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! :)