Thursday, April 29, 2010

"The Doom Diamond"

Incredible though it sounds, I don't think I've yet mentioned my love of the Beagle Boys on this blog. It's necessary to preface this by making the standard disclaimer: Beagle behavior varied to some extent in Barks' work; in the early days they tended to be rather more vicious than they were when they became more established (as in "Hawaiian Hideaway"/"The Menehune Mystery," in which they literally make our heroes into slaves). So you can't generalize absolutely. Here I'm talking about this later version, however.

What can I say? They have their shit together. Sure, their previous eight hundred seventy attempts to rob Scrooge may have failed--but that doesn't mean they won't approach the eight hundred seventy-first with boundless optimism and endless enthusiasm. This could be the one! They're just so goshdarn cheerful about it all. When you think about other classic Barksian antagonists--Flintheart or Magica or Chisel McSue or the generic pig-faced villains--you note that they're only ever happy in a malevolent kind of way. Whereas with the Beagles, it's not personal; it's just a big game--there's a genuine sense of play to them. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that they'd feel rather lost if they ever actually succeeded in robbing Scrooge blind. It's all in the game, as Omar Little was fond of noting (likewise, Scrooge would probably miss them if they just gave up, loathe as he'd be to admit as much). From what little of it I've read, the Beagle Boys comic line in the seventies tended to get this tone completely wrong, and suffered for it--although, bizarrely enough, the inexplicable team-ups with Mad Madame Mim (from The Sword in the Stone) actually sort of work more often than not.

So yeah, the Beagles know the score--but even THEY would suffer from late-period-Barksian inertia in "The Doom Diamond," the last Scrooge adventure that Barks both wrote and drew (for some reason, I was sure that "The Cattle King" took this honor, but inducks informs me that I was wrong. Alas!) I want to say it's the last duck comic he drew, period, but no--I'm pretty sure that's this. That's right--a Daisy Duck's Diary story written by some anonymous hack. How's that for bathos?

(What a fantastic segue that was!)

It turns out the Beagles have trained falcons to break into Scrooge's bin with acetylene torches so that trained bluejays can steal money.

An ingenious plan, no doubt--but when you come down to it, it's also kind of picayune.

Quarters and half dollars? What is this? Is it not the case that the reason they were so keen to rob Scrooge in the first place that he's THE richest target in the world? That they're shooting for the top? And now they're just going after spare change? Shit--they might as well just be breaking into parking meters. And they know it.

I actually find these low-key Beagles sort of charming, but they're quite right--what's it all about? This isn't what they were born to do!

This about sums it up. Thinking small is NOT what the Beagle Boys DO! I also want to note for the record that I'm a big fan of that gag with the curvy pool cue.

But hope comes in the form of a totally sweet item called the "zero diamond" that Scrooge is after. He's purchased it from the invitingly-named "South Myserystan," and he's going to go pay for it in person. I know he's loathe to actually hire people to do stuff for him, but I'm not sure how much business sense it makes for him to perform every single business transaction personally. We might theorize that he's partially using his cheapness as a smokescreen in these cases--in point of fact, he just wants to stay active. Abstract earnings have less meaning to him than concrete, hands-dirtying stuff does. Hence, the Money Bin.

At any rate, the prospect of this diamond is sufficient to rouse everyone to action. Scrooge, hyper-paranoid about pirates, builds a super anti-pirate ship:

Would there have been much cheaper, less ostentatious ways to do this? Without a doubt. But where's the fun in that? The point is, rejuvenating energy is being expended. It's a good thing. However, the Beagles have cobbled together an anti-anti-pirate-ship ship. The result: an epic, six-page battle.

If you were of a mind to, you could criticize this for being overly aimless--it doesn't really contribute to the story's central plot, such as it is--but that would be missing the point: not only is it fun in and of itself, but it shows the characters--both pro- and antagonists--acting with a vigor that they had lacked at the beginning. That's reason enough for its existence.

So anyway, they get to the island and get the diamond. Whoo!

I enjoy the saturnine manner of the South Misterystani people. Even if the title somehow failed to clue you in, it should be obvious from this that the diamond is BAD NEWS. As a matter of fact, given how desperate the people seem to get rid of the thing, you sorta wonder why they didn't just chuck it in the ocean long ago. Sure, this way they're profiting from it a bit, but still--if it's THAT terrible...

At any rate, bad luck begins to assail the ducks as soon as they get the stone.

Just one damn thing after another, eh? They should've brought Gladstone along--see what happens in an immovable-object/implacable force-type situation. Long story short: the stone bounces back and forth between the ducks and the Beagles for a while, until it's finally disposed of for good in the ocean. If you want a blow-by-blow, just find yourself a copy of US349 and read it yourself. It's good times.

At this point I want to introduce the concept of entropy--I am currently teaching (trying to, anyway) Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, so it's been on my mind, and I think it provides a neat li'l hermeneutic for understanding this story. I know I'm going to butcher/oversimplify it, but basically, in a closed system, as things lose energy, the level of entropy increases. So if you have a hot bath, you have some water molecules that are dashing around with their hair on fire, basically. Lots of energy. As they slow down, they lose energy, and the bath becomes tepid. To heat it up again, you have to introduce more energy from the outside, by pouring in more hot water or lighting a fire underneath, if it's an old-fashioned tub. This is the system by which Lot 49 operates. You can see it in miniature in the "Courier's Tragedy" part, where all the violence and torture and orgies gradually give way to nothing but the "colorless administrator" Gennaro standing in a pile of corpses.

This energy can be kind of terrifying, but it also has its positive aspects: Oedipa Maas's bland suburban-housewife existence at the beginning of the novel isn't a life-affirming thing, and even though her quest for the Tristero is frequently sinister/alarming, and ultimately probably has no endpoint, the very fact of the quest itself is in some sense life-affirming--it has a rejuvenating quality to it. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that the perpetuation of her initial, high-entropy existence would have led anywhere good.

I think this is pretty much exactly the dynamic we see in "The Doom Diamond." At the beginning of the story, we find ourselves in a high-entropy state: nothing much is going on; everything's kind of sluggish and low-stakes. But then: new energy--in the form of the diamond itself--is introduced into the system! Suddenly, the entropy dramatically decreases--so we get big ol' cartoony fights between tricked-out battleships! Just like the days of old! Very high-energy. But then the diamond is lost. Aaaaand...

Yup. We're back where we started. The phrase "Scrooge gets all of his money back and all is as it was before" (or very similar) commonly appears at the end of Barks stories, but in those other tales, it's generally pretty clear that a low-entropy state is still in effect--the order that's been restored remains a lively, vigorous one.

Not so here, obviously--the Beagles are still nickel-and-diming Scrooge, and he's still just kind of letting it happen. Energy: gone. It's very easy--and probably accurate--to correlate this with Barks' own feelings of exhaustion after having been at this for twenty-three years. It's not something you'd necessarily notice--certainly, I don't know that I would have made the connection, were I not in the process of reading Lot 49 for the fifth-ish time--but it's really pretty neat. As I try to demonstrate, there's quite a lot of theoretical heft in Barks' work.



Blogger Chuck Munson said...

I have to admit that, since I *am* at work, I have not finished reading your review. That will happen later tonight.

In the meantime, I can give you kudos for regularly sending me scurrying off to the dictionary ("hermeneutic"??) or defining, for one who received a mere education in the architectural arts, references of which I am ignorant. But then, that's why we read and have curiosity: to learn, right?

April 29, 2010 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Ha--yeah, when you're trying to be an academic--in the humanities, at any rate--your brain gets sort of colonized with all this stuff that ordinary civilians would have no reason to be familiar with. What can you do? Hopefully it's at least somewhat enlightening, though. And to be fair, I'd probably be nodding along in blank incomprehension in pretty short order if you started talking about architecture.

April 29, 2010 at 4:12 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Regarding the Beagle Boys’ softening…

Hard or edgy popular characters that hang around our collective cultural consciousness for a long time often undergo similar transformations. Uncle Scrooge, himself, is a great example. Contrast “Voodoo Hoodoo” and “Magic Hourglass” with that which occurred after he achieved his own title.

Just a short list of such other icons would include: Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, Superman, Lobo, Yogi Bear, and Doctor Smith of “Lost in Space”.

You could also argue for Fred Flintstone, once he became a father, and Stewie of “Family Guy” who’s no longer interested in world domination. Heaven help me for actually remembering this, but even Fonzie! And the list goes on and on…

Batman is a lone, odd exception who seems to have gone “the other way”! Even when compared with his 1930s origins. Though he no longer caries a gun, as he did then, he’s darker and scarier than ever… and a far cry from his ‘60s and Silver Age characterizations.

Darkening Batman has worked very well. Not so much for lightening the others. Uncle Scrooge, Donald, Superman, Doctor Smith, and (maybe) Stewie being the exceptions.

The truly “TERRIBLE” Beagle Boys didn’t really last all that long (They mainly manifested in the Hawaiian story and maybe the Stone Statue story.), so their softening doesn’t seem all that dramatic.

That’s a great concept of energy lost – for both Barks and his creations by 1967.

I never had an issue with the Beagle Boys comic book (unless it was drawn by Kay Wright or Bob Gregory) because there were SO MANY Beagle Boys that, if the book chose to focus on three of the lesser lights, it was okay with me.

“The Doom Diamond” contains one of my favorite lines ever spoken by a Beagle: “Open up, I’m an inspector from F.I.S.H.Y.!” (But then, I’ve always loved those Jr. Woodchuck acronyms that Barks excelled at in his later years!)

In my limited experience, I’ve found the Beagle Boys to be very much fun to write dialogue for! I really enjoyed doing them for “The Hard-Shelled Sage of Duckburg” in UNCLE SCROOGE # 375, and in the current (…by way of 1966) “Moldfinger”. Most of their shtick in both stories was totally of my own making.

And, virtually all of what I enjoy about putting words in Beagle-balloons is owed to their being softened. They wouldn’t nearly be as much fun to write, if there were pure out-and-out villains.

What say you all?

April 30, 2010 at 6:25 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

No love for Wright and Gregory? Although I find most of Western's non-Barks duck output to have been mediocre-at-best, I can't say I have much problem with the art itself--the exception being the execrable Dick Moores, with his deeply unpleasant-looking ultra-rounded characters (his ducklings in particular being the stuff of nightmares).

Curiously (or not), I was just rereading "The Magic Hourglass" the other night (I think I'll save my comments for a possible future blog entry). The changes in character are obvious, but I think in Scrooge's case they can be attributed more to necessity than anything else: if he's gonna be the hero, he can't be a *total* SOB--although he certainly never stopped trending in that direction on a regular basis (which is a good part of what makes him a compelling character, of course).

May 1, 2010 at 9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems "The Dainty Daredevil" wasn't Barks' last full work; There's at least two more stories written and drawn by Barks: "The Milkman" from 1974, and "Silent Night" from either 1976 or 1981 (though the last one seems to be a canned story from 1945, since it has early-like art).

February 11, 2012 at 6:29 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Actually, those are both rejected ten-pagers: "Silent Night," as you say, from 1945, and "The Milkman" from 1957.

February 11, 2012 at 6:36 PM  
Anonymous PL9 said...

In fact, you were right about “The Cattle King” being the last story Barks wrote and drew. If Inducks said otherwise, they were mistaken – and it looks like they’ve corrected the mistake. According to them, “The Doom Diamond” was finished in March 1966, “Hall of the Mermaid Queen” was next in April, and finally,“The Cattle King” was completed in May. Why these three stories were published out of the order in which Barks finished them is probably lost to history.
As for “The Dainty Daredevil,” that story came about due to bad scheduling by Western. As Barks himself recounted in a letter, apparently none of the regular artists were available to draw it. So, in desperation, editor Chase Craig called up Barks, who agreed to do it.
Anyway, “The Doom Diamond” was as good a story as any for Barks to go out on, with Scrooge battling his old foes the Beagle Boys one last time. And as the last published story entirely by Barks, it’s definitely worthy of attention.

July 2, 2016 at 7:01 PM  

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