Thursday, July 30, 2015

New comic review: Mickey Mouse #1 (#310) (IDW, June 2015)

I didn’t realize that Casty had started only writing and not drawing some of his stories. Is that for scheduling reasons? Or because as he envisioned this story, it was in Cavazzano’s style? And either way, does it mean that a story he doesn’t both write and draw isn’t as much his baby?

However, he did draw the cover:

With the ducks, especially with Scrooge’s treasure-hunting inclinations, there’s usually a logical reason related to the innate nature of their character(s) that they wind up on the adventures that they do. Even with Donald’s everyman nature, the plot m.o. can be his drive to prove himself. That’s not to say that even Barks didn’t contrive reasons why Donald and the nephews, sans Scrooge, would find themselves in life-threatening predicaments on the other side of the world. But it’s really Mickey, not Donald, with whom more than once, I’ve stopped and wondered, “Hey, just HOW has he had all those adventures, anyway?” (In the stories in which he’s not acting in his quasi-established role of a private investigator. Actually, I’m not even sure if he considers himself one, or if he just is always helping Chief O’Hara out as a friend.)

The real hero of “The Lost Explorers’ Trail” is Eurasia Toft. By all rights, it’s her story: it’s the pride, passion, and skill with which she takes up being the heir to her father’s legacy that drive the narrative. Mickey and Goofy are just along for the ride. Casty tacitly acknowledges this fact with M&G's very reason for accompanying Eurasia (they want to see how things turn out, as if they’re the reader), and how they become privy to the situation in the first place: a letter meant for Professor Toft is mistakenly delivered to Mickey’s address. It’s to Casty’s credit that I didn’t really notice this the first time through. Their enthusiasm for and earnest curiosity for the mission sells this case of tentative plot logic, which is then reinforced proactive initiative Mickey and Goofy take in a least getting through the adventure, even if they don't really have an impact on much of what happens. More often than not, Eurasia takes the lead...

...but Mickey and Goofy prove worthy partners in her adventure, weathering its perils just as well:

Arguably, Goofy is more extraneous than Mickey, but the opening “pancake contest” scene establishes a joined-at-the-hip “bosom buddies” camaraderie that continues to be exhibited throughout the story, distinguishing it from all those stories where Goofy is pretty much just there. I like Casty’s take on him here: while he’s aware of what’s going on and as and fully engaged as Mickey. See how they're equally at rapt attention here:

Or how Goof correctly notices something important BEFORE Mickey does:

But of course, when someone screws up, it's inevitably going to be Goofy... innocently enough:

I’m not sure what to make of Eurasia, really. My knee-jerk reaction is that I’m not too keen on the employment the “nebbish librarian type who takes off her glasses and is suddenly an ass-kicking hot chick” cliché. (I’m taking it that her mom was a mouse, as her dad isn’t? Hey, I guess what proves that she’s a major character is that she has a Mickey/Minnie-style head, despite her taller height and creepy humanoid body.) In fact, all of the incidental characters in her orbit and the “part” each plays feel very familiar. There's her “jolly”, affable, intellectual, accomplished, now retired father, Pangea, who because of his pure, boundless love for his field, cannot truly forget the mystery he left unsolved and his missing friends. But he has great pride in his daughter, the bona fide apple-of-his-eye, and sees in her hope to finish what he couldn't. Then there's Pangea's equally spirited and insatiably curious adventure chums of academia. And finally, there's their corrupt, backstabbing, deceitful former peer. Even the way the secret valley’s biggest secret turns out to be able to cure Pangea's rheumatism, actually.  I’m not saying this familiarity is a bad thing – I’m just observing it. It’s worth noting, though, that when I lay all that out, it becomes apparent that this is more of a Eurasia Toft story than a Mickey Mouse story, eh? 

...look, they even KNOW it!

Regardless, it IS a Mickey Mouse story in that it was intended and produced as one, and, hey, having adventures is what Mickey does in comics, so the writers have to come up with reasons for him to have new ones, right? As archetypal as the new and/or incidental characters might be, Casty defines them with acute clarity and tells their story with airtight plotting. It struck me as unusually, almost realistically dark for a Disney comic how insidious the villain actually is, in having appeared to be an upstanding citizen but having actually left his friends for dead decades earlier. As fatal as most Disney comic villains’ intentions might be, the effects of their ill actions are usually attempted and thwarted in a linear span of time contained within one story.

As reflected in (in addition to the almost trans-Mickey plot and trans-Mickey cast) Cavazzano’s (literally) edgy, feisty, "zinging" art and the modern slang used by dialogue scribe Jonathan Gray, this is neither Gottfredson’s nor Murry’s Mickey, no. Nonetheless, it IS a modern incarnation of and in the Mickey Mouse adventure comic tradition that doesn’t betray the character or the genre. And that should be commended and celebrated.

And for those inclined, the Mickey Mouse comics tradition can be celebrated with this issue’s backup features: a quintessential Don Christensen-Paul Murry 1953 Pluto story (replete with narrative/commentary captions) and two Bill Walsh-Manuel Gonzalez Mickey Mouse Sundays featuring Ellsworth, including his very first appearance. I’ve written before of how from my limited exposure to the character, I wasn’t sure who or what he was ever even intended to be. But now, at last, I know Ellsworth for the smart-aleck prankster that he is. Kudos on your editorial choices, Mr. Gerstein. Ellsworth is now squarely established for further IDW appearances.

-- Ryan

New comic review: Donald Duck #2 (#369) (IDW, June 2015)

As it turns out, my prediction that “Shellfish Motives” Part Two would open with Donald and the nephews “being captured and thus having to work together” was completely wrong. And I couldn’t be happier, as Scarpa’s well-constructed, relatively complex, quasi-satirical* mystery story, while retaining the cloak-and-dagger flavor of the first installment, is much better than the action-adventure (with emphasis on the action) fare that I had envisioned.

* (I say "quasi-satirical" because, as with the social aspects of "The Duckburg 100", "Shellfish" is rife with political and diplomatic trappings which are played in a comical, spoofy way, but I wouldn't say that anything in particular is being targeted. I suppose, though, that a treatise could be written on what the Gourmandian professor's "going off the grid" maneuver says about the use of new science as leverage in high-level warring corpora-government combine power plays.)

If I would object to anything (and this is a tentative, not full-fledged objection), it would be the characterization of Donald as COMPLETELY clueless and wrongheaded, and the nephews so ENTIRELY superior to him in every respect. I like that Scarpa plays up the nephews’ resourcefulness and sharp wits, and while in essence it’s not out of character (to say the least) for Donald to be overconfident in his abilities and proceed with a task wrongheadedly, as in “Duckburg 100”, Scarpa presents a dumbed-down, practically infantile Donald. That said, Donald's attempted interviews with the different scientists (whose reactions vary from put off and annoyed to obvlious to Donald's presence) -- a string of encounters that's juxtaposed against the nephews staying on the right track in THEIR investigation -- are endearingly fun and funny, sort of with an (especially silly) Looney Tunes blackout gag flavor. Still, with Donald taking up Gideon on his job offer at the story's beginning, I felt that Donald was stepping across the threshold on a Hero's Journey... and yet after all is said and done, it seems that we're supposed to take the idea of him ever being a successful investigative reporter as a joke. It's safe to say that this is decidedly NOT a "mastery story".

From the parachute left in the taxicab down through the parsing out of the address where they find the professor, Scarpa’s plotting of the mystery-unraveling is admirable in its logic and its gradual, suspense-sustaining pacing. From the clues dropped throughout the story, I imagine that very few readers would ever discern “the full story” before all is told at the end – certain points (like the fact that the professor probably isn’t really also a chef) were suspected as highly likely, but would anyone have ever guessed that the professor already had his own candy in his pockets of the same type he was buying in the store? While the facts of the case when explained in full at the end are straightforward enough, the complexity is in how Scarpa, at first keeping this scenario near-completely concealed from the reader, lays down the narrative scheme in which the nephews, piece by piece, solve the case.

I had hoped that if the mysterious figure in Part One was indeed Scrooge -- as there there were telltale signs that it was -- then it would turn out that once we knew the whole deal, we would understand how and why we had been misled to believe that he was up to some villainy... and to my satisfaction, such exoneration panned out 100%. Naturally, the “full disclosure”, as relayed by the nephews, includes exposing Scrooge’s role, bringing him “on-screen”. What ensues nicely ties in a theme established at the beginning of the story: the rift between Scrooge and Gideon due to their opposing values and ambitions. I expressed in my review of Part One that I thought the character of Gideon and his relationship to Scrooge were good ideas, and seeing the fireworks that erupt when they actually interact really brings it home. (A familial divide so good, it’s almost like having another Donald-Gladstone rivalry.) Jonathan Gray’s dialogue in this sequence, which plays up that they’re both McDucks and have some fundamental similarities, fine-tunes and sharpens the McDuckian purity of this visceral exchange.


Closing out Donald #369 is a vintage treat, "Counter Spy", which at first glance, I figured was one of Al Taliaferro's gag-based "loose" continuities... but, nope, it was created exclusively for a 1947 Cheerios giveaway. Reformatted here for a standard-sized comic at three tiers per page, it comes out to (drumroll to build suspense) exactly 10 pages, a wildly appropriate number considering that the story consists of Donald waging suburban warfare against his next-door neighbor... in fact, against TWO next-door neighbors, the first of whom in fact is actually named (ahem) JONES, but unlike Barks' Jones, has a line in the sand for what he'll put up with and cares not to play into Donald's one-upmanship; the second of whom is eerily reminiscent of Barks' Herman the Hermit, and is just about as antisocial and curtly impolite, despite his actually bothering to take up residence in civilization.

Though the general proceedings and in particular the twist at the end that brings about Donald's comeuppance have Barksian shades, the crude characterization of Donald and the nephews (who seem to act pretty much as one here, which in itself is un-Barksian) -- first getting their jollies from harassing Taliaferro's "Jones", then invading his successor's life with their gossip-inclined nosiness and physical appearance-based suspiciousness -- aren't countered by any Barksian gravitas.

But let's take a step back. If how a non-Barksian Dell-era duck story measures up to Barks were the measure by which something's of interest or worthwhile, then virtually nothing would make the cut. On its own merits, this is a decently written and certainly well-drawn escapist, slapsticky funny animal comic quick read. So far, IDW's Disney comics have been dominated by European material. But turning a different leaf, this story's inclusion in Donald #369 follows in the tradition begun by Gladstone of select vintage/classic Golden Age/Dell-era American Disney comic reprints. Of course, Gladstone II gave us reprints of their own reprints of just a couple years earlier, as with "Back to the Klondike" and "Monarch of Medioka", amongst numerous examples, demonstrating what NOT to do. By contrast, this is the very first time "Counter Spy" has (at least per Inducks) has been reprinted in the U.S. since its original 1947 publication, exemplifying exactly what TO do.

-- Ryan

Saturday, July 11, 2015

New comic review: Uncle Scrooge #3 (#407) (IDW, June 2015)

IDWs Marco Rota "A" cover for Uncle Scrooge #407, which originally graced an Italian 2008 reprint of the 1961 Romano Scarpa story that Scrooge #407 presents using Joe Torcivia's newly-Americanized title "The Duckburg 100":

In contrast with his other stories presented by IDW thus far, Scarpa's "The Duckburg 100" is a relatively humble, down-to-earth, domestic, Duckburg-based story. Almost a pure character piece, its lack of big set pieces shouldn't be mistaken for a lackluster read -- its execution is more complex than the premise might suggest. (The most "adventurous" thing that happens is a Beagle Boy robbery during which they accidentally kidnap Donald, and it's mostly played for laughs: the Beagles are just doing what they can't help themselves from doing, and Donald's stumbled into quite a jam, ho-ho!) While the hook -- the bank's contest -- is frankly dry, to the point that it can only be relayed via dialogue, the closest to a  visual representation being promotional posters that Scrooge is pleased to see as he nears the bank... really, just more text! In many modern duck and mouse comics, the MacGuffin is something visual and wacky, which can make a story seem contrived and gimmicky. "100"'s more conscientious (and real-world plausible) situational (rather than conceptual, i.e. gimmicky) premise triggers reactions and an ensuing series of event that make Duckburg more believable than usual. Of course, this illusion hinges upon Scarpa's grasp of these characters, which here is wildly apparent. The end result is a quasi-social satire that isn't acidic and vitriolic, but certainly acute.

It's completely logical and in-character for Scrooge to be anxious to the point of obsession, allowing Scarpa to show us -- and amuse us with -- Scrooge in one of his panicked, skittish, somewhat neurotic modes. But Scarpa's Scrooge, like Barks', has varied moods, and so once he's processed the situation, Scrooge quickly turns energized, driven, and determined in taking efforts to ensure that the three contestants each a prove winning bet (on his end of the deal, of course). To pull off such a drastic transition in temperament as part of staggering a character's reaction to a plot development, keeping the character so true to what makes him tick, is testimony to Scarpa's talent and intuition. And I've almost overlooked how at first, Scrooge was all in favor of the contest and personally commending the bank's manager, only freaking out when he realizes that he owns the bank -- a variation, I believe, of a gag I'm pretty sure Barks used at least once, here executed with a quick setup and then, bam, a blunt turned-on-its head reveal so stark in its irony and so precisely "acted" as to be worth of Laurel and Hardy.

While I would qualify "100" as a character-oriented story before I would a social satire I would say that there is an element of social satire at play. It's predominantly character-driven in that the entire premise is a juxtaposition of the frugal, disciplined, finance-literate Scrooge against three, count 'em, THREE foil types: Jubal, the con artist; the Beagle Boys, who are no-muss, base-level thieves; and Donald, who is (at least in this portrayal) a pure fool. The pop culture-infatuated, financially inept, adult responsibility-oblivious, completely infantile Donald in this story doesn't exactly contradict his general comic book characterization; these traits have been shown, but here, it's just that he's been so completely consumed by these tendencies. I suppose we can chalk it up his obsession with Captain Retro-Duck being a relatively new phenomenon. In other words, a case of, "Oh, it's just a phase -- he'll move on, eventually."

...oh, but I was trying to make a point about the satirical aspects of the story. Basically, Scrooge and his three foils each represent an archetypal human trait/tendency. And each is used to show how money, and moreover, the institution of banking, rules our material existence. Now, I'm not sure if any point is made about this societal situation, which is why ultimately, this is an exercise in showing how these characters each react to a given situation (Scrooge from a different perspective than the other three). But there's at least the framework of a social satire built in to the story.

There is, of course, Scarpa's stab at modern art... which is an easy target, admittedly, but when an actual artist curmudgeonly vents about it in his own work, it has a particularly relishable sting to it. (And evidently, Scarpa and Barks were fellow curmudgeons, sharing a similar view on this "medium"!)

Is there a moral? Since Donald in the end gets as a reward the very thing the very thing he wanted in the first place, perhaps the moral is, "It's okay to be a fool; just don't be a con man or a low-rent thief." How does Scrooge make out? With all of the angst and obsessive effort he goes through, you might think that there might be some ultimate message about Scrooge being too whatever... but in the end, he gets what he wants, too: he hasn't lost anything. Are Scarpa's sympathies actually with Scrooge? Is he actually endorsing Scrooge's ways? I'm not sure, but I wonder.

One of Scarpa's many clever accomplishments in his plotting is the way that each of the three contest participants' efforts "cross over" with and impact each other, leading to the outcome of the story. These scenarios are fully developed enough to not feel contrived; in fact, they play a major part in the story having a tone of tasteful and thoughtful whimsical farce. (However THAT is conceivable!) Jubal's storyline is actually phased out, wrapped up prematurely in dialogue between Scrooge and the bank manager -- during which Jubal is off-screen, and after which he remains so. But even that kind of just falls away in the flow of things. The only plot turn that I found abrupt was how easily and quickly things were wrapped up once the nephews got the info via walkie-talkie from Donald, hiding in the Beagles' midst. I expected Donald getting discovered and the Beagles getting the upper hand again, resulting in one last major obstacle to overcome. I commend Scarpa for using what at first seemed like a lark,  Donald's being enraptured by his new  toy, as an integral plot device, in the dramatic tension afforded by the nephews turning off the walkie-talkie Donald left at home and in how its ultimately the ironic means by which the day is saved. But once Donald finally gets through to the nephews, it's a matter of about three panels before the Beagles have been apprehended (off-screen!), Donald is rescued, and Scrooge has regained the contents of Jewel Vault #3. Nothing to it, easy as pie! Anticlimactic, yes, but at least not as ludicrous and un-sellable as the ending of "Gigabeagle". And not even half as abrupt.

Now, I could pick on Scarpa for the Beagles' giant suction hose thing being a shortcut intended to expedite the vault robbery scene, and for the awkward, clumsy design he came up with for it... but in the former respect, he actually made the right call, because the story beats felt just right. In fact, I'm surprised by now that I haven't brought up how it's easy to imagine this story's premise as a Barks or Barksian ten-pager.  Though it's longer, I guess between the pacing of 10 Barks pages with four tiers each and 33 Scarpa pages with three tiers each, things somehow more or less even out.

For his first turn at a lead story in an IDW Disney comic, Joe Torcivia's dialogue is actually less archaic than that of some of his other recent Americanized scripts... but that's not to say that it's ever dry or straightforward. Take page 8, panel 2: "Hey, you punks! I want my gold nibs!" "Oops! Old stealing habits die hard!" Straightforward in comparison to, say, the daunting alliteration that opened "Meteor Rights", but imagine what the panel in question could have been: "Hey! You stole my gold nib!" "Oh, sorry! We didn't know it was yours!" Or the last panel on the same page: "Gadzooks! The hundred's here! In one lump sum!" What if that had just been, "Wow! Just what I needed, a check for $100!" It really can be the little things that make one's reading experience with these considerably smarter than could easily be the case.

A significant but necessary amendment to the story that Torcivia has made is the entire "Captain Retro-Duck" angle. Until just now, when flipping to the relevant pages, I hadn't put together that there was no superhero or action TV star of any type shown on Donald's TV screen even once during the story. Thus, if I deduce correctly, Captain Retro-Duck, who is referenced in Torcivia's version of the voiceovers for the walkie-talkie promo spots Donald salivates over, was conceived to justify for contemporary American readers why in the age of Google and iPhones Donald or anyone would get so excited in the first place about a walkie-talkie set. It's not that Captain Retro-Duck is a retooling of the TV action star in the original version; there was no TV action star in the original version! In that case, when Donald wanders off from home lost in "playing" Captain Retro-Duck, does that mean in the original, he was just playing some sort of generic make-believe spy game? I can't help but think that his frivolities seem more justified in Torcivia's version. And the nods to TV/comic book/superhero/sci-fi etc. fandom that he worked in are an added bonus, as are all the punny variations of the prefix "retro". Exemplifying both, we have "Sinister storage tanks! Just like the dreaded Eviloid in Episode 213: 'Captain Retro-Duck and the Retro-gressive Gas!'"

Scrooge #407 wraps up with a two-page Tony Strobl gag created for the Disney Studios program. In contrast with the nephews' chastisising and being considerably wiser than Donald in the lead story, here, they're shown as being completely on the same page and virtually standing as one with Donald against Scrooge. The gag boils down to Scrooge "programming" a parrot to say a series of things to "brainwash" his nephews, and in retaliation, they "reprogram" it to say the things that Scrooge decidedly doesn't want to hear. It reduces the characters to one-note roles... but that's sort of the nature of gag pieces. And as far as gags go, it's decently constructuted, as crass as it makes the characters seem. And I am glad that it's finally be printed in the States, for better or worse.

(Hmm, it just occurred to me... with Strobl, it's kind of as if the characters had been done by Hanna-Barbera. Or the Disney characters done by the artists who drew Western's Hanna-Barbera titles... one of whom I'm sure was Strobl. But he was also a product of his era. I can see some commonalities between him and even the original animation featuring the classic Disney cartoon characters produced for framing sequences of the Walt Disney Presents/Wonderful World of Disney episodes that were made up of select theatrical shorts. But I digress... )

Though I definitely think of Marco Rota's "A" cover, above (at the start of this post), as the "definitive" cover of this issue (for its "classic" duck comic look), I couldn't help but also purchase a copy with James Silvani's "sub" cover variant. It hit me in a soft spot for evoking DuckTales (i.e. due to the dynamic of Scrooge and the nephews sans Donald, and how, rather than their shirts being "blacked in", the nephews are sporting their DT-canonized red, blue, and green shirts), and "Treasure of the Golden Suns" in particular. The Junior Woodchuck coonskins were prominent in that serial, which may have been the first time the nephews were seen wearing them in conjunction with their non-blacked-in, then-newly-canonized-color scheme-complying shirts. So the aesthetic of their being so attired has a distinctly DT air to it.

-- Ryan