking roles in the series, but even his "perpetual traveler" role would be undercut by the fact that we never saw him outside of Duckburg.  The closest he would ever got to a trip would be when he bumped into Magica De Spell at the airport during "Magica's Shadow War."  Unlike Quacky, I think that VVH could have reasonably been used more often than he was, albeit only as a gag character.  I can easily imagine him assuming the role of the pig lady who kept impeding Donald's progress in Barks' "A Duck's-Eye View of Europe" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #273, June 1963) by regularly bumping into Scrooge, HD&L, and Launchpad in the most unlikely places.  To say that Launchpad's debut is the most significant one in this episode, however, is to state the obvious.

Let it immediately go on the record that Launchpad's first on-screen landing is A SUCCESS!  The second one, in the Okeefedokee Swamp, does land the Ducks in quicksand, but LP still gets the gang down in one piece.  Even LP's first crash comes with a big asterisk, as the old swamp guy shoots down the 'copter.  We do get a hint during that third "landing scenario" that LP has had this sort of experience before, as the pilot speaks the soon-to-be-famous line, "Any crash you can walk away from is a good crash!".  With the temporary "reverse" of the ducks' newly-built watercraft, LP finally gets into the groove that will ultimately define him.  That being said, the overarching impression that one gets of LP here is that of "LP the airhead," as opposed to "LP the crashmeister."  Speculating over the possibility that "tiny little Indians" shot the copter-wrecking arrow (was this an oblique reference to the even-then-untouchable "Land of the Pygmy Indians"?) and reasoning that the conquistador must be "the ghost of a fisherman" because he uses nets to trap his prey, LP provides a good deal of off-the-wall verbal humor that Donald only rarely did in Barks' $CROOGE adventures.  Given that LP is the series' stand-in for Donald, it is significant, I think, that Koonce and Wiemers felt it necessary to establish the pilot's distinctiveness right off the top.  The "polishing and sanding" of the character would come later.

There's relatively little to say about the content of most of the episode, at least until the Ducks encounter the swamp guy.  We get some splendid eye-candy in the Okeefedokee (especially, as GeoX notes, the beautiful shot of the swamp at twilight) and a couple of nicely mounted scenes when HD&L and Scrooge are first attacked by the conquistador:

BTW, I don't particularly mind the use of what Greg calls the "Hanna-Barbera looping and running effect" in the bottom image.  It's not as if DT regularly resorted to such measures in its animation -- the use of it here is clearly to make a gag point -- and the scene in question is well-executed.

Before the gang gets back together in the swamp guy's cabin, we get two charming little scenes involving the Nephews, one post-conquistador encounter...

 ... and one as the boys prepare to come to the rescue of Scrooge and Launchpad...

The first is a cute little visual grace note; there's no reason for Huey to flick the water off of his head like that, but it's something that a young Duckling just might do under the rainy circs.  The second gives us our first touch of differentiation between the Nephews -- and a surprising one at that.  How often did a Nephew attempt to weasel out of his responsibility during a Barks adventure?  The fact that it's Louie is ironic in light of Dan Haley's seminal study "A Who's Who of HD&L" (THE BARKS COLLECTOR #11 [1979]), which reports that, in Barks' stories, Louie was more often than not presented as the most athletic of the three boys.  OK, Louie's moment of weakness is certainly not on the level (or at the depth) of the slacker Quack Pack HD&L "flicking forks into the ceiling and complaining that there's nothing to do," or even the boys' whining about the lack of a beanery amidst the wild scenery in Barks' "Gall of the Wild," but its appearance here is nonetheless intriguing.  Nice lighting effect during the scene, too.

HD&L's subsequent solution of Ponce De Loon's riddle is... well, I have to agree with GeoX that it's rather on the contrived and uber-convenient side, but, in all honesty, is it that much MORE contrived than the boys' doping out the location of Scrooge's dumped quarters in "The Secret of Atlantis," or of Tralla La in Barks' version of the story?  HD&L didn't even need to consult the Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook to figure the puzzler out, so, if anything, they should be awarded some extra plaudits here.  Actually, I would be more cheesed off at the swamp guy, who's had that armor in his possession for 30 years and never thought to examine it for potential secret compartments.  After three decades of living in swampy isolation, and apparently having little else to do but put on the armor (to scare intruders) and take it off again, you'd think that he might have discovered that compartment by dumb luck, if nothing else.

The ultimate reveal of the subterranean Fountain is another visually impressive scene, made all the more so by the fact that it's delivered without any dialogue being used.  The gags involving the Fountain's actual effects are clever, as well.  Then, alas, the time crunch bites the ep in the tookus, as our friends apparently walk out of the Okeefedokee and back to civilization (with an implied stop at an airport to catch a plane to get back to Duckburg).  That's a ramble to match the amnesiac Ducks' pedestrian escape from the ruins of "The Seven Cities of Cibola," so at least the logical lapse has some distinguished company, but, boy, does it strain narrative credulity.  Just as irksome is the question of how the long-isolated swamp guy could afford to celebrate his return to civilization by taking a trip to Tahiti.  Somehow, I doubt that he's been holding down a steady job during his search for the Fountain, so even if you speculate that the Ducks stopped at the cabin to allow the old feller to pick up some spending cash, you're skating on thin ice.  Plus, why didn't he simply fly to Tahiti from an airport in Florida?  (Unless Duckburg is on the West Coast?)  And where's his luggage?  Could Scrooge be... *gulp!*... paying for the trip?!  Admittedly, Scrooge did "learn a lesson" in this episode, but let's not get too carried away.

Scrooge's vid-character still seems a bit crude here -- I still find it difficult to believe that he would literally drop everything and rush after a legendary Fountain that may or may not exist, even if he were seriously worried about getting old.  I mean, wouldn't it be more cost-effective to think about searching for a more tangible "solution" closer to home?  Or, at the very least, to do some preliminary spadework to estimate the likelihood that the Fountain exists?  The priceless "Get rid of your money belt!/I'd rather sink" gag, however, is a promising sign; so, too, the "crocodile-dollar gag" (see below).

The frosting definitely outweighs the cake here, but at least it's reasonably tasty frosting.   I'd say that the series is making progress.





(GeoX) Launchpad just blows out Scrooge's candles like it waren't no thang. Surely that's a breach of etiquette...

Or a very early indication of Launchpad's cockiness, one of his most endearing (albeit often self-defeating) character traits.

(GeoX)  Scrooge, addressing the camera, after having rescued a dollar from an alligator's snout: "Phew! The things you have to do to save a dollar these days!" Yeah, it doesn't get much lamer than that.

I do think that this scene would have been greatly improved by dispensing with the dialogue entirely and simply letting it speak for itself (about Scrooge's frugality, that is).  Koonce and Weimers had already used the funny bit of "woe-is-me" Scrooge wandering through the swamp as various perils are menacing him, a la Barks' "The Swamp of No Return" (UNCLE $CROOGE #57, May 1965), so the use of another sight gag involving a local predator wouldn't have seemed out of place.  The "save a dollar" line, however, unnecessarily jackhammers the point home.

 A level from the video game "DuckTales 3: Pitfall Scrooge"?

(Greg)  Scrooge is hopelessly lost in a deadly swamp (death reference #1) on the sky shot as he is without his cane too. Scrooge calls out for the nephews as we pan over about 200 feet to the right to the crashed helicopter as the nephews and Launchpad return proclaiming that they checked everywhere in the area. I doubt that very much guys.

Forget the problem-with-tracking issue (which is hard to believe anyway, given HD&L's Junior Woodchuck experience -- or perhaps they hadn't yet progressed in the organization to the point of earning that merit badge?).  Why can't HD&L and Launchpad HEAR Scrooge calling for help? 

(Greg)  We get some more thunder crashing and go to the far shot of the cabin as we head inside with Scrooge still in the net as Scrooge hears the front door opening. Launchpad thinks it's a real ghost of course. We cut to the door (which is next to the conviently placed armor. Nice to see DeLoon was on the ball here eh?) as the barrier get opened and in comes the nephews. Huey and Dewey tries to cut the nets; but Louie just had to see the armor and he walks backwards and knocks the nephews down with a thud.  Louie apologizes and the swamp guy wakes up and the nephews are forced to bail away stage right just before the door opens to reveal swamp guy in his pink PJ'S.

Hey, look whose fear-fueled clumsiness nearly caused the boys' cover to be blown!  Given the earlier "let me know how it comes out" scene, I'd call this a nice example of continuity.  Either that, or Dan Haley's research was flawed. 

(Greg)  So we cut to above ground near a tree in front of the ruins as Scrooge gets up and helps the nephews get out of the hole in the ground as Scrooge feels young once again. So we then go into the jungle swamp as Scrooge leads the charge to find something which is not clearly explained. Okay; this episode is dead as a doornail now and it's time to mercy kill it. We get more walking and Scrooge telling the rest to keep up; but nothing happens, literally. The music is the only thing keeping me from boredom at this point. So we get another scene changer as everyone but Scrooge is struggling to keep up with him. Swamp guy comments on Scrooge's energy level. Launchpad gleefully answers him for me as we then cut to the airport. Huh?! How the hell did they get home when they have no helicopter when the nephews created a motorboat out of it?! Stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID! Did I mention stupid?! We head out of the airport as Scrooge is happy to get home. I guess he used his teleportion powers from earlier in the episode. Swamp guy comes out with a paper in his hands as he thanks Scrooge. If it's for sucking; then I agree with him.

Well, there actually was a point to Scrooge's purposeful striding here -- to get to the airport -- but I'm on board with most of your points here.  I wonder whether a scene was cut for time purposes.  If so, then it probably could have been preserved by slicing a bit of the blubber out of the mid-episode scenes in the swamp, but some of the episode's visual ambiance would then have been disrupted.  How might you have fixed this problem?  

Next:  Episode 4, "Micro-Ducks from Outer Space."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: SHOWDOWN AT SHEPHERD'S BUSH by David Davis (St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Here's a quick, enjoyable read to pass the time between events at the upcoming Olympics -- or, if you've soured on the commercialism, rampant doping, and overall "too-much-ness" of the modern version of the Games, a more than acceptable substitute for viewing same.  Not that controversy is absent from this discussion of the 1908 London Olympics marathon; quite the opposite, in fact.  Davis makes the argument that the half-dramatic, half-farcical conclusion of the '08 race ranks as the first "globally famous" sporting event.  Surely, the combination of new technology (film), aggressive media coverage, and the holding of the Games in the seat of what was then the world's preeminent empire helped publicize this notable moment at a critical time when the future of the modern Olympic movement seemed in some doubt.  But consider the fact that the intense interest in what transpired at the White City Stadium on that baking-hot July day firmly established the then-exotic marathon as a truly legitimate sporting event, and Davis' argument seems reasonably legitimate.  Even if you are not particularly interested in running or the Olympics, SHOWDOWN AT SHEPHERD'S BUSH comes highly recommended as an interesting slice of early 20th century cultural history. 

SHOWDOWN AT SHEPHERD'S BUSH takes a parallel-lives approach in its early stages, sketching out the lives and times of three of the major figures in the '08 marathon: Dorando Pietri of Italy, Johnny Hayes of the U.S., and Onondaga Indian Tom Longboat of Canada.  All three came from very humble beginnings and used long-distance running as a means of improving their lot -- though, with "simon-pure" amateurism still the announced and (generally) practiced Olympic ideal, they could not truly reap the financial benefits of their efforts until after the Games, when a series of match races between them and other leading marathoners launched a brief "running craze" that captivated America seven decades before Jim Fixx appeared on the scene.  This was the "heroic age" of long-distance running, paralleling that of Polar exploration.  Given the era's minimal understanding of race tactics and training procedures, inadequate footwear, and lack of recuperation time between races, not to mention the frequent holding of races in smoke-filled indoor arenas (such as the old Madison Square Garden), it's hard not to wince while reading about these early pie-a-pie encounters.  In the course of his narrative, Davis gives us a useful potted history of early marathoning, brushing away some of the myths that have accreted around the race (e.g. the oft-repeated tale that the race was based on a courier's run to Athens following the battle of Marathon), describing the development of such early efforts at organization as the Boston Marathon, and relating the frequently shambolic details of the Olympic marathons of 1896, 1900, and 1904.  The marathon at the 1906 "Intercalated Games," held in Athens in an effort to regain a bit of the prestige that had been lost as a result of the '00 and '04 Games being dominated by ongoing expositions in Paris and St. Louis, was only a bit more successful.  Entering the '08 London Olympics, the future of the marathon as an Olympic event, to say nothing of the Games themselves, seemed anything but secure.  But competent local organization (also well detailed by Davis) and the sparks from a bitter rivalry between the host British and the upstart Americans helped to refuel the flickering torch, and the sensational conclusion of the marathon finished the job.  Save for forced breaks caused by world war, the continuation of the Olympics would never be seriously questioned again.

Dorando's heroic failure and disqualification have come to mark him as "the most famous loser in Olympic history."  Certainly, Hayes, who was declared the winner, is a forgotten man by comparison.  Davis performs his most useful services by reminding the reader of Hayes' accomplishment (which the British, no surprise, did not much appreciate) and in rescuing the role of Longboat, the pre-race favorite, from obscurity.  Longboat failed to complete the race, partially because he had sustained an injury while training in Ireland beforehand.  The extent of said training -- with Longboat's trainer-promoter putting his charge through a series of lengthy runs before curious crowds -- further points up the exploitative, almost ad hoc nature of the culture of early long-distance running.

Davis' writing gets a little too purple in places, but he accomplishes quite a lot in such a small package, providing a Cook's tour of early Olympic and long-distance history in addition to sketching out the details (in present tense, for some peculiar reason) of the headlined race.  Much like THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED or SEABISCUIT, this is a "sports history book" that the wider public should be able to fully appreciate.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I can't prove it, of course, but I think it's a reasonably safe guess that someone involved in the development of DuckTales had a habit of bringing a copy of Celestial Arts' 1982 volume UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES to those early production meetings.  "Earth Quack," DT's stab at adapting Carl Barks' "Land Beneath the Ground," is one of five episodes among the first 8 DT eps produced that were based on Barks stories reprinted in LIFE AND TIMES.  Later, "The Horseradish Story" and "Tralla La" would also get adaptations.  And the influence wielded by this first major Barks book project may not have ended there.  One can make the case that the "treasure ship in the desert" featured in "Wrongway in Ronguay" (part two of "Treasure of the Golden Suns") may be a riff on Captain Ulloa's ship in "The Seven Cities of Cibola."  The prominent appearances by Flintheart Glomgold and Magica De Spell probably didn't hurt their chances of becoming featured animated players, either.

Of course, simply having a handsome, richly-colored reference tome close at hand doesn't guarantee that you'll ace your adaptation of the source material.  "Back to the Klondike" was, at best, a mixed success... and pardon me for resorting to an obvious metaphor here, but the cracks in the foundation of "Earth Quack" seem to have grown wider over time.  I pretty much concur with GeoX's assessment that the best thing about this rushed, relentlessly bland take on the tale of the Terries and Fermies (squashed into "Terri-Fermians" here for convenience's sake) is that it makes you appreciate just how clever and nuanced Barks' subterranean saga was.  But a fresh-eyed viewing has also brought to light several irritating logical lapses that have caused me to slightly lower my initial rating of the episode.  Even the animation lets us down at times; the spectacular "first reveal" of the Land Beneath the Ground is still quite arresting, but the earthquake scenes -- both the ones in the "dream sequence" at the beginning and the real quake that drains Scrooge's Money Bin near the end -- definitely could have been handled better.  Coming off the visually impressive, if thematically dodgy, "Klondike," this ep has to be regarded as a disappointment.

How the Ducks should have traveled into the Terri-Fermians' lair?
(Cover of a South African DVD)

Piles of moneybags abruptly jutting up like geysers and tidal waves of cash appearing OUT OF NOWHERE with no real physical buildup aside, the "dream sequence" is still a decent way to start the episode.  But the existence of a real fault underneath Scrooge's bin inadvertently muddies up one of the most charming points in Barks' story: the fact that the Terries and Fermies, as opposed to "mere" physical processes, are responsible for making earthquakes.  In "Land Beneath the Ground," Scrooge worries about the possible presence of "weak areas," "deep fissures" and "hollow places," but the actual processes that cause earthquakes are cleverly left unstated, allowing Barks to fill in with his delightful conceit of a subterranean land of creatures whose job it is to make quakes.  By contrast, why would Fudderman's Fault be called a fault unless it were already understood that faults have something to do with the production of earthquakes?  The Barks scenario of a paranoid Scrooge digging and digging despite the lack of pro-quake evidence -- and thereby discovering the existence of the "Land Beneath the Ground" -- is dropped in favor of a straight (or as straight as a Gyro Gearloose project can be, anyway) engineering exercise. Giving Gyro his first role of the series (and with a strangely strangulated voice, to boot; Hal Smith seems to have been feeling his way with character voices at this point) isn't worth undercutting the role of the Terri-Fermians in such a manner.  The least that they could have done in exchange was to have given us a chance to have seen Gyro's giant shock absorber in the process of being built.

As for the looooooonnnnng sequence which takes first Scrooge, and then HD&L, into the Terri-Fermians' world... well, "double rolls" may save you some money when you're buying toilet paper, but they pretty much kill you when you're trying to add some depth to your story.  No surprise, then, that once the Ducks finally get out of their mine cars and start interacting with the game-playing blobs, the ep is left with so little time that the audience is practically foreordained to witness a simplified goodies vs. baddies scenario.  I wish that there were some way for Scrooge and the boys to have traveled down there together and thus to have saved a few precious minutes.  Granted, you would have needed an explanation as to why Scrooge would let HD&L go down with him on such a dangerous mission, but, heck, after the scared workers exit the shaft, Scrooge grabs the mine car and heads into the bowels of the Earth without even stopping to grab some supplies, or a light source, or...  How could he possibly have denied the boys a chance to come with him on the grounds of concern over their safety?

Dewey's description of the Terri-Fermians as "bad guys" has always intrigued me.  While Barks' Terries and Fermies may engage in more "technically" villainous behavior -- pulling the cable pins out of the Ducks' mine cars, preparing to "bargain" with the Ducks in exchange for their silence, and consciously starting the Duckburg-wrecking earthquake in order to get their trophy back -- they are so "exuberantly likable" (thanks, GeoX) and well-characterized that the reader doesn't really mind.  The Terri-Fermians, by contrast, get so little development that their function is automatically reduced to that of serving as antagonists, though they are more oblivious to the effects of their actions than anything else.  The more "formal" structure of the Terri-Fermians' world -- they have a king and put people in jail, whereas the Terries and Fermies live in something like a state of inspired anarchy -- also makes them seem more malevolent than they truly are.  In this respect, the subplot involving the little Terri-Fermian who wants to roll in the Great Games, cliched though it may seem, does serve a purpose: it ensures that at least one Terri-Fermian will be permitted to have interactions with the Ducks on something close to friendly terms.  In light of how little "real time" we actually got to share with the Terri-Fermians, I'll take what I can get.   

The Terri-Fermians humbly acknowledge their newly created hierarchical social structure.

The climactic quake sequence, though it features some funky (as in: slightly off-odor) animation while Scrooge's limo races the crack through the streets of Duckburg, does deliver the goods when Scrooge's Bin is drained dry.  I actually prefer the TV depiction of the money literally gushing out of the bottom of the Bin to Barks' comic-book crack at same.  Here's the thing, though...  why are the Terri-Fermians all rolling and crashing into the pillar in the first place?  Since they now have Scrooge's top hat to use as a substitute for the Crackpot Trophy, they have no reason to try and "get their trophy back," right?  So why not simply go back to their normal team competition, racially -- er, chromatically -- uniform roll-and-crash teams and all?  Were they simply engaging in the Terri-Fermian equivalent of a hissy fit?  I realize that the temptation was there to animate the Bin-busting quake in some form, but I just don't see the logic behind it here.  Nor do I see why the quake, apart from that single crack running down the street (I thought the fault was right under Scrooge's bin?), leaves the rest of Duckburg completely untouched.  This was like the paranoiac's version of an earthquake, one that targets one and only one location and/or person.  At least the Terri-Fermians' description of the money as "worthless litter," which prompts them to defy physical logic and return it to Scrooge (I notice that Barks didn't even try to show how this actually happened), maintains their episode-long stance of obliviousness to the doings of the world outside.  If they had started complaining about money being known to be worthless because it's given away on radio programs, then that would have been completely out of lack of character!

So, yeah, this ep represents something of a step back, IMHO.  The ingredients are there, but the show hasn't truly jelled yet.  Will the next couple Barks adaptations -- and the first few original stories -- show an uptick?




DuckBlurbs:  A quick thank you is in order to everyone who commented on my "Klondike" post.  I was really gratified to see that level of feedback.

(Greg) We zoom into the rope and then we cut to Gyro telling the boys to give more speed as the nephews pushes on the lever (WRONG LEVER) some more. We head back in as Scrooge is calling this good and then the transmitter goes dead since Scrooge is out of range. D'OH! Okay; here's the logic break; if the workers were four miles down; how come Scrooge's transmitter is getting static; while the workman's was clear?! 

A good pointPhysically speaking, I'm more intrigued by the workmen's amazing ability to run four miles uphill THAT quickly.  What did they use, rocket boots? 

(Greg)  [T]he little one claims that the king is coming as the king blob and the circle coach along with his train arrive from the right corner of the arena. He's also carrying the Crack Pot Trophy. Okay; someone who had this idea is clearly on drugs. POW! OUCH! Ummm..Okay; Carl Barks is not on drugs.

I'd still like to know why the amphora was given a big crack and an official name.  Granted, explaining where the trophy came from (including the fact that it proves that the Terri-Fermians date back to the time of the ancient Greeks) would have taken up even more air time that the episode didn't have.

(Greg) And then here comes Scrooge and the nephews tired beyond belief. Webby thought the earthquakes got him as Scrooge proclaims that there won't be any more quakes now that he has the trophy.

Well, there's still the little matter of Fudderman's Fault to consider.  When's Gyro going to build that shock absorber, again?   

Next:  Episode 3, "Sweet Duck of Youth." 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: THE ADVENTURES OF BUCK O'RUE by Dick Huemer and Paul Murry (Classic Comics Press, 2012)

This isn't your garden-variety "classic comics collection" (and, given how many outstanding reprint projects are ongoing at the moment, I actually feel quite tickled to write that).  For starters, the short-lived slapstick Western BUCK O'RUE doesn't honestly merit the label of a "classic," the best efforts of writer Dick Huemer and artist (and, ultimately, replacement writer!) Paul Murry notwithstanding.  Huemer's stated desire, as related by his son Richard in the book's preface, was to create an exaggerated comedy strip "that would forever end all things Western," but, from the very beginning, he was also determined to make BUCK a daily continuity strip.  Very, very few creators have ever been able to maintain that particular balance; indeed, "genius" appears to be one of the prerequisites for doing so (here are two creators who come to mind).  BUCK O'RUE is only partially successful at pulling the trick off, and one can reasonably argue in hindsight that Huemer and Murry would probably have been better off making BUCK a straight Sunday feature, in the mold of, say, SMOKEY STOVER.  That being said, there's quite a lot to enjoy here, especially for Disney comics fans eager to get an eyeful and a half of some of Murry's most noteworthy non-Disney work.

The core of BUCK O'RUE is the conflict between the impossibly handsome, preternaturally gifted -- and, truth be told, somewhat stone-headed and oblivious -- title character and the scar-faced, squinting, overbearing badnik Trigger Mortis for control of the wild 'n woolly Western town of Mesa Trubil, a burg so beyond the pale that the U.S. wouldn't accept it back into the Union after the Civil War.  The Sunday page draws away from this basic confrontation for a while to tell what are purported to be tales of Buck's past adventures, but even it is ultimately pulled back into the tug-of-war.  This conceit might have sustained a Sunday page for a good long time, but, in a daily format, it gets repetitive rather quickly.  Before the strip's 18-month life has ended, we've already seen multiple examples of Mortis almost tricking Deacon Duncan's darling daughter (and Buck's inamorata) Dorable into marrying him, Mortis trying to get Buck out of his hair by appealing to obscure town statutes, Buck periodically "cleaning up the town"... you get the idea.  Before long, Huemer and Murry appear to have gotten cold feet regarding the pint size of the canvas on which they were working.  During the transition period when Huemer was preparing to leave and turn the whole schmeer over to Murry, the strip runs a bizarre series of "coming attractions" bumpers ("Coming Soon!  The Great Beefsteak Scandal!").  I originally thought that these were meant strictly in jest, on the order of the overblown titles announced at the ends of Rocky and Bullwinkle segments, but, according to the volume's extensive series of Endnotes, they may also have been meant to convince client papers to keep running the strip after Murry took over.  The level of creator confidence displayed by this ploy is not very reassuring.

If BUCK O'RUE has a "cult following" in its future, it will probably be because of Murry's artwork.  It is exquisite, rich in detail, and can coax a laugh out of anyone.  Those who are familiar with the look of Murry's dogface characters in Disney comics will quickly recognize the designs of most of the figures herein as human versions of same.  The major exceptions are the strong-chinned Buck himself; Dorable Duncan, who amply displays Murry's considerable talent for drawing beautiful women; and Mortis' right-hand gunman, Skullface Skelly, whom I can best describe as an emaciated, grown-up, weather-beaten sagebrush version of Outcault's Yellow Kid.

The extras provided here rate an extra word or two -- preferably peppered with liberal dashes of asperity.  Co-editors Richard Huemer Jr. and Germund van Wowern chuck the occasional verbal Roman candle at us in the unlikeliest of places.  von Wowern speaks several volumes with these two lines at the end of his biographical sketch of Murry: "By the early 70s, Paul already considered Mickey Mouse a character of the past.  A decade later, he finally retired."  Huemer lets loose this zinger while discussing his Dad's vision of the West:  "The Myth and its Hero tug at the fringes of our collective unconsciousness, unwilling to let a faltering empire succumb to rigor mortis just yet."  And check out the concluding sentence of a Note on BUCK's depiction of Native Americans in one Sunday continuity: "Belief in 'race' persists in the 21st century, providing politicians with an invaluable tool for shepherding citizens into voting blocs."  If you're wondering what opinionation of this sort is doing in a comic-strip collection, this Web site may hold part of the answer.  Hey, it could have been worse.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 1, "Back to the Klondike"

Before we get rolling here, one quick note. As you can see above, I've decided to change the overarching title of this feature.  You can blame this alteration on my determination to maintain arithmetic precision.  DuckTales' "kickoff year" being 1987 means that 2012 is, and always will be, the silver anniversary year of the series.  Since my one-ep-per-week plan will obviously take us well beyond the end of '12, I decided to remove the numerical indicator.

Play along with me here:  Imagine that you are a Disney TV Animation exec trying to decide how you should commence production on your ambitious new series.  Everyone is still feeling his or her way (well, yeah, there are those who've worked on Gummi Bears, but you get my drift) and you'd like to get the series off to a good start.  You intend to take your inspiration from the works of Carl Barks, and, at this point, you have Barks' full complement of UNCLE $CROOGE tales upon which to draw.  You decide to pick a story with:

(1)  fairly extensive gunplay, including gunfire aimed at juveniles;

(2)  drug dependence (Scrooge's reliance upon medicine to jog his memory);

(3)  kidnapping;

(4)  sexual tension, coupled with implied cohabitation (so what did Scrooge and Goldie do when they weren't digging up White Agony Creek?);

(5)  a lengthy scene set in the questionable environs of a "honkytonk";

(6)  heavy reliance upon an historical flashback.

For some inexplicable reason, this bear of a project gets green-lighted, and you begin beating it into shape for televised consumption.  Of necessity, you have to change some things; for example, the meds have got to go (at least at this early stage of the series; you'll get more leash later on).  Less justifiably, you undercut the battle of wills at the heart of Barks' story in favor of a more conventional "misled heroes vs. conniving villains" approach.  But you still retain many of the elements listed above, even amping some of them up to a surprising extent.  For your pains, you get raked over the coals by numerous Barks fans, and the criticism is, at least in part, deserved.  But you still merit some extra points for sheer chutzpah.

Boy, is this a choice episode with which to start our journey!

"And 100 mint sodas for me little partner -- Superdoo!"

Joe can attest to the fact that my original reaction to the DT "Klondike" was of the "recoil in horror" variety.  In my first written output of any sort related to DT ("DuckTales: A Review," THE BARKS COLLECTOR #38, June 1988), I went all "Comic Book Guy" on adapters Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron for turning the "unforgettable ambivalence at the end... where Scrooge goes bawling into the sunset, having just purposely given up his claim to Glittering Goldie (and feeling ashamed about it)" into the now-infamous "perching on a bear and smooching while heart-shaped smoke plumes waft into the sky" TV wrap-up.  My first draft of "Klondike" comments for the DUCKTALES INDEX upped the rhetorical ante, as I used the word "atrocity" to describe the episode.  Joe helped talk me "off the ledge" by making a few of the same points that GeoX made in his review -- yes, the adaptation took immense liberties with the original, but it did have its own inherent charms (mostly of the visual variety), and, given its self-imposed limitations and simplifications, it did manage to capture a fairly substantial piece of the ambiance, though certainly not the complexity, of Barks' original.  The intensity of my original reaction to the TV "Klondike" can be set down to the fact that I was still in the first, flushed stages of my enthusiasm for Disney comics, when "keep the Barks canon unspotted" still had the feel of a prime directive.  It was a good learning experience; I've been critical of other products since then, but I've generally eschewed extremely over-the-top language, and I've also trained myself to be much more open-minded about departures from "book."  If you don't agree that that's a good plan, then stop and reflect for a moment on the 10,000-plus-hit "holy heck" that followed my comparatively mild description of kaboom! DUCKTALES #3 as a "train wreck."

How did the DT "Klondike" give us "a little something extra," even as it changed the nature of Scrooge and Goldie's spat and introduced Dangerous Dan as the oily, altogether-too-obvious heavy?  Start with sex (no, I don't mean that literally).  Don Rosa's "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek," with its now-notorious "between the legs!" and "Crash, tinkle, tinkle *silent cabin*" scenes, has NOTHING on the DT "Klondike" insofar as sexual innuendo goes.  After the Goose Egg Nugget goes missing, Goldie offers to help Scrooge replace it by working at his claim.  And you don't see her going home after each day's work is done.  Did WDTVA really expect us not to put two and two together?  I see GeoX's point about Goldie's voluntary change of heart being a rather abrupt swerve for a character who has presumably been seducing and/or fleecing unsuspecting sourdoughs for quite some time before this.  But when sex is entered into the equation, Goldie's decision looks more like a plan to seduce Scrooge (for presumably nefarious purposes) that winds up backfiring -- by growing into love.

We may not get an animated equivalent of Barks' famous censored splash panel of Scrooge licking everyone in sight, but the DT "Klondike" also gets away with a surprising amount of stuff during the honkytonk scenes.  The wonderful "reveal" of a performing Goldie is a highlight, of course, but we also get a lengthy gambling session and some indoor gunplay courtesy of Dangerous Dan.  (This last was apparently trimmed at some point during Toon Disney reruns, as was the later scene in which Goldie threatens to "take another shot" at Scrooge.)  Again, consider that these fairly daring sequences were included as part of DT's first effort to capture Barks' world.   

The central conflict involving Scrooge, Goldie, and Dangerous Dan is, of course, not a patch on the tremendous ego-tilt between Scrooge and Goldie in Barks' story.  Even here, however, DT didn't completely miss the boat.  The idea that an old debt must be repaid is preserved; the difference is that Scrooge and Goldie can't agree on who should pay whom.  This approach has the advantage of both showing "newbies" that Scrooge is capable of less than admirable behavior and getting the audience on Scrooge's side from the start (since one can easily sympathize with him over the misunderstanding).   As great as it would have been to have seen the original, much more grasping Scrooge, it's not hard to see why the adaptation took the approach that it did.  Scrooge is going to have to be the lead character and "hero" for a good many episodes to come, after all.

Several aspects of the TV "Klondike" have not held up so well.  The Valentine theme really contributes nothing of importance to the story, save for providing an ending visual that has dogged this ep's reputation forever after.  (BTW, how ironic is it that the ep's first spoken words -- presumably, the first words ever recorded for DT -- consist of Scrooge saying, "There's nothing like a quiet evening at home"!  Well, at least he didn't say anything about feeling a hankering to join the circus.)  The Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, in its first animated appearance, is imperfectly realized, proving to be of decidedly limited help to the Nephews; it's almost as if the writers were considering making a running gag out of its fallibility.  Thankfully, they seem to have done a re-think after the fact.  Most troubling of all is the ridiculous ease with which Scrooge and Goldie accidentally discover that there is still gold on Scrooge's claim.  If the other prospectors truly believed, as Goldie says, that "all the gold ran out years ago," then the fact that gold is lurking several millimeters below the surface of a boulder suggests that those other guys didn't have a fraction of the gumption and stick-to-it-iveness that Scrooge -- even during his lovelorn and unkempt "hermit" phase at Red Agony Creek -- displayed during his time in the Klondike. 

All in all, for a Barks fan, the DT "Klondike" remains a decidedly mixed bag -- a dusty gunny sack containing a mixture of shiny nuggets and clinkers.  I respect what it does well and have come to tolerate most of its gaucheries and simplifications.  If I were a complete newcomer to the world of the Ducks -- and we must remember that the vast majority of people watching this for the first time in the Fall of 1987 fell into that category -- then I would probably give it much higher marks.  It delivers the visual goods and, for all of the eye-rollingly cliched aspects of the Scrooge-Goldie romantic relationship, respects the intelligence of the audience.




We'll conclude with a little sub-feature which I'll call DuckBlurbs.  Here, I'll address various issues raised by other folks who've done reviews of the episodes.  In my case, that means calling upon the services of GeoX and Greg WeagleNote:  In case any additional comments of note are sent my way, I may update the remarks below. 

(GeoX) Here's how modern-day Scrooge and Goldie find a new vein of gold: they're getting all nostalgic and sentimental until they start arguing about whether she stole the gold, at which point she opens fire on him and hits a rock, revealing the gold beneath. I would request that in the future, DUCKTALES writers, you not do such flamingly idiotic things.

Cue all those aged prospectors simultaneously whacking their temples and exclaiming, "Shee-yoot!  Why didn't I think of that?"

(Greg) Okay; we cut to the seats [in Dan's honkytonk] as Scrooge enters as we cut to various furries including the guy playing the piano as it's an old manual piano.

Uh, it's a player piano.  He's playing a player piano.  The only other character that I've ever seen do that was Snoopy in "What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown," and even that took place within the context of a dream.  Said dream also was set during the Klondike gold rush.  Was the night life in the Klondike so boring back then that people felt the need to pretend to provide entertainment, even when they didn't have to?

Giving "faking it" a whole new meaning.

(Greg) So [Scrooge's decision to return to the Klondike] logically leads us to a far shot of a tunnel as the wolves are howling and a train waltzes down the tracks making good time. We then go inside the passenger cart as Scrooge and the nephews relax as Dewey bounces badly in excitement. Man; TMS' animation is stinking up the joint for some reason...

Actually, I thought that Dewey's bouncing here was quite charming, not poorly animated at all.  The bit didn't have to be included, but the fact that it was indicates that TMS was putting a little extra into this first effort.  I will grant you that they did mess up Goldie's beak movements earlier when she said "feather face."  

(Greg) We then cut to Dangerous Dan and Dan's partner (ah; I see he got his gun back and holster; no logic break there though) point their guns at the babyfaces inside proclaiming that he got the best of him again. Scrooge blows it off because he couldn't have done that. Except he's done it like three times already in this episode alone. Dan then blows his cover and admits that he stole his last shipment of Klondike gold as we get the flashback as we see Dan doing the deed which makes no sense since we clearly saw Dan's PARTNER steal it since in one of the shots; it was a dogsperson's nose. Logic break #4 for the episode and a bad one at that. 

Well, I looked over the shot in question, and it was hard to see any details on the face of the person who stole Scrooge and Goldie's gold.  More to the point, perhaps, there was no indication that Dan's partner (who never does get a name, but gets no fewer than THREE distinct voices, courtesy of Hal Smith) WAS Dan's partner at the time of the gold rush.  Did Dan, the bragging master of the honkytonk, really need an acolyte at the time of his first encounter with Scrooge?  I've always figured that Dan hooked up with the guy with the smelly aftershave and the appearing and disappearing Swedish accent long after the honkytonk had closed down.  Also, TMS was consistent in showing Dan's cuffs on the unseen thief's shirt.  I'm willing to give TMS the benefit of the doubt on this matter until I see a shot that definitively establishes the dogsperson nature of the thief.

Next:  Episode 2, "Earth Quack."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Say it Ain't So, J(ymnb)oe

Well, there's something you should know, so I'm gonna tell you so... as painful as it may be for you to learn.

Currently sitting proudly at #1 on the Internet Movie Database "Bottom 100" List is Titanic: The Legend Goes On, the first of the animated Titanic exploitation films so memorably dismembered by The Nostalgia Critic.  TNC did get one thing wrong in his review: The Legend of the Titanic, a.k.a. "The One With the Dog-Nosed Octopus in Which Everyone Survived," was released before T:TLGO, so, if either of these films was "the ripoff of the ripoff," then "The One With the Rapping Dog" was.  But there was one fact that I'm glad TNC kept from us, not that he would have been likely to have recognized its significance.  In the opening credits to T:TLGO -- which are available on YouTube and are just as bare-bones as you would expect -- the VERY FIRST cast-and-crew acknowledgement that we see is:

The creator... of TaleSpin...the writer... of A Goofy Movie... and the... co-author of.... DuckTales' "Treasure of the Golden Suns"... worked on this thing?!?


For my own Disney Afternoon-related peace of mind, I can only hope that Jymn's "creative consultantship" concluded with him emulating Tennessee Tuxedo:

"Get me out of here!  GET ME OUT OF HERE!!"

I suppose I could post a question about Jymn's experiences on this film -- in a nice manner, of course -- to his blog.  But, somehow, I just don't have the heart to do so.