Sunday, January 29, 2012

"That Missing Candelabra"

Right now you're probably not wondering, hey--what happened to those "Disney Literature Classics" you were all het up about?  What's going on here?  Where am I?  Who am I?  But that's too bad, 'cause I'm gonna tell you anyway.

I wanted to read them all before commenting, and I just recently got through the last of them.  For the most part, they're about what you'd expect: a spectrum ranging from "pretty good" to "total dogshit," with plenty of weirdness throughout.  Here's what you might not expect: two of them--"War and Peace" and even more so the Les Misérables adaptation under consideration here--are among the best Disney comics I've ever read.  No lie.

These stories are both written and drawn by Giovan Battista Carpi.  If you're an American reader, you may wonder, th'fuck's that?  Like most vintage Italian creators, he's almost unknown in the US, but he's responsible for the art (though not the writing) on two Boom-localized stories, "Moldfinger" and "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold…Again!"  From those, you probably wouldn't think twice about him--the art is adequate at best.  I certainly didn't. 

Now, obviously I've only read a small amount of his stuff, so my generalizations could well be faulty.  But here's how it looks to me: the two above-mentioned stories (1962 and 1966, respectively): not-so-great-art.  His two art-only stories included in the Literature Classics series--"Around the World in Eight Days" (1961) and "Donald Hamlet" (1960): likewise.  His two art-and-writing stories--"War and Peace" (1986) and "That Missing Candelabra" (1989): spectacular artwork.  So we can assume that either his art improved dramatically over the course twenty years, or else he was just way more invested in stories that he had full control over.  Or both.  Regardless, I am simply bowled over.  How many other obscure-but-great stories are there lurking in the recesses?  Lots, I'll bet.

First, a terrible confession: I've never read Les Misérables, nor seen the musical.  Worry not, however: I have read the little summary included in the front of the book--so I think I'm something of an expert on the subject.  From what I can tell, the comic is comparatively faithful to the original, in Disney-comic terms, of course: no one dies, all the good guys get happy endings, and there's a treasure hunt grafted on.  But really, the question of textual fidelity itself isn't of interest to me; the only real issue is, to what extent does the story successfully meld the elements of an older story and those of a duck comic to create a fun and interesting final product?  With things like this--and certainly not just Disney-comics-wise--there's a tendency towards laziness, as in, okay, let's take some really basic elements of this story, riff lazily on them, paste in our characters, and call it a day.  It doesn't have to be like that, of course, but doing it well requires actual effort, so screw that.  But if you're willing to do your work diligently . . .

A note on the translation: there is actually a lot of variation in terms of script quality among the volumes in the series.  None of them appear to have been written by anyone with any familiarity with the characters as they generally appear in English, but some of them appear to at least have been written by someone with an interest in making them seem at least somewhat natural, whereas others look to have been translated by non-native English-speakers and published with absolutely no editing.  Fortunately, both of these Carpi stories have scripts that, while by no means perfect, tend to be more the first than the second.  That still leaves the somewhat perplexing question of the present story's title, however.  The original Italian title is "Il mistero dei candelabri"--"The Mystery of the Candelabra," just as it sounds.  The English version is obvious quite a departure, and why they went that route, I couldn't tell you.  I do kind of prefer it--the original version is a little generic, and the English version actually does sound rather more cool and mysterious, especially because of the use of "that"--though it really ought to be "those," since there are two of them.  I don't have any answers here, people.  I'm just reporting the controversy.

I think I'm going to use a whole bunch of images here in an effort to show you why I like this story; how about that?  Since it isn't widely available in English, I suppose I should also say: SPOILERS!
So here's most of the cast.  As you can see, Javert is played by this crazy crow.  I learn from inducks that the regular version of the character, created by Carpi for an earlier story, is named Yanez.  He doesn't actually play a huge role in this story, but he's certainly imposing-looking enough.
After a disposable framing sequence in which Scrooge starts telling this story to HDL, we get right into the action.  I hope that big ol' image of the inn is enough to provide some idea of the caliber of the art here.
After some business at the inn, Valduck (it feels really weird calling him that, I'll tell you) ends up adopting Cosette here.  Another thing I like about these stories: they're very humanistic.  Yeah, there's some degree of Scrooge getting mad and yelling, as well there should be, but they lack the sensibility of someone like Guido Martina, whom you could rely upon to depict him as a pure, non-stop asshole.

See what I mean?  This, for anyone as unfamiliar with the story as I was before I became an expert, is a flashback to where Valduck, having broken out of prison, tries to steal these candlesticks but when caught is given them, giving him faith in human nature and stuff.  Obviously, there's an extent to which this is simply a function of the story being told, but as I noted above, there are plenty of examples of writers not letting the story stop them from doing their own somewhat unpleasant thing.
Obviously, a major deviation from the original is this treasure-hunt business, but it's quite seamless the way it's integrated with the whole, and it feels very much in the spirit of classic Barks (and Rosa) jaunts.  It's quite an excellent melding of the source material and the duckiverse, if you ask me.

(Is it just me, or does Trudy look more human here than she usually does?  You wouldn't necessarily know from this that she's meant to be a cat-thing like Pete.)
I'm not gonna lie: a large part of this entry is going to consist of me pointing at panels and going "see?  Look how effective/sophisticated that layout is!"  But that's because that's a big part of the story's appeal.  Carpi is absolutely in love with doing these big splash panels, and for my money, he's just fucking brilliant at it.
Here's another cool part: ducking into the sewers to flee from Javert, Valduck and Cosette encounter this familiar gang of thieves.  Later on, they're going to take on a more traditional baddie role, but here we get to see them help our heroes escape from the law.  How fun is that?  It's just the sort of thing a story like this lets you do.
Cosette grows up.  Once again: too cool.  I'm not going to say--for how could I, the bottom of this page being right there?--that Carpi is wholly immune to some degree of fairly mild sexism, but certainly nothing compared to a lot of creators we could name.
Seriously--just try telling me your head doesn't want to just explode from the awesomeness of this panel.  It's just so dynamic--you can practically hear the accordion music as the smokestacks shake along to it.  My extensive sociological knowledge suggests to me that being a nineteenth-century chimney-sweep wasn't quite this jolly in real life, but damned if Carpi doesn't half-convince me that I'm wrong about that.
…and their interactions with Donald are just lovely.  Not that I'm not plenty keen on knock-down drag-out Donald-vs.-nephews fights, but sometimes you just want to see something like this--which, of course, goes back to what I said earlier about the humanistic nature of the story.

Of course, there's a romance between Donald and Cosette, but it's pretty much the weakest part of the story--there's very little effort to really develop it.  They meet; they're in love, dammit; and that's about it--though there are some rather sweet images of them together.  There's a similar situation in Carpi's "War and Peace."
But the villains continue to villainize!  Kneel before Grandpa Beagle!  Hell yes!
Long story short, they kidnap Cosette and demand the candlesticks in exchange for her return.  As you can see, Carpi is also keen on full-page panels, and just see how great this is, with Scrooge frantically riding to retrieve them while menaced by angry trees, with the Thenardiers gloating down below.
…speaking of full-page panels.  Not being an expert on Paris geography, I couldn't tell you how accurate this is, but it's obvious that a huge amount of work went into it, and boy was it ever worth it.  An' if this impresses you, you should see some of the splash panels in "War and Peace."

(If it doesn't impress you, then I'm sorry to tell you that YOU CAN'T BE IN MY SECRET CLUB.)
They use the candlesticks to find a secret message, but when the Thenardiers refuse to return Cosette until the treasure is in their hands, Gavroche (or a Gavroche sibling?  It's hard to say) absconds with it.  As you can see, in addition to everything else, there's some pretty sweet action here too.
I'll just stick this one here too, 'cause why the hell not?  This is probably the first English-language treatment of this story, so we might as well be thorough.
"Urchins' Guidebook" just fills me with joy.  That is all.
Next, the sewers.  This story just crams in every cool aspect of Disney comics and essentially none of the uncool ones.
BEHOLD!
…an' it's just fuckin' action to the end, as the Thenardiers try to steal the treasure while the sewer's being flooded to root out the Beagles.
Trudy thwomping her husband as they come out is a great image…
…as is Donald and Cosette snuggling.  That ghost of a nephew on the bottom is slightly alarming-looking, though.

As for Valduck and Javert…
…um, right.  I suppose it's a matter of taste as to whether you find this funny or just think it's a huge cop-out, but really, I don't think the story played entirely fair with us in this regard.  It's true that Javert never literally said "man, I've gotta get that Valduck to punish him for his crimes," but there was plenty of "Grrr--I'll find you, Valduck!"  Oh well--I suppose it probably would've been extremely difficult to do much else while remaining within the Disney-comic idiom.
Et…finis!  Okay, as I said, "mildly sexist"--certainly I think the image of a miffed Donald being forced to look after his jelly-wanting offspring while Cosette's out playing suffragette probably qualifies.

In spite of which, as I think I've made clear, I love this story to pieces.  Action, adventure, romance, treasure-hunting, great art--I'm at a loss as to what more you could possibly want.  I'd highly recommend it for US publication (I mean, if there were a US publisher), but obviously there are certain logistical problems with printing a hundred-page-plus story.  I think we can probably agree that Boom's strategy of awkwardly chopping up stories to fit US-comic-book length limits was extremely suboptimal.  Still, if we could ever be so fortunate as to see a return of the digests of the type that Gemstone published…why not?

Seriously, people, I don't think I emphasized enough how much completely worthless garbage this Literature Classics series contains--but it was all worth it to discover the flowers of Carpi's talent.  I'm-a gonna read some of his other material in French, and if it's any good, you'll learn about it here.

Addendum: "What happens to the Super Gavroche Brothers?" Elaine wonders in comments.  I really have no satisfactory explanation for why I left this part out, as it's rather ambiguous and interesting.  Huey wonders the same thing:
This is one of those things where it works as long as you don't ask too many questions.  The art is nice for sure, but it's difficult to get around the fact that an anti-monarchist rebellion isn't all accordion-playing and happily hopping around roofs.  Thanks to my expertise, I know that Gavroche dies in the source material; obviously, it was very much desired that such things be avoided in the Disney version, but this is really dancing on the edge, I think.  I like it, even if it isn't wholly satisfactory.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Elaine said...

Yes, impressive art! And I also am filled with joy by the "Urchins' Guidebook" (the translator really gets kudos for that--substitute, say, "orphans" or "poor boys" or "street kids" or "chimneysweeps" and it doesn't have the same cachet). But while you're dealing out the spoilers--what's the happy ending for the Gavroche bros.? Since they're not part of the final family grouping.

And yes, the final scene is mildly sexist, but nonetheless, I am charmed by the depiction of a duck suffragist. An aspect of our history that only made it into Rosa's L&T when Hortense pokes TR in the nose.

January 30, 2012 at 12:11 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I have added an addendum to the post answering your question.

January 30, 2012 at 12:51 AM  
Blogger Francoisw said...

Carpi became head of the "Accademia Disney" which formed many talents in the 1990s. I had the honour of meeting him in 1997, shortly before his death.

I think he once said that "War and Peace" was one of his favorite stories, and certainly among those he worked most.

One of the best Carpi story that I know is:
http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=I+AO+55034-A

This is probably impossible to understand to an American, but the "merciless" Scrooge of the early Italian stories coexisted for a long time with the better Scrooge that we know from Barks.
In the story above, one of the most cynical and heart-damaging we feel terribly sorry for the poor Donald. I remember I had fondness for this story as a child, however re-reading it I find the same excellence in story-telling and art.

January 30, 2012 at 4:14 AM  
Blogger Francoisw said...

For what it's worth, the details about Paris are exact, and Gavroche dies in 1832 indeed on a barricade (participating to the revolution).

January 30, 2012 at 4:17 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Geo:

As with “Moldfinger”, or "The Spy Who Ducked-Out On Me” – and in “That Missing Candelabra”, I like the way Carpi introduces his cast in the first page/panel.

He did not employ this technique in “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold… Again!”, perhaps because the characters needed no introduction – or he didn’t yet come up with it in 1962. I sure dunno!

However, there was a sequel to “Moldfinger” that David Gerstein and I completed (never published), which I titled “Tycoonraker”, or “From Zantaf with Lumps”, where he did the same illustrated character introductions on page one -- so, for all we know, this might have been his eventual norm.

BTW, I know critics have described some of his previously published art as uneven – but when it was lively (as it particularly was in panels that featured the character of Moldfinger), I thought it was REALLY lively!

Joe.

January 30, 2012 at 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Swamp Adder said...

Man, I'm a massive fan of Les Mis-the-book, and I've been dying to get my hands on this one ever since I read a review of it on a Les Mis fansite (http://pontauchange.com/Media/disney.html). You've just made me want it even more.

January 30, 2012 at 8:13 AM  
Blogger Comicbookrehab said...

Carpi is best known for creating Paperinik (Duck Avenger). I think the change in art style reflects the popularity of Cavazzano and Scarpa - Carpi's older work looks like an attempt to approximate Barks in his later years.

January 30, 2012 at 8:37 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Maybe "Il MIStERo dei cAndeLaBrI" was meant as some kind of wordplay on "I MISERABLI"? Or at least as a rhyming pun?

Compare original title page: http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=I+TL+1743-AP

February 8, 2012 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

That's an interesting possibility that I had not considered. Seems kind of baroque, but who knows? Any native Italian-speakers are invited to weigh in.

February 8, 2012 at 8:56 PM  
Blogger MarcoS said...

Hi, I'm new to this blog! I'm Italian, when I was a child I read these two comics at their original release. It doesn't seems to me that there any kind of pun among "Il mistero dei candelabri" and "I miserabili". Moreover, the character Javert is definitively NOT a previous character. Every italian knows that Yanez is a main character of Sandokan stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandokan), which everybody have read when young, and which a lot of italian artists reinterpreted. Carpi's character in fact in both cases is a one-shot character introduced to interpret the two literature characters. Greetings from Venice!

February 15, 2012 at 8:43 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Ssshh! You're revealing a TOP SECRET entry that's coming up very soon! :-)

February 15, 2012 at 1:14 PM  
Anonymous TlatoSMD said...

Oh yes, yes! Both [i]That missing candelabri[/i] and [i]War and peace[/i] were among the three best of Carpi's Disney work, and among Italian Disney comics in general!

Regarding Carpi's Disney comics and parodies of world literature, I also highly recommend you the lush, 7-part, 200-page [i]Messère Ducato[/i] which is a parody of general Italian Medieval and Renaissance literature, where even Dante himself has a cameo: http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=I+TL+1425-AP It's Carpi's third great world literature parody, right up there with [i]War and peace[/i] and [i]That missing candelabri[/i].

Another recommendable world literature parody by Carpi, albeit not quite as rich and inspired as the above, is his version of Kafka's [i]The metamorphosis[/i]: http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=I+TL+1875-A

May 5, 2012 at 12:55 PM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Oh man, I want to read that *so badly*... Okay, that's it! Time to learn to read Italian! Or maybe I could try just sending profanity-laced tirades to the editors of Hachette, demanding they print what I want them to print. It's worth a shot, surely.

May 5, 2012 at 3:32 PM  
Anonymous TlatoSMD said...

Oh, I'm sorry, only now I see on the INDUCKS that the Italian Disney parody of Kafka's "The metamorphosis" wasn't actually done by Carpi but by Andrea Freccero, although it certainly looks a lot like Carpi's masterpieces in page designs and attention to detail in historical architecture and wardrobe.

See for instance the German cover to the story which is an actual panel from it enlarged to fit cover size: http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=GC+LTB+173 See that nice architectural view outside that window?

May 5, 2012 at 4:41 PM  
Anonymous TlatoSMD said...

And since you've bothered to mention the recent British "Disney Literature Classics" series, I've now gone and looked it up on the INDUCKS. There's some fairly nice selections, however I believe that besides the "Messer Papero" on Italian Medieval and Renaissance literature already mentioned, at least two other installments are missing:

"Le secret des alchimistes": A parody of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's pendulum", and even published in French, so it should be accessible to you. http://coa.inducks.org/story.php?c=I+TL+1842-A

"La spada di ghiaccio": This might be a Mickey & Goofy series, but it's frequently mentioned alongside Carpi's "War and Peace", "That missing candelabri", and "Messer Papero" as proof that Italian Disney comics are capable of producing works equal to the greatest in world literature. At 4 parts and more than 300 pages, people often confuse it for a parody of "Lord of the Rings", but I've had it from someone over at Papersera working for Disny Italy that Massimo De Vita was inspired rather by Terry Brooks's "The sword of Shannara" and Norse mythology in general. All four parts published in French: http://coa.inducks.org/subseries.php?c=Ice+Sword

May 5, 2012 at 7:57 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Have You seen the New "Les Miserables" movie? It's fantastic!!!! :)

February 13, 2013 at 4:12 AM  

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