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


  1. You should write more about Disney comics. It's good stuff.

    I really like the way these Gladstone digests printed so many obscure Western oddities (like "The Firebugs" here). However, I've found it a little difficult to fully appreciate them, given the godawful printing/coloring quality. avers that the line was so short-lived just because of small print, but I really don't think that would've been an issue if they'd upped the quality a bit. Then again, that might not have been economically feasible.

  2. Due to their short, runs, the Gladstone Digests are an almost forgotten side note in the overall history of American Disney comics. So, it’s great to see you discuss one in such detail here!

    Similarly forgotten, is the collection of non-Barks Donald Duck tales from the backs of the historic run of Carl Barks’ DONALD DUCK FOUR COLOR issues! They represent what would appear to be the first efforts at adapting Donald Duck to comics that were not produced by The Duck Master: Carl Barks, or the Floyd Gottfredson / Al Taliaferro Walt Disney Newspaper Comic Strip Machine.

    As such, they’re an interesting collection of, what we would regard from this perspective, as “hits and misses” with more of the latter than the former. But, at the time, the rules of the “Duck Universe” were taking shape before the very eyes of the readers of the ‘40s through early ‘50s – and what was found therein might very well have become canon, if Barks had not single-handedly established such a remarkable and durable continuity for these characters.

    BTW, would it have served the Wicked Queen right if, by virtue of severe head trauma and memory loss, she was forced to remain in the form of the ugly old witch? That might very well be far more sadistic an outcome than the one implied at the end of SNOW WHITE. This is not “a considerable utter lack of thought having been given to continuity” at all, but (if it was in any way “intended”) a stroke of perverse genius on the part of the (alas) unknown writer.

    Do more reviews like this! I very much enjoy the perspective of someone such as yourself, who’s very into these comics, but did not come up through the Silver Age as I did.

  3. Geo: I think it wasn't so much cheap printing quality as these page layouts weren't designed to be reproduced at this (smaller) size. But same difference, in a way.

    Joe: Actually, until I looked "The Firebugs" up, I wasn't aware that any of the Donald Duck issues of Four Color that featured lead long-form Barks stories had non-Barks backup material. Now I'm going to skim through Inducks to see what else that was relegated to that slot has been long forgotten...

    Perhaps you're right about what our mystery writer had in mind for this particular deployment of the Wicked Queen/Witch! But, if Snow White were set in medieval Europe, would that mean that the Witch was cursed not only with that wretched physical appearance, but with living in that form for eternity? Well, as far as curses in the endured by ill-willed people who'd sought to harm innocents go, that's not at all a stretch ... and she would've had centuries to cross the Atlantic to Duckburg (or get there by any route, as she would've had plenty of time to kill...)

    (...geez, over-thought that, much, Ryan?) ;)

    To both Geo and Joe, thank you very much for your kind words and for encouraging me to write more such posts. Believe me, I intend to do just that!

    -- Ryan

  4. “…the Witch was cursed not only with that wretched physical appearance, but with living in that form for eternity?”

    That’s precisely what I had in mind, Ryan! Now THAT’S punishment! Even worse than Barks’ Swami Khan Khan, who at least found an antidote! (“King Scrooge the First”, 1967)

    Yes, do more of these! Got it? I’ll be watching! 

  5. Joe,

    What springs to mind is Marge Simpson mentioning her former gambling problem (which, a few season prior, had arisen and been resolved in the course of a single episode), only for Comic Book Guy, wearing a t-shirt reading "Worst Episode Ever", to pop out of nowhere/from off-screen, pointing his finger at Marge and exclaiming, "I'm WATCHING you!!!"

    I'll be writing with you in mind! ;)

    -- Ryan