"The Mysterious Crystal Ball"
Well, I'm sure this would be on the bottom of the list of IDW-published stories you'd expect me to write about, but for whatever reason, I just can't get the damn thing out of my head, so now you have to read about it. Specifically, you have to read about it because you will be bound to a chair with your eyelids propped open à la A Clockwork Orange until you do (and considering the nature of the story, that simile might be more apropos than you'd hope). Sorry to have to tell you this at such short notice, but it's just the way it is.
Have I had my say about these Murry/Fallberg stories before on this blog? I certainly have elsewhere, but maybe not here. So: no one's going to try to claim that there weren't plenty of dire stories published during Western's run—stuff that was just thoroughly broken in terms of plotting, character, and artwork. And yet, however bad they might have been, nobody could ever come remotely close to these Murry/Fallberg Mickey Mouse serials that ran in the back of WDC in terms of just being unfathomably, coma-inducingly boring. Good lord. To say they're more boring is not exactly to says that they're worse than other bad stories—they are, after all, mostly competently assembled, for what they are. But a story that is bad on every level can nonetheless be entertaining, in a batshit way. Not much of that with these stories. Some time back I did my best to read some that Gladstone I had reprinted, but after grinding my way through two or three of them, I just gave up. It was brutal.
I find it genuinely peculiar that these stories still get reprinted, even at a modest rate. Boom did one, and now here's IDW. I am aware, from the letters columns in old Gladstone comics, that these things have fans, and even that, as alien as the idea may seem, some of them actually prefer them to Gottfredson (for the sake of my own sanity, I must conclude that this is all down to nostalgia, an undeniably powerful force—but really, people, I liked some bad shit when I was small too; the best thing in that case is to keep it in the past, and let the warm fuzzies do their thing—don't try to pretend it actually holds up). However, that doesn't really answer the question of why it's reprinted; my understanding is that IDW wants to attract new readers, and I fail to see how old nonsense like this is going to accomplish that task. Personally, I actually do appreciate it, but that is one hundred percent for historical reasons, and hell, I'll buy any durn thing. I guess I can understand it, kind of, if it's just a stop-gap measure to buy time while better stories can be translated, but even then, fercryinoutloud, give us some Bill Wright, who may not have been a genius but whose work definitely holds up better than this.
All that said, it is, at any rate, clear why Boom and IDW chose the stories they did from this milieu to reprint: from the former we got “The Lens Hunters” which, taking place in Africa, at least has some visual interest with all the megafauna and whatnot; and from the latter, we get, well, this. It has one somewhat interesting character and—spoiler alert!—it's enragingly dumb enough to obviate a lot of the boredom. Whether that's actually a good thing is left up to reader discretion.
Here's the cover, with art by Jonathan Gray. I do find it quite interesting that IDW is generating new artwork for these old, obscure stories that one never would've imagined getting such treatment. Here, Gray really butches things up—it's impossible to imagine Paul Murry drawing an actually-sinister-looking villain like this one, and more generally, it makes the story look a whole lot more exciting than it actually is. Which is a bit of an indictment, really: if you have to strain to try to convince prospective buyers that the story is other than what it is, well, maybe you should choose a different story. Still, it's pretty nice for what it is. The best thing about the story, I daresay.
Anyway, as we open, la la la, a carefree day at the carnival! What could be nicer?
…you seem fun.
You know, Mickey's (or Donald's) reaction to a fortune teller is likely to involve some degree of skepticism, but boy, I tell you, only Paul Murry could imbue the character with this sort of pinched, George-F-Will-esque peevishness. It's not a good look, to put it mildly. But then again, maybe I shouldn't complain, because when he's not moaning about fortune tellers, he comes across as a staid, middle-aged, Eisenhower Republican; which, you can readily understand, may be where a lot of the boredom comes from.
'Course, another problem—perhaps ironically, given the characterization of the hero—may be that these stories are so relentlessly, overwhelmingly childish. This is something that afflicts a lot of non-Barks/Gottfredson Western material, sure, but never so much as in these stories. There's never any real sense of stakes, or menace, or anything. Do these villains seem anything approaching menacing to you? Or, really, interesting in any way? And, certainly, Murry's art exacerbates the problem. It's not that he's incompetent, exactly—he's actually a pretty steadily-reliable draughtsman—but his aesthetic is pretty much the exact opposite of what you're looking for to tell a Thrilling Tale of Adventure. Or a Mysterious Tale of Mystery, as the case may be. The core story here—they trick Mickey into thinking he's psychic so that they can later pull off a scam by diverting him with a false “vision”—isn't bad, and could have developed into an interesting story, but boy oh boy does it not develop into an interesting story.
In fairness, I have to admit that that cat is a somewhat striking image. The only one in the story, but hey, take what's given to you.
The best thing in this story—really, the only thing that gives it any life at all, albeit in an only semi-intentional way—is ol' Shamrock Bones here. Only wait...are we sure this is Shamrock Bones? Not that I'm an expert on the character, but this doesn't one hundred percent look like him. Well, according to inducks, it's not; in fact, it's the much-beloved “Shamrock Bones from WDC 164.” I'm not sure that this sort of taxonomy is particularly meaningful, but there you go. Anyway, whatever you want to call him, he keeps popping up and acting weird. I genuinely cannot tell how seriously we're supposed to take his Holmesianly-specific “deductions,” all of which come from nowhere (also, you have to admit, “Holmesianly” is a pretty solid adverb). You'd think he was just supposed to be a crazy person, especially given that these deductions have nothing to do with the actual facts of the case, but no one ever acknowledges this or anything. I frankly suspect that Fallberg didn't really have a clear idea (and it's not the only thing in this story he doesn't have clear idea about, either), but regardless, he's amusing in his off-kilter way.
Just popping up like this—I certainly hope I'm not the only one whose first thought on seeing this was “aaaah! Gene Parmesan!” At any rate, that's what I'm going to call him from now on. I certainly hope you all get the reference.
So is it unsporting of me to talk about the ways in which this whole clever scheme makes no sense? Well, too bad. Here, for starters, is this. Okay! So we'll get Mickey to believe he has mystical powers so that he'll call the cops and tell them, hey! Zoo riot about to break out! and they'll all swarm over there, leaving no police around to stop us from robbing the bank! Only...it's not actually a trick. There's going to be an actual zoo riot, thanks to this dude and his iron-bar-melting, non-toxic-to-gorillas acid. So, in that case...why the whole baroque thing with Mickey in the first place? Presumably, the cops would go there anyway when the actual thing broke out. So is it just so he'll warn them in advance and they'll get there like five minutes earlier, giving the criminals that little bit of extra time for the robbery? Not so's you'd notice, given that they haven't even started when Mickey shows up, which is well after they'd gotten there.
Including this whole acid subplot seems completely pointless—the plan would've gone on just as well without him. I think the guy looks so depressed because he realizes he's in a wholly superfluous role in a story that is going from bad to worse.
And let's talk about our putative hero's role, shall we? One thing I've complained about in these Fallberg/Murry joints is that it often seems to be the case that Mickey is a very passive hero—he doesn't do much to solve the mystery, foil the villains, &c. The solving/foiling just seems to happen in his general vicinity. Happily, IDW has given me the perfect story to exemplify this trend.
Right, so most of the story is given over to Mickey being tricked with this whole “psychic powers” thing; nothing to see there. But how does he ultimately figure things out and save the day? Well, in the above image, we can see that he realizes that there was something wrong with his “vision” and goes to check it out. Okay, fine. And what is the result of that?
He gets tied up and tossed in a van, is the result, with a stunned look on his face (way to not even make the feeblest of efforts at resisting in any way, guy). How's he going to get out and stop the baddies' fiendish scheme?
Uh, he's not. Gene Parmesan is gonna stop them by riding up out of nowhere and using his magic pipe to envelop them in smoke (which, don't get me wrong, is kind of amusing in and of itself, but we're focusing on Mickey's actions here).
Here; this seems to be the entirety of the constructive action Mickey takes in this story—and it ain't much. Presumably, The Third Scoundrel would've been apprehended even without Mickey's jujitsu. Wait, how did he escape from being tied up? I mean granted, immediately escaping is pretty much what all heroes, in Disney comics and elsewhere, just do when tied up, but you have to at least show a panel or two of him rubbing up against a sharp object or something. You can't just provide zero explanation like this. Also, if the two thugs were knocked out by the collision and/or the smoke, how come Mickey wasn't affected? Or is the idea that it wasn't the collision and/or the smoke, but rather the magically-escaped Mickey beating them into unconsciousness? Hmmm.
Point being: Mickey Mouse: comically ineffectual. And not a good, human-foibles-revealing sort of ineffectualness that Donald is sometimes subject to. Hell, not even an intentional ineffectualness. What exactly is supposed to be even a tiny bit appealing about this iteration of the character? I am not asking in bad faith; I genuinely want to know. It's completely mystifying to me.
STOP TALKING ALL AT ONCE I CAN'T HEAR MYSELF THINK.
All right, so O'Hara's line is fine, as far as it goes. I could cavil by noting that there didn't seem to be any witnesses to the dastardly deed, but that's small beans for this story. Apparently, at some point—after the cops shooed him away—a zookeeper came up to them to reveal the true story. Let's go with that.
As for Gene Parmesan: okay, so just how exactly did he know what this truck looked like or where it were or that there was any truck to look like in the first place? Are we just to assume that the would-be saboteur, apropos of nothing, spilled the beans? In fairness, he does look so depressed that it's easy to imagine him doing it without much prompting. Still, it would be nice if Fallberg had included, oh, anything to tell us that this is what happened! I'm really just assuming, and you know what that does to u and me. The grim truth is, I've obviously thought far more about this story than its writer ever did.
And as for you, Mickey, cut out this pathetic “an aaah hay-elpped!” nonsense. You contributed nothing to the proceedings, and I think even you must be aware of that on some level.
So THAT'S IT. “The Mysterious Crystal Ball.” Read it at your peril. I realize that at some point this entry essentially turned into the Monty Python “Mosquito Hunting” sketch, and that it may come across as a bit gratuitous: is a hatchet job of this sort really necessary for a story this insignificant? I...don't really have an answer to that, except that sometimes you just have to get something off your chest. I will say, though, that it isn't nitpicking. Here's what nitpicking would look like: Hey! There's no such thing as an acid that would eat through metal yet not harm a gorilla when ingested! This is so dumb! HAW HAW HAW! Yes, I briefly alluded to this above, because you must admit, it's pretty silly, but I didn't dwell on it because ultimately, it's immaterial. It doesn't meaningfully affect my enjoyment of the story. Nitpicking. Whereas the stuff I have been dwelling on consists of very fundamental, structural flaws. Yes, it's trivial in the sense that it's a sixty-year-old story that was never meant to be anything but wholly disposable, but man, there wouldn't be much to say if I kept things in perspective like that. And in any case, somebody figured it would be a good idea for it to be reprinted and for me to pay four dollars to read it, so I figure since the story itself ain't fer beans, I should be allowed to get my money's worth by amusing myself (and, who knows, maybe someone else too!) by reducing it to its component molecules. Hopefully next time we'll see something a li'l more positive.