Monday, August 31, 2015

New comic review: Mickey Mouse #311 (IDW, July 2015)

When a few months ago I first saw Dave Alvarez' delicious, delectable cover prominently displaying the Phantom Blot in all his glory, Mickey Mouse #311 immediately became one of my most eagerly anticipated of the issues of IDW's first summer of Disney.

For a 33-page story, which is on the long side by Disney comics standards, it's surprising how little of a plot there is to it: the primary conflict is Mickey's altered (in fact, enhanced, but in a way that often seems more like a hindrance) hearing. Though his condition is caused at the story's beginning during a scuffle with the Blot, it's by complete accident, not at all intended by the "black-cloaked blaggard". (Kudos, Torcivia!) Later, the Blot takes advantage of the situation, making things hairier for Mickey... but by not showing what the Blot is doing and how, and the ambiguity about whether or not any of it is in fact the Blot's doing, holding off on the big reveal -- via a gloating Blot soliloquy that precipitates the hero and villain's final showdown -- makes the story read confusingly and disjointedly. The specs of said soliloquy of revelation illustrate a scheme contrived and cobbled together on a "winging it" level never before attained (or stooped down to?) by the Blot. There's so little to it, the story doesn't even ever build to that much of a climax; Mickey just all of the sudden puts everything together and we make a clean break in cutting right to the aforementioned final showdown. The way that Mickey surprises the Blot by nonchalantly strutting into his hideout as he delivers his aforementioned soliloquy is funny, but Mickey's explanation as to how he seemingly magically found the hideout is another one of the story's forced, head-scratching-inducing shortcuts that you kind of have to just put out of mind to go on reading.

All that said, I actually like the story(!) After all, hey, it's the Phantom Blot! Thanks in large part to Cavazzano, the story is a whole lot of fun, with the hyperactivity of his art engendering a bold, sweeping dynamics and the illusion of rapid pacing. Also, I'm getting to really like Cavazzano's Mickey, drawn with certain quirks and details that make him one of the most attractive pupil-eyed Mickeys I've ever seen. The deftness of Cavazzano's dazzling dynamics especially enhance the bookend pair of Mickey-Blot slug-fests, which are presented as archetypal confrontations between our staunch detective hero and his most formidable arch-nemesis. The laboratory setting of the first battle and especially the clock tower setting of the one at the climax take things over the top aesthetically, really playing up the whole arch-villain thing. I've taken issue in the past with how all non-Gottfredson takes on the Blot have forgotten that he was a foreign spy with a very specific mission and cast him as an all-purpose super-villain, but as I'm several decades too late with that complaint, showing him without the hood through the whole story and playing up his penchant for disguises (besides his usual one, that is) and for building things (it's not just death traps anymore!) is a good consolation prize. Torcivia's several references to the death traps sweeten the deal, too. 

Like the original Blot story, this one is heavy on Mickey working with Chief O'Hara, much to the (though he won't admit it) envy of Detective Casey, story choices that to me go a long way in creating the "feel" of a Phantom Blot story. Casey's reassignment to traffic cop is a legitimately funny new spin on his comic relief role in the original, where, repeatedly, his bravado only made the embarrassment of his bungling all the worse. Casey's hooting and hollering over Mickey and the Blot's brawl brought to mind Sgt. Bullock's emphatic ravings as he witnessed Azrael-as-Batman take down Bane in the "Knightfall" story line. This brought me a certain satisfaction, as I've always considered that as Bullock is to Gordon, Casey is to O'Hara, and I've always considered Gottfredson's original Blot story the closest a Mickey Mouse story ever got to being a Batman story.

With these characterizations (the Blot, O'Hara, Casey) and with the emphasis on Mickey's friendships with "the ol' gang", writer Bruno Enna plays into and with the audience's familiarity with the respective cast, playing a fresh, new variation of an old song, so to speak. Though the Mickey denunciations that Mickey himself overhears -- that are in fact faked by the Blot -- have the story for a few seconds approaching (sort of inverted) It's a Wonderful Life territory, the "quintessential" characterizations give the story a sort of This Is Your Life "tour" feel akin to "A Little Something Special" (but although "Sound-Blot Plot" is special, it's not quite that special). In the plot's casual coincidences and the atypical story momentum that comes from Mickey just trying to have a normal day, except weird things are happening to him, and as they appear incidental rather than the result of a scheme or (if you will) plot (in fact, they are in part incidental),, for a good while there's no particular goal or objective driving the narrative; it reflects Mickey's confusion, and that's not bad writing; it's wildly appropriate. There's actually a certain kind of quasi-realism (kind of like with "The Duckburg 100", now that I think of it), with Mickey and his pals feeling like they have one or two more added dimensions just because we see them in something (weirdly) resembling "real time".

Goofy's sweetness was a nice touch, and his harmless but eccentric "hoarder"-esque habits was a fresh take. (In fact, with his bird fostering and silent, mimed communication that he prolongs much longer than Mickey needed, he actually comes off as lighter version of Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia!) His intervention at the climax was perfectly timed, as well as both funny and touching.

Once again, the backup features satisfy one's "classic rarities" needs: another Walsh-Gonzalez Sunday featuring Ellsworth, and a crude but historically interesting British gag from the early '30's(!) in which Mickey performs physical comedy that back in the States, via Gottfredson, he was already well evolved beyond (for which I'm grateful).

-- Ryan

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 19: "Sneeze the Day" (9/24/94)

It's easy to imagine that Motz and Roth came up with this episode during a "Hmm, what can we do with Genie?" writers' meeting during which their train of thought led them start to musing about how a genie "works" (physiologically, biologically, the quirks of their powers, etc.), somewhere along the line positing, "Do genies get sick? If so, what's it like?" In fact, it's logical to suspect my favorite line of the episode -- "Wait, is a hundred years a long time to you guys or not? Oh, I keep forgetting!" -- just may have been a byproduct of such a brainstorming session. Also, said line is a prime example of what distinguishes this episode: Genie's fantastical nature is given precedence over his default role as comic relief.

A good few minutes' worth of screen time is given to depictions of Genie's symptoms. In the sequence preceding Aladdin's search for the Orb of Machina, when we're first shown the guava juice-afflicted Genie, the assorted items -- a kitten, a set of false teeth, several swords flung through the air with their tips aimed at Aladdin -- that Genie's sneezes produce against his will and without premeditation individually aren't particularly imaginative or funny, but looking at the big picture, the random, non sequitur nature of this barrage of sight gags assures a silly, whimsical, energized episode. Moreover, the items and costumes generated are easy to imagine being used appropriately by Genie in good health, so his power going awry in this way is a very clever, fitting answer to the "If genies get sick, what happens?" question.

Aladdin's near-miss with the sword signifies that Genie's symptoms have turned perilous and prompts the story thread of Genie bemoaning the danger that he now poses to his friends. To reinforce that the swords weren't an isolated incident, the moment Al's survived the sword attack, Genie's next sneeze incites the launch of a rocket missile that carries Abu off into the stratosphere, a bit that is amusing in its elaborate, step-by-step execution. Later, just before Aladdin finally acquires the orb, we cut back to the palace, where we're shown that Genie's illness hasn't let up if not worsened, given the vile two-headed, fire-breathing serpentine atrocity preying on Abu -- which, though basic in design,is at least more original than a more standard dragon would have been. And insofar as reminding us of the problem Aladdin's trying to solve, it does the trick.

More impressive is the panning wide shot that opens the final act, efficiently establishing the substantial, imposing mountain of assorted objects and major structures in the middle of the desert, relating the severe degree to which Genie's condition has escalated in a way that's visually staggering. Additionally, these scene-setting sights are the last step in the gradual buildup to the most extensive, most calamitous manifestation of Genie's symptoms (and presumably, things would have only gotten worse yet had Aladdin not showed up with the orb): the apocalyptic abrupt generating of two old "friends", the Sultan of the Al-Muddi and Fashoom, along with a mobile contraption of Mechanicles from "Getting the Bugs Out" here increased (ballparking it) twenty times or more in size, so as to stand on par with the two monsters (indicating that these are replications, not the real deal).

As predictable as are both the "[*sniff*] My very existence threatens my friends' very lives -- as much as it pains me, I must isolate myself somewhere far, far away from them and anyone else!!!" characterization and [*coughahemcough*] the deus ex machina of the arrival of the orb, it's nice to see an episode in which Genie has his own character arc, not to mention in which he's characterized in any way at all. It's especially satisfying that Genie gets to be the hero at the end (I guess he was able to single-handedly defeat all three beasts in one fell swoop when previously, he proved helpless against each individually presumably because here, he conceived them involuntarily, as I speculated above), when I honestly wouldn't have been too surprised if Aladdin had gotten to be the one who thwarted them even after Genie were cured by the orb. 

Ah, and that brings me to the matter of said object of magic: Aladdin, Iago, and Carpet's adventure in Machina's cave is practically an episode-within-the-episode. They could have gone to, say, the moon to fight and defeat, say, an evil wizard in order to obtain the orb, and the rest of the episode would be no different. The cave sequence takes up approximately an entire third of the episode and pretty much completely sidetracks it, existing only to facilitate Aladdin bringing Genie the orb at what's the exact right moment, as necessitated by the story. As I've already alluded to, Motz and Roth acknowledged the function of the cave scene and its outcome with the name of the orb's guardian... and I'll leave their little in-joke for you to either pick up on or not yourself!

Had Motz and Roth gone through the motions with the cave scene with a couple action-based set pieces (a collapsing bridge over a bottomless pit, a cave-in, a runaway boulder, etc.), as such a substantive and distinct segment, it would be very, very damaging to the episode as a whole. However, the predominance of witty verbal sparring and the "punny" riddles and trick questions that serve as the three obstacles between Al and the orb spice up the proceedings considerably. ("I was expecting something a bit more dangerous, like, like fighting a dragon or something!" Aladdin exclaims -- yet another wink-and-nod to those of us paying acute attention.) The ironic revelation of Machina's true identity (recalling Motz and Roth's nebbish worm from the previous episode who turned out to be behind the thundering voice in the Witches of the Sand's lair) puts the comedy-preferring orientation of this adventure in italics, and an exclamation point is added by the sequence's gag-based coda -- a grumbling, griping Machina getting a replacement orb from his warehouse with a seemingly endless supply of them) -- which feels an awful lot like an episode-capping bit. As isolated as the cave sequence is from the rest of the episode, the episode steadily retains its flavor of smartly, sharply written comedy. (Also, I'm no expert, but with Machina's irate nature and his "chirpy", dandy-ish voice and speech patterns, would I be correct in suspecting a homage to something in Monty Python?)

There are consistent factors visually, too: 1. The squash-and-stretch animation, which like in most episodes where it's used, offers the eye numerous delights and the occasional awkward, rushed-seeming pose -- and is generally befitting of a Genie episode, given the character's nature as sort of a cosmic-powered Roger Rabbit. 2. Just like Genie's "mountains" of unwanted objects and that of the vengeful trio of Gargantuas, Machina, in his three false guises, is very impressive and imposing in scope. Although the sleek, stark, more modern and hip design style used for these visages and the atmospheric backgrounds aren't comparable to anything in the Agrabah and desert sequences (except maybe perhaps Mechanicles' contraption, which in its enhanced size, appears more slender and angular), it still counts as one of those aspects of the tangential cave sequence that make it so strong in its own right, the episode's disjointed structure just doesn't matter. Motz and Roth are right to have been so confident in their plot shortcuts, loose stitching, and cliché of a character arc as to include the grinning aforementioned in-jokes, for the episode holds together in exceptionally well and is thoroughly entertaining. In other words, they're doing things that a bad writer would do, but by embracing and owning these things, playing them off so nonchalantly, they "flip" these pitfalls and turn out something that's actually good. Perhaps because they're good writers, they are only capable of doing bad by doing it good? 

Iago being used as a the source of exposition re: the Orb of Machina, recollected from his days of "Jafar always dragging [Iago] around looking for some magical thing or other", is a great touch, logically taking into account his past and easily evoking the Jafar we remember. Characterization-wise, his reluctance to share this information, as he fears getting roped into the quest for the orb, and his inevitable one-liners of grief and misery once he has indeed been roped into said journey, are dead-on.

Lastly, circling back to the episode's beginning, it was nice to briefly see Amin Damoola again, in all his rubber-limbed, ill-fortuned, unmerited confidence-displaying glory. His butt-of-all-jokes, slapstick-facilitating qualities promise a comedic episode -- which proves true, even though he's only seen in the first couple minutes. The purpose of his altercation with the palace guards is to have Genie incidentally get infected during the fracas. This elaborate, ultimately irrelevant way of getting the plot moving is worthy of some of The Simpsons' infamous epic, excessive, extraneous setups. And in existing just for fun,

Genie Watch: ...HEY!!! I've covered that with more than two-thirds of what I've already written, haven't I? That better be good enough for you! Sheesh! ;)

-- Ryan