Sunday, June 21, 2015

New comic review: Donald Duck #1 (#368) (IDW, May 2015)

At the outset of the Gladstone II era, I wrote multiple letters to their offices requesting, "Romano Scarpa! More Romano Scarpa!" Such a desire stemmed from the final two months of Gladstone's original run, during which all of their books were 64 pages, more than half of them each featuring a vintage Scarpa story: the Gottfredson-esque "Kali's Nail" and "The Mystery of Tapiocus VI" in Mickey Mouse, "The McDuck Foundation" and "The Last Balaboo" in Uncle Scrooge, and just one Donald Duck adventure, "Amudsen's Talisman" in Donald Duck, which was relegated to the backup slot following Barks' classic "Maharajah Donald", whereas the other four stories were given top billing. When Gladstone II came through with "Colossus of the Nile" (which I'd specifically requested, letter after letter) and other Scarpa duck tales, I was fairly satisfied. But generally, the Scarpa imports to the U.S. printed by the licensee preceding IDW tended to be silly, weird, uneven, and underwhelming. Though "The Treasure of Marco Topo" was fun and enjoyable, it was pure candy. Thus, my impression of Scarpa began to pale.

In the long run, I came to think of there as being either Scarpa Mickey Mouse stories or Scarpa ducks-in-general stories (perhaps "Marco Topo"'s unorthodox cast had something to do with this), even though the latter usually took the specific form of an Uncle Scrooge. So without ever really thinking about it, "Amudsen's Talisman" seemed to me an exception from very early in Scarpa's career. And while it may still be true that Donald rather than Scrooge stories were less common for Scarpa after the '50's, "Amudsen's", I now realize, certainly wasn't the only one. To my delight, IDW "Shellfish Motives", a Donald Duck adventure of Scarpa's, which to read is to almost like relive those especially golden final two months of the golden Gladstone I era. Like the stories listed above that were featured in those exquisite 64-pagers, "Shellfish" dates from the mid-'50's – it's only one month older than "Amudsen's", in fact. (Links to first printings: "Shellfish" Part One and Part Two, "Amudsen's".) It shares the same keen, inspired dramatic and comedic sensibilities of those other Scarpa yarns. In terms of storytelling, it's ambitious: big, quasi-cinematic page-turners of high adventure and nefarious intrigue. The integrated comic relief, most memorably in Uncle Gideon's hyper-busy, erratic, scattered work style, as witnessed by Donald upon his arrival in his [other] uncle's office, blusters with wild, fully-charged energy and action. Scarpa's comedic timing is almost as zippy and acute as Uncle Gideon himself.

I don't know if this will convey why I was won over just by the opening panel (below), but...look at it! It came out in Italy at around the same time that "Land Beneath the Ground" did in the U.S., but it looks as old as "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold"!

Even though Donald's merely reading a book, in the comfort of his living room no less, as the story opens, his "creeped out" reaction portends that dubious doings and treacherous turns are nigh. His exchange with the nephews that ensues is key to establishing how their relationship will work in this story (as it does in many others), with Donald wanting to prove that he's "somebody" and the nephews not taking him seriously. Tying this in with his rant about the schlocky sensationalism the news media, Uncle Gideon's paper in particularly, his way of diminishing that the boys are reading a newspaper while he's reading a low-brow horror-thriller thriller novel, sets up a punch line: the next moment, he receives Gideon's job offer via phone, and all of the sudden, he's heralding the integrity of his uncle's enterprise. This instantaneous about-face is a very funny depiction of how easily Donald succumbs to his ego, and it also serves to drive us right into the next scene: Donald's arrival for his first day on the job. It's at this point that we're privy to Gideon's manic, incessantly inundated, distraction-upon-distraction-compounded job performance. (In fact, Gideon's brother's Scrooge's fraught, high-strung office antics at the beginning of "Back to the Klondike" come to mind.) Scarpa could have just had Donald find Gideon sitting at his desk quietly working on but a single task. But the route Scarpa opted for maintains ours (and Donald's) expectations: this is a big-time operation where things are happening, and Donald's about to be a part of it.

Indeed, he's immediately given his first assignment, and from there, the story charges forward, never wasting a panel, each and every individual action spurring the next. But interspliced between Donald's unorthodox first-day orientation and Gideon breaking down the specs re: Professor Basset, we're shown Donald and his new editor aren't alone anticipating the professor's arrival:  a mysterious someone, concealed from the reader Bond villain-style by the back of his desk chair, giving instructions to three hired thugs on the location where they're to intercept and abduct the professor. Ah-ha ! Thus, during Donald's briefing, which doubles as exposition for the reader's benefit, and then as Donald's plane to Cincinatti departs, Donald's blissfully unaware that the plot has thickened (as goes the cliché) . Whereas, the reader has been drawn further into the unfolding events, well aware that the stakes have already been raised and that keeping tabs on the professor won't be the cakewalk that Donald expects.

Cut to Donald realizing that he'd fallen asleep as is now on the return flight, a tension-raising complication quick to be aleviated when he spots ­­­­the professor on board. This discovery keeps him from jumping out of the plane, which in his best panic seemed to the shortest route back to Cincinatti – leave it to Scarpa to make the most of the comedic potential here! We cut right ahead to landing (back) in Duckburg – though Donald kept his eyes on his subject the whole time, the scenario would be static until touchdown, so there's no reason for the narration to not get on with it. Though he's at first right on top of it, tailing of the professor is gummed up by the prof being smothered by his apparent entourage. Donald manages to follow the professor's taxi with another taxi; the constant effort it takes him to stay on the professor's tail sustains the dramatic tension and a sense of continuous momentum – which is definitely enhanced by the literal momentum of Donald being in transit first by plane and now by cab.

As foreshadowed during our brief non-look at the elusive villain, the professor leads Donald to the candy shop, where the thugs burst in, hold Donald and the shopkeeper at gunpoint, and make off the the professor. Donald and the narrative momentum with rebound and accelerate as Donald scrambles back to the taxi and its driver speeds after the villains' fleeing car. Things run up against a brick wall, though, when their vehicle sprouts a propeller and wings, rises off the ground, and, blip, disappears into thin air, all in a '50's-futuristic sci-fi kind of way. (I'm tempted to make a James Bond analogy again, which would make this story element ahead of its time.)

So, time for a cool-down: the failed, dejected Donald is back at Gideon's office, trying to explain his experience to skeptical and dismissive police. But things begin to pick up steam again upon the villain's issuing of their ransom demands, setting up the eerie scene in which Donald and the nephews separately hide by the train tracks at the designated trade-off point, waiting tensely in dead silence and stillness. This moment of strained anticipation, in which nothing has actually happened yet but it's expected that something is about to, is more subtle, and possibly more effectivel, than your average "villain has the upper hand, having backed the hero into a corner" or "the blade is about to drop!" type of cliffhanger. And this isn't an abridgement for the American version, but is exactly what Scarpa intended –  it was originally presented in two parts, with the break at the same point, in Topolino.

Ah, but then there's the matter of wee little detail to the ransom exchange scenario: in return for the professor, the villains demand a freight train with car after car filled with…fish. This seems to be one of those "wacky" Scarpa things that I just don't quite get. But unlike with, say, "The Pelican Thief", where the crux of the entire story was just that it had a wacky thing in it, this is a way of giving the MacGuffin a bit of color (such as it is). It's subservient to the tightly-constructed, heightened, fast-paced quasi-spy adventure story, rather than distracting from it or dominating it. (That's in terms of Part One – we'll see what #269, due this week, brings.) In fact, it's commendable that even when using such a silly plot device and without ever using actual murder and other kinds of "grit", the stakes are high enough and the dramatic intrigue laid on thick enough that this story – like some of Scarpa's others from this period – are almost on par with tgangster movies or even Tintin, which always had more realism in its danger and violence than Barks or Gottfredson. One might say the starkness of the stage-setting and the expedient escalation is Hitchcockian, bringing to mind, say, North by Northwest. (Okay, okay, I know I say that every time a story has its hero traveling alone by train or plane, some sort of chase/pursuit element, and an unidentified, unseen antagonist manipulating events.)

From the in-transit and chase scenes, this might sound like a Donald-on-a-solo mission story. Indeed, he literally leaves the nephews at home for his assignment, and it isn't until well after the opening scene, once the villains', their hostage with them, trail had gone cold, that the nephews are back in play, "resorting" (they may actually prefer it!) to independent investigating, as Donald won't "stoop" to working with them, still determined to prove who the man is and who the kdis. Given their close proximity at the cliffhanger, though, it looks that they'll wind up in the thick of this adventure together. Donald spending a good chunk of the story "on the go" as an investigative reporter pursuing and ending up in a scuffle with the mastermind villain's henchmen in trenchcoats are, to be precise, what brought the aforementioned Tintin to mind – Jonathan Gray cleverly subverted this comparison by making the less-obvious Spirou reference. In turn, this story's Tintin-esque 1938 Italian ancestor, Federico Pedrocchi's "Special Correspondent" came to mind. For a second, I wondered if the nephews' absence was due to Scarpa not having seen Barks stories to use as a model and instead had Tintin, Spirou, and the like as sort of the de facto example of how to do comics, duck or not, as well as the remote possibility that he'd read "Special Correspondent" … but then I remembered that this one of the first original stories created for Topolino, prior to which Italian-izations of Barks stories had been a regular feature in Topolino.

And, again, it does appear that Donald and the nephews will be a team again in second half of the story. (I'm predicted that Donald will blow his cover in the bushes, the villains will capture him, and the nephews will have to save his ass). But moreover, only a month later, came Scarpa's aforementioned "Amudsen's Talisman", which was very Barksian in form, with Scrooge sending Donald and the nephews on a treasure hunt (which is the way he did things before getting his own comic, you might recall). And take the characterization in "Shelflfish:" Donald's childishness, his soft spot for pop culture, and his disgruntled state giving way to the yearning and drive for success and acclaim (or delusions of grandeur, Daisy and the nephews ight say); and the nephews' sharp wits, resourcefulness, youthful spunk and vigor, and their eye-rolling and sighing "Here we go again!" response to Donald's stubbornness and lack of caution, I'd say that Scarpa was no stranger to Barks' take on the characters. Gray made the most of their interplay. having one of the nephews warn, "Your mastery streaks never end well, Unca Donald!" – an in-joke for the learned fan that's in fact masterful itself! Almost as good are a pair of lines from the nephews two panels later: "The gall! After all the jams we've saved him from, he gets a big head again!" [This rings especially true when you consider that it has happened infinite times since this story's first printing in 1956.] "Typical!" one of the other nephews adds. [And how!]

It's already virtually given that in almost every new IDW Disney comic, Gray does stellar dialogue job. In addition to the already-cited Spirou and "mastery streak" references, Gray works in everything from satirical, absurd newspaper headlines; bombastic, lofty delcarations of journalistic integrity from both Donald and Gideon; Donald in a daydream impressing a glamorous woman he refers to as a "sexy starlet" (hey...the word "sexy" appeared in a Disney comic! Is this a first?!) as "toots", which brought to mind his animated shorts; unconventional and original exclamative phrases like "Sweet fudfgyjiggers!" and "Holy hoppin' mudpuppies!"; Donald flippantly addressing the nephews as "bambinos", which resonates as something I might have once read in a Barks story but can't place; a reference to a contemporary exercise trend; and going all the way with the villain's hired thugs gangster jargon, with three "youse" being uttered in the space of five consecutive panel, twice in the context of oldest tropes in the book: "None o' youse make no sudden moves!", and then, "an' youse two joiks better not move so much as a muscle!" (Yup, "joiks"!) No, I'm not kidding you, they actually say these things! Totally self-aware in using these old standards, Gray has fun with it, and in turn, so do I! ...and those are just a few bits that stood out to me; there's heaps more!

Commencing the relaunch of the Donald Duck title, David Gerstein opens the May Crosstalk with a snappy, concise general overview of Donald's history. I've always said that just about anyone could read almost any duck comic book story (save perhaps many of Don Rosa's) with no prior experience and understand the characters and follow the story about as well as long-time readers. Given this accessibility, and Donald's recognizability to non-(but perhaps new) fans, a timeline-oriented history wasn't needed here. Instead, David's way of refocusing the lens, making almost a mission statement as to who Donald is and what he and his comic have been and will continue to be, is right on the mark. This piece is almost lyrical, and not just because some of the ironic lyrics to the theme from Donald's theatrical shorts are quoted, crystallizing the everyman spirit of the Donald who's always dreaming of the sweet life and so inevitably always disgruntled, though always manging to get back on his feet, dust himself off, and try again.

Still, it's the tidbit that Gerstein offers right after the Donald piece that's the kind of thing that a fan like me can't get enough of: Gideon McDuck is actually a long-time Italian Disney comic. Brigitta and Fethry have gotten their share of exposure in the States, but I don't believe that I've ever even heard of Giddy. I can only speak for myself, but as an American fan, the idea of Scrooge having a younger brother alive, well, and high-profile in present-day Duckburg is off-putting – and not because of any Barks purism or Rosa canon disciplism, but simply because it's never been part of the picture. Frankly, it's almost like finding out a close relative your own who'd you never heard of has been living and running a prominent business in your hometown as long as you've been alive! But given how much I enjoyed his introductory scene, Giddy won me over surprisingly quickly. His wiry, boundless, energy and high-spirited aloofness brings to mind both Ludwig Von Drake and Fenton Crackshell. And the idea of Scrooge having a brother equally devoted to his work but with a polar-opposite set of ideals is a logical one that I can see is ripe with stor(ies) potential, and I'd say I'm surprised that it hasn't been done before, except it has – by Romano Scarpa before anyone else, with this very story, sixty years ago. (Per Inducks, this is Giddy's debut.)

I've always felt that characters like Brigitta and Fethry's track record in the U.S. has been spotty enough, even with the best intentions of the relevant editorial team, that I've never been quite convinced that they're a "real" part of the cast. As European readers have several decades and thousands of stories on us, collectively and "organically" absorbed such characters from their creation through evolution, it's natural, especially with our monthly as opposed to weekly publishing schedules and the several-year gaps between publishers, that we haven't been able to catch up. I speculated that "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Spy" had been chosen for IDW's first    Uncle Scrooge for being a typical Brigitta-Jubal Pomp story, laying the groundwork for them to be regulars. Seeing how Donald Duck's inaugural IDW issue introduces the U.S. to Gideon McDuck with the very same story that introduced him to Italy (and was his first appearance anywhere) but delayed by 60 years, it can be inferred that there's a game plan underway to bring us up to speed. If this is so, I salute Gerstein and Sarah Gaydos' prudent editorial choices. Looking back on how the Ultraheroes serials printed by the 2009-11 licensee were thrust upon us with no context even though the characters' super-hero alter-egos were in fact longstanding in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, it's relieving and refreshing that things are being done right this time around.

And it's not just Gideon being introduced with Donald #368...or re-introduced, as in this next case. The Donald and Fethry story at the back end of this book does for Fethry what "Stinker, Tailor, Scrooge and Spy" did for Brigitta and Jubal: it's not the greatest story, but it's an apt example of Fethry's personality and how he interacts with the comic's "star" – he was intended as a foil for Donald, and he decidedly fulfills this purpose here, waging chaos in Donald's house through a series of failed attempts at repairing a few household appliances. It's a pretty generic situation comedy scenario and amounts to no more than a few base slapstick gags, and I know I'm not the only one who finds Al Hubbard's duck art rather strange. But I understand (what I suspect to be) the purpose behind this story choice, so I'm all for it. It's fitting to use something from Fethry's original run, the stories that Hubbard and writer Dick Kinney created for the Disney Studios program in the mid-'60's.

In my review of "Shiver Me Timbers!", I wrote that Bas Heymans' arct struck me "'40's Barks filtered through Marco Rota and Ben Verhagen". The younger Heyman, Mau, shows similar sensibilities in "Wrecks, Lies and Videotapes" – there are a couple of Donald poses that, if you showed them to me by themselves, might just fool me if you told me they were Barks. However, here, Daan Jiipes springs to mind more so than Rota and Verhagen, though there's definitely still some Verhagen-ness in there somewhere. Written by Mau with Kirsten de Graaff, this is a Barksian 10-pager in both form and essence, in every aspect of Donald's latest get-rich(and famous)-quick scheme (which, complementing the lead story, he rushes into bullheadedly, failing to heed the nephews' cautioning), to Daisy trusting something to Donald's care despite her apprehension, which he stumbles his way into vindicating, to Donald's altercations to Neighbor Jones, to the innate social satire of the "old hen"-esque "snobs from [Daisy's] ladies' club" (or "corpulent hippo" club – harsh, Gray!) ... and finally, in the way all the separate threads dovetail and come crashing together in one big, pure Donaldian calamity that ends in his humiliated defeat, with the footage Donald had thought he had taped over ending up on the air and embarrassing the ladies' club, whose members quickly burst onto the scene out for blood, led by Daisy, so utterly let down by Donald yet again. To add insult to injury, Jones ends up winning the contest, with footage he had furtively taped of Donald's earlier trouncings –a twist that, in a very Barksian fashion, had been planted between the lines (or panels) when Jones got wind of Donald's scheme. Yes, Donald's near-success is swiftly unraveled two-fold. (I think there's a mixed metaphor in there...) In setting up these layers and choreographing their intertwined resolutions, Mau and de Graaff's story construction is worthy of the Duck Man himself. Some might contend that it's too beholden and deferential to his work, but it's certainly no shoddy knockoff!

The whirlwind of anguish, humiliation, anger, and anxiety immediately spurred by the unfortunate broadcast quickly funnels down to the ladies' giving Donald chase, tearing his clothes as they lash at him. From the very beginning of the chase we jump ahead to and end on a naked, nervous Donald desperately clutching to buoy he's been driven to, a few yards out past the pier, from where the ladies' club members chide him and mock him as he pleads for his jacket, his face red with shame. (Hey, looks like that was a touch entirely added by colorists Sanoma and Travis Seitler. Kudos, guys!) The story could have ended with Donald fleeing for his life, which would certainly get the point across. But Barks would have doubled-down with one final gag showing the less-than-ideal circumstances Donald has been forced to seek refuge in. Mau and de Graaff have taken a cue from the master in making sure they go out topping themselves, and this closing cross-page panel is very well-composed, telling a story in itself – or at least what had happened since the previous panel.

The perspective line is plotted so that we're to the side of and slightly behind Daisy's ladies, who are positioned in the foreground across the rightmost two-thirds of the panel, looking with them out at Donald. Or, think of it like this: We're standing facing their left shoulders, but turning our head to the left so that we can keep see Donald. He may look far away, but of course, he's just drawn smaller and higher up from the bottom of the panel than are Daisy and Co. – I know, I know, we're talking Perspective 101. By basing our vantage point on par with that of the ladies, it's quite palpable how they've used their numbers to strongarm him into exile literally beyond the fringes of Duckburg society, while they continue to enjoy having their feet planted on dry land.

Poor Donald. He may have gotten carried away in his zeal to win the cash prize, but he never actually meant to hurt him anyone.

-- Ryan