Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hasty update...

Posting this from work.  For inexplicable reasons, my Internet at home is down, and Comcast's technicians won't be available until Wednesday.  (ARRGHH!!!)  So, the next installment in the "History of DuckTales Comic Books" series won't be appearing for several days.  (Full disclosure:  I'd actually intended to devote just ONE post to that subject, but as I was wrapping up the Gladstone portion, I realized, "Oh, it's time to go to work!  Hey, why don't I make this a multi-part series?!  ...this would be a good breakaway point!")

(P.S.  My comment at the BOOM! forum?  Besides being melodramatic, I was really just trying to get a rise out of them.  But really, I wouldn't have done that if it hadn't become trendy to vent about them, now that their days of publishing Disney comics are numbered -- so, I'm spineless!  Last night, I was mulling over how great the "Classics are back!" era that spanned the first half of this year had been, and how beautiful those books were ... but that's been overshadowed by abruptly the "core four" were cancelled, and how said cancellation has never been acknowledged or explained by BOOM! themselves.)


Thursday, August 11, 2011

A History of DuckTales Comic Books, Part One: Gladstone

In light of the brouhaha surrounding BOOM! Studios' DuckTales #3, I think it'd be apropos to create a concise account of the history of U.S.-based comic book incarnations of the DuckTales franchise.

The animated television series DuckTales, which premiered in 1987, was based on Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge comics.  Thus, the conceit of an explicit DuckTales comic is, to an extent, paradoxical ... it may even be that the term "meta" -- which, per my impression, people in genre circles at some point during the past year or two became overly fond of using -- is applicable here.

The first DuckTales comic book periodical was published by Gladstone, lasting for thirteen issues, from October 1988 to November 1990.  (Note: I'm citing cover dates.)  When the first issue hit the stands, DuckTales was still Disney's sole syndicated animated series -- it was still still a year before DuckTales was packaged with Rescue Rangers, and two years before the advent of the full-blown Disney Afternoon.  Thus, comics based on Disney Afternoon shows were unprecedent ... there was no Disney Afternoon yet. 

On top of that, Gladstone had no experience producing a comic based on a contemporary animated cartoon -- their specialty and forte was Duck and Mouse comics in Barks and Gottfredson traditions.  I'm not sure how it was decided that Gladstone would do a DuckTales comic; whether it was their own idea or if they were prodded by Disney, one can infer that, given the TV series' success and popularity at the time, using the "brand" for a comic would make sense, marketing-wise.

The thing was, DuckTales was, arguably, the animation equivalent of Uncle Scrooge comics.  And Gladstone already had Uncle Scrooge and Uncle Scrooge Adventures.  Wouldn't DuckTales be redundant, and stick out like a sore thumb?

From day one, the title relied on DuckTales stories produced by the Jamie Diaz Studios for regional Disney comic publishers around the world (...that is, if I understand how these things worked/work).  These stories were patterned after the TV series: unlike in Barksian Uncle Scrooge comics and as on the show, Donald was absent, an created-for-TV characters (Webby, Launchpad, etc.)  My reading has always been that the Jamie Diaz Studios was excessively Disney-trained-and-sanctioned, so the characters were as on-model can be.  The backgrounds, settings, and "props" were rendered as perfect as could be ... but the art was, nonetheless, rigid and uninspired.  The type of adventure trappings that during its first season the show had identified itself with were employed in these comics ... but the story construction was more or less hackneyed.

Nonetheless, that material is exactly what I would've expected Gladstone to use, at that point.  What was weird, though, was the incongruent use of Barks reprints as backup stories!  #4 even reprinted a Tony Strobl Grandma Duck gag -- Grandma being a character that never appeared on the show!

Still, Daan Jippes' covers for the first several issues make owning a copy of each worthwhile.  Here's #5:

However, with issue #7, the book took a different direction: with the exception of #9 (Jamie Diaz Studio again) and #12 (featuring the length French story "The City Under the Ice" -- which I hope to devote an in-depth post to, very soon), subsequent issues were each led by a story created by the duo of writer John Lustig and artist William Van Horn (another exception: #8's "The Bedeviled Dime" was a solo outing for Van Horn).  Since early 1988, Van Horn had been freelancing for Gladstone, finding his footing with short gags and the occassional ten-pager.  His stint on DuckTales with Lustig was his first "starring role".  Van Horn is know for his distinguished, "stretchy" visual style and "wacky" themes and humor.  So, one would think he would've been an odd match for DuckTales.  And, no, these stories weren't the "straight" adventures of the TV series, but they were well-constructed, original, and smart, displaying acute pacing and characterizations. 

Here's Van Horn's cover for the final issue, #13:

This issue was concurrent with the end of Gladstone's entire Disney line (until the next go-round, a few years later).  When their licensed expired, Disney set up shop themselves...

To be continued...

A (probably unscientific) contrast, to give some perspective...

During the weekend of September 18-20, 1987, DuckTales premiered with the two-hour TV version of "Treasure of the Golden Suns".  (I am the safekeeper of this fact being maintained across the Internet, by the way.)

 Example A:

Example B:

I must note: Nice animation of El Capitan at 4:10, and Scrooge at 4:18. 

Now, I don't know if the general jerkiness is actually the animation being dated/not living up to my aggrandized memory, or if it's the result of degradation through the course of these being taped off of a television broadcast and transferred and uploaded to YouTube. 

Regardless, revisting these has reaffirmed to me that the series (and the "Treasure of the Golden Suns" serial in particular) still holds up, and that I'm not operating on just nostalgia.  And thus, when BOOM! Studios launched a new DuckTales comic three months ago (in the wake of the success of their Darkwing Duck series), they owed it better treatment than this (scan courtesy of Chris Barat's review):

Chris' aforementioned review had a galvanizing effect: a fury of discussion commenced at Duck Comics Revue and the Disney Comics Forum -- that is, places where one would expect this subject to be discussed (though the extent to which it has been is atypical and extraordinary).  What's been truly flabbergasting is the coverage elsewhere:

It's not a stretch, by any means, to say that I'd been awaiting this since the last issue of Disney Comics' incarnation of DuckTales, published in late 1991.

Finally, meanwhile, at the official BOOM! forums, the silence that persists in response to our queries is deafening.  [Pssst ... you may note my post at the end of the thread.  I'm already embarrassed about its melodrama!]


Monday, August 1, 2011

"The Bathtub At the End of the Universe" by Michael T. Gilbert and Flemming Andersen

During Gladstone II, a cause of much frustration was being all too aware of, for all intents and purposes, an infinite reserve of European material that’d never seen print in the U.S. that we were being offered very little of.

With the arising of Gemstone, the tides turned.  In a major way.

I feel that Gemstone’s digests satisfied on two counts:

1. Keeping alive  Gladstone’s "[character name as a noun, NOT pluralized] Adventures" series title tradition/brand.  (And, at long last, once again, there was an ongoing Mickey Mouse Adventures! Alas, Gemstone’s incarnation only made it to #12, leaving Disney Comics' version holding the record, having ended at #18 … but by Gemstone's fourth or fifth issue [only!], they'd TRUMPED Disney Comics' MMA page count!)

2. The experience of regularly-published digests, each issue comprised of more than 100 pages, which were devoted to MULTIPLE bulky 40-to-50-page stories of the contemporary (or semi-contemporary, as to U.S. readers, these were imports -- we didn't have first dibs), lively, colorful, pure-candy-narratively-and-visually variety -- à la Topolino.

The story I’ll use as an example of the contents of Gemstone's digests is “The Bathtub At the Edge of the Universe” (curious discrepancy: in the table of contents, it’s denoted as “The Bathtub on the Edge of Forever”), which was written by Michael T. Gilbert and drawn by Flemming Andersen. (Printed by Gemstone in Donald Duck Adventures #17, May 2006; originally printed in Denmark’s Jumbobog #182, 1996 ... thanks, Inducks!)

Here’s Inducks’ scan of the first page (American version):


I’m quite fond of Andersen’s work on this story. Here, the ducks are squashed and distorted in a fashion that, in my evaluation, harkens back to `60’s Romano Scarpa. See how bottom-heavy Scrooge is, and how his ENTIRE HEAD seems that it’s being absorbed and truncated INTO his furrowing brow? See how long Donald’s beak is and the polarity in how big the front of it is and how narrow the middle is, and how those drooping eyelids -- the likes of which I’ve never seen drawn on him before -- convey his boredom and disinterest? (DDA #17's lead story, “The Search for Bigfoot”, also bears Andersen art, but dates from a few years later than “Bathtub”. Interestingly, we find that his ducks by then had become trimmer and sleeker.) I’m not always into heavily stylized, modern ducks -- I’m something of a Barksian traditionalist (never even really got into William Van Horn while I was growing up!). But Flemming somehow manages to enliven extreme exaggeration, jaggedness, and “grit” (…eh, not really fond of that last word…) with enough “fleshiness” to give the panels a considerable degree depth and substance, if not exactly a Barksian “warmth”.

I have to admit that I have egg on my face. In my earlier post about the array of Danish and Finnish Duck stories that Gladstone I featured, I asserted that there was a distinctly Italian approach to Duck comics. Well, I would’ve pegged “Bathtub” as being of Italian origin … but it was produced by Egmont, and Inducks identifies Andersen as being a Dane! D’OH! Still, I wasn’t wrong that the Egmont and Oberon stories that Gladstone I printed showed little indication of the Scarpa-derived lineage that I feel runs through Cavazzano, Andersen, and others ... whatever country they're from or whose Disney comics publishers they work for.

Before we go any further, here's the cover for Gemstone's Donald Duck Adventures #17 (I know, doesn't really make sense sequentially here, but I wanted the scan of the story's first page to be given precedence!):

All right, the plot…sure, the ducks have time-traveled before (and in a bathtub, to boot -- DuckTales ’ “Sir Gyro de Gearloose” should be given its due!). And dinosaurs have certainly been the object -- or at last a component -- of more than one of their previous adventures. But for this story, Michael T. Gilbert brought to realization a decidedly unique, original dynamic and narrative thrust. As Donald and the nephews, traversing the centuries and reality's fringes, scramble to track down Gyro’s time-displaced “100 mega-watts zigga-bomb” and prevent its explosion from wiping out history, they're relying on Scrooge and Gyro to keep up their end at “Mission Control” in Gyro’s lab back in the “present” ... where things DON’T go so smoothly. As they get precariously nearer the last wire, the sense of crisis and urgency is louder than in the average Duck comics -- usually, even when the stakes are high, they’re not regarded with so much fraught anxiety.

What’s really singular is the pairing of Scrooge and Gyro, and how their clashing neuroses create a certain dissonance -- that Donald and the nephews are depending on these two nervous wrecks greatly augments, exacerbates, and drives the story’s tension. To have Scrooge separated from his four nephews and partnered with Gyro is, of course, a variation from the norm. But to have Donald maintain a fair degree of confidence and heroism as he and the nephews brave the figurative storm (actually, gets pretty literal!), while  Scrooge acts as scatterbrained and guility of as bungling as Gyro, is a bold twist. However, Scrooge’s characterization is completely justified: what's going down was spurred by his lust for the profits he was sure were to come from backing Gyro’s breakthrough inventions -- a lust that blinded him to the dangers of said technology. He isn’t shaken out of his myopic perspective of the matter until he virtually has his finger hovering above the figurative doomsday button (or should I use "literal" here, too?  ...nah, "figurative"; there's no actual button!  Well, there's buttons, but not THE buttoon...) …hence his jitteriness and subsequent clumsiness! Mr. Gilbert, I'm SOLD!

Finally, I must quote Gyro, at the story’s apocalypse-flirting climax, explaining what’s going on: “It’s the `Gilbert Proximity Syndrome’! A time paradox posited by Professor M.T. Gilbert! [A self-reference on the author’s part? Or was this an editorial embellishment? I'm assuming the original script would've been in English and was used -- supporting that, no translator or dialogue writer is credited -- so I'm uncertain.] If conflicting events in parallel time lines get too close, history will correct itself before the events occur!” Shades of the infamous eternally-debated Biff-of-2015-returns-from-having-changed-history-and-finds-that-he’s-starting-to-fade-from-existence deleted scene!

In all seriousness, in terms of time travel in genre fiction, I’m eternally grateful that we live in a post-Back to the Future world. We’ve come a long, long way from the Legion of Super-Heroes (in the 28th-or-whatever century) for some bizarre reason historically recognizing Clark Kent of the 20th century as having been SuperBOY and not SuperMAN, and the improbable coincidence that Superboy and the Legion’s successive time travel-enabled encounters with one another were linear in terms of BOTH of their lives…  (I'm pretty sure that if they ever agreed, "Okay, so we never get confused, let's make sure that on every occassion where we get together, the same amount of time since the last occassion has passed FOR BOTH OF US!  Let's not ever surprise each other by later on time-traveling before and between occassions where, in each of our respective linear lives, we've already hung out!", it was off-panel!)

Something I'm doing...

Edit: I should have mentioned that I'm doing this to fulfill my grad program's teaching practicum requirement.  I need a couple students, so please sign up!  ;)