Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Horseradish Story

THE GREAT UNANSWERED QUESTION: How come this is the one Barks story that has never received a semi-official NAME in the US?  This is a very strange bit of trivia.  I suppose it was felt that there was a certain charm to just calling it "The Horseradish Story," but still.  Of course, since we all call it that, there's no real reason we CAN'T think of it as the semi-official title, but YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.  It does not position itself as a "title," just as a marker that refers to the story.  Stupid things!  Be less idiosyncratic!

This was the oldest story in my dad's collection, though of course I didn't know that at the time.  It certainly shows that Barks was able to get into the swing of things quickly enough--it stands out from the overall oeuvre much less than "Only a Poor Old Man" and "Back to the Klondike" do--though it does have a level of inspiration and freshness that mark it as written by a man stretching his wings and figuring out what he could do in this new field, so different from the Donald adventures he had previously been working on.


Don Rosa is the only other artist who even tries to create the kind of verisimilitude that that splash panel does.  You may find exceptions to that blanket statement, but they are few and far between.  It's impressive, as is the way that the story just dives the fuck into the action right away.  No dicking around.


One really great thing here, I think, is this "small print" business (duck comics were certainly the first place where I came upon the concept that contracts could be used to trick people).


So ol' Seafoam fell for the trick, BUT LOOK--his descendent does have his glasses, and is not so easily bamboozled!  McDucks are sharper than they used to be.


Ha--or so you would think, but then you get this really brilliant business where the kids do essentially the same thing to him, and he falls for it hook line and sinker.  He may be annoyed about it, but he doesn't suspect a thing as he signs it.  Looks like, in spite of everything, the McDucks are as fallible as they'e always been.


Scrooge is lucky, though, even if he doesn't know it.  When he gets fooled, it isn't by his enemies; it's just by his family members, who only want their perfectly reasonable and legitimate wages.  I think this is really, really good--Scrooge is much less appealing if he always come out completely on top.  He needs things like this to create some balance and make him sympathetic.

Incidentally, if it's actually two hundred twenty-six dollars, we can't be talking about an even number of hours--the math doesn't work out.  Still, it's approximately seven hundred fifty-three--which doesn't really work out, since if they were working for thirty days, it would only be seven hundred twenty hours, and they would be earning only two hundred sixteen dollars--though this, of course, is assuming that that's how the pricing works, and that they're not each getting paid thirty cents an hour for something less than twenty-four hours a day, presumably subtracting sleeping, meal time, and other miscellaneous breaks.  In that case, everything's completely messed up.  Dammit, someone better at math than me needs to figure out exactly what's going on here.  THIS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE.

Finally, I'd like to note that I totally feel Scrooge's pain here.  There's this wide misconception that horseradish is a food, when actually it's a chemical weapon.  Same with wasabi.  It's truly alarming that people willingly consume these things.


Don't you always wonder what the heck HAPPENED to ol' Seafoam?  He just disappears, never to be seen more.  Very mysterious.  But, it's all part of the economy of storytelling: he was no longer relevant, so away he went.


Did I learn what a "fathom" was from this story back in the day?  I sure did!  I think this is the kind of Scrooge-chasing-Donald-with-a-cane action that I can deal with: it punctuates the action in a comic way without seeming distractingly heavy-handed or abusive.  TAKE NOTE.  I still have no idea why Donald would've thought a fathom was equal to an inch, though, or why Scrooge seems to imply that this misconception is common amongst land-dwellers.  It looks to me like something of a non-joke.


Probably in a later story, Barks would've had the kids make this deduction.  Rosa woulda done it like that from day one.  But I for one am glad that Donald gets to do the honors.  It just makes him a more dynamic character when he gets to do smart stuff like this on occasion.  I think it's unfortunate, though inevitable, the way characters get forced into roles and then have a hard time emerging from them.



Let's just take a minute to appreciate the changing weather.  One rarely gets this sense of passing time and associated drama.  Just look at that dialogue there between Donald and Scrooge.  It just snaps.  And "a roaring pinwheel of flailing storms" may be, let's say, not the most coherent way to characterize a hurricane, but it sure stays with you, dunnit?


Once again, this is VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS: can anyone find some kind of source for "horseradish" being use as a slang term meaning "nonsense" or similar?  It must come from SOMEWHERE, mustn't it?  But the internet sure doesn't seem to know where.  It's always seemed so weird to me, the way the announcer laughs at his own weird pseudo-joke.  Who IS this guy?


…and seriously, is McSue the most evil villain in all of Barks?  I say yes (you say no but you will change your mind).  Sure, there have been villains who were gleeful about their villainy, and ones who tried earnestly to murder the ducks, but have we seen any who combined all that with trying to murder their partners?  Not so sure about that one.  Point is, he's great, and by comparison, he makes that lame Ducktales adaptation seem even worse.


So pretty normal story, right, albeit extraordinarily well-executed?  Well, yeah, but then you come to this bit, and if that's not the most profoundly self-revealing statement Scrooge has ever made, I don't know what is.  Not "I'm too stubborn to give up."  "I just haven't the strength to give up."  And why doesn't he have that strength?  It doesn't take a lot of extrapolating to conclude that it's because the entirety of his sense of self is wrapped up in his fortune; letting go of it--in a Buddhist sort of way--is the one thing that, for all his strength and smarts, is beyond him.  It further follows that his endless questing after MORE TREASURE is his way of staying alive: without the constant acquisition, what is he?  Nothing (this also accords well with the character as Rosa depicts him in "The Richest Duck in the World").  Okay, so admittedly, none of this is anything any of us haven't likely already figured out about the character, but to see it presented so starkly, and from the horse's mouth--irrefutable proof that, on some level, Scrooge knows this about himself?  That's really something else.  And that expression on his face really helps to emphasize the fact that he does.  All this went right by most of the story's original intended audience, I'd wager.


I think this works because it's so understated: Donald just being decent because that's what he has to do: no elaborate explanations of why this is; just the understanding that everyone knows that he has to save McSue because this is just what you do--which, of course, is also the answer to Scrooge's rhetorical "why?" as Scrooge himself well knows.  I daresay his last line on the top there overdoes things a bit--personally, I'd just leave it at "oh, phooey!" and leave the rest to the reader--but it's still very good.  I keep thinking of how clumsily, by contrast, Romano Scarpa handles Ethical Dilemmas in the likes of "The Lentils from Babylon" and--shudder--"The Last Balaboo."  BARKS FTW.


My other favorite thing in the story: this part.  Nowhere else do we see the Duck family acting of one accord in this way; I know it's partially just that I'm a big ol' sentimentalist, but the solidarity always makes me smile--and it doesn't hurt that Donald's line there is so damn badass.  You've also really got to appreciate the art in the bottom left--in spite of the characters appearing in the distance in silhouette, it's still easy to discern which ones are which and see what they're each doing.  That's the kind of care that not just any artist would lavish on a story.


…which brings us, at any rate, back to the end.  Granted, it's only a page and a half between McSue kicking the box overboard and HDL's reveal, but at this conflict is sufficiently well-defined, with such a sense of consequence and gravity to it, that it really feels like an amazing bit of unexpected salvation after all had seemed lost.  That's the thing, really: I like almost all of Barks' Scrooge adventures, but as we move later and later into his career, fewer and fewer of them can muster this sense of something really, really important being at stake.  The Horseradish Story, while more "conventional" than its predecessors, maintains this feeling of urgency, and thus serves as a good transitional work and one of Barks' best.

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15 Comments:

Blogger Pan Miluś said...

YES!!! I find McSue the most evil of Barks villians but not for trying to kill Scrooge or his friend but for part when he kicks the box pack to the sea. For God sakes! Scrooge just saved his life! That's Lots-O'-Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3 level evil!

This story is like one big cool climax...


Funny. Polish word for "using horseradish" - "Chrzanić" ("Horseradishing"? ) is slang for "fumble" or "seeing nonsense/foolish things" (but in a vulgar way, similar to english "bullshiting").

So it's similar mystery in Poland as it is in USA...



Also "Odchrzań się" [which I guess would literally translate "Out-horseradish yourself"] is Polish version of "piss off!"... But that's another story ;)

June 28, 2014 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX said...

Yeah, I should've taken note of McSue's cackling glee as he kicks the crate off the raft. That really is the worst.

Interesting linguistic notes, too. Thanks.

June 28, 2014 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX said...

...to expand on that: as I think about it, I realize that the contrast between the ducks and McSue is really stark: the ducks save him, even though he tried to kill them and it would be way more convenient if he died. This demonstrates their basic goodness, which remains consistent regardless of circumstance. McSue, on the other hand, is the opposite: it doesn't matter that the ducks saved his life when they had every reason not to; he still behaves in his usual evil way. It's just who he is. He doesn't change. There are cases where one might appreciate more nuanced villains, but McSue is so effective, and the dichotomy so subtly constructed, that we don't complain.

June 28, 2014 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Duckfan said...

About McSue being Barks' worst villain: hell no. I will continue to say that the villain from The Big Wig Mystery is much worse.

McSue at least has a legal precedent. The contract he presents is, as far as we know, really over two hundred years old. The thing with McSue is that he's still taking Scrooge's fortune legally, and doesn't really do much of his own until the second part of the story.

That other guy I talked about? He lies in court, faking an allergy to get Scrooge's money. He sends Donald's plane into what he expects is Donald's death. He even has a bomb attached to the plane radio! He shoots at another plane while Scrooge and HDL are in it. In Africa, he throws Donald into a whirlpool, and throws stones at him while he's drowning. Then he throws Scrooge in as well, before being pushed over himself. Donald and Scrooge save him, but (and this is the part where he crossed the line for me as a kid) HE THROWS ALL OF THEM BACK IN to drown and flies off in a jet! Now that's mean!

Now seeing these two villains together there's a lot of parallels you can make between The Great Wig Mystery and the horseradish story. You might say it's the same concept, executed in cynical-60s-Barks style. With the most cynical depiction of law in any Barks story I'd wager, and Donald being awesome several times, this tale holds more surprises than it's remembered for.

Maybe you can do that story next time. :)

June 28, 2014 at 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Chris Chan said...

All right, I did the math. It seems like the payment comes to Donald and HDL each doing about six hours and twenty minutes worth of work each day. Are we absolutely certain that they were working full time for all of those first thirty days? Because if we don't count breaks, sleep, and meals, that might explain a few things. Perhaps HDL are doing their schoolwork in the downtime we don't see– that might explain why they aren't counting certain hours towards the total.

June 28, 2014 at 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Swamp Adder said...

I didn’t think Donald literally thought 1 fathom = 1 inch; he just naively assumed that “3,000 fathoms” was a lot less deep than it really is. Scrooge is being hyperbolic there.

Well, I thought it was funny.

And… yeah, I always did pretty much regard “The Horseradish Story” as the story’s “semi-official title”. Huh.

Do you plan to keep reviewing Barks’ long Uncle Scrooge stories in order? Should we look forward to “The Menehune Mystery” next? : )

June 28, 2014 at 7:10 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

I assume that the radio announcer assumes that when we hear "horseradish" (esp. after "a bunch of") we will think "horseshit", which my dictionary defines as "nonsense, bunk", same as "bullshit."

June 28, 2014 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...

Re Duckfan's comment: I wouldn't say that quantity trumps quality when it comes to villainy. That one moment when McSue betrays his partner in such a cold blooded manner trumps all of the pig villain's machinations, mostly because he's doing it to a guy with whom he presumably had a certain level of trust and cooperation beforehand.

I agree with Geo regarding the use of Donald here. He did make that fathom-bungle but is otherwise a more than worthy contributor to the adventure, as opposed to the error prone sarcasm donor that Rosa liked to use.

I always read the epithet "horseradish" as a Jazz Age era placeholder for BS along the same lines as "banana oil."

June 28, 2014 at 8:31 PM  
Anonymous Unca Paspasu said...

N.B.:

"Changes: Apparently, the word "horse-radish" has been lettered into the story by the editor."

http://www.seriesam.com/barks/comicsos0263.html#ccus_os0495-02

I had a look at the lettering and I agree. Maybe it was originally a box of horseshit, if we assume ducks have horseshit sauce with their lunch. No idea what sort of food could be objectionable.
Note that for some reason in the Dutch translation it's spinazie (spinach) instead of mierikswortel.

I agree with Duckfan "The Great Wig Mystery" is a great story and the villain is, superficially, more evil, but both the realism and the story-telling in the Horseradish story make McSue's emotional impact on the reader greater, not to mention "that one moment". McSue, being in his right without lying, only turns out to be a real villain after 16 pages, when the Ducks are in a bad fix already. "The Great Wig Mystery" was just to goofy to ever make me fear for anyone's life. But, yes, please do the review 'cause both that story and your reviews are great!

I'd like to point to panel 3.5 (third scan, first panel) where we see Scrooge's frightened billions hiding in the closet while he is standing up for them.

June 28, 2014 at 9:15 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX said...

When I was thinking about villains to decide whether I thought anyone was worse than McSue, I DID think of "The Great Wig Mystery." But I agree with Chris that, if nothing else, McSue's cold-blooded betrayal of his partner pushes him over the top.

June 28, 2014 at 11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure Elaine has it right. Cf. a similar gag in "Pogo" in the episode in which Mole, busily reclassifying all the birds and animals in the swamp, has designated some enormous heron as a bullfinch. The heron, with contempt, says, "That's a lot of bullfinch."
-- Peter in Seattle

June 29, 2014 at 1:07 PM  
Anonymous ChickenChickenChicken said...

I'd add Marco Rota as another artist who attempts equally realistic and detailed splash panels.

As for "horse-radish", it's obviously a polite variation of horseshit (though the existence of "horsefeathers" provides the editors with a nice alibi). Even if the word is re-lettered, I can't believe Barks thought he'd get ever away with "horseshit", and the joke only really works with horseradish anyway.

Nice article on a great story; makes me want to reread it right away!

June 29, 2014 at 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes McSue's attempted murder of his partner even more cold-blooded to me is that there's little to no indication that it was necessary or pre-meditated - it's just something he decides to do in the spur of the moment. And the way the guy refers to him by first name seems to indicate that he's McSue's FRIEND rather than just some hired goon. That scene where he's trying to force him off the boat is one of the most unsettling scenes in any Barks story, but in a good way.

Yes, it makes you wish DuckTales' "adaptation" of this wasn't so half-assed... in fact, I sometimes wish there could be a DuckTales reboot or a series of shorts of some sort to do better justice to some of these stories.

Speaking of which, would it be out of line for me to make a recommendation? I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on a 20-minute cartoon from 1987 called "Sport Goofy in Soccermania". Why talk about a Goofy cartoon, you may ask? Well, aside from Goofy being the protagonist, "Soccermania" is in many ways the prototypical Barks adaptation: It has Scrooge (conspicuously not voiced by Alan Young) and HDL in supporting roles and includes what I believe to be the first animated appearances of Duckburg, the Money Bin, Gyro and the Helper (in a short cameo) and the Beagle Boys (who are depicted much closer to their comics counterparts, sans the different designs and gimmick personalities) as the antagonists. All in all, it's an interesting look at what DuckTales might have been like under a different creative team, and I'm pretty sure it can be found on YouTube.

July 1, 2014 at 8:00 AM  
Blogger Regular GeoX said...

I'm always open to suggestions, especially from such thoughtful commenters. Hell, it could give me an excuse to revive the long-dormant Duck Cartoons Revue.

July 1, 2014 at 8:24 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Here's my suggestion. Continue doing UNCLE SCROOGE all the way through, in order! It's much more interesting for me than reading about stories that I'll probably never live to see printed in authorized American English editions.

Besides, I've always found reviews of things I've already seen, or read, to be most interesting because I can compare / contrast the reviewer's thoughts with my own. I might even learn something new about an old familiar story.

July 1, 2014 at 1:05 PM  

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