Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"The Great Paint Robbery"

"The Great Paint Robbery" (printed in US353) initially caught my eye for one reason and one reason only: it's forty-four pages long. That kind of length is NOT common in Disney comics. The longest story Barks ever wrote ("Vacation Time" (unless you count "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," which I tend not to, since he didn't actually write it and only drew part of it)) is only thirty-three. There are lots of Italian stories that seem to exceed this length, but those often as not use three-tiered pages, so I disregard them. AT ANY RATE, apart from "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold" (which is actually slightly shorter when you convert from three- to four-tiered pagination) it was the longest single story I'd ever seen printed non-serially in a Duckbook, so I had to see what was what.
Our intrepid Gemstone editor (and reader of this blog--greetings, sir!), David Gerstein, explains that this is one of a series of German-produced (but Spanish-created) stories from the mid-eighties. Quoth Gerstein: "Seen today, the...series is a mixed bag; not every story strikes us as an ideal match for American readers. But we're pleased to present 'The Great Paint Robbery'...and see what all of you think." This struck me as an unusually circumspect recommendation, if it may be called such. What does it mean for a story to be "not an ideal match for American readers," given that Gemstone published such a wide variety of stories from all over?

So, skipping ahead a bit, my curiosity after reading "The Great Paint Robbery" was enough that I looked up the series on Inducks, and found, to my surprise, that of the six installments, two others had already been localized into English, in 1985: "The Rain God of Uxmal" and "High Jinks on the Matterhorn." And they were translated by the Brits, by God! If you're disappointed by Disney comics' minimal presence in the US market, you can at least be glad you don't live in England, where the line is and always has been MUCH more limited--and yet, they quite definitively beat us to the punch as far as translating foreign-language stories goes. The shame!

At any rate, I was able to pick up these books on the cheap, and let me explain, slightly less diplomatically than Gerstein, why they were not considered ideal for Americans: because HOLY MOTHER OF GOD ARE THEY EVER BORING. GOOD CHRIST. Why are they boring? It's a combination of two things: First, the fact that trying to spread fairly simple stories out for forty-goddamn-four pages leads to really, REALLY torturous padding--it almost feels like you're reading them in slow motion. Second, the writer, Miguel Pujol has, let us say, an extremely shaky grasp of the characters themselves--their interactions are weird and alien-feeling in a very off-putting way, which really limits one's interest. The final story in the series (never translated into English) was written by someone other than Pujol--I wonder if it reads substantially differently.

Returning to "The Great Paint Robbery," let me say upfront that it's a pretty awful story. But I can absolutely see why Gemstone chose it to print over the ones that had already been translated. It's bad, yes, but it tries much harder to be interesting. It seems clear that more effort has been put into it; it comes much closer than its predecessors (still not THAT close, mind you!) to justifying its length. And besides, it's bad in weird, fitfully interesting ways that, to a limited extent, dull the pain.

Let's start with the characterizations. How to adequately convey what this story does...? It's as though the creators had been given some general tropes to apply to the characters ("Scrooge goes nuts for money," "Donald gets mad at Scrooge for his cheapness," and so on), but they used these without ever actually having read a Barks story--and as such, they get the tone all wrong. Furthermore, the characters have this weird tendency to sort of talk around each other, like so:

I wish I could articulate quite why it is that Donald's anger here rings false, but suffice it to say that it does. I guess I would say that it goes back to the idea that nobody involved here really feels these characters on a meaningful level. It just looks mechanical. More to the point: what "crazy notion?" That he calls himself a patron of the arts? That he should have the decency to let his own kin in for nothing? This could be a translation issue, I suppose, but the fact remains that this is just not how people talk to one another. It crops up again and again, and it's very distracting.

I'm not going to make any effort to go through this story in a linear way. There are just too many weird twists and turns, many of them leading to dead ends. We'd be here all night. Instead, I'll just highlight some of the more disjointed, strange, and/or unworkable aspects of the whole affair.

As with so many stories, it's structured (although calling a story like this "structured" at all is probably pushing it) as a treasure hunt.

INCREDIBLE, I tell you! The problem is, we don't get any idea of what exactly he's after for a good half the story, and in the meantime he just acts deranged in a way that's totally opaque to the reader. This gets quite old quite fast.

Anyway, they go to Spain so that some paintings of Scrooge's can be in a Picasso exhibit. Because of this paper that has him all het up, apparently.

So apparently, the paper stick these paintings together? And you would get a code? Which would be good for...something? That's the thing about this story: it's so weird and slippery, with all these red herrings and all this pointless mucking about that you are very hard-pressed to remember: was there some line of dialogue somewhere that would have made sense out of what appears to be stark raving nonsense, and I just missed it in the rush? That is NOT a sign of competent plotting. It really doesn't matter, though. Nailing this tiny detail down isn't going to make the whole any less nuts.

Here's this guy. His name is "Mr. Clueless." Not quite Dickensian, is it? He follows the ducks around and does a whole lot of bumbling. The meaning of his presence is unclear until the very end, and he never actually DOES anything meaningful. He just distracts the reader by looking like he ought to be important while not actually BEING so. He'd be cut out entirely in any reasonable edit.

This girl serves a similar anti-function. Mercedes Pujol, she is called. How much you wanna bet our author has a daughter by that name? She shows up, serves an insignificant role, and then disappears. It's very disorienting. No joke--reading this story is the duck comics equivalent of being drunk.

There is--as I may have indicated--a LOT of dicking around here, but let's just cut to the bizarre climax, shall we? It turns out that the secret treasure indicated by the secret clues on the paintings (let's not even BEGIN to get into the torturous logic behind this) is a machine that makes paper. INFINITE paper. You stick a mini-bonsai-tree thing into a slot, and INFINITE PAPER comes out. And the tree magically regrows instantly. "Um...what?" you say. BUT IT'S TRUE:

See? What did I tell you--LIKE BEING DRUNK. There's a feeble bit of exposition about how some dude invented this but then was afraid it would fall into THE WRONG HANDS, so he hid it and got his pal Picasso to draw a map on the backs of three of his paintings, so he could find it later (of course, if he REALLY wanted to hide it, he would have broken it into eight pieces and hidden them in eight separate dungeons around the world...but I digress). But the machine turns out to be rather poorly designed, because once you turn it on, it will NOT STOP until dark, and it will flood the ENTIRE WORLD with paper.

SEE? Kind of a shitty invention, when you come right down to it. Hard to say what the hell this inventor guy envisioned actually DOING with it. But fortunately, there's a handy self-destruct lever, so disaster is averted.

And we are seriously DONE here. I feel like I've done about as competent a job as anyone could have at explicating this derangement. Finally, I'd just like to note the English title: "The Great Paint Robbery." A tenuous pun on "train." But it doesn't really WORK, because *I* certainly don't think "paintings" when I hear the word "paint"--I just think of cans o' paint. And you probably do too. I'm not even objecting to this. I think it's actually quite appropriate that such a poorly-assembled, hallucinatory story should have a misleading title to boot.

Hope I'm not too hungover tomorrow from rereading this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you make the images a bit larger?

I like your sense of humour, this is a great blog, but you could simplify the plot descriptions.

May 7, 2010 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Click to enlarge.

May 7, 2010 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger Natteravn said...

Disappointing that you didn't like this story, it was one of my favourites. Indeed, this entire series is one I would rank up there among the best of Barks, Rota & Rosa. You should check out some of the others in the series, maybe you'd find those more interesting? Particularly The Rain God of Uxmal, that one is REALLY Barksian in both tone and sense of adventure, just the whole concept of the Ducks finding a lost Mayan civilization is intriguing.
At least you appreciate the art, surely ? The landscapes and architecture rivals Rota at his best, some of the scenes are simply breathtaking.
Oh, and in this story, did you miss that Mercedes was the ancestor of the inventor ? She definitively served a purpose in the story, and she was also a very fleshed out character. She really feels like a 20s something art student, which is rare for a Duck character.
That's also a thing I remember from these stories as a kid, the characters felt so much more "real" than most Disney comic characters, the setting as well, reading them I felt like this could actually have taken place in "our" world. Barks' stories did that too, but these felt like they took place not only in our world but our Time as well, if you know what I mean?
Also, as a kid, the factual details was very attractive. And reading it as an adult, having been to some of these places, I actually recognize myself and just looking at the pictures brings back memories. I really think you should give these stories another chance, it could simply be because they are more "European" in style that they felt odd to you.
(And, checking the dialog in my Norwegian version, it does seem that the English translation is not the best.. or maybe it's the Norwegian translation that improved it, I don't know)

March 10, 2014 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I did appreciate the art, but I maintain that the story is pretty dubious. I do I like it substantially better than "Uxmal" and "Hijinx on the Matterhorn," though in fairness, that's probably in part because they had really indifferent British translations. I've also read the Key West story in this series, which I thought was okay.

March 11, 2014 at 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Joel Kalsi said...

Thank you Natteravn for writing my thoughts! I felt exactly the same about these as a Barks and Rota fan in the late 80ies. Later I got to visit Barcelona and Montserrat and ride the actual half vertical train car depicted in the story, had a huge flashback to the story right there. As a kid I liked especially how these stories were placed in the real world and the stories really grabbed me along. The Grand Canyon thing was a good one too.

May 26, 2018 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger lcd3rd said...

In reply to someone above: Please do NOT simplify the plot descriptions. The more complex and intricate the better.

September 28, 2022 at 2:27 PM  

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