During the earliest months of the Gemstone era, to which this issue belongs, I was in college, and, though a few years earlier I had lost interest in comics as Gladstone II was easing into its prestige format-exclusive final leg, I was still excited about the return of the comics that I had grown up reading and loving. But, the whole reason that I had gravitated away from comics in the first place is because during high school, I got this notion in my head that the only way to be sophisticated was to like bleak music, art, and literature created by (totally never posturing) tortured souls. So, Gemstone's bright, colorful aesthetic and the light-hearted, good-natured-but-not-naive, sometimes-subtly-cynical-but-never-outright-despondent stories just didn't jive with me. Why did I remember these comics as being substantive, when now, I could only get very little out of them?
Well, the problem wasn't the comics -- it was me. I had completely failed to realize that part of the process of growing up was getting stupid ideas and making stupid decisions, and then taking a while to figure out that they were stupid. (Some people never figure that out, I'm afraid...) I was preoccupied with image and a superficial notion of what an intellectual and "artistic" person should be. I'm grateful that in the years since, I've matured and become more well-rounded. And being more centered, I can see an issue like this for what it is: a very solid one, brimming high-quality, quietly satiric, witty, well-crafted stories.
First up is William Van Horn's 16-page "Fools of the Trade", which is very un-Barksian in the sense that it centers around a one-shot character whose an object of completely fantasy and whim: a talking dragon. Of course, it's Van Horn's wont to engage with outlandish content ... but always with a decided sense of irony and parody, and this story is certainly in keeping. The idea is that that "high-tech" defense systems have invariably failed in staving off the Beagle Boys, so Scrooge has decided to go "old-school", and import a dragon "cloned from the claw of" one of its antecedents. (So, Van Horn has gone a semi-scientific route -- it's not like he's just having dragons suddenly romping around in abundance in the modern world. And it's consistent with his absurdist approach that this explanation is tossed at us dismissively and in passing.) To Scrooge's disappointment, the dragon -- "Figgy", "short for Figment", a clever Disney reference -- turns out not at all as expected, not much larger than one of the nephews and to have a dopey, aloof personality. This twist has a Jay Ward flavor to it.
(The deliberately anti-climactic -- turning the convention on its head -- half-page splash of Figgy nonchalantly strutting out from the darkness of the crate in which he was delivered demonstrates perfect comic timing. I think it'd have me in a slight fit of giggling if instead of exclaiming, "Howdy do, folks!", Figgy were to utter simply, "'sup?" [There's a Paul Dini-scribed issue of Detective Comics that uses basically the same gag, but with the Joker.'] However, I'd probably be adverse to the use of such overly contemporary slang.)
Writers of lesser skill might (in probably a considerably shorter story) have the revelation of Figgy's non-threatening presence be the entire punchline, and maybe, if at all worth his or salt, proceed to end on a gag in which Figgy is able to keep the Beagles away from the bin after all, just not in the way Scrooge had originally hoped. (Taking an aspect of Van Horn's superior version, Figgy's diet consisting entirely of beans, it could be Figgy's breath being really repulsive... or... well, fart jokes aren't really a part of duck comics, so...) Fortunately, Van Horn's talent has given us a much busier, more complex tale involving the Beagles' scheme to acquire Scrooge's cash with a matter transmitter going awry due to their own bungling and complications arising from Figgy getting mixed up in it, resulting in a storm of confusion on both the ducks' and the Beagles' ends. This is a first-rate, silly-but-clever, slapsticky-but-witty Van Horn spoof! The Beagles' being sick of eating beans and accidentally transporting Scrooge's bean supply to their hideout strikes me as a Barksian twist, although I can't help but think that Barks would've saved it for a master stroke a the very end. However, Scrooge does tie things in with a bean-alluding closing one-liner -- and that remark being couple with the last panel's depiction of the Beagles' punishment, and their "Should've been careful what you wished for"-begging remarks that they're sick of the very sight of money, has enough of a Barksian tinge to it that it's still makes for a strong conclusion. Actually, one could say that it's Van Horn enough to be a strong ending, or that it's just a strong ending, period.
The very idea of the Beagle Boys relocating the contents of the bin to their hideout immediately brings to mind the DuckTales episode "The Money Vanishes". The resemblance is all the more closer because in both cases, t he Beagles are using an apparently abandoned urban building (whether it had originally been used for offices, tenements, warehouse or storage, or what have you, it's not clear in either case; the one on DuckTales -- which appeared in multiple episodes -- is worn down and boarded up, while Van Horn's is merely nondescript; the DT one is three stories high, while its hard to tell if the one in Van Horn's story, and those on either side of it, are one or two stories), and in both cases, the Beagles ultimate undoing is that their building becomes overloaded with cash and it bursts out onto the street.
Oh, and I think I might know a guy whose family owns the bean company that Scrooge orders Figgy's pay/feed from! ;)
"Fools" is very well complemented by the 15-page 1981 Disney Studio production "The Big Break-In", written by Carl Fallberg and drawn by Romano Scarpa -- an international collaboration! Unlike many of Scarpa's duck stories that have made it to the U.S., this one actually makes sense -- I guess its to be expected that a U.S. writer such as Fallberg would be more on the same page as a U.S. audience. The proceedings here are notably sillier than Fallberg's average Mickey Mouse adventure-mystery, although perhaps it's Scarpa's exaggerated, tense poses and expressions that play up the frantic energy the story projects. Taking into account the notion of Scrooge's safe combination tumblers not lining up right because the money in the bin is imbalanced and causing a tilt, and Scrooge counting on the Beagles succeeding in breaking in to solve his problem and sitting back against a tree and taking a nap while he lets them go to work, the high-strung Gyro scrambling to find a solution while the calm Helper accidentally discovers one, and Gyro blindly bringing Helper's solution right into the Beagles' hands, this is a very acutely written, original story -- basically, all of the adjectives that I used for the Van Horn story apply here! The characterization is dead-on, too ... Fallberg should've done more duck stories!
Barks eight-page "The Madball Pitcher" from one of his Gyro Gearloose issues of Four Color (#1095, 1960) is certainly preferable to those Huey, Dewey, and Louie soccer stories that Gemstone would later feature. However, I question that Gyro never feels guilty for helping both teams virtually cheat ... but in a way where the two inventions cancel each other out! This might be explained as Gyro's exasperated, miserable, "I'm in for it either way" attitude eclipsing any moral concerns that he might have. (I also have a feeling that the way Gyro's characterized here is a reflection of his creator, who revealed a certain degree of self-deprecation fuddy-duddiness in interviews.) But notably, the ending finds both teams at each others' throats -- in a way, both get their comeuppance, but at the same time, they don't seem to have realized that they both committed the very same crime. Safe to say, one of Barks' more cynical moments!
Geoffrey Blum's writing and Daniel Branca's art guarantee a fulfilling read, but "World Wide Witch" dares to do something I'm inherently wary of: "bring the ducks into the modern world". In fact, the technological references that this story is saturated with are now dated and quaint! Furthermore, it still feels very much like a duck story; even a Barks story. (And it's certainly more tasteful than all of those recent Italian stories that I've seen in which the ducks and mice are seen using smartphones and Facebook-type social networking platforms.)
Blum treats us to a very thoughtful, insightful, enjoyable one-page article explaining the origins and goals of his story. Blum's observation that Scrooge and Magica "are two sides of the same coin" turns into a confession that he identifies with both on the terms that they're "self-dramatizing outsiders laboring away at specialized careers and venturing into society mainly when they need something from it". Personally, I identify to a T with Blum's self-description personified as his personal interpretation of two of Barks' creations ... which corroborates with the understanding of the characterized that I've acquired over the course of my life to date, and, by extension, to their creator. Thus, it all kind of adds up here: why Blum has always been so well-suited to writing about Barks, and while I've always been drawn to Barks, and to Gladstone/Another Rainbow's Blum-dominated contextualizing of Barks. (Perhaps it's more true than not that I've actually grown into relating to all of this.) ...hey, how did this review become so much about me?! I feel so naked now!