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Saturday, 5 March 2016

REVIEW: "Coff-in"

I warned you in the first post that I would be reviewing pretty unconventional Disney comics that you may not think of when you say Disney Comics. Yet so far, my reviews have been of stories that, if not notorious, do feel like average Disney comics/cartoons. What I am reviewing today… does not.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 1969 Coff-in, by Bill Barry. Those are two names that probably don't ring any bell, and naturally so, because I deliberately chose the most obscure Disney comic worth mentioning that I could find. This might well be it. 

Let's begin with the story's story. Like that background in the first panel may have suggested you, it is a story that is related to Disney's “Haunted Mansion” ride (though it includes none of its characters), and it was published to celebrate its opening… or something like this. If you look up this story on I.N.D.U.C.K.S., you won't find anything, and that's very natural, because this story isn't even official. It was never allowed by Disney. Am I to say I'm reviewing a fanfiction here ? No, the author did work for Disney at the time, and well it's complicated. Coff-in was published in Backstage Magazine #2. Backstage was a satyrical newspaper that Disneyland Imagineers and Cast Members printed for themselves, and they were filled with in-jokes about the parks and the conditions of the Imagineers. Bill Barry himself was not professionally a comic book artist, but a designer for Disneyland. 

So, it's the Haunted Mansion's opening day, which is a big event not only for us puny humans, but also for the ghosts all around the world, who see the Haunted Mansion spooks as some kind of movie stars. Thus, there is this Gaylord Ghoul character who is a television journalist who's here to cover the event in real-time. His narration is apparently broadcasted all over the “spirit world” (whatever that means… is it a pocket dimension for ghosts ? Or do they mean “world” less literally as a whole world of ghosts, but more as the ghosts' hidden society ? I'm confused). We get a panel of this decidedly non-Disney-looking zombie fellow who's watching.

Famous horror figures from all over the world have gathered for the opening, and Gaylord Ghoul wants a word with all the big names. Please note how the art here, though good, is widely inconsistent. In most panels, Gaylord Ghoul is a stylized, UPA-style ghost, but this one panel treats with much more details.

“Egor” ? I know some Frankenstein movies that spell it “Ygor”, but “Egor” ??? 

But more importantly, where does this depiction of Frankenstein and “Egor” come from ? Dr. Frankenstein was originally a young man in both the novel and the world-famous 1931 film. More recent versions have changed him into an old, Mad Doctor-style old man, but as far as I'm aware of, they all came out much later than 1969. The most recent adaptation at the time was 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein is perhaps a bit older than his novel counterpart, but nowhere near this mustache-sporting old fellow. “Egor” is more transparently a Peter Lorre caricature, though I'm confused about his large goitre and his pointy teeth.

He also encounters Count Dracula, but hey, this is a review, not a read-through, so I'll cut that. I wanted however to highlight this scene, for four reasons. 
    First, it's hilarious. 
   Second, it's an interesting call back to the fact that this is supposed to be a TV show: of course there would be obnoxious commercials breaking the action in half. 
  Third, remember what I said earlier about the varying art style ? Here we've got a rather comical-looking Gaylord Ghoul to the left, and a hyper-realistic seller to the right. 
   Fourth, it's one of the few things that actually remind you of the “real” Haunted Mansion: the coffin and its surroundings are a real set in the attraction, though of course the weird signs about buying the coffin aren't there.

This ending confuses me. I get that there are two gags in here: first, Gaylord has been trying to talk to celebrities but is regarded as one himself by fans (one is reminded of the punchline in Donald Duck, the Autograph Hound). Second, the ghosts are, paradoxically, afraid of anything lively and clean-cut. I get that. But what about Gaylord Ghoul wearing a skull mask the whole time ? Is he a genuine ghost who just looks ugly by ghost standard ? Or is he a human who was posing as a ghost ? I'm confused. And whichever of the two it actually was, why does he take it off ? How is it an answer to the question "What is the secret of your success ?" ? Is his human face the secret, or is the mask itself ? 

Oh well. Despite confusing caricatures and this mind screw of an ending, I think there is still a legitimate amount of things to like here… certainly more than you'd expect from an in-joke between Imagineers. Read it here if you're in the mood to read some funny weirdness.


There is an issue I more or less avoided in the review proper because it wasn't the point at all, but I find it interesting that Gaylord Ghoul seems to be modeled after the Hatbox Ghost from the attraction, although with a microphone instead of a cane, and, well, without a hatbox. Since he's one of the ghosts that the Imagineers worked on the most as they were trying to get it fixed, I wouldn't be surprised if Barry deliberately modeled him after “Hattie”, as our hatbox-holding spook has come to be called in the Haunted Mansion fan circles. I let you be the judge from this little gallery:

This is the Hatbox Ghost by Collin Campbell in an advertising
 book for the Haunted Mansion.

This is the Hatbox Ghost in the attraction proper, as he can be seen today
(the original animatronic was replaced recently).

This is the Hatbox Ghost as depicted in a hilarious series 
of comic strips that I'll review here one day.

This is Gaylord Ghoul.

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