Monday, December 30, 2013

Marvel and I: The Story of a Long-term Misunderstanding, Part Two

When we last left off, it was late 1991. Ryan was in the fourth grade, and Darkwing Duck, which had started airing on The Disney Afternoon and ABC that very same fall, had become his favorite show. However, much to his vexation, a friend and classmate kept boasting (as if it were somehow HIS accomplishment) that some Marvel Comics villain named Thanos had killed off all of the heroes in the Marvel universe (at least according to Ryan's friends) in some allegedly awesome mini-series called The Infinity Gauntlet. Thus, Ryan's friend reasoned, Thanos would be able to kill Darkwing Duck with his pinky finger, if he felt like it.

To begin with, Ryan already didn't care about, and found no appeal in, Marvel Comics. But now, he'd been pushed over the edge, and became an active Marvel detractor.

This growing aversion didn't extend to just Marvel, but to the action-dominated, thriller-oriented arm of the sci-fi genre, across all media. A lot of Ryan's grade school peers who liked X-Men and Spawn (I think of this as the era of the X-Men, Image, and all that I repelled me) also liked the Terminator movies. All of these things seemed gnarled, grizzly, and coldly metallic to Ryan. When a friend would describe the blood and gore in a movie they'd seen over the weekend, Ryan would ask him what was wrong with him and how he could possibly enjoy such fare.

In short, in the early `90's, Ryan was reading these comics:

He was not reading these comics:

(In fact, to Ryan, the above were not even comics -- they were just in the way. A meaningless din.)

But he ESPECIALLY wasn't (no way in Hell; over his dead body) reading THIS (as he considered it at the time) atrocity:

(The Marvel superheroes were in trouble. Didn't they know to call DW?)

At this point (reverting to first person), in my mind, all superhero comics were all lumped together in the "yuck" bin. I thought little more of DC than I did of Marvel. Now, as a longtime DC fan, that's hard to believe. But, it's not such a stretch, considering how that was the era of the bloodletting that transpired in major story arcs like "A Death in the Family" and "The Death of Superman" -- both of which I'd been to some extent exposed to. (How could I not have been, in the case of the latter?) A few years before my unpleasant run-in with Thanos, at a friend's birthday party, as part of a goody bag, I received a copy of a recent issue of Batman that happened to be a part of "Death in the Family". When you're six years old and a couple of years earlier, your favorite show had been Super Friends (via syndicated weekday reruns), a bleak, angst-caked story about Robin being beaten with a crowbar to a bloody pulp just isn't going to work.

Within a few years, I would have come around on DC. I had just become active in fandom, via a certain A.P.A., and Joe Torcivia encouraged me to give DC a chance.The Paul Dini-Bruce Timm animated series also played a role. They weren't cheesy, not "hardcore", but just right. These distillations of the DC characters converted me. Batman and Superman came to have a "feel" much closer to that of Uncle Scrooge than to my conception of the Marvel and Image properties. Batman: The Animated Series had actually only premiered a year later than my friend drove me away from superheroes with Thanos, and, in keeping with that, at first, I found it drab, boring, and depressing. It was actually falling in love with Gargoyles a couple of years later that warmed me up to B:TAS.

But, even with the influences of Torcivia, Dini, and Timm, I might not have ultimately gotten hooked on DC if, in my most formative years, an attachment to the characters hadn't been ingrained into my psyche. Super Friends was one of my earliest favorite shows, remember? Before DuckTales premiered and, at the age of five, I immediately went nuts over it. Before my first Uncle Scrooge comic. I've actually been a DC fan longer than a duck fan! I just forgot that for several years.

But, as I was entering high school and getting more into DC, I was simultaneously and paradoxically moving away from comics and animation. I had never really changed my mind about Marvel; but now, I was indifferent to it.

Next time: The early `00's come along, and I go to college. A couple of movies come out. I see and like them. That makes me say, "I should go read the original comics." Another entire decade later, I get around to it.

-- Ryan

Sunday, December 22, 2013

(Some of) my assorted thoughts on Santa Claus: The Movie (1985; directed by Jeannot Szwarc).

Though my mom broke the bad news to me at the age of 11, in December of 1991, I've always thought that either the centuries-old raw matter of the mythology of Santa Claus had been lost to the superficiality of modern culture, or that the mythology had considerable untapped potential ... or both. So, I've always been curious about Santa Claus: The Movie (which, at the age of four, I was oblivious to the release of), but never gotten around to watching ... until this afternoon.

My verdict? The Rankin-Bass version of Santa Claus' autobiography, the stop-motion television special Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), remains the superior version of Santa's origin, based on those that I'm familiar with.

The real deal.

The 1985 movie starts out with him Mr. Claus as a benevolent, big-hearted, jovial, er, rounded, beared a in what seems to be medieval northern Europe who just loves to bring toys to kids on Christmas eve. So far, great. Fitting tone-wise and in consideration of the myth's historical roots. But then, he gets caught in a blizzard ... and is rescued by a gaggle of elves (who look and sound like New Yorkers and are dressed in what seem to be costumes for a children's play), who have, as they state, been "waiting for" him, so as to "fulfill the prophecy". And so, suddenly, unexpectedly bestowed upon him are his North Pole home, and adjacent toy factory, sleigh, flying reindeer (who, you know, in wide are live animals but who, jarringly, are weird-proportioned, lazy-eyed puppets), and a plan to fly all across the world on Christmas Eve delivering presents to children. Everything's squarely in place, ready and waiting for him, ready to go. Makes him seem like a doddering old man who stumbled his way into the elusive entity that is blind luck. It's lazy writing, glossing over all the why's and how's. "We're gonna tell you the story of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus ... mehhhhhh, we don't wanna bother to figure out how all that stuff came to be, so it was just already there, okay?"

But at least once the movie gets past its initial "Here, Santa, this is your new home! Here Santa, this is your toy factory! Here, Santa, these are your reindeer!" stage and an actual story (about a rogue elf, a crooked toy industry monopolist who wants to run Santa out of business, a homeless little boy, and the crooked toy industry monopolist's kind-hearted child niece, who befriends the homeless little boy) gets underway, it's not bad. 

And at least one aspect of the movie has brought out the kid in me: despite the obvious green screening/blue screening/whatever it is, to behold Santa guiding his reindeer-driven flying sleigh approach, soar over, zip around, and land on the rooftops of Manhattan is to be mesmerized, thrilled at a base level. After all, I still wish that's what really happened each Christmas.

-- Ryan

Friday, December 20, 2013

From (one of) my bookshel(ves): Donald Duck Comics Digest #3 (Gladstone; cover date March 1987)

Though not Christmas-themed, this issue is winter-themed (as indicated by the cover, below). So, though my timing could be better, it's nonetheless befitting of the season ... especially considering that in my locale, it snowed this past week (causing me to be stuck in slow-moving traffic, thus frustrating me, for the duration of my drive home from work Tuesday ... grrr ...)

The Barks cover is from Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #149 (1953). At a glance, it looks all too stoic and inactive. Then you actually look at it, and so realize the gag and that its rendering is perfect. That's our guy.

(Cover image courtesy, as usual, of the vital boon to humanity that is Inducks.)

Like most of Gladstone's four short-lived digests, these 100 pages are comprised of a dash of Barks and several non-Barks shorts stories and a couple of gags, all originally printed by Western. Their origination spans from the `40's through `70's. Though you might think I'd regret a missed opportunity to present long-form European stories, I appreciate my copies -- they have their own little charm. A variety of material featuring my favorite characters and a heckload of pages -- what's not to like?

Let's address Donald Duck Comics Digest #3's specific contents:

Donald Duck -- "The Titanic Ants!" (Written and drawn by Carl Barks. From Donald Duck #60, 1958.) An anomaly in two regards, neither of which I know the reason for: 1. This was several years after Barks left Donald Duck (first the Four Color issues and then as its own regular title) for Uncle Scrooge. 2. Instead of Barks' (and Western's) standard four-tiers-per-page/rectangular panels format, we're subjected to the three-tiers-per-page/big square panels format. 

It's a one-off for Barks in terms of content, too: it's 20 pages, but not an adventure story. It's Duckburg park setting and the premise -- Donald and the nephews employed as "waiters and clean-up boys", as well as "ant shooters!" (emphasis Barks'), for a snooty high society gathering -- suggests a 10-pager-esque affair. It's easy to imagine Donald trying his best to impress the elites, only to unwittingly cause things to go disastrously downhill. (say, by unwittingly spilling ant poison into the main course, causing everyone to immediately fall ill). Now, it's a deviation of the formula to see the nephews are tasked with the same duties and responsibilities as Donald, he and they by all appearances intending to work as team. Usually, the nephews would not be participants. Donald would be boasting to them that he's going to excel in his performance and endear himself to the well-to-dos, only to have them stand on the sidelines and cringe at his mounting series of failures. But we still might be staying on the expected route: Donald might at any moment resentfully crow that he will outshine the nephews, and a spiteful competition would ensue, resulting in whatever means by which things go wry and chaos breaks loose. 

But, no, Donald and the nephews remain on amicable, cooperative terms for the story's full duration.Things do inevitably go awry, facilitating the inevitable total upsetting and flustering of the top hat-and-coattails-sporting, diamond-adorned picnickers. But Donald's ego is hardly a factor; there's no ultimate down-dressing for his pride, jealousy, greed, spite, etc. This isn't one of Barks' morality plays, and not infused with quiet disgruntlement, as are many of his 10-pagers. Instead, when the going-awry unfolds, Donald and the nephews simply become unnerved and hurriedly try to address and find a way to resolve the problem. This characterization is innocent, and not selfish or scheming, like we'd find them elsewhere. It's implied that they don't want to screw up in front of the elites, but it's not a driving factor. It's more basic and straightforward: they're the straight men against an outlandish occurrence. 

What outlandish occurrence would that be? The picnic is beset upon by an army of lion-sized ants. Donald and the nephews' above-noted camaraderie is, in a sense, befitting of the story's nature: it's one of Barks more bombastic, fantastical, over-the-top outings, not heavy-handed in the least. Though the giant ants are the work of a stock eccentric scientist, there's little to no science woven into the story, and clearly, no history or geography, as in many of the adventure stories. In terms of its pure fancifulness and whimsy, it's something of a kindred spirit with "The Golden Christmas Tree", as aesthetically and contextually different as the two stories may be. (Then again, Barks' later Uncle Scrooge outer space adventures stretch the limits of believability, given aspects like the uncanny fast and user-friendly space ships in "The Luny Lunar Gold Rush" or "The 24-Karat Moon". But, those stories have Barks' exquisite fable-like narratives and/or his keen sense of satire. "Titanic Ants!" is sheer spectacle.) 

Given the B-horror movie trappings, to me this is one of Barks' least appealing stories. However, it's still a satisfying read, owing to its purely Barksian traits: the comical poses and expressions of the panicking high society picnickers; and the characterizations of the overwhelmed Donald-and-nephews, and of Scrooge -- myopic due to his utter fixation on finagling some advantageous business deals, and then caught utterly by surprise (and then in turn, having a nervous breakdown) when the risks he should have perceived come to fruition, jeopardizing the what he thought were surefire investments he'd just made. Barks' Scrooge was volatile. When other Western creators tried their hand at Scrooge, he was benign.

Keeping with this not being one of Barks' disgruntled, cynical stories, the resolution works in both Donald and Scrooge's favor. The story twist that begets the ending's circumstances is clever, ironic, and funny ... unlike the attempted but cloying twist endings of some of the other stories in this issue ...


Two Chip 'n' Dale six-pagers are included, both written by [author unknown] and drawn by Jack Bradbury;  as are two of the (grits teeth) Barks-scripted, Kay Wright-drawn `70's Junior Woodchucks stories. Though one of my biggest heroes Barks may be, those things are like the proverbial suffered root canal operation. Okay, okay, they're not that bad (...okay, okay, not nearly as bad -- now leave me alone about it! ...say, are those root canal things really as bad as they're cracked up to be?) They have their moments of humor ... but, eh, they're just so, I don't know, procedural, or something. And, yes, Kay Wright's banal, uninspired art doesn't help matters. But they do have their moments, like (re: the two in this digest) the brashness of the arrogant golfers in "New Zoo Brews Ado"; the obese Little Chickadee who uses her weight to foil the Woodchucks they're competing in a race against in "Music Hath Charms"; or, in the latter, the aloof Gyro bemoaning that his Pied Piper-evoking electronic rodent-luring musical pipe is hypnotizing and drawing children, not pests, as if that's a common problem.

But there's little way around it: Barks seemed to have phoned these in. See: "New Zoo Brews Ado"'s series of gags built around escaped zoo animals foiling the golfer's attempted drives. Kind of trite and primitive, no? ("New Zoo Brews Ado" is from Huey, Dewey, and Louie Junior Woodchucks -- um, hello, Western, why did you have such a staggering disregard for grammar -- #20, 1972). Or the utterly thin and one-note characterization of Donald in "Music Hath Charms" (HD&LJW #21, 1972 -- consecutive issues; catch that?); he hates that his nephews have so many trophies and awards, and so as to get back at them, doesn't think it that it might cast him in a bad light to muck up a children's race and stranding a bunch of the kids on an island.  (True, in many of Barks' `40's 10-pagers, he never put the gloves on when squaring off with the kids; but in those stories, there was more dynamics in their characterization and interaction. And plus, it was a different time; spanking your kids wasn't a social death sentence and a legal risk.) It isn't even implied that his disdain for the trophies is a symptom of his own feelings of inadequacy. His function in the story is no more, "RAHHHHH, I hate these trophies SO MUCH! I'm gonna GET YOU!!!"

As for the chipmunk stories ... my first instinct was to say that the art is as uninviting as Wright's. Then I remembered that this is Jack Bradbury that we're talking about ... how could it be that I would feel so negatively about his art? A quick glance at the backgrounds and incidental characters reassured me that I found his art here as pleasing as I do anywhere else ... while in any given panel, the title characters register as ugly, while everything else around them is quite fine.

You're probably thinking, "Huh? What's going on here? What's this glaring weird quirk/hang-up of Ryan's?" It's this: for some inexplicable reason, in comparison to the theatrical shorts, Western's Chip and Dale -- no matter the artist -- were off-model. Western seemed to have their own model for the duo, as their appearance was consistent between all of their stories that Western produced ... again, no matter the artist. And, frankly, the Western versions are obtuse and just plain blahhhhhhh in comparison to the official one. Add to that the baby talk dialect that Western designated as standard for the characters, and you have some pretty saccharine, tacky comics. 

Still, these stories are fairly clever and somewhat funny ... I guess. First, in order to withstand "The Cold Winter" (WDC&S #231, 1959), the pair seeks shelter, only to be evicted from every potential site by the occupants who have already claimed it. Finally, when they breach the den of a bear irate at their having awoken him, they appear to be unwanted yet again ... but then, the exhausted bear falls asleep on his feet and collapses to the floor of the cave, trapping them under him. They figure, "Well, hey, we'll be warm here until spring!" Clever, right? Ironic, no? Funny, yes? Yeah. I guess. 

About 40 pages later, "It's Snow Joke" (WDC&S #232, 1959 -- yet again, consecutive issues -- catch it this time?) finds a mischievous Dale getting a rise out of startling other denizens of the forest with snow statues of menacing animals and creatures sculpted impromtu. His first three victims are, in order, Chip, Thumper, and the adult Bambi. (The latter represents considerable thought having been given to continuity.) His fourth (and fated to be final) victim is ... the witch from Snow White, who apparently survived her plunge from that cliff at the end of the movie but when she landed, struck her head on a rock, causing brain damage -- to wit, Alzheimer's. Thus, we find her with no apparent awareness of the fact that she's actually the Queen ( present-day forest where Chip and Dale live, which, going by other stories, is in or adjacent to Duckburg?) and 100% content to wander around in the woods during winter as a disfigured elderly hag. (The preceding represents a considerable, utter lack of thought having been given to continuity.)

Anyway, everyone that Dale gives a start to (what, they couldn't tell that it was snow and inanimate?) chews him out, but he doesn't give a florg and just keeps right on doing it ... until he gets his comeuppance, when the witch animates and menaces him with his greatest achievement, a giant snow sculpture of a dragon. But then he redeems himself by rescuing his friends from the dragon, and pushing a snowball down a hill, which, as the routine goes, quickly amasses more and mor until it's huge ... and then it strikes and buries the witch. Who's left that way, with NO magical resources to free herself, I guess we're to understand. 

Okay, so "Cold Winter" is kind of dumb ... and I guess "Snow Joke" sort of is, too ... but it's kind of weird and random, so it has that going for it, making me kind of like it. What was [writer unknown' thinking? Scaring your friends with snow sculptures? Bambi and Thumper? The witch from Snow White? A dragon snow sculpture come to life? (Okay, that one's not far-fetched, once you have Dale building scary snow sculptures as your m.o. ... but it's a weird, out-of-left-field m.o., nonetheless.) (Actually, now that I think of it, I can picture the Rescue Rangers Dale doing this. That's a fluke: with Western Chip 'n' Dale stories, that isn't by any means typical: Chip-as-straight-man/Dale-as-slacker-and-overgrown-kid hadn't yet been conceived, and wouldn't be until RR went into development.)


I consider the gem of this issue to be "The Firebugs", a Donald Duck backup story from Four Color #300 (1950), the issue that brought to the world Barks' "Big-Top Bedlam". "Firebugs" is the rare Paul Murry-drawn duck story (with inks by Carl Buettner, and the writer being unknown). Visually, it's delectable! His ducks are leaner and drawn with more pronounced curved angles. In a way, they're vaguely Taliaferro-like, but smoother -- though his art was full and detailed, Taliaferro's art had a somewhat rough edge to it. Couple his exquisite character poses with the old-timey, kind of New England-ish setting(I'm from here, and I wouldn't trade our winters for anything) -- replete with the nighttime glow of a fireplace -- setting, and you have 20 pages that, at least to me, are visually delectable.

The basic premise is fairly Barksian: Donald tries to do something that he's convinced he'll excel at, only to complete botch it and make at least a couple of people really mad at him in the process. The rift between him and the nephews established at the story's beginning, spawning Donald's determination to prove them wrong, also rings true of the stories Barks had been turning out for nearly all of the 10 years immediately preceding this. However, the way in which the nephews foil Donald is completely accidental (in fact, they're oblivious to it), leaving one -- or at least me -- with the feeling that they were overlooked as active characters in an active relationship with their uncle. But overall, a pretty damn good story (though it's certainly the art that makes it).

A couple of oddities about this story: 1. Goofy's in it. 2. Goofy's intermittently out-of-character: I don't see him as the type to get caught up in a mob mentality, the kind of grunt that bullheadedly starts chanting at Donald, who'd just won over the mob, "Speech! Speech!" But his slapstick performance in his and Donald's attempts at being firemen goes down just right. 3. Scrooge lives next door to Donald, in the same type of house. 4. Donald's incompetence irks an ornery Scrooge, a relatively decent approximation of their relationship as developed by Barks. Scrooge giddy with glee at the (apparent) sight of Donald's house caught fire? Wow, this Scrooge is COLD. But then, this was only a couple years after Barks first brought Scrooge into the world in "Christmas as Bear Mountain" as a considerably vindictive, borderline sadistic, craven old wretch. Hell, "Only a Poor Old Man" was still two years away! Knowing that, we can't blame the writer (whoever he or she was) for depicting Scrooge as reveling in the prospect of his child, outwardly cherubic three grandnephews burning to death (as you'd think he'd have to know that they'd be in bed at that time of night). The few precedents to date qualified Scrooge as a pretty nasty elderly man.


This respective digest issue winds down with "El Toreador Grandma", a six-page Grandma Duck bit from WDC&S #145 (1952). Gladstone's credits for it read, in full, "Artist unknown", but Inducks that it was written by Don Christensen and drawn by Frank McSavage. I'm sure they know what they're talking about. McSavage's art is lively, articulate, and wholesome -- as good as Paul Murry's "Firebugs" art, really. And, it's genuinely funny. (This brings up the age-old question: does the art quality influence one's perception of the writing? If Kay Wright had drawn this, would its humor be significantly blunted? And if McSavage had drawn the Junior Woodchucks stories reprinted in this issue, would the gags and general humor come off as more inspired and insightful? Didn't Geo kind of touch on this in his Wright-Jippes Woodchucks comparisons?) At each and every story beat, every facial expression and character pose hits JUST the right note. Gus showing the left-behind business card to Grandma so as to bring to her attention that she'd just sold her beloved docile old bull to a bullfight producer plays like an exaggerated-and-ironic moment of realization from a Charlie Chaplin short or an E.C. Segar strip. And speaking of Segar, Grandma's undaunted perseverance (driving all the way to Mexico in pursuit of her bull; entering the ring mid-bullfight and taking over when the matador is incapacitated) and uncanny strength (said matador was incapacitated by her not realizing her own strength while shoving him) evokes Popeye, as well as Jeff Smith's Gran'ma Ben. 


There's also a one-page gag and a half-page gag. They're so-so.

-- Ryan

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Marvel and I: The Story of a Long-term Misunderstanding, Part One

Before the past year and a half or so, I've spent most of my life being Marvel-illiterate. Now, I didn't, at 30, emerge from under a rock, so for most of my life, sure, I've been, each to a different degree, acquainted with Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America: in the case of Spider-man, I knew that his alter ego was Peter Parker and that he struggled with teen angst and his crush on the red-headed Mary Jane; but the Hulk and the Cap were no more to me than mere icons. Case in point: in second grade, myself and a few friends would play Batman every day at recess. One of our ranks urged that, along with the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and the like, someone on the bad guys team should play "the Incredible Hulk". Now, I knew that the Incredible Hulk wasn't a Batman, let alone a DC, character, but I went along with it; some brute muscle seemed to round out our play-acting game's villain super-team.

(When I was in second grade, being familiar, via pop culture, with both characters but not a follower of either's comics, this would've made perfect sense to me.)

One evening after school, when I enthusiastically updated my parents on how I'd been spending my recess, my dad laughed and informed me, "The Incredible Hulk is a good guy!" Having doubted my friend in the first place, I knew that my dad -- whose foremost reference point was the 1978-82 CBS live-action Incredible Hulk TV series -- was right. But as in my mind it made sense that spindly, craven wretches like the Joker and the Riddler kept a *cough* hulking brute on hand to serve as their "brawn", I held my ground[*], and the makeup of our recest cast went on changed ... until we moved onto, each in its own turn, Ghostbusters, our self-created team of time travelers, and eventually even Darkwing Duck ...

([*] As I would eventually learn, neither my friend nor my dad had it quite right. In the original six-issue run of The Incredible Hulk and his subsequent run in Tales to Astonish, the character [or at least his alter-ego, Bruce "Bob" Banner"] is squarely the protagonist, but not necessarily a hero of any sort; at best, an anti-hero. And in his crossover appearances in issues of the same era of The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Amazing Spider-man, he was depicted as an outright public menace and, format-wise, the indisputable antagonist of each respective story.)

Ah, Darkwing Duck. My fourth grade coincided with that series' fall 1991-spring 1992 first season, co-run between The Disney Afternoon and ABC's Saturday morning lineup. (No, despite what any Wiki or DVD episode order says, the 13 episodes that premiered in the fall 1991 do not comprise the series' "second season". They were part of the first season ... well, an argument could be made that the episodes that were "previewed" [in full] on The Disney Channel in the spring of 1991 should be considered the first season, and that both the 1991-92 syndicated and ABC episodes together comprise the second season ... but that totally flies in the face of conventional wisdom, so at best, those Disney Channel-"previewed" episodes can collectively be considered, "er, the "pre-first season".) And during those months, Darkwing Duck dominated my life. I was obsessed with it. My best friend and I developed handwritten-and-drawn fliers for our "Darkwing Duck Fan Club", and distributed photocopies of them to every boy in the fourth grade. (Oh, don't get me wrong; at that point, I already had several crushes on girls under my belt, but we figured that our "club" wouldn't appeal to girls. If we were smarter, we would've found a way to entice them into joining us!) 

But then, a friend and classmate started boasting to me that some Marvel villain named Thanos had conquered the world and could easily kick Darkwing's ass. Thus began a longstanding revulsion on my part by any Marvel comics, one which took me nearly 20 years to undo and get to the heart of the matter. (For the record, though, I'm still a DC man, at the end of the day.) And, ironically, my coming-around has been centered on ... Thanos. 

This is not the post that I meant to write tonight ... but it's far better than the one that I did! And so, our story is ... to be continued!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Happy post-Thanksgiving! And, a Ludwig Von Drake/Wonderful World of Disney treat...

I hope that everyone had a pleasant Thanksgiving and extended weekend (if you were lucky enough to, in fact, have Thursday-Sunday off.) I went out with family on Wednesday night, and then stayed at my mom stepfather's house, where the next day's gathering took place. Since Thursday night, I've been home, reading, cleaning and organizing (currently doing laundry), and catching up on sleep.

This episode of The Wonderful World of Disney incorporates the 1957 theatrical short "The Truth About Mother Goose" and the widely-known "Mickey and the Beanstalk" portion of Fun and fancy Free (1947). In animated sequences produced explicitly for this episode, Ludwig Von Drake resumes his host role, with his narration edited over both aforementioned features. It first aired on November 17th, 1963, so it's close enough to a Thanksgiving special presentation, I suppose.

Ludwig is as charming and entertaining as ever, though his on-screen bits are relatively sedentary compared to some of his others -- he's mostly seated, reading to us from an armchair, Masterpiece Theater-style. However, when verbally sparring with his bug friend, Herman,  the jumpy, frazzled Von Drake emerges.

Though the gloomy, stately imagery of the "Truth About mother Ghost" short is markedly different from Von Drake's drab office, they complement each other in that they're both UPA esque. (Though the sketch-like outline inks on Von Drake remind me of Chuck Jones' style from the same era.)The lusher, "rounder" animation and backgrounds -- I suppose the "classic" Disney style; e.g., Snow White, Bambi, etc. --  of "Mickey and the Beanstalk" stands apart, clearly from a different era.

Well, back to work tomorrow. (Sigh.) Have a nice week, everyone.

-- Ryan

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Two DuckTales petitions ...

Ron Jones' DuckTales score is a sorely under-acknowledged component of the series. To this day, certain cues really "get me".

For example, does this image mentally evoke a certain menacing, impending doom-evoking musical phrase?

To hear them standing on their own, as in this YouTube video, renews my appreciation for them:

A friend I've met through blogging, Kenneth, feels just as strong as I do, if not stronger, about this subject. He has created a petition urging Disney Records to "Release the Complete Music Score for DuckTales on CD and/or iTunes". I implore any fan of the series to sign it:

And, Kenneth's inspired me to write one of my own, instructing Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment on how to "Release a DuckTales deluxe collector's edition box set":

Not being in a position to produce such releases ourselves, we have to do the best we can!

-- Ryan

Thursday, November 21, 2013

(Some of) my assorted thoughts on The H-Man (dir. Ishirō Honda; Toho Co. Ltd., 1958) ...

Thanks to the copy in my elementary school’s library of Godzilla by Ian Thorne (Crestwood House, 1977), I spent a good couple years of my childhood pining to see the dozen-plus – if you will – kaiju movies therein accounted for. It was the pre-DVD, pre-Internet era, and I was 10 and growing up in a rural locale, so to me, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Destroy All Monsters were painfully unattainable and thus my expectations of them all the ore aggrandized.

Twenty-plus years later, and thanks to advances in both mass consumer technology and personal autonomy, these movies – and related and/or similar movies – are far more accessible. In fact, my palette has extended beyond not just Godzilla (or, for the purists, Gojira) movies, and not just Shōwa-era kaiju Toho movies in general, but to NON-kaiju Shōwa-era sci-fi Toho movies … like, for example, The H-Man ( ... as it's known in the U.S., where the English dub was first released in 1959. Though the original Japanese title translates to Beauty and the Liquid Men, the 2009 U.S. DVD release of the original Japanese version still bills it as The H-Man.)

… actually, for a good while, I didn’t feel as though I were watching a sci-fi film, and  in the end, wish I’d been right. Yes, the title sequence  -- with its ceremonial imagery of hulking ships at sea, a blackened sky cast over them as they’re subjected to the mercy of a roaring storm – and close-ups of newspaper headlines declaring a Bermuda Triangle-like scenario – really, really wants the audience to know that something mysterious and supernatural has gone on and/or is still going on, and wants you to feel scared and intrigued about it. And in the subsequent scene, when an apparent bank robber seems to vanish out of thin air, leaving all of his clothing behind, I’m pretty sure that I was supposed to be thinking, “Woah, what’s going on here?! I must keep watching, to see the resolution to this mystery?” But I was actually thinking, “Hmm, because of the limited special effects, the editing renders things vaguer than I think they were meant to be, so it’s a little confusing as to what we’re supposed to find confusing.”

Like the original Gojira -- also Honda-directed -- from four years earlier, The H-Man is a story of horror wrought by nuclear testing. It’s obvious why this theme and perspective would be recurring and dominant in Japanese films … not just 10-15 years after World War II, but as late as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). And while Toho and Honda pioneered the monster movie-as-allegory-for-nuclear devastation subgenre, in other respects, they were not possessed of an “original voice” or a “singular vision”. Even as a kid, I noticed that the “humans”-centered plotlines (which actually make up, on average, 75% of each one) in Godzilla movies seemed to mimic American movies: e.g., the James Bond-esque elements in 1966's Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster; the android-from-the-future-on-a-mission-to-alter-the-course-of-history Terminator knockoff in 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Those movies, though, were following contemporary – if cross-continental – trends. The H-Man is quite another case: with its heavy crime-mobs elements, and especially taking into account the scenes set in a seedy, smoky jazz nightclub, one would think that it had taken 25-30 years for `30’s gangster movies to be imported across the Pacific.

(By the way, there’s a team of about four or five policemen and detectives, including the highest-ranking one, who don’t really need to all be there. Sometimes, one or two are missing. Other times, they’re all present. It seems like two or at most three characters are stretched out across five, for no discernible reason.)

Now, I don’t mean that derisively: I happen to like procedural detective/crime narratives. Coincidentally, the premise anticipates The X-Files by over 30 years: an obsessive, solitary professional – in this case, a scientist – is convinced that the answer to an unsolved crime is supernatural in nature, but all concerned law enforcement personnel – and pretty much everyone else, period – believe that his ideas are baseless and fantastical. But it’s just not that character dynamic that resembles X-Files; they take a similar procedural approach, rather than a fantastical one, keeping the ghosts, monsters, or what have you elusive. As far as U.S. antecedents, from my limited knowledge, I can think of the early `40’s horror movies of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton, in the sense that they were worldly and very restrained about showing anything sensational.

The anti-hero (the contrarian scientist) forming an alliance and romance with the misunderstood, in-a-bad-spot bad girl heroine has a distinctly American flavor to it, though I can’t pinpoint specific influences.

That’s not to say that Honda and Toho didn't upon spectacle and thrills. The “melting” radiation-affected humans and the ethereal, translucent beings they evolve into are clearly intended to shock, gross-out, and scare. Still, as I said earlier, throughout the scene on the abandoned boats – where the specter-ish entities are first seen – the eerie, ominous ambiance and slowly-building suspense is pulled off pretty tastefully and skillfully Unfortunately, working around these effects lead to awkwardly framed-shots and disconnected editing.

And of course, there’s the climax, comprised of wide shots of a city quadrant being evacuated by the authorities, replete with armed vehicles and tanker trucks; and the subsequent wide shots of the gasoline-saturated river and underground waterways … including a shot of a vehicle speeding over a bridge as the enormous flames from below tower over and lash out at it. It would seem that here is where a considerable chunk of the budget went. And though the desperately-go-right-into-the-heart-of-the-storm-to-rescue-the-girl-and-pull-it-off-just-in-the-nick-of-time motif climax is intuitive, as well as earnestly, laboriously staged and performed,  the technical limitations lead to confusing editing. E.g., when we cut from a shot of the encroaching fire to the principles running from it, it’s not clear how far behind them it is, or where they are now in relation to the where we saw them in the shot that preceded the one of the fire.

Now, some people consider special effects that seem cheesy by today’s standards to irrevocably render a movie laughable. I see past technical (or sheer budgetary) limitations for what they are, and in their context, look at the effort being made. So, for me, it’s Toho; it’s a gritty detective/gangster movie; it’s character-oriented and worldly, with the fantastical elements restricted just about enough to make the movie cerebral without being bombastic and overindulgent visually; and it has a humane, if simplistic (or at least too-brushed-over), “message”. …oh, if it’s not clear, those are all reasons that I liked it!

-- Ryan

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A sampling of Gladstone's original run: Donald Duck #269 (Oct. 1988; cover date Jan. 1989)

Last Wednesday night, at my favorite restaurant, I joined my family to celebrate my 32nd birthday. Gifts included several articles of clothing and a new pair of shoes for the job that I'm starting next week, a Batman logo t-shirt from my sister, and, from my grandmother, a copy of Gladstone's Donald Duck #269. (She said that she asked at the comic shop for "the oldest Disney comic they have", and this is what they produced. At the time of my seventh birthday, it would've been one of the newest.)

Juxtaposed in this issue are two ten-pagers each built around Donald competing against Gladstone to win a contest: best apples at the county fair in Barks' "Red Apple Sap" from Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #205 (Oct. 1957); and best photograph of a buffalo -- the prize being a much-hyped new car -- in the Daniel Branca-penciled "Eyes on the Bison (its native Danish title being "Dream Car", per Inducks), originally published in 1980. 

A particularly entertaining angle in "Sap" is that Gladstone isn't even trying to harvest apples, and is only peripherally aware of the budding apple tree in his yard. He does give passing thought to the fact, given his luck, his apples' success come the fall harvest is a sure bet, but from what Barks shows us, from spring to fall, Gladstone never leaves the lounge chair beneath said apple tree. Donald, meanwhile, tries desperately, all season long, to tend his apples to perfection, and is dismayed to to see, again and again, every effort he make turn in Gladstone's favor. On the other side of the fence -- Gladstone, not Jones, is the next-door foe this time around  -- Gladstone's involvement never goes further than wondering what his cousin is throwing a fit about this time.

As you'd expect from the man who invented and perfected the character of Gladstone and the Donald-Gladstone rivalry, they're in quintessential form here. Not only that, but it's a unique and ingenious variation of the formula, achieving a near-fable-like perfection in its simplicity. Barks typically wrote Gladstone in ative competition with his cousin; here, Gladstone repeatedly foils Donald without even willing or trying, his mere existence the catalyst for the obstructing and thwarting of Donald's efforts. 

Better yet, the funny, ironic premise culminates in Donald's victory. On the first page, it isn't a mistake that the narration and dialogue repeatedly emphasizes that in harvest season, those who've worked hard since spring "reap what they have sown". Barks echoes said phrase on the final page, as the plot twist allowing Donald to earn the prize he'd sought and deserved plays out. This is one of those cases where one gets the feeling that the writer cheated a little to work their way around Gladstone's luck. What makes it work, overall, is that Gladstone's luck prevailed as always in the sense that he never lost what he most desired: peace, quiet, and freedom from physically or mentally exerting himself. 

Still, an argument could be made that in entertaining and favoring the notion of winning the contest, Gladstone should have kept his idleness and won best-in-show. If that's true, it would follow that given the lesser prize that he is awarded at story's end, his luck's been diminished a bit. I cannot stress enough, however, that I am quibbling over the technicalities of Gladstone's luck here. The evident pleasure that Gladstone takes in his "special" honor results from his preoccupation with "the easy life", keeping the whole unified. The farming subject matter hinting at his youth, the story's "hard work and perseverance" values are purely Barksian. Nonetheless, he didn't that often end one of his stories on a cut-and-dry "And so, the person who worked hard and persevered, naturally, won out in the end" note. However, that unambiguousness is counterblanaced by the irony and disgruntledness that runs throughout the story, with Barks' curmudgeon nature in full gear. So, why complain when Donald's, for once, given a break? I, for one, was happy from him!


On the other hand, in "Eyes on the Bison", the world is as harsh and unfair to Donald as it usually is, when up against his good-fortuned cousin. In this case, Gladstone indeed intends and seeks to come in first place ... and, naturally (a term that can be taken very literally where Gladstone's concerned), he does, while the great lengths Doanld goes to and the pain he endures (nearly being mauled to death by a raging wild buffalo) is all for naught. There's no moral here: it's your standard Donald-vs.-Gladstone affair, replete with the expected, inevitable outcome. And it's a completely adequate application of said formula. Of course, the Branca art Geoffrey Blum script, both exquisite, enliven and add much flare to the proceedings.


William Van Horn, in his brisk, punchy, brimming-with-outlandish-cartoonish-action five-page "The Bright Side", shows Donald being rash, egotistic, bullheaded, and stubborn ... and then punishes him for it, ending on a hospitalized Donald in a full-body cast. I was rooting for Donald to pull off what he boasted he could, but I guess I can't fault anyone for saying -- or the thrust of the narrative for being -- "He asked for it!" Either way, the story's a fun ride ... and, with its sequence of Donald and the nephews sledding on trash can lids down a mountainside covered with a few feet of fresh snow, it looks like a fun ride. 

The three Taliaferro dailies included in this issue each employ the same basic "boom, bam, done" structure: Donald is presented in a situation in which he's being a jerk and/or impatient and testy, and then "karma" suddenly bites him in the ass. If you, like me, find Taliaferro's renderings charming and rich, and his expressions, pacing, and action to be quite fine cartooning, then you'll appreciate these. 

I noticed that the author of one of this issue's letter lived (kind of) near where I live (and pretty much always have). I decided to Google his name, and found his Amazon! Wish List. Its contents -- numerous `40's-`60's western and adventure films and comedy TV series -- indicates a "boomer", which is consistent with the letter, as it was certainly written by no child (but by an adult with learned and rather picky taste).

Anyway, gee, thanks, Grandma!

-- Ryan

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

So, this whole "Trinity War" thing just happened...

Mental health professionals are standing by. 

To the faint of heart: Geoff Johns just made The Killing Joke and Identity Crisis look warm-and-cuddly.

Memo to self: Get over the cliffhanger. How could what follows be any fun?


-- Ryan

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A question...

Why would it ever occur to anyone to do an animated Teen Titans TV series as a sitcom, replete with Nickelodeon-esque "snappy" humor, as well as dialogue based in (and maybe influencing) what "pre-teens" think is trendy, and all drawn in a blocky, sub-Hanna-Barbera/Nicktoons style? Once they've passed on, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez are gonna have a lot of rolling-in-their-graves to catch up on!

But what's even more inexplicable is that I actually don't mind watching the show. I think it's just because of familiarity. "Hey, that's Cyborg! Hey, that's Koriand'r! Hey, that's Raven! I know who they are!" ...but, well, that said, should I make an association with this...

...whenever I set eyes upon this?!

Whether or not I "should", the act of the matter is that I do... leaving us with the real question: what kind of mixed-up world do we live in, where a production making such a radical -- and not particularly tasteful -- departure in nature from the source material is even a remote possibility, let alone a full-blown reality?

-- Ryan

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Man of Steel: My (Assorted) Thoughts

Numerous people have insisted to me that Superman is a hopelessly "lame" character. ("A sucky-ass character", one of my fellow grad students once insisted.) I always counter that they very well might feel differently if they were to be acquainted with the mythology surrounding  Kal/Clark/Supes that's persisted in the comics .

In the medium of animation, both Batman's and Superman's mythologies have been done justice -- and for that, we will always hold Paul Dini and Co. in our highest esteem.. But daytime animated TV series don't have the clout of box office record-breaking live-action Hollywood summer blockbusters. So, thanks to director Christopher Nolan, the general, non-comics-reading-(but-incessantly-video game-playing, at least in terms of the current younger generations) public has embraced what, IMHO, is a deftly-executed distillation and amplification of the concerned mythology.

... but, until now, alas, of Superman, the same cannot be said. The first two movies with Christopher Reeves in the title role, Superman (1978, dir. Richard Donner) and its sequel, Superman II ( 1980, dir. Richard Lester, who infamously replaced Donner partway through production) have their merits, but they are dated in terms of technical limitations and pop culture sensibilities. Dir. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns overtly tried to replicate the performances and the tone of the Donner film ...and when I saw it on opening day, the crowd regarded it as a joke.

(Adventure Comics #283, April 1961 -- first appearance of General Zod, Man of Steel's villain.)

Having accomplished the veritable magnum opus that is his Dark Knight trilogy, all indications are thatt Christopher Nolan has set about determined to do for Superman what he did for Batman ... and in my assessment, having the movie last Friday afternoon, he's damn well done it. Here, Nolan is not in the director's but the producer's chair, and credited as a co-writer on the screenplay -- indicating that he wasn't a hands-off studio producer, but creatively, his voice is a major one in the realized film.

From the larger-than-life presentation of Krypton in the opening scenes to the coda to the more introspective relating of Clark being conflicted with his dual identity and the mystery of the world on which he was born and his biological parents, the understanding of the characters and the mythology is acute. And the big-stage scope that the film's creators were aiming for and pretty much achieved; in terms of pathos and stakes (they're VERY high), the conceit of the film exudes "ancient, immortal gods". Or, in other words, the overused term "epic" actually applies here.

This movie's versions of Thomas and Martha Kent, as well as Perry White, are virtually the Superman equivalent of Nolan's Alfred and James Gordon: the nature of the characters, their inherent strong morals, and the importance of their relationships with the protagonist as a mentor, lifelong and cherished confidant, and/or parental figure are understood and taken very seriously. One brief but crucial interaction between Clark and Thomas Kent actually had me in tears ... not just a lump in my throat and/or my eyes watering up, but tears actually streaking down my face.

As I knew that a retelling of Superman's origin story was in store, I was worried that the movie would be tedious. But it managed to -- by using a non-linear narrative, with lots of flashbacks and "flash-forwards" -- make it fresh and suspenseful, taking our expectations into account. Once things were well underway, though, it became apparent that a VERY standard part of the Superman premise was absent ... and almost as soon as I realized this, I correctly predicted how the movie would end. *bows*  :D

Also surprising was the "standard" Superman characters -- both friends and enemies -- that weren't present. At this point, I think it's well-known that the story's villain is General Zod. There's no trace of Braniac or Bizarro ... not even Lex Luthor! (...that, besides one visual reference that I was proud and excited to spot). In fact, this perfectly parallels Batman Begins: instead of just jumping right to the Joker/right to Lex Luthor, a villain not well-known to the general public, the focus is on a villain that traditionally in the comics has been an exceptional threat to the hero in question and whose genocidal tendencies are all the more insidious because of the respective villain's uncanny intelligence.

Thus, my hunch is that Nolan plans in the sequel -- if there is one, which seems more likely than not -- to have Luthor take and dominate the stage, just as the Joker did in The Dark Knight.

One negative criticism: though I realize that audiences would be disappointed if the movie was short on rock-'em-sock'em action scenes, they really could've been trimmed a bit -- and not been so repetitive. (How many times do we really need to see Superman, in flight, crash into Zod, throwing them both halfway across the state? Do that many buildings really need to fall?)  The bombastic, flashy, almost goofy fight scenes can probably be attributed to director Zach Snyder more so than Nolan, given Snyder's filmography.

Actually, in the prolonged action scenes, another parallel to Batman Begins is apparent. In the first half of both movies, the title character's "Hero's Journey" (thanks, Christopher Vogler) and the thrust of the mythology is built up ... only to have the "payoff" be a sort-of generic "saves the city/world"-type ending. In retrospect, in Batman Begins' case,Nolan was "taking it easy" and not getting ambitious before really taking things up a whole bunch of notches in the succeeding two films. My hunch is that he's doing the same thing here, intending this to be the first in a trilogy, the arc of which he already has planned. Basically, he's sticking to a formula that has more than proven to work for him. Can't wait for the (likely) sequels!

-- Ryan

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Overstreet's World of Comic Books

All right -- have my laptop back. The Man of Steel review is still forthcoming. In the meantime, here's something I've been meaning to get around to for a LONG time now...

 Have any of you guys ever seen this? It's a veritable relic from the days when "Comic Con" (the San Diego one) hadn't yet been co-opted by Hollywood, and when pretentious "academics" and hipsters weren't dictating that comics have finally become an art form with the "advent" of "graphic novels". And seeing that it bears the Overstreet brand, you know it's going to be well-represent the Old Guard...

...but the first time that I watched this, I was floored by what I hadn't expected: that funny animal comics in general, and Carl Barks specifically, would actually be given their due. At 34:34, the focus is suddenly entirely on Barks, and stays that way for the next several minutes.

Said several minutes includes interview footage of Barks, in which it becomes apparent that he's the sweetest man who's ever lived. And then, BAM!, at 40:12 ... Bruce Hamilton! The interior of Gladstone's office! Sue Daigle at work! Stuff I never thought I'd lay eyes (or ears) on.

 -- Ryan

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Still without my laptop. Been stubbornly trying to write and oost a Man of Steel review via my cell phone, but the device's quirks have proven quite obstructive. Gonna try to get to a library tomorrow to complete my review using a desktop PC. (Those tend to like Blogger. Androids do not.) (Frustrated, 'cause I really want to discuss the movie. Bear with me.) -- Ryan

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"dah-dun-dah-dun-dahhhh dun-dah -- you know I'm not dead! ..."

Well, at times I feel dead inside, anyway, but rest assured,this blog is still alive ... or at least, so I intend it to be. Anyway, here's the deal: I'm finishing up my final semester of grad school. (I've "earned" a Master of Fine Arts ... advice: do what my sister did, and go to law school.) For the past year or so, I've been (thanks to grad school being "a horrible life choice" -- thanks, The Simpsons) in a rut. This blog has suffered. But my intention is to soon have something resembling a normal life, and in theory, that will entail blogging on a more regular, steady basis.

I'm writing this from my phone, as my laptop is not working. So, minding said predicament, here's some hastily-written "assorted thoughts" as to what I've recently been reading:

Showcase Presents The Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 2 -- No shortage of Silver Age cheesiness, but as the stories become more and more melodramatic, with each successive issue, you can actually see Paul Levitz' psyche being formed. In the meantime, I'm learning how to distinguish Colossal Boy (when regular-sized) from Star Boy (when we can't see his giveaway chest emblem) sans any coloring. Also, hate to say it, but at least at this point in time (early `60's, Edmond Hamilton (who?) was > greater than Jerry Siegel.

UPDATE: In the first half of this volume, I found Hamilton's batting average to be higher than Siegel's ... but after reading the "Computo the Conqueror!"-"Weirdo Legionnaire!" slam-bang two-parter from Adventure Comics #340-341 (January-February 1966), it's apparent that in `66, he still had formidable chops.

 Lieutenant Blueberry Vol. 1: The Iron Horse-- If you're curious about this lauded "Moebius" European guy, and like reading adventure comics (specifically, ones in the western genre, and with echoes of Barks' and Rosa's Klondike flashbacks, and especially the American frontier-set chapters of Rosa's "Life and Times"), and get nothing out of artsy-fartsy stuff, DON'T read Azarach and DO read every Blueberry comic "album". (That's what people into comics used to call high-grade editions of comics, printed as actual books ... before people not into comics -- or more aptly people who think that if they're going to be into comics, they should have something more pretentious to call them than "comics" -- started caling them "graphic novels", and the works, spanning several decades, of countless talented creative people were and remain unacceptably snubbed on a massive scale.)

Uncle Scrooge in Color -- NOT the eqivalent of Mickey Mouse in Color, and in retrosoect, a forerunner to how tacky Hamilton would get in catering to "collectors" during the Gladstone II era ... but still, it's nice to have high-quality reprintings of Barks' two Western picture books, and even if the included Geoffrey Blum articles are reworkings of several of his Carl Barks Library pieces, they're still authoritative and inspiring, doing Barks' justice as only Blum could.

-- Ryan

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

(Some of) my (specific) thoughts on DC's Archives and Showcase volumes...

Lately, one of my various -- heh -- assorted thoughts has been, "Hmm, what keeps me from posting is that I expect myself to always write formal reviews. And that actually flies in the face of the blog's title."

So, I'm going to try something new: posting (some of) my assorted thoughts. I kind have a feeling that in doing so, this blog would become "what it's supposed to", you know what I mean? ;)

Anyway, I don't intend to have the thoughts that I'll share to be too assorted. I'll stick to specific subject matter, but casually. And the subject of today's post is ... well, see the subject line. That's what it's there for. :P

First off, I want to establish that, as someone with a strong interest in DC Comics continuity and history, and in comics history in general, I'm very grateful for DC's longstanding commitment to publishing multi-volume, complete, chronoligical collections of seemingly as many series from its 70+-year history as it can. It's not much of a surprise that that there's volume after volume of Superman and Batman material. But they've seen to give Doctor Fate, Rip Hunter, Blackhawk, and Enemy Ace their due, too. U.S. fans of duck and mouse comics can only d ream of such thoroughness and availability.I think they each have a relatively limited print run, but I would think that in the long run, that just results in fewer sales. (And, hell, Fantagrahics and IDW's newspaper strip collections use more paper and even more high-end production values, but they average $25-30 each!

But, that said, there is one snag to DC's approach to their archival publishing efforts that bothers me. 

Instead of their being only the low-budget-but-bulky Showcase collections or only the lavish-but-scantier Archives publications, the co-existence of an ongoing output under both bannerheads (in many cases, duplicating the same content), I'd consider it really ideal if from the outset, they'd found a middle ground and stayed there. (Yes, all this material is available, but I'm complaining anyway -- I must be spoiled ...) What would be the nature of that middle ground? Mid-priced, color paperbacks ... like the Chronicles collections that DC has committed a select few of its "heavy hitters" to. (Some of these mirror the content of their Archives counterparts. But in the case of Green Lantern, there's an Archives version, a Showcase version, and a Chronicles version, each starting with 1959's debut of the Silver Age/Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern. And each project is officially still ongoing, awaiting subsequent volumes ... but, depending on various factors, having made it to completely different points in the series' run!)

If there were only a Chronicles-esque version of everything collected to date under any of these brands! Did DC actually have some studies conducted that determined that it'd be more profitable to do it in the market-clogging, content-witholding way they've been proceeding for years now? Hell, Fantagraphics and IDW's newspaper strip collections use more paper stock and are produced more lavishly produced than each of DC's Archives books. But the latter are $50 a pop, while the former average $25-30! I think that each entry in the Archives has a relatively limited print run ... but even then, I would think that in the long run,  the way they're doing it would result in fewer sales than would the way I'm arguing that they should be doing it. (As if I know anything.)

Perhaps the operating philosophy is that DC's Golden Age material (which the majority of the Archives publications are devoted to) deserve such treatment. (And believe me, I agree! But not everyone can buy an original Picasso, either, if you follow me.) So, in the meantime, they're trying to compromise with two co-existing historically-documentative publishing programs. Admittedly, in certain ways, that's been a boon to fans and collectors, when you consider that to date, there's no shortage of material that's exclusive to either project. Without the Showcase compendiums, I would never have read the complete run of the original Doom Patrol, every Spectre story from the `60's and up through the early `80's, and wouldn't currently be working my way through Roy Thomas' innovative All-Star Squadron run. And there's no Showcase collection of the Golden Age adventures of the Justice Society of America, but one can own their comlete original run, spanning the first 57 issues of All-Star Comics, in an exquisite 12-volume component of the Archives output.

But, still, in all too many cases, one is faced with the choice between a badly -- sometimes inscrutably -- printed cheap version (upon flipping through my copy of the 500-plus-page Showcase Presents Superman Vol. 1, a friend commented, "It's like a giant coloring book!") or a vampiric-to-consumers deluxe edition. Really seems like a lose-lose situation. 

But, at the same time, if The Complete Topolino Archives (English edition) Vol. 1 were released and its retail price was $49.99, I think that the rice is the last thing I'd be complaining about. Hmm ... so, does that mean that as a DC fan, I don't know how good I have it ... or that as a U.S. duck-and-mouse comics fan, I've been screwed over so many times, I have Stockholm Syndrome?

-- Ryan

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A personal reflection on Oz and popular culture; and, a review of Oz, the Great and Powerful (...on opening weekend, no less! For once, I'm timely!)

Although never before a subject of this blog, I am partial to -- and even protective of -- the Oz franchise. Of course, the foundation of said franchise is L. Frank Baum's 14 Oz novels. The first of these, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), was -- surprise, surprise -- adapted into the 1939 MGM screen musical that's incontestably one of the most well-known movies of all time. (A bit more soon on how disproportionately less well-known those subsequent 13 novels have long been...)

Like countless others, across multiple generations, I grew up with the MGM version.When (at some point in the mid-`80's) my father for the first time brought home a copy from the local VHS rental store (remember those?), he told me, "You'll like it -- it's like a cartoon." To me, that registered as, "It's identical to a cartoon" ... so when shortly thereafter I discovered first-hand that it was 100% live-action, I was nonplussed. But after a full viewing or two, I began to warm up to it. Overall, though, I wouldn't say that I ever more than simply liked it; I certainly was never head-over-heels for it.

It was during both the summer of `88 or `89 (or was it `87 or `88?) that I spent a couple of weeks attending a children's day camp program. One day toward the end of one or another of those two-week sessions, all of us kids were herded into the one pavilion on the grounds. A cart-on-wheels hosting a TV and a VCR was brought out. (Yes, there was an electrical outlet or two in the pavilion.) There was no confusion as to the situation: we were to sit on the cement floor and watch whatever videotape was about to be shown to us. . Word quickly spread: "We're watching Return to Oz."

(I believe this image made upthe original theatrical poster, but obviously, this is a DVD cover scan.)

I was startled and intrigued -- there was a Return to Oz?! From the moment the movie was underway, I was GLUED to the screen. At first, it was due to (unexpected but very welcomed) familiarity; I was very curious to see what was going to happen to Dorothy Gale and the land of Oz this time. Before long, I was absolutely riveted and transfixed by the movie, remaining on the figurative edge of my seat up until the the last frame. (My seat was the floor, so its literal edge was the building's walls.)

Rejoining Dorothy, her parents, and their farm again a few months after Wizard was a surefire hook, at least for me (even though neither any of the characters nor the setting looked as though they did in that other movie. But I quickly got over that, anyway.) But what made this new narrow so compellingly, fascinatingly, preciously harrowing was the learning that Dorothy hadn't lived so happily-ever-after, after all. We find that her parents have grown intolerant of her affection for this place called "Oz", which they're sure is nothing more than the product of a child's overactive imagination. So, they have her committed to an asylum, left under the "care" of a clearly malevolent, sadistic psychologist and head nurse. Woah ... and that's only for starters!

Within just a few minutes of screen time, circumstances have conspired so that Dorothy is back in Oz ... but she's instantly beset by an unrelenting series of perils. E.g., having survived crossing the Deadly Desert, she is then attacked by a murderous Lunch Pail Tree.

But, seconds later, she discovers a torn-up, destroyed Yellow Brick Road. Immediately distraught, horrified, and direly panicked (...or was that me?), she runs along the road's remnants until she reaches Emerald City ... only to find it, too, in ruins. Not only that, its inhabitants (including, heart-breakingly, some very familiar ones) having been turned to statues of stone.

Along her ensuing journey, one-by-one, Dorothy makes a small group of charming, quirky new friends. (She seems to have a knack for that.) Together, they evade being hunted down by sniveling, craven, scavenger-esque, bloodthirsty, genuinely creepy Wheelers. Then, they manage to overcome the wrath of Queen Mombi. This beheaded wretch keeps a room lined with display cases, which house scores of other women's severed heads; Mombi uses these one-at-time in place of her own missing noggin, switching them upon any whim. She sees fit to lock Dorothy and Co. up in a tower. But they narrowly escape by taking to the skies (courtesy of the latest addition to their motley band, the Gump). Without pause to so much as catch their collective breath, commence flight across the Deadly Desert. Their destination: the mountain stronghold of the Nome King, the tyrant responsible for Oz's devastation. He functions as the film's arch-villain; he's no lightweight, but in truth, Mombi leaves much more of a (possibly traumatizing) impression on a child's mind. (I've found that, if you bring up this movie in conversation, others of my generation will immediately respond, "Oh, yeah -- the movie with the lady who takes off her head!"; or, if their memory needs to be jogged, saying, "The movie with the lady who takes off her head" usually does the trick.)

I consider the film's only major fault to be abrupt transition from the Mombi sequence to the Nome King sequence, which is the story's climax -- it feels as though we skip the film's entire middle act, jumping right to the finale. Regardless, once Dorothy and Co. reached their destination, the film is as spirited, ingenious, and unique as its earlier scenes.

This final act includes:

1. upon reaching the mountain, the Gump's makeshift "body" collapses in midair, causing Dorothy and Co. to plunge to the rocks below.

2. The heroes taking their first, apprehensive into the Nome King's throne room -- the tension and suspense is of the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop, cold sweat-inducing variety. This buildup maximizes the Nome King's reveal, imparting his evil, imposing, calm and reserved but lethal essence.

3. The Nome King -- as a malevolent grin crosses his face and a mocking twinkle flashes in his eyes -- lifting his robe to show Dorothy that he's wearing her (iconic) ruby slippers. He relishes this blindside -- perhaps the peak of the psychologically torturous he subjects Dorothy and Co. (and the audience) to. He achieves this by drawing out the length of time that they're kept in the dark as to what ghastly fate he has in mind for them; his sardonic, taunting formalities as "host" to his "guests" betray an unspoken sinister intention. Barely suppressing a smirk and using evasive language, between the lines, he suggests that he indeed has some sort of unspeakable horror up his sleeve -- quite a feat of execution on the every level of this scene, from the writing to the acting to the production.

4. The Nome King's scheme revealed: a "game" in which, one-by-one, each of the heroes is transported to the Nome King's treasure room, given three guesses as to identifying the inanimate object that he's turned Dorothy's old friend the Scarecrow into. Each blows his three guesses (and thus joins Scarecrow in being transformed into an ornament), until there's only one left to take their turn: Dorothy. At first, she's absolutely stumped, and her despair is related all too strongly. Nail-bitingly, with only seconds to spare, she figures out the rhyme and reason as to how to identify which objects are her friends. One moment, our heart is racing; the next, we're absolutely overjoyed as Dorothy and Scarecrow are reunited. (They're overjoyed, too.)

5. No sooner has Dorothy "cracked the code" than the Nome King does a complete 180 and loses the exceedingly measured composure he'd maintained up until this point, somehow transforms his physical form to giant-sized proportions (I think he absorbs a lot of the rock that comprises the mountain, or something), goes on a furious rampage, and causes the mountain to start caving in on her heroes. (They make it out, of course.) As he's about to eat Jack Pumpkinhead (whom is barely a morsel to the Nome King, given his newly-adopted size), his Achilles' Heel is conveniently discovered, and he crumbles away to nothing.

Obviously, with the mountain caving inn, replete with lots of quaking and clouds of dust (I think the sky even becomes a searing red), and this King Kong-sized monster having gone absolutely ballistic, this is obviously supposed to the "Big" finale; the crown set piece. In that respect, it certainly does the job. (I would be remiss  to not mention claymation maestro Will Vinton's superb work on this scene. The jagged, gaunt-featured, seething, spasmodic animation of the gargantuan, volcanic Nome King and the fiery, war-like, scorched-earth visual palette is so acutely attuned to the essence of the scene, it's as though Vinton works in high-res, while the rest of the world is low-res.)

In summation: I witnessed Dorothy, who was kind of like an old friend, being REALLY put through the ringer. It was a flooring experience. It hit with so hard a wallop, the rejuvenated, de-statue-ized populace rejoicing in a massive victory celebration in the now-restored-to-its-former-and-rightful-glory Emerald City at film's end was all the more elating to me for it.

In short, I loved every frame of the movie. As I have ever since.

As I've probably made self-evident, it means far more to me than the MGM movie. But the world at large feels differently: since that serendipitous summer camp viewing, I've learned that the movie did poorly at the box office and was panned by critics. (Return was a Disney production. There are interesting parallels between its troubled production and under=performing release and reception with that of -- on both counts -- The Black Cauldron. Both were very unfortunate victims of the much-touted identity crisis the studio went through in the `80's, and the intertwined shakeups in upper management.) And it's not hard to surmise that it's largely fallen into obscurity. Hence why I have a longstanding attitude of resent toward the MGM movie, and staunchly defend Return as though I take it personally (which, really, I do).

I've long believed my view is completely justifiable, no matter how atypical it is. (Many people don't even know that MGM's The Wizard of Oz was based on a book, let alone that he wrote 13 sequels.) For one thing, I can't imagine my first instinct -- and probably not even my last -- upon finishing reading the original novel (or almost any novel, for that matter) would never be, "Hey, I can just see the story as a movie, all in my head ... but it shouldn't just be a dramatic fantasy-adventure story; it should be a family musical, too!" Given that predisposition, you can imagine that I respect Return to Oz for countering the almost universally celebrated MGM movie's template and not being a musical. Compound that with the fact that the visages of Tic-Toc, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are clearly based on John R. Neill (for all intents and purposes, canon) illustrations for most of Baum's Oz books; playing up Oz and its denizens as bizarre and colorful, as opposed to just colorful; and the commitment to taking the form of a dark fantasy-adventure, and you have a movie more suited to my tastes (it probably even had a part in shaping them), despite that it seems it was doomed to be overshadowed in the popular consciousness by its predecessor.

(In all fairness, Baum himself wrote the book for multiple Oz stage musicals. But I would contend that, not just in terms of Oz, but as an overall rule, theater is more appropriate a venue for "musicals" than is film. (But we have to consider cultural context: in 1939, a movie (mostly in color wasn't state of the art, but it'd only been several years since the prospect of a sound film was still new, amazing territory. So color and sound, together? It's not hard for me to imagine the MGM thingie being the Avatar of its day...)

Also, with Will Vinton's animation and the resourceful, inventive sets and costumes, the movie is a vital relic belonging to an `80's wave of children's fantasy films (which also included The Neverending Story and Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal), the methods of which have sadly been considered obsolete since the advent of CGI. The Wheelers are particularly impressive: each foot secured in a single-wheeled shoe and eat hand gripping a wheel by a handle, the actors rode around on all fours, giving a magnificent acrobatic performance. (To hide the handles and footwear, their sleeves and pants were especially long -- but this was brilliantly incorporated into their costume designs and the modified physicality adopted by the actors. Not only was it so well-realized that not for a second does it appear that the extended sleeves and pants are only there to hide something ... even if you know that that's just what they're doing. It also augmented the Wheelers' unnervingly alien presence and sinewy, gnarled, worm-like appearance.)

And, lastly -- but importantly -- I commend Return, which was a hybrid of Baum's Land to Oz and Ozma of Oz, for not only acknowledging the existence of the rest of the series, but embracing it.


It has always both bewildered and frustrated me that in the nearly-75 years since the MGM film, with the exception of Return, whenever some major production company, in whatever media, takes a whack at a new Oz offering, they invariably play entirely off and heavily allude to MGM's production, while ignoring Baum's canon beyond the first novel. At the same time, this state of affairs relieves me, because it ensures that none of 13 other books are ever tainted by association with a bad adaptation.

Though it defies what would be my intuition if I had any say in the making of a new Oz feature film, stage production, TV series -- or even video game or comic book (kudos to Eric Shanower -- I think I understand why each successive outfit that takes on the Oz brand falls into this mode: the MGM film is SO widely known, and Baum's books by comparison are so obscure, that they're playing to mass audience's familiarity -- and presumed fondness for -- a teenage Judy Garland playing a child, three guys with idiosyncratic costume fetishes (one of 'em's a fury; the other, dressed in all metal, I think is into BDSM, or something), and a woman with a green face and pointy nose whom, as she's melting, gets really histrionic in the way she repeatedly exclaims that she's melting.

Cases in point: Rankin-Bass' 1964 Return to Oz, which is a REALLY lackluster "sequel" -- its plot conceived entirely by Rankin-Bass -- limited in focus to the characters from the MGM flick; 1978's The Wiz live-action feature film, which was a remake of Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz/MGM's Wizard of Oz; DiC's 1990 ABC Saturday morning animated series, the characters designs and scenery being (actually very good) likenesses of the cast and imagery of that MGM thing, but to its credit consisted of original stories (and was, quite honestly, pretty good overall); and the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, a new take on the backstory of the two Wicked Witches(*) and Glinda the Good Witch, so iconic in the public's mind because of that MGM shindig. [(*)Of course, in the movie, we only saw ONE of the two Wicked Witches' legs and feet.)

What's flooring is that Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz was only the start ... er, and not in the sense that it was the first book in his series, but that he went onto create scores more characters, Oz locales, and characters ... and yet it would seem that it's never occurred to anyone in a position to do anything about, "Hey, if we want to make more Oz movies, there's TONS of unused source material, and some of it has the potential to be REALLY COOL!" I suspect the stark reality is that if this has ever happened, some producer or executive has put their foot down and barked, "The audience isn't gonna know what the hell all that stuff is! Attract 'em with what they know -- it's much more sure a bet!" Saddest of all, Return to Oz's failure may even be seen as vindicating this belief.


When I heard that Disney had some sort of new Oz movie in the works, I was wary, but not uninterested. When I first saw a trailer, I sighed at the heavy -- very deliberate and very cunning -- use of visual evocations of that old MGM whatchamacallit. But I still saw that there was the potential for a decent fantasy-adventure movie, so I wasn't completely repelled.

In the past couple months, I hadn't given the movie much thought. Earlier this week, a Yahoo! article I happened to come across on Disney's financial hopes for the film and addressing uncertainties as to how the movie will go over with the public, piqued my interest. Especially when it asserted, without mincing words, that the movie is NOT a musical and IS an original story, and that the studio had resisted the director's efforts to make it "dark" ... well, I couldn't help but conclude, "Okay, I wanna see this thing ... so I CAN'T WAIT 'til Friday!"

And, indeed, I DID see it today. (well, yesterday, at this's 2:30 A.M., and I've been working on this since before midnight...) What'd I think? I certainly enjoyed it quite a bit. But not only did I enjoy it, I genuinely LIKED it ... and that's saying something, considering what a hard man to please I can be when it comes to new Oz stuff!

Some of my -- ahem -- assorted thoughts:

The Wizard's character arc was well-constructed, and James Franco's performance was endearing, delivering at every turn what was needed. (I could tell before I even knew it for a fact that they'd wanted to cast Johnny Depp, but I'm VERY glad they didn't, for not only would he have indulged in flamboyant, detached archetypal Tricksterish mannerisms, but he wouldn't be able to sell the Wizard's overcoming his arrogant, selfish asshole inclinations and ultimate full actualization of his innate good self ... because, well, Johnny Depp can't not reek of arrogant, selfish asshole.

Anyway, enough about the guy who butchered the characters of both Willy Wonka and Barnabas Collins. The movie was more preoccupied with frankly bitchy female siblings fighting than I would've opted (I'm dead certain that was Wicked's influence), but in truth, even though the Witches were such whole-cloth archetypes (jealous sister; scorned lover; the kind-hearted underdog), I was compelled by the conflict between them ... which wasn't merely between THEM, but was at the crux of the large-scale conflict that was the reason there was a story being told in the first place. So, bottom line, "chick" stuff like this isn't my thing, but their functions were integral as the Wizard's.

Getting back to the movie we're supposed to be talking about, the visual (in particular, in terms of technology) and referential (the Wizard's professed idolization of Thomas Edison) anchoring to the late 1800's-early 1900's era gave the movie a decided Baumian-appropriate period feel. (In a way, it even may have bordered on being "Steampunk"-ish.) The motif of the animated title sequence struck me as as being uncomfortably just a little too (speaking of Johnny Depp) Tim Burton-ish (especially given the accompanying Danny Elfman score!) ... but they were well-done (well, in a production at this level, they wouldn't not be, but still...), and the title and credit faunts WERE genuinely Baumian, and the visuals overall were appropriate to the era-specific Baumian feel.

As is, honestly, a given in this post-Avatarworld, the movie was replete with breathtaking, resplendent (digitally-rendered, of course) imagery of the fantastical landscape of Oz. Which is all well and good, but I would think there'd have been more of a temptation to incorporate Baum's numerous other Oz locales introduced over the course of those 13 other books (as well as some of the other characters and indigenuous populations) ... but instead, we largely got generic the-landscape-of-a-whimiscal-fantasy-realm imagery. The major exception, of course, was the China figurine people and the Chinaware structures of Chinatown ... based on a latter chapter of Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz that the MGM adaptation omitted. (And "China Girl" was very amusing and likable, despite her being the the foremost example of the movie being prone to snarky, "hip", modern lingo. This is a tendency that's plagued Disney since [at least as far back as] Robin Williams' Genie, and has spawned the likes of Shrek and its forgettable followers.)

So, yes, Chinatown and China Girl = awesome, even though they shouldn't have, given the sensibilities at play. But even so, there's SO much more untapped ideas of Baum's that were ignored for the sake of rehashing the antagonism between the Wicked Witches and Glinda. I can't complain too much, because the story and characters passed the "Is it solidly developed-and-executed?" test ... and the aforementioned panoramic CGI imagery was a viscerally pleasing ... but still, it's endemic of that old "When the hell is someone gonna realize there's tons of untouched OTHER Oz books?!" situation.

Spoilers begin creeping in as of the following paragraph, so I'm going to make a jump cut...