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Thursday, 1 March 2018

REVIEW: "Uncle Scrooge and the Horn of Plenty"

It's an unusual story I bring you this time, and one which I translated myself. Uncle Scrooge and the Horn of Plenty was written in 1982 by Osvaldo Pavese, and illustrated by something called the Francest Bargadà Studios. 

(The "F" flag refers to the old French currency, the Francs. In an official localization, this would have 
been changed to a $ sign, but I do what I can.)

We open at sea, with some prety darn decent art. This story has a very Barksian vibe, helped greatly by Donald's characterization. Seeing him at the steering wheel of a sailing ship naturally brings this oft-reproduced Barks painting to mind, too. Also, the mythical island they are looking for is called “Erinia”, which is the name of a real Greek island. It is hard to tell what Pavese was thinking — on the one hand, this shows he did his research, but on the other hand, well, Erinia exists and we're pretty sure it is not populated by centaurs, giants and co. Quid? 

Why the turnip-bashing? I like turnips. Involving disliked vegetables in a Greek-themed treasure quest may be a call-back to Barks's Golden Fleecing, although, unlike in the Barks tale, the turnips in Horn of Plenty never really tie into the main plot beyond the nephews intending to use the Cornucopia to eat something else at last.

The island as seen from the sky is a striking picture, though perhpas the island seems a bit small in comparison to the apparent size of Scrooge and co. I find the childish, petty conflict between Donald and Scrooge endearing, and Scrooge's likewise childlike enthusiasm about finding Greek Mythology creatures even moreso. (Also, you'd think Huey, Dewey and Louie would have learnt something from Golden Fleecing and not doubt the existence of the creatures so thoroughly, but ah well. Continuity was never the strong point of Disney comics before Don Rosa.)

So after being knocked out by rocks, they meet this Centaur fellow. His design is nothing special, but his dialogue (in the original Italian) is poetical and grandiloquent, which I tried to carry on to this version. Also, grumpfh. Prophecy. Why is there always a prophecy? And the hints dropped by the Centaurs and Co. (which fly right above Scrooge's head every time) about wanting to keep the Horn are all but obvious, but I couldn't really help it.

More obvious hints that everybody misses. Bah. Also, those duck-faced satyrs look very odd. I'm pretty sure something like the one in the bottom right panel would tumble over and fall. On the other hand, Scrooge's oblivious, dream-like happiness still amuses me.

…So on the one hand, Scrooge is moving away from “likable obliviousness” to “pretty damn thick” here. On the other hand, I don't know if that was Pavese's intention, but maybe Scrooge is being “too clever by half” here, because giving ceremonial weapons to new citizens actually was a thing in Ancient Athens, so…? (Also, this blacksmith looks like Fergus McDuck. …No reason.)

Ah yes, the Giant. I don't quite know what to make of him. From what develops later, it's clear he's based on Polyphemes in the Odyssey, but then, why isn't he a cyclops? Not to mention that as far as Giants go, he is a pretty bland Giant. Forget Willie — freakin' Gustav had more personality than this guy. The Francest Bargadà Studio folks also can't seem to keep his height straight from one panel to another, as you can see.

This sequence, on the other hand, is pretty nice and dynamic. You really get a sense of motion despite the image's actually being, well, just a static image. The Giant isn't anything special, but I like his confused expressions.

The reference to Barks's September Scrimmage in the second panel here is mine, of course. On the other hand, what does belong to the story is the design of that goat. I can't quite place why but I really like that goat. Very graceful. 

Also, will fiction stop portraying setting people's bottoms on fire as harmless slapstick? Seriously, it's fire. This sort of thing can lead to serious injury. It would be bad enough if the Giant's bouncing attempts to light it off succeeded, but the last panel here clearly shows they haven't, so the fire would have realistically long ago burnt through his clothing and started  consuming him, weren't this a children's comic.

Again the graceful goat. Either way, although the story naturally doesn't expound on it, I think we're meant to assume that the Giant dies (if not from getting a boulder twice the size of his head smashed into his skull, then from the subsequent rockslide). This is… unexpectedly dark — even Homer didn't kill Polyphemes off entirely.

Seriously, that goat. Look at its satisfied smile in the first panel as it parades Scrooge & Co. around. I want that goat as a pet. On the other hand… (sigh) Brigitis. 

Brigitis. Brigitis is a strange turn for the story to take, especially with nothing hinting at her existence previously. I mean, unexplained lookalikes are no strangers to Disney comics, but… why? This isn't a historical parody story, Pavese! The real Brigitta McBridge is presumably minding her own business back in Duckburg, even now! So… why? And why does Brigitis have to be in love with Scrooge just because she looks just like Brigitta, or the other way around? See, this would make sense if the story was actually All Just a Dream, but it's not

Also, in the original, Scrooge seems to be rejecting Brigits's proposal on the basis that she looks like Brigitta, and therefore must be just as insufferable. This is so overwhelmingly stupid that I broke my usual rule of not tampering with dialogue, and had Scrooge protest on the more reasonable grounds that madam, I've only just met you a minute ago, fercrissake!

That helpful Centaur also turns bloodthirsty pretty quickly. It's, again, surprisingly dark, but very mythological. Break not the Faerie's rules and all that. 

It was all just a dream, except, oh, it wasn't, blah blah blah. We have ourselves a conclusion. I'll admit, those final three panels are surprisingly moving, and Scrooge losing the last two jewels from Erinia without even noticing they were there at all is a nice touch. This particular “Dream… Or Not?” ending seems to be more about why Scrooge won't think to come back, than it is about leaving the actual facts ambiguous. Which, okay. Fine. I'm still sick of the trope, but fine.

Something odd is that it's clear the idea was that the Erinians were using the Corncupia as their primary source of food, hence their desperation to get it back. This made the Giant come across as all the more of a jerk, since with his goats and all, he could probably feed himself without the Horn. But such a plot point seems like it was setting up something — namely, Scrooge realizing he can't just waltz in and take away those islanders' livelihood just to get some more shinies. Only that never happens, because Scrooge gets the Horn taken away from him by Brigits Ex Machina before he even considers the morality of bringing it back to Duckburg. Blah.

So… that's Uncle Scrooge and the Horn of Plenty. Is it a masterpiece? No, by far. But it is nicely drawn (Giant proportions notwithstanding), creative, and evocative. The overall atmosphere is very Barksian, to me, especially the sequences with Donald at the beginning and end. It's a romp I wouldn't mind seeing IDW publish one of these days, unlikely though it may be. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

REVIEW: "20.000 Weeds Under The Sea"

I trust most of you are familiar with the Italian Grandi Parodie series, where classic works of literature are recreated-slash-parodied with the various characters replaced with classic Disney characters. What is less well-known is that the American Gold Key books had their own series with this exact conept, called The Walt Disney Theater. The main differences were that there were much fewer installments, and the other one was that, well, there were a lot less good. 

And today, we're going to be looking at one of them: 20.000 Weeds Under The Sea., by the dubious team of Vic Lockman, Tony Strobl and Steve Steere. And… talk about an opening in medias res. Mind you, the opening narration box does a good job of explaining the context, but when I first happened upon this, I first wondered this was the second part of a serial tale and I went back to check the previous issue to find what I missed. Huh.  Also note that from the Jules Verne book's three main protagonists (outside of Nemo), this story cuts back to just two, dropping Professor Aronax's butler Conseil. Why not have, I don't know, Ludwig von Drake, or… somebody… to play the role? It's not like this story is limiting itself to Mickey Mouse characters, since we'll see Captain Hook later on. Then again, bickering about how unfaithful this is to the original novel might be a losing battle.

And a very nice panel is followed by a… not very nice panel. This is symptomatic of the usual problems with Strobl. Sometimes he's good… but then he immediately follows it with weird poses or drawings of allegedly moving characters who are completely devoid of motion.

Captain Hook is playing Captain Nemo! …Way to completely throw out Nemo's trademark moral ambiguity there, Lockman. Also, Mickey Aronax apparently knows Captain Hook as "a notorious pirate". This is another problem with the Walt Disney Theater stories: they're never clear on whether they take place in the same universe as normal stories. Some characters have different names and contexts in traditional Grandi Parodie fashion, and the story usually takes place in the past, but then some characters just pop up entirely identical to their usual selves. Like Captain Hook here. Are we to believe that this story happened to Captain Hook at some point before Peter Pan? Possibly before he even came to Neverland? That's an interesting angle for sure, but here it's just… odd, since they don't elaborate on it.

Credit where credit is due: the whole 'pirate submarine' concept is handled rather well in this story. It has nothing on Nemo's motivation for sinking ships in the original, but it's pretty in-character for Captain Hook. It's a little dark (we are left to assume the crews of the sunken ship are left to drown by the fiend), but I'm not complaining, far from there; Hook is supposed to be murderous.

As for the Scuttilus itself, Strobl does what he can, but it doesn't look particularly memorable, and (this is my main issue) it's just too small. The Nautilus was amazing not only because it was a submarine, but because it was an absurdly large, self-sustaining one. It also had a large crew, of which we see no evidence in this story. Where does Hook put all that treasure, anyway? At least a third of this thing must be taken up by the engine and air supplies, and then you have the sleeping quarters of Hook, Smee, and "guests" like Mickey and Goofy. 

Wait. Just when is this story taking place, exactly? The novel took place in the 1860's, but surely Captain Hook wouldn't call it "the new world" if it was so late? Unless it's just the fact that he's from the 18th century showing, but he can't possibly have lived that long without already having been in Neverland for some time, which shoots down my theory from earlier, which… gah!

Well, uh, Queen Victoria, folks! She's in that story! For some reason. And, ah, what is Her Royal Dognose Highness doing in the middle of the Atlantic again? …You're going to adress that, are you, Lockman? I should have known.

No it doesn't. This isn't a squid, it's an octopus. This matter aside, though, I do like this image. Especially how the Giant Not-Squid is apparently trying to bite the ship in anger (with teeth it's not supposed to have, being an octopus, but whatever).

And let it be known to future generation that Lockman, Victor, was responsible for a comic panel where a dognosed, "tee-hee"ing  Queen Victoria greets Mickey Mouse while Goofy's talking head is seemingly mounted on her wall. Really. Of all the weird conclusions.

So that was 20.000 Weeds Under The Sea. It's a pefect example of a failed experiment, which mostly failed because they assigned Vic Lockman to the project instead of, say, Carl Barks. It's not devoid of interest: for all that the story is odd and simplistic, it's nicely told; the art is pretty solid most of the time; and as far as they may be from the original Nautilus crew, it's nice to see relatively unsual characters Hook and Smee in a story. But it's simply not good. Lockman, Strobl, go read Donald Fracas and take notes: this is how you write a Parodie-type story that, in spite of using weird casting choices, having weird universe mixing, and being only tenuously related to the novel, is actually, genuinely fun to read. 

By the way, aside from its traitorous betrayal of the original, have you, by any chance, noticed anything wrong with it? No, not the fact that it's god-darn insane. (Well, that too, but you know what I mean.) Still don't see it? It has nothing to do with weeds whatsoever. I don't get it. It's an incomprehensible… non-pun. "Weeds" doesn't even sound much like "leagues". Why choose this out of all the doubtful homophones that Lockman could have… Wait. Doesn't weed have another meaning in modern slang…? Oh. Oh. Now I get it.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

REVIEW: "The Inner-Earth Adventure"

    Having read a lot of post-Barks pre-Rosa old Uncle Scrooge issues, I have discovered that the amount of Barks reprints was absolutely, ludicrously overwhelming for a period, at least for the main story. Then somewhere near the #190 mark, I suddenly had a chunk of fresh air in the form of main stories written by honored Disney comic author "?" and drawn by the creative if somewhat glitchy Pete Alvarado. Alvarado was no Rosa or Bottaro, but his work was still quite enjoyable. One of the more notable stories I found was this:

     In Uncle Scrooge #194 lies undiscovered The Inner-Earth Adventure, first published in February of 1982. As I said, the art is by Pete Alvarado, and it is kinda weak in places; however, you can't blame him too much — he was 62 at the time, and looking at older efforts of his, he had used to have a higher amount of details. Anyway.

     We open with this lovely little opening narration. I like the idea, really; and it unintentionally foreshadows Don Rosa's Attack of the Hideous Space Varmints, which also has a similar opening. If there is a downside, though, it is, as I said, with the art. The "outer space" background, no offense meant, looks like it was drawn by a toddler. And sure, you can't expect everyone to be Don Rosa, but I can't help but make the comparison with Hideous Space Varmint's own opening star-lit splash panel, since the two openings are so alike, and that comparison is jarring:

        But let's not forget ourselves and begin nitpicking already. We've got a whole zany plot to go. So Scrooge has, we're told, always postponed his space voyage because the cost was too off-putting. However, he suddenly realizes that Gyro could help him (come on, you've known the guy since 1952, and just now you think of it?). Never mind that Gyro has already built several spaceships for Scrooge in past stories; it is a thing I find a little hard to swallow, but I won't press that point too much, since Barks himself couldn't remain self-consistent on that point either.

    Gyro Gearloose, it turns out, already has a spaceship ready (albeit an untested one), which works with a super-hot fuel. The unforeseen problem is that as soon as the thing is switched on, the superheat melts the ground, leading the machine to sink into the Earth. Also, the third and fourth panels look very much like Don Rosa's Universal Solvent story. There might be influence there.

    Though the plot itself has little in common, I must admit that the titular Inner-Earth was most likely inspired by Barks's Land Beneath the Ground. Underground world, they're aware of the upper earth but only barely, and there are two similar but competing peoples. The Togs are the hard-working root farmers (I like that this story makes the effort to explain how the underground beings sustain themselves, unlike Barks's Terries and Fermies), and the Krogs are the evil robbers who just steal the product of their work. The Krogs are not especially fearsome (they're just Togs with masks on), but they have a better knowledge of the underground geography: they know passages to Upper-Earth, and also ways to get Freez gems, which are found much deeper into the Earth's crust, the light of which can freeze anyone who looks at it (except them, the light being filtered by their masks).

     They figure out that sunglasses will protect them from the Freez's ray (Huh… they took sunglasses on a space expedition? That's lucky indeed.) There are also “gushes” in Inner-Earth, spontaneous geysers of molten gold that spring from the ground at random times; which interests Scrooge, obviously.

      Ladies and gentlemen, this is a terrible burning stream of glowing molten gold that is going to engulf Scrooge and Gyro (just so you know). It's unfortunate that Alvarado can't seem to render the direness of the situation, because in theory, it makes for a pretty good climax, but the stream appears so small and escape so easy that you hardly get any feeling of danger. Have Marco Rota redraw that story someday, and it'll become a classic.

     Would the stone floor be cool if there's molten gold streaming underneath all the time? Ah well. What is weirder is the Tog's “One good thing: Freez gem gone in golden gush!”. No Togs were speaking in caveman language earlier.

    The ending twist is funny, but why does Scrooge “wak” repeatedly? Were it Donald doing this, I wouldn't look twice, but though Scrooge has been known to utter this kind of exclamative "Wak!"s at the beginning, never has he said: "wak! wak! wak!" in annoyance.

     So, that's The Inner-Earth Adventure, a pretty good little story, in spite of inconsistent artwork. It's neither Barks nor Rosa or Bottaro or Carpi, but for a late pre-Gladstone western story, it's much better than you'd expect. It won't take up much time to read it, so I say give it a go.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

REVIEW: "The Dime from Uncle"

    Back in the 60's, Disney was trying to launch comic books about less prominent characters who, they thought, could still have their own stories instead of remaining in the background. Thus, The Phantom Blot, Moby Duck, Ludwig von DrakeThe Beagle Boys (and, a little later, The Aristokittens) were born. 

    When it comes to The Beagle Boys, they weren't exactly sure what to do with them. The obvious first choice was: have them rob Scrooge. Yeah, sure, but that would be awfully redundant with Uncle Scrooge; and more importantly, if the Beagle Boys were the antagonists, we'd rather find ourselves rooting for Scrooge than for the “bad guys”, even if the book was named after them. Now, what to do with the masked dogs?

     “Obvious enough, the authors said. Have them team-up with human witches”.

     …wait, what???

     Not that there's anything wrong with this concept. Amazingly enough, it works out pretty well. It's just… through what improbable way of thinking did the writers get this weird idea?

      And yet, so it was done. Issue One of the Beagle Boys' solo efforts was called The Beagle Boys and the Marvelous Mad Madam Mim (I like how they quadrupled the already-triple alliteration), and contained a myriad of stories which had little in common plot-wise, except that all started with the premise of Madam Mim living, more or less temporarily, as a guest in the Beagle-Boys' hideout, and interfering with the thugs' plans, for good or ill. It managed to get sold in large enough quantities that Gold Key (the publisher) ordered a second issue from the same team. They had already exploited Madam Mim to the bone, so they looked for another witch. Magica De Spell was too mean and not wacky enough, so they switched to Witch Hazel, and ta-da:

This is 1965's The Dime from Uncle, written by Vic Lockman, penciled by Tony Strobl and inked by Steve Steere. 

The first interesting thing to say here is that this is the introduction of Witch Hazel's “new” name, Wanda Witch. When she debuted in Trick or Treat (both the animated short and the comic story), she was named Hazel, as you know. However, there were a couple of other Witch Hazels around: Little Lulu comics had one, a Tom & Jerry short had had one as a memorable one-shot, and most importantly, the Looney Tunes had a much-beloved one. Theirs was actually a special case, since it was actually a rip-off of the Disney Trick or Treat Witch Hazel who progressively grew into her very own thing. At any rate, past Donald Duck and Witch Hazel, the Disney publishers could not afford to use the name again, for fear of either copyright problems or readers being confused. Meanwhile, Hazel had been repeatedly used in Italian comics, as Nocciolla (“Nutty”), a close enough translation, and there had been no problem. When she got back to the states, it was at first as The Witch. Then, Lockman thought up “Wanda Witch”, and it stuck for as long as the character kept being used (when she vanished along with the rest of the 60's introductions, she became only remembered by Barks's Trick or Treat, which is why she's once again Witch Hazel today).

So the idea is that Hazel (sorry -- Wanda) has opened a night school of witchcraft (although she seems to have ulterior motives), and the Beagle Boys decide to apply there because if they can become invisible or fly a broomstick, it will naturally improve their criminal careers. Art-wise, Tony Strobl is absolutely excellent here, especially on Witch Hazel. He could be shaky at times, but this is one of his peaks. I can't help but think that Strobl was more fit to draw these kinds of angular human characters, rather than rotund designs like the Ducks or Mickey.

Witch Hazel is at her best when she does this kind of Ludwig-von-Drake-style verbal wackiness out of nowhere. Ala Ka Zam, Bala Ka Zam, Calico Sam -- why not? It's hilarious because it's unexpected. Also unexpected is the Beagle Boys' dramatic reaction (does Calico Sam sound all that fearful a name, really?), and Tony Strobl, once more, sells it perfectly. 

Back to the plot, the Beagle Boys graduate and decide to go rob Scrooge. But what could Hazel's ulterior motive be? Try to guess. Just try.

Looking for Calico Sam. Selling the Lucky Dime to look for Calico Sam. This is just so over-the-top. Vic Lockman was bad at doing serious plots, but when he lets of the steam and goes Alice in Wonderland, he's irresistible. I mean, you'd have thought the Calico Sam digression was just an irrelevant bit of kookiness, but no, it's actually one of the battiest Chekhov's Guns in history.

So yes, this story uses McDuck Manor, and no, it wasn't a purely DuckTales thing. You actually really can't blame Lockman there for the apparent inconsistency: Barks himself did it first in Bear Mountain and Voodoo Hoodoo, after all. And the notion that Scrooge actually lived in the Bin wasn't firmly established until Don Rosa; the odd Italian story had him sleeping in his vault, on a money bag, but it was not prominent. Until Beagle Boys Vs Money Bin, you could easily argue that Scrooge just worked and spent most of his leisure time in the Bin, but lived in his own house, be it McDuck Manor or something else. Actually, if we're speaking continuity, take a look at 1950's Trail Blazer by Bob Moore.

The stairs are apparently longer, but the two columns supporting the pediment are there in both. We'll never know if it was intentional, but at least we can rejoice, as this isn't the kind of continuity you often see between two minor stories, especially if these two stories are by different authors, and none of those two authors is Carl Barks. Back to the story…

…Scrooge is very well-rendered here, too. At one point of his career, Tony Strobl drew him with a much-too-short, much-too-angular beak, but here he is entirely on-model. His eye rings are a nice touch (he was woken in the middle of the night, after all). The Lucky Dime's protective glass is shorter than usual, but it's okay (although putting a glass globe under one's head is still not a very careful thing to do).

Shenanigans ensue as Huey, Dewey and Louie, Scrooge, Hazel and the Beagle-Boys lead a battle of quiproquos, magics and wits throughout the Manor. The “magic” part is a little underwhelming, but it's very okay. And then, there's this. Calico Sam rides again! Ta-da!!! This crazy running gag really gets me every time. 

And there is the Beagle-centric punchline. I'd still like to point out some heavy furry confusion here. “I could have turned you into a police dog”… er, isn't this guy already an anthropomorphic dog? Additionally, isn't the Beagle Boy himself a dog, too? And that's emphasized by Scrooge's referring to them as “Beagles” instead of just “Beagle Boys”, something he does pretty rarely.