Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review: Donald Duck - Lost in the Andes

Carl Barks is easily one of the most widely-praised names in the comics medium, lauded by many with very few reservations. When I was young, I wasn't apt to notice the names behind the comic books I read, but I recall every Barks comic which entered our home - I was lucky enough to be living at a time when his stories were being rereleased as inexpensive reprints from Gold Key and later Gladstone.

Since becoming an adult, reading up on Barks has given me a new appreciation for his work. Before, I didn't understand how slapdash most comic books for kids were, just as being raised on John Byrne's super hero comics didn't help me realize not every artist was as gifted as he. So it is that I was pleased to bring Fantagraphics' Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes into my home. It divides up its sampling of Barks' career into three sections: his longer "epic" stories, his shorter 10-page tales and his quick single page gag strips.

I was already familiar with the lead feature, having read "Lost in the Andes" in one of the aforementioned Gladstone reprints (likewise the "Truant Officer" story, which was in a Gold Key edition my mother gave me during a very long cross-Canada vacation). Reading "Lost in the Andes" again, with its tale of Donald and his nephews seeking out the source for square-shaped eggs, it was interesting to note how the locals constantly one-up Donald after he arrives in South America. There's been some criticism of how Barks depicted other races in his stories, but here Donald is consistently the Duck of schmuck. I had also forgotten how funny the Southern-accented residents of Plain Awful were.

Still, the story in this volume I really want to talk about is 1949's "Voodoo Hoodoo," in which Donald is pursued by a zombie who's mistaken him for his Uncle Scrooge. It eventually unfolds that Scrooge once fleeced an entire African village out of their land so he could build a rubber factory (which is pretty damning of Scrooge if you're familiar with the rubber industry in Africa - read King Leopold's Ghost). A witch doctor vowed revenge on Scrooge and sent "Bombie the Zombie" to stab the malicious mallard with a pin which would shrink him in size - evidently a play on the idea of witch doctors and shrunken heads, which was all the rage in escapist fiction of the era.

Poor Bombie has searched for Scrooge for decades and by the time he arrives in Duckberg, he mistakes Donald for his unpleasant uncle and jabs him with the pin. While Donald worries he's going to shrink out of sight, his nephews try to solve the conundrum. Meanwhile, the silent and vacant-eyed Bombie, having completed his life's mission, seems at loose ends, if such a thing is possible. The nephews take Bombie under their wings even as Donald flies to Africa to beg a cure from the witch doctor.

It's surprising just how unlikeable Uncle Scrooge is in this story; I understand this was written before Barks had finished rounding off his character, but Scrooge does virtually nothing to help Donald after he learns the predicament his nephew is in. He does grudingly pay for Donald's flight over the ocean, but won't cover the full transportation. Huey, Dewey & Louie ultimately intervene on Donald's behalf thanks to a tidy fortune Bombie wins after appearing on a quiz show. You would think Uncle Scrooge would want to settle this unfinished business with the witch doctor himself, but no... he takes the coward's way and lets Donald face the danger.

The story winds up with Donald and the nephews being chased through the jungle by the witch doctor's men; the nephews wield Bombie as a living (unliving?) weapon, setting rubber cushions on his feet so he bounces down on the approaching enemies, brushing them aside. The nephews worry about what will happen to Bombie now, but Donald is simply happy to have made through the adventure intact; and here, the story ends.

I was a little surprised by the abrupt conclusion, even checking to see if a page was missing from my copy of the book. Bombie is thrown to the hordes of villains and... that's it? What about poor Bombie? The story closes with the nephews musing Bombie will be all right on his own since zombies don't need to eat and live forever; Donald remarks "I'll take vanilla!" and fin.

I was certain Bombie's story was being set up for some form of resolution; earlier, the nephews met Professor Cornelius McCobb, one of the witch doctor's shrunken victims and McCobb revealed "after several centuries," the drugs controlling zombies would wear off and they would become normal again. I believed this was foreshadowing Bombie's release from the drug at some opportune point in the climax of the story, but the moment never arrived.

When it was first announced Fantagraphics would be publishing these collections for Disney there was some comment about it around the internet, considering Disney already owns Marvel Comics and has a good licensing arrangement with Boom! Comics. Of course, what makes Fantagraphics so great for this sort of archival project is they try to make the product resemble the original publication as nearly as possible. There are also some brief articles in the back where various comics scholars discuss each and every one of the reprinted stories. Another volume will be served up soon, featuring Uncle Scrooge's earliest stories where he was presented as a protagonist. I'm glad I took the time to read this book last week; in the wake of my recent frustrations with the super hero genre, it's fine to settle back and read well-told, imaginative fiction of such consistent quality.

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