Friday, December 25, 2015

"Being Good for Goodness Sake"

One thing about a lot of Christmas stories is: they don't feel all that Christmas-y. This is true with a lot of the non-Barks Western Christmas fare (which you've almost certainly never read because almost none of it's been reprinted, and for good reason) and Italian stuff alike. You start and finish on a Christmas note, but you lose track of it for the bulk of the story, and it doesn't feel, thematically, very festive. “Memoirs of an Invisible Santa” is the perfect example of this, but I am forced to admit that it's true to an extent even in “The Blight Before Christmas.”

And THAT, in large part, is why this “Being Good for Goodness Sake” is my favorite Italian Christmas story. It really nails the seasonal tone throughout, managing to be cynical and goofy and heartwarming without any of these elements cancelling the others out.

This story represents the first appearance of Carlo Chendi—frequent collaborator with Luciano Bottaro and one of the few truly old-school Disney creators still living—in the US. However, you wouldn't be likely to guess this; the story feels very, very much like one of Scarpa's own, and not just because of the art; the occasional narrative hiccups feel extremely Scarpaian, to the extent where, no matter what inducks says, it's difficult to believe he didn't have some hand in the plotting here. But, perhaps that is just confirmation bias.

We open with Scrooge making his way home, and JEEZ, AM I REALLY OPENING THIS ENTRY ON A STORY I LIKE WITH ANOTHER DAMN COMPLAINT? Is this pathological, or what? Well, whatever it is, it is. I know I've repeatedly voiced approval for the whole “ludicrously unconvincing disguises fool everyone” Disney comics trope, but for whatever reason, I feel like if there's a bridge too far, this is it. I don't have to be consistent; you can't make me. Maybe I'm just reacting this way because of the Italian context—you expect to find things that don't make sense, so you look for them—but be that as it may...

To snap back to the positive, however, the above sight gag, while by no means hyper-original, always makes me laugh. Something about the art really does it for me.

AW SENTIMENT. This is probably a difference between characteristically American and Italian stories; in the former, you'd be less likely to see Scrooge as a secret philanthropist (eg). Though in fairness, I don't even know whether that bit was even in the Italian. While I don't agree with certain commenters who are really, really fixated on textual fidelity, I must admit that for purposes of serious study, it would be extremely convenient.

So here's the scoop! Is it on the contrived side? It is. Does it make little sense? You betcha! But that just doesn't bother me much. It's all about context: sometimes these weird Scarpa things (even if this is really a Chendi thing) bother me, and sometimes not (another reason one would think this was Scarpa-penned: it seems highly reminiscent of the contest in that “Duckburg 100” story that IDW printed, albeit less dopey. Still fairly dopey, but not quite as). I do have to ask, though: if Donald's gunning for this prize money (which, as we'll soon see, he is), why is he making things more difficult for himself by telling Scrooge about it? I'm sure each of us could come up with seventy-four different ways for Scrooge to get the necessary information that all make far more sense than this does.

(Also, that should be “for whoever performs...” Compare “I'll give the prize to whoever wins the contest” and “I'll give the prize to whomever I deem worthy”)

So now we get to this “competitive gifts” business. Let's just pretend for the moment that their apparent utter certainty that this is the guy to influence is justified, and note two things that remain unacknowledged: 1) if this is a presents arms race, Donald has no chance of winning; 2) BUT, it may well reach the point where it's a Pyrrhic victory for Scrooge.

Still, this present-assault stuff makes me laugh like a lunatic. I kind of vaguely remember that when I first read this story, I found it all intolerably silly, but clearly my sensibilities have changed. To an extent, it harkens back to Barks' deathless “Letter to Santa,” but—amazingly enough—the steam shovel duel in that story actually exhibits higher principles than this fracas, where both participants are explicitly in it for the money and nothing else.

Now we switch to the Beagles, and if I were inclined to be hard on this story—which I'm not—I would note that this switch is rather abrupt and segregates the story more than one might wish. There's an extent to which—even though the first half is valuable for the way it sets up the ducks' selfish behavior to contrast it with the Beagles' selfless—the first half ends up feeling like making time. That's what I would say, in an alternate universe. But in this one, I won't! Because, really, it's fine, even if the story does end up feeling slightly lumpy. Hell, I even like the ambiance here. I really feel the melancholy of being stuck in jail at Christmastime—and yet, in spite of everything, there's a certain cozy aspect to it, as exemplified by the chicken thief guy who doesn't want to leave. The harmonica accompaniment doesn't hurt either.

Anyway, this happens, and the Beagles are out. Has the old guy been in here for years based on this one chicken-snaffling incident?

And credit where due, Chendi comes up with a fairly reasonable pretext for getting the Beagles into Santa suits. I'm impressed!

And yes okay obviously he does pour it on a bit thick here. In fairness, so does Barks on several occasions. In additional fairness, few would claim that those occasions are the apex of his art; plus, this goes rather further than Barks ever did. OH WELL; it's okay as a springboard for the Beagles' spontaneous outbreak of goodness.

Man, does “playing along” really involve getting super-judgmental over lack of Christmas accoutrements?

Yeah, it's sentimental as all get-out, but I really do like this stuff. Their act of generosity may be threadbare, but, like the money itself, it's real. It's significant that this is purely spur-of-the-moment stuff. They wouldn't come up with a plan to give all their money to a poor family, but when they find themselves in an unexpected situation where such is called for, you see what they're really made of. This, of course, is only one possible interpretation of the Beagles, but I find it highly effective.

From one perspective, it's kind of a difficult situation, since Disney comics are generally pretty status-quo-y regarding Bad Guys—however noble their behavior, they're still The Beagle Boys, and thus definitionally villains, and it's extremely rare for villains to ever be allowed to get away with anything, even if the depths of their villainy are in question (that's why the case of Cinnamon Teal in that one Ducktales episode really stands out). Ideologically, this is undeniably a thing, for better or worse. The kind of thing that would really, really bother Dorfman and Mattelart, no doubt. Boy, is this post the second time in recent memory I've alluded to How to Read Donald Duck? Man, you could do a way more thoughtful Marxist reading of these things than those guys ever manage. But, that's something for the future. THE POINT IS, it's no surprise that the Beagles end up back in jail, and you may wonder whether a different denouement would've been possible. But it's okay, because they get to have dinner with their jailhouse pals! And I know that last sentence sounds sarcastic, but I don't mean it that way. I'm sure it will be a more fun Christmas than it would be otherwise.

The judge is wrong, of course—the fact that it's Christmas Eve really has nothing to do with the Beagles' actions. I certainly see no evidence of this, at any rate. I'm not sure whether we're meant to take his speech at face value or not, but I don't. Which is quite all right; there's still Christmas spirit aplenty.

And once again, if I had it in mind to criticize, I would note that this ending here is really unearned. It seems like it's just here because it's Christmas, dammit, and we need a seasonal closer. None of the ducks have done anything to get here. I mean, unless you count realizing that their squabbling was wrong-headed, but the story only makes that point in a very desultory way. Still, I don't, so I'll say that it's still a fine, Christmasy ending, and I wish you all, both great and small, a happy, bright new year!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Geo. This does seem like a really nice story, the kind of holiday pleasantness that gets you warm and happy. I love that stuff, truly.

A couple of points come to mind reading this: and to me they're all things that make the story even better than you mentioned! I think the Beagles did seem to have a change of heart based on Christmas: they remembered their own childhood and the lousy Christmas they had, and decided to do something to help the family just so they'd be better off than the Beagles were as kids. It's a genuine altruism brought on by the idea of Christmas, and that's what such stories should be about. Just the idea of helping your fellow man for its own sake. It's an admirable sentiment, and nicely contrasted against the desperate actions of Donald and Scrooge.

We also see something that intrigues me: Scrooge knows there's always a beggar down by the corner, but because it's Christmas and because virtue has tangible rewards, he acts. The Beagles are pretty immediate in seeing someone in trouble, sympathizing with their plight, and trying to help. It shows, subtly, that such acts are cheap and without character. I really like that touch, it's a nice character moment for kids to really sink in to. To be charitable to help people, not to feel or be seen as charitable.

And perhaps the final point is the idea of inflation. I don't know whether IDW changed the dollar amounts or not or not, but considering the date of the story's publication the Beagles gave a serious chunk of change to the little family. It's a huge act on their part relative to their plight. It could very easily have been "Here's enough for Christmas trappings", but instead it was enough to rent a house. Again, a nice touch.

And it has the best Scarpa art I can recall seeing, not just for his Duck work but his whole portfolio.

Have a great Christmas, Geo, and everyone else reading this review.

December 25, 2015 at 10:34 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Good post, apparently good story though I don't know it. A few observations:

— "certain commenters who are really, really fixated on textual fidelity": Must I take that for myself ? (Of course I must.)

— "The judge is wrong, of course—the fact that it's Christmas Eve really has nothing to do with the Beagles' actions. I certainly see no evidence of this, at any rate.": Yes we do. Not necessarily willingly from the Beagle Boys, though Review Or Die does raise an interesting angle of view in his comment; but had it not been Christmas, they would not have dressed up as Santa Clauses and wouldn't have had to "play along" and give the money to the poor family. In that case, it wouldn't be sincerity, but it would be a "miracle" in the fairest meaning of the term: an improbable contrivance brought about by the magic of Christmas that led to good deeds being performed even unwillingly if need be… The same kind of improbable coincidence of which Gladstone's luck is made of, or the one that the goblins were performing in that Barks story about Gyro's "goblin detector".

December 25, 2015 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger Lugija said...

Wait, if even the newspaper says that Scrooge is trying to win the contest, how can he think he could ever be awarded for sincerity?

I love how three-dimensional the villains are. When the Beagles give money to the poor you believe that's something they could do in these circumstances, even if a few pages later in another story they are robbing people at gunpoint.

December 25, 2015 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I'll like to think that the Beagles are actually lovable and good nature guys (at least to each other) that just so happened to be criminals. Yhe, they will rob you but there aren't evil and there is sense comrade between them and a childish innocence side.


December 25, 2015 at 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Ha! Even though I have read a passel of Christmas stories that haven't yet been printed in English, this is indeed the sole Italian story that was on my personal "read every Christmas" list...until this month. Though, lest you think we agree on everything, the IDW-printed Italian one that will probably join my list is "Another Christmas on Bear Mountain"..."Blight" could never enter my headcanon, where Ducks and Mice do not mix. I love this story, love that the Beagles are the ones who (believably!) give unselfishly and are recognized for it. I agree with Review or Die that Christmas memories/sentiment are in fact part of their motivating force. The holes in the story (why does Donald inform Scrooge of the contest? and as Lugija says, if even the paper knows Scrooge is competing for the prize....) don't bother me, either. The story both encapsulates the True Meaning of Christmas and satirizes giving competitively for show. It humanizes the Bad Guys, which as we've discussed is a good thing, as long as you don't undermine their criminal proclivities for future reference... and this doesn't. They still will go after Scrooge's money, but you know that under the right circumstances they could let compassion and generosity derail their criminal intent.

I agree that the final page is not earned, but it's hard for me to imagine how you could end with the Ducks' Christmas and avoid that problem, without spelling out the moral in some obnoxious way. My problem with that page was more that I can't imagine Scrooge giving Donald a tux. Though that isn't a patch on the implausibility of Scrooge as I know him doing what he does in "Spaced Out Christmas"! It's easier for me to believe that he would be a (very secret) philanthropist. I can imagine him giving away money, as long as he believes he can prevent anyone from ever knowing that he does so. That sort of fits with the Scrooge of "Back to the Klondike."

December 25, 2015 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I will concede the point re the catalyst of the Beagles' generosity. Merry Christmas, y'all. Or Selamat Natal, as they say in Indonesia.

December 25, 2015 at 11:16 PM  
Blogger ramapith said...

Psst—Scrooge as secret philanthropist is absolutely a thing in the original Italian versions of many stories, including "The McDuck Foundation" and this one. The trope seems to come straight from Barks (i. e. "Back to the Klondike"), so why not?

December 26, 2015 at 12:11 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Well, I wasn't wondering about "The McDuck Foundation;" that's the entire basis of the story. Still, back to the Klondike" is more a spontaneous act of generosity, like you get with the Beagles here. The Italian stories (or at least the ones in this current sample size, which is two) seem more large-scale and premeditated. I mean, I'm not saying there's any good REASON "why not," but it's definitely different.

December 26, 2015 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

As you point out yourself, it's only two, including one that remains dubious. It perhaps seems more likely to Italian readers to turn up in a story, but it hasn't quite reached the point of an established feature of Scrooge's characterization in Italian stories.

December 26, 2015 at 5:28 PM  
Anonymous king of winter said...

its so wierd to see reviews of stories ive read maybe once in my life when i was eight and then never thought about again until some guy on the web reviews it because why not?

June 29, 2017 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

"Because why not?" is the blog's alternate motto :p And of course, as you realize, to a lot of us, these are newish stories, given that they were only made available to us relatively recently.

June 29, 2017 at 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

On this year's re-reading of this story, I noticed a funny detail I had overlooked before: the Beagle with the nail file is filing his nails *with his gloves on*! If ever there had been a reason for an artist to show a Beagle's hand de-gloved....

January 3, 2019 at 10:56 AM  

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