Wednesday, October 7, 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?

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!

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

Monday, August 31, 2015

New comic review: Mickey Mouse #311 (IDW, July 2015)

When a few months ago I first saw Dave Alvarez' delicious, delectable cover prominently displaying the Phantom Blot in all his glory, Mickey Mouse #311 immediately became one of my most eagerly anticipated of the issues of IDW's first summer of Disney.

For a 33-page story, which is on the long side by Disney comics standards, it's surprising how little of a plot there is to it: the primary conflict is Mickey's altered (in fact, enhanced, but in a way that often seems more like a hindrance) hearing. Though his condition is caused at the story's beginning during a scuffle with the Blot, it's by complete accident, not at all intended by the "black-cloaked blaggard". (Kudos, Torcivia!) Later, the Blot takes advantage of the situation, making things hairier for Mickey... but by not showing what the Blot is doing and how, and the ambiguity about whether or not any of it is in fact the Blot's doing, holding off on the big reveal -- via a gloating Blot soliloquy that precipitates the hero and villain's final showdown -- makes the story read confusingly and disjointedly. The specs of said soliloquy of revelation illustrate a scheme contrived and cobbled together on a "winging it" level never before attained (or stooped down to?) by the Blot. There's so little to it, the story doesn't even ever build to that much of a climax; Mickey just all of the sudden puts everything together and we make a clean break in cutting right to the aforementioned final showdown. The way that Mickey surprises the Blot by nonchalantly strutting into his hideout as he delivers his aforementioned soliloquy is funny, but Mickey's explanation as to how he seemingly magically found the hideout is another one of the story's forced, head-scratching-inducing shortcuts that you kind of have to just put out of mind to go on reading.

All that said, I actually like the story(!) After all, hey, it's the Phantom Blot! Thanks in large part to Cavazzano, the story is a whole lot of fun, with the hyperactivity of his art engendering a bold, sweeping dynamics and the illusion of rapid pacing. Also, I'm getting to really like Cavazzano's Mickey, drawn with certain quirks and details that make him one of the most attractive pupil-eyed Mickeys I've ever seen. The deftness of Cavazzano's dazzling dynamics especially enhance the bookend pair of Mickey-Blot slug-fests, which are presented as archetypal confrontations between our staunch detective hero and his most formidable arch-nemesis. The laboratory setting of the first battle and especially the clock tower setting of the one at the climax take things over the top aesthetically, really playing up the whole arch-villain thing. I've taken issue in the past with how all non-Gottfredson takes on the Blot have forgotten that he was a foreign spy with a very specific mission and cast him as an all-purpose super-villain, but as I'm several decades too late with that complaint, showing him without the hood through the whole story and playing up his penchant for disguises (besides his usual one, that is) and for building things (it's not just death traps anymore!) is a good consolation prize. Torcivia's several references to the death traps sweeten the deal, too. 

Like the original Blot story, this one is heavy on Mickey working with Chief O'Hara, much to the (though he won't admit it) envy of Detective Casey, story choices that to me go a long way in creating the "feel" of a Phantom Blot story. Casey's reassignment to traffic cop is a legitimately funny new spin on his comic relief role in the original, where, repeatedly, his bravado only made the embarrassment of his bungling all the worse. Casey's hooting and hollering over Mickey and the Blot's brawl brought to mind Sgt. Bullock's emphatic ravings as he witnessed Azrael-as-Batman take down Bane in the "Knightfall" story line. This brought me a certain satisfaction, as I've always considered that as Bullock is to Gordon, Casey is to O'Hara, and I've always considered Gottfredson's original Blot story the closest a Mickey Mouse story ever got to being a Batman story.

With these characterizations (the Blot, O'Hara, Casey) and with the emphasis on Mickey's friendships with "the ol' gang", writer Bruno Enna plays into and with the audience's familiarity with the respective cast, playing a fresh, new variation of an old song, so to speak. Though the Mickey denunciations that Mickey himself overhears -- that are in fact faked by the Blot -- have the story for a few seconds approaching (sort of inverted) It's a Wonderful Life territory, the "quintessential" characterizations give the story a sort of This Is Your Life "tour" feel akin to "A Little Something Special" (but although "Sound-Blot Plot" is special, it's not quite that special). In the plot's casual coincidences and the atypical story momentum that comes from Mickey just trying to have a normal day, except weird things are happening to him, and as they appear incidental rather than the result of a scheme or (if you will) plot (in fact, they are in part incidental),, for a good while there's no particular goal or objective driving the narrative; it reflects Mickey's confusion, and that's not bad writing; it's wildly appropriate. There's actually a certain kind of quasi-realism (kind of like with "The Duckburg 100", now that I think of it), with Mickey and his pals feeling like they have one or two more added dimensions just because we see them in something (weirdly) resembling "real time".

Goofy's sweetness was a nice touch, and his harmless but eccentric "hoarder"-esque habits was a fresh take. (In fact, with his bird fostering and silent, mimed communication that he prolongs much longer than Mickey needed, he actually comes off as lighter version of Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia!) His intervention at the climax was perfectly timed, as well as both funny and touching.

Once again, the backup features satisfy one's "classic rarities" needs: another Walsh-Gonzalez Sunday featuring Ellsworth, and a crude but historically interesting British gag from the early '30's(!) in which Mickey performs physical comedy that back in the States, via Gottfredson, he was already well evolved beyond (for which I'm grateful).

-- Ryan

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 19: "Sneeze the Day" (9/24/94)

It's easy to imagine that Motz and Roth came up with this episode during a "Hmm, what can we do with Genie?" writers' meeting during which their train of thought led them start to musing about how a genie "works" (physiologically, biologically, the quirks of their powers, etc.), somewhere along the line positing, "Do genies get sick? If so, what's it like?" In fact, it's logical to suspect my favorite line of the episode -- "Wait, is a hundred years a long time to you guys or not? Oh, I keep forgetting!" -- just may have been a byproduct of such a brainstorming session. Also, said line is a prime example of what distinguishes this episode: Genie's fantastical nature is given precedence over his default role as comic relief.

A good few minutes' worth of screen time is given to depictions of Genie's symptoms. In the sequence preceding Aladdin's search for the Orb of Machina, when we're first shown the guava juice-afflicted Genie, the assorted items -- a kitten, a set of false teeth, several swords flung through the air with their tips aimed at Aladdin -- that Genie's sneezes produce against his will and without premeditation individually aren't particularly imaginative or funny, but looking at the big picture, the random, non sequitur nature of this barrage of sight gags assures a silly, whimsical, energized episode. Moreover, the items and costumes generated are easy to imagine being used appropriately by Genie in good health, so his power going awry in this way is a very clever, fitting answer to the "If genies get sick, what happens?" question.

Aladdin's near-miss with the sword signifies that Genie's symptoms have turned perilous and prompts the story thread of Genie bemoaning the danger that he now poses to his friends. To reinforce that the swords weren't an isolated incident, the moment Al's survived the sword attack, Genie's next sneeze incites the launch of a rocket missile that carries Abu off into the stratosphere, a bit that is amusing in its elaborate, step-by-step execution. Later, just before Aladdin finally acquires the orb, we cut back to the palace, where we're shown that Genie's illness hasn't let up if not worsened, given the vile two-headed, fire-breathing serpentine atrocity preying on Abu -- which, though basic in design,is at least more original than a more standard dragon would have been. And insofar as reminding us of the problem Aladdin's trying to solve, it does the trick.

More impressive is the panning wide shot that opens the final act, efficiently establishing the substantial, imposing mountain of assorted objects and major structures in the middle of the desert, relating the severe degree to which Genie's condition has escalated in a way that's visually staggering. Additionally, these scene-setting sights are the last step in the gradual buildup to the most extensive, most calamitous manifestation of Genie's symptoms (and presumably, things would have only gotten worse yet had Aladdin not showed up with the orb): the apocalyptic abrupt generating of two old "friends", the Sultan of the Al-Muddi and Fashoom, along with a mobile contraption of Mechanicles from "Getting the Bugs Out" here increased (ballparking it) twenty times or more in size, so as to stand on par with the two monsters (indicating that these are replications, not the real deal).

As predictable as are both the "[*sniff*] My very existence threatens my friends' very lives -- as much as it pains me, I must isolate myself somewhere far, far away from them and anyone else!!!" characterization and [*coughahemcough*] the deus ex machina of the arrival of the orb, it's nice to see an episode in which Genie has his own character arc, not to mention in which he's characterized in any way at all. It's especially satisfying that Genie gets to be the hero at the end (I guess he was able to single-handedly defeat all three beasts in one fell swoop when previously, he proved helpless against each individually presumably because here, he conceived them involuntarily, as I speculated above), when I honestly wouldn't have been too surprised if Aladdin had gotten to be the one who thwarted them even after Genie were cured by the orb. 

Ah, and that brings me to the matter of said object of magic: Aladdin, Iago, and Carpet's adventure in Machina's cave is practically an episode-within-the-episode. They could have gone to, say, the moon to fight and defeat, say, an evil wizard in order to obtain the orb, and the rest of the episode would be no different. The cave sequence takes up approximately an entire third of the episode and pretty much completely sidetracks it, existing only to facilitate Aladdin bringing Genie the orb at what's the exact right moment, as necessitated by the story. As I've already alluded to, Motz and Roth acknowledged the function of the cave scene and its outcome with the name of the orb's guardian... and I'll leave their little in-joke for you to either pick up on or not yourself!

Had Motz and Roth gone through the motions with the cave scene with a couple action-based set pieces (a collapsing bridge over a bottomless pit, a cave-in, a runaway boulder, etc.), as such a substantive and distinct segment, it would be very, very damaging to the episode as a whole. However, the predominance of witty verbal sparring and the "punny" riddles and trick questions that serve as the three obstacles between Al and the orb spice up the proceedings considerably. ("I was expecting something a bit more dangerous, like, like fighting a dragon or something!" Aladdin exclaims -- yet another wink-and-nod to those of us paying acute attention.) The ironic revelation of Machina's true identity (recalling Motz and Roth's nebbish worm from the previous episode who turned out to be behind the thundering voice in the Witches of the Sand's lair) puts the comedy-preferring orientation of this adventure in italics, and an exclamation point is added by the sequence's gag-based coda -- a grumbling, griping Machina getting a replacement orb from his warehouse with a seemingly endless supply of them) -- which feels an awful lot like an episode-capping bit. As isolated as the cave sequence is from the rest of the episode, the episode steadily retains its flavor of smartly, sharply written comedy. (Also, I'm no expert, but with Machina's irate nature and his "chirpy", dandy-ish voice and speech patterns, would I be correct in suspecting a homage to something in Monty Python?)

There are consistent factors visually, too: 1. The squash-and-stretch animation, which like in most episodes where it's used, offers the eye numerous delights and the occasional awkward, rushed-seeming pose -- and is generally befitting of a Genie episode, given the character's nature as sort of a cosmic-powered Roger Rabbit. 2. Just like Genie's "mountains" of unwanted objects and that of the vengeful trio of Gargantuas, Machina, in his three false guises, is very impressive and imposing in scope. Although the sleek, stark, more modern and hip design style used for these visages and the atmospheric backgrounds aren't comparable to anything in the Agrabah and desert sequences (except maybe perhaps Mechanicles' contraption, which in its enhanced size, appears more slender and angular), it still counts as one of those aspects of the tangential cave sequence that make it so strong in its own right, the episode's disjointed structure just doesn't matter. Motz and Roth are right to have been so confident in their plot shortcuts, loose stitching, and cliché of a character arc as to include the grinning aforementioned in-jokes, for the episode holds together in exceptionally well and is thoroughly entertaining. In other words, they're doing things that a bad writer would do, but by embracing and owning these things, playing them off so nonchalantly, they "flip" these pitfalls and turn out something that's actually good. Perhaps because they're good writers, they are only capable of doing bad by doing it good? 

Iago being used as a the source of exposition re: the Orb of Machina, recollected from his days of "Jafar always dragging [Iago] around looking for some magical thing or other", is a great touch, logically taking into account his past and easily evoking the Jafar we remember. Characterization-wise, his reluctance to share this information, as he fears getting roped into the quest for the orb, and his inevitable one-liners of grief and misery once he has indeed been roped into said journey, are dead-on.

Lastly, circling back to the episode's beginning, it was nice to briefly see Amin Damoola again, in all his rubber-limbed, ill-fortuned, unmerited confidence-displaying glory. His butt-of-all-jokes, slapstick-facilitating qualities promise a comedic episode -- which proves true, even though he's only seen in the first couple minutes. The purpose of his altercation with the palace guards is to have Genie incidentally get infected during the fracas. This elaborate, ultimately irrelevant way of getting the plot moving is worthy of some of The Simpsons' infamous epic, excessive, extraneous setups. And in existing just for fun,

Genie Watch: ...HEY!!! I've covered that with more than two-thirds of what I've already written, haven't I? That better be good enough for you! Sheesh! ;)

-- Ryan