Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New comic review: Back to the Future #1 (of 4) (IDW, October 2015)

Given the tight lock that long seems to have been kept on allowing official new iterations of the Back to the Future franchise, I was surprised to hear the announcement this past summer that IDW had a BttF comic book mini-series in the works. If it were any one of many other publishers, I'd have been wary, especially in the context of the recent wave of 2015-themed BttF media hype nostalgia, which has struck me as cheap and tacky (if inevitable). Though I couldn't be sure as to what would be the actual extent of Bob Gale's reported authorship of the comic, I could only take his involvement as a good sign, since not only did he write the damn movies, but by all appearances, he has over the past couple decades more so than anyone advocated for and strived to preserve the legacy of the franchise. (He really won me over when I heard him during a DVD commentary spiritedly insisting that he would never re-release any of the films with digital special effect revisions, disapprovingly alluding to the contentious behavior of one George Lucas.)

Given how tightly, integrally, and consummately the films were written and executed, each individually and all three taken as a whole, one would not be wrong-headed in considering any attempted sequel or spin-off ill-advised and expecting it to be extraneous and corrupting. Rest assured, going by his afterword to the first issue (which is what's being reviewed here), Gale has taken into this consideration and arrived at what I would concur is the best approach to this undertaking, boiling it down to a veritable mission statement: "No updates, no reboots, no 're-imaginging' of the characters. These were going to be THE characters." Gale makes it explicit that -- in a decision that might turn some off -- the focus is not going to be time travel, but "the characters and their stories".

Case in point, the self-explanatorily titled "When Marty Met Emmett", #1's 14-page lead story. I distinctly recall DVD commentary in which Gale explained how in the earliest phases of work on the original's screenplay, he and Zemeckis had a clear sense of Doc and Marty's relationship, mentioning that Marty had begun hanging around Doc because he liked being able to "use his amp". It's almost surprising that the movie didn't begin with its teenage protagonist's first encounter with this strange, mysterious figure as a way to establish intrigue. Instead, they took a "show, don't tell" approach -- only the most inept of viewers has ever failed to understand from the first scene that the amp is Marty's reason for hanging out with Doc.

Nonetheless, I'm sure I wasn't the only fan whose appetite was  whet by that bit of DVD commentary for the full details on Doc and Marty first being acquainted... and here, Gale and co-scripter John Barber deliver on the those off-the-cuff verbal teases. Yes, it's a straightforward, simple story, but it's no less nor more than what it should be, and most importantly, it hits all the right notes: Marty's antagonism from the obnoxious "Needles", along with Marty's trademark intolerance of being referred to as "chicken" are recalled/foreshadowed, as is his his electric-guitar-playing hobby. The latter, for story purposes, facilitates the specifics of a demand and deadline threateningly imposed by Needles, sending Marty on a quest for amplifier tubes that leads to Doc's garage, getting into which entails a Goldbergian obstacle course certainly worthy of Doc's nature. The build-up to the reveal of Doc plays off of both his being an elusive, dangerous figure of both urban legend and gossipy, judgmental scandal and rumor, and the fans' anticipating the appearance of a character they hold in high esteem. (Well, speaking for myself...)

Mindful of the tight-knit continuity of all three movies and the parameters they defined for Doc's story, "When Marty Met Emmett" is bookended by, er, a flashback-slash-flashforward that appears to be set in the early 1890's, with Doc preparing for the appearance he and his family make at the end of Part III and filling in some background info on the Brown family lineage and a bit about the history of Doc's house in the movies' 1955 scenes and how he wound up in his 1985 living situation, as further illuminated at the story's center. In his narrating, Doc incidentally skips over how he spent the 1940's, but rest assured, his mysterious, fantastical background alluded to in "When Met" is plunged into head-on with "Looking for a Few Good Scientists", the first part of a serial that looks as though it intends to bare all regarding Doc's involvement in the Manhattan Project, another enticing backstory tidbit brought up during DVD commentary.

Whereas Brent Schoonover's more matter-of-fact, stark-yet-pronounced, stiff-yet-animated art -- bringing to mind "indie"/"underground" cartoonists like those who have worked on American Splendor or perhaps Joe Sacco -- complements the domestic, sitcom-esque trappings of the lead story, Dan Schoening's sleek, dramaticized, cinematic art brings out the conspiracy-heavy, arcane, heightened-reality fantasticism of "Few Good Scientists". Harmoniously, the script, working off of Gale's treatment, is by Schoening's Ghostbusters collaborator, writer Erik Burnham, laying down the environment of academic esotericism and the paranoia-facilitating tiptoeing around elitist power-players and their soul-piercing stone-faced mind games that Schoening brings to life with such theatrical flare.

IDW's Back to the Future mini-series is decidedly on the right track, all indications being that the remaining issues shall be a good time, indeed.

-- Ryan

Friday, October 23, 2015

Comics review: Millennium #1-5 (complete mini-series, IDW, cover dates January-May 2015)

It's unfortunate but not unexpected that IDW's Millennium mini-series came and went receiving little recognition (and weak distribution, if the trouble I had getting #5 is any indication). By contrast, much like the original TV series did not enjoy as much popularity and longevity as its Ten Thirteen Productions sibling, The X-Files, IDW's The X-Files: Season 10 concluded earlier this year, immediately succeeded by the still-ongoing Season 11.

The greater tragic irony is that the Millennium and X-Files comics share the exact same writer: Joe Harris. Just as all things Mulder, Scully, and Cancer Man are concerned, Harris' knowledge and understanding of Millennium's mythology, continuity, characters, and themes, as well as its general episode format and its script and production conventions is impeccable, showing that his appreciation of The X-Files runs so deep that it extends to its creators' other productions. And as he's done with Ten Thirteen's flagship franchise, in Millennium's five issues, Harris uses his familiarity of the source material and his skill as a writer to present a completely logical scenario for the series' character and the world surrounding them to have arrived at 15 years on, resuming the narrative threads of the show's mytharc to tell a story that's new but feels an awfully lot like the original show -- in a very, very good way.

Given the show's more fantastical elements, another writer might be inclined to "go big" and do the apocalyptic epic that some fans feel the show was building to but never got to do, and wind up with a disappointment, if not an utter mess. Harris knows that a manageable less-is-more approach works better. The mini-series open with Frank pursuing a case involving a psychopathic criminal, a series of devastating child deaths, and a tinge of the supernatural -- not unlike the average episode, or, if you will, Millennium's equivalent of X-Files' many Monster-of-the-Week entries. But said supernatural element, by teasing Frank with some portents that hit the right buttons and setting him on a new course, turns out to be a plot device to take things to the next level by bringing on the mytharc stuff. 

The 15 years that have elapsed since the series ended work to Harris' advantage, picking up with a Frank who -- with complete plausibility -- has grown not just elderly but nomadic and even more isolated than he already had been. This allows Harris to tease at and build to all the things the fans are waiting for: Frank's return to Seattle and the iconic yellow house of seasons one and two, his first confrontation with the Millennium Group presumably since the finale episode, his poignant reunion with Jordan, and finally, the Big One: a showdown with his arch-nemesis, Lucy Butler. ("She's always a big hit with your circle, Frank.") Harris has all of the bases covered, and (switching metaphors) he not only plays all of the right notes, he plays them with the touch of a maestro. As a fan, I truly feel that though the mini-series seemed to end far too soon, I couldn't have been more satisfied with it.

Seeing an ashen Frank living in solitude in a shoddy hotel was bad enough, but the revelation that Jordan as an adult not only harbors deep resentment of her father, but that in cold defiance of him, she has joined and become loyal to the Millennium Group, is absolutely devastating. As heartbreaking as it is, it's wildly appropriate, given the show's hints that Jordan had inherited Frank's gifts, and an ingenious new iteration of a theme introduced on day one, in the pilot: Frank's involvement with the Group encroaching on his family and tearing them apart.

I can't resist listing some of the iconic, self-referencing, fan-baiting moments (trust me, they worked!): 1. Frank logging into his Millennium Group desktop software, uttering the "Soylent Green is people" passphrase for the first time since season two. 2. Our first sight of the (formerly) yellow house since season two, now in symbolic disrepair. 3. Issue #4 ending with the ultimate tease, the cloaked old woman mockingly telling Mulder, "Tell [Frank] Lucy says hi." 4. Frank stating, "I'll need a vehicle" as he sets out to rescue Mulder, and then, in the very next panel, remarking with much understatement, "This'll do" as he approaches a red Jeep Cherokee exactly like the one drove throughout the series.

From the miscellane
ous "former law enforcement" freelancers of season one to the hooded-and-cloaked occult ritual participants seen in season two, the exact makeup of the Millennium Group's membership body and hierarchy was always decidedly vague. The men-in-black-type operatives, the claustrophobic, dimly-lit roundtable meeting, the ornate yet archaic furnishings of Quentin McKittrick's office (which I think is within a high-rise, which means that he's really going for something with the blood-red cushioning of his austere wooden chair and the two rapiers cross-mounted on the wall above a fireplace with an active fire) might be cliché and Dan Brown-esque, but, hey, they work.

Millennium's viability as a franchise is questionable, to say the least (which is why we should be grateful that these comics happened at all), and given how on the first issue cover, Frank stands side-by-side with The X-Files' Mulder, there were some decision-makers who felt the same way. Frankly (no pun intended), I can't blame them, nor would I had they opted to slap the X-Files title logo somewhere on the cover, but to their credit, they avoided being that tacky. However, rather than being an intrusion, Mulder's presence in the story delivers yet another fans'-dream-made-true: a proper Fox Mulder-Frank Black team-up that actually does justice to both characters, unlike the crossover that occurred during X-Files seventh season. (If you look at an episode list, you can probably deduce that it's the one called "Millennium".)

Whereas there, Frank spent most of the episode sitting around on his ass in the mental ward he'd checked himself into (huh?), here, we see them in action together, following a lead and then chasing what they think is a fleeing killer. (Oh, and later, Frank took out a bunch of zombies with a shotgun, which was weird, because he rarely ever used a gun on his own show.) Whereas the crossover episode didn't even acknowledge their mutual background as criminal profilers, Harris fleshes out their shared universe with some new backstory work, connecting them both to the Monte Propps case, which in fact is a clever expansion of a detail mentioned in passing in an X-Files episode. (I hadn't even realized this until the Internet pointed it out to me -- Harris truly leaves no stone unturned!) And making up for their minimal interaction in the TV crossover, Frank and Mulder interplays finds both of them in top, quintessential form -- communication between the two is prickly and stilted, the no-nonsense Frank repeatedly being short in reaction to Mulder's wry sarcasm, and Mulder bewildered when Frank proceeds to act without telling Mulder what he's thinking, so focused on finding Jordan and keeping her away from the Group.

Re: Lucy seducing Mulder -- given his pornography vice, it makes sense that unlike Frank, he would quickly give into Lucy's wiles!

Though Frank is innately brooding and solitary (hence why I identify with him!), all indications are that if his sister hadn't been abducted, Mulder would be a "well-adjusted", baseball-loving, skirt-chasing everyday guy. Yet despite their stylistic differences, both chose singular, all-consuming career paths -- so much so that they wall each other off, Frank with his stone-faced disposition, Mulder with his all of his flippant remarks. But I'd like to think that there's an unspoken respect and understanding between them. In fact, Frank's concern upon learning that Mulder's in Lucy's clutches, describing him to Jordan as "a friend", is a quietly heartwarming moment.

The Lone Gunmen making a cameo to help Mulder crack the Millennium Group's encryption, Langly remarking that he's heard rumors in the hacking community that the Group's members use movie quotes as passphrases, held special meaning to me, as the nerdy tech guru Roedecker, who'd set Frank up with his "Soylent Green is people" login in the first place, always struck me as Millennium's equivalent of the Gunmen. In fact, I'd always thought that if there were a full-fledged crossover, they should share at least one scene. As the character was killed off at the end of season two, having Langly acknowledge the movie quote passphrases probably isn't a coincidence, but Harris getting as close as possible to a formal meeting of the nerds. That it instead occurs in a quiet almost spiritual, between-the-lines way that only a fan like me would pick up on makes it bittersweet and all the more respectable.

Colin Lorimer's stark, dour ("gritty" would work, too, but it's overused) realism and the bleak moods created by his shading work well for Millennium. He does an admirable job of translating Frank's (and now Jordan's) heavily stylized "vision flashes", a staple of the show, into a comic format. Colorist Joana Lafuente deserves a lot of the credit here, as it's the abstract layers of color over what would otherwise be "regular" drawings that make these equivalent to the way that they were done on the show. (However, to no fault of Lorimer's, I'm not sure if they work in comics -- having to work them into a page layout makes the transitions in and out of "vision" less clear-cut.)

A few years ago, when the fan-driven "Back to Frank Black" Internet campaign for a new Millennium film or TV production was at its most active, I saw some detractors argue that since the year 2000 is now well-behind us, there'd be no point to revisiting Millennium, because -- they claimed -- the whole show hinged upon anticipation of the year 2000. In actuality, the show never even said, let alone promised, that anything in particular was going to happen at the turn of the (...you-know-what). What the show did do, in its earliest days, was allude to Evil's unseen hand directing the portions of humanity it was able to sink its hooks into, once or twice vaguely suggesting that Frank was getting so many gigs because Evil's influence was growing. "Things are getting worse and worse, and the whole world could go to hell any minute now" seemed to be the basic underlying sentiment.

But if Millennium were made during the Great Depression, the WWII era, the Cold War era, or, er the NSA-and-ISIS era, would not its gloom-and-doom orientation seem but a reflection of reality? I believe there was little more to the show's title than the producers seeking a timely hook. In any other era, they could have just called it Zeitgeist, and the title's function would be the same, except in that it wouldn't be dating itself.

The graceful, lyrical "voiceover" coda that brings the mini-series to its close underscores what Harris had just been accomplished: the series' dual nature, preoccupied with both existential human angst and the unseen influence upon humanity by the opposing spiritual forces of light and dark, has been embraced as timeless; and Frank and Lucy were approached and handled as the manifestation of age-old, undying archetypes, while staying completely true to their original characterizations on TV.

The very final word used in this wrap-up narration is a play on the franchise's title, recasting it in light of a millennium being a very long span of time. What should you take away from that? That the content and subject matter of Millennium is too good and too BIG to write off for good just because of a stupid, tacky Dick Clark countdown to a stupid, tacky "ball drop" that was live on national TV several months after the show ended. There was no reason for the passing of such a pointless few moments to preclude catching back up with Frank and Jordan, finding out what's become of the Millennium Group, and seeing Frank triumph over lucy in a battle of their wills. And I'm certainly glad it didn't.

-- Ryan

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

New comic review: Mickey Mouse #312 (IDW, August 2015)

Mickey Mouse #312 marks the first occasion of IDW continuing the tradition begun by Gladstone and continued in succession by Disney Comics (primarily post-Implosion), Gemstone, and the pre-IDW licensee: presenting as the lead feature in an issue of an ongoing comic book title a reprint of a classic American Disney comic book story that had originally appeared in an issue of another (or sometimes the same) ongoing comic book title. (Yes, Western was reprint-heavy from the '60's through the '80's, but it was Gladstone that really made celebrated, contextualized reprints a regular thing.) I've appreciated as much as anyone how to date IDW's Disney line has been dominated by so much material brand-new to these shores, but I'm glad and grateful that a place has been made for also upholding this tradition (which in American comics, is a unique purview of ours, the only major exception that I can think of being DC's late-Silver-and-Bronze-Age "100-Page Spectacular" special issues).

Jonathan Gray's rich, explosive "
Mysterious Crystal Ball"-based
cover for Mickey Mouse #312

Though even many of the more adventure-oriented (whether they take place on locomotives, or in the desert or jungle) Paul Murry-drawn Mickey serials from WDC&S can be classified in the procedural genre, as the plots almost always involve Mickey unraveling a mystery and in the end nabbing the "common criminal" crooks/swindlers behind it, "The Mysterious Crystal Ball" is overtly a police/detective procedural. What distinguishes it is its magic and supernatural themes, although true to these stories', errr, grounded nature, all of the magic and supernatural-ness is a hoax perpetrated by the story's villains, who are... "common criminal" crook/swindlers. If anything, the villains' convoluted and tedious-to-execute but bare-bones scheme and methods for deceiving and diverting Mickey and the police from a plain ol' bank robbery, errr, elegant in their simplicity. The narrative is almost definitively straightforward, textbook, patchwork crime-detective genre fare -- if only the real world's crimes and the solving and stopping of them were so neat-and-tidy and cut-and-dry! ...that is, once the villains' plan is laid bare.

(Really, for one night, the entirety of the Mouseton PD's manpower was invested in these thugs' shenanigans! Bless their hearts that this was as bad as things got in the Murry-drawn Mouseton, and that they weren't cynical enough to think to contrive a search warrant for the swami's tent to nip the whole thing in the bud!) In fact, the only thing that make the whole operation remotely elaborate is the live broadcasts -- twenty years later, they could have just pre-taped all of it with a home video camera! (Actually, since they had the ability to play films in the crystal ball, given the zoo instance, why didn't they just film everything?)

Still, a fair degree of story craft is evident, given that up until the scene in which the plan was explained, it wasn't apparent (at least to me) what exactly they were up to. It's just that, as can be generally said of most of Western's Mickey Mouse stories, the storytelling is dry and not very dynamic. But as a fan, I enjoy and appreciate them, "Mysterious Crystal Ball" included, in their place and for what they are.

I enjoyed the antics of "Shamrock Bones from WDC 164". As a comic relief-oriented peripheral active doppelganger to Mickey for the duration of a case, he actually reminded me of Casey in "Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot"... except that Bones actually had a hand in the case's success

I can't help but comment on a note Inducks made on this reprint: "Detective's gun replaced by truncheon on page 6" (of Part Three). Really? It's not okay for one of the good guys to shoot back at the bad guys? Even when he's working with the police, if not police himself?

[Update: I mistakenly had in mind a panel other than the one that Inducks was referring to. In the panel that they actually WERE referring to, Bones was actually shooting at the bad guys as they fled, not "shooting back" at anyone, so my criticism was erroneous. See 1.) Hex's comment below on the changes made to the story for Mickey #312, and especially see 2.) his detailed post at his own blog exhibiting side-by-side comparisons of the original and this reprint. He mentions and links to said post below, and I'm also link to it here.]

As a string of gags (eighteen days' worth, in fact), I wouldn't consider Colette Bezzio and Rick Hoover's "Ecks and Doublex Reform" (from the Mickey Mouse syndicated newspaper strip, 1994-95, and teased in Vol. 2 of Fantagraphics' Gottfredson collection) to be a full-fledged sequel to the truly classic "Blaggard Castle", but the manic, kooky behavior of the professors (both reformed and un-reformed) is spot-on. Kudos, Colette and Rick!

"The 'Lawn'atic", this issue's ancient British relic (1938, actually) features an atypically neurotic Goofy, but I actually really liked this gag, which is perhaps the closest I've ever seen a Disney comic come to Curb Your Enthusiasm. Surprising, considering its age! But I guess that's because "[a] strong theme of sarcasm and self-deprecation, often with deadpan delivery, runs throughout British humour."

And lest I forget there's two more Walsh-Gonzalez Mickey Mouse Sundays (from '50 and '53, respectively) featuring Ellsworth. In he first, Mickey leaves the roughneck, sarcastic mynah in Goofy's care, and in the second, Horace's. Ellsworth causes upheaval in both residences, with Horace decidedly finding it more grating. Both strips are as unpredictable, rowdy, original, and clever as Ellsworth himself is.

-- Ryan

New comic review: Donald Duck #371 (IDW, August 2015)

Receiving top billing in this issue is "The Perfect Calm", a 1974 story written by Rodolfo Cimino and drawn by Romano Scarpa. I haven't seen very much of Scarpa's work from this era, but there's a decided contrast between Dave Alvarez' cover representing "Calm" (above), which nearly could be a still from a fully-animated Disney production, and the 40-years-older story's art, which looks more UPA-esque (especially some of the incidental and background characters). Oh, and in a couple of panels, I would have taken Donald for being Al Hubbard's.

The story itself actually reminds me of the more satiric episodes of DuckTales' second season, such as "The Big Flub" and "My Mother the Psychic", specifically because of the shared motif (with Flub) of Donald/Fenton introducing a mega-popular, incredibly lucrative new craze of some sort to society that runs away with itself to the point of evolving into a mass catastrophe ("Flub") and the shared premise of Scrooge exploiting a "mystic" individual for profit ("Psychic"). Also, the lighthearted spoofing of Eastern mysticism evokes the satiric quality of those episodes and the second season in general. In fact, the way that the adventure scenes are played in a more farcical (and here, very silly) way and are used as a means to set up the major events of the story involving calamity at home in Duckburg brings season two to mind, "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Webby" in particular.

My only real criticism of the story is that it would have been thematically stronger to pave the way for Donald's introduction to the Perfect Calm with a series of increasingly and extremely unfortunate events that push him to brink of rage, rather than the mopey "Woe is me" Donald who meets his mentor in jail after merely one little pedestrian sidewalk accident. Perhaps Joe Torcivia -- who peppered the nephews' dialogue with a lot of wry asides and zingers at the expense of their uncle, and I suspect is wholly responsible for the non sequitur (briefly) running joke about, er jokes (of the goat variety) -- could fill us in as to whether there was a "Day of Gifts" in the original story, or if there was some other reason everyone was walking around at the beginning of the story holding wrapped gifts!

[Update: See Joe Torcivia's comment below -- he confirms that the "Day of Gifts" was in the original version, urging, "Give that proper credit to Cimino (and perhaps Scarpa?)"]

Speaking of presents, another ancient British relic by Wilfred Haughton is presented to us, in the form of 1937's"Hampered!"  As crude as they are and as off as the characterizations can be, I love seeing these, and find them quite interesting historically. Case in point re: characterization, here, Mickey is indifferent, even callous, to Morty and Ferdie in a way that I would only expect of the early Donald toward his nephews. As Mickey is in fact in cohort with the early Donald himself for the duration of this strip, perhaps his belly ache-prone pal had rubbed off on him for the moment. 

Don Christensen and Paul Murry's very nice "Chore Chump" (1962) features a rare comic book appearance by Ludwig Von Drake in which his erudite, elitist tendencies are apparent. Though it may seem more like Scrooge's department to disapprove of Gus Goose's aversion to working, period (not just harder than hardies), it makes sense that Ludwig would frown upon Gus' atrophy as a whole, not just intellectual (Ludwig's prerogative). Of course, Grandma is sharp-witted, too, but doesn't flaunt it, and so her getting the best of Ludwig in the end, unofficially punishing him for basically inducing in him via hypnotism a permanent state akin to the effects of Adderall at their peak (until he undid it), hits an especially sweet, wry, and understated final note.

-- Ryan

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New comics review: Uncle Scrooge #408-409 (IDW, July and August 2015)

As far as I'm aware, with its two-part serialization in Uncle Scrooge #408 and 409, "The Grand Canyon Conquest" (titled as such for the U.S.) is the fourth (of six) stories to have been printed in English from the Abenteuer aus Onkel Dagoberts Schatztruhe (Adventures [from out of?] Uncle Scrooge's Treasure Chest) series.

Sweetening the deal in a mighty fitting and serendipitous way, "Grand Canyon"'s auteur, Miquel Pujol (per Inducks, he wrote the first five of the Treasure Chest stories, this being the fifth and the only one that he also drew) created and provided IDW with original covers for both issues:

(In fact, per Inducks, Pujol drew the first five in the Treasure Chest series, but this is the only one that he also wrote.)

The premise of “Grand Canyon Conquest” surely owes a debt to Barks’ renowned “Horseradish Story” – note the similarities: a surly stranger claiming to be an old acquaintance (in this case, of Scrooge; in “Horseradish”, of a McDuck ancestor) shows up out of nowhere claiming to have legal rights to everything that Scrooge owns (or, in this case, half of that), spurring a race to find the MacGuffin that will vindicate Scrooge. Whereas “Horseradish” opens with McSue paying a call on Scrooge and presenting his case, “Grand Canyon” picks up after the equivalent exchange between Scrooge and Blair Dunwitty has already taken place, as a panicked, frantic Scrooge shows up on Donald and the nephews’ doorstep in the middle of the night (a dark and stormy night, even, for dramatic effect – say, didn’t I write almost the same sentence in a recent review?), seeking their assistance (as is requisite of an Uncle Scrooge adventure) in solving the Blair Dunwitty dilemma.

Coming out of the gates running, the emergency already in effect and Scrooge taking action (even if he isn’t yet sure what to do with all his energy) and igniting a fire under his nephews' tail feathers to get them to join in, is a good way to quickly hook the reader, and the comic relief embedded in this opening scene (Donald’s cynicism toward and resistance of Scrooge and his offer; and then, when we relocate to the bin, the flustered Miss Quackfaster, who the in-crisis-mode Scrooge has kept working all night) is not only funny, but by reinforcing some of what makes the respective characters tick, makes the proceedings more intimate for the reader. However, on the subject of character depth, between Blair’s spoiled frat boy vibe and his twerpy sidekick whom we meet as part of Scrooge’s hotel staff, actually a double agent planted by Blair, they may be just smart enough to have pulled together a plan that genuinely threatens Scrooge, but they come off as a bit in over their head…as opposed to Chisel McSue, who though he was underhanded and low, was sly and cunning enough to come off as a relatively sinister menace.

Pujol's art -- which might be likened to a quirkier Vicar (at least in terms of his ducks), as it certainly isn't as quirky as, say, Cavazzano's -- is quite rich, inspired, and lively. Deft at both comedic (see the backpackers getting a surprise from the runaway boat) and dramatic action (see the anguished Scrooge in the opening scene, the furtive slinking about of the villains, and the determination of the ducks when they give chase to said villains), the flair to the momentum from Pujol's pen strokes carries the story with a smooth, fast but steady flow. That's especially to his credit seeing that this story appears to have been created for European audiences as a vehicle for a “tour of the American southwest” showcase. Despite what one would expect to be distractions (the appearance of “Golden Age” Hollywood stars in the L.A. club that Donald and the nephews find too expensive for their taste and the gratuitous Disneyland ride chase scene – to say nothing of the continuity questions raised by the costume versions of Mickey and Goofy seen in the park!), the ducks are always trying to solve the mystery surrounding Blair's claim and or/chasing him, and so to the story’s credit, it never loses the plot or the momentum initiated in the above-discussed opening.    

In fact, between the Disneyland rides and, at the climax, the ducks’ decidedly wilder, death-defying, unpredictable ride that traverses – precariously -- several fronts set in the wonder of nature named in the title, the story has a certain amusement park-type of fun to it; I was originally thinking “popcorn movie”. And speaking of movies, at 44 pages and in the four-tiers-per-page format, for a duck comic, this is almost a feature film (or, say, a novel). I enjoyed following Donald and the nephews once Scrooge had sent them to check into the hotel to do their reconnaissance work – maybe it’s because the scene had more room to stretch its legs, or the story beats were more fleshed out, than would be the case in a standard-length story, but Donald and the boys almost felt like real people in the real world. (The intended realism of the story’s settings may have been factor in this, too.) And the apropos comic relief – much of it stemming from the budget allotted them by Scrooge not being sufficient for the expenses they run into – added a great deal of charm, and like the afore-discussed comic relief in the opening sequence, added another dimension to the palette, making it far from flat.  
Getting back to that showstopper of a “wild ride” – it actually bore a striking resemblance to the epic, tumultuous gondola flight/sled ride (which escalated into a tumultuous iceberg ride) of Don Rosa’s “Last Sled to Dawson”, which this story predates by two years! The coincidence gets odder: “Canyon”’s flashbacks to Scrooge and Owen Dunwitty's days as young prospectors evoked the Klondike set Scrooge-Cornelius Coot flashback of “Last Sled” on a level off the charts! I’m not suggesting any borrowing on Rosa’s part – this story hasn’t been printed in the U.S. until now, and he’s recounted how when he first ran into some of the earliest Gladstone comics in a store, it was his first encounter with new Disney comics since the ‘70’s (indicating that in the ‘80’s, he wasn’t reading European Disney comics). As I called it above, it’s just a coincidence, and a very compelling one, at that.

In the backup stories department, both issues deliver some choice rarities. Re: #408, in Al Hubbard's "Belle Corners the Coin Collection", created in 1967 for the Disney Studio program, we meet an old flame from Scrooge's youth who has grown into a quite brassy southern belle (and physically, grown to proportions of which there's quite a bit more than Scrooge remembered). Anticipating their reunion, Scrooge raves to the nephews that he'd found Belle to be his kind of girl simply because she had money -- but as a heiress, you'd think he'd want to teach her about earning money, just like he did with Goldie! Love is nearsighted, I believe the saying goes....

In #409's "The Inventors' Picnic", a Gyro Gearloose story by Freddy Milton (whom we don't see enough of), all of the pompous, jerk members of the inventors society are put in their place when Gyro rigs up on the fly a fantastical way of saving their lives from a flood. It's especially nice to see Gyro get his due when he's so humble, as reinforced by his being oblivious to the ingenuity of the inventions he provides Daisy, Donald, and Scrooge in the scenes preceding the picnic. (It was nice of those three characters to show up at the picnic to vouch for Gyro, even though in their function here, each comes off as notably more selfless than usual.) And as anxious as Gyro had been about receiving his peers' approval, he isn't driven to improvise the literal lifeline that he provides out of spite, but because he just doesn't want to see anyone die. He's a good egg, that Gearloose kid.

"Picnic" is followed by "Enter the Dragon" (written by Frank Jonker and Paul Hoogma, drawn by Bas Heymans), which depicts a McDuck ancestor that in one respect had none of Scrooge's values, but certainly had his drive and zeal. I got a kick out of the Viking equivalents of Donald and the nephews, who, though more barbaric than their likenesses, echo their descendants in opting to spend their money on fun, much to their uptight, frugal uncle's disapproval. 

Both issues close with a one-page gag from the writer artist team of Alberto Savini and Freccero, both of which are funny, clever, original bits in the “Scrooge takes his penny-pinching to silly extremes” tradition begun by Barks. However, in using perspectives so as to conceal the gag until the last panel, “Winning Washout” was a bit confusing as to where Scrooge actually was and what he was doing at certain points. My one question about “Going Places”: Scrooge actually said that he would dispose of the used materials if he was renovating? :D

-- Ryan

Monday, September 21, 2015

New comic review: Donald Duck #370 (IDW, July 2015)

"The Siege of Nothing Atoll" (this titular pun I'm assuming is the work of Thad Komorowski, the story's English dialogue scribe [Edit: It's not Thad's! See his comment below.]), dating from 1976, is much earlier than most of the Cavazzano-drawn stories that we've seen lately, only a few years out from his original gig as Romano Scarpa's inker (which lasted from 1961-71, per Inducks).

Apparently, at this point, Cavazzano had not yet developed the more blocky, jagged style that he is known for: the line work here has a sketch-like but fluid quality and is richly inked, and I would go so far as to describe the poses as squash-and-stretch, as they're about as close to being animated as they can get without actually being animated... and by "poses," I'm not just talking the characters: what should be solid, unyielding objects and geological structures are personified and characterized with human behaviors. (Well, okay, the mad scientist had actually built his island, which I guess accounts for the volcano's belching and other utterances.)

After the story's mysterious, intriguing setup, which actually takes place on a dark and stormy night at an airfield, the atmospherics played up in Cavazzano's eerily-lit "sets", the plot is as simple as can be: Donald and Fethry track the source of Scrooge's missing planes to... not a sea monster eating Scrooge's ice cream, but a mad scientist's faux island base, where they find he's planning to take over the world... from which they stop him by blowing up the island. Really, that's it! The mad scientist, cackling and boasting with much bravado of his as-basic-as-they-come world takeover ambition and scheme, epitomizes and even overdoes the "mad" part of his job description -- more so than any other mad scientist I've seen in quite some time. The gleam in his eyes and the gape in his front teeth make him look more like an escaped mental patient than the usual backstory of a respected scientist who cracked -- it's not that hard to imagine that his long white lab coat is actually a straightjacket, of which he'd managed to untangle and modify the sleeves.

That's not to say that the story isn't a fun read, though -- it is, largely because, visually, it's a sheer, unabashed delight, thanks to Cavazzano's dynamic, sizzling art: there's numerous splash panels, all of which are so vast in scope and intricate in the action (barely) contained therein, they're a veritable sensory overload to behold. Visually, the cinematic tropes hit the rights notes for an espionage-tinged sci-fi adventure, from the urgently scrambling and bewildered air traffic control crew handling an atypical emergency to the villain's laboratory-cum-missile-silo lair, which has a Cold War Bond-ian feel to it. (In the former scene, I loved the dead-serious, intolerant-of-mistakes Scrooge snapping at the crew and acting like lives are at stake -- even though the pilots of the downed planes have all returned safely -- and then collapsing into jelly when he realizes that the unseen enemy has seized one of his planes yet again.) Surprisingly, Fethry doesn't get to annoy Donald very much in this story, but as with the T.N.T. stories, sending them on a duo mission has a charming "buddy flick"-esque road trip feel to it. The Looney Tunes-esque "blackout" gag sequence encompassing Donald's successive attempts to breach the villain's island were especially fitting, given that the story's dominated by squash-and-stretch-esque visuals. I could go for more like this!

 As I always try to note, with their backup features Gerstein and his editorial team make it a point to account for the "classic" era of American Disney comics. Here, they deliver with a rather good two-page Al Taliaferro gag from Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #102 (1949) in which Donald tries to cut corners in his garbage disposing, which he finds decidedly not to have been worth it when punishment is dished out upon him by a fed-up citizen. (Although, life ever treating him unfairly, Donald is being blamed for a bunch of stuff that others did before him, and to which the severity of the punishment is roughly proportionate, rather than to his meager, one-time [to date, admittedly] offense.)

I honestly didn't realize that Taliaferro had created gags like this one exclusively for WDC&S; I've always thought they were reformatted Sunday pages.

-- Ryan

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

New comic review: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #721 (IDW, July 2015)

July 2nd, 2015: The Phantom Blot commanded the spotlight on the covers of not one but two comics released on this date! (I already covered the other one, Mickey Mouse #311, here.) I'm not sure if this was completely unprecedented in the history of American Disney comics, but it seems to me a pretty good wager.

Between Dave Alvarez' suave, flamboyant, slick take on the Blot fronting MM #311 and Jonathan Gray's more ominous, wraith-like Blot expressionlessly, (presumably) silently beckoning us within WDC&S #721, we have two markedly distinct Blot "essences", both of which, I'd argue, are rooted in the original Gottfredson story.

...but, wait, we haven't even touched on the rest of Gray's cover! The Blot centerpiece separates A) a busy, crowded, detailed, fiery, breathtaking, monumental, mysticism-tinged illustration featuring Mickey, Goofy and the ol' gang, from B) a rendering -- with much those same qualities -- of Donald and Scrooge in the company of their gang. (You have to squint to see both of these panoramas, though, as this cover is anything if not crammed!) Ah, well, surely, the deal here must be that the cover is giving equal space to this issue's duck story and its mouse story, right? And perhaps the Blot is the villain in both (as unusual as that would be for a duck story), hence how he's positioned at the axis point between them!

...NOPE! If you're reading this, I' going to assume that you're at least as up to speed on the subject as I am, if not more so (which, especially if you're from Europe, you may be). "Long a Disney classic in Italy" per David Gerstein's July Crosstalk, and a veritable "legendary Disney epic" per IDW's soliciting, the twelve-chapter "Search for the Zodiac Stone", originally serialized in Topolino from January to March 1990 (remember, they get twelve issues for twelve weeks), from what I gather, has quite the rep in certain circles for being an epic mouse-duck crossover that spans the furthest reaches of space and time. And as a Disney comic fan who can hold my own in a discussion about the vast sociological and philosophical truths encapsulated in the subtle craftsmanship of any given Barks 10-pager but who has secretly (okay, at certain points in my fandom record, not so secretly) always fantasized about the Disney duck-mouse comic book universe's own version of Crisis on Infinite Earths, my fanboy id is totally psyched for this story. (Though perhaps it'd be better likened to a Rocky and Bullwinkle serial, which wouldn't be a bad thing!)

The first installment is wholly functional and adequate insofar as setting the stage and getting the ball rolling. (And there are no ducks or Blot present; Gray's cover is looking ahead.) The opening, though it overtly expresses "epic", "cosmic" ambitions (unorthodoxically and boldly joining Mickey and Goofy on an already underway and [nearly] completed time travel mission; establishing a centuries-old secret society-based conspiracy that aspiring Illuminati-themed YouTube documentary filmmakers wish they had mere scraps of source material on) plays out quite procedurally and literally. The dry, step-by-step, linear progression of the detective narrative that ensues, from identifying two Zodiac Society descendants through to figuring out the real function of one of the brothers' seemingly superstitious, eccentric "good luck" rituals (...and like we didn't know that outdoor fish tank and the butler's description of his master's coin-tossing routine were brought up for a reason!) hasn't exactly left me waiting with bated breath for the next installment... but I'm actually far more of an idealist than I am a cynic, so I'm still eagerly looking forward to the remaining vast bulk (11/12ths!) of this story that's barely gotten underway. I'm in no position to talk about its craft, but from what I do know, the next 11 issues are going to be fun, especially in the trustworthy hands of Gray, Gerstein, et al. In fact, whether or not the story lives up to its "rep", under their stewardship, I am already completely confident that it is worthy enough of the Walt Disney's Comics and Stories legacy so as to absorb a year's worth of issues.

(I'm just hoping that if the serial really does stick to a "one-Zodiac-Stone-fragment-per-chapter formula, that each installment is individually strong enough to make up for such a skeletal framework.)

The afore-cited July Crosstalk promises that for the duration of its run, "Zodiac Stone" won't be it for WDC&S and that there will be room for material in the "classics" vein. As proof, #721 delivers a Walt Kelly Gremlins gag, a 1933 Silly Symphonies Sunday starring Bucky Bug at his most quaintly charming (and I mean that), and best of all, a new-to-the-U.S. 1982 Jippes-Milton-Verhagen Donald Duck 10-pager with razor-pointed art that befits all of the pain and suffering that poor Donald endures throughout, but also befits the sting his nemeses feel and the acidity with which he beams when, in the end, he comes out on top.

-- Ryan