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.


  1. Hey! As thrilled as I am by the work of my buddies Jonathan and Joe, I need to stick up for the stories' "original" overseas talent, too.

    Would you believe—the references to Gladstone, Neighbor Jones, and Barks' Dismal Swamp were in the Dutch original? It's not so surprising when you realize that the Euro-writers are often longtime fans like ourselves.

  2. David,

    Glad you're here to put that on thet record! I have got to watch my assumptions! :)

    It's not really that I don't expect the European creators to also be fans, but that I've always figured that an offhand reference is less likely to have come from a dry translation. But going forward, when I don't know one way or the other where (as was the case here), I'll make sure to note so. I'd at least like to think that I have journalistic integrity, after all!

    You definitely are not the only one thrilled with what Jonathan and Joe have been doing. And let's not forget your major, vital role of editor! I'm very, very pleased with the entirety of the three issues to date.

    -- Ryan

  3. Let's not forget Sarah Gaydos' major, vital role of editor, either! We're all doing our best to get our ducks in a row. (Ulp—now we've only got a month left to herd all these *mice*!)