Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Retrieved From Storage: Donald Duck Adventures #19 (Gemstone, July 2006)

I've mentioned in past posts that for most of the Gemstone era, I'd quit reading and collecting comics for the second (and, as far as I'm concerned at the present moment, last) time in my life. Over the past couple years, I've been catching on what back issues I've been able to find in a couple shops in Connecticut.

Recently, I read this issue for the first time. I enjoyed it, and found much to commend in it, more so than on average. Here's the cover, attributed by Inducks to Massimo Fecchi:




The style in which the regular characters, Donald and the nephews, are rendered, especially with the slick digital coloring and the shading effects, resembles how they would appear in (relatively) modern, "official" Disney studio-produced animation, no? (I suppose DuckTales -- especially the more cartoony, elastic-y later episodes, or the series of Christmas-themed direct-to-DVD specials, would have to be our primary points of comparison.) The immediacy of the perspective and the emphasized action also contributes to the drawing's (psuedo-) animated quality.

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With its depiction of the ducks being menaced by a Viking warrior, the cover shown and discussed above represents the lead story, "Where's the Bin Been?", written by Pat and Carol McGreal and drawn by Flemming Andersen. Dominated by time travel, it's a compelling (and worthy) counterpart to "The Bathtub at the End of the Unverse"/"The Bathtub at the Edge of Forever", published only two issues earlier, in #17, and which I wrote about (and gave high praise to) in a previous post. Interestingly, "Bathtub" was also drawn by Andersen, but written by Michael T. Gilbert. Nonetheless, both stories share similar characteristics of inventiveness, sharp plotting and characterization, and balancing high-stakes drama with humor that seems to naturally proceed from the plot and characters.

Time travel stories are commonplace in comics and other mediums in which genre fiction prospers, but to my delight -- avoiding spoilers -- the time travel scenario that the McGreals devised here is original and exceedingly clever. (Hint: the dilemma/conundrum that spurs the plot rolling is inevitably resolved at the end, by way of a twist reveal. Let's just say that the history of the money bin's presence in Duckburg ends up considerably retconned!)

Of course, a lesser writer would send the ducks on this particular mission, assume that the plot could carry them, and have them act more less like robots acting together as one. Of course Scrooge wants to figure out where his fortune's gone and recover it ... but his shifts between, depending upon how things develop from one beat to the next, despair, gung-ho determination, and mortal fear are dead-on (especially with Andersen's exaggerating renderings -- when appropriate, Scrooge's visage is comparable to the famous painting by Evard Munch, "The Scream"!)

Donald's eagerness to get this particular adventure underway at first strikes one as being a bit out-of-character. But the McGreals sell it once it becomes apparent that his pop culture indulgences have inspired him to brazenly, myopically pose as a brave adventurer. Once the ducks are faced with the Viking threat, Donald even goes so far as to pose as a Norse god ("Those bozos are a superstitious lot! They believe in gods like Thor! I should know! I read the comic books!"), delusionally certain that he'll immediately scare them off. (And then it goes nothing like he'd thought it would. Who ever would have seen that coming?!) Jeopardizing the mission and causing Scrooge several more heart attacks, the dissonance between Donald's slacker "unseriousness" with Scrooge's disciplined, shrew, miserly "seriousness" is well in keeping with Barksian tradition, expertly staged in a way that's unique to and integral to this story. All the more admirably, the failure of Donald's disguise proves to not be an arbitrary, passing gag, but a well-laid-out plot thread, and the crux of Donald's role in the story, coming to a head as one of the mutually complementing multi-twists of the climax and denouement.

Like so often in Barks' stories, the nephews are dedicated to assisting Scrooge in his objectives, scrambling to solve problems when they arise and more than once making deductions before the two adult ducks do -- in other words, being exemplary Junior Woodchucks. However, the McGreals -- and possibly even more so -- Andersen never mistake the nephews for conditioned, reflexive little soldiers. When the ducks are in a jam and a solution isn't yet apparent, the nephews are obviously worried and/or afraid. They're human (...for all intents and purposes!), after all.

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Make no mistake -- I thought that "Where's the Bin Been?" was great. Still, the story that really solidified my favorable disposition to this issue was its second feature, a Mickey Mouse story, "The Wind of Azalai", written by Augusto Macchetto and drawn by Guiseppe Dalla Santa. Though I'm not familiar with either creator, they did a bang-up job! I am perfectly fine with, in general, the heavily exaggerated, highly stylized art that typifies many, many European Disney comics, and I consider folks such as Andersen (as evidenced above), Cavazzano, etc. to be exemplary cartoonists. Nonetheless, I'll admit, sometimes it's just plain refreshing to see these characters, and an entire story, drawn in a "conventional", more "straight" fashion, as Dalla Santa does here!

Furthermore, this is a classical adventure story, set in the unforgiving Sahara and replete with an ancient mystery, a hidden civilization, the revelation of unexpectedly advanced ancient technology and science, and ruthless desert-dwelling hordes of rogues/bandits! In other words, it's right up my alley! The plot point of Mickey and Co. getting lost in a ferocious sandstorm and winding up held captive in the aforementioned "hidden civilization" brought to mind DuckTales' "Master of the Djinni"! Consequently, at first, I was sure that the storm had transported back in the time, and some of the more dramatic score music used heavily in DuckTales' adventure-dominated first season crept in to my head, and stayed there `til the end of the story!

Admittedly, it's a bit more contrived than "Bin Been?" But the ultimate solving of the "gold and salt" enigma is clever and original enough. The story's strongest point is Macchetto's conception of, and Dana Salla's depiction of, the underground wind tunnel and air-raft.

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Most issues of Gemstone's Adventures digests encompassed three lengthy, solid European stories. However, after "Azalai", the rest of the issued is filled out by a few shorter works and a smattering of gags, ranging in length from one to several pages. When I realized this, I balked, but overall, I discoverd that the material held up quite well.

A Beagle Boys story, "The Black Sheep" entailed qualities of whimsy, absurdism, and yet kind-natured earnestedness that reminded me of Sergio Aragon├ęs. Writer Francesco Artibani's posits two Beagles Boys' relating to Grandpa Beagle how it happened that they "blew another caper!" Their narration is contrasted against a visual flashback that the readers, but not Grandpa, are privy to, revealing what they're leaving out and how they're downplaying their follies. Somewhat Rashomon-esque, Artibani gives the time-tested "disparate account" trope his own spin. Realized via Silvia Ziche's distorted art, in which little is rounded, opting for pointy angles and blocky shapes, and favoring over-the-top, frenzied poses and facial expressions, this is a tasteful example of slapstick and comedic characterization.

The standout of the issue-rounding-out lot, to me, was "Inside Donald Duck" -- another Andersen-drawn story, this one written by Mark and Laura Shaw. Yet again, Scrooge and Donald's differences are played up, this time to the hilt -- the phrase "oil and water" doesn't even begin to capture how badly things go here, all as a result of them being unable to get along and driving each other (...or, perhaps more aptly, themselves?) incrementally crazier and crazier. In fact, the story's opening brought to mind that of "Back to the Klondike": set in the bin's office, something -- naturally, involving his money -- goes wrong, and Scrooge panics, to the point of hysteria ... though in "Klondke", Donald was a bemused bystander for Scrooge succumbing to his neuroses, here, they're i.e. at each other's throats. The blundering escalates, resulting in the necessitation of a visit to the doctor's office -- the next scene, which we promptly cut to.

Breaking away from the "Back to the Klondike" parallels, the doctor fails to help Donald ... thus, the really bad thing that Donald had happened is still really bad, and so he's nervous wreck, and the really bad thing gets worse and even more worse, and it turns out that this is one of those "Donald tries to do something right, but he messes up, and before you know it, he's left a path of destruction clear across Duckburg" stories. And it's one of the highest order! It's tightly plotted, and masterfully executed on the visual end of thigns by Andersen -- I'll repeat what I said said about Ziche's "Black Sheep" art: with Andersen's "distorted art, in which little is rounded, opting for pointy angles and blocky shapes, and favoring over-the-top, frenzied poses and facial expressions, this is a tasteful example of slapstick and comedic characterization."

As the issue winds down, we encounter a six-page Romano Scarpa Mickey Mouse story. To me, it tries a little too hard to be some sort of humorous moralistic fable, but it comes off as hamfisted, and its attempts at twist plot points and irony are a bit too forced. Originally from 1973, the incidental dogface characters (a crook and two police officers, the crook and one of the officers with the portly shape Scarpa often uses that I think was inspired by Gottfredson's Chief O'Hara) hint at Scarpa's funny animal cartooning at its best. But on the other hand, Mickey looks a little strange -- it looks like his snout's been mangled! Finally, just who the heck is this "Ellsworth", an apparent sidekick or partner of Mickey's!

And then, the issue closes out with two decent/average one-page gags. To keep things proportionate, that's all I'll say about them! :)

7 comments:

  1. This entry crystalizes one of Egmont’s shortcomings.

    When they produce LONG adventure stories, with room enough for a lots of plot elements and sometimes a touch of danger, they assign them to “loose” artists who (IMHO) do not convey that “weight” and sense of danger all that well.

    Conversely, artists in the Barks, Vicar, and Branca mold – who COULD convey that sense of danger – are assigned to shorter, more comedic tales, where looser artists may suffice.

    No knock on Flemming Andersen (whose work I like in the "TNT" stories), but I’d hate to have seen him draw “Back to the Klondike” or “Ancient Persia” – but it seems that modern Egmont would have that happen!

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  2. Joe,

    Wow, what a brilliantly perceptive comment! Certainly, for some time (largely since the Gemstone era), I've been aware of there being, to a certain extent, an "either/or" dichotomy when it come to what general style a European Duck story comes in. (Of course, every artist individually distinguishes his or self. But generally, there's either Barksian school or "wacky" school.)

    Further yet, re: another one of your dead-on points, it's been apparent that many of the long adventure stories that Gemstone imported for their digests were of the wacky school -- while I rarely (especially in the past decade) see long stories drawn by Vicar, Branca, and others of the Barksian school.

    But until now, until you'd pointed it out, it'd never occurred to me how backwards it is that the wacky school handles so many of the adventure-heavy stories and the Barksian school handles the comedy-skewed stories. You've made the irony of it crystal-clear!

    (Not that the Barksian style is "wrong" for material along the lines of Barks' 10-pagers or gags -- obviously not! It's just that one would think that editors would see that artists of the Barksian school were cut out for comedy!)

    "Yuck!" at the thought of "Back to the Klondike" or "Ancient Persia" being drawn as the wacky school would! ...wow, imagine if the Vikings in "Where's the Bin Been?" had been drawn by Barks! He would've created much more of a sense of them being a menace, giving their capture of the ducks more gravity.

    I, too, want to emphasize that I'm not knocking Andersen. He draws great poses and expressions, and has a knack for unique "camera angles". This is purely a matter of what style fits what kind of story, and no one's being singled out here -- as there's an all-too clear dividing line between the two styles we've been talking about here; there's very few modern Duck stories that one would have a hard time deciding what side of the line it belongs on!

    Some questions I'm throwing out there in general: why does Egmont assign so many adventure stories to wacky artists? Do they think that "wacky" stuff will appeal to kids as being "cool"? You might have noticed that, in earlier posts, I mistook the three-tiers-a-page stories, many of which are "wacky", as all being Italian? When did Egmont start producing three-tier stories? And was there a time where they were producing both three-tier and four-tier stories? (That's likely, I suppose, as they produce stories for multiple countries and a variety of formats.) (I could get to the bottom of this by digging throughs Inducks, but it'd litteraly take hours.)

    Ryan

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    1. Yep! “Making irony crystal clear” is what I do!

      What I can’t do is answer any of your questions about, Egmont, alas!

      Imagine, waking up to such a choice: Wacky? Or Adventurous?

      Methinks, a little of BOTH, today! “Wack- Venturous, anyone?

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    2. Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like it might be the case that, in some sense, the looser style is "easier?" Or quicker, at any rate? I'm not trying to denigrate anyone's artistic skill, but look at Don Rosa, the most rigidly-controlled Disney artist ever: he's often talked about how drawing, for him, is an incredibly tedious, time-consuming process. For him, doing one of these long-form stories would've been a Herculean endeavor. This is certainly not as much the case for other "serious" artists, but I'm thinking it could nonetheless be a factor.

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    3. Perhaps, true, Geo!

      But, when we become more concerned with “easier”, “quicker”… or “Get it done by 5!”, we get things like the infamous “Bird Bothered Hero”!

      Go to Geo’s own Blog and read THIS!

      http://duckcomicsrevue.blogspot.com/2011/08/bird-bothered-hero.html

      However long Rosa took to produce his epics… it was WOTRH the wait! And, most of these “digest stories” would have been better for it, too!

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  3. Actually, I wonder if the Rosa stories look as good when shrunk down to that size. The "loose" look generally keeps details simple. I remember having to squint at a Jack Bradbury Mickey Mouse when Gladstone reprinted a story in their Mickey Mouse Digest. It's the same thing with most newspaper strips - sparse furnishings, lots of "empty air", etc...

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  4. I think both Geo and Comicbookrehab are onto something. It very much seems that the Europeans have a certain system that they follow, while Rosa was completely independent.

    And, yes, Rehab, I've had the same problem with Gladstone I's digest. The starkness of the drawing style used for most of the stories used in Gemstone's digests, and the larger "aspect ratio" of panels in a three-tiers-per-page format, do suggest that they'd scientifically worked out what would make stories would be more readable on a smaller page.

    Joe, re: "making irony crystal clear" -- when you put it like that, I'm not so sure that's quite what I meant! :)

    Ryan

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