Saturday, August 7, 2010

"The Black Moon"

I wrote an entry on Van Horn earlier, but I think it really generated more heat than light, and I wasn't all that interested in the story nominally under review--it was really just a jumping-off point. So let's do something more interesting, shall we?
Of course, as you know if you know anything about it, Van Horn's specialty is Barksian ten-pagers (even if some of them aren't precisely ten pages, the feel is still the same). But occasionally he branches out and produces a longer adventure story. Well, sometimes he BRANCHED out--we haven't seen any such thing in many a year. There's nothing wrong with having a specialty, but sometimes I wish he would work outside his comfort zone a little more often. Oh, wait, never mind--it doesn't MATTER to me if he ever does this, since NOTHING HE HAS WRITTEN OR WILL WRITE since the folding of Gemstone will EVER BE PUBLISHED in the US. Sorry to keep harping on this, but seriously: GRRR.

Some of these long-form stories are better than others, but it's always very interesting to see what he does when working in an unusual form. Today's entry, as we will see, is EXTREMELY, ah, interesting. The Inducks entry includes the cryptic note "plot paid by Burbank." That may have some obscure relation to the nature of the story, but I'm sure I don't know what.

Anyway, it turns out that a new planet, Ronald, has been discovered out past Pluto. I'm not sure if "Ronald" is a reference to something in particular, or if it's just a generic wacky name. This here planet also has a...well, read the title.

These reactions are pretty funny. What the dudes on the left imagine that they would have DONE with this new planet if they hadn't summarily dismissed it is a mystery, and I love how personally affronted the guy on the right is by a black moon's lack of romantic utility.

The moon, as you might guess, turns out to be made of oil, which naturally attracts the interest of certain persons. The inverse of Barks' "Twenty-Four Carat Moon," perhaps? Oil represents a very different KIND of wealth than gold: with the latter, you have connotations of romantic, quasi-mythic adventures; with the former, you have only the industrial and decidedly non-romantic. Choosing the one over the other was certainly a conscious decision on Van Horn's part.

You can probably guess the general shape of things to come pretty easily: Donald and HDL are roped in by Scrooge to claim this new moon. Scrooge doesn't go along. Van Horn generally prefers to write more about the younger generation.

So, they get a kickass thoughtship from Gyro, with which they can go wherever they want just by thinkin' it. Some slapsticky stuff occurs as they figure out the controls, and away they go.

Okay okay, I can't really hedge anymore without making some very awkward circumlocutions. The thing about this story is: in spite of a reasonable dose of the usual Van Horn goofiness, it is essentially a horror story. And a damned effective one, too. I have never been so creeped out by a duck comic before. Okay, so maybe I've never been creeped out at all by a duck comic before, but I do not think that does anything to lessen the distinction.

(Actually, that's not true--I distinctly remember being at least a LITTLE creeped out by "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone" when I was small--I found the prospect of Scrooge turning to gold quite alarming. Had I read it at the time, I can easily imagine that "Ancient Persia" also mighta got me pretty good. That is nae here nae there, however.)

Most major duck stories set in outer space (I DEMAND THAT YOU APPRECIATE THE EFFORT INVOLVED IN MAKING EACH OF THOSE WORDS A SEPARATE LINK) depict said space as a reassuringly populous place, by other astronauts and/or aliens. The idea of our heroes being alone in an empty, dead version is just plain creepy, and that's what this story depicts (aside from a few anonymous fellow oil-seekers, who quickly give up and return home). I'm reminded a little bit of the Tintin book where they go to the moon--haven't read it in years, but remember finding it highly traumatic due to that very thing. Under the circumstances, it was a good idea to place this new moon (and planet, though Ronald goes largely unremarked) on the outer reaches of the solar system. You would certainly have your work cut out for you trying to get out that far, but it helps to foster the notion of complete isolation. And of course, the fact that we're talking about a ball of petroleum once again helps to foster the idea of deadness. This all works together quite effectively.

BOOM. Pretty spooky, and awesome.

You probably imagined that the fact that oil comes from organic matter would go unremarked, but as you can see, you were wrong. Wisely, Van Horn never attempts to answer the questions he's just brought up. Why IS all this stuff floating out there? Where could it possibly have come from? The more you let your mind float among these questions, the creepier it all becomes.

(Part of me thinks there's some intricate hermeneutic here that would allow one to rationally understand this story--but I don't REALLY think that. If YOU have answers, by all means let's hear them.)

But yes, let's bring some SCIENCE to bear on the problem. That always makes creepy things less creepy.

Or...perhaps not. The mystery is only compounded. AND THE NEXT DAY:

Augh. And, furthermore, augh:

There's some pseudo-scientific explanation about how the drops don't multiply in space 'cause of the vacuum, but that's beside the point. The point is, this dead matter is doubling for no reason that anyone can understand.

I find myself put in mind of Borges' great, likewise-creepy story "Blue Tigers." The parallels aren't exact, but they're still there. In the story, the point is made that, while there may not actually be such a thing as a blue tiger, you can easily imagine what it would look like--whereas you CANNOT imagine what a blue tiger that is also two blue tigers would be like. That's just not a direction the human mind bends in. This isn't quite such a thorny epistemological set-up as that, but the alienness there is I think akin to the alienness here.

And again, the more you think about it, the more freakish it becomes. you would expect...

...and, again, BOOM. Nice explosion there. Whether or not that could actually happen in a vacuum is entirely beside the point.

So now, our heroes are stranded in space. Oh, but don't worry. It turns out Scrooge was following them to in case they screwed up, as they clearly have. So hurrah! Everything's better!

And now, we come to the ending, which is the single most shocking thing I have ever seen or expect to see in a duck comic:

[portentous pause]

(To clarify, 'blip' is the noise that the oil droplets have previously been seen to make when they divide.)

You know, the really amazing thing is, a few issues later, there were quite a few letters in Donald Duck Adventures praising this story, and aside from Torcivia characterizing this ending as "ominous" (true, if somewhat understated), nobody even alludes to it. I personally would imagine that it would be hard to discuss a story like this without at least noting in passing that, oh, I don't know, ALL THE CHARACTERS DIE IN THE END. Just seems like it might be worth mentioning.

Gladstone might have just left out the ones that did on the basis that you don't really want to emphasize the fact that you just published such a stunningly grim story, but I can easily imagine that a lot of people didn't even see it as such due to some strong cognitive dissonance. Donald, Scrooge and HDL don't all die because Donald Scrooge and HDL don't die. Tautological, but at the same time kind of hard to argue with. And yet…they quite clearly DO. I mean, you can posit that they make some sort of daring escape, or get rid of the oil before it becomes a problem, but come on--it ends the way it ends for a reason. If this were a Twilight Zone episode or a Philip K Dick short story (seriously, read "Colony" if you want to be well and truly freaked out for DAYS), you wouldn't think twice about the ending. It's just the fact that it features characters whom we all know can't die that causes you to engage in such mental contortions. It's just necessary to face facts: William Van Horn murdered our beloved ducks. And then, he moved on.

So Van Horn, I salute you. I have no idea what you were thinking, man, or how you got away with it, but it's impossible for me not to be impressed as anything by the sheer chutzpah you displayed here. Testing the boundaries of what one can and can't do in a Disney comic is always worthy of approbation in my book. I don't necessarily think anyone needs to take it upon themselves to do anything like this ever again, but I'm glad that someone did it once and that "The Black Moon" therefore exists.



Blogger Christopher said...

Can't we just see the ending as... setting the stage for a sequel?

August 7, 2010 at 5:41 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Reckon we could, but unless I'm missing something very big, none has been forthcoming, and seventeen years later, it seems highly unlikely.

August 7, 2010 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


"The thing about this story is: in spite of a reasonable dose of the usual Van Horn goofiness, it is essentially a horror story. And a damned effective one, too. I have never been so creeped out by a duck comic before."

Yes, you really do have to "stretch your imagination" in order to visualize how Bill saw the Ducks getting out of THAT pickle. I imagine that all the readers who wrote in, praising the story without mentioning the import of the ending, took that giant "leap of faith," each with his or her own pet theory as to how the gang made it safely home.

Seeing this story discussed again makes me rue all the more that Bill didn't see fit to do more long stories. He wouldn't have had the Ducks simply "plunge into the jungle in search of the lost ruby" (his phrase, not mine) without a strange twist or two, though... even one involving "one of those gee-whiz mathematical things." (Bill told me he never got beyond algebra in high school, so I am all the more impressed that he appealed to the classic "doubling grains of wheat on the squares of a chessboard" illustration of a simple geometric progression.)


August 7, 2010 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Susan D-L said...

As I recall (and this was a while ago, so don't take it as the be-all and end-all) we pretty much printed every letter that came in, outside of threats, solicitations, proselytizing, chain mail and the proverbial "I hated this story/I loved this story" one-liners. Honestly, we didn't get all that many letters that were actually about the stories.

I loved working on Bill's stories (except for the ones with 5 zillion snowflakes). They could be pretty zen at times but damn that boy can draw.

August 8, 2010 at 12:51 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Thanks for that, Ms. Daigle-Leach. And good to have you around.

August 8, 2010 at 1:05 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Aw, c’mon, Geo…

Flintheart Glomgold was probably following Scrooge at a safe distance and, after a very contentious negotiation, ferried our astro-ducks home for a hefty fee. Just not hefty enough for Flinty to surpass Scrooge – which is why the negotiations took so long, and would have been so much fun to witness.

And, if you think Bill’s art was effective in disarming the horror here, consider that in “No Room for Human Error” (UNCLE SCROOGE # 252) Van Horn drew the first and only full-on decapitation ever seen in a Disney comic! Yes, it was a robot, but still…


August 8, 2010 at 10:21 AM  
Blogger Lars Jensen said...

> Van Horn drew the first and only full-on decapitation ever seen in a Disney comic!

Joe, you haven't read "The Scare Bears", have you? :-)

August 8, 2010 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Not yet, Lars! Sure wish I could. I understand it's a goodie!

August 8, 2010 at 7:31 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I've been following your blog for a while now, and this review made me comment on the hard work you put into this! Also the article made me laugh a couple of times, especially the every-word-is-a-link comment!

I have to say that I was creeped out(but also very emotional) when reading "The Life and Times Of ScroogeMcDuck" when Scrooge's dad...wait maybe someone hasn't read it yet. anyway keep up the good job!

August 12, 2010 at 8:42 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate that.

And yeah, the ending of "The Billionaire of Dismal Downs" is very powerful.

August 12, 2010 at 2:50 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Er, for the death of the ducks, I didn't even think of it, you know. What I figure is that the travel back home is short enough for them to don't notice the drip at all, and it starts being a problem only after they're on earth. And the story of the sequel would be "the Earth is about to be submerged with oil ! What will the ducks do ?", or alternately to have a happy ending that Scrooge uses it as an "abundance horn" (horn, Van Horn, hahaha am I funny, you don't laugh ? Never mind) by selling the oil.

July 5, 2015 at 12:33 PM  

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