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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What I've been watching: the original Star Trek...

Often, one Star Trek episode will remind me of another, whether the immediately preceding one or one from two seasons earlier. It feels like two writers were handed the same assignment, rather than two writers following the same rigid template. (Re: the latter, see: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and Inspect Gadget.)

Currently, I'm making my way through the original Star Trek's third season. The two episodes that I most recently watched were:

1. "Elaan of Troyius", which involves the Enterprise trying to help an alien culture, an endeavor that is, A) complicated by Kirk falling prey to the wiles of a member of said culture's elite class of women, who is regarded as having a certain power over men, and, B) Klingon interference ... much like season two's "A Private Little War".

2. "Whom Gods Destroy", which, like season one's "Dagger of the Mind", involves a planet solely housing a "rehabilitation" facility for the criminally insane; like "The Squire of Gothos" (also season one), has as an antagonist a twinkle-eyed, jocular man child who has manipulated circumstances so that Kirk and Co. are at the mercy of his erratic, malevolent, whims; like season one's "The Enemy Within" and season two's "Mirror, Mirror", includes Kirk opposing a physical duplicate of himself; and like season two's "The Gamesters of Triskelion" and I don't know how many other episodes, involves the Enterprise crew (in this case, Kirk and Spock) being held captive and abusively used as pawns in their captors' games (in "Triskelion", for the captors' sheer entertainment; here, in "Whom Gods Destroy", the plotting mad man captor is using them to achieve an external objective).

I don't mean anything negative by pointing out any of the above named similarities; all of the referenced episodes are great.

(...oh, and, of course, "Whom Gods Destroy" was certainly not the first Star Trek episode with a performance by a dancing green lady.)

-- Ryan

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 18: "Strike Up the Sand" (9/23/94)

Sadira and the four episodes that featured her were atypical in approach for not just Aladdin, but virtually all of the Disney Afternoon series that preceded it. In each appearance, she functioned as an antagonist, and technically had the same shtick each time, much as your typical recurring villain usually does, from Duke Igthorn through to Mechanicles, but she had a story arc that started with her introduction in "Strike Up the Sand", continued through her next two appearances, and had a definite ending with "Witch Way Did She Go?", by the end of which, it was quite evident that she wasn't going to indefinitely keep coming back as long as the series ran, each time with a new scheme to make Aladdin love her, and lo, she was never seen again. Whereas most of Mechanicles' and Abis Mal's appearances could be seen in any order with no apparent continuity problems, the chronology was made explicit in Sadira's episodes. A story arc made of multiple, non-consecutive episodes, as opposed to the occasional multi-part serial (of which Aladdin only had one, the "Seems Like Old Crimes" two-parter), had never been standard practice for The Disney Afternoon (though soon would be taken to a possibly never-equaled, enthralling extreme with Gargoyles). Thus, when this episode's first aired, its cliffhanger-esque, "teaser" ending, where Sadira cunningly alludes to her next plan to possess Aladdin's heart, seemed especially "edgy" and intriguing.

But let's not gloss right past that at the beginning of the episode, it's strikingly clear that there's something different and special going on. Until now, we've never seen Aladdin and Jasmine with peers in age, race, or mortality. So by virtue of being another human character of the same age as Al and Jas, Sadira brings a whole new gravity to the cast dynamic just by showing up on screen. And it's the nature of her entrance that's the most intriguing: for having stolen an apple, she is running for her life through the marketplace from Razoul and his men, displaying acrobatic and tactical prowess ... paralleling our introduction to Aladdin at the beginning of the movie. Thus, in observing the proceedings, it's quite apropos that he comes to Sadira's aid when she's caught, having seen in her a kindred spirit. And there's another layer to this setup that makes it work all the better: when the action began, Aladdin was waiting for Jasmine to pick out for him "fine silks" etc., much to his chagrin, and prompting chiding from Abu, Iago, and Genie; Jasmine is trying to spiff Aladdin up. While in the movie she was fed up with the proprieties of royal life, which made her and Al "work" as a couple in the first place, she was never depicted as tomboy, so it's acceptable for her to still have "girly", hoity-toity tendencies. And because of the twist that's about to be introduced in Aladdin having more in common with Sadira (which is shown, and never outright stated -- nice of them to trust our intelligence!) than he does with Jasmine, it's actually the best application of the "class differences" theme concerning Al and Jas to date.

From the get-go, Aladdin has no romantic interest in, or attraction to, Sadira, which would have made things all the more complicated, in a "steamy" sort of way. But obviously, they didn't want to broach the subject of being unfaithful or "cheating" on a kids' show. Sadira's objective in her first three episodes, then, is exclusively to destroy the couple's relationship; conflict within the relationship itself is never a factor (except when Sadira's magic has placed Al or Jas literally not in their right mind or alterred the whole fabric of reality). Admittedly, the whole enterprise, with a jealous, scheming scorned lover, is pretty soap opera-esque, and Sadira, at least until her transformation in "Witch Way", is a one-note, hackneyed villain. I'm not saying she was masterfully executed and groundbreaking in complexity! But I still appreciate the considerable effort that was put into avoiding making her into a traditional villain, instead depicting her as made up of "shades of grey", and charting a character trajectory in which she evolves, culminating in a finite resolution.

Sadira is introduced to "the dark side" (not that Dark Side) almost immediately after her first encounter with Aladdin, and then, shortly thereafter, Jasmine, which has left her in dejected and bitter. The way that she conveniently stumbles upon the Witches of the Sand's lair is contrived and hard to buy, without a doubt. And ultimately, we get what's really a simple Jasmine-is-kidnapped-by-a-big-monster-and-the-gang-comes-to-rescue-her-and-fights-the-big-monster episode. But Sadira's character exposition and her scandalous m.o. is compelling enough to more than carry the episode. Very similar to writer Steve Roberts' Sultan of the Al-Muddi, Sadira's sand monster goes against "giant hulking monster" type by being articulate, having a dry sense of humor, and speaking with what I guess is a British accent. It's probably one of the most obvious ways to have a big monster go against type (and as just noted, has already been done by this series), and it certainly isn't the same thing as avoiding having a big monster, but it does spice up and bring more class to the going-ons, even if it is a caricature of class. Along the same lines, the gag of a meek little worm turning out to be behind the deep, thundering voice that greets Sadira upon entering the Witches' lair, and announcing that that's where she is, saves the tackiness of the scenario with an unexpected Dr. Seuss-or-Charles Addams-esque cartoonish whimsy.

(Why does the above look familiar? Oh, yeah...)

(...seems the resemblance between Sadira's sand monster 
and the Sultan of he Al-Muddi wasn't just vocal.)

Also, the sand monster action sequences are lively, well-animated, and well-paced, so that even if it's pretty standard stuff, the episode never loses its flair. Actually, I noticed that in the opening scene, particularly Sadira's acrobatics, while the action poses are well-drawn anatomically, the timing is stiff and a bit off; whereas in the second and third act, the skirmishes with the sand monster are comparable to some the series' most sublime spectacles to date, such as those in "Mudder's Day" and "Never Say Nefir". Also, with certain poses in that early scenes, the regular characters seem a bit off-model and oddly proportioned, similar to how I found them rendered in "Plunder the Sea", but in the latter scenes, they're closer to they're more exquisite squash-and-stretch incarnations from, say, "Mudder's" and "Garden of Evil". However, whether or not my perception of any imperfections in the opening scene is credible, I don't consider it remotely disruptive enough to seriously complain about.

After all, the opening is so well-written and layered, and Sadira's introduction so dynamic a game-changer, that I'm not going to split hair over some rush in-betweens. But the sequence in which Aladdin and his pals intervene just as Razoul and his men have cornered Sadira, and Abu through a sleight of hand tricks Razoul into believing that Sadira really is the "Royal Fruit Inspector", a title that Aladdin, thinking fast, had just blurted out and ascribed to her, is possibly the most ingeniously "choreographed" bit in the series up through this episode. Abu's confidence trick (which Genie assists with -- see below) is carried out through dialogue-free action, occurring simultaneously with Al and Sadira's exchange with Razoul. Just as Sadira seems backed into a corner, unable to verify her fruit-inspecting credentials, Abu indicates to her where he's planted Aladdin's "Royal Badge" (guess he has one just as a perk of dating the princess) on her -- he draws her attention to it and she demonstrates her understanding nonverbally, which Razoul misses because he's trying to swat off a pesky "insect" (again, see below). All of this transpires within just a few seconds, but it involves more characters doing more things at once than usual, and the timing of each action and interaction are interdependent, and yet it's pulled off without a hitch.

In actuality, the relief of dramatic tension from Razoul having been thrown off the scent is not to last. But rather than merely having Al, Sadira, Abu et al. trip up a mere moment after Razoul found himself in a position where he had no choice but to buy their story, the false sense of security that the audience had been lulled into is maximized by being sustained all the way through the next two scenes, until Jasmine finally locates the rest of the gang and Al introduces her to Sadira. While Razoul just happening to show up again is painfully contrived, Jasmine blowing Sadira's cover by expressing incredulity at Razoul addressing her by her phony title makes the sting of the exposé especially sharp, due to the secondary effect of Sadira learning the identity of Aladdin's girlfriend and grasping the implications. Her resulting exigent flight from and evading of the guards ends in her blind stumbling-upon of the lair of the Witches of the Sand (which does not seem nearly far enough out of the way to have remained untouched for centuries), which as I mentioned, is an absurdly convenient coincidence. However, her jealousy now compounded by a resentful feeling of adequacy and inferiority, the audience is ready to accept her picking the apple from the tree, to use a metaphor, and the momentum of the chase and her evasion have kept with the story beats in such away that her fateful discovery just feels right. And, hey, the writers have a lot to get done in a short amount of time!

Her ultimate rejection of sorcery and duplicity to come in "Witch Way" occurs in miniature at the end of this episode, when she undoes her creation and admits to the gang the error of her ways ... or so it seems. Seconds later, as soon as the others are gone, comes the teaser ending where she revels in identifying and announcing her next scheme. This turnaround happens so fast, it's hard to know what was going on in Sadira's head. For Al and Jas to move on to the adventures they'll have between this and her next episode, it had to appear that the whole situation was resolved. Twenty or so minutes earlier, when we'd first met Sadira, she was likable enough where I don't want her to have been disingenuous in the way she made nice with the heroes, but her actions in private indicate that she was. However, during their parting exchange, she behaved despondently, slumping her shoulders and wearily keeping her eyes toward the floor. For a lust-driven teenager who had sought what she wanted with complete indifference toward the cost to others, such angst is completely logical, allowing her behavior to seem natural, while her words deceive.

And who might be the writers who had all of these good ideas and wrote all these clever, complex scenes? They're Bill Motz and Bob Roth. This is their first Aladdin episode to air, and we'll be seeing a lot more of this writing duo.

Genie Watch: I'm delighted to say that this is actually one of his best showings yet! Motz and Roth seemed to have an especially keen sense of how versatile, eclectic, and fantastical his antics were in the original movie. On the flip side of the way that Genie came close to exhibiting his original "phenomenal, cosmic powers" in "Never Say Nefir" by changing when he saw fit to a gigantic size, for the duration of "Strike", he has an inclination for shrinking himself. In the opening scene, he, Iago, and Abu compose the peanut gallery chiding Aladdin for being the object of Jasmine's "dress-up" game, Genie manifests himself at a height comparable to Iago's, so that he's truly with them, on their "level". Several beats later, when Abu orchestrates the Royal Badge trick, Genie momentarily distracts Razoul while Abu plants the badge on Sadira by turning into what I think is a mosquito (a mosquito version of Genie, really) and buzzing around Razoul's head (and in one ear and out the other -- with this symbolic way of illustrating his opinion of Razoul, Genie is atypically written as subtle here!).

A variation of the "winged insect" stunt recurs during the underground battle with the sand monster: Genie changes not just himself, but the entire gang into flies, allowing them to evade the monster undetected. As you might expect, I like it when Genie is portrayed as knowing what he's doing and as not just getting results by using his powers, but when his powers actually seem like powers.

I also like that he actually holds his own against the sand monster, doing impressions and "routines" that are actually clever-funny, as opposed to stupid-funny: first, during the attack of the palace when Genie takes the form of a sword-wielding (I think) ancient Chinese warrior; then, in Sadira's lair, he actually gets the upper hand on and embarrasses the sand monster with his psychologist shtick (almost as good as his "heart-to-heart" talk with Nefir!). As I've said before, I'm okay with Genie not being able to overcome other magic, and so I find it especially logical that he is able to keep the sand monster in check -- including by running it through a flour sifter and perplexing it with a hardboiled detective impression -- but not destroy it, which can only be achieved by using the same amulet of the Witches of the Sand that created it.

Genie's taking the guise of a seasoned French "lover" to advise Aladdin on feminine wiles is one of the rare moments where, even if it's in jest and he's not actually making sense, the writers remember that Genie is Aladdin's friend. On the other hand, I'm surprised that they got away with Gay Hairdresser Genie, but I guess it was decided that kids wouldn't recognize the archetype anyway!

-- Ryan

Monday, March 30, 2015

Three "Strikes" ... hope I'm not out!

This will be the third "update" post in which I assure you that the "Strike Up the Sand" review is going to be posted soon ... but this time, really, honest, it's close! A pretty big chunk of it is written. Should be just a day or two. (Of course, I said that the first time...)

Here's Sadira striking down the sand ... or her sand monster, rather ...

-- Ryan

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What I've been watching: Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated and the '70's Hanna-Barbera "teams"...

Clearly, the "Strike Up the Sand" review is taking longer than I'd forecast. It's still on its way. Because this long wait between reviews is typical, and to turn the blog away from being so Aladdin exclusive, I'm going to start keeping the blog active with updates -- not full reviews -- on what I've recently been watching and reading. This is the first of those.

Recently, Joe Torcivia and David Gerstein tipped me off that the most recent TV series in the Scooby-Doo franchise, formally titled Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-13) was exceptionally good, doing a new spin on the infamous format and tropes of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969-70), parodying it but doing so respectfully, developing an ongoing continuity and a "mytharc", and giving the characters more ... characterization. It sounded up my alley, so I eagerly started watching.

I've definitely enjoyed it and have found much to appreciate and respect. However, a couple of days ago, I reached episode 14, "Mystery Solvers Club State Finals". In the teaser, we find Scooby clearly sick and bedridden. When Shaggy asks how he feels, Scooby sarcastically answers, "Never better." Not picking up on how Scooby's answers is obviously incongruous with his condition, Fred exclaims, "Great! I was worried there for a second we'd have to leave you behind!" "Fred!" Daphne responds, giving him a chastising dirty look. "What?" Fred protests. "The Mystery Solvers Club State Finals is tomorrow! Every team mystery-solving group from around the country will be there!"

At that, a bell went off in my head -- I was pretty sure what the episode was going to be. Wikipedia's description confirmed it: "Sick in bed right before the big Mystery Solvers Club State Finals, Scooby dreams about going to the competition and teaming up with fellow mystery-solver sidekicks Speed Buggy, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman and J. Wellington Mudsy Muddlemore to rescue their friends from the clutches of the demonic Lord Infernicus." Further, "An episode-long homage to the golden years of Hanna-Barbera, this installment is almost entirely animated in the same visual style as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. All the "sidekicks" featured are from Hanna-Barbera Productions shows that copied the basic mystery-solving/sidekick formula that Scooby-Doo pioneered."  

I of course familiar with those series (I grew up when Cartoon Network was largely reruns from the Hanna-Barbera back catalog, after all!), but have never really watched of them regularly. While I'm sure that I could go ahead, watch the episode, and still completely "get" it, I prefer to brush up on the source material first when it comes to crossovers. So, this weekend, I've downloaded (shh!)...

... The Funky Phantom (1971-72) ...

... Jabberjaw (1976-78) ...

... and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-80). (Especially excited about this one, as I loved this character as a child, from the Captain Caveman and Son segment on The Flintstone Kids. I only ever saw one episode of Teen Angels [maybe it was more than one, actually -- but for some reason, I remember it that way], on a Sunday morning as part of USA's Cartoon Express, and was thrilled to find out that Cap had his own, full half-hour show.)

Knowing that these shows tend to be repetitive, I figured that I'd only watching one or two of each, just to be freshly acquainted with them. However, despite all the continuity errors, logic gaps, and sloppiness, I found the first episode of The Funky Phantom enough to have watched a few more. It's nice to be watching "vintage" (perhaps that term should only applies to their works of the '60's) Hanna-Barbera again, warts and all.

I'm especially curious to see how the Mystery Incorporated episode's mimicking of the '70's Hanna-Barbera style came out. (It looks like the entire episode is going to be a dream sequence, conjured up in the ailing Scooby's mind, accounting for the change in aesthetics.) Also, I'm wondering why it was only these three mystery-solving, mascot-having H-B teams that join Scooby's gang? I was pretty sure there were a bunch more. And just a cursory Google search has yielded...

... Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973-75) ...

... and The New Shmoo (1979). (There might be copyright issues -- not sure who owns the rights to Al Capp's comic strip creation.)

There's also mystery-solving rock bands, who tended to not have non-human mascots, like...

...(of course) Josie and the Pussycats (1970-71)

... and Butch Cassidy (1973) and his band.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if some of the above groups (and others) do make visual cameos gathered at the competition, but just don't collaborate with Mystery, Inc. as part of the main plot like the featured guest stars do. (No spoilers!)

-- Ryan