Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Her "Kingdom" Comes... and Her Tree Goes

Well, it's safe to say that the two-part adventure "Twilight's Kingdom" that wrapped up season four of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic didn't leave the show's fan base quite as traumatized as did the transformation of Twilight Sparkle into an Alicorn Princess at the end of season three... which was, as the saying goes, "where I came in."  Not that some people didn't TRY their best to be horrified by the destruction of the Ponyville Library Tree where Twilight had hung out for three seasons.  There's even a petition on to convince Hasbro to bring back this "beloved part of the show." 

As season finales go, "Twilight's Kingdom" delivers the goods in spades.  Indeed, it would probably have served just fine as a series finale, inasmuch as the threat faced by Equestria is just about as grim as, say, turning the entire world into gold would be.  The centaur-like Tirek, a reboot of a villain who first appeared in the original MLP series in the 80s, breaks out of the ponies' version of Hell (or Azkaban, take your pick) and proceeds to suck the magic out of all the ponies he can find.  No, it's NOT what you think (and shame on you if you thought of it!); the magic-removal process is more like that used by a dementor.  The effects of the suckage are portrayed in an annoyingly inconsistent manner; pony victims generally fall down in their tracks and their eyes glaze over, but not all ponies appear to be zombified to the same extent.  Still, it's fairly creepy to watch.

Part 1 of the story is split between Princesses Celestia, Luna, and Cadance diligently info-dumping to Twilight about Tirek and the "Mane 6," with a little prod from the "reformed" Discord (who's been tasked with tracking down the magical villain), attempting to solve the longstanding mystery of the Magic Lockbox of Doom.  This makes for fairly dry going, though things do pick up, in a dramatic sense, when Discord has his "meeting of the malevolent" with Tirek and the latter convinces the former to return to the dark side and become his ally.  I can't say that I was all that surprised by Discord's backsliding, since, ever since his participation in the finale had become known, it seemed logical to think that he would ultimately be the source of Twilight's key.  The question was how events would be manipulated so as to get him to do so.  "Noodged" by a reading of the journal that the "Mane 6" have been keeping throughout the season -- think of it as an updated version of the long-gone "letters to Princess Celestia" -- the gang finally discover that the items they've been acquiring during the tests of their various Elements will transform into literal "keys" when they come near the box.  I did find it amusing that the "Mane 6" first realized this after a frustrated Pinkie Pie threw Cheese Sandwich's rubber chicken at the box.  After a season of speculation, the mystery is finally cracked by the magical equivalent of throwing your shoe at the TV set.

 Insert "chicken-choking" joke here.
Celestia tees things up for a memorable (and, in my view, considerably superior) Part 2 when she decides that, with Tirek and Discord running amuck, the best way to preserve alicorn magic is to store it in a single, unsuspected equine receptacle -- Twilight.  The irony is that Twilight, who has hitherto generally regarded her upgraded status as "no biggie," at least in a social sense, has recently been getting antsy about the true nature of her role as a princess.  This may seem like a bit of a character SWERVE, but it actually makes psychological sense; after assuring others (and herself) that she isn't going to change her basic nature, the next step would be to begin to speculate about what alicorn status does, in fact, mean for her.  For the moment, it means that she has the devil of a time controlling her augmented powers, making for what small amount of comedy is to be found in Part 2.

Finally getting wind of Twilight's existence, Tirek comes a-hunting... but not before he's soul-sucked the rest of the "Mane 6" and Discord, who has, in the ignoble tradition of all would-be turncoats, "served his purpose."  There follows what will undoubtedly become of the series' iconic sequences, a no-holds-barred battle between Tirek and Twilight, complete with anime flashes, lens flares, the whole schmeer.  The fact that some Bronies who had been longing for a grimmer, more "epic" approach to the series actually went on to criticize this sequence as "filler" can only be received with a chuckle.  You can't have it both ways, guys.

The battle scene is cool enough, but the real high point of the story (and, IMHO, of the series as a whole, at least in an emotional sense) comes when Twilight bravely trades her magic for the release of her friends... including Discord.  This lifts the narrative to a considerably higher plane, one that can even be said to include some Christian elements.  In an era of public "social executions" for verbal offenses both minor and major, the message of mercy, of forgiveness of those who have wronged you, seems like a breath of fresh air.  The grateful Discord gives Twilight the last "key," a medallion that Tirek had (ultimately mockingly) given him for services rendered...

... and, sorry to say, we end with some toy-selling-inspired silliness, as the opening of the box turns the "Mane 6" into "Rainbow Power" monstrosities (I mean, it's as if KISS wandered into an exploding paint factory) and the box itself serves as a "seed" for the new castle home of Twilight, Princess of Friendship.  The latter doesn't bother me much -- the creation of a sort of "Round Table of Friendship" for our friends is a nice touch -- but I sincerely hope that the "Rainbow Power" outfits get packed away with the good china, never to be used except on very rare special occasions.  Bringing these versions of the characters into play every time a "friendship problem" needs to be solved in the future would seem to be overkill in the worst sense.

All in all, this was an excellent season, though I have no clue where the show's creators will take matters from here.  I will be along for the ride, however.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 80, "The Good Muddahs"

"The Good Muddahs" is not "Hero for Hire," but it's reasonably close... or at least within the same jurisdiction (which is hopefully not the same one patrolled by the two Police Academy wannabes who are so prominently featured here).  Just as that classic first-season episode fleshed out the character of Launchpad, so does this excellent, though flawed, late entry finally make some progress towards giving the much-maligned Webby a legitimately funny, and above all multi-faceted, role.  "Some" progress, I said.  The plot is a strange mixture of daring notions and last-minute punch-pulling, with the worst example of the latter being Ken Koonce and David Weimers' cooking-up of a frankly outlandish "nobody cares about me at home" rationale to justify Webby's decision to stick by her would-be kidnappers, the Beagle Babes.  GeoX tongue-in-cheekedly speculated about how much more "awesome" this ep would have been had Webby "gone rogue [almost typed 'rouge' there, heh-heh] and joined the Beagle Babes for keeps."  Well, obviously the series wasn't going to go there, but I think that having Webby fight the kidnapping at first, then use her own version of "ladylike charm" to win the Babes over (while growing fonder and fonder of the not-really-all-that-nasty Babes in return), would have added some intriguing psychological complexity to the mix and made the Babes' ultimate decision to forego ransom from Scrooge in favor of keeping Webby carry that much more weight, since the choice could have been presented as one in which Webby had some real, non-contrived input.  In that respect, one can only bemoan K&W's decision to give Webby a half-assed motivation for staying away from home as a textbook example of fatefully conventional writing.  That being said, however, the moments of sentiment on display here are real and enjoyable, and Webby really does give a first-rate performance.  And I'm not just talking about her junior-moll acting job.

The opening act isn't as horrible as Greg suggests -- it's not too hard to explain away most of his concerns with logical loopholes and such like -- but K&W step in an immediate divot while they're teeing up the "nobody wants Webby around" theme.  The series has played with the notion of Webby escaping notice before, most notably in "Back Out in the Outback."  Even there, though, the theme was used only as a side plot, not as a motivation for all subsequent action, and Webby was at least partially to blame for getting herself in trouble in the Australian wild country by wandering off after Aussie fauna.  Putting the idea front and center gives us plenty of time to figuratively turn it over in our hands and examine it... and it immediately becomes apparent that the major flaw lies in Webby's OUT OF NOWHERE assumption that her own grandmother isn't interested in her.  By this time, Webby should be accustomed to the occasionally misogynistic HD&L blowing her off, or even to Scrooge being too busy with business to pay attention to her on demand.  But deducing from one instance of job-related preoccupation that Mrs. Beakley could care less about her anymore?  That's WAY too much to have to swallow.  At this point, K&W should have realized that the rationale for Webby's subsequent behavior simply wasn't going to wash.  If only their story editors could have... uh... never mind.

Any idea that Webby could have gotten as to her unwelcomeness should have been scotched by the simple fact that she is later included in the family group that goes to visit Scrooge's exhibition of the Sowbuggian Crown Jewels.  And, no, Greg, I don't regard this as a goof.  Scrooge's initial trip was to the Sowbuggian Embassy, presumably to either pick up the jewels or to arrange for their transportation to the museum.  He could then have doubled back to the Mansion and picked up the family to bring them to the museum.  Yes, including Bubba, who's probably simply out of camera range in the shot below.  He must be poking around the dinosaur exhibit again, though presumably more cautiously than last time.

With the Beagle Boys (including Ma -- and yes, Greg, I believe that this is the first time we've seen the Beagle matriarch in the slammer) jugged for the duration, it's left to the Beagles' "cousins," the Beagle Babes, to go after the tempting museum treasures.  Only the most indefatigable of Disney Duck comics researchers would be aware that these Babes are not the first ones to have been created for a special purpose.  Vic Lockman's versions, who are literal babes, made their first and only appearance in the Lockman and John Carey epic "The Beagle Babes" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #345, June 1969), wherein they tormented Daisy's nieces April, May, and June for three highly contrived pages.  (It says something, I think, that even a writer as experienced with dealing with unlikely Beagle relations as Lockman couldn't manage to squeeze even FIVE pages out of this idea.)

The DuckTales Beagle Babes represent three well-established archetypes of the stereotypical female villain: the bosomy boss-lady (Jo Anne Worley's Bouffant), the pneumatic, dim bombshell (Victoria Carroll's Boom-Boom, whose number plate reads 38-22-38 and is almost certainly the only Beagle plate never to touch the owner's sternum at any time), and the feisty little spitfire (Susan Blu's Baby Doll, the Bette Davis sound- and at least partial look-alike).  Interestingly, they're presented as being at least somewhat envious of their better-known cousins, at least in the sense that they want to pull a "big job" after a presumably lengthy period of "robbing Avon ladies" (and, from the looks of things, heavily sampling their victims' wares).  I can envision this character dynamic being used in a future episode in which the Babes and the Boys bump heads, compare notes, and do whatever it is long-separated criminal relatives are wont to do.  Unfortunately, that future ep will remain a mental exercise for all time; this is the Babes' first and only appearance.

With the initial plan to steal the Crown Jewels foiled by a surprisingly clever "dumb blonde" moment (Boom-Boom forgetting to load the Babes' rods with ammo because she was not told to do so), Baby Doll ups the criminal ante by stealing Webby away.  Depicting a child's kidnapping is a pretty risky thing to do in a cartoon; when TaleSpin essayed the RANSOM OF RED CHIEF plot in the episode "The Ransom of Red Chimp," it ignored the fact that the main cast featured two kids and made Louie's rambunctious Aunt Louise the kidnap victim.  The snatch-and-grab here is sufficiently violent and sudden (complete with dramatic tracking shot) as to make the offense seem all the more shocking.  Mrs. Beakley, whose entirely believable revenge vendetta against the Babes is teased several times during the episode -- sadly, without amounting to much -- can't prevent the Babes from escaping out of the ladies' room.  No, the stalls below don't count as "toilet shots."  Not that I really expected anyone to be counting...

I will have to agree with Greg that Webby's bawling fit (12 hours?  Really??) represents a certain retrograde motion in her character.  It would be somewhat unrealistic to expect her to react as the cooler-headed and more "adventurously experienced" HD&L might in a situation like this, but you would think that she would draw inspiration from her experiences with the boys at some point and start planning an escape attempt.  Webby does finally get off the mark, after her garbled fairy tale from "Dinosaur Ducks" has put the Babes to sleep, only to decide to stay because *sigh* "no one at home wants me."  It's not hard to dope out how this moment could have been strengthened.  Webby could have teased going home, only to consider that the Babes do seem like "nice ladies" underneath it all (softening a couple of the Babes' earlier "shut her up" lines could have served as a justification for Webby's more positive attitude towards her captors) and that she might try to win them over with kindness, so that justice will go easier on the Babes when they are finally arrested by the police.  This may not have fixed all the ep's problems, but it certainly would have been preferable to Webby's making a blanket assumption that doesn't hold water under even the most cursory scrutiny.

Following Webby's subsequent cracking of the Babes' "hard candy shell" (through a game of musical chairs! -- another clever bit), the ep proceeds to spin its wheels for the vast majority of Act Two -- not that that's a bad thing, at least not in this case.  If you're going to do a kidnapping plot at all, you have to figure on having to fill in some down time, as the captors deal with their captive and the good guys try to figure out where the captors are hiding.  I will say that I wish the ep had spent even more time with the Babes and Webby and less with the inept police trainees, who wear out their welcome quickly after one extremely funny pun ("Well, ya said the kid was nappin', we're gonna check her room!").  The rest of the time, the cops are just plain annoying, try as Frank Welker might to make their "antics" remotely amusing.  It does make a twisted sort of sense that a city with a legal system as screwed up as Duckburg's would hire schlemiels like these as potential police officers, but that doesn't make them any easier to spend time with.  Perhaps their biggest sin (yes, including the car-chase pile-up at the end, which is pretty much SOP in plots involving incompetent cops) is their mistakenly picking the revenge-bound Mrs. Beakley off the street under the delusion that she might be a Beagle Babe.  It would have made perfect sense for Mrs. B., with her strong feelings of devotion towards her granddaughter, to have been in on the final raid on the Babes' hideout in some manner.  The resourceful Beakley of "Cold Duck" and "Jungle Duck" could have contributed something meaningful to that finale, don't you think?

The undeniable highlight of the middle-game Babes/Webby interactions is the scene in which Webby quite literally shames the Babes into returning the doll that they had stolen from "nice Mr. Slinky" the toy-store owner.  Greg argues that this scene works particularly well because Webby doesn't go into histrionics or "scolding mode" so much as simply point out how unfair the theft was to Mr. Slinky.  I'm inclined to agree.  This scene could easily have made the cut in a revised episode in which the "nobody wants me around" theme had been excised and would still have provided the opportunity for some legitimate bonding between Webby and the Babes, as well as a reason for why Webby might want to stay with the "nice ladies," or at least insist that they not be prosecuted, after HD&L and Bubba have located her.

After an entire episode of serving as a superfluous "fourth Nephew," Bubba finally gets something meaningful to do when HD&L use his tracking skills from "Marking Time" to trace Webby to the Babes' lair.  (Enjoy the attention while you can, Bubba; the next episode won't even allow you that moment of glory.)  There, we are forced to once again go through the litany of why Webby feels unwanted (grrrrrr! Do we have to be reminded?) before Webby gets the bright idea of using "make-believe" to convince the Babes to let her loose.  So we can presume that the entirety of what follows, the whole riff on Bugsy Malone (1976) with "Da Boys" acting as pint-sized hoods and Webby as a gun-twirling mini-moll, was cooked up entirely in Webby's wee head.  Given that the act involves (among other things) Webby manipulating a pistol and "Huey Kablooey" treating a stick of dynamite (I guess) as if it were a cigar, this glimpse into Webby's, er, "creative side" is actually a little disquieting. The idea that Webby has hitherto unimagined powers of aesthetic imagination is heightened by the fact that HD&L can suddenly materialize color-coordinated mini-gangster outfits on the spur of the moment.  (It's not as if they had the time to fly back to Monte Dumas and find them in the same place where Huey and Louie found the perfect-fitting Musketeer garb.)  Perhaps Webby took a hint from Louie's ability to produce a megaphone from OUT OF NOWHERE and proceeded to show that she can, too, upstage the boys in a "Toon-related" matter.

After the inept cops, for no other reason than to give the episode something resembling an "action-packed" finish, finally do something right and stumble upon the "Bagle Beebs"' lair, we get another bit that I can't quite believe passed BS&P muster: the kids bumpily driving the Babes' car back to the Mansion.  This, in and of itself, would probably have been enough to have gotten the episode blackballed from Toon Disney if the blue-pencilers were feeling even moderately feisty.  (The only online sources of the ep that I've been able to find are from Family Channel Canada and some other non-TD source that I can't identify.  Can anyone out there confirm that "Muddahs" ever actually appeared on TD?)  The ensuing chase sequence winds up destroying part of the front of Scrooge's Mansion (after the events of "Ducky Horror Picture Show," you'd think that Scrooge would have had that location reinforced) and gives K&W the excuse to indulge themselves with yet another Wizard of Oz reference (Webby's "There's no place like home").  There follows Scrooge's offer of a job to the captive Babes, which GeoX labels "insulting" but which I have always regarded as a sort of unconscious tribute to the practice of another Toon quadzillionaire of note, Mr. Richard Rich (Richie's Dad, if that weren't obvious), who was in the habit of offering even the most sinister of criminals a position once they had repaid their debt to society.  Pinning the onus on Scrooge for the daycare gambit is actually somewhat unfair, since it was Webby who gave Scrooge the idea to begin with.  No, the actual problem with the job offer is that it would have made much more sense had the plot played out as a "Red Chief riff" and Webby had made the Babes' lives miserable.  After successfully bonding with Webby and managing to take care of her reasonably well, wouldn't the Babes have considered the possibility that taking care of kids might be an honest task at which they could actually succeed?  Perhaps K&W wanted to leave open the possibility that the Babes might return with another crooked (but fashionable) scheme.  Alas, it was not to be.

Webby seems a little TOO excited, there...
I recall liking this episode quite a lot when it first aired, simply because -- Yay!  They're letting Webby do funny stuff! -- but, unlike the post-"Hero for Hire" Launchpad, the post-"Good Muddahs" Webby did not build on this bravura role.  Indeed, in "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Webby," we'd slide back to an even more primitive version of the "no one appreciates me" trope, with Webby literally being overlooked because she is too small.  (Last time I checked, she wasn't much smaller than HD&L.)  Still, this was a much-welcomed attempt to do something legitimately interesting with the character.  Too bad that the writers weren't sufficiently motivated -- or gutsy -- to take the plot in a more morally ambiguous direction.




Bumper #15: "Dino-Wagon"




(GeoX's correspondent "Christopher") Baby Doll's speech patterns are based on Bette Davis. Lines from several of her movies, including "All About Eve," are sprinkled throughout this episode.

And therein hangs an hypothesis -- a somewhat far-fetched one, I'll admit, but one that has rattled around in my brain-pan ever since Greg's review enlightened me about Charles Pierce, who voices the warden and Mr. Slinky.  Pierce, whose only animated appearance this was, was famed as a female impersonator, and one of his best-known characterizations was... Bette Davis, from the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).  There's just no way that his casting here could have been a coincidence.  Still, given Pierce's... um, unique skill set, why would WDTVA go to the trouble of hiring him and then cast him in a couple of secondary, throwaway roles?  Could it be that Pierce was originally intended to have voiced Baby Doll, using his Bette Davis impression?  Someone in the chain of command may then have nixed the idea, relegating Pierce to the subsidiary roles instead.  Two years after "Muddahs" first aired, in the Darkwing Duck episode "A Brush with Oblivion," WDTVA would succeed in getting a very similar performer to play a signature role, casting Michael Greer to do his "Mona Lisa's Mouth" routine.  Evidently, someone at WDTVA was really taken with the whole idea of tossing gay icons a creative bone.

(Greg) So the Beagle Boys (and Ma Beagle) are in jail locked up according to the warden as Scrooge wants the warden to keep a close eye on them so they won't escape and steal the [Sowbuggian] crown jewels.

Amusingly, both Carl Barks, who originated "Sowbuggia," and DuckTales used the term "Sowbuggia" in almost exactly the same manner -- as a humorous, repeated throwaway reference to a country that Scrooge and company would never actually visit.  Barks employed the term several months apart in "Flour Follies" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #164, May 1954) and "Tralla La" (UNCLE $CROOGE #6, June 1954), while DuckTales used it in "The Land of Trala La," then waited only three days (in broadcast terms) before employing it again in "Muddahs."

(Greg) ...we scene change to a bunch of abandoned apartment buildings as I just realized that the abandoned building in question is the one next to the original Beagle Boys hideout.

Which must have teleported for the duration, since previous shots of the Beagles' lair (such as the one at bottom below, from "Liquid Assets") clearly indicate that there is no building immediately to its right.  The looks of the buildings are different, as well.  It would be nice to think that the Beagle family would be "this close," but the facts militate against the notion.

(Greg)  Webby demands that they read Cinderella to her. [Bouffant] tells Boom Boom to tell her the story; but Boom Boom only knows tall tales to a jury. HAHA! Why doesn't that surprise me? So [Bouffant] decides to do it and she tells it in 15 seconds and it involves Cinderella killing the two stepsisters (I guess the stepmother was a goddess) and marrying the prince.... So [Bouffant] tucks Webby in bed and Webby blows her off because that story is false...  Baby Doll decides to give it a try and her version of the story involves tying Cinderella to a chair and eating rats from the cellar. It amazes me that DTVA would have the guts to revise Cinderella into something that looks closer to the original thing and/or has personality; and yet it's done by a company who released a completely watered down version for families.

Baby Doll's sinister little fable wasn't a revision of Cinderella, it was a swipe from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

(Greg) Boom-Boom is looking for Bonnie & Clyde dolls and the owner blows it off because they were killers and are bad role models... [A]nd then Boom-Boom asks for toy guns and the owner states that they are in aisle three. HA! This has to be a rib on those “moral purity” organizations.

Or the NRA.  I pick the latter.

(Greg) [Bubba] sniffs Webby's doll (which is funny because I don't recall Webby ever dropping the doll when she was kidnapped) and we have the scent as the nephews do a tongue twister to annoy GeoX.

Webby did drop the Quacky Patch doll.  When Baby Doll grabs her, you can (just barely) see it slip out of her hand on the far right of the screen.  I wasn't able to get a very good screenshot of the moment, but, if you squint at lower right below, you may be able to see Quacky, or a smoodge resembling it.

Next:  Episode 81, "Yuppy Ducks."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK: TRAIL OF THE UNICORN by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Press, 2014)

This sixth volume in Fantagraphics' Carl Barks reprint project presents us with our first "split decision" cover -- by which I mean cover images taken from two stories collected herein, as opposed to just the headlined tale -- and, probably not coincidentally, the first truly questionable choice of a cover-featured story.  It's not that "Trail of the Unicorn" (FOUR COLOR #263, February 1950) is a bad story; during the years 1949-50, the period from which the long and short matter in this volume are taken, Barks arguably didn't do ANY bad stories.  In terms of sweep and/or storytelling prowess, however, I would have to award either "Letter to Santa" (CHRISTMAS PARADE #1, December 1949) or "Luck of the North" (FOUR COLOR #256, December 1949) the palm as the book's most distinguished effort.  Since this collection wasn't published at holiday time, "Luck of the North" probably deserved the cover all to itself... and, wouldn't you know it, there's a scene from that story on the cover's upper half.  I'd like to have heard the debate over how this cover came to be arranged.

Disclaimer time: I have a particularly intense love for "Luck of the North."  It's always been my favorite Donald-and-the-boys adventure and carries a particular nostalgic punch for me that not even some of Barks' better-known and higher-praised stories can match.  My first exposure to Barks' work came sometime in the mid-70s, when I came into possession of a copy of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS DIGEST #44 (December 1973).  At the time, I didn't know who Barks was, and I wouldn't until 1977, when I read the info in a copy of the OVERSTREET PRICE GUIDE.  But, consumed though I was at the time with collecting RICHIE RICH, I couldn't help but be extremely impressed with the material in this small, muddily-reproduced digest.  It would take a decade or so before I decided to take the plunge and invest in the CARL BARKS LIBRARY, but it was the warm memories of the enjoyment I had had with these stories that finally motivated me to do so.

"Luck of the North," to me, is pretty much flawless.  The drawing is more attractive than that seen in, for example, "Lost in the Andes," the Gladstone/Donald rivalry plot is among the better ones of its kind (including "Trail of the Unicorn," in which Gladstone actually cheats at one point to get the upper hand on his cousin), and the psychological complexity of the adventure, with Donald creating a phony treasure map to get the obnoxious Gladstone out of his hair, only to succumb to guilt and take off to the "great white North" to make amends, should be much more iconic than it arguably is.  The (spoken) dialogue-less page in which Donald "cracks" and realizes the gravity of what he's done is one of Barks' most famous sequences.

There are many more arresting images sprinkled throughout the story, some of almost sublime subtlety.  Notice the minute, yet meaningful, differences in the expressions on the Nephews' faces in the scene in which they recognize that Donald has swiped the wrong map from Gladstone:

This wistful backshot is also a favorite of mine; I particularly love the pose of the Nephew sitting on the ledge of the Viking ship:

And, of course, there's the triumphal last page, a foreshadowing of sorts of the even more dramatic wrapup of "The Gilded Man" (FOUR COLOR #422, September 1952) with Donald and the kids coming out on top (or somewhere near there) after 32 agonizing pages of twists and turns.  In truth, this ending is even more emotionally satisfying than that of "The Gilded Man."  I always thought that the discovery of the ancient Norse map was Donald's reward for his earlier decision to atone for his wrongdoing and go after Gladstone to try to keep him out of danger.

"Letter to Santa" is most famous for its eye-popping opening splash page and the interior no-holds-barred steam-shovel battle between Donald and Scrooge, but the story itself is quite good, featuring plenty of slapstick and an interesting early portrayal of Scrooge.  At this early stage, Scrooge isn't unwilling to spend money (in this case, for HD&L's desired present of a steam shovel), provided that he gets due credit for his efforts.  This bespeaks a certain level of promotional ego that would wither over time, though never die completely.  The Scrooge of a story like "North of the Yukon" (UNCLE $CROOGE #59, September 1965) who would rant and rave over the idea of being featured in a magazine, might look a bit askance at a version of himself that declares, "What's the use of having eleven octillion dollars if I don't make a big noise about it?"  The Scrooge of "Letter to Santa" is also a bit more Donald-like in his displays of temper and his ability to give as good as he gets in a slapstick fight scene.  It is clear at this point that the sclerotic, somewhat querulous Scrooge of such earlier stories as "Christmas on Bear Mountain" (FOUR COLOR #178, December 1947) and "The Old Castle's Secret" (FOUR COLOR #189, June 1948) will never be coming back.

The "small works" in this collection, all of which date from just before the short period in which Barks temporarily stopped producing "ten-pagers" for WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES in order to concentrate on longer stories, feature such distinguished fare as "Super Snooper" (WDC&S #107, August 1949), Barks' swipe at the superhero genre, and "Rip Van Donald" (WDC&S #112, January 1950), with its peculiar conceit of an ether-addled Donald visualizing a "future Duckburg" of wobbly buildings and piecemeal people.  And, yes, to give them their due, "Trail of the Unicorn" and its FC #256 companion story, "Land of the Totem Poles," are also first-rate, though a little lighter in heft than "Luck of the North."  You can't really go wrong with any story from a prime period like this.  Impeccable production values and a story that comes with the highest of blue-ribbon recommendations from yours truly... what could be a better selling point?