Thursday, May 21, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #2 (#406) (IDW, May 2015)

With its first issue of Uncle Scrooge, IDW brought us to Italy. Our current stop is the resplendent Netherlands.

With pirates, a haunted ship, a treasure hunt, “Shivers Me Timbers!” sounds like stuff of a classic Carl Barks adventure, right? And being over 20 pages in length and using the Dell-standardized four-tiers-per-page format (as opposed to the three-tiers-per-page, overall splashier approach used for last issue's Italian lead), it's easy to quickly form certain expectations. But Jan Kruse' plot also involves an immortal wizard, an eternal curse, and a rainbow bridge between two uncharted islands, one of which the wizard has populated with anything his whims fancy, including King Arthur and the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Shades of the “Shambor” stories or World of the Dragonlords. One could say it’s a fusion of different duck genres… but, really, it’s a duck adventure story, pure and simple.  

 "Shiver Me Timbers"

The first act sees the ducks trapped aboard the aforementioned ship, operated by an unseen force, in the eerie, mysterious tradition of “Ghost of the Grotto”, “The Old Castle’s Secret”, or “The Flying Dutchman”. But just when it looks like things have reverted to “standard” treasure hunt/captured-by-pirates fare, the mystery surrounding the ship, its unnatural crew, and how the pirates and the island factor in is blown wide open, and all of the fantastical elements take over in full force. It may sound disparate, but it’s actually constructed pretty artfully, so that every element is integral… even the disembodied, autonomous, gravity-immune eye, arm, and leg that turn out to have been the ship’s elusive crew! I’m not quite sure what duck comic precedent to compare that kind of kookiness and whimsy to!

The ducks are well-characterized: Scrooge’s profit-seeking, treasure-coveting m.o. is spot-on. It proves his undoing when his coin-pawing zealousness is what gets the gang in trouble with the pirates, and a joke in the first scene about a business plan for a restaurant is brought back and underscored at the ending, giving a nice sense of closure. A tried-and-true narrative device is used at the end: the ducks are suddenly cut off from inner (or outer, given the supernatural nature of the circumstances) world of the adventure they’d just had, disquietingly casting doubt on whether they’d actually “ascended” to that “higher plane”. Barks used this trope (and I use that term meaning it to be free of its negative connotations) at the closing of “Mythic Mystery”, which similarly transported the ducks to a fantasy world in which they were inundated with myths and legends come to life.

Donald, of course, repeatedly expresses the wish that he’d stay home, best exemplified when takes advantage of the idle time while being transported to the wizard’s island by catching a nap – he actually shines in this moment, I guess because he’s actually getting some relief, for once … but of course, it’s all too fleeting. (Sigh.) And the nephews are the most proactive, resourceful members of the bunch, but they also wish they were home fishing, like Donald – a nice balance between their child-like and more industrious characterizations.

Bas Heymans' art strikes me as being inspired by ‘40’s Barks but filtered through Ben Verhagen and Marco Rota. The artist’s evident versatility is seen in the more realistic style in which the ship, the island, and the plain ol’ fishing docks back in Duckburg are drawn; the grander, bolder, highly-charged sequences spotlighting the wizard and the knights; as well as the (very) cartoonish “liberated”, self-propelled body parts. In the latter category we can include Grizzlebeard’s bizarre conception of “one of many Loch Ness monsters”, this member of the Clan Nessie afflicted with a grossly disproportionate pea-sized head. It’s not clear, though, if he’s also distant family to the sleek sea serpent with the mirthful gleam in his eyes and licentious grin that attacks Donald and the nephews on their way to Grizzlebeard’s island. However, because of this exaggerated facial personification, making the serpent look menacing while paradoxically looking cartoonishly silly, it fits somewhere between the “epic myth” elements of the story and the more whimsical ones. 

Jonathan Gray’s dialogue is so richly and intricately written, multilayered, and erudite, some of the dialogue struck me as being at least one-half as archaic as Krazy Kat! (For the record, that quantifies as still pretty damn archaic!) More on his work on the story below.

 "Meteor Rights"

Frank Jonker and Paul Hoogma's plot for "Meteor Rights" could be an official textbook example of a Scrooge-versus-Glomgold story: the world's two richest ducks are racing to be the first to reach and claim something. Each hoping to obstruct the other from reaching their destination, there's an escalating series of affronts and retaliations exchanged between them, culminating in an unforeseen change in circumstances that leaves neither duck the winner and proves that their obsessive carried-to-its-utmost-extremes one-upmanship was destined to be futile.

In a twist that's unique to this story, and is amittedly a major break from the standard Scrooge-versus-Glomgold high-stakes race subgenre that this story otherwise so well exemplifies, the ducks find out that being in close proximity to the meteor subjects them to some sort of neurological chemical alteration that causes them to feel nothing but warm fuzziness toward everyone and everything, whether present or that ust happens to cross their mind. The whole "the hero and villain's minds become possessed by something that makes them into unabashed goody-goody saps weeping over the beauty of each other's souls and precious humanity" bit is a bit of a cliché and sort of a way of cheating at character development, yes. But by relegating it to the final act of a story that's brief to begin with, the joke's potential is maximized by being told once, straight and to the point, rather than being dragged out. (Donald mentions his newfound affection for the off-screen Gladstone and Neighbor Jones. I suspect that U.S. scripter Joe Torcivia thought to reference them, and a more perfect crystallization of Donald’s altered state of mind there couldn’t be.)

But despite the bare-bones plot and inherently contrived "sworn lifelong enemies are abruptly and for no reason gaga-eyed over each other" gimmick, the execution is largely faultless. Maximino Tortajada Aguilar's art is in keeping with the Barks-progenied Danish duck comic house style, but of course, like any artist, he draws with his own hand, which proves to be inclined toward smooth, lush but modest work. His "action" is vivacious and fluid, bringing out the brisk, assured momentum of Jonker and Hoogma's narrative. And with the new English-language dialogue written for the U.S. audience, Joe Torcivia demonstrates that he has the chops to riff toe-to-toe with the original band members.

I'm not keeping score, but both Gray and Torcivia seem to be working their way to some kind of "most alliteration written for Disney comics" award. Just as select examples, Gray has tallied points with "manic myriad of countless cod", "Ten-thousand thundering typhoons", "another amazing adventure", "Jumpin' jacksnipes!", and (doubling as pun) "Fore-alarm at four o'clock!" Torcivia, meanwhile, remains firmly in the game with "beautiful boulder of benevolence", "Nosh my Newmans into nothingness, eh?", and "Deducedly disquieting!" to name the few. But special recognition should go to the caption box in the half-page splash that the story begins with. "The Billionaires' Club! Where two titans of tightwad-ism tally their tangibles -- tauntingly!" has got to be an absolutely singular achievement in how at first its density confuses the reader right as they're going in cold (or at least this reader -- give me a dunce cap for having to read it two or three times before it registered), and yet is an uncannily accurate and comprehensive description of what's shown in the accompanying panel, and yet (yup, again! Three-fold, even!) is delightfully absurd in how detailed it is while adhering to a self-imposed alliterative scheme. Or, in other words, it shamelessly shows a sublime sort of silliness while successfully somehow satisfying the stipulation to seriously set the scene with specificity, signaling the start of the story.

And how could I have waited this long to praise Torcivia's gem of a title? When the pun actually clicked for me (having at first having glossed over and plunging right into the story), it was a moment of both considerable amusement and amazement at how clever and apt it is.

Torcivia's numerous Barks references -- to "The Twenty-Four-Carat Moon" and "Swamp of No Return", and a variation of Scrooge's iconic mantra from the first page of "Only a Poor Old Man" describing his"money swim" techniques -- are not just a wink at the fans, but a celebration and affirmation of these comics' history and heritage. And by designating the story's bog-or-marsh setting as Dismal Swamp from "The Swamp of No Return" and developing a running joke out of mentioning the string contest from the very first Flintheart Glomgold story, Torcivia isn't just casually tossing in Barks references, but integrating elements from specific Barks stories, reinforcing the singularity of the ducks' world.

For his part, Gray incorporates a Barks homage that I'll admit having to double-check on to make sure I hadn't misidentified it. (Thus, I don't feel it's my place to spoil it here.) Besides Scrooge name-dropping the patriarch of the Beagle Boy clan, Gray slips in a couple of slick non-Barks Disney ducks references: 1. Scrooge recites his personalized version of the lyrics to a certain theme song from the days of the studio's theatrical animated shorts. 2. Donald alludes to a relative hailing from the Gold Key era. 3. In a case of astoundingly perfect irony, an incidental character is named after a well-known Disney comics creator -- perfect because this story is NOT a product of said creator's "branch" of the family, yet said incidental character displays surface traits that coincidentally could be conflabulated with mild stereoty associated with that other branch. It's a pretty low-brow joke, but the joke knows that about itself and so embraces it, and so the real joke becomes the absurdity that the joke actually gets made at all. At least, that's how I'm reading it, but admittedly, I'm projecting a lot between the lines, and only because I caught the reference, whereas a casual reader would probably never suspect that there's any significance to this throwaway character's name.

Regarding Gray's aforementioned archaic writing, I cannot stress enough (and this applies to Torcivia’s formidable opening line, too) that I mean that as a commendation – I’m all for these comics being intelligent and substantive. And both writers' output is just that; the words in any given panel are never dull or predictable.. Gray keeps us on our toes with the bewilderingly unfamiliar and obscure: "Imbroglio"? "Double-jabbered"? And just when I was starting to get "gibber" down, now I have to remember the difference between it and "jabber"? ...and, hey, where does "jibber-jabber" fit in? (But the recurring theme of Donald being told that he's "gibbering", which actually came off more like a prolonged non sequitur than a mere running joke, was actually very funny, both for the nonchalant emphasis on it when it "has nothing to do with anything", and for Donald's meek, almost cute protests. ...or is it a comics tradition-defying joke about the animated film Donald's voice?)  But not only is he fluent in pirate-ese, medieval/Arthurian-ese, ‘30’s gangster-ese (…oops, that’s next review), and the dialect I suspect of just about any other period and culture, he also plays the occasional wild card, making far more contemporary, "hip" references: 1. Scrooge actually says "make bank"?! HA! :D 2. It took 40-50 years for western fans of Japanese monster movies to codify distinguishing Japanese movie monsters by the Japanese word for "monster", even though it just means "monster", not "monster in Japanese movies", and another 10 to 15 years or so, give or take, for the term to be used in an American Disney duck comic. These throw me for a loop, and I love it! 

And lest you think Torcivia doesn't keep up with the times, he makes a reference to one of the biggest pop music stars of the past years. But I got more of a kick out of the parody of the lyrics of David Bowie's most famous song, as a couple of my all-time favorite albums are by Bowie, and it was strange to have the worlds of two separate interests of mine fleetingly collide.

And, Joe, I immediately wanted to inquire, are Fig Newmans in fact a new soft cookie-with-a-gelatinous-core thing from the Newman's Own line? ;)

-- Ryan

P.S. The first IDW issue of Donald Duck came out yesterday. I plan to review it soon.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #1 (#405) (IDW, April 2015)

Despite the four-year interim and the change in licensee, Uncle Scrooge #405 is pretty consistent with #404: the spotlight is on a Romano Scarpa-drawn story from 1996, represented with a new cover by Giorgio Cavazzano. David Gerstein was working on the book then, as he is again, but he's reclaimed his archival editor title from the Gemstone days. He's accompanied by Jonathan Gray and Joe Torcivia, two of his teammates from the "classics"-branded aspects of the 2009-11 licensee (though not US #404 in particular), further closing the gap, and bringing a certain level of reassurance to fellow fans who know them.

Rodolfo Cimino and Scarpa's "Gigabeagle: King of the Giant Robot Robbers" (its new American title, paying homage to Barks' own Beagle Boys-giant robot story from only a year earlier, and I suspect that the "Giga" prefix is a reference to some of sort pop culture giant robot that that I don't know about) definitely has a gargantuan Beagle Boy robot stomping across Duckburg and making off with the money bin, but there's not much of a plot facilitating those events. The setup is arbitrary on multiple fronts: we open on Scrooge freaking out arbitrarily over the general existence of the Beagle Boys ... not because of a specific recent  threat from them, and not from news of a prison break or intel on their latest scheme, but from the lack of any news about them. The nephews arbitrarily decide that they will set Scrooge at ease by bringing him to Donald and their house, where for some reason he wolfs down all of the food they can pile on his plate (Scrooge has a binge eating disorder? Or does he just normally starve because he's so cheap?), and then arbitrarily decide that the ultimate solution to his anxiety is to take him camping. The actual plot reason for this camping trip is for the ducks to discover the robot ... because that only could happen if they went camping, right?

But this fast-and-loose, half-assed plotting has nothing on the story's resolution: "Gigabeagle" has gotten away free and clear with the bin, and so it would appear time for the final act of the story, in which the ducks will figure out a way to take down (or take control of, as Scrooge did in this story's Barks precedent) the marauding skyscraper-sized motorized machine with the visage of a Beagle Boy and regain possession of the money bin. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, "Gigsie" is destroyed and the money bin is back on Killmotor Hill. Gigsie's explosive end delivers on some clever foreshadowing. I'm not sure if the "he was programmed to think like the Beagles, and so it was their greed that in the end brought about their defeat" angle was in the raw translation, but kudos to Jonathan Gray if he layered it in. However, I have a nagging suspicion that Gray saved the restoration of the money bin from being a jaw-droppingly absurd, improbable coincidence. Going by the art alone, it would appear that the explosion hurls the money bin over Duckburg and right back into its original position. This is only justified by the "big underground magnets [that] hold [the] bin to its foundation" mentioned by one of the nephews on pg. 3. Since these magnets, as far as I know, have never existed in any other story, and because they're only mentioned in passing in this new English dialogue but never shown, yet, at least as we Americans are reading it, are so crucial to the story's resolution, it seems to me that Gray salvaged an atrocious ending. However, if the mentions of the magnets are in fact mirroring the original Italian dialogue, I'll stand corrected.

(There's also the matter of the nephews for some reason signaling the police with the tiny flame of a common wax candle, but I'm gonna chalk that up as just some Italian thing.)

Nonetheless, Scarpa's art, which has a lot of busy, frantic, exaggerated, comedic hijinks, is a lot of fun. His big, bold, sweeping style certainly works well for giant robot action. Between that and all of the electrified panels of the ducks scrambling to stave off Gigsie's attack on the bin, things move with a rollicking momentum, ensuring that IDW has made a big splash in bringing back to the States not just Uncle Scrooge but the whole classic Disney comics line.

The best of Scarpa's art, with all its zest and zing, is brought out by the zing and zest of Gray's dialogue, which demonstrates that he knows duck comics inside and out, and not just because of the many references to the medium's past ("Wak!" is never exclaimed in this particular story, but the radio station that Scrooge tunes into uses the call letters "K-WAK"; when Scrooge bashes his own head against the wall to get ideas, he acknowledges that a similar technique is used by a certain inventor; the Beagle Boy love of prunes comes up, as is only right; and even a reference to the title of Barks' first Uncle Scrooge adventure), but due to the Barksian dialogue -- and by that, I don't just mean particular phrases like "Good work, infants!", but the cadence and rhythms, and the way tone and timbre signifies characterization, which is perfectly consistent with the characters that we know. And though there are some modern quirks (a reference to a Red Bull advertising slogan and terminology like "A.I."), there's a lot more absolutely delightful eccentricities that would seem to belong to Barks' or even Gottfredson's era but as far as I can tell, are original: "GREAT HOWLIN' CRASHWAGONS!", "Hot crawdads, Unca Donald was right!", "We need that salty codger alert!"  Gray also does a fine job continuing the tradition of comic book tradition onomatopoeia, both in the expressions used and the way they're puncuated.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gray's DuckTales references: there's a variation on Scrooge's "Jumpstart my heart!" and a pun on the name of the Beagle Boy who most of often led the gang on the show. It should go without saying that I appreciated these!

The original Italian title of #405's backup story translates to "The Secret of the Coat", a dry title that evokes the mystery-adventure genre, when the story is actually more in the sitcom vein. So Joe Torcivia's new, comedic title, "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Sly" (I just figured out what that's a pun on -- it's something I'd never heard of; I won't give it away, so that if you have, you can relish it; and if you haven't, do your own damn Googling!) is more fitting for this light-hearted romp with the mismatched "odd trio" of Scrooge, Brigitta, and Jubal Pomp built around a cliché: finding a treasure map drawn on one's own piece of property and unraveling its mystery while clashing with a mysterious villian who who has shown up out of nowhere and we learn is connected to the map's past. Now, this is the stuff of countless exciting, full-developed stories in feature film, pulp novel, and duck comic, but this particular narrative offers little more than a couple chase sequences, with the good guys and the bad guy sparring in a game of "hot potato" (or football) with Scrooge's coat, and the villains' anticlimactic surrender to the police ... for which Scrooge and Co. are basically just bystanders!

On top of the banal narrative, this is recent, slicker, more on-model Scarpa, which I find duller than his squashier '50's and '60's work. By far the most vital, entertaining part of the story is the dynamic between Scrooge, Brigitta, and Jubal, with Scrooge having an aversion to both (but for different reasons), Jubal making no secret of his distaste for (and envy of) Scrooge, Brigitta's crush being tempered by her indignance at Scrooge's stinginess and his contempt for her, Brigitta and Jubal agreeing to suck upand  pander to Scrooge in the hopes of cajoling him into investing in their business, and Scrooge tolerating their scheming so as to use them for his own ends -- first for a complementary coat mend, then the use of Jubal's car when chasing the villain, which Jubal and Brigitta join Scrooge in, hoping to get a cut of the treasure. In the last panel, it appears, via the illustrated thought balloons, that all three parties have played each other and made the right compromises so that each is (at least anticipating) getting what they want. If it weren't for these visuals, the Scrooge-Brigitta-Jubal dynamic would have been out of play at the end of the tailor shop scene, for their tagging along for the arrest and subsequent finding of the treasure would be, as Scrooge describes Jubal in my favorite of Torcivia's jokes in story, "superfluous" to the plot.

Torcivia steadily delivers puns and various other types of wordplay, references (including ripping on Minnie Mouse -- more the Minnie Mouse of mass merchandising than anything -- and her taste in clothing design), and irreverent goofs on everything from "mall cops" to the fashion industry, giving American readers a feisty read. As Gray fixed what I was suspect was a massive hole in the lead story, Torcivia not only ties Barks' Brutopia into the villain's back story, but with said back story, assures us that the map has only been a part of Scrooge's coat for 10 years and not since he acquired it, avoiding any flirtation with dicey continuity. Based on the characters' poses and instructions, the characterizations of the "odd trio" were very much part of the original story, but with all of the insults, jabs, and acerbic sarcasm thrown between them, Torcivia maximizes the potential. I'm not sure why this unexceptional story (though Torcivia has added a lot of tasty seasoning for flavor) was selected for this issue. But if the idea was to begin IDW's run by establishing to the readership Brigitta and Jubal as characters, and moreover their entrepreneurial partnership (for we've seen a fair amount of Brigitta here over the years here, and not too much of Jubal), then it's a very suitable choice.

Gerstein closes the issue with an editorial reviving the "Crosstalk" banner, which definitely made this fan feel at home. After giving some background info on the Beagle Boys, Brigitta, and Jubal, Gerstein closes by sharing a sentiment that affirms that these comics are in expert, loving hands.

-- Ryan