Sunday, May 16, 2010

"The Flying Horse"

"The Flying Horse" is a justifiably-forgotten story from 1953, drawn by Jack Bradbury and written by some anonymous jerk whom I hate. If it's famous for anything, it's the cover, which was drawn by Carl Barks hisself. It was considered of sufficient interest that Gemstone chose to reprint it as the cover to WDC&S 658. The fact that the attendant story is not included makes it seem slightly baffling, especially if you've never read it before, but trust me--you're not missing much. However, it DOES provide a succinct little object lesson in the value of good coloring. Here's the modern version, as colored by the divine Susan Daigle-Leach:


Fairly lovely, I'm willing to say. The pastels really do the trick. Nice fairy-tale ambiance. Evocative. On the other hand, here's how it originally appeared:



ARGH MY EYES. Unless someone mistakenly assumed that the associated story took place during Ragnarok, there's just NO justification for that hideous, violently RED backdrop. It's amazing the difference a thoughtful coloring job can make.

Anyway, the cover's really the only thing there's any reason to CARE about, but we can say a few words about the tale itself. I actually kinda like Bradbury's slightly angular artwork, but the story itself pretty much negates that. As you'll see, there are a lot of irksome little details here that--while perhaps not individually all that damning--really do add up. Most importantly, though, look back up at that cover: "Donald Duck and the Flying Horse," it announces, as Donald and HDL ride a flying horse. In other words: WE HAVE BEEN PROMISED SOME FLYING HORSE ACTION. This is a ball that you should keep your eye on.

Now! In lieu of a vacation, Donald takes HDL to a zoo.



Yeah, okay--this is a familiar pattern. It may seem a trifle arbitrary for Scrooge to have suddenly--seemingly on a whim--purchased a zoo, but it fits. You see stuff like this happen all the time in order to catalyze stories, both in Barks and elsewhere.

So anyway, the zoo is not doing so well, it transpires, and so, in order to try to finagle a trip from Scrooge, HDL come up with a Cunning Plan:



Hmph. Fans will no doubt immediately flash back to Barks' "Trail of the Unicorn," published a few years before this, in which Donald and HDL were tasked to find another mythical creature for Scrooge's zoo. In fact, it's difficult to imagine that the premise for this story was not more or less ripped off from that one. But…in "Trail," Scrooge actually had photographic EVIDENCE of the beast's existence. Whereas here, we're supposed to buy the idea that not only has he (and Donald, for that matter), NEVER HEARD of one of your more famous mythological creatures, but he is one hundred percent credulous on the subject. Winged horse? Sure! That's believable! Say no more! Hook, line, and sinker!

Sigh. But okay--the opening could conceivably not have forced us to so cavalierly suspend disbelief, but hey--now that we have an excuse to go on a Pegasus hunt, things are surely going to get better, right? So much so that we can just FORGET how we got here?

Well. Scrooge loans his nephews a sweet helicopter, but when Donald learns the truth, he insists on turning back.



Darn! It looks like our mission is a failure! I guess we'd better--what?



Well. Golly G. Whillikers. WHAT are the odds? People, there is convenient coincidence, and then there is--not to put too fine a point on it--lazy, dopey-ass bullshit. There is NOBODY--no matter how young and credulous--who is not going to feel insulted by something this dumb. Plus, bonus dumbness: "Gee! And I always used to think those fairy tales were phony!" Not a felicitous line, for sure.

Well...at least now there's a flying horse, right? Maybe the story will look up from here?

They catch the horse without too much trouble, only to realize--it's not real.



AHEM. What were we promised? FLYING HORSE ACTION, is what we were promised. Not fake-mechanical-remote-controlled BULLSHIT. I swear, this story reads as if somebody came up with an initial concept--"How about the ducks have a flying horse?"--and only afterwards realized that nobody had any idea how to implement it in an interesting way, or even a way that actually followed the premise except in the most lame, fakey way possible. So, we get this half-assed crud. Note that cover picture: the horse depicted is CLEARLY alive. See how it's looking back at the ducks? Barks must've been given his assignment--"Ducks on a flying horse! Stat!"--without being told that it wasn't a REAL horse. So either they didn't know beforehand where this was going to end up, or they were intentionally tricking prospective buyers. Neither of these possibilities inspires much admiration.

Note that whoever this writer was, he was QUITE enamored of these eccentric, creepy-looking little homunculi. You can see them across multiple artists. Here's Dick Moores' version:



Grrr. This whole affair is HIGHLY IRKSOME.



Yes. The robohorse would be PERFECT for a zoo, in much the same way as Truckasaurus would be perfect for a natural history museum. Sheesh.



Uh huh. The perfesser's willing to trade the miraculous robo-pegasus, into which he poured god knows how much lifeblood, for…a helicopter. Very plausible. Convenient, too! This is the kind of plotting I would have come up with at the age of eight. It's quite obvious here that our writer is determined to just DRAG us through this thing, interest, eloquence, or even simple plausibility be damned. The point is not to be GOOD. The point is just to have PRODUCT. Let this be a lesson to us all.

Anyway, they get back to Duckburg, and for some insane reason (well, actually, for the just-enumerated reason, but if we're still pretending that this story has some sort of logical core, then yeah--pretty insane), Scrooge buys into their "let's display robohorse in the zoo!" idea.



You know, in the hands of a better writer, I might thing that those "etc etc blah" bits are meant in a jokey way, but given his track record, it's pretty clear that the writer just couldn't be arsed.

BUT THE NEXT DAY:



In case you can't read that, it says: "Sorry, but I changed my mind! I missed my Pegasus too much! I'll never part with him again."

Okay. So, to review: we were promised a flying horse. That horse appeared in the lamest "isn't that conveeenient" way possible. It turned out not actually to be a horse. And…now, with NO fanfare, it is GONE, having done nothing even remotely interesting. If Western Publishing were still around, I think a class-action lawsuit would not be unjustifiable.

I've already spent way too much time on this dumb story. Let's wrap up. Here is Scrooge's dumb attempt to make up for having lost the "horse:"



…and here is the dumb, non-sequitur ending that our anonymous hack pulled out of his ass:



Words fail.

Believe me, crud like this was NOT the exception for Western Publishing; it was absolutely the NORM. Under the circumstances, it's no wonder that, though he labored anonymously, Barks' work stood out as much as it did.

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not much to do with this story but shake my head....I only remembered Barks' unicorn story, but now thanks to you I'll always remember this one along with it.
Gee, thanks ;)

May 16, 2010 at 6:18 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I aim to please!

May 16, 2010 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger ramapith said...

I'm not the man who matched Barks' "Flying Horse" cover with an officially unrelated pegasus story ("Mythos Island" in Gemstone's WDC&S), but I vaguely remember our original plan having been to reprint "Flying Horse" in the same issue as a complement. Of course, then that plan got scotched.

Why, you ask? Well... the decision wasn't mine at that time, so I'm not sure. But your review suggests a few very good reasons.

We *did* reprint Moores' "Robert the Robot" together with its Barks cover (in WDC&S 665), but even there I'm not sure the story deserved it. What some call "charm" in many Golden Age comics strikes me as merely condescending writing full of patronizing coincidences.

There were good stories at Western, too—both from Barks and others. Why not hold the majority up to that standard (or something close to it), if we would do that for stories produced today?

(Of course, I say all of this with a grain of salt; everyone's criteria differs. I think you and I differ 180° on "Monarch of Medioka," a story I love in spite of my personal politics...)

May 17, 2010 at 8:12 PM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Thanks for that. It's always good to get an insider's perspective. If I wasn't clear, I should clarify that I'm totally down with the decision not to rerun the story ("condescending writing full of patronizing coincidences" seems like a perfect characterization). I think it's okay to reprint the occasional dubious old story for historical reasons, but, of course, Disney comics are not generally meant to be historical archives. Gotta be entertaining.

Man, I'm always disoriented to learn that--apparently--someone reads both of my blogs. I always think of them as being more or less discrete. But as for Medioka and Mickey in general, I am DONE with trying to figure out why I don't like them. Try as I might, it just isn't happening. Nothing to be done about it, for better or worse.

I WILL say, though, that I don't find objectionable politics to be a barrier to liking otherwise-worthwhile art. Yukio Mishima: appalling politics. Generally unpleasant guy, as I understand it. Would have had no interest in meeting him in person. But dammit, still a mind-bogglingly great writer--one of the giants of twentieth-century literature. Go figure.

May 17, 2010 at 10:34 PM  
Blogger Mike Matei said...

You'll hate me. But I like the Dell coloring.

June 13, 2010 at 10:58 PM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I disagree with your assessment, but believe me, there are WAY too many things in this world that deserve hatred for me to get too het up over an aesthetic difference regarding an obscure old comic.

June 13, 2010 at 11:21 PM  
Blogger Joakim Gunnarsson said...

The new coloring is pretty terrible. Just a mass of unrelated colors and tons of gradients. Reminds me more of My Little Pony coloring than anything else.
Check out a mint copy of the old version and you'll see that the original coloring job was tasteful and done by someone who knew how to use colors without overdoing it. :)

July 6, 2010 at 6:53 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I will respect your assessment of these respective colorings just as soon as you finally acknowledge your color-blindness and seek out the help you need :-p

July 27, 2010 at 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Johnson said...

Caught your blog over from AVClub's comment session. I love reading analysis like this, and it's always fun to check out classic Disney Scrooge/Donald comics, many of which are before my time.

An aside - the pegasus appearance as a contrivance... do you think it was on purpose? I laughed pretty hard at the ridiculousness of it, and the sudden shift to the red backdrop when Donald says "Gee! And I always used to think those fairy tales were phony!" seems to indicate the writer's and artist's self-awareness of how inane this is. Just a thought.

BRB reading through your backlog.

August 9, 2010 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Hurrah! New readers! I hope you enjoy all this nonsense I write.

As for the Flying Horse thang...I'd LOVE to think that there was some deliberate absurdism here, but there's an awful LOT of old stories like this out there, and in any case, it's kind of an unfalsifiable claim.

I hadn't even really noticed the extreme redness of that panel. That IS pretty funny, but if it's intentional, we'd have to attribute it to the colorist, who is not the same person as the artist or writer. I suppose they could've colluded, but it seems doubtful.

August 9, 2010 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger Susan D-L said...

The flying horse cover! That was a particularly fun cover to do; I think it holds up pretty well. There are always different approaches to consider, but all this stuff is done on the clock, so you make the choices that feel right at the moment and do the best job you can.

AFter all no matter what you do, someone will love it, someone will hate it, a few will wonder why the ducks aren't wearing pants, and everybody else will be pissed off at the cover price. ; )

September 9, 2010 at 1:31 AM  

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