Monday, April 29, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 31, "Much Ado About Scrooge"

The first season of DuckTales has now settled into what, in production terms, could be called its "middle period" -- and a fecund one it will prove to be.  "Home Sweet Homer" touches off a skein of 10 episodes that all (with one arguable exception) have reasonable arguments to rank among the series' best.  It's as if accomplishing the monumental task of completing "Treasure of the Golden Suns" served as a goad to maintain a similarly high standard of quality in the half-hour episodes.

Interestingly, a fair number of the eps in this remarkable run give Scrooge, if not exactly a second-banana role, then certainly a somewhat less central role than we have heretofore been accustomed to seeing him fill.  As I noted in my discussion of "Homer," Scrooge may have talked a good heroic game in that ep, but it was the Nephews who did most of the heavy lifting.  Now comes an episode with a highly misleading title, even granted that writers Karen Willson and Chris Weber were straining mightily to come up with a Shakespearean angle when they crafted it.  It would be very difficult to argue that Scrooge is the center of attention here -- not with one of the most indelibly memorable one-shot characters of the series primed and ready to grab center stage.  Indeed, Filler Brushbill the super-salesman takes up so much of the oxygen that I've always wondered whether another character, one much more familiar to Carl Barks fans, might originally have been slated for this starring turn.  But more on that anon, as a writer of cod-Shakespeare might put it.

For what is, at its core, yet another globe-crossing treasure-hunt story, "Much Ado About Scrooge" takes its own sweet time to get up to speed, as the audience luxuriates in a no-holds-barred battle of wits between the ever-persistent Brushbill and the determined-to-resist Scrooge.  A few of the gags here could probably have been omitted in favor of the characters spending more time on the "haunted" isle of Great Written, but, in all fairness, Willson and Weber aren't simply marking time waiting for Scrooge, HD&L, and Duckworth to give in and the main plot to kick into gear.  They plant an important character-relationship seed, quickly establishing that Louie, heavily in hock to Brushbill though he might be, has a sneaking admiration for the salesman.  When Huey and Dewey arrive in the midst of the standoff and Louie tells his brothers about Brushbill's arrival, the green-clad Nephew's "But Unca Scrooge isn't gonna let him in!" sounds decidedly wistful.  In the scene below, Louie looks almost dazed, as if Brushbill is exerting some sort of weird, Svengali-like power over him.  (Good thing Filler isn't really that sleazy, eh?)  I honestly hadn't taken full notice of these foreshadowing moments until my more recent viewings of the episode.  

Scrooge's ultimate surrender to Brushbill's blandishments could be considered a belated version of the old miser being "hoist by his own canard."  (At least, it would if a dogfaced character weren't involved.)  In the Tony Strobl-drawn comic-book tale "The Kitchy-Kaw Diamond" (DONALD DUCK #40, March 1955), Scrooge uses "Gabby Smoothtalker the super-hypnotic salesman" to get Donald hopelessly in debt, thereby forcing the destitute duck to perform an unpleasant task for him.  Since Brushbill causes Scrooge to "blunk-out" (for what should be obvious reasons, I prefer that description to Greg's "lose control of his bodily functions") just before the latter caves in, I suppose that it's at least possible that Willson and Weber were aware of the Strobl story.  In all honesty, though, it's not likely.  Despite the somewhat contrived manner in which Brushbill is used to get the "original editions" of William Drakespeare into Scrooge's hands, the salesman is far more than a simple gimmick to put a larger plot in motion.

Perhaps I'm not taking into account the full effects of inflation over the past 25 years, but it seems to me that original editions of Drakespeare "owned by 'The Bird' himself" would be worth rather more than a portion of $444,448.04 (the amount that Scrooge is obliged to shell out for all of his purchases -- and remember, that's counting the glow-in-the-dark socks).  This is especially true in view of the fact that entire volumes of the "original editions" seem to be taken up by single plays, as Scrooge notes when he picks up the bulky copy of Romeo and Julieweb.  Were the Drakespeare originals considerably longer than the versions that survived, only to be brutally slashed at some point, on the order of von Stroheim's Greed?  I'll go along with Scrooge's later line that acquiring these tumescent tomes for that relatively piddling amount of money was "cheap at twice the price." 

Emphasis on "complete."

With the Ducks' discovery of Drakespeare's note and subsequent dash for Great Written, we begin to glimpse the outlines of the original form that this story might have taken.  Specifically, the manner in which Brushbill learns of the existence of Drakespeare's lost play seems suspiciously similar to the implausible manner in which Gladstone Gander gets wind of Donald and HD&L's impending mission to recover Scrooge's lost documents in Carl Barks' "Secret of Hondorica" (DONALD DUCK #46, March 1956).  Granted, Scrooge and the boys aren't obliged to memorize the information on Drakespeare's note, as Donald and HD&L did for the map...

... but Gladstone's discovery of the map and the wind blowing Drakespeare's note onto Brushbill's beak seem to be "two pains in a pod":

This, combined with Brushbill's somewhat obnoxious personality (created, in very large part, by Charlie Adler's voice work) and quasi-mystical salesmanship abilities, has always inclined me in the direction of the opinion that Willson and Weber may have originally written "Much Ado" as some sort of vehicle for Gladstone.  (Heck, "Secret of Hondorica" itself might have given rise to an excellent DT adaptation, perhaps with Launchpad taking Donald's place.)  I have no way of knowing at this point whether my theory is correct, though I once had a chance to find out.  (No, really...  on one of my trips to the San Diego Comic-Con, I was briefly on an elevator with Chris Weber.  I still wonder why I didn't hazard the question at that time.)  In any event, it's not hard to visualize a version of this story in which Brushbill's siege of McDuck Mansion is replaced by a sequence introducing the audience to the power of Gladstone's luck, and Gladstone subsequently getting the chance to race Scrooge and the boys to find the lost play.  If such truly were the case, then evidently it was felt that Gladstone needed to be introduced in a somewhat more formal and less "plot-heavy" manner, as he ultimately was in the comparatively stripped-down "Dime Enough for Luck." 

At this point, GeoX raises a very significant question about the logic behind Scrooge's mad rush to secure the play:

There's a bit early on where one of the kids objects to this quest: "But Uncle Scrooge, Drakespeare said that last play wasn't very good!" To which Scrooge replies: "Who cares? It's still worth millions just because he wrote it!" I'm pretty sure we're supposed to view Scrooge as engaging in ethically shady profiteering here, but for rather obvious reasons, this is a very stupid idea.

Granted that Geo is far more familiar with matters literary than I am, this line of reasoning (by which I mean, casting Scrooge in a somewhat negative light for his interest in profiting from the play) isn't truly that far-fetched.  I mean, people really do try to pull stunts like this all the time.  Why else would anyone suddenly dig out a moldy manuscript by Woody Guthrie and try to recast the left-wing icon as a major novelist.  (Let's face it, if this thing had been any good at all, it would certainly have been published ages ago.)  Then, there's the once-burgeoning market for Carl Barks... well, "scribbles," I'll call them.  There's nothing at all wrong with owning original art, but there's art, and then there's faint scratches on tissue paper that miraculously avoided the trash can.  I can't help but look a little askance at those who tried to peddle the latter as "Barks art."

The set-up on Great Written Island is... well, strange.  We never do get an explanation as to why Drakespeare didn't want outsiders "sneaking, peeking, or exploring" around the place.  At some point, wouldn't such obsessive secrecy have hurt his reputation as "the greatest writer ever"?  (I don't know -- is J.D. Salinger still considered to be a major novelist?)  With Brushbill and the Ducks ultimately teaming up in a cooperative manner to explore the island, I suspect that the unfriendliness of the "Great Written Players" was an attempt by Willson and Weber to create some conflict and tension where none really existed.  Simply having the gang stroll through the woods to Drakespeare's castle without encountering any obstacles would have made for some rather dull visuals.

For my money, the highlight of the Ducks' pre-castle sojourn on Great Written comes in the very first scene -- the boat wreck.  This very atmospheric moment is memorably punctuated by the sight of Louie being swept away by the waves.  Fittingly, Brushbill saves Louie from harm by peddling brushes and such to the Weird Sisters from... er, Macbeak.  (The title Macduck, of course, is already taken, though the gang doesn't know that yet.)

In the ensuing "bonding scene" at the campfire, we once again note Louie's strange connection to Brushbill.  Having almost spilled the beans to Filler after the note blew out of Scrooge's limo back in Duckburg (and, incidentally, shouldn't Scrooge have gotten a little more bent out of shape about the loss of that note?  Wouldn't IT be worth a fair chunk of change in the literary-collectibles market, too?), Louie completes the job here when he accidentally reveals Scrooge's agreement with Brushbill's theory about the "value" of the terrible play.  I swear, my Svengali theory is starting to look better and better.  I do wish that we knew more about WHY Louie, in particular, seems so attuned to Brushbill.  For crying out loud, Louie even expresses interest in becoming a door-to-door salesman himself someday!  Given that (1) the boys will presumably inherit Scrooge's riches at some point and (2) Louie, like his bros, is considerably brighter than the average duckling, you'll forgive me if this ambition sounds a bit laughable.  None of the previous research about the differences between the Nephews (cf. Dan Haley's seminal work back in the 80s) gives us any clue here.  I'm certainly open to suggestions.

The "Great Written Players" remind me a bit of the character Fanny Featherbrain from Barks' "Isle of Golden Geese" (UNCLE $CROOGE #45, October 1963).  Like her, they're isolated from the outside world and are complete anachronisms in both attitude and appearance -- "fairy tale" characters of sorts.  Watching them go through their play-acting paces, one might also be tempted to compare them to the Druids in "The Curse of Castle McDuck," except that their self-entrapment in cultural amber seems to be far more, well, pointless than anything the Druids displayed.  In driving out intruders from Castle McDuck in order to enact their rituals, the Druids were merely attempting to preserve what was, by then, a dying culture.  But the whole world is presumably filled with acting troupes performing the Drakespeare plays, so why have the "Players" refused to contact the outside world?  Given the real-world existence of all the modernized versions of Shakespeare's works, it would have been an interesting plot twist had the "Players" known about altered versions of the Drakespeare plays and actively tried to make a point about keeping true to the texts of the originals (maybe even the uncut, book-length ones!).  But, no, we're supposed to believe that these guys and their ancestors have simply been spinning their creative wheels for some 400 years, to no apparent purpose other than a slavish devotion to Drakespeare's puzzling last request.  I didn't mind this angle so much when I first watched "Much Ado," because I was so impressed by the episode's ambiance (not to mention Willson and Weber's admirable resistance of the temptation to spoon-feed the audience and explicitly identify the different Shakespearean characters that the "Players" were playing).  But now, it does seem a lot more like a "myth-busting" episode of Star Trek, as GeoX noted.  For this reason alone, I probably wouldn't be able to give the episode full marks were I reviewing and rating it anew today.

The concluding business is admittedly a bit overcooked -- how convenient that the lightning storm broke out just when Brushbill decided to "go rogue" and pilfer Macduck -- but it still works quite well for me, GeoX's point about "cheating the customers" notwithstanding.  It might have worked even more smoothly had the issue of Brushbill's honesty been raised at the very beginning of the episode, as opposed to suddenly popping up about halfway through.  Planting the notion early on that Filler, for all his annoying persistence, is an "honest man" at heart would have made his sudden switch to the "dark side" seem all the more dramatic.  Another pre-planted "seedling" does flower here, though, as Louie makes his memorable plea to the "better angels" of Brushbill's gaudily-clad nature.  BTW, I think that this scene could very easily have been pulled off with Gladstone as well, perhaps with Louie or whoever reminding the lucky gander that "trying to cheat people is a form of work!".

"Much Ado" is a not-quite-perfect-but-reasonably-close illustration of what distinguished DuckTales from other animated TV series of the era -- and continues to do so today.  The pieces may not all fit together snugly, but the script takes for granted the fact that the viewers possess a modicum of intelligence, the spooky atmospherics of Great Written make up for some of the gaps in logic, and some clever character business pops up when there's really no need for it to do so.  Bottom line: you don't have to "sell me" on the quality of this episode.





(Greg)  So we cut back to the rowboat as Scrooge asks Louie if he sees anything. And they are wearing life jackets (so they can be safe according to the LAW OF DORA) as Louie asks if fog counts and Scrooge blows him off. Then he panics as there are rocks coming. Louie panics as we get the FPS shot of a giant rock and the rowboat crashes into it and gets destroyed of course while the babyfaces fall into the sea. At least we now see a use for the life jackets this time around. We pan right to see Scrooge, Dewey and Huey pop up gurgling; but Louie seems to be missing. Scrooge uses the cane to get Huey and Dewey together. However; Louie gets caught in the rip tide and gets engulfed by a big wave. Scrooge yells for him and the rest of the ducks get swamped as well.

Actually, Louie may have been in more danger here than we were led to believe.  At some point between the boat crash and his arrival on shore, his life jacket slipped off!

(Greg)  Filler goes into his big ass doctor's bag and brings out the RIC FLAIR BROOMSTICK OF DOOM; and it has nylon bristles and used one with low mileage on them. He throws all the broom right at the witches just to annoy me some more. The witches take this well as Filler gives them cauldrons in small, medium, large and the Monster Size one. HOLY CRAP?! Did he skin Eleroo and his pouch or something?! HOW IN THE HELL DID HE KEEP THAT BIG ASS CAULDRON IN THAT DOCTOR'S BAG?!

I dunno; you'd have to consult an expert...

(Greg)  Scrooge and Dewey continue to comb the beach looking for Louie. And then they see: Julius Caesar and two Roman Guards?! Okay; this could be good. Julius cuts his promo (Lend me your ears) as I should point out that it wasn't Julius who spoke these words; I believe it was [Mark] Ant[h]ony or Brutus. It's been a long time since I read the original play; but I know it wasn't Caesar. Bad research there guys.

It was Mark Antony.  Even though I've always thought of and referred to the Will Ryan-voiced character in this episode as "the Caesar guy," you could just as easily think of him as Antony, I suppose.  He's never formally identified as Caesar.

(Greg)  Then we see the curtain flapping from behind as we clearly hear Filler cutting a Hamlet promo with a sales deal. That is the ultimate blasphemy! Scrooge is about to use the cane; but out comes Louie and Filler as Louie is giggling under his breath.

More evidence of Brushbill's sway over Louie, perchance?  The gag wasn't THAT funny.

Next:  Episode 32, "Top Duck."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Too-ra-loo-ra Hulu-Hulu Yay...

... exults Kimba at the happy news that all 52 episodes of Kimba the White Lion are now available for viewing at Hulu!  You can find them here.  I've just finished updating all the episode links in my Kimba reviews. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: AL CAPP, A LIFE TO THE CONTRARY by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen (Bloomsbury, 2013)

The contentious, cantankerous creator of LI'L ABNER has deserved a major biography for quite some time.  Alexander Theroux' glorified term paper THE ENIGMA OF AL CAPP (1999) could best be described as "an outline of a rough draft of a synopsis" and was marred by obvious political partisanship besides.  Though Schumacher and Kitchen indulge in their own share of tsk-tsking at Capp's abrupt swerve to the right late in his life, they do a far better -- and, no surprise, much more thorough -- job of placing Capp in the context of his time and explaining why his cartoon brainchild became such a massive hit in the mid-20th century.  Even so, there is quite a bit left unsaid here, and I can easily imagine a more comprehensive biography emerging at some point in the future.

LI'L ABNER is fondly remembered as one of the first comic strips to specialize in social satire.  It's not hard to understand why Capp should have gone that route; starting with the famous childhood accident in which he lost a leg, his rise to fame and fortune was anything but smooth and untroubled.  At a time of socially sanctioned anti-Semitism, his Jewish roots also cast him in the role of an outsider.  The result was a man with many rough edges.  Capp, for all of his surface geniality, was not a nice person, as Schumacher and Kitchen display in ample detail.  Capp's lengthy, nasty feud with his ex-boss Ham Fisher brings to mind Henry Kissinger's comment about the Iran-Iraq War, that it was too bad that both parties couldn't lose.  Fisher paid the ultimate price, losing all of his friends and committing suicide, but Capp's reputation also took a major hit as a result of the decades-long disagreement.  Arguments with family over LI'L ABNER marketing initiatives (Capp was also a pioneer in the public exploitation of his strip), serial infidelity, and the like paint a grim picture, culminating in several sex scandals in the early 1970s that wrecked Capp's reputation for good and all.  Even Capp's frequent parodies of other creators' comic strips, the most famous example of which is the DICK TRACY parody FEARLESS FOSDICK, could be considered a passive-aggressive form of fighting back against perceived rivals, however much Capp might have argued that he admired the original creations.

The major failing here is Schumacher and Kitchen's inability to articulate why, exactly, Capp took such a dramatic turn to conservatism during the 1960s, going on campus to hector students and such.  One comics encyclopedia of note trotted out the cliched rationale that Capp turned conservative after he had gotten rich.  This conveniently ignores the fact that Capp stayed a flaming liberal for a good while after LI'L ABNER's highest circulation figures and most lucrative licensing deals had been achieved.  The "he was a nasty guy" argument doesn't work either, since Capp was what he was for many years before the 60s.  My own opinion is that Capp, like a fair number of old-fashioned New Deal-style liberals, was genuinely appalled by what was going on during that giddy time and determined to attack and parody it, but that his satirical skills had gone off the boil since the salad days of the 40s and early 50s.  (Charles Schulz always argued that Capp's decision to let Abner and his perpetual romantic pursuer Daisy Mae get married in 1952 knocked the bottom out of the strip; Capp was not pleased and did a rather cruel parody of PEANUTS some years later, leading the mild-mannered Schulz to demand that Capp cease and desist.)  Capp had always sought publicity for himself and his strip, but, in the late 60s, the somewhat cruder execution of the LI'L ABNER storylines was mirrored in Capp's partaking of such harebrained stunts as confronting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their "bed-in for peace."  Creatively, Capp had simply lost it, and the over-the-top insults and radical-baiting made it all too easy for the intelligentsia to write him off as a lost cause.  Had Capp been, say, twenty years younger, his assault on the left might have been more successful.

A fuller treatment of Capp's life and art must wait for the future, but Schumacher and Kitchen's book is a good place to start learning about both.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 30, "Home Sweet Homer"

This is a VERY easy episode to love; it's been in my list of the best DT episodes from the first time I saw it.  A "deep dive" into Greek mythology, a killer villainess (Tress MacNeille as Circe, in what I would argue was a key breakout role for her entire voice-acting career), splendid visuals, a meaty (and not entirely conventionally exploited) subtheme involving the desire of youth to emulate age and the lineaments of heroism... and a guest spot by Unca Donald!  What's not to like?  Actually, Greg raises some very good points about some potential weak spots, and he's not simply talking about the all-too-convenient deus ex machina "reverse time twister" that appears at the end and sucks Scrooge and HD&L back into the present day.  I think I may be able to set his mind at ease about them, however.

It's entirely plausible that Anthony Adams may have drawn inspiration for this free-handed adaptation of The Odyssey from Carl Barks' "Oddball Odyssey" (UNCLE $CROOGE #40, January 1963).  There is a bit of evidence of cross-pollination in the fact that Scrooge's mind is foozled in both stories -- by the Sirens in Adams' tale and by Magica De Spell's "hypnotic perfume"-soaked letter in Barks' story.  I think it is telling, though, that Adams literally allows Scrooge to be bewitched by the REAL mythological Sirens (oxymoron alert?).  Adams takes the whole "adaptation" business far more seriously than did Barks, whose flippant and slightly snarky story is basically just a Ducks vs. Magica battle placed in an unusual setting.  Adams does compromise on some of the character and place names, but, just as he did when he allowed real Vikings to invade Duckburg in "Maid of the Myth," he takes full advantage of the opportunity to place the Ducks into an historical and mythology-tinged context, thereby capturing what Duck comics fans love most about some of the best Duck stories.  He also treats the source material with respect, and, yes, I'm saying this despite the change of Ithaca to "Ithaquack" that got GeoX so exercised.  Keeping Homer and Ulysses' names was definitely the right call, and changing King Aeolus and Scylla to "King Blowhard" and "Yuccalinda" was acceptable in view of the fact that the modernized names capture the nature of the characters that they represent quite well.  In all honesty, "Ithaquack" and "the Colossus of Duckapopolis" are exceptions for Adams, rather than the rule; he used real and quasi-real Viking names in "Maid of the Myth" and would later name one-shot villainous characters "Dr. Horatio Bluebottle" and "Captain Blackheart," so it's not as if he was prone to always going overboard with the Duck puns.  I wonder whether "Ithaquack" was forced upon him.

The episode gets off to a rather hasty start -- following the Ducks' receipt of Donald's letter and Scrooge's recognition of the feet of the broken Colossus of Duckapopolis, we're whisked off to the Sea of Tuna almost before we can catch our breath -- and, taking this in combination with the "reverse time twister" ending, it's entirely fitting to wonder with GeoX as to whether "Homer" might not have worked better as a two-parter.  (Certainly, a guy who once wrote a rock opera entitled An Eye in Each Head ought to have been more inclined towards including some scenes with the Cyclops.)  But the speedy coming and going do have their advantages, as well.  In one of the most sublime scenes of the entire series, Scrooge's yacht is carried into the past by Circe's misdirected "time twister" and then lands in darkness -- which then coalesces into a dramatic night scene before the gates of Ithaquack.  I don't think that this sequence would have worked as well had the episode taken more minutes to work up to it.  The suddenness with which the Ducks are transported to 1100 BC gives the audience a certain feeling of disorientation, which is precisely the right mood to invoke in this case.

After Circe's medallion is smashed and her power broken, the reappearance of the "time twister" leads to another superb sequence, in which the highlights of the Ducks' own mini-odyssey are glimpsed in reverse and Scrooge and the boys then literally try to "get things back together" before plunging into the Sea of Tuna at dawn.  I can see Greg's point about the "reverse Grand Tour" lasting "too long," but, in view of the episodic nature of the source material, I can also understand why Adams chose this approach.  King Blowhard's blowing-out of the candle provided a neat bookend to the earlier "splashdown in darkness" scene, and, after the Ducks are left drifting on the sea and wondering whether they really have returned to their own time, the appearance of Donald provides the definitive breaking of the mythological spell (unless you count Donald's continuing tendency to exaggerate his Naval exploits as their own peculiar brand of mythology).  I only really have one issue with the ending: Since all of Circe's pig spells are reversed when the medallion is broken and she herself is turned into a pig, wouldn't it stand to reason that the "time twister" would simply cease to exist?  (Think of the fate of Merlock without his talisman at the end of DuckTales: The Movie.)  Perhaps the "breaking" of this particular spell consists of the "twister" returning the out-of-time Ducks to the status quo ante and then winking out of existence.

Given all the talk about "learning to be a hero" and "wanting to be just like Unca Scrooge" that percolates throughout -- not to mention the pointed absence of Webby -- this ep definitely qualifies as a "guy show."  How ironic, then, that Tress MacNeille's Circe is the most powerful character on display.  MacNeille's performance simply makes this episode and leaves very little doubt that, had the creators been so inclined, Tress would have provided an excellent (albeit unaccented) voice for Magica.  Even such anachronistic words and phrases as "wimp," "twerp," and "You've come a long way, baby!" fail to spoil Circe's appeal.  After all, she really does seem to "love [her] work," which helps to put any villain over, especially one with such a delightfully overbearing personality.  (Despite her defeat, I could have sworn that I saw her reappear on The View at some point.  But that's just me.)

MacNeille is at her best when she gets the chance to switch between voices, as in the scene at the end of act two where she turns herself into Homer's captive Queen Ariel and, later, when she faces off against Scrooge and changes voice styling from Ariel to Circe in the course of a single line ("Just what I wanted to know!") just before turning Scrooge and Homer into pigs.  OK, so it's not as creepy as Frank Welker's Sirens (not many things COULD be), but it's still plenty impressive.

Next to Circe, Scrooge, HD&L, and the Odyssey-related supporting players, King Homer comes up looking pretty wan and weak.  Bland voice, bland personality, bland everything.  I therefore need to take a moment to address Greg's concern about the way in which Circe's defeat was handled -- namely, the fact that Homer plays no role at all in bringing the arrogant sorceress low.  Everything in the episode seemed to be leading up to a climactic scene in which Homer lives up to his great Uncle Ulysses and proves his worth once and for all.  For sure, that's how a conventional animated series would have played it.  But, here's the thing -- the heroic Scrooge, the man whom the Nephews take turn claiming that they plan to emulate some day, the self-assured dispenser of words of wisdom, doesn't play a role in defeating Circe either!  Instead, HD&L do the job all by themselves, while the menfolk are trapped in pigs' bodies.  This feat didn't come out of nowhere; after all, it was HD&L who saved Scrooge from the Siren Monster, doped out a way to use the Ummagumma fruit to appease Yuccalinda and escape the whirlpool, and, for good measure, told King Blowhard how to cure his allergy.  I can't help but feel that Adams was trying to make an ironic point here: sometimes, heroism amounts to simply doing your job with a minimum of fuss and taking advantage of opportunities as they come your way.

So, what was the point of those talks Scrooge had with Homer about living up to the deeds of Ulysses?  Scrooge's bragging during the course of these chinfests appears to be setting him up for a big fall somewhere along the line, but, since he wouldn't have had the ability to counteract Circe's magic spell in any event, one can't really say that he pays a penalty for them.  The key, I think, lies in Scrooge's commenting that he's read about Ulysses' exploits.  Homer doesn't indicate that he knows what Scrooge is talking about, so we have to assume that, at the time of "Home Sweet Homer," the "exploits" haven't been recorded yet.  It may be that Homer really is something of a "wimp" and that his real gift lies in -- as GeoX suggested -- telling the story of Ulysses' adventures in such a dramatic manner that Homer's "biography of his Unc" came down to us as The Odyssey.  It's a variation on the old saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."  In this case, Homer may truly be meant for the life of a scholar and storyteller, rather than that of an heroic adventurer.  After all, as Scrooge himself points out at the end of the episode, "Young people usually grow up to be themselves."

Back to the books, Buddy!

Not until Greg made his point about Homer's decidedly unheroic role in this episode did I fully understand how unconventional this episode is.  Rather than going for the obvious point about "learning to face your demons," Adams challenged the logic of the situation head-on and came up with a clever solution that is believable, funny, and makes sense in literary and historical context.  Rather than injuring my opinion of "Home Sweet Homer," Greg's comment actually makes me appreciate Adams' efforts all the more.




(Greg)  We begin this one with the sky shot in front of the mansion as a duck in mail clothes with a package of letters [is] walking in a slanting motion. Oh my goodness; it cannot be. It's Quacky McSlanty! See; his gimmick is that he walks on a slant. This is even worse than Vacation Von Honk and even Benzino Gasolini. Even Benzino's gimmick in drawing attention to himself was interesting if you can take him being absolutely annoying. Quacky doesn't have even the grace of Von Honk's vacation gimmick to save him. Quacky is like a gimmick from WWF circa 1993-1996. And of course he cannot pull the letter through the mail slot. So he twists the arm (after thinking about it) and puts it through the mail slot and walks out in a slant. Thank god he's gone.

I'm willing to give Adams credit for at least trying to use McSlant.  Don't forget that Quacky also appeared as a literal "spear-carrier" in the opera scene at the start of "Maid of the Myth."  Those were his only two appearances apart from the birthday-party scene in "Sweet Duck of Youth." Actually, the mailduck appears somewhat older than Quacky did in any of his previous scenes.  Maybe this is Quacky's Uncle Askew, or something.

(GeoX) Blowhard wants to stop sneezing as Huey wonders if something on the island is making [him] sneeze. There are only two choices at this point: (1) the duck feathers or (2) the big ass berries. My MONEY, MONEY, YEAH, YEAH is on the berries since he was sneezing before the feathers took into effect. Louie's money is on the berries as it's the pollen of the Umma-Gumma fruit. Translation from Duckcrap to English: Gummi Berries.

Alternative (and far more believable) translation:  Adams was referring to the Pink Floyd album Ummagumma (1969) here.  My wife Nicky has a special edition release print of the album cover.

"Yooouuu JESSSST! David Gilmour couldn't hold a CANDLE to Syd Barrett!  Syd was a... MMMMOUNTAIN of a MMMUSICIAN."

(GeoX)  [T]he Sirens--purple mounds with duck heads on top--are super-creepy in a somewhat Lovecraftian way.

I have to admit it -- I still find it hard to watch this scene.  The Sirens just sound so bizarre.  Full marks to Welker for his voice performance here.  By contrast, the Yuccalinda monster is almost cute.  Almost.

Next:  Episode 31, "Much Ado About Scrooge."

Monday, April 15, 2013

RIP Jonathan Winters

Here's the late Winters' most famous scene from his most famous movie role.  I've always loved this movie, overkill and all, and this scene encapsulates why.  Winters' destruction of the gas station is positively operatic in scope.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS ESSENTIALS, VOLUME 2: THE GUMPS "THE SAGA OF MARY GOLD" by Sidney Smith (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2013)

The newest addition to the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS line-up is going to provide quite a challenge for comics collectors -- but not an intellectual or aesthetic one so much as a physical one.  These long, slender ESSENTIALS volumes, each of which will collect meaningful material from a classic bygone comic strip, are meant to give readers a feel for what it was like to follow strips during the days when the art form was given the newspaper page space it truly deserved.  Each page reproduces a strip at full original size.  Unfortunately, there are so many pages in the volume -- well over 300, in this case -- that as one moves towards the back of the book, the turned leaves that have "come before" display an increasing tendency to "flop over."  Over time, this will no doubt play havoc with the binding.  If only spiral binding were an option here.

I passed on the first ESSENTIALS collection but wasn't going to miss this opportunity to peruse a healthy chunk of THE GUMPSSidney Smith's peculiar mixture of domestic slapstick, adventure, melodrama, and subpar artwork held a remarkable fascination for millions of Americans during the 1920's and 1930's.  One could seriously argue that, in this one strip, Smith anticipated the popularity of soap operas (crafting narratives that strung the reader along for months at a time, an inch or two at a time), the development of radio and TV situation comedies and such modern-day satirical "family" cartoons as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Family Guy, and the whole notion of the "mysterious rich uncle" (Andy Gump's billionaire Uncle Bim) that would culminate in Carl Barks' creation of Scrooge McDuck.  As is the case with most pioneers, what Smith actually did with this bubbling thematic stewpot was frequently crude and amateurish, but one must give him full credit for "getting there first."  He was also ahead of his time insofar as marketing his characters, ginning up publicity, and living the "cartoonist's high life" were concerned.

THE GUMPS, for all its popularity back in the day, has not been well served when it comes to reprints, even those of an historical nature.  One fairly sizable reprint volume was released in the mid- 1970s, but all reports are that it was pretty casually thrown together, basically just an effort to cash in on the then-fashionable Jazz Age nostalgia craze.  Smith's most famous GUMPS continuity, the story of the greedy Widow Zander's attempt to entrap the credulous Uncle Bim in an unwanted marriage, has been reprinted in dribs and drabs in various places.  Now comes IDW with a high-quality (though, as noted previously, physically awkward) presentation of Smith's second best-known continuity, the one in which he literally shocked the country by letting a much-loved character die.  "The Saga of Mary Gold" is so fiendishly well orchestrated that even a modern reader who occasionally shakes his or her head over Smith's shameless use of melodramatic tropes will come to understand why a press report labeled Smith "The Most Unpopular Human in the World" for actually daring to do the deed.  (Of course, this "unpopular" creator saw the popularity of his strip skyrocket during this period, so he was laughing all the way to the bank, no doubt driving there in one of the fast cars that he liked to buy.)

"Mary Gold" plays out over a period of one year (April 1928-May 1929) and takes its sweet time getting up to speed, as Andy Gump and his wife Min meet and get to know the Golds, their new next-door neighbors, and their charming and lovely daughter Mary.  In the interim, chinless Andy gets plenty of time to opinionate about anything and everything, and, in this extremely wordy strip, that's like giving Homer Simpson the keys to the doughnut shop.  In a sense, it's rather unfair to compare Andy to characters like Homer and Peter Griffin; next to them, he's practically a MENSA member.  A better analogy might be a long-winded Hank Hill who doesn't just tell you "That ain't right!" but goes into excruciating detail as to exactly why it "ain't right" and/or how it can be put right.  In between well-packed word balloons, a plot finally begins to coalesce, as poor-but-honest inventor Tom Carr and rich-but-venal banker Henry Ausstinn compete for Mary Gold's hand.  When some money that Andy had intended to invest in one of Carr's creations goes missing, suspicion falls on Tom, and he becomes a wanted fugitive, while Ausstinn moves in to take advantage of the situation.  The balance of the tale is vintage soap-opera material, complete with a dramatic court trial and an equally dramatic revelation at the moment when wedding vows are to be exchanged.  But then comes the kicker... which, as Jared Gardner notes in his Introduction, opened up entirely new vistas for the comic strip as a whole.  Just one year after the end of "Mary Gold," for example, Chester Gould would launch DICK TRACY and kill off a character within the first week of the strip's existence. 

While Smith's storytelling style is familiar to those who are well-versed in pop culture, I must admit that he occasionally does things that leave me baffled.  Take the curious case of "The Eagle," for instance.  This mysterious figure is introduced during Tom Carr's exile and makes sidebar appearances in literally every strip for a full month, with Smith breathlessly telling us where he is, where he's going, etc.  It soon becomes clear that "The Eagle" is some sort of bounty hunter looking for Carr, which would suggest that he's going to play a role in Carr's ultimate capture and return for trial, right?  Er... not so much.  The way in which Smith writes "The Eagle" out of the story (assuming that you can say that this perpetually tangential figure was "in" the story in the first place!) quite literally made me sit up and say, "What the f---?!"  Then, too, Andy and Min's son Chester abruptly appears in the story about midway through (around Christmastime), hangs around for a while, and then just as suddenly vanishes.  Was he away at boarding school, or something?  Or did Smith suddenly remember that he was part of the Gump family too, and then just as suddenly forget?  I get the distinct impression that Smith's creative approach was rather... casual.  Either that, or he simply liked pulling his audience's chain.  In any event, the formula worked, at least up until Smith's death in a car crash in 1935.  I'm glad that I finally got a chance to see it in action... and I certainly wouldn't mind other GUMPS continuities showing up in future ESSENTIALS volumes.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book Review: KING AROO, VOLUME 2 by Jack Kent (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2013)

Still struggling to catch up hereabouts...  I was hoping to post the next DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE this past weekend, but life once again got in the way (or ran me over, "as the bee may case").  In the interim, I'll try to catch up on some overdue books -- book reviews, that is.

For a while there, it looked as if we weren't going to make that second journey to the kingdom of Myopia.  IDW evidently had considerable difficulty finding good-quality copies of Jack Kent's KING AROO strips from the period 1952-54, and, as a result, this volume is checking in a year or two late.  (To be fair, some other publishers' classic comics reprint projects remain stubbornly stuck on the launching pad.)

I can give this volume no higher praise than to say, if you enjoyed the first AROO collection, then you'll certainly like this one.  By now, Kent's drawing style has definitively settled into the deceptively relaxed, scritchy-scratchy approach that would carry his strip through to the end.  Distinctive differences between AROO and its closest strip relatives -- KRAZY KAT and POGO -- begin to manifest themselves.  Among these are a curious predilection for bad puns (complete with appropriate groaning reactions from the victims) and a willingness to occasionally take the characters outside Myopia's one square acre of territory.  Sometimes, these travels land our friends in the "real-for-sure world," for example, when Aroo goes to England to attend Queen Elizabeth's coronation.  (This being a fantasy strip, Aroo and his major-domo Yupyop stop on their way home for an extended visit in a surreal land called Hebefrenia.)  Aroo also literally "travels through time" -- a grandfather clock, to be precise -- and winds up in a "world beyond time" where he runs into such fanciful figures as Diogenes and a "missing link."  On occasion, Kent seems to be borrowing directly from his hero George Herriman, crafting a long story in which a retired moon-jumping cow is encouraged to get back into action and a series of gags involving a "coach dog," both of which ideas popped up at various times during KRAZY KAT's run.  Well, there are much worse places from which to swipe.

I was a little surprised that Bruce Canwell's "groundbreaking" introductory biography of Jack Kent wrapped up in this volume.  So what ancillaries can we expect in future volumes?  Artifacts from this fairly obscure strip seem to be rather thin on the ground.  I would hate for a lack of supporting materials, combined with the arduous search for easily reproducible strips, to cause the next edition of this fine series to be delayed even longer than Volume 2 was. Hopefully, IDW has discovered a reliable pipeline of material and Volume 3 will appear in short order.

Monday, April 1, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 29, "Duckman of Aquatraz"

I'm back, lads & lassies... and to WHAT?  Ugh.  And to make matters worse, those ever-loving Disney lawyers appear to have chosen the period of my mental convalescence as an opportunity to conduct one of their periodic purges of all "offending" DuckTales vids on YouTube.  The only remaining sources that I could find were "marred" (so to speak) by unremovable graphics on the screen.  That explains why I don't have a title card displayed below.

We haven't seen a "split decision of opinions" like this for quite some time.  Greg came within a  feather's breadth of giving "Duckman of Aquatraz" a perfect five-star rating, while GeoX seemed just about ready to TAR and feather writer "Francis Ross."  I put Ross' name in quotes because (1) I've seen it spelled elsewhere as "Francis Moss," and (2) given that this is "Ross"' only writing credit ever according to IMDB, it's not out of the realm of possibility that "Francis Ross" is some sort of self-incriminating "Alan Smithee" substitute.  For sure, if I had been a DuckTales freelancer and had presented this script for approval, I might have wanted to hide behind a pseudonym.  Though the ep doesn't truly collapse until the third act, collapse it most assuredly does, done in by a deadly combination of excessive sentimentality, some overly simplistic writing, and a view of the Duckburg legal system that is, to say the least, quirky (though, to be sure, some future eps will make the legal system look even worse).

  Another Japanese laserdisc "Did they really watch the episode?!" moment!

"Ross" appears to have been under the impression that Flintheart Glomgold isn't Scrooge's main challenger for the title of "money champ" so much as he is a jealous, chiseling petty rival, sort of a John D. Rockerduck with even more questionable ethics.  I say this not because Flinty warned partner-in-conspiracy Pierre L'Oink to wait to cash his check -- though I can understand why GeoX hated this gag, I did kind of like the twist on the old "cheapskate" routine -- but because Flinty's scheme to frame Scrooge for the theft of the Duck a L'Orange was so, well, cheesy.  Surely Glomgold could have come up with a more ingenious plot than dressing up as Scrooge, stealing his own painting, and then basically hoping that no one was smart enough to watch the security video all the way through.  Thank goodness (for Flinty, anyway) that Glomgold managed to have the trial take place in a court where a defendant is apparently not allowed to DEFEND himself -- at least, not unless he blurts out convenient plot points in total violation of the rules of order.  The manner in which Glomgold's perjury is disposed of at the end has been a bone of contention ever since Robert Ingersoll wrote about it in one of his THE LAW IS AN ASS columns in the (sadly, recently deceased) COMIC BUYER'S GUIDE, but I would argue that the depiction of the original trial is even harder for persons in possession of their normal logical faculties to swallow.  And there's more to come.

"Sorry, Mr. McDuck, I won't be on retainer for another 65 episodes or so."

The business in Aquatraz itself is probably the best thing about the episode, though, in all honesty, that's a pretty low bar to clear.  (Get it?  Bars?  Prison bars!  I made a funny!)  The boat ride out to the forbidding island stronghold, and a shuddering Scrooge's initial interview with the smilingly sardonic warden, are particular high pointsScrooge then literally gets "thrown in" with the rich-duck-despising Mad Dog McGurk, who, despite the stickily sentimental manner in which his relationship with Scrooge is ultimately worked out, is a pretty enjoyable character.  Peter Cullen is a big reason why McGurk comes across so well; the voice actor gives the lug an outsized personality that somewhat resembles that of Neighbor Jones (a character for whom I've always thought that Cullen would have provided the perfect voice -- say, in some House of Mouse short that should have been made but wasn't).  Even when McGurk is throwing his new "roomie" around the cell and squishing him by lying down in the top bunk, you can't help but chuckle just a bit.  Why, McGurk makes prisoner-on-prisoner abuse seem almost... cute.

Scrooge's subsequent "mettle-showing" also plays into well-worn prison stereotypes in a reasonably clever way.  Scrooge will land in jail a couple more times before the series is over, of course, but "Aquatraz" represents the only time that he is actively obliged to participate in jailhouse culture to any real extent.  I've no problem whatsoever with Scrooge demonstrating an ability to arm-wrestle far burlier opponents into submission; the "lifting moneybags makes one stronger" gag must have been used as a cover gag for a $CROOGE comic book at some point.  Plus, the arm-wrestling challenge is a perfect way for Scrooge to demonstrate his physical prowess to the other inmates without getting really physical, if you know what I mean.  I wonder whether the Beagle Boys ever had to undergo such an "initiation" during their stays at Aquatraz (at least, I'm assuming that they have stayed there; even the Duckburg CJ system would surely have figured out that the Beagles belonged in such an escape-proof prison, right? Right?).  Scrooge's grappling triumph, plus his covering for McGurk and the suspiciously high-voiced con over the lunch-table incident, establishes the old miser's bona fides with the locals once and for all. 

While Scrooge bonds with the boys in stir, HD&L go about their amateur detective work in their attempt to clear their uncle's name, with logic again being taken for the proverbial "one-way ride" along the way.  Forget what GeoX described as the "delayed-action water" that ruined the family portrait; where on Earth did the boys suddenly get their scuba gear during their nocturnal pursuit of Pierre L'Oink?!  Are we to infer the existence of a 24-hour scuba supply store somewhere in downtown Duckburg?  Note that HD&L's normal clothes also conveniently vanish during this time... and Mrs. Beakley isn't even around to get them back (at least I don't think so).  The pig judge then inexplicably gives the videotape evidence away to the boys after they visit him and show him the muddled remnants of the portrait.  Just like it would have happened in real life.

The treacle starts to trickle with the "visiting day" scenes involving, first, Scrooge's family, and then, McGurk's "dear mudder."  There is one nice, subtle moment in the first of these decidedly unsubtle scenes: Mrs. Beakley's face visibly falls when McGurk refuses her initial offer of fudge bars, only to perk up when the big con takes her up on the offer after all.  Likewise, when Scrooge pays for McGurk's "dear mudder" to come and visit, the fact that the long-awaited reunion quickly turns into an arm-wrestling contest is worth a chuckle.  But, boy, is the sentimentality laid on with a trowel here. 

With the "great escape" at the start of act three, the whole rickety structure comes crashing down about our ears... and I'm sure as heck NOT talking about Aquatraz itself.  First off, you would think that a grateful McGurk, whom we will soon learn was actually framed by Glomgold, might now be willing to let Scrooge in on the secret that the two of them are both victims of the same sort of injustice.  After so doing, he might then offer Scrooge the chance to cooperate in a joint escape, which would have set up an interesting dilemma in which Scrooge would have to choose between the pleas of his newfound ally and the demands of the law.  This conflict of wills would have been challenging to pull off in an animated format, but at least it would have given Scrooge something meaningful to DO during the climactic action.  Instead, by literally shanghai'ing Scrooge "over the wall" against the latter's will, and without any explanation whatsoever apart from the standard desire to "bust outta dis joint," McGurk completely changes his whole mindset (from grumblingly resentful acceptance of his status as "an old jailbird" to a rebellious hunger for freedom) and transforms Scrooge into a passive pawn in a game that McGurk can't possibly win without the last-second reprieve that ultimately (and improbably) arrives.  Scrooge stops being a "victim" only after McGurk brains himself on the rock and Scrooge must drag him to the shore.  Once there, Scrooge makes a brief but truncated reference to the two giving themselves up to the authorities as "the only way" to proceed -- a faint echo of what might have been a really interesting conflict had "Ross" thought things through a bit more.

Of course, "Ross" provides the very escape hatch that both McGurk and Scrooge need by allowing HD&L to discover the video's hidden secret (I've heard of Easter eggs being hidden in various media, but never a "Get Out of Jail Free" card).  "Sheer insane idiocy" might be overstating things a bit, GeoX, but I've been shaking my head over this transparent dodge for a good long time, trying to figure out why "Ross" wasn't called in by Jymn, Mark, et Cie. and asked to come up with something just a tad more reasonable.

The infamous "Glomgold's only crime was stealing his own painting!" argument was originally taken to the cleaners by Robert Ingersoll, who pointed out the obvious fact that Glomgold could have been found guilty of perjury (assuming he was ever actually asked to take the stand, of course!) and/or the bearing of false witness (a violation of a Commandment, at the very least).  But there is one other problem with the "tearfully joyous" wrap-up dock scene.  Even assuming that McGurk was cleared (and I'm assuming that Glomgold would have had to do that somewhere along the line, thereby adding to the list of sins for which he could presumably have been "sent up" himself), wouldn't he have to face some kind of charge for escaping while still under confinement?  Mudder McGurk's "I'm so proud of you, Mad Doggie!" acquires a somewhat ironic undertone in this context.  I've often wondered why Mad Dog, so well characterized for a "mere" one-shot supporting player, never made another appearance in the series.  The reason why may be more ominous than we would like to admit.

"Curses!  Foiled again... so to speak."

So, was "Ross" consciously thumbing his nose at the intelligence of the viewing audience with this whole sketchy scenario, or was he simply displaying an incredibly high level of naivete?  There's a lot of evidence to support the former hypothesis, but let's face it; only a truly naive writer would be able to come up with a line like, "Unca Scrooge is the richest duck in the world!  Why would he need to steal?!"

Next:  Episode 30, "Home Sweet Homer."