Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fraggle Rock season one, episode nine: "The Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" (aired 3/7/83)

It will be interesting to see how this post goes over, for, as far as I know, none of my friends whom belong to the blogging circle that I stay within share this interest.  I've been a fan of Jim Henson's creations and productions, and Fraggle Rock in particular, since childhood.  (Watching The Muppet Show every evening in the house my family lived in until I was three is amongst my earliest memories.)  So, I thought this might be a good subject to write about, in the interest of giving this blog some diversity (and in accounting for the photo that I've appropriated as my user icon!)

Here's a generic still, to establish this post's subject visually (and so that an image shows up next to my blog's title on other people's blogrolls, alerting folk to the existence of this post!):

While rewatching the episode this evening, I realized that I would have to adjust my usual style of reviewing.  With comics (and as would be the case if I were writing about animation or film, which I haven't done yet here), you'll frequently find me focusing on the way that images are composed.  To discuss Fraggle Rock on those same terms wouldn't be fair...and, in fact, I'd end up saying that a lot of it's really crappy.  It's a live-action, puppetry-oriented production that was taped in a TV studio, likely using the kind of setup where you'd find three or four cameras pointed at static sets -- much the way that traditional sitcoms or the local news are orchestrated.  Today, there's plenty of television dramas that could be mistaken for a feature film, and scripted comedies that are shot in a way that evokes a documentary (e.g., Curb Your Enthusiasm).  But thirty years ago, such high production values were far less common, if unheard of.  Prime-time hits like Three's Company or Mork Mindy, game shows, and live-action childrens' variety-esque shows fronted by a host (e.g., Romper Room, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, etc.) weren't going to be mistaken for anything other than television

So, it's important to recognize Fraggle Rock in this context.  The sets, staging, and framing were meant to be functional -- sure, a good deal of craftmanship went into the sets for Doc's workshop and the Gorgs' garden, but that's exactly what we always see them as: sets...not part of the imagery comprised within and inherent a shot.  Add in the condition of the lead players being hand puppets that aren't intended to be seen below the waist, and the shot-framing options become even more limited (and this could have awkward results, admittedly).  But the whole point, most of the time, was to efficiently get what the script called for; if two characters are talking to each other, get 'em both in frame!  Yes, some consideration went into close-ups, low angles to emphasize the Fraggles' perspective when they went venturing into Doc's workshop or the Gorgs' garden, and that kind of thing.  But don't expect Citizen Kane.  After the writing phase, without which there wouldn't be any material, what really drives the show -- what it really depends on -- are the performances -- those of the puppeteers, and the sole on-screen human actor that they played against(Gerry Parkes in the North American version). 

I've owned the DVD box set of the complete series for some time, but have been making my way through it very slowly.  (In truth, it's not always what I feel like watching.)  Amongst the first dozen or so episodes, "The Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" was the one that most impressed me, and the one where I first felt that the series was beginning to click. 

It was written by Jerry Juhl, who'd been with Henson since Sam and Friends in the '50's.  Having been The Muppet Show's head writer, and given that you're almost certain to find that he was the sole writer or one of the writers on Henson's productions from the '60's through the '90's, he basically was THE Muppet writer.  Given that, it's fitting to me that what I feel to be one of Fraggle Rock's first season's best episodes -- one that started to expand the series and elevate it to a new level -- would be one of his.  (It's unthinkable to me, though, that he was one of the writers on Muppets From Space, just as it is that Dave Goelz could've gone through wtih performing Gonzo in that movie.  But, that's a whole other story...) 

My reasons for favoring this episode basically render me a laughable self-caricature: it's about the search for an ancient treasure, with overtones conveying that said treasure is one of mythic legend -- e.g., Red noting that the map dates from "the time of the Third Drafting" (a purposely suggestive bit of dialogue, implying a major, formative epoch of the Rock's distant past), or the Fraggles speaking in hushed awe as they behold "the ancient Treasure of the Fraggles!"  In other words, we're teased that the world in which the series takes place has a rich, expansive history and internal mythology. 

Most episodes -- certainly most of those that had preceded this one -- used the formula of a character having some sort of personal crisis and/or struggle, in the end realizing and reconciling their self-identity -- with some sort of moral intended for the viewer to absorb embedded into the proceedings -- all realized in a cute, quirky way.  That this was the series' prevailing M.O. is one of the biggest reasons I don't always find it appealing to watch.  Even as a kid, I felt that the show's trappings lent themselves to more adventure and that there was the potential for developing an internal mythology...and, yes, I do believe it would be possible to tell a long story of Gobo embarking on braving an epic quest to defeat a reawakened ancient evil that for eons had laid dormant in a cavern deep within the Rock or in the wilds beyond the Gorgs' garden (what's out there, anyway??!!!  There's gotta be more than just Wander McMooch!) without betraying the values that the series was borne of (in the early stages of its conception, Henson said, "I'd like to make a TV show that brings about world peace"[!!!]) and that it maintained, or its heart.  But so many episodes were of the "I can never make up my mind about things and I just feel so bad about how indecisive I am ---> oh, I've realized that that's what makes me, and my friends like me just as I am, so that's what matters!" variety.  "Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" finds a good middle-ground: it concerns a perilous treasure hunt for a relic from the Rock's past (i.e., internal mythology), but is simple and concise, culminating in one of those aforementioned pro-social resolutions.

Speaking of which, I really, really like the ending.  By all rights, I should account for how this episode's lighting choices swayed my impression of it.  I'm sure that all of the low-key and dark lighting can be attributed to the episode's director, Perry Rosemond.  E.g., when Gobo and Red discover the map in a dusty, cobweb-draped, long-abandoned cavern (ah, credit to the prop/set folk!).  The ghostly, ethereal ambience gives this scene the gravity that's what taking place is the revealing of a primordial, near-mystical secret, and the tone is one of mystery, with a tinge of forebodingness, and a certain sanctity.

The spookiness is exacerbated when the quest leads Gobo and Red into near-pitch black tunnels.  Then, when they wind up in the Gorgs' garden, it happens to be nighttime -- they just can't escape a prevalence of ominous shadows.  The map leading them to the Gorgs', of all places, is a strange turn of events, for the whole thrust of the quest -- considering the terror-inducing dark tunnels and the close call experienced in almost falling off a steep ledge -- is that these two Fraggles' are faring alien, remote, dangerous territory.  And though the Gorgs are alway a threat, their garden is part of the Fraggles' everyday life, so my kneejerk reaction is that it's antithetical to have the trail wind up somewhere that Gobo and Red could've used a familiar, oft-used route to get to.  However, it being nighttime -- which is atypical for a Gorgs scene -- gives the sense that is a place that we/the Fraggles know well, yet somehow it isn't --kind of its reflection as seen cast in a murky creek.  I don't know if that was the idea, but I guess it works, when one looks at it that way.  And the moonlit ambience reverts to a more "mysterious", less "scary" conceit ("scary" being how the scene in the pitch-black tunnels was characterized).  Really, the low-to-dark lighting may have been overused throughout the episode as a whole, and perhaps could have been relegated to a couple select scenes.  Anyway, one way or the other, the sense of trepidation and caution that persists once the Gorgs are in play is valid, as, again, the Fraggles always remain wary of the Gorgs. 

And so, let us tackle the climax of the episode, where the true nature of the treasure is revealed, and the Fraggles realize that althought they hadn't acquired the expected "diamonds", they're "rich" because they have each other.  (Say, that parallels the outcome of certain Uncle Scrooge stories!.  Unfortunately, I can't find the entire episode online anywhere, but I'm glad that this scene's on YouTube.  Unfortunately, embedding's disabled for it, so I'll just have to link to it -- give it a watch, if you're so inclined.  I realize it may be sappy -- especially out-of-context, deprived of the scenes that built up to it.  But I really like the solemn, peaceful tone imbued by the candelight (again, low lighting!) and the gentle, softly-song melody.  Another part of what makes it work for me is the design and construction of the music box -- the reserved turning of the wheel evokes the sense that what we're looking at is a remnant of the world's earliest mechanics/first machinery.  And although it's made of what looks like is meant to be silver or gold or some such metal, it's not extravagant, but carries the air of dingified welding/forging craftsmanship.  (Clearly, this is all nothing more than my interpretation and/or coming up with analogies for what I see on the screen!)  Good choices were made in the timing in cutting to the close-up on this "treasure".  (See!  I did that some consideration was given to classic, basic, conventional film technique!)  Kudos to Rosemond for this whole scene.

One of the other things that really sold me on this episode was that it's the first, in my opinion, where the Doc-and-Sprocket framing sequence and the "postcard from Uncle Matt" segment perfectly complemented the main plot: the latter satirizes greed (with Matt, in typical fashion, misunderstanding human currency), while the former involves Doc's struggle to unlock an antique treasure chest that he's brought home from a "rummage sale".  To make this relatable to some of my friends, alongs the lines of Gyro Gearloose, Doc (played by the aforementioned Gerry Parkes) is a scatterbrained, eccentric, humble inventor who lives in his cluttered workshop.  Unlike Gyro, he doesn't seem to be particularly good at inventing, though.  Like Gyro, he has a non-human sidekick: his dog, Sprocket (performed by Steve Whitmire and Karen Prell).  Like Helper, Sprocket is very energetic and active, and remains aware of much that goes on around them that his companion is oblivious to, being so wrapped up in his work...but Sprocket is far more bratty and needy, and far less resourceful, than Helper.  More so than Gyro and Helper, Doc and Sprocket are both, each in his own right, stuck in his ways and insufferable...though Sprocket wins out as the one one's more often driven to his wits' end by his owner's idiosyncrasies. 

Like every episode, this episode ends with a Doc-Sprocket scene that caps both the subplot played out in the framing sequence devoted to them and the episode as a whole.  We open with the surprising sight of Doc, in the dark (that dark lighting thing again!), wearing a hard hat and about to take to the antique chest with a jackhammer!  I found this to be the funniest, most unexepected moment of any episode thus far.  Doc finding that the treasure is "what we wanted most all along" echoes the Fraggles' realization, but the nature of the treasure in Doc's case keeps the momentum of this coda's comic absurdity (begun with the sight of the jackhammer) going.  The irony of Doc's satisfaction (I'm not going to spoil what he finds inside the chest!) is certainly not lost an exasperated Sprocket!  More praise for Rosemond's for this scene's highly-charged execution, and seamless fusing of the absurd and the tender.

Alas, I have no means of showing you said wonderful closing scene.  The best I can do is give you a different taste of the charms of Doc and Sprocket.  (Alas, another case of embedding being disabled!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rare intimacy...

As was arranged in advance, I'm putting in dozens of hours at work this week (also, there's a Grassroots Reflections deadline next week!), so it will be some time before another exhaustive post like those seen thus far. 

In the meantime, I'll share glimpses of the Assorted Thoughts CEO's office. 

I make no pretenses that I have any photography skill.  This is just for fun. 


A different angle:

(It's obvious what kind of boxes those are, I'm sure.  But I'm counting on at least a couple certain people to come pretty close in guessing at what those are on the topmost-visible shelf!)

Wondering what's on top of the boxes?  Look no further?  What's currently on-hand aside the desk:

It's way too hot outside.  Have a good rest of the week, folks.  Hopefully, there will be some sort of new post this weekend.  (Though probably not involving the subject matter I have "big plans" for...)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Donald Duck #253 and 263 (Gladstone, May 1987 and June 1988) -- (Some) Reflections on the First Era of Gladstone; and, Spotlight on Denmark and the Netherlands

A few years ago, a conversation with an acquaintance who was something of a self-styled pop culture expert arrived at the subject of my comic book collection.  Amassed while I was growing up, it consisted mostly of "Disney comics from the '80's", I explained.

"Whitmans?" he asked.

"Gladstones", I asserted.

"Oh!" he laughed wryly, smirking.  "Those are even worse!"

I did a double-take.  ", they're not!" I protested.  I had absolutely no doubt about this, but I anticipated that I was not going to be able to diffuse the misconception held by the person whom I was talking to.

"They were mostly just reprints," he derided. 

"They were presentations of classics, and were carefully selected!" I spat back, thinking of their Barks and Gottfredson material, and the way they would be contextualzied in Cross Talk.  "That was Harvey, in the early '90's, who cheaply and lazily slapped reprints together!"  I may have also mentioned the regular inclusion of European stories that had never before appeared in North America, but I wasn't prepared to explain how Geoffrey Blum's or Byron Erickson's scripts for them were of premium-grade quality.  And this acquaintance obviously had no idea who Don Rosa and William Van Horn were -- not that that would've done any good. 

"They were just reprints," he reiterated, contempt ringing clearly in his voice.  See?  He was stubborn.

This exchange brought up an interesting point of consideration, though: if Barks and Gottfredson are not to your taste, and you're predisposed to, no matter what, never finding merit in any of their stories, then reprints of their work in traditional, mass-distributed comic book periodicals would look like cost-cutting, resulting in throwaway "rags".  I suppose...I dunno.  I'll let you mull that over.  *shrugs*

Gladstone's first run ("Gladstone I", as it's commonly known) was comprised of the Duck and Mouse comics of my childhood.  Perhaps that's why I hold them as the most perfect American Disney comics ever published. 

This is for, 1), aesthetic reasons: the inspired, brilliantly composed cover art (so very often by Daan Jippes, but I'm not excluding others) and the warm, cartoony-but-not-garish title logos, and their proportionate relationship to the aforementioned cover art; and inside, the plain black text on the plain white backdrop of the page itself, a style consistently employed in the letter columns, the Cross Talk editorials, and all in-house ads; and the subtle, careful coloring (shout-out to Susan Daigle-Leach!), which was more refined than that seen in Western Publishing's Duck and Mouse comics of the preceding decades, and -- in part because newsprint was still the paper type of choice -- not as flashy and loud as what's been done since.

And then, 2), content reasons (...which are pretty important, wouldn't you say?!): Barks, Gottfredson, Murry, et al had never before been in more loving hands.  (Something that a "non-fan", like my acquaintance quoted in the personal anecdote recounted above, wouldn't have the intuition to grasp, while it's a matter I'm partial to.)  (And not to mention that many of the Gottfredson stories that Gladstone serialized or printed in "albums" had never been officially reprinted before!)  And then there were the European stories, which didn't have the bombast of -- nor was it heralded with  the fanfare accorded -- say, a new Don Rosa adventure.  Nonetheless, the appropriation of European material for regular inclusion gave the line a certain consistency and steadiness in quality...even if they were usually used as "backup" stories...

In terms of the Duck books, I've long regarded Gladstone I's Barks reprints (whether a 10-pager or an adventure) and Rosa originals (ditto) as the main features (Van Horn?  Yes, eventually, but he didn't start off with a "big splash" the way that Rosa did with "Son of the Sun"), while the European fare, appropriately, as it tended to be more average in quality, served as filler.  And there was the matter of them being short, and I have a longstanding prejudice against non-adventure, shorter stories, that, fortunately, is eroding away.  Point in fact, very recent reading has prompted a reassessment on my part.  Let's proceed, shall we?

Between Romano Scarpa and his modern descendants like Cavazanno, et al, Italian Duck and Mouse comics are distinctly Italian: wackier, lunier, stretchier, squashier, more distorted, etc.  I may be wrong, but I believe that besides a select few prime Scarpa stories ("The Blot's Double Mystery", "Kali's Nail", "Tapiocus VI", "Amusden's Talisman", "The McDuck Foundation", "The Last Balaboo"...did I miss any?), Gladstone I steered clear of Italian stories.  And in that respect, because of the Prescott office's embracing of the Danes and the Nederlanders, the relative exclusion of Italian content, on the flipside, was equally crucial to the unity of the line that I referred to above. 

Scarpa, from what little I know, greatly admired Barks, but didn't let that force him to try reining in his own style -- which clearly had its influences on his successors amongst his countryfolk.  It has always struck me (and others have observed) that the objective of people like Jippes, Daniel Branca, Ben Verhagen, and Daniel Branca was to be as visually faithful to the world of Barks' Duck comics as possible.  Also, like Barks, the vast majority of such creators' stories are self-contained, whether they be 10-pager (or 10-pager in spirit) domestic sitcoms or adventures (at which, when some Europeans try their hand at such, admittedly, the results seem "smaller" than Barks' various cornerstones of the Duck adventure story template.  Also, Jippes, Branca, et al nearly never alluded to an over-arcing, aggrandized Barks-based continuity and mythology.  (*coughcough*whocouldibealluding to?*coughcough*)  (In all seriousness...reportedly, Jippes at one point in some interview that of course wasn't in English bashed what he saw as Rosa's artistic limitations.  Without a doubt, Jippes' is a fantastic, masterful artist.  But where are his stories?  Though, it may very well be that there are no shortage of them, but we Americans would never know it, as all we've gotten of his work in recent years has been Junior Woodchucks redrawings...)

So, take the Barks reprints.  Add the imports from Denmark and Netherland, which, in adhering to the Barks gospel, and in trying to recreate the Duckburg of his stories, seemed to exist in a permanent 1950's (something that Rosa did overtly).  Stir it all together, and what does the stew look like?  Gladstone I was, in a big way, an anomaly in its time (and certainly completely out-of-sync with its licenser, the Disney corporation!) (ARRGH!!!  There's nothing I hate more than some moron deriding me for liking "Disney", as if Bark, Rosa, or Gottfredson are the equivalents of the Broadway production of The Lion King, or Disney Channel "tween" junk like Hanna Montana).  The line persisted in exulting in an idealized, perfected version of a slice of what some other members of the human race had created 30 years earlier.  ( it too late to find a way to go back to such a utopia, even if it doesn't exist beyond the pages of some comic books?  Yeah, I know, we can re-read the ones that already exist and that we already have, but there's just something about knowing that new ones are coming out and have a feeble presence in the world-at-large...)

These thoughts were prompted by a visit to a comics shop this past Friday...specifically, to Wonder Cards and Comics in Barre, Vermont, making sure to scope it out on my way home from my residency at Goddard.  I was approximately seven years old when I began regularly buying (or rather, having my parents buy for me...semantics) Uncle Scrooge, when Gladstone I had about 12 to 18 months left to go.  I didn't start collecting all of their titles until their last few months.  So, there's a good chunk of their output that I've never owned.  But now that I'm actively collecting again, that's changing.


Time for specific examples, chosen from the haul I came away from Vermont with.  First up: Donald Duck #253:

As you can see...a wonderful Jippes cover.  Great facial expression; great sense of physicality/motion/anatomy.

The issue is led by a Barks 10-pager from 1950.  (I would've pegged it for a year or two earlier...shows what little I know...)  It's titled "Ski Samaritan" in the credits at the end of the letter column, but Inducks lists it as "Serum to Codfish Cove", which seems more like a descriptor than anything.  I'm sure I read this story back in the '90's (in the Walt Disney's Comics and Stories in Color albums), but I don't have any specific memory of upon reading it a couple days ago, it was a revelation to me that it was clearly an antecedent of "Somewhere in Nowhere"/"Somewhere Beyond Nowhere", in that we find Donald braving unforgiving snowy regions to deliver something to people in (a) remote location(s). 

At the outset of the story, it's snowing, and Donald is bragging to the nephews that he's "the greatest skier that ever skied!"  Soon, several feet of snow have blanketed Duckburg.  When the mayor reports that "[t]he village of Codfish Cove is marooned without medical supplies", the nephews -- having eaten up their uncle's boasts -- volunteer Donald to deliver a serum to the unfortunately situated Codfish Cove.  When Donald's propositioned about the matter, he suddenly becomes skittish and reluctant, but realizes he's going to have eat his words, and dons a pair of skis to carry out his mission.  Matters are complicated when a comical, caricaturized, obviously Soviet pair of spies switch the serum with "rocket ship" blueprints, setting Donald up for a surprise interception to take place once he's en route.

Just as funny as the spies is the Secret Service agent -- replete with a protruding chin and puffed-up chest -- who alerts the nephews to the situation, prompting them to pursue their uncle in the hopes of preempting any potential danger.  We find that the trials of the impassable route that Donald's enduring are causing him to suffer, and he seems to be close breaking....  In the end, the nephews not only foil the spies, they also, unbeknownst to Donald, enables his successful delivery the serum...but Barks seamlessly integrates a reason why the nephews can't reveal their involvement.  Thus, we iris-out on Donald walking on eggshells, singing his own praises, while the nephews knowingly wink at each other.  Most creators would've had Donald receive his comeuppance.  Showing the nephews' self-satisfaction and lack of need for recognition and acclaim works as a far more meaningful, poingnant coda. 

So much has been written about Barks -- what do I really have to add?  (Especially something that I haven't said before and elsewhere?)  Needless to say, this story is fantastic.  The dynamics between Donald and the nephews; the complication (and resulting farcical antics) of the spies' involvement; and the nephews' saving Donald's hide and preventing him from the disgrace of not withstanding the storm and saving Codfish Cove, all the while keeping to the shadows...when compounded, these various factors making up this tiered scenario plays out in a matserfully constructed story.  The visual humor in only the chimneys, rooftops, and spires of Duckburg poking out from beneath the snow; the hunching, sneering, leering spies; the over-the-top "upstanding", "heroic" appearance of the Secret Service agent; and Donald freaking out and fleeing at the sound of a gunshot are Barks at his sharpest. 

This story is from what I call Barks' "romantic period".  GeoX has noted how Barks' later Uncle Scrooge stories (say from the mid-'50's on?) strayed from straight adventures and became more satirical, and even cynical.  I've never been able to put my finger on it, but I've always found that around the same time, something about his art also became more cynical...dryer, maybe.  Here, though, is Barks at a time when he drew more lushly and with more grace...oh, don't get me wrong, the poses and facial expressions are decidedly cartoony, but it's subtle.  But as in most of Barks' Christmas or winter-set stories of this period...well, I just want to be in the ducks' kitchen with them as it snows outside.  Or bunkered down and cut off from the world, spending the winter in Codfish Cove.  These places just look so warm and toasty!

Okay, so, let's move on to the rest of the issue (which is mainly what I'd meant to write about!)  Gladstone I had the curious practice of giving blanket credit for most of the European stories they printed to "the Gutenberghus Group" or "Oberon Publishing".  But, thanks to Inducks, I can cite specific creators!

"Putting on the Dog" (written by Jim Kenner; drawn by Daniel Branca): this is what's referred to as a "Donald mastery story".  I balked at the staging and props -- slapstick resulting from trying to rein in a disorderly bunch of dogs, and the silliness of giving stylized haircuts to dogs who have snooty owners, just isn't my bag.  Branca's art is nonetheless excellent.  Clearly Barks-modeled (and a close cousin to Jippes' art), but he's no mere Barks copycat, clearly able to execute anything the story calls for, and do a damn good job of it.

"Journey Through the Center of the Earth" (written by Evert Geradts; drawn by Ben Verhagen): after the "meh"-inducing dog-grooming moorings of the preceding story, hijinks involving both Gyro and Scrooge -- in addition to Donald and the nephews, that is! -- are very refreshing.  My breakdown: Gyro's sad because he's got this amazing new invention, but he can't make any headway in bringing it to the world's attention.  The nephews, knowing which of Scrooge's buttons to press, manipulate the ol' tycoon into investing in Gyro's efforts.  Soon, Donald, strapped inside a single-passenger mini-rocketship, is being ping-ponged back and forth along a narrow tunnel that Gyro bore through the center of the earth (hence the title...) (...oh!  And, also...paging Mr. Rosa, paging Mr. Rosa!) between the workshop's yard and a village inhabited by indigenous people on the surface of the other side of the planet.  When the authorities threaten to shut down Gyro's operation and he and the rest of the ducks desperately try to argue their case, Donald is forgotten, left to the torture of being endlessly flicked back and forth between the far ends of the tunnel.  Heightened, neurotic characterization; an absurd comical scenario (e.g., the bewildered natives on the other end of the shaft!), and Verhagen's sharp-edged, pointed art = a win all-around!

I noted earlier how the Danes and the Nederlanders tended to strive to recreate Barks, aesthetically.  While their devotion to him is clear, that's not to say that as creators, they had no's just that the typically, the Italians are especially and exceptionally stylized in their work.  Compared to Jippes, Branca, or Vicar, though, Verhagen is noticeably "scratchier" (in a good way) and more fiesty/quirky (also in a good way).


Next (and last, for today) up: Donald Duck #263:

Cover's by Branca.  (See?  You could've told me it was Jippes, and I'd be had...I'm really not an expert!)  The presence of Daisy and the abundance of yellow dispose me toward not liking this cover as much as I do #253's...but, setting aside my biases, I can see that in all fairness, all the nice things I said about #253's apply here (in terms of expressions, movement, poses, etc.) 

"All Washed Up" (Inducks credits "plot" to Philippe Le Bars and "script" to Jack Sutter; drawn by Vicar): This is one of those stories in which Donald tries to do something right, but his screw-ups result in a minor oversight spiraling out of control, until Duckburg is struck by some sort of wide-scale disaster.  There's a twist, though...that being the original, tantalyzing framing device: we open on a mailman making a delivery to a shack built on the very end of a rocky outcropping towering above the ocean.  This takes place in the midst of severe weather, to boot.  The cabin's occupant turns out to be Donald, who's in hiding after the latest wide-scale disaster he's caused, the story of which he then relates to the postman...and, by proxy, us.  The escalation and coincidental twists are timed and carried out as well as anyone this side of Barks has done when taking a shot at doing this kind of story.  One unfortunate finding: unlike in the Codfish Cove story, where Donald was due for some degree of comeuppance, in this story, his sufferings are completely undeserved, having gone out of his way and above and beyond to live up to his responsibilities, his mistakes being just that -- pure, honest mistakes! 

I remember some gripings in the letter columns of the Disney Comics era about Vicar being a Barks-imitating hack.  Nah.  ...I mean, yes, as I've noted here, Barks was a major (and that's an understatement) reference point for Egmont creators like Vicar, but the latter's just as good as any of his peers -- as demonstrated throughout this story, from the dramatic opening splash of the postman struggling to make his way to the dangerously-positioned cabin, to a regular-sized, procedural panel showing something as ordinary as Donald mopping the floor (though he's doing so with a determined fury, spurred by feeling the need to both show up Scrooge and keep his date with Daisy...and that's a good example, in another sense, actually, as just being able to read this stuff in Donald's face shows that Vicar's an artist who is attentive to story, which is one of the highest complements that can be paid to someone with his job description!). 

"Fly Now -- Pay Later" early Van Horn four-pager!  Unmistakeably more elasticy and balloony than anything else in the comic.  Donald ants "peace and quiet", so he orders the boys to stop "playing ninja" (it was 1988, when Ninja Turtles and Karate Kid were this is the rare occurence of a contemporary reference in a Gladstone I comic!)  But as he tries to lounge and read a book, Donald is irritated by the buzzing and flitting about of a housefly...which poor Donald can't bring an end to, even after successive attempts, which lead to him tearing apart the house, and making quiet a racket in the process; the irony does not go unnoted by the nephews.  Two escalation/disasters stories in a row!  This one's told with more brevity, and is sort of a miniature incarnation of this Duck comics sub-genre. 

"Double Incentive" (written by Jan Kruse; drawn by Mark de Jonge -- never heard of him!): another quickie (er, get your mind out of the gutter...)  Since Gus is so lazy, Gyro is generous enough to invent a robot-Gus to pick up the slack...but Grandma has other ideas as to how to use the robot.  (!!!  no, no, NO!!!!!  ...sheesh, I told you once already!!!  For crying out loud, I just meant that she's going to manipulate Gus by announcing that the robot will now be served all of Gus's meals, since it is now the robot who's earning his keep, giving Gus the incentive to finally start working hard...but I was't going to explain all this, because I thought that I shouldn't spoil the ending!  But now look w hat've you made me gone and do!!!!)  (Actually, I was just being lazy and not trying to have to write as much.  I mean, what stopped me from spoiling the ending of other stories, as I've done without discretion earlier in this post?)  A clever, if simple, little story.  The art reminded me of Verhagen; a bit distorted, and a bit quirky (but it's got nothing on, say, Cavazzanno...)

The Gus-Grandma-Gyro story is followed by a lone Taliaferro gag, here titled "His Level Best", and that Inducks says was syndicated on Oct. 2nd, 1938.  Man, those 1930's comic strip artists could really draw, right?  You know that stuff Warren Spector was saying in his introduction to Vol. 1 of The Floyd Gottfredson Library about Gottfredson's art being so cinematic?  Taliaferro was close...  And, actually, I think Donald was onto something here: securing a picture frame to the wall by [SPOILER WARNING!!!!] (see?  I'm responsible!) nailing each corner seems like a pretty darn practical idea, dontcha think?!

Finally, a Barks' 10-pager (positioned at the back of the issue this time...hmm...well, "All Washed Up" was damn good, so I'd say this was a wise, discretionate choice on Geoffrey Blum or whoever's part) from 1953 that seems to be officially known as "The Price of Fame".  (This issue's credits and Inducks are in agreement that that's what it's called, anyway.)  This story projects a decided sentiment of irritability, and frankly isn't as likeable as "Ski Samaritan"/"Serum to Codfish Cove" -- nor does it have the kind of complicated web of clashing character motivations that that story did.  Also, it's somewhere between Barks' "Romantic, lush era" and his "cynical, dry era".  Still smooth around the edges, but somehow, Donald's home, and Duckburg overall, look a bit more drab and weary.  Damnit, I know what a mid-'50's Barks' WDC&S 10-pager looks like, and, by hell, this is one of 'em!

Basically, when the nephews lament, "Unca Donald will never amount to much!" (Jerks!  After he took you in, after all the demeaning jobs he's slogged his way through in order to support you, and after you've been right there with him as he's risked life and limb time after time during all the perilous adventures Scrooge has dragged you guys into!  INGRATES!!!!)  They manage to inspire Donald to want to become a musician.  After his singing auditions are a wash (...was Barks at all thinking of Donald's voice as heard in the animated shorts?  It'd make sense...), Donald tries his hand at a series of instruments.  But the sounds that he manages wrenches from each, as we see, rattle the nephews' nerves to no end.  Basically, the story is a few variations of this "Donald makes loud, obnoxious sound and the nephews cringe in reaction" gag strewn together, with no brilliant twist or resolution at the end; instead, Donald finally gets the media's attentions with the invention of an absurd, ludicrous, lowbrow musical instrument.  Well, okay, I guess that counts as a twist, as getting on TV had been Donald's objective from the get-go.  Still, I find this ending, and the overall story that led up to it, a bit underwhelming.  But, it's really okay, because Barks is responsible for, what, how many dozens of masterpieces?

Interesting that Bark' would tell a story in the comics format that revolved around sound -- seems like something that'd work better on film.  Still, Bark really delivers in completely overcoming what you'd think would be a handicap, and succeeds with nary a hitch in showing, again and again, that Donald is producing cacophonious sounds, and that this annoys the nephews; in each instance, there was no confusion about what was taking place on this reader's part, anyway.  (Admittedly, I was imagining what Donald's efforts might've sounded like, though.)  (Also, Barks' partial deafness -- if it'd set in by this point, of which I'm not sure -- has me wondering how that would've informed his approach to this subject.)

Speaking of being irked by sounds...note the date; I'm sure I'm not the only one who at some point today thought to themselves, "I hope that wasn't a gunshot..."  (While writing the preceding couple paragraphs, I could hear an incessant barrage of fireworks being set off outside, and it was really getting under my skin.  How fitting, given the subject of the story I was writing about.)

Have a good week!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Challengers of the Unknown #5: "The Riddle of the Star-Stone" (Dec. 1958/Jan. 1959)

Have returned home and settled back in.  Time to take care of some unfinished business and, as I'd said I would, spotlight this issue. 

Without further ado, a Google image search-procured scan of the cover:

Kirby used a simple, repetitive, piecemeal structure for this one that I imagine allowed him to work with expedience and with few doubts about where he was going with it.  The villain -- Vreedl, who's from the same mold as last issue's Tiko, replte with angular features, a lust for power, a leer, a conniving disposition, etc. (the use of stock villains isn't so much Kirby's fault as it is that of both the genre and the medium) -- crosses the globe to track down, one-by-one, four jewels.  When used in conjunction with the ancient, outer space-originating Star-Stone of the title, each jewel infuses one with a specific uncanny ability.  However, the effects of each jewel are temporary, except in the case of, as the Challengers are warned at the outset of the story, the powers granted by the fourth and final jewel, which will be permanent.  The Challengers spend the issue chasing Vreedl from the site (read: setpiece) of one jewel to the next, each time finding themselves compromised by some conflict or obstacle that causes them to fail in stopping the villain from achieving his objectives.  Finally, Vreedl succeeds in acquiring the fourth jewel, and its benefits turn out to be immortality and invulnerability.  But of course, the clever Challengers, who've overcome each of the predicaments that had slowed their pursuit and have finally caught up with Vreedl, figure out a way to outwit their foe.

The first-page hook that Kirby employs is similar to that of "The Wizard of Time": we open on some "regular" people as they witness the sudden occurence of unnatural, spectacular phenomena.  Then, we cut to the Challengers just as they're being drawn into the affair. 

The second chapter, which takes place in the Middle Eastern city of Djiizari, which has been "little changed by passing centuries", allows Kirby to flourish in depicting an idealized version of an ancient, "exotic" locale -- much like he did in the scenes in "Wizard of Time" that were set in ancient Greece.  At this point in the story, Vreedl is enjoying the second jewel's gift: flight.  He darts and swoops above and through the streets of Djiizari, its citizens mistaking him for the "Birdman" of their folklore that'd been passed down from preceding generations.  This scenario is a compelling blend of quasi-history and myth.  I was reminded of the modern-biplane-taking-flight-in-ancient-Greece juxtaposition executed in "Wizard of Time".  Yes, the current scenario lacks the "modern technology in the ancient world" conceit, but it still has the "flying machine or person seeming fantastic because of its incongruence in an ancient, or ancient-like, setting" angle.  I liked that Vreedl's appearance when in flying mode was reminiscent of that of a circus performer, or perhaps a court jester...rather than something more typically supervillainy. 

The deep-sea diving sequence that plays out over the first half of the third chapter, in which Vreedl once again evades the pursuing Challenges when they're beset by a regiment of sharks, is perhaps the equivalent of the ancient Egypt-set portion of "Wizard of Time": cumbersome, rushed, under-developed, and tedious.  At this point, Vreedl has been enhanced by the third jewel (he has become a "shock bolt"-firing "fish-man"), details that seems arbitrary and of no consequence -- I strongly get the feeling that Kirby felt obligated to go through the motions of Vreedl exhausting another power and the Challengers facing another dilemma, even though he already had the finale (and perhaps the next few issues, from what I know about Kirby!) in sight...

And that brings us to...well, the finale.  Kirby did an effective job of depicting Vreedl reveling in his newfound strength and might, in both his appearance (now more muscular and standing upright) and disposition (beaming with confidence, bursting with energy), and his malevolent abuse of his abilities, tearing formidable trees up out of the earth (as seen above in the cover scan) and obliterating the Challengers' plane with one swift blow. 

Ace tricking Vreedl into relinquishing his powers seems to go over too easily -- having reached the penultimate page, this final play seems hurried.  But overall, as was the case with the previous issue, it's certainly a comic with some fun stuff, the narrative is more or less solid, once one accepts that the simplicity of its framework is a given.  The nature of the Star-Stone is a concession do the "Unknown" portended by the series' title -- but what we get is more or less tried-and-true "heroes thwart villains' plans for world domination" fare.  "Wizard of Time" was in the very same vein, but actually had more substantial content, considering the social issues suggested by the "Electronic Judge " scenario and the clever story twists in the way that the Challengers', after their time-travelling exploits, realized ways in which they'd influenced, or at least witnessed, key moments in history.  Anyway, I'm sure production schedules necessitated Kirby's reliance on genre tropes.  "Star-Stone", singularly, is not a masterpiece -- rather, working steadily within this form, Kirby's brilliance, from what I've seen, is more apparent when taking stock of his ouevre as a whole, emerging both gradually (culminating in the '70's) and in spurts, in many of the ideas he brushed upon before he was forced to move on. 

And of course, this story's art -- characters' faces, when seen up-close, seem to be captured in high-definition; the blaring, screaming energy of the most action-ridden panels; and all of the hyperactive, jerky poses (when characters in a Kirby comic merely point a finger at something, it's done so with exceptional urgency and deliberateness) -- is pure Kirby.

An item of curiosity: when June Robbins was introduced several issues earlier, I was sure that she would immediately become a regular lead and a full-fledged Challenger.  But alas, so far, the Challengers remain a boys' club, with June relegated to "honorary" membership and irregular appearances in the title.  June is highly intelligent and skilled, and seems to be in perfect physical shape (yes, I'm saying she's hot...) other words, she seems cut out to join the team.  Could it be that Kirby had had every intention of letting that happen (and going the obvious route of playing up, to some degree, romance and/or sexual tension between her and one of her teammates), but his editors had resisted?  (I may very well be able to find information on this Internet.  If I do, there will be an update.  But for now, I'd prefer to not preempt my observations and speculations, and do the research in its turn.)