Saturday, May 7, 2016

New comic(s, two of 'em!) review: Uncle Scrooge #417-418 (IDW, April-May 2016)

Left: Cover for #417 by Alessandro Perina, from Topolino #2985.
Right:  Cover for #418 by Ulrich Schroeder and Daan Jippes. Original.

"Scrooge's Last Adventure" Parts 1 and 2 (#417-418)
written by Francesco Artibani
drawn by Alessandro Perina
lettered by Nicole and Travis Seitler
new U.S. dialogue by Jonathan H. Gray
(Italy, Topolino #2985-2986, February 12th and 18th, 2013)

This is what the ill-paced, under-developed "Rightful Owners" four-parter of 2011's short-lived U.S. DuckTales comic should have been... and I think was trying to be. (Not to mention that Rockerduck unquestionably belongs in an Uncle Scrooge story, whether properly cast -- as he is here -- as one of Scrooge's arch-nemeses, whereas his comparable (unprecedented) involvement in "Owners" was... puzzling.) One of if not the most recent Italian duck stories that IDW has printed, it reveals that Italy's most popular comic is keeping pace with its American counterparts, in terms of "big", blockbuster-level stories that bask in the mythologies of the respective headlining stars and their universe, playing to a cumulative archetypal conception of them given a new spin, the figurative "money shot" being our hero faced with a harrowing day of self-reckoning and/or devastating crisis and defeat that speaks directly to and underlines their "core essence". Strictly in terms of Batman, a definitive example of this kind of thing would be "Night of the Owls"; or its slightly-less-modern (and now virtually legendary) progenitor, "Knightfall".

Getting back to the DuckTales comparison, I find it apt as even though the TV is now considerably more dated than I ever imagined it'd become, in conceit it was always a more Hollywood incarnation of the duck comics... and with "Scrooge's Last Adventure" (ahem, this 2013 Italian four-part serial, not the promising but sloppily executed 1990 DuckTales episode), that objective and approach has been reinvigorated and brought up to speed with competing popular fiction narrative-based entertainment.

Make no mistake, a part of me (a considerable part) is almost militant in my ideological inclination toward a Barksian-Rosian purism (the "-ian" part is quite deliberate -- far from rejecting anything not by the Duck Man and his celebrated #1 fan and successor, I embrace the European stories crafted by Jippes, Milton, Verhagen, Branca, Vicar, the Heymanses, etc. because of their familiarity to and with Barks' universe.

Nonetheless, how can I not enthrall to seeing my favorite characters in such a rollicking, accelerated, hyper-ized form so drastic and heightened in scope? Seeing the secretive reaching-out-and-assembling, hand-playing, give-and-take compromising that nets the super group allying of Scrooge's four unqualified hallmark arch-nemeses; the execution of their strategically coordinated, multi-front assault on Scrooge and his bin hinging on their game-changing role-switching; its paradigm-shifting success; the defeated, depressed Scrooge casting a pall over his shaken but (touchingly) supportive nephews, soon to feel the ramifications of the villains' triumph themselves; the concurring intricate clashes of wills, agendas, and statuses (the Beagles and Magica each in their own right tossed aside as tapped-out patsies "rewarded" with pointedly misfitting new trappings), exacerbated by their innate mutual distrust, forcing the web of inter-group conflict to thicken; and both fantastical, big-stage Magica-centered show-stoppers (in Part 1, a would-be-but-dud-fated Battle for the Ages over the dime in the bowels of Mt. Vesuvius; Part 2, a Tolkien-cum-Lovecraftian face-off with an apparently sugar-averse monster posted guard at the gates to the underworld of the sorceress trio comprised by Magica's superiors.

The answer? (Wuh...? ...ohhhhh, yeah! I was asking a question! Huh! Who could remember that?!) I have no choice but to -- there is no conceivable reality in which I cannot -- eat this shit up! I even -- for the first time, EVER -- not only accepted and was sold on Duck Avenger being a part of Donald's existence and Duckburg's schema... I found myself actually liking the whole deal! Hell, I was cheering him on!

Despite my excess use of flowery language, I'm absolutely not dressing up and agrgrandizing any of the scenes, concepts, characterization, or "ultimate character mythology moments" I've alluded to. I'm but recounting what's in the comics -- what Artibani and Perina are doing here, and doing in spades. The complexities of Artibani's ambitious overarching plot and its several inextricable subplots are the stuff of grand vision complemented by acute clarity and finely-honed execution. Perina's art is unmistakeably "duck comic Italian" in its late '90's/early '00's Cartoon Newtork-ness, but deceptive in its simplicity, for his action is fluid and precise, bolstered by his exacting, exceptional, original, rich-in-depth "camera angles". The latter, however, are so purely servile to the narrative, one doesn't notice them -- "cinematic" framing and composition is the post-Watchmen comics norm, but to employ this approach in a duck comic and trick you into thinking you're reading a more-or-less traditional shows the hand of an artist who in this respect is truly good.

Also and in kind, it's important to note how the state-of-the CG coloring done at Digikore Studios is as (pardon the expression) cartoonishly bright and "solid color"-predominant as we've come to expect of modern Disney comics, but the faux-shading is more sophisticated and nuanced than were these comics' four-color ancestors (even very recent one), but is subtly layered to the point where one is thinking, as he or she would in the Disney Comics era, "Hey, they're trying to be modern but its beyond their means." It blends in. It works. (E.g., the shadow that's fallen over Donald's house in the left foreground in just the opening panel of Part 2.) And it adds to that vivid, "rich", "cinematic" "depth" (quoting myself) in Perina's panels, working together for the comic, not against it.

(And those Seitler letterers, they're all on top of and "rocking it" in doing their job, too!)

A couple other "quintessential" bits/scenes that must be noted:

1. All of the duck family and a few familiar friends and acquaintances rallying around the resigned Scrooge at his and his nephews' place of refuge, Grandma Duck's farm can easily be transposed in my mind to being enacted by the "duck cast" variant that is DuckTales' cast.

2. In fact, much like the nephews, Launchpad, Mrs. Beakley, Webby, and Duckworth's visit to Scrooge's jail cell in DuckTales: The Movie reinvigorates him, quickly and decidedly resolving to double down, strike back, and WIN... in "Last Adventure" Part 2, the genuine, profuse concern and encouragement from the extended Italian comic book duck-family-and-friends lineup finally resonates with Scrooge, and he suddenly is restored to the tough-as-nails, ablaze-with-drive-and-determination Scrooge we know and love. I won't mince words: as an integral turning point crowned with an uinhibited, all-in McDuck rallying cry, it's absolutely, positively, wayyyyyyyyyyyy beyond kickass.

...oh, and before his rebound, said scene finds Scrooge pacing afret on a circular rug. Yes, there's a Barks precedent (unquestionably), but I couldn't help but let it evoke for me DuckTales' "worry room"... (I know, I know, I can't help myself...)

When I expressed to one of my grad school professors fondness for the '90's JLA arc "Rock of Ages", citing two specific intentional "quintessential, archetypes" (1. Part Two's cliffhanger ending, in which Batman -- cowl folded back, fully exposing the face of and giving way to the person of Bruce Wayne -- declares that he's going to revert Lex Luthor's thwarting of the League with something that "Bruce Wayne knows best -- corporate takeover" (sic). 2. The reveal, on a dystopian future Earth, that the elusive, anonymous mastermind running the rebel resistance from a computer terminal is a battered, hardened, aged Batman/Bruce Wayne), she remarked that the story as a whole was contrived, strung together by "those big moments", while the themes and seemingly key plot points said moments are meant to crystallize are inconsistently actualized throughout the rest of the serial. I had to admit that I could see her point, so I do at times worry that I'm letting myself be manipulated by the gimmicks that are in actuality what these"sweeps week"-type "event books" are built on. Maybe so. But in my assessment, if the plot can be looked at as a thin string of fan bait, at least with the IDW version, not one of the ultimate product's bones is lacking, thanks to the abundance of meat that is Jonathan Gray's dialogue, the numerous strengths and immense versatility of which has been praised here several times past.

By the way, here's a notably dark (for a duck comic)cover by Perina that was used on a 2014 Finnish book in which the whole serial was collected:

Pretty great, eh? Hopefully, IDW will appropriate it for either Part 3 or 4... or use it for the trade (which not only is an eventuality, but should happen, since a multi-part epic like this one presented in its entirety is originally what a "TPB" was for... and still the only purpose for which one makes sense.)

"Nothing Like It" (#417)
written, drawn, and lettered by William Van Horn
(New to the U.S. First appeared in 2009 -- the April 27th issue of Norway's Donald Duck & Co., Sweden's corresponding April 28th issue of Kalle Anka & Co., and the Danish Anders And & Co. equivalent, dated April 1st but designated by Inducks as the story's "first" appearance. Must have been determined alphabetically ('cause, you know, Anders).

Given how "Last Adventure" Part 1 ends aLocationnd how the immediately-following backup story, "Nothing Like It", begins, a new reader might think the latter to be some sort of "Last Adventure" sub-chapter taking place somewhere in the near-immediate wake of Part 1. (I'm quite sure this not literal but thematic unity was not overlooked by our editors.) New (to the States) Van Horn has become rarer and rarer, so this one's appearance here is certainly a happy occasion. Though relatively simple, modest, and low-key, "Nothing Like It" is simultaneously whimsical, absurd/surreal, eccentric-ly and uniquely funny, and genuinely original and unpredictable. Yes, all odds were that Scrooge could only be experiencing a dream, hallucination, transport to an alternate universe, or anything else but a genuine, real McCoy new day in his and Duckburg's reality (such as it), I couldn't for the life of me deduce what was actually going on or how Scrooge's dilemma would work out -- I was stumped! With the "lima bean and tapioca yogurt" callback and the self-in-joke wordplay to Scrooge's "wise adage" final line, the ending hits just the right spot.

 "For Whom the Belle Toils" (#418)
written by Dick Kinney
drawn by Al Hubbard
lettered by Nicole and Travis Seitler
(Disney Studio program, new to the U.S. Per Inducks, first printing anywhere was in Brazil, 1970, but my alphabetical theory holds up (O before T), because said Brazilian printing was in what Inducks cites as the October 2nd, 1970 issue of that South American nation's O Pato Donald... yet the site likewise notes that its first Italian -- and, I decree, actual first-ever -- printing was in that same year's January 18th issue of Topolino. Unless I'm misinformed, January is the first month and October the tenth month of a given calendar year.) (Trivia gleaned from Inducks: Until now, Italy, Brazil, and Greece were the only countries to use the story, in 1976.)

Belle Duck is back, I found her more endearing than last time, the comedic twist on the last page and the "new anchor" callback closing gag actually amused me and didn't feel forced, and for the most part, Hubbard's ducks aren't looking more appealing and less weird to me. Pluses, all! (I know, sort of backhanded of me, though... I think I'm just restless in wanting to finally be done with this review...)

If a Belle-versus-Brigitta-for-Scrooge's-hand story has never been done, I guess I'll go on the record as saying that it wouldn't be a hopeless endeavor. By the way, re: Belle, think Kathy Bates' Jo Bennett of The Office but with a markedly higher sum measurement of the ingredient of sweetness.

-- Ryan

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