Thursday, July 30, 2015

New comic review: Mickey Mouse #1 (#310) (IDW, June 2015)

I didn’t realize that Casty had started only writing and not drawing some of his stories. Is that for scheduling reasons? Or because as he envisioned this story, it was in Cavazzano’s style? And either way, does it mean that a story he doesn’t both write and draw isn’t as much his baby?

However, he did draw the cover:

With the ducks, especially with Scrooge’s treasure-hunting inclinations, there’s usually a logical reason related to the innate nature of their character(s) that they wind up on the adventures that they do. Even with Donald’s everyman nature, the plot m.o. can be his drive to prove himself. That’s not to say that even Barks didn’t contrive reasons why Donald and the nephews, sans Scrooge, would find themselves in life-threatening predicaments on the other side of the world. But it’s really Mickey, not Donald, with whom more than once, I’ve stopped and wondered, “Hey, just HOW has he had all those adventures, anyway?” (In the stories in which he’s not acting in his quasi-established role of a private investigator. Actually, I’m not even sure if he considers himself one, or if he just is always helping Chief O’Hara out as a friend.)

The real hero of “The Lost Explorers’ Trail” is Eurasia Toft. By all rights, it’s her story: it’s the pride, passion, and skill with which she takes up being the heir to her father’s legacy that drive the narrative. Mickey and Goofy are just along for the ride. Casty tacitly acknowledges this fact with M&G's very reason for accompanying Eurasia (they want to see how things turn out, as if they’re the reader), and how they become privy to the situation in the first place: a letter meant for Professor Toft is mistakenly delivered to Mickey’s address. It’s to Casty’s credit that I didn’t really notice this the first time through. Their enthusiasm for and earnest curiosity for the mission sells this case of tentative plot logic, which is then reinforced proactive initiative Mickey and Goofy take in a least getting through the adventure, even if they don't really have an impact on much of what happens. More often than not, Eurasia takes the lead...

...but Mickey and Goofy prove worthy partners in her adventure, weathering its perils just as well:

Arguably, Goofy is more extraneous than Mickey, but the opening “pancake contest” scene establishes a joined-at-the-hip “bosom buddies” camaraderie that continues to be exhibited throughout the story, distinguishing it from all those stories where Goofy is pretty much just there. I like Casty’s take on him here: while he’s aware of what’s going on and as and fully engaged as Mickey. See how they're equally at rapt attention here:

Or how Goof correctly notices something important BEFORE Mickey does:

But of course, when someone screws up, it's inevitably going to be Goofy... innocently enough:

I’m not sure what to make of Eurasia, really. My knee-jerk reaction is that I’m not too keen on the employment the “nebbish librarian type who takes off her glasses and is suddenly an ass-kicking hot chick” cliché. (I’m taking it that her mom was a mouse, as her dad isn’t? Hey, I guess what proves that she’s a major character is that she has a Mickey/Minnie-style head, despite her taller height and creepy humanoid body.) In fact, all of the incidental characters in her orbit and the “part” each plays feel very familiar. There's her “jolly”, affable, intellectual, accomplished, now retired father, Pangea, who because of his pure, boundless love for his field, cannot truly forget the mystery he left unsolved and his missing friends. But he has great pride in his daughter, the bona fide apple-of-his-eye, and sees in her hope to finish what he couldn't. Then there's Pangea's equally spirited and insatiably curious adventure chums of academia. And finally, there's their corrupt, backstabbing, deceitful former peer. Even the way the secret valley’s biggest secret turns out to be able to cure Pangea's rheumatism, actually.  I’m not saying this familiarity is a bad thing – I’m just observing it. It’s worth noting, though, that when I lay all that out, it becomes apparent that this is more of a Eurasia Toft story than a Mickey Mouse story, eh? 

...look, they even KNOW it!

Regardless, it IS a Mickey Mouse story in that it was intended and produced as one, and, hey, having adventures is what Mickey does in comics, so the writers have to come up with reasons for him to have new ones, right? As archetypal as the new and/or incidental characters might be, Casty defines them with acute clarity and tells their story with airtight plotting. It struck me as unusually, almost realistically dark for a Disney comic how insidious the villain actually is, in having appeared to be an upstanding citizen but having actually left his friends for dead decades earlier. As fatal as most Disney comic villains’ intentions might be, the effects of their ill actions are usually attempted and thwarted in a linear span of time contained within one story.

As reflected in (in addition to the almost trans-Mickey plot and trans-Mickey cast) Cavazzano’s (literally) edgy, feisty, "zinging" art and the modern slang used by dialogue scribe Jonathan Gray, this is neither Gottfredson’s nor Murry’s Mickey, no. Nonetheless, it IS a modern incarnation of and in the Mickey Mouse adventure comic tradition that doesn’t betray the character or the genre. And that should be commended and celebrated.

And for those inclined, the Mickey Mouse comics tradition can be celebrated with this issue’s backup features: a quintessential Don Christensen-Paul Murry 1953 Pluto story (replete with narrative/commentary captions) and two Bill Walsh-Manuel Gonzalez Mickey Mouse Sundays featuring Ellsworth, including his very first appearance. I’ve written before of how from my limited exposure to the character, I wasn’t sure who or what he was ever even intended to be. But now, at last, I know Ellsworth for the smart-aleck prankster that he is. Kudos on your editorial choices, Mr. Gerstein. Ellsworth is now squarely established for further IDW appearances.

-- Ryan

New comic review: Donald Duck #2 (#369) (IDW, June 2015)

As it turns out, my prediction that “Shellfish Motives” Part Two would open with Donald and the nephews “being captured and thus having to work together” was completely wrong. And I couldn’t be happier, as Scarpa’s well-constructed, relatively complex, quasi-satirical* mystery story, while retaining the cloak-and-dagger flavor of the first installment, is much better than the action-adventure (with emphasis on the action) fare that I had envisioned.

* (I say "quasi-satirical" because, as with the social aspects of "The Duckburg 100", "Shellfish" is rife with political and diplomatic trappings which are played in a comical, spoofy way, but I wouldn't say that anything in particular is being targeted. I suppose, though, that a treatise could be written on what the Gourmandian professor's "going off the grid" maneuver says about the use of new science as leverage in high-level warring corpora-government combine power plays.)

If I would object to anything (and this is a tentative, not full-fledged objection), it would be the characterization of Donald as COMPLETELY clueless and wrongheaded, and the nephews so ENTIRELY superior to him in every respect. I like that Scarpa plays up the nephews’ resourcefulness and sharp wits, and while in essence it’s not out of character (to say the least) for Donald to be overconfident in his abilities and proceed with a task wrongheadedly, as in “Duckburg 100”, Scarpa presents a dumbed-down, practically infantile Donald. That said, Donald's attempted interviews with the different scientists (whose reactions vary from put off and annoyed to obvlious to Donald's presence) -- a string of encounters that's juxtaposed against the nephews staying on the right track in THEIR investigation -- are endearingly fun and funny, sort of with an (especially silly) Looney Tunes blackout gag flavor. Still, with Donald taking up Gideon on his job offer at the story's beginning, I felt that Donald was stepping across the threshold on a Hero's Journey... and yet after all is said and done, it seems that we're supposed to take the idea of him ever being a successful investigative reporter as a joke. It's safe to say that this is decidedly NOT a "mastery story".

From the parachute left in the taxicab down through the parsing out of the address where they find the professor, Scarpa’s plotting of the mystery-unraveling is admirable in its logic and its gradual, suspense-sustaining pacing. From the clues dropped throughout the story, I imagine that very few readers would ever discern “the full story” before all is told at the end – certain points (like the fact that the professor probably isn’t really also a chef) were suspected as highly likely, but would anyone have ever guessed that the professor already had his own candy in his pockets of the same type he was buying in the store? While the facts of the case when explained in full at the end are straightforward enough, the complexity is in how Scarpa, at first keeping this scenario near-completely concealed from the reader, lays down the narrative scheme in which the nephews, piece by piece, solve the case.

I had hoped that if the mysterious figure in Part One was indeed Scrooge -- as there there were telltale signs that it was -- then it would turn out that once we knew the whole deal, we would understand how and why we had been misled to believe that he was up to some villainy... and to my satisfaction, such exoneration panned out 100%. Naturally, the “full disclosure”, as relayed by the nephews, includes exposing Scrooge’s role, bringing him “on-screen”. What ensues nicely ties in a theme established at the beginning of the story: the rift between Scrooge and Gideon due to their opposing values and ambitions. I expressed in my review of Part One that I thought the character of Gideon and his relationship to Scrooge were good ideas, and seeing the fireworks that erupt when they actually interact really brings it home. (A familial divide so good, it’s almost like having another Donald-Gladstone rivalry.) Jonathan Gray’s dialogue in this sequence, which plays up that they’re both McDucks and have some fundamental similarities, fine-tunes and sharpens the McDuckian purity of this visceral exchange.


Closing out Donald #369 is a vintage treat, "Counter Spy", which at first glance, I figured was one of Al Taliaferro's gag-based "loose" continuities... but, nope, it was created exclusively for a 1947 Cheerios giveaway. Reformatted here for a standard-sized comic at three tiers per page, it comes out to (drumroll to build suspense) exactly 10 pages, a wildly appropriate number considering that the story consists of Donald waging suburban warfare against his next-door neighbor... in fact, against TWO next-door neighbors, the first of whom in fact is actually named (ahem) JONES, but unlike Barks' Jones, has a line in the sand for what he'll put up with and cares not to play into Donald's one-upmanship; the second of whom is eerily reminiscent of Barks' Herman the Hermit, and is just about as antisocial and curtly impolite, despite his actually bothering to take up residence in civilization.

Though the general proceedings and in particular the twist at the end that brings about Donald's comeuppance have Barksian shades, the crude characterization of Donald and the nephews (who seem to act pretty much as one here, which in itself is un-Barksian) -- first getting their jollies from harassing Taliaferro's "Jones", then invading his successor's life with their gossip-inclined nosiness and physical appearance-based suspiciousness -- aren't countered by any Barksian gravitas.

But let's take a step back. If how a non-Barksian Dell-era duck story measures up to Barks were the measure by which something's of interest or worthwhile, then virtually nothing would make the cut. On its own merits, this is a decently written and certainly well-drawn escapist, slapsticky funny animal comic quick read. So far, IDW's Disney comics have been dominated by European material. But turning a different leaf, this story's inclusion in Donald #369 follows in the tradition begun by Gladstone of select vintage/classic Golden Age/Dell-era American Disney comic reprints. Of course, Gladstone II gave us reprints of their own reprints of just a couple years earlier, as with "Back to the Klondike" and "Monarch of Medioka", amongst numerous examples, demonstrating what NOT to do. By contrast, this is the very first time "Counter Spy" has (at least per Inducks) has been reprinted in the U.S. since its original 1947 publication, exemplifying exactly what TO do.

-- Ryan

Saturday, July 11, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #3 (#407) (IDW, June 2015)

IDWs Marco Rota "A" cover for Uncle Scrooge #407, which originally graced an Italian 2008 reprint of the 1961 Romano Scarpa story that Scrooge #407 presents using Joe Torcivia's newly-Americanized title "The Duckburg 100":

In contrast with his other stories presented by IDW thus far, Scarpa's "The Duckburg 100" is a relatively humble, down-to-earth, domestic, Duckburg-based story. Almost a pure character piece, its lack of big set pieces shouldn't be mistaken for a lackluster read -- its execution is more complex than the premise might suggest. (The most "adventurous" thing that happens is a Beagle Boy robbery during which they accidentally kidnap Donald, and it's mostly played for laughs: the Beagles are just doing what they can't help themselves from doing, and Donald's stumbled into quite a jam, ho-ho!) While the hook -- the bank's contest -- is frankly dry, to the point that it can only be relayed via dialogue, the closest to a  visual representation being promotional posters that Scrooge is pleased to see as he nears the bank... really, just more text! In many modern duck and mouse comics, the MacGuffin is something visual and wacky, which can make a story seem contrived and gimmicky. "100"'s more conscientious (and real-world plausible) situational (rather than conceptual, i.e. gimmicky) premise triggers reactions and an ensuing series of event that make Duckburg more believable than usual. Of course, this illusion hinges upon Scarpa's grasp of these characters, which here is wildly apparent. The end result is a quasi-social satire that isn't acidic and vitriolic, but certainly acute.

It's completely logical and in-character for Scrooge to be anxious to the point of obsession, allowing Scarpa to show us -- and amuse us with -- Scrooge in one of his panicked, skittish, somewhat neurotic modes. But Scarpa's Scrooge, like Barks', has varied moods, and so once he's processed the situation, Scrooge quickly turns energized, driven, and determined in taking efforts to ensure that the three contestants each a prove winning bet (on his end of the deal, of course). To pull off such a drastic transition in temperament as part of staggering a character's reaction to a plot development, keeping the character so true to what makes him tick, is testimony to Scarpa's talent and intuition. And I've almost overlooked how at first, Scrooge was all in favor of the contest and personally commending the bank's manager, only freaking out when he realizes that he owns the bank -- a variation, I believe, of a gag I'm pretty sure Barks used at least once, here executed with a quick setup and then, bam, a blunt turned-on-its head reveal so stark in its irony and so precisely "acted" as to be worth of Laurel and Hardy.

While I would qualify "100" as a character-oriented story before I would a social satire I would say that there is an element of social satire at play. It's predominantly character-driven in that the entire premise is a juxtaposition of the frugal, disciplined, finance-literate Scrooge against three, count 'em, THREE foil types: Jubal, the con artist; the Beagle Boys, who are no-muss, base-level thieves; and Donald, who is (at least in this portrayal) a pure fool. The pop culture-infatuated, financially inept, adult responsibility-oblivious, completely infantile Donald in this story doesn't exactly contradict his general comic book characterization; these traits have been shown, but here, it's just that he's been so completely consumed by these tendencies. I suppose we can chalk it up his obsession with Captain Retro-Duck being a relatively new phenomenon. In other words, a case of, "Oh, it's just a phase -- he'll move on, eventually."

...oh, but I was trying to make a point about the satirical aspects of the story. Basically, Scrooge and his three foils each represent an archetypal human trait/tendency. And each is used to show how money, and moreover, the institution of banking, rules our material existence. Now, I'm not sure if any point is made about this societal situation, which is why ultimately, this is an exercise in showing how these characters each react to a given situation (Scrooge from a different perspective than the other three). But there's at least the framework of a social satire built in to the story.

There is, of course, Scarpa's stab at modern art... which is an easy target, admittedly, but when an actual artist curmudgeonly vents about it in his own work, it has a particularly relishable sting to it. (And evidently, Scarpa and Barks were fellow curmudgeons, sharing a similar view on this "medium"!)

Is there a moral? Since Donald in the end gets as a reward the very thing the very thing he wanted in the first place, perhaps the moral is, "It's okay to be a fool; just don't be a con man or a low-rent thief." How does Scrooge make out? With all of the angst and obsessive effort he goes through, you might think that there might be some ultimate message about Scrooge being too whatever... but in the end, he gets what he wants, too: he hasn't lost anything. Are Scarpa's sympathies actually with Scrooge? Is he actually endorsing Scrooge's ways? I'm not sure, but I wonder.

One of Scarpa's many clever accomplishments in his plotting is the way that each of the three contest participants' efforts "cross over" with and impact each other, leading to the outcome of the story. These scenarios are fully developed enough to not feel contrived; in fact, they play a major part in the story having a tone of tasteful and thoughtful whimsical farce. (However THAT is conceivable!) Jubal's storyline is actually phased out, wrapped up prematurely in dialogue between Scrooge and the bank manager -- during which Jubal is off-screen, and after which he remains so. But even that kind of just falls away in the flow of things. The only plot turn that I found abrupt was how easily and quickly things were wrapped up once the nephews got the info via walkie-talkie from Donald, hiding in the Beagles' midst. I expected Donald getting discovered and the Beagles getting the upper hand again, resulting in one last major obstacle to overcome. I commend Scarpa for using what at first seemed like a lark,  Donald's being enraptured by his new  toy, as an integral plot device, in the dramatic tension afforded by the nephews turning off the walkie-talkie Donald left at home and in how its ultimately the ironic means by which the day is saved. But once Donald finally gets through to the nephews, it's a matter of about three panels before the Beagles have been apprehended (off-screen!), Donald is rescued, and Scrooge has regained the contents of Jewel Vault #3. Nothing to it, easy as pie! Anticlimactic, yes, but at least not as ludicrous and un-sellable as the ending of "Gigabeagle". And not even half as abrupt.

Now, I could pick on Scarpa for the Beagles' giant suction hose thing being a shortcut intended to expedite the vault robbery scene, and for the awkward, clumsy design he came up with for it... but in the former respect, he actually made the right call, because the story beats felt just right. In fact, I'm surprised by now that I haven't brought up how it's easy to imagine this story's premise as a Barks or Barksian ten-pager.  Though it's longer, I guess between the pacing of 10 Barks pages with four tiers each and 33 Scarpa pages with three tiers each, things somehow more or less even out.

For his first turn at a lead story in an IDW Disney comic, Joe Torcivia's dialogue is actually less archaic than that of some of his other recent Americanized scripts... but that's not to say that it's ever dry or straightforward. Take page 8, panel 2: "Hey, you punks! I want my gold nibs!" "Oops! Old stealing habits die hard!" Straightforward in comparison to, say, the daunting alliteration that opened "Meteor Rights", but imagine what the panel in question could have been: "Hey! You stole my gold nib!" "Oh, sorry! We didn't know it was yours!" Or the last panel on the same page: "Gadzooks! The hundred's here! In one lump sum!" What if that had just been, "Wow! Just what I needed, a check for $100!" It really can be the little things that make one's reading experience with these considerably smarter than could easily be the case.

A significant but necessary amendment to the story that Torcivia has made is the entire "Captain Retro-Duck" angle. Until just now, when flipping to the relevant pages, I hadn't put together that there was no superhero or action TV star of any type shown on Donald's TV screen even once during the story. Thus, if I deduce correctly, Captain Retro-Duck, who is referenced in Torcivia's version of the voiceovers for the walkie-talkie promo spots Donald salivates over, was conceived to justify for contemporary American readers why in the age of Google and iPhones Donald or anyone would get so excited in the first place about a walkie-talkie set. It's not that Captain Retro-Duck is a retooling of the TV action star in the original version; there was no TV action star in the original version! In that case, when Donald wanders off from home lost in "playing" Captain Retro-Duck, does that mean in the original, he was just playing some sort of generic make-believe spy game? I can't help but think that his frivolities seem more justified in Torcivia's version. And the nods to TV/comic book/superhero/sci-fi etc. fandom that he worked in are an added bonus, as are all the punny variations of the prefix "retro". Exemplifying both, we have "Sinister storage tanks! Just like the dreaded Eviloid in Episode 213: 'Captain Retro-Duck and the Retro-gressive Gas!'"

Scrooge #407 wraps up with a two-page Tony Strobl gag created for the Disney Studios program. In contrast with the nephews' chastisising and being considerably wiser than Donald in the lead story, here, they're shown as being completely on the same page and virtually standing as one with Donald against Scrooge. The gag boils down to Scrooge "programming" a parrot to say a series of things to "brainwash" his nephews, and in retaliation, they "reprogram" it to say the things that Scrooge decidedly doesn't want to hear. It reduces the characters to one-note roles... but that's sort of the nature of gag pieces. And as far as gags go, it's decently constructuted, as crass as it makes the characters seem. And I am glad that it's finally be printed in the States, for better or worse.

(Hmm, it just occurred to me... with Strobl, it's kind of as if the characters had been done by Hanna-Barbera. Or the Disney characters done by the artists who drew Western's Hanna-Barbera titles... one of whom I'm sure was Strobl. But he was also a product of his era. I can see some commonalities between him and even the original animation featuring the classic Disney cartoon characters produced for framing sequences of the Walt Disney Presents/Wonderful World of Disney episodes that were made up of select theatrical shorts. But I digress... )

Though I definitely think of Marco Rota's "A" cover, above (at the start of this post), as the "definitive" cover of this issue (for its "classic" duck comic look), I couldn't help but also purchase a copy with James Silvani's "sub" cover variant. It hit me in a soft spot for evoking DuckTales (i.e. due to the dynamic of Scrooge and the nephews sans Donald, and how, rather than their shirts being "blacked in", the nephews are sporting their DT-canonized red, blue, and green shirts), and "Treasure of the Golden Suns" in particular. The Junior Woodchuck coonskins were prominent in that serial, which may have been the first time the nephews were seen wearing them in conjunction with their non-blacked-in, then-newly-canonized-color scheme-complying shirts. So the aesthetic of their being so attired has a distinctly DT air to it.

-- Ryan

Sunday, June 21, 2015

New comic review: Donald Duck #1 (#368) (IDW, May 2015)

At the outset of the Gladstone II era, I wrote multiple letters to their offices requesting, "Romano Scarpa! More Romano Scarpa!" Such a desire stemmed from the final two months of Gladstone's original run, during which all of their books were 64 pages, more than half of them each featuring a vintage Scarpa story: the Gottfredson-esque "Kali's Nail" and "The Mystery of Tapiocus VI" in Mickey Mouse, "The McDuck Foundation" and "The Last Balaboo" in Uncle Scrooge, and just one Donald Duck adventure, "Amudsen's Talisman" in Donald Duck, which was relegated to the backup slot following Barks' classic "Maharajah Donald", whereas the other four stories were given top billing. When Gladstone II came through with "Colossus of the Nile" (which I'd specifically requested, letter after letter) and other Scarpa duck tales, I was fairly satisfied. But generally, the Scarpa imports to the U.S. printed by the licensee preceding IDW tended to be silly, weird, uneven, and underwhelming. Though "The Treasure of Marco Topo" was fun and enjoyable, it was pure candy. Thus, my impression of Scarpa began to pale.

In the long run, I came to think of there as being either Scarpa Mickey Mouse stories or Scarpa ducks-in-general stories (perhaps "Marco Topo"'s unorthodox cast had something to do with this), even though the latter usually took the specific form of an Uncle Scrooge. So without ever really thinking about it, "Amudsen's Talisman" seemed to me an exception from very early in Scarpa's career. And while it may still be true that Donald rather than Scrooge stories were less common for Scarpa after the '50's, "Amudsen's", I now realize, certainly wasn't the only one. To my delight, IDW "Shellfish Motives", a Donald Duck adventure of Scarpa's, which to read is to almost like relive those especially golden final two months of the golden Gladstone I era. Like the stories listed above that were featured in those exquisite 64-pagers, "Shellfish" dates from the mid-'50's – it's only one month older than "Amudsen's", in fact. (Links to first printings: "Shellfish" Part One and Part Two, "Amudsen's".) It shares the same keen, inspired dramatic and comedic sensibilities of those other Scarpa yarns. In terms of storytelling, it's ambitious: big, quasi-cinematic page-turners of high adventure and nefarious intrigue. The integrated comic relief, most memorably in Uncle Gideon's hyper-busy, erratic, scattered work style, as witnessed by Donald upon his arrival in his [other] uncle's office, blusters with wild, fully-charged energy and action. Scarpa's comedic timing is almost as zippy and acute as Uncle Gideon himself.

I don't know if this will convey why I was won over just by the opening panel (below), but...look at it! It came out in Italy at around the same time that "Land Beneath the Ground" did in the U.S., but it looks as old as "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold"!

Even though Donald's merely reading a book, in the comfort of his living room no less, as the story opens, his "creeped out" reaction portends that dubious doings and treacherous turns are nigh. His exchange with the nephews that ensues is key to establishing how their relationship will work in this story (as it does in many others), with Donald wanting to prove that he's "somebody" and the nephews not taking him seriously. Tying this in with his rant about the schlocky sensationalism the news media, Uncle Gideon's paper in particularly, his way of diminishing that the boys are reading a newspaper while he's reading a low-brow horror-thriller thriller novel, sets up a punch line: the next moment, he receives Gideon's job offer via phone, and all of the sudden, he's heralding the integrity of his uncle's enterprise. This instantaneous about-face is a very funny depiction of how easily Donald succumbs to his ego, and it also serves to drive us right into the next scene: Donald's arrival for his first day on the job. It's at this point that we're privy to Gideon's manic, incessantly inundated, distraction-upon-distraction-compounded job performance. (In fact, Gideon's brother's Scrooge's fraught, high-strung office antics at the beginning of "Back to the Klondike" come to mind.) Scarpa could have just had Donald find Gideon sitting at his desk quietly working on but a single task. But the route Scarpa opted for maintains ours (and Donald's) expectations: this is a big-time operation where things are happening, and Donald's about to be a part of it.

Indeed, he's immediately given his first assignment, and from there, the story charges forward, never wasting a panel, each and every individual action spurring the next. But interspliced between Donald's unorthodox first-day orientation and Gideon breaking down the specs re: Professor Basset, we're shown Donald and his new editor aren't alone anticipating the professor's arrival:  a mysterious someone, concealed from the reader Bond villain-style by the back of his desk chair, giving instructions to three hired thugs on the location where they're to intercept and abduct the professor. Ah-ha ! Thus, during Donald's briefing, which doubles as exposition for the reader's benefit, and then as Donald's plane to Cincinatti departs, Donald's blissfully unaware that the plot has thickened (as goes the cliché) . Whereas, the reader has been drawn further into the unfolding events, well aware that the stakes have already been raised and that keeping tabs on the professor won't be the cakewalk that Donald expects.

Cut to Donald realizing that he'd fallen asleep as is now on the return flight, a tension-raising complication quick to be aleviated when he spots ­­­­the professor on board. This discovery keeps him from jumping out of the plane, which in his best panic seemed to the shortest route back to Cincinatti – leave it to Scarpa to make the most of the comedic potential here! We cut right ahead to landing (back) in Duckburg – though Donald kept his eyes on his subject the whole time, the scenario would be static until touchdown, so there's no reason for the narration to not get on with it. Though he's at first right on top of it, tailing of the professor is gummed up by the prof being smothered by his apparent entourage. Donald manages to follow the professor's taxi with another taxi; the constant effort it takes him to stay on the professor's tail sustains the dramatic tension and a sense of continuous momentum – which is definitely enhanced by the literal momentum of Donald being in transit first by plane and now by cab.

As foreshadowed during our brief non-look at the elusive villain, the professor leads Donald to the candy shop, where the thugs burst in, hold Donald and the shopkeeper at gunpoint, and make off the the professor. Donald and the narrative momentum with rebound and accelerate as Donald scrambles back to the taxi and its driver speeds after the villains' fleeing car. Things run up against a brick wall, though, when their vehicle sprouts a propeller and wings, rises off the ground, and, blip, disappears into thin air, all in a '50's-futuristic sci-fi kind of way. (I'm tempted to make a James Bond analogy again, which would make this story element ahead of its time.)

So, time for a cool-down: the failed, dejected Donald is back at Gideon's office, trying to explain his experience to skeptical and dismissive police. But things begin to pick up steam again upon the villain's issuing of their ransom demands, setting up the eerie scene in which Donald and the nephews separately hide by the train tracks at the designated trade-off point, waiting tensely in dead silence and stillness. This moment of strained anticipation, in which nothing has actually happened yet but it's expected that something is about to, is more subtle, and possibly more effectivel, than your average "villain has the upper hand, having backed the hero into a corner" or "the blade is about to drop!" type of cliffhanger. And this isn't an abridgement for the American version, but is exactly what Scarpa intended –  it was originally presented in two parts, with the break at the same point, in Topolino.

Ah, but then there's the matter of wee little detail to the ransom exchange scenario: in return for the professor, the villains demand a freight train with car after car filled with…fish. This seems to be one of those "wacky" Scarpa things that I just don't quite get. But unlike with, say, "The Pelican Thief", where the crux of the entire story was just that it had a wacky thing in it, this is a way of giving the MacGuffin a bit of color (such as it is). It's subservient to the tightly-constructed, heightened, fast-paced quasi-spy adventure story, rather than distracting from it or dominating it. (That's in terms of Part One – we'll see what #269, due this week, brings.) In fact, it's commendable that even when using such a silly plot device and without ever using actual murder and other kinds of "grit", the stakes are high enough and the dramatic intrigue laid on thick enough that this story – like some of Scarpa's others from this period – are almost on par with tgangster movies or even Tintin, which always had more realism in its danger and violence than Barks or Gottfredson. One might say the starkness of the stage-setting and the expedient escalation is Hitchcockian, bringing to mind, say, North by Northwest. (Okay, okay, I know I say that every time a story has its hero traveling alone by train or plane, some sort of chase/pursuit element, and an unidentified, unseen antagonist manipulating events.)

From the in-transit and chase scenes, this might sound like a Donald-on-a-solo mission story. Indeed, he literally leaves the nephews at home for his assignment, and it isn't until well after the opening scene, once the villains', their hostage with them, trail had gone cold, that the nephews are back in play, "resorting" (they may actually prefer it!) to independent investigating, as Donald won't "stoop" to working with them, still determined to prove who the man is and who the kdis. Given their close proximity at the cliffhanger, though, it looks that they'll wind up in the thick of this adventure together. Donald spending a good chunk of the story "on the go" as an investigative reporter pursuing and ending up in a scuffle with the mastermind villain's henchmen in trenchcoats are, to be precise, what brought the aforementioned Tintin to mind – Jonathan Gray cleverly subverted this comparison by making the less-obvious Spirou reference. In turn, this story's Tintin-esque 1938 Italian ancestor, Federico Pedrocchi's "Special Correspondent" came to mind. For a second, I wondered if the nephews' absence was due to Scarpa not having seen Barks stories to use as a model and instead had Tintin, Spirou, and the like as sort of the de facto example of how to do comics, duck or not, as well as the remote possibility that he'd read "Special Correspondent" … but then I remembered that this one of the first original stories created for Topolino, prior to which Italian-izations of Barks stories had been a regular feature in Topolino.

And, again, it does appear that Donald and the nephews will be a team again in second half of the story. (I'm predicted that Donald will blow his cover in the bushes, the villains will capture him, and the nephews will have to save his ass). But moreover, only a month later, came Scarpa's aforementioned "Amudsen's Talisman", which was very Barksian in form, with Scrooge sending Donald and the nephews on a treasure hunt (which is the way he did things before getting his own comic, you might recall). And take the characterization in "Shelflfish:" Donald's childishness, his soft spot for pop culture, and his disgruntled state giving way to the yearning and drive for success and acclaim (or delusions of grandeur, Daisy and the nephews ight say); and the nephews' sharp wits, resourcefulness, youthful spunk and vigor, and their eye-rolling and sighing "Here we go again!" response to Donald's stubbornness and lack of caution, I'd say that Scarpa was no stranger to Barks' take on the characters. Gray made the most of their interplay. having one of the nephews warn, "Your mastery streaks never end well, Unca Donald!" – an in-joke for the learned fan that's in fact masterful itself! Almost as good are a pair of lines from the nephews two panels later: "The gall! After all the jams we've saved him from, he gets a big head again!" [This rings especially true when you consider that it has happened infinite times since this story's first printing in 1956.] "Typical!" one of the other nephews adds. [And how!]

It's already virtually given that in almost every new IDW Disney comic, Gray does stellar dialogue job. In addition to the already-cited Spirou and "mastery streak" references, Gray works in everything from satirical, absurd newspaper headlines; bombastic, lofty delcarations of journalistic integrity from both Donald and Gideon; Donald in a daydream impressing a glamorous woman he refers to as a "sexy starlet" (hey...the word "sexy" appeared in a Disney comic! Is this a first?!) as "toots", which brought to mind his animated shorts; unconventional and original exclamative phrases like "Sweet fudfgyjiggers!" and "Holy hoppin' mudpuppies!"; Donald flippantly addressing the nephews as "bambinos", which resonates as something I might have once read in a Barks story but can't place; a reference to a contemporary exercise trend; and going all the way with the villain's hired thugs gangster jargon, with three "youse" being uttered in the space of five consecutive panel, twice in the context of oldest tropes in the book: "None o' youse make no sudden moves!", and then, "an' youse two joiks better not move so much as a muscle!" (Yup, "joiks"!) No, I'm not kidding you, they actually say these things! Totally self-aware in using these old standards, Gray has fun with it, and in turn, so do I! ...and those are just a few bits that stood out to me; there's heaps more!

Commencing the relaunch of the Donald Duck title, David Gerstein opens the May Crosstalk with a snappy, concise general overview of Donald's history. I've always said that just about anyone could read almost any duck comic book story (save perhaps many of Don Rosa's) with no prior experience and understand the characters and follow the story about as well as long-time readers. Given this accessibility, and Donald's recognizability to non-(but perhaps new) fans, a timeline-oriented history wasn't needed here. Instead, David's way of refocusing the lens, making almost a mission statement as to who Donald is and what he and his comic have been and will continue to be, is right on the mark. This piece is almost lyrical, and not just because some of the ironic lyrics to the theme from Donald's theatrical shorts are quoted, crystallizing the everyman spirit of the Donald who's always dreaming of the sweet life and so inevitably always disgruntled, though always manging to get back on his feet, dust himself off, and try again.

Still, it's the tidbit that Gerstein offers right after the Donald piece that's the kind of thing that a fan like me can't get enough of: Gideon McDuck is actually a long-time Italian Disney comic. Brigitta and Fethry have gotten their share of exposure in the States, but I don't believe that I've ever even heard of Giddy. I can only speak for myself, but as an American fan, the idea of Scrooge having a younger brother alive, well, and high-profile in present-day Duckburg is off-putting – and not because of any Barks purism or Rosa canon disciplism, but simply because it's never been part of the picture. Frankly, it's almost like finding out a close relative your own who'd you never heard of has been living and running a prominent business in your hometown as long as you've been alive! But given how much I enjoyed his introductory scene, Giddy won me over surprisingly quickly. His wiry, boundless, energy and high-spirited aloofness brings to mind both Ludwig Von Drake and Fenton Crackshell. And the idea of Scrooge having a brother equally devoted to his work but with a polar-opposite set of ideals is a logical one that I can see is ripe with stor(ies) potential, and I'd say I'm surprised that it hasn't been done before, except it has – by Romano Scarpa before anyone else, with this very story, sixty years ago. (Per Inducks, this is Giddy's debut.)

I've always felt that characters like Brigitta and Fethry's track record in the U.S. has been spotty enough, even with the best intentions of the relevant editorial team, that I've never been quite convinced that they're a "real" part of the cast. As European readers have several decades and thousands of stories on us, collectively and "organically" absorbed such characters from their creation through evolution, it's natural, especially with our monthly as opposed to weekly publishing schedules and the several-year gaps between publishers, that we haven't been able to catch up. I speculated that "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Spy" had been chosen for IDW's first    Uncle Scrooge for being a typical Brigitta-Jubal Pomp story, laying the groundwork for them to be regulars. Seeing how Donald Duck's inaugural IDW issue introduces the U.S. to Gideon McDuck with the very same story that introduced him to Italy (and was his first appearance anywhere) but delayed by 60 years, it can be inferred that there's a game plan underway to bring us up to speed. If this is so, I salute Gerstein and Sarah Gaydos' prudent editorial choices. Looking back on how the Ultraheroes serials printed by the 2009-11 licensee were thrust upon us with no context even though the characters' super-hero alter-egos were in fact longstanding in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, it's relieving and refreshing that things are being done right this time around.

And it's not just Gideon being introduced with Donald #368...or re-introduced, as in this next case. The Donald and Fethry story at the back end of this book does for Fethry what "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Spy" did for Brigitta and Jubal: it's not the greatest story, but it's an apt example of Fethry's personality and how he interacts with the comic's "star" – he was intended as a foil for Donald, and he decidedly fulfills this purpose here, waging chaos in Donald's house through a series of failed attempts at repairing a few household appliances. It's a pretty generic situation comedy scenario and amounts to no more than a few base slapstick gags, and I know I'm not the only one who finds Al Hubbard's duck art rather strange. But I understand (what I suspect to be) the purpose behind this story choice, so I'm all for it. It's fitting to use something from Fethry's original run, the stories that Hubbard and writer Dick Kinney created for the Disney Studios program in the mid-'60's.

In my review of "Shiver Me Timbers!", I wrote that Bas Heymans' arct struck me "'40's Barks filtered through Marco Rota and Ben Verhagen". The younger Heyman, Mau, shows similar sensibilities in "Wrecks, Lies and Videotapes" – there are a couple of Donald poses that, if you showed them to me by themselves, might just fool me if you told me they were Barks. However, here, Daan Jiipes springs to mind more so than Rota and Verhagen, though there's definitely still some Verhagen-ness in there somewhere. Written by Mau with Kirsten de Graaff, this is a Barksian 10-pager in both form and essence, in every aspect of Donald's latest get-rich(and famous)-quick scheme (which, complementing the lead story, he rushes into bullheadedly, failing to heed the nephews' cautioning), to Daisy trusting something to Donald's care despite her apprehension, which he stumbles his way into vindicating, to Donald's altercations to Neighbor Jones, to the innate social satire of the "old hen"-esque "snobs from [Daisy's] ladies' club" (or "corpulent hippo" club – harsh, Gray!) ... and finally, in the way all the separate threads dovetail and come crashing together in one big, pure Donaldian calamity that ends in his humiliated defeat, with the footage Donald had thought he had taped over ending up on the air and embarrassing the ladies' club, whose members quickly burst onto the scene out for blood, led by Daisy, so utterly let down by Donald yet again. To add insult to injury, Jones ends up winning the contest, with footage he had furtively taped of Donald's earlier trouncings –a twist that, in a very Barksian fashion, had been planted between the lines (or panels) when Jones got wind of Donald's scheme. Yes, Donald's near-success is swiftly unraveled two-fold. (I think there's a mixed metaphor in there...) In setting up these layers and choreographing their intertwined resolutions, Mau and de Graaff's story construction is worthy of the Duck Man himself. Some might contend that it's too beholden and deferential to his work, but it's certainly no shoddy knockoff!

The whirlwind of anguish, humiliation, anger, and anxiety immediately spurred by the unfortunate broadcast quickly funnels down to the ladies' giving Donald chase, tearing his clothes as they lash at him. From the very beginning of the chase we jump ahead to and end on a naked, nervous Donald desperately clutching to buoy he's been driven to, a few yards out past the pier, from where the ladies' club members chide him and mock him as he pleads for his jacket, his face red with shame. (Hey, looks like that was a touch entirely added by colorists Sanoma and Travis Seitler. Kudos, guys!) The story could have ended with Donald fleeing for his life, which would certainly get the point across. But Barks would have doubled-down with one final gag showing the less-than-ideal circumstances Donald has been forced to seek refuge in. Mau and de Graaff have taken a cue from the master in making sure they go out topping themselves, and this closing cross-page panel is very well-composed, telling a story in itself – or at least what had happened since the previous panel.

The perspective line is plotted so that we're to the side of and slightly behind Daisy's ladies, who are positioned in the foreground across the rightmost two-thirds of the panel, looking with them out at Donald. Or, think of it like this: We're standing facing their left shoulders, but turning our head to the left so that we can keep see Donald. He may look far away, but of course, he's just drawn smaller and higher up from the bottom of the panel than are Daisy and Co. – I know, I know, we're talking Perspective 101. By basing our vantage point on par with that of the ladies, it's quite palpable how they've used their numbers to strongarm him into exile literally beyond the fringes of Duckburg society, while they continue to enjoy having their feet planted on dry land.

Poor Donald. He may have gotten carried away in his zeal to win the cash prize, but he never actually meant to hurt him anyone.

-- Ryan

Thursday, May 21, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #2 (#406) (IDW, May 2015)

With its first issue of Uncle Scrooge, IDW brought us to Italy. Our current stop is the resplendent Netherlands.

With pirates, a haunted ship, a treasure hunt, “Shivers Me Timbers!” sounds like stuff of a classic Carl Barks adventure, right? And being over 20 pages in length and using the Dell-standardized four-tiers-per-page format (as opposed to the three-tiers-per-page, overall splashier approach used for last issue's Italian lead), it's easy to quickly form certain expectations. But Jan Kruse' plot also involves an immortal wizard, an eternal curse, and a rainbow bridge between two uncharted islands, one of which the wizard has populated with anything his whims fancy, including King Arthur and the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Shades of the “Shambor” stories or World of the Dragonlords. One could say it’s a fusion of different duck genres… but, really, it’s a duck adventure story, pure and simple.  

 "Shiver Me Timbers"

The first act sees the ducks trapped aboard the aforementioned ship, operated by an unseen force, in the eerie, mysterious tradition of “Ghost of the Grotto”, “The Old Castle’s Secret”, or “The Flying Dutchman”. But just when it looks like things have reverted to “standard” treasure hunt/captured-by-pirates fare, the mystery surrounding the ship, its unnatural crew, and how the pirates and the island factor in is blown wide open, and all of the fantastical elements take over in full force. It may sound disparate, but it’s actually constructed pretty artfully, so that every element is integral… even the disembodied, autonomous, gravity-immune eye, arm, and leg that turn out to have been the ship’s elusive crew! I’m not quite sure what duck comic precedent to compare that kind of kookiness and whimsy to!

The ducks are well-characterized: Scrooge’s profit-seeking, treasure-coveting m.o. is spot-on. It proves his undoing when his coin-pawing zealousness is what gets the gang in trouble with the pirates, and a joke in the first scene about a business plan for a restaurant is brought back and underscored at the ending, giving a nice sense of closure. A tried-and-true narrative device is used at the end: the ducks are suddenly cut off from inner (or outer, given the supernatural nature of the circumstances) world of the adventure they’d just had, disquietingly casting doubt on whether they’d actually “ascended” to that “higher plane”. Barks used this trope (and I use that term meaning it to be free of its negative connotations) at the closing of “Mythic Mystery”, which similarly transported the ducks to a fantasy world in which they were inundated with myths and legends come to life.

Donald, of course, repeatedly expresses the wish that he’d stay home, best exemplified when takes advantage of the idle time while being transported to the wizard’s island by catching a nap – he actually shines in this moment, I guess because he’s actually getting some relief, for once … but of course, it’s all too fleeting. (Sigh.) And the nephews are the most proactive, resourceful members of the bunch, but they also wish they were home fishing, like Donald – a nice balance between their child-like and more industrious characterizations.

Bas Heymans' art strikes me as being inspired by ‘40’s Barks but filtered through Ben Verhagen and Marco Rota. The artist’s evident versatility is seen in the more realistic style in which the ship, the island, and the plain ol’ fishing docks back in Duckburg are drawn; the grander, bolder, highly-charged sequences spotlighting the wizard and the knights; as well as the (very) cartoonish “liberated”, self-propelled body parts. In the latter category we can include Grizzlebeard’s bizarre conception of “one of many Loch Ness monsters”, this member of the Clan Nessie afflicted with a grossly disproportionate pea-sized head. It’s not clear, though, if he’s also distant family to the sleek sea serpent with the mirthful gleam in his eyes and licentious grin that attacks Donald and the nephews on their way to Grizzlebeard’s island. However, because of this exaggerated facial personification, making the serpent look menacing while paradoxically looking cartoonishly silly, it fits somewhere between the “epic myth” elements of the story and the more whimsical ones. 

Jonathan Gray’s dialogue is so richly and intricately written, multilayered, and erudite, some of the dialogue struck me as being at least one-half as archaic as Krazy Kat! (For the record, that quantifies as still pretty damn archaic!) More on his work on the story below.

 "Meteor Rights"

Frank Jonker and Paul Hoogma's plot for "Meteor Rights" could be an official textbook example of a Scrooge-versus-Glomgold story: the world's two richest ducks are racing to be the first to reach and claim something. Each hoping to obstruct the other from reaching their destination, there's an escalating series of affronts and retaliations exchanged between them, culminating in an unforeseen change in circumstances that leaves neither duck the winner and proves that their obsessive carried-to-its-utmost-extremes one-upmanship was destined to be futile.

In a twist that's unique to this story, and is amittedly a major break from the standard Scrooge-versus-Glomgold high-stakes race subgenre that this story otherwise so well exemplifies, the ducks find out that being in close proximity to the meteor subjects them to some sort of neurological chemical alteration that causes them to feel nothing but warm fuzziness toward everyone and everything, whether present or that ust happens to cross their mind. The whole "the hero and villain's minds become possessed by something that makes them into unabashed goody-goody saps weeping over the beauty of each other's souls and precious humanity" bit is a bit of a cliché and sort of a way of cheating at character development, yes. But by relegating it to the final act of a story that's brief to begin with, the joke's potential is maximized by being told once, straight and to the point, rather than being dragged out. (Donald mentions his newfound affection for the off-screen Gladstone and Neighbor Jones. I suspect that U.S. scripter Joe Torcivia thought to reference them, and a more perfect crystallization of Donald’s altered state of mind there couldn’t be.)

But despite the bare-bones plot and inherently contrived "sworn lifelong enemies are abruptly and for no reason gaga-eyed over each other" gimmick, the execution is largely faultless. Maximino Tortajada Aguilar's art is in keeping with the Barks-progenied Danish duck comic house style, but of course, like any artist, he draws with his own hand, which proves to be inclined toward smooth, lush but modest work. His "action" is vivacious and fluid, bringing out the brisk, assured momentum of Jonker and Hoogma's narrative. And with the new English-language dialogue written for the U.S. audience, Joe Torcivia demonstrates that he has the chops to riff toe-to-toe with the original band members.

I'm not keeping score, but both Gray and Torcivia seem to be working their way to some kind of "most alliteration written for Disney comics" award. Just as select examples, Gray has tallied points with "manic myriad of countless cod", "Ten-thousand thundering typhoons", "another amazing adventure", "Jumpin' jacksnipes!", and (doubling as pun) "Fore-alarm at four o'clock!" Torcivia, meanwhile, remains firmly in the game with "beautiful boulder of benevolence", "Nosh my Newmans into nothingness, eh?", and "Deducedly disquieting!" to name the few. But special recognition should go to the caption box in the half-page splash that the story begins with. "The Billionaires' Club! Where two titans of tightwad-ism tally their tangibles -- tauntingly!" has got to be an absolutely singular achievement in how at first its density confuses the reader right as they're going in cold (or at least this reader -- give me a dunce cap for having to read it two or three times before it registered), and yet is an uncannily accurate and comprehensive description of what's shown in the accompanying panel, and yet (yup, again! Three-fold, even!) is delightfully absurd in how detailed it is while adhering to a self-imposed alliterative scheme. Or, in other words, it shamelessly shows a sublime sort of silliness while successfully somehow satisfying the stipulation to seriously set the scene with specificity, signaling the start of the story.

And how could I have waited this long to praise Torcivia's gem of a title? When the pun actually clicked for me (having at first having glossed over and plunging right into the story), it was a moment of both considerable amusement and amazement at how clever and apt it is.

Torcivia's numerous Barks references -- to "The Twenty-Four-Carat Moon" and "Swamp of No Return", and a variation of Scrooge's iconic mantra from the first page of "Only a Poor Old Man" describing his"money swim" techniques -- are not just a wink at the fans, but a celebration and affirmation of these comics' history and heritage. And by designating the story's bog-or-marsh setting as Dismal Swamp from "The Swamp of No Return" and developing a running joke out of mentioning the string contest from the very first Flintheart Glomgold story, Torcivia isn't just casually tossing in Barks references, but integrating elements from specific Barks stories, reinforcing the singularity of the ducks' world.

For his part, Gray incorporates a Barks homage that I'll admit having to double-check on to make sure I hadn't misidentified it. (Thus, I don't feel it's my place to spoil it here.) Besides Scrooge name-dropping the patriarch of the Beagle Boy clan, Gray slips in a couple of slick non-Barks Disney ducks references: 1. Scrooge recites his personalized version of the lyrics to a certain theme song from the days of the studio's theatrical animated shorts. 2. Donald alludes to a relative hailing from the Gold Key era. 3. In a case of astoundingly perfect irony, an incidental character is named after a well-known Disney comics creator -- perfect because this story is NOT a product of said creator's "branch" of the family, yet said incidental character displays surface traits that coincidentally could be conflabulated with mild stereoty associated with that other branch. It's a pretty low-brow joke, but the joke knows that about itself and so embraces it, and so the real joke becomes the absurdity that the joke actually gets made at all. At least, that's how I'm reading it, but admittedly, I'm projecting a lot between the lines, and only because I caught the reference, whereas a casual reader would probably never suspect that there's any significance to this throwaway character's name.

Regarding Gray's aforementioned archaic writing, I cannot stress enough (and this applies to Torcivia’s formidable opening line, too) that I mean that as a commendation – I’m all for these comics being intelligent and substantive. And both writers' output is just that; the words in any given panel are never dull or predictable.. Gray keeps us on our toes with the bewilderingly unfamiliar and obscure: "Imbroglio"? "Double-jabbered"? And just when I was starting to get "gibber" down, now I have to remember the difference between it and "jabber"? ...and, hey, where does "jibber-jabber" fit in? (But the recurring theme of Donald being told that he's "gibbering", which actually came off more like a prolonged non sequitur than a mere running joke, was actually very funny, both for the nonchalant emphasis on it when it "has nothing to do with anything", and for Donald's meek, almost cute protests. ...or is it a comics tradition-defying joke about the animated film Donald's voice?)  But not only is he fluent in pirate-ese, medieval/Arthurian-ese, ‘30’s gangster-ese (…oops, that’s next review), and the dialect I suspect of just about any other period and culture, he also plays the occasional wild card, making far more contemporary, "hip" references: 1. Scrooge actually says "make bank"?! HA! :D 2. It took 40-50 years for western fans of Japanese monster movies to codify distinguishing Japanese movie monsters by the Japanese word for "monster", even though it just means "monster", not "monster in Japanese movies", and another 10 to 15 years or so, give or take, for the term to be used in an American Disney duck comic. These throw me for a loop, and I love it! 

And lest you think Torcivia doesn't keep up with the times, he makes a reference to one of the biggest pop music stars of the past years. But I got more of a kick out of the parody of the lyrics of David Bowie's most famous song, as a couple of my all-time favorite albums are by Bowie, and it was strange to have the worlds of two separate interests of mine fleetingly collide.

And, Joe, I immediately wanted to inquire, are Fig Newmans in fact a new soft cookie-with-a-gelatinous-core thing from the Newman's Own line? ;)

-- Ryan

P.S. The first IDW issue of Donald Duck came out yesterday. I plan to review it soon.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #1 (#405) (IDW, April 2015)

Despite the four-year interim and the change in licensee, Uncle Scrooge #405 is pretty consistent with #404: the spotlight is on a Romano Scarpa-drawn story from 1996, represented with a new cover by Giorgio Cavazzano. David Gerstein was working on the book then, as he is again, but he's reclaimed his archival editor title from the Gemstone days. He's accompanied by Jonathan Gray and Joe Torcivia, two of his teammates from the "classics"-branded aspects of the 2009-11 licensee (though not US #404 in particular), further closing the gap, and bringing a certain level of reassurance to fellow fans who know them.

Rodolfo Cimino and Scarpa's "Gigabeagle: King of the Giant Robot Robbers" (its new American title, paying homage to Barks' own Beagle Boys-giant robot story from only a year earlier, and I suspect that the "Giga" prefix is a reference to some of sort pop culture giant robot that that I don't know about) definitely has a gargantuan Beagle Boy robot stomping across Duckburg and making off with the money bin, but there's not much of a plot facilitating those events. The setup is arbitrary on multiple fronts: we open on Scrooge freaking out arbitrarily over the general existence of the Beagle Boys ... not because of a specific recent  threat from them, and not from news of a prison break or intel on their latest scheme, but from the lack of any news about them. The nephews arbitrarily decide that they will set Scrooge at ease by bringing him to Donald and their house, where for some reason he wolfs down all of the food they can pile on his plate (Scrooge has a binge eating disorder? Or does he just normally starve because he's so cheap?), and then arbitrarily decide that the ultimate solution to his anxiety is to take him camping. The actual plot reason for this camping trip is for the ducks to discover the robot ... because that only could happen if they went camping, right?

But this fast-and-loose, half-assed plotting has nothing on the story's resolution: "Gigabeagle" has gotten away free and clear with the bin, and so it would appear time for the final act of the story, in which the ducks will figure out a way to take down (or take control of, as Scrooge did in this story's Barks precedent) the marauding skyscraper-sized motorized machine with the visage of a Beagle Boy and regain possession of the money bin. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, "Gigsie" is destroyed and the money bin is back on Killmotor Hill. Gigsie's explosive end delivers on some clever foreshadowing. I'm not sure if the "he was programmed to think like the Beagles, and so it was their greed that in the end brought about their defeat" angle was in the raw translation, but kudos to Jonathan Gray if he layered it in. However, I have a nagging suspicion that Gray saved the restoration of the money bin from being a jaw-droppingly absurd, improbable coincidence. Going by the art alone, it would appear that the explosion hurls the money bin over Duckburg and right back into its original position. This is only justified by the "big underground magnets [that] hold [the] bin to its foundation" mentioned by one of the nephews on pg. 3. Since these magnets, as far as I know, have never existed in any other story, and because they're only mentioned in passing in this new English dialogue but never shown, yet, at least as we Americans are reading it, are so crucial to the story's resolution, it seems to me that Gray salvaged an atrocious ending. However, if the mentions of the magnets are in fact mirroring the original Italian dialogue, I'll stand corrected.

(There's also the matter of the nephews for some reason signaling the police with the tiny flame of a common wax candle, but I'm gonna chalk that up as just some Italian thing.)

Nonetheless, Scarpa's art, which has a lot of busy, frantic, exaggerated, comedic hijinks, is a lot of fun. His big, bold, sweeping style certainly works well for giant robot action. Between that and all of the electrified panels of the ducks scrambling to stave off Gigsie's attack on the bin, things move with a rollicking momentum, ensuring that IDW has made a big splash in bringing back to the States not just Uncle Scrooge but the whole classic Disney comics line.

The best of Scarpa's art, with all its zest and zing, is brought out by the zing and zest of Gray's dialogue, which demonstrates that he knows duck comics inside and out, and not just because of the many references to the medium's past ("Wak!" is never exclaimed in this particular story, but the radio station that Scrooge tunes into uses the call letters "K-WAK"; when Scrooge bashes his own head against the wall to get ideas, he acknowledges that a similar technique is used by a certain inventor; the Beagle Boy love of prunes comes up, as is only right; and even a reference to the title of Barks' first Uncle Scrooge adventure), but due to the Barksian dialogue -- and by that, I don't just mean particular phrases like "Good work, infants!", but the cadence and rhythms, and the way tone and timbre signifies characterization, which is perfectly consistent with the characters that we know. And though there are some modern quirks (a reference to a Red Bull advertising slogan and terminology like "A.I."), there's a lot more absolutely delightful eccentricities that would seem to belong to Barks' or even Gottfredson's era but as far as I can tell, are original: "GREAT HOWLIN' CRASHWAGONS!", "Hot crawdads, Unca Donald was right!", "We need that salty codger alert!"  Gray also does a fine job continuing the tradition of comic book tradition onomatopoeia, both in the expressions used and the way they're puncuated.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gray's DuckTales references: there's a variation on Scrooge's "Jumpstart my heart!" and a pun on the name of the Beagle Boy who most of often led the gang on the show. It should go without saying that I appreciated these!

The original Italian title of #405's backup story translates to "The Secret of the Coat", a dry title that evokes the mystery-adventure genre, when the story is actually more in the sitcom vein. So Joe Torcivia's new, comedic title, "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Sly" (I just figured out what that's a pun on -- it's something I'd never heard of; I won't give it away, so that if you have, you can relish it; and if you haven't, do your own damn Googling!) is more fitting for this light-hearted romp with the mismatched "odd trio" of Scrooge, Brigitta, and Jubal Pomp built around a cliché: finding a treasure map drawn on one's own piece of property and unraveling its mystery while clashing with a mysterious villian who who has shown up out of nowhere and we learn is connected to the map's past. Now, this is the stuff of countless exciting, full-developed stories in feature film, pulp novel, and duck comic, but this particular narrative offers little more than a couple chase sequences, with the good guys and the bad guy sparring in a game of "hot potato" (or football) with Scrooge's coat, and the villains' anticlimactic surrender to the police ... for which Scrooge and Co. are basically just bystanders!

On top of the banal narrative, this is recent, slicker, more on-model Scarpa, which I find duller than his squashier '50's and '60's work. By far the most vital, entertaining part of the story is the dynamic between Scrooge, Brigitta, and Jubal, with Scrooge having an aversion to both (but for different reasons), Jubal making no secret of his distaste for (and envy of) Scrooge, Brigitta's crush being tempered by her indignance at Scrooge's stinginess and his contempt for her, Brigitta and Jubal agreeing to suck upand  pander to Scrooge in the hopes of cajoling him into investing in their business, and Scrooge tolerating their scheming so as to use them for his own ends -- first for a complementary coat mend, then the use of Jubal's car when chasing the villain, which Jubal and Brigitta join Scrooge in, hoping to get a cut of the treasure. In the last panel, it appears, via the illustrated thought balloons, that all three parties have played each other and made the right compromises so that each is (at least anticipating) getting what they want. If it weren't for these visuals, the Scrooge-Brigitta-Jubal dynamic would have been out of play at the end of the tailor shop scene, for their tagging along for the arrest and subsequent finding of the treasure would be, as Scrooge describes Jubal in my favorite of Torcivia's jokes in story, "superfluous" to the plot.

Torcivia steadily delivers puns and various other types of wordplay, references (including ripping on Minnie Mouse -- more the Minnie Mouse of mass merchandising than anything -- and her taste in clothing design), and irreverent goofs on everything from "mall cops" to the fashion industry, giving American readers a feisty read. As Gray fixed what I was suspect was a massive hole in the lead story, Torcivia not only ties Barks' Brutopia into the villain's back story, but with said back story, assures us that the map has only been a part of Scrooge's coat for 10 years and not since he acquired it, avoiding any flirtation with dicey continuity. Based on the characters' poses and instructions, the characterizations of the "odd trio" were very much part of the original story, but with all of the insults, jabs, and acerbic sarcasm thrown between them, Torcivia maximizes the potential. I'm not sure why this unexceptional story (though Torcivia has added a lot of tasty seasoning for flavor) was selected for this issue. But if the idea was to begin IDW's run by establishing to the readership Brigitta and Jubal as characters, and moreover their entrepreneurial partnership (for we've seen a fair amount of Brigitta here over the years here, and not too much of Jubal), then it's a very suitable choice.

Gerstein closes the issue with an editorial reviving the "Crosstalk" banner, which definitely made this fan feel at home. After giving some background info on the Beagle Boys, Brigitta, and Jubal, Gerstein closes by sharing a sentiment that affirms that these comics are in expert, loving hands.

-- Ryan

Monday, April 20, 2015

What I've been watching: Sonic Underground episode 1: "Beginnings"

A fan of Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog from Day One (at least up to a point...the contemporary stuff looks pretty insipid to me) and of what is affectionately known as "SatAM" from its Day One (wildly so, at the time), I was put off so much by the premise of the subsequent Sonic Underground -- Sonic and his two child hedgehog siblings in a cheesy rock band -- that I never even bothered to watch it.

Later, I heard -- to my surprise -- that it actually had traces of SatAM, but this compromised form made it all that more of a disappointment not just to the fans, but to SatAM producer Ben Hurst, who went on to work on SU, and though he did what he could, he was heartbroken that he couldn't just do a third season of SatAM instead. So though I was curious, it always just looked like getting anything out of watching it would be a losing bet.

Well, last week, out of the blue (no pun intended) and on a whim, I figured I'd give the first episode, "Beginnings", a shot. (Really, it was almost an arbitrary decision that came out of just sort of randomly thinking of the series one night last week. There wasn't any new information or reading up on it online that spurred my watching, or anything like that.)

I appreciated that they made it a point for the series to have a proper beginning, establishing a back story and mythology. SatAM had not done that, which I always felt was unfortunate. Unfortunately, what there is to SU's mythology is simplistic and cookie-cutter. But at least the potential is there that it could build into something bigger and better; whether it actually did so ... well, I'm not convinced that I want to invest the time I'd have to in order to find out.

There were moments at which I undeniably got my SatAM "fix", but they were all too fleeting. Visually, Robotnik is pretty much a dead ringer for his SatAM counterpart (and though Jim Cummings and his particularly sinister take on the character are absent, I enjoyed Garry Chalk's blustering, velvety, sort-of-classic-mustachioed villain performance ... which actually sort of melds Cummings' more mannered performance with the baritone bravado of Long John Baldry's boisterous, excitable, comedic version of the syndicated Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog):

Likewise, this series' Robotropolis is almost the same as SatAM's (it could almost be like what I understand happens in the new Star Trek movies -- this continuity and that of SatAM started out as the same, but they diverged somewhere):

Supporting the divergent continuity theory, King Acorn, though unidentified as such, makes a cameo:

If you told me that this background art was of SatAM's Great Forest, I'd believe you. Pretty much the exact same design palette was carried over from the earlier series: 

As you can see, there certainly is -- to me -- good stuff, but, alas, there's bad stuff, too. And when I say bad stuff, I mean BAD stuff. The mythology involves Sonic and his two siblings being of royal blood, but they were separated at birth -- their mother, the exiled queen, arranged this so as to hide and protect them from Robotnik's tyranny and his maniacal drive to extinguish the royal Hedgehog line. As depicted in the show's title sequence, she left each child at its respective new home in a basket and with no explanation, allowing her to go stand on a cliff staring at Robotropolis for the next 16 years. Of course, by the end of the first episode, they've found each other and have intuitively grasped and bonded over their shared destiny. (What seems to unlock their shared subconscious is their uncanny ability to play music together the moment that they meet -- music that they're playing on a stage in a setting that's a rip-off of Star Wars' cantina scene. The clientele really dig it. You'd think they'd be a tough crowd.) Since this cosmically preordained reunion is over and done with, lock, stock, and barrel, before the series' first 20 minutes are up, it seems pointless like they shouldn't have even bothered with all this exposition and setup, since there wasn't any time to build up dramatic suspense by actually making it difficult for them to find each other.

"Hey, I think you guys might be my long-lost brothers, 
but no big deal, I don't need time to react and process 
my emotions or anything -- nope, I got this, I'll take the keys!"

But first, in the middle of the episode, before they meet, there's a musical number that they sing together but separately, entitled "Someday", about how "someday, [they] are gonna be together". "Cookie-cutter", "saccharine", "cornballish", "babyish", etc. don't even begin to describe it. It makes that reviled late '90's hit "MMMBop" by the child band "Hanson" seem musically substantive. 

[WARNING! If you watch this, you may just be pleading with the nearest person to take you out of your misery!]

And I understand there's a song in every episode. Yeahhhh, I think I have other things to watch...

-- Ryan