Thursday, April 29, 2010

"The Doom Diamond"

Incredible though it sounds, I don't think I've yet mentioned my love of the Beagle Boys on this blog. It's necessary to preface this by making the standard disclaimer: Beagle behavior varied to some extent in Barks' work; in the early days they tended to be rather more vicious than they were when they became more established (as in "Hawaiian Hideaway"/"The Menehune Mystery," in which they literally make our heroes into slaves). So you can't generalize absolutely. Here I'm talking about this later version, however.

What can I say? They have their shit together. Sure, their previous eight hundred seventy attempts to rob Scrooge may have failed--but that doesn't mean they won't approach the eight hundred seventy-first with boundless optimism and endless enthusiasm. This could be the one! They're just so goshdarn cheerful about it all. When you think about other classic Barksian antagonists--Flintheart or Magica or Chisel McSue or the generic pig-faced villains--you note that they're only ever happy in a malevolent kind of way. Whereas with the Beagles, it's not personal; it's just a big game--there's a genuine sense of play to them. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that they'd feel rather lost if they ever actually succeeded in robbing Scrooge blind. It's all in the game, as Omar Little was fond of noting (likewise, Scrooge would probably miss them if they just gave up, loathe as he'd be to admit as much). From what little of it I've read, the Beagle Boys comic line in the seventies tended to get this tone completely wrong, and suffered for it--although, bizarrely enough, the inexplicable team-ups with Mad Madame Mim (from The Sword in the Stone) actually sort of work more often than not.

So yeah, the Beagles know the score--but even THEY would suffer from late-period-Barksian inertia in "The Doom Diamond," the last Scrooge adventure that Barks both wrote and drew (for some reason, I was sure that "The Cattle King" took this honor, but inducks informs me that I was wrong. Alas!) I want to say it's the last duck comic he drew, period, but no--I'm pretty sure that's this. That's right--a Daisy Duck's Diary story written by some anonymous hack. How's that for bathos?

(What a fantastic segue that was!)

It turns out the Beagles have trained falcons to break into Scrooge's bin with acetylene torches so that trained bluejays can steal money.

An ingenious plan, no doubt--but when you come down to it, it's also kind of picayune.

Quarters and half dollars? What is this? Is it not the case that the reason they were so keen to rob Scrooge in the first place that he's THE richest target in the world? That they're shooting for the top? And now they're just going after spare change? Shit--they might as well just be breaking into parking meters. And they know it.

I actually find these low-key Beagles sort of charming, but they're quite right--what's it all about? This isn't what they were born to do!

This about sums it up. Thinking small is NOT what the Beagle Boys DO! I also want to note for the record that I'm a big fan of that gag with the curvy pool cue.

But hope comes in the form of a totally sweet item called the "zero diamond" that Scrooge is after. He's purchased it from the invitingly-named "South Myserystan," and he's going to go pay for it in person. I know he's loathe to actually hire people to do stuff for him, but I'm not sure how much business sense it makes for him to perform every single business transaction personally. We might theorize that he's partially using his cheapness as a smokescreen in these cases--in point of fact, he just wants to stay active. Abstract earnings have less meaning to him than concrete, hands-dirtying stuff does. Hence, the Money Bin.

At any rate, the prospect of this diamond is sufficient to rouse everyone to action. Scrooge, hyper-paranoid about pirates, builds a super anti-pirate ship:

Would there have been much cheaper, less ostentatious ways to do this? Without a doubt. But where's the fun in that? The point is, rejuvenating energy is being expended. It's a good thing. However, the Beagles have cobbled together an anti-anti-pirate-ship ship. The result: an epic, six-page battle.

If you were of a mind to, you could criticize this for being overly aimless--it doesn't really contribute to the story's central plot, such as it is--but that would be missing the point: not only is it fun in and of itself, but it shows the characters--both pro- and antagonists--acting with a vigor that they had lacked at the beginning. That's reason enough for its existence.

So anyway, they get to the island and get the diamond. Whoo!

I enjoy the saturnine manner of the South Misterystani people. Even if the title somehow failed to clue you in, it should be obvious from this that the diamond is BAD NEWS. As a matter of fact, given how desperate the people seem to get rid of the thing, you sorta wonder why they didn't just chuck it in the ocean long ago. Sure, this way they're profiting from it a bit, but still--if it's THAT terrible...

At any rate, bad luck begins to assail the ducks as soon as they get the stone.

Just one damn thing after another, eh? They should've brought Gladstone along--see what happens in an immovable-object/implacable force-type situation. Long story short: the stone bounces back and forth between the ducks and the Beagles for a while, until it's finally disposed of for good in the ocean. If you want a blow-by-blow, just find yourself a copy of US349 and read it yourself. It's good times.

At this point I want to introduce the concept of entropy--I am currently teaching (trying to, anyway) Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, so it's been on my mind, and I think it provides a neat li'l hermeneutic for understanding this story. I know I'm going to butcher/oversimplify it, but basically, in a closed system, as things lose energy, the level of entropy increases. So if you have a hot bath, you have some water molecules that are dashing around with their hair on fire, basically. Lots of energy. As they slow down, they lose energy, and the bath becomes tepid. To heat it up again, you have to introduce more energy from the outside, by pouring in more hot water or lighting a fire underneath, if it's an old-fashioned tub. This is the system by which Lot 49 operates. You can see it in miniature in the "Courier's Tragedy" part, where all the violence and torture and orgies gradually give way to nothing but the "colorless administrator" Gennaro standing in a pile of corpses.

This energy can be kind of terrifying, but it also has its positive aspects: Oedipa Maas's bland suburban-housewife existence at the beginning of the novel isn't a life-affirming thing, and even though her quest for the Tristero is frequently sinister/alarming, and ultimately probably has no endpoint, the very fact of the quest itself is in some sense life-affirming--it has a rejuvenating quality to it. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that the perpetuation of her initial, high-entropy existence would have led anywhere good.

I think this is pretty much exactly the dynamic we see in "The Doom Diamond." At the beginning of the story, we find ourselves in a high-entropy state: nothing much is going on; everything's kind of sluggish and low-stakes. But then: new energy--in the form of the diamond itself--is introduced into the system! Suddenly, the entropy dramatically decreases--so we get big ol' cartoony fights between tricked-out battleships! Just like the days of old! Very high-energy. But then the diamond is lost. Aaaaand...

Yup. We're back where we started. The phrase "Scrooge gets all of his money back and all is as it was before" (or very similar) commonly appears at the end of Barks stories, but in those other tales, it's generally pretty clear that a low-entropy state is still in effect--the order that's been restored remains a lively, vigorous one.

Not so here, obviously--the Beagles are still nickel-and-diming Scrooge, and he's still just kind of letting it happen. Energy: gone. It's very easy--and probably accurate--to correlate this with Barks' own feelings of exhaustion after having been at this for twenty-three years. It's not something you'd necessarily notice--certainly, I don't know that I would have made the connection, were I not in the process of reading Lot 49 for the fifth-ish time--but it's really pretty neat. As I try to demonstrate, there's quite a lot of theoretical heft in Barks' work.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"The Great Paint Robbery"

"The Great Paint Robbery" (printed in US353) initially caught my eye for one reason and one reason only: it's forty-four pages long. That kind of length is NOT common in Disney comics. The longest story Barks ever wrote ("Vacation Time" (unless you count "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," which I tend not to, since he didn't actually write it and only drew part of it)) is only thirty-three. There are lots of Italian stories that seem to exceed this length, but those often as not use three-tiered pages, so I disregard them. AT ANY RATE, apart from "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold" (which is actually slightly shorter when you convert from three- to four-tiered pagination) it was the longest single story I'd ever seen printed non-serially in a Duckbook, so I had to see what was what.
Read more »

Friday, April 16, 2010

More letters-section zaniness

In US243, some innocent young soul inquires, about Scrooge: "Is there any type of product he doesn't own?" Seems like an ambiguous question, but our intrepid editor, Bob Foster, takes it as an opportunity to engage in a somewhat frantic-sounding hagiography of the character:

Read more »

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Does Kelly know something I don't?

Hmm. I knew that there had been vague talk about Marvel potentially buying the Disney license, but is it any more than that? Well, it's Kelly--you probably shouldn't expect much in the way of accurate reporting. Gotta say, it's really weird to see my marginal hobby featured in The Onion. I love how all the superheroes have incredibly spindly legs and knobby knees.
Read more »

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An actual letter from Uncle Scrooge #272

Dear Sir,

It is with sadness that I write this letter to you. I have for years loved and respected the work of The Walt Disney Company. I am returning this Uncle Scrooge comic book (#267) because I am extremely disappointed with the story "The Money Ocean," part two. It had blatant references to evil, spells witches, and evil power. There are enough good, uplifting adventures stories to write about rather than indoctrinating children into Satanism.

Read more »

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Lost Beneath the Sea"

So okay--we just did a "deep" story; now let's take on a shallow one. I know I've done this before, but I think I can profitably do it again, especially since this may well have the most strongly-pronounced postmodern elements of any Barks work I know (which is most of them)--and not really in a good way. Not that there aren't a handful of things to like here, but "Lost Beneath the Sea" is far from an all-time classic. Let's jump right in.
Read more »


Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Ten-Star Generals"

Following up on what I said last time, let's take a moment to highlight the ways that Barks' stories had a deceptive level of depth, and let's do it not by reference to a full-fledged adventures story, but with a ten-pager instead. 1951's "Ten-Star Generals" has wacky slapstick and Donald screwing things up hither and yon as per usual, but right there on the surface, if you look, there's a family drama that touches on fears and anxieties that the characters could never consciously acknowledge.
Read more »