Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"The Rain God of Uxmal" and "High Jinks on the Matterhorn"

I first heard of the early `80's German series Abenteuer aus Onkel Dagoberts Schatztruhe (Uncle Scrooge's Treasure Chest is generally considered the English translation of the series' title) from a letter printed in a Gladstone I letter column. The letter-writer was reporting his discovery of these 44-page adventure stories and urging Gladstone to print them. (I could've sowrn that I recently re-read said letter, but pouring through my Gladstone I comics, I haven't for the life of me been able to find it...) The "Treasure Chest" moniker and the exceptional story length imparted upon me -- whether warranted or not -- a sense of rich, lush, archaic, "classic" Uncle Scrooge adventures, and I believe that in the letters that I regularly mailed to a certain Prescott, AZ P.O. box during the Gladstone II era, these stories were amongst the material that I repeatedly hounded them about at some point including in their titles, to no avail.

(Another of my incessantly repeatedly requests, that for Scarpa's "Colussus of the Nile", may have played a part in it's ultimate serialized appearance in Uncle Scrooge Adventures #37-38. I didn't have as much luck getting them to print Mickey Mouse material in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories other than Gottfredson serials that had been published in albums -- that we all already owned -- just a couple years earlier, during the Gladstone I era ... at least until Gladstone's latter-day prestige format-era, but by that point, I was in high school, and my interest in Disney comics -- and comics and general -- had waned...for the time being.)

There were six total entries in the Treasure Chest series, originally printed between 1983 and 1988. To date, the only one to have appeared in the U.S., "The Great Paint Robbery", in Uncle Scrooge #353 (Gemstone, May 2006). "Rich, lush, archaic"? The fleet-footed, hyperactive pacing of Miguel Pujol's "follow the trail of clues"-plot drew upon real-world settings and historical and facts, but in a very passive, almost dismissive fashion, in comparison to Barks' firmly-grounded concern with specifics. À la Barks' "The Seven Cites of Cibola", "Great Paint" climaxed with the site and/or structure(s) that had been the objective of the ducks' temporarily-successful treasure hunt turning against them, self-destructing in a visually mighty-and-cataclysmic-in-scope, over-the-top fashion. Now, Barks' scheme for showing the execution of Cibola's built-in self-destruct safeguards had maintained the esoteric mystique of the story's very premise. On the other hand, "Great Paint" skewed decidedly in favor of "over-the-top", the spectacle of a continuous, seemingly unstoppable string of mammoth-sized sheets of paper being generated by a mammoth-sized printing exuding sheer silliness.

But if "Great Paint" had been depicted with stale, coloring book-worthy `70's Whitman-esque art, it would've been truly unbearable. Fortunately, that was not the case; José Miguel Tortajada Aguilar   and Maximino Tortajada Aguilar's art is dynamic, particular, involved, and versatile. Their exaggerated, wildly energized charcter poses -- uncannily unique, on a panel-by-panel basis -- are a delight to behold; and their backgrounds, especially in "wide-shot", especially those of double-sized or half-page panels, are gorgeously detailed and strikingly framed. Francisco Sabaté Montero, Marga Querol Manzano, and Maria José Sánchez Núñez's inking is positively dulcet -- see the near-noir panels during the Barcelona-set chase sequence.Ultimately, what we have is a nearly-perfected meeting point between Barks' realism and the take-things-as-far-as-possible, extreme, jagged, stylization of the Cavazzano school. The characters' poses and expressions are overdone, à la Cavazzano; but they're rendered fluidly and roundedly, à la Barks. In parallel, the panel compositions/framings/stagings tends to be overzealous, again à la Cavazzano ... but eschewing Cavazanno's starkness for a lush Barks-esque realism. In fact, this flexible "best of both worlds" sensibility is spiritually very akin to Ben Verhagen.

But despite using as much fancy language as I can to describe "The Great Paint Robbery", the bottom line is that, after the heightened, unrequited expectations I'd long had of the Uncle Scrooge's Treasure Chest series, were ultimately disappointed by what I felt was a  predominance of slapstick and silliness.


Last week, while playing around on Amazon, I decided to run a search for "Uncle Scrooge", to see what would come up. Before long, I discovered the British editions of the first two Uncle Scrooge's Treasure Chest stories (and the only two of which British versions exist), "The Rain God of Uxmal" and "High Jinks on the Matterhorn".


Used copies were (and still are, for anyone who might be interested) being sold at considerably cheap prices, so I couldn't help but order one of each title, especially given the current Duck comics dry spell that we're suffering in the U.S. They arrived late last week -- the copy I've acquired of "Matterhorn" is especially banged up, but both have proven entirely readable, and well-worth the several dollars that I paid for each.
Yesterday morning, I expeditiously, fervently whisked my way through both albums, enjoying them immensely. Was that due to lowered expectations, a result of my disillusioned reaction to "The Great Paint Robbery", possibly in conjunction with the desperation of the aforementioned "current Duck comics dry spell that we're suffering in the U.S."? Maybe, but either way, I'd prefer a positive spin -- that I was pre-disposed to embracing whatever would turn out to be both stories' better qualities...

Like "Great Paint", "Uxmal" and "Matterhorn" were also each written by Pujol. The plot momentum of each seem to possess an inherent casualness or fickleness, but this is deceptive -- Pujol's plotitng is, in fact, cleverly integrated. Key examples would be Donald's fruitless pursuit of bleeding backpay from Scrooge in "Uxmal" and the woodchuck (ahem...), with its "danger-indicating" emanations, that the nephews' adopt as a pet and "mascot" in "Matterhorn", both of which long seem to be mere running gags or extraneous embellishments, but ultimately come to the fore in the respective story's resolution. On the one hand, both of these subplots are near-blaringly forced... but I detect the aspiration of emulating Barksian plotting, and in truth, few could do better; the effort is commendable, indeed!

Speaking of "Donald's fruitless pursuit of bleeding backpay from Scrooge in 'Uxmal'", the adversarial, love-hate dynamic between Donald and Scrooge is close to the most well-written-and-depicted, enjoyable element of both stories...possibly one of the most lucid non-Barks realization of said dynamic that I've ever experienced. Both plots are incontovertibly driven and continuously rerouted by, and contingent upon, an all-permeating tension between Scrooge and Donald, in much the same way as "Back to the Klondike" or "The Secret of Atlantis". (Don't get me wrong,in my book, Rosa actually tops Barks...but I'd be remiss to not admit that in some of Rosa's Uncle Scrooge adventures, Donald functioned arbitrarily.) For a delectable, prime example, see the first panel of the second tier on page 30 of "Uxmal", comprised of a symetrical, mirroring image of Scrooge and Donald, in silhouette, lividly screaming their heads off at each other. (Said panel is exemplary of both books' excellent art -- for more on which, see below.) Scrooge's callous-barking-of-orders at Donald as the ol' gang scales the titular elevated-mass-of-earth of "High Jinks on the Matterhorn" evokes Rosa's infamous "Donald abuse" that occurs in some of his stories ... but unlike the more painful examples of such, where Donald's sufferings are relegated to dismissive passing backgrounds gags, Pujol and the team of artists arguably cast Donald in a sympathetic, relatable light -- practically as the protagonist -- during the sequences in question. He comes off not as obligatory comic relief, but as a full-fledged character in his own right, at odds with, and a foil to, Scrooge...frankly, the plot is repeatedly and continously pushed forward by the mutually vindicative relationship between Donald and Scrooge.

Because of both stories' (very) strong points and (high) enjoyability, I'm quite willing to overlook the clunkiness of "The Rain God of Uxmal"'s plot being incited by Scrooge falling for the bogus pitch of a two-bit, sleazy salesman whom Donald and the nephews subsequently see clear through(!!!!!); the character of Professor Muchasgracias seeming to play an extraneous role, accompanying the ducks on the ups-and-downs and twists-and-turns throughout the latter two-thirds or half of "Uxmal", until his plot purpose is abruptly made blatant in the first panel of the third-to-last page; or the directionless, "random"-seeming progression of events up through somewhere between the first half and first two-thirds of "Matterhorn". And the latter example is testimony to the ingenuity with which, as the story comes to a head, these on-the-surface very disparate factors all come deftly, breathtakingly, convincingly organically rolling together, to a point of seemingly inevitable seamless unification.

Echoing "Back to the Klondike" and "Tralla La", "High Jinks on the Matterhorn" opens on, and is spurred forward by, Scrooge being afflicted by apparent senility and/or his health and sanity impendingly hinging upon a vacation, of sorts, from his work. Much like "Back to the Klondike", the first few pages of "Matterhorn" entail wild, abrupt, erratic, virtually bipolar shifts in Scrooge's temperament ... there's an unmistakable parallel in their buildup to a doctor's visit that's underway by the third page. However, I'm going to attribute the out-of-characterness indicated by the doctor's diagnosis, "In plain English, an insatiable craving for cash. It's quite common among millionaires. They usually catch it when they've bought everything money can buy" to negligent dialoging ... Scrooge is opposed to using his money to buy virtually anything. And as a matter of fact, throughout the rest of the story, Scrooge's conundrum is clearly not that, being an extravagant spendthift (as if...), there's no purchase he hasn't indulged upon, but that there's no form of business or industry that he hasn't conquered. Thus, if the doctor had instead stated, "They usually catch it when they've exhausted all conceivable, plausible avenues of honest, legitimate entrepeneurship", we wouldn't be given the impression that he's mis-assessed Scrooge, and it would be completely consistent and thematically uniform with the rest of the story. (Overall, the dialogue in both stories wasn't too bad. See more on this subject below...)

Per Inducks, the art team on both stories is comprised of essentially all of the same participants as "The Great Paint Roberry", with some variations and, importantly, variations: 1. No Maximino Tortajada Aguilar on "The Rain God of Uxmal", but both Aguilars worked on "High Jinks on the Matterhorn". 2. If Inducks is correct, the trio of Manzano, Montero, and Núñez were exclusively the inkers of all three of the stories discussed in this post. 3. Marçal Abella Bresco and acclaimed latter-day Mickey Mouse artist Cèsar Ferioli Pelaez both contributed to drawing "Uxmal" and "Matterhorn" (whereas as "Great Paint" is sans-Ferioli and Bresco, exclusively drawn by the Aguilar duo, hinging upon Inducks' veracity).

Virtually everything that I said and praised in regards to "The Great Paint Robbery"'s art holds true for "Uxmal" and "Matterhorn": the vibrant, singular character poses and expressions, exaggerated yet exhibiting more Barksian fluidity and less Cavazanno-esque jaggedness; the striking, dynamic composition; the resplendent, refined, deliberated backgrounds; and the subtle, intricate, discretionate, effective. However, the characters are, in endless variations, rendered and poised with a a certain glistening sleekness that surpasses that of "Great Paint" in acuteness, and that I suspect reveals the hand of Ferioli. The characters -- especially Scrooge -- are very Barksian in appearance, but not in a dependent, emulative way, but in a mastered, flexible, autonomous way. And the stunning, gorgeous splash panels (many of them exceeding the standard half-page parameter, engulfing an entire three-thirds of a page), especially the several of which of the valley and city of Uxmal, have unmistakeable Barksian echoes (note, for instance, the wavy, somewhat sketchy lines that define the rocks that make up the wall of the Uxmal valley). (And let's not overlook the whole idea of a forgotten, ostracized civilization continuing a self-sustained existence in an inaccessible, hidden, deep valley...) (Also, I shouldn't let it go unmentioned that the Gearloose-invented aircraft that Donald and the nephews use -- and not without incident -- to fly to Uxmal to rescue Scrooge has a charmingly Barksian design.)

However, much like "Great Paint", "Uxmal" and "Matterhorn" flirt with Barksian realism (note that the Uxmalians aren't dogfaces but have realistic human features, and in fact closely resemble the Native Americans of "Land of the Totem Poles"), but heavily skew toward unabashed silliness. An integral plot point of "Uxmal" involves the tired, trite, uninspired coincidence of one of the main characters being mistaken for a primitive tribe's prophesized, long-awaited messiah, forcing Scrooge into the slapstick-enabling, humiliating position of being expected to perform a culture-saving raind dance". Likewise, "Matterhorn" climaxes with Scrooge being tragically undone when the mechanisms of his cheese factory (its rapid production rate hinging upon a certain highly-localized Swiss secret the ducks had inadvertently uncovered in the course of the story...) go haywire, escalating into a spectacle of ferocious, wanton destruction (its inherently ridiculous nature akin to the climax of "The Great Paint Robbery".

And yet, despite such flippant sensibilities and the aforementioned plot flaws, my feelings toward both stories is overwhelmingly positive -- the art is by and large fantastic, and though not all of the kinks were worked out, the writing is earnest, inspired and dedicated, and exhibiting admirable, completely honorable complexities.

The Gemstone version of "The Great Paint Robbery" had benefited from "Americanized" dialogue by a good friend of this blog, Chris Barat. But based upon my sole previous experience with a British Duck (and Mouse) comic, Fleetway's Mickey and Friends #9 (1996), I approached these two albums braced for the worst. I was pleasantly surprised -- though the stiff, rigid typeset lettering(!) was jarring at first, the dilague -- although some of it was fairly generic -- was often inspired, fiery, witty, and pleasingly in-character. Examples: "...and became the proud possessor of a prime plot..." ...wouldn't you know it, bona fide alliteration! Or Donald griping, "They may think this is amusing, but I'm at the end of my tether!" having a double-meaning that's apparent when seen in the context of the panel its assigned to...

...anyway...well, if you have a few extra dollars on hand, I recommend ordering used copies of these via Amazon!

-- Ryan


  1. Ryan,

    <<"Rich, lush, archaic"? The fleet-footed, hyperactive pacing of Miguel Pujol's "follow the trail of clues"-plot drew upon real-world settings and historical and facts, but in a very passive, almost dismissive fashion, in comparison to Barks' firmly-grounded concern with specifics.>>

    I probably have to take some of the responsibility for any "passivity" in the "Great Paint Robbery" narrative, at least in the manner in which the Ducks vocalized in same. I didn't gussy up my English dialogue (written in the late 80's as a personal project), and Gemstone published it pretty much as is. I WILL argue quite strongly that it is far less inherently childish a narrative than either "Uxmal" or "Matterhorn". Same goes for the fifth album, "To the Grand Canyon and Back," which I dialogued as well but Gemstone never used.


  2. I have a paperback copy of "Rain God" - the shop (Hanley's Universe) had it around that time and I had no clue about its publishing history until now, except that it was lumped with copies of Marvel Bumper, a UK comic where they'll have Tom & Jerry and The Ghostbusters and Droids in the same issue -strange bedfellows. Also, I remember an issue that advetised a free gummi candy that was supposedly taped to the cover and I felt robbed because it wasn't there...pffft, imports.
    Btw, the pink airplane in the stroy is the only bitI still remember about it - it's a bit that Van Horn might have thought up and is pretty clever.
    Thanks for the info.

  3. I have both those British albums; I've only read them once each, a few years back, so my sensibilities may well have changed since then, but at the time I really was not impressed with either of them. I remember my feelings, overwhelmingly, being along the lines of: ARGH. These stories are SO UNBEARABLY LONG, with SUCH TINY, TRIVIAL PLOTS! Gah!

    (Of course, the indifferent British translations can't have helped things.)

    I wasn't a big fan of the "Paint Robbery" story either, but at least I found it kind of *interesting,* in its own completely batshit insane way. I found myself appreciating it a lot more after reading those other entries in the series.

    (Of course, my bad-mouthing notwithstanding, I *still* would love for some of the others to appear in English--I'll have to get around to checking out the French versions one of these days.)

  4. Chris: No, I really think it was wholly the plot and the visual pacing, and not your dialogue!

    I didn't realize that you'd written your script that long ago -- interesting! Is there changes that you wish you could've made?

    Hopefully, soon, there will be a new Duck-and-Mice licensee/publisher, and they'll print "Grand Canyon and Back", using your dialogue. All in favor, say, "Aye!" ...it's unanimous, then? As expected!

    'rehab: Wish I'd had such finds the couple times that I've patronized Hanley's -- guess it's hit-or-miss!

    Was Marvel Bumper by any chance magazine-sized, as opposed to conventional comic book-sized? It brings to mind the lone mid-`90's issue that I have of the British Mickey & Friends. What comes to mind is an undesirable hybrid of a comic and those licensed character/property-based children's magazines from Welsh Publishing, ca. 1988-90, that we've discussed.

    re: the modest, quaint airplane invented by Gyro -- I hadn't though of Van Horn, but I see what you mean. It struck me as something that Barks' wouldn't have been inclined to create, but if he'd drawn it, that's what it would've looked like! (Not quite, but kind of ...)

    Geo: It's true -- the plots are very silly and fickle (and, as I wrote, "passive"), but for whatever reason, I enjoyed both albums. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm getting less criticsl with age! But I think I liked them just because they were long, but as they used the four-tier-per-page and not the digest-oriented three-tiers format, were fairly dense ... and because they were new to me, were drawn in a Barksian style, the characterizations were fairly Barksian, and the nature of the ducks' "world" and their place in it was Barksian. But I can very much understand one taking the viewpoint that the storytelling was almost indifferent, and that they were but a pale imitation of Barks. ...so, I guess I'm just easy to please these days!

    -- Ryan