TONY'S ONLINE TIPS for Thursday, December 18, 2003
I love the winter holidays, but getting ready for them is as frustrating as it is fun. I'm in fairly good shape this year with all of my Christmas cards mailed and most of my shopping done, but achieving that *and* attending various school and family functions these past couple weeks has me lagging behind on the thrice-weekly schedule for this column.
Will I catch up by the end of the year? Stay tuned and we'll find out together.
A CHRISTMAS FOR SHACKTOWN
I love Christmas stories and one of my all-time favorites is "A Christmas For Shacktown," written and drawn by Carl Barks for a 1952 issue of DONALD DUCK. Elsewhere on this page you'll find the original cover for the classic comic book...and also the "Gifts For Shacktown" painting Barks did in 1975. I couldn't decide which one to share with you, so you get both.
Let's activate the SPOILER WARNINGS for the poor souls among us who haven't yet had the great pleasure of reading one of the best Barks stories of them all.
"Poor" is a good word to use. Wealth and the lack thereof is a key element of many Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge tales. Scrooge has riches by the bin while common man Donald often has trouble making ends. In this story, though, we meet those to whom Donald's simple home would seem like a palace.
The residents of Shacktown are "down on their luck," as one of Donald's nephews so kindly puts it. The place is little more than a shanty town and, though understated due to the story appearing in a children's publication, the crippling poverty is reflected in the faces of the pale Shacktown children and their worn clothing. True humanitarians, the nephews determine to make sure that, this year, the kids of Shacktown will have a happy Christmas and recruit their uncle, Daisy Duck, and Daisy's friends to make it so.
Scrooge is as parsimonious as ever, but strikes a bargain with Donald to pay half of the $100 the nephews still need if Donald can raise the other half first. As we know, Don can be the very avatar of determination when his feathers are ruffled.
Donald holds up his end of the deal, but, in the interim, the floor of Scrooge's stuffed money bin collapses, hurling the older duck's fortune into an abyss. Conventional retrieval methods could send the cash so far out of reach that it could never be recovered. Scrooge is now penniless.
The nephews save Christmas by using their toy train to recover Scrooge's fortune in exchange for the first bundles of cash which surface. Ironically, Scrooge had scoffed at the idea of buying the kids of Shacktown a toy train, deeming it a frivolous expenditure. Fittingly, the first bundles of cash are large-denomination bills, allowing the nephews to provide an even grander Christmas than they or anyone else could have imagined. Scrooge spends his Christmas watching the tedious recovery of his money.
"A Christmas For Shacktown" delivers humor, suspense, and even a bit of social commentary. No indication is given to what happens to the people of Shacktown after Christmas, just as, in our world, charitable organizations struggle to raise funds at other times of the year. Some readers opine Barks meant to undermine the story's happy ending by leaving this open. I suppose that's possible, but I like to think there is an inherent hope in most Christmas tales. That just as one Christmas changed the course of Ebenezer Scrooge's life in the Charles Dickens classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL, so does this story offer a similar hope, if not for Scrooge McDuck, than for the kids of Shacktown and their Duckburg neighbors.
GYRO'S FIRST INVENTION
Did you know that Don Rosa has written and drawn a sequel to "A Christmas For Shacktown"? I stumbled across this news during my search for images of the original cover and the subsequent painting inspired by the story.
"Gyro's First Invention" celebrates the 50th anniversary of the creation of super-inventor Gyro Gearloose by Barks and reveals the origin of his light-bulb-headed helper. The 20-page story was first published in Scandinavia and Germany last year, and has since been printed in Holland. The tale picks up where the original tale ends, which is fitting given that 2002 is also the 50th anniversary of "Shacktown." The idea of combining the milestones was suggested by Sigvald Grøsfjeld, Jr., who hosts a slew of Ducks and Rosa web pages, none of which I'm able to access at the moment. If and when that changes, I'll share their URLs with you.
In the meantime, here's hoping that Gemstone, which publishes Disney comics in the United States, schedules the American debut of "Gyro's First Invention" as soon as possible. It doesn't matter to me if it runs in December or July.
This is a story I most definitely want to read.
STAN LEE AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN COMIC BOOK by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon (Chicago Review Press; $24.95) sets itself lofty goals. It strives to be a history of its subject and his place in the history of comics. It tries to meld that with an honest appreciation of Lee and an equally honest examination of his accomplishments. It succeeds more often than it fails, mimicking the successes and failures of the story it tells.
I felt I was at a disadvantage as I read this book, having not yet read Lee's own EXCELSIOR! THE AMAZING LIFE OF STAN LEE, written with George Mair. Does Stan, in his own book, answer the questions posed by Raphael and Spurgeon in this one? Does he do so with more authority than these authors, children at the dawn of the "Marvel Age of Comics," could muster via even the most extensive research and interviews? Questions for another day, I think.
Today, with this book before me, my overall impression is that Raphael and Spurgeon have made a valuable contribution to the study of the history of comics. Their book is not without its flaws, but the flaws only moderately diminish its importance.
Words like "importance" are too academic for a song-and-dance reviewer like myself to be throwing around. I'm the guy who snores out loud when critics get all learned and scholarly around me, and then I take their lunch money, stuff them in lockers, and make out with their girlfriends. Let's cut through the crap and get right to whatever points I have to make.
The first chapters of STAN LEE are Sahara-dry. The authors do a poor job bringing Stan's early life to life. They don't give us an authentic flavor of the 1920s and 1930s, eras which shaped the social and work ethics of this country for decades past their own spans. They don't connect us to the times.
The book picks up a bit when we get to the Marvel bullpen of the 1940s. We get a feel for the amount of material Stan and his team produced and even some sense of "family" from the situation, though I suspect part of this comes from my unconsciously bringing memories of recent ALTER EGO interviews into the mix.
However, as with the 1920s and 1930s, the authors rush through the 1940s and 1950s. Like the enthusiastic fans of the 1960s, they can't wait to get to the "Marvel Age," and their book is the poorer for that decision.
Raphael and Spurgeon do an outstanding job once they arrive in the 1960s. They capture the excitement of those first years of the Marvel phenomenon, how that sense of wonderment was built into an empire, where the empire went right, and where it went wrong. Most importantly, they realize that there is no definitive proof for or against the conflicting recollections of Lee and his collaborators, nor is such proof likely to emerge. Dealing with the unknowable, they present those variables in an even-handed manner. Their book is, I think, as fair as it could have been.
Stan Lee, more than any other comics creator, inspired me to make comics my career. He was one of my first bosses in the field and one of my best teachers. Long after I left his employ, we have remained friendly. I make no bones about it; I love the guy and I always will. He made a difference in my life.
It was painful to read the negative comments and the outright insults quoted and reported in this book. I know it will inspire new rounds of the Stan-bashing all too prevalent in the more snarky corners of the Internet. But I can't deny that, this, too, has a place in the telling of the man's story.
Two more notes before we get to the scorecard.
My favorite parts of STAN LEE are its depiction of the love, yea, verily, the majestic romance between Stan and his wife Joan. Anyone who has ever seen them together, anyone who has ever talked to Stan about his personal life, comes away knowing their match was not only made in Heaven, but made by a Cupid who had his best stuff working that day. The book sparkles in those moments.
Full disclosure. During his research, Raphael interviewed me for an hour or two. I'm listed in the source notes for Chapter 14, though our chat may have had some small effect on a couple other chapters as well. If my limited participation has any bearing on this review, it's only in that Raphael impressed me as a decent guy then and that nothing in the subsequent book has changed my opinion of him. He's okay by me.
Someone brought up comics artist BOB BROWN on one of the too-many mailing lists of which I'm a member. I don't recall exactly what I was responding to, but here's what I posted in response to whatever came first:
I first saw Bob Brown's work when he was inking his own pencils on CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN. I hadn't seen many of Jack Kirby's issues then, so I thought of Bob as THE Challengers artist and still do.
I loved Brown's DC work on Challengers, Space Ranger, Batman, Superboy, and the odd mystery story. I still liked his work after he went to work for Marvel in the 1970s, and was thrilled to team with him on a half-dozen stories, but I never thought that work was as good as what he'd done at DC in the 1960s.
Different strokes. He had a rough-and-tumble style of drawing comics and that appealed to a short Italian kid who was constantly having to fight bigger kids throughout elementary and high school. I didn't win many of those, but those bigger kids always knew they had been in a fight.
Brown returned to DC Comics in the later 1970s or early 1980s. I know he drew "Supergirl" in SUPERMAN FAMILY and maybe a few other features as well, but he died soon after. I didn't get to know him as well as I would have liked during our brief association, but he remains one of my all-time favorite comics artists.
Because some of you have asked...
TONY'S ONLINE TIPS will remain at World Famous Comics and not move to another website. The plan is still for me to provide three columns a week (new ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a reprint-plus on Saturdays)...and I'm still determined to achieve that schedule by the end of the year. Webmaster Justin and I urge you to support our efforts by clicking on the TIP THE TIPSTER link and sending us much-needed and much-appreciated donations.
STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONIST'S CORPSE by Bob Ingersoll and yours truly should be hitting the bookstores any day now. It's "a Sam Cogley mystery" starring the eccentric attorney who defended Captain Kirk during the original series' first season. If we sell enough copies of this novel, it's entirely possible Bob and I will write more Cogley books. This would be a good thing.
If you order the novel through the ACTION IS MY REWARD link on this page, World Famous Comics gets enriched to the tune of a few cents per book. Every little bit helps.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon with more stuff.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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