Sunday, August 1, 2010

"A Game of One-Cupmanship"

Well okay, thanks to an off-hand aside I made in the last entry, I have somehow been dragooned into writing about a story entitled "A Game of One-Cupsmanship," written and drawn by Kari Korhonen and, yup, scripted in English by our own Joe Torcivia. This was certainly not a path I was planning to take, but as I always say, when life gives you coffee, make coffee-ade. Let us therefore do our best to approach it in a scrupulously fair-minded fashion.
(As an aside, allow me to mention that, in writing this entry, I came across this post from '08, featuring comments from Torcivia and David Gerstein, and reading through the discussion, Gemstone's dissolution just broke my fucking heart all over again. I know it's pointless to complain at this point, and if the business model wasn't working it wasn't working, but goddamn were Gemstone's offerings ever eighty thousand times better than anything Boom! is doing.)

As I mentioned the other time--and I don't know why I'm reiterating this; I don't think anyone reading this is too likely to be unaware of these things--Barks wrote three one-pagers where Scrooge scams the proprietor of a diner into giving him, at a reduced price or free, cups of coffee that would ordinarily have cost ten cents. It's only natural that someone would come up with the idea of expanding on this, and this is what Korhonen did.

I have a few overall points to make here, but let's save them 'til the end, and deal with the particulars first.

So Joe has this here diner that he runs with his niece, Carrie. But alas, there is a problem.

Scrooge always monopolizes one of their booths, cutting profits by a third. Granted, this seems like a somewhat silly problem to have--if they're so popular, why don't they expand?--but I think this is the way it is more because there has to be a conflict like this for the story to exist than to show that Joe has poor business sense. Still, intentional or not, it does contribute to the sense of the two of them as somewhat hapless.

I am aware that my prejudice in favor of having all duck stories set in some indeterminate mid-fifties time period isn't rational, and I can open my mind enough to enjoy those that aren't, but here it's sort of baffling--as evidenced by the seventy-five-cent coffee and references to wi-fi and the like, this is meant to be a modern-day thing…but it's also meant to be a sequel to a series of things that are definitely set in the past, inasmuch as they revolve around a conflict over ten-cent coffee. You would think that you would want the sequel to flow from the originals as seamlessly as possible, is all I'm saying.

I'll get more into this later, but this is the kind of thing that's somewhat baffling about the story: it's difficult or impossible to tell whether that "Have a rich and full-bodied" day is meant to be completely guileless, or whether it has passive-aggressive undertones (I mean, it's a decent line, but what underlies it?).

Okay, remember when I said that I can get into duck stories that are explicitly modern-day if I put my mind to it? THINGS LIKE "LINDSAY LOONHAN" ARE THE EXCEPTION. I mean, it's no one's fault, I suppose, and you can even point to Barks stories that do the same thing. That's neither here nor there, though. The point is: PHYSICAL. PAIN. Therefore, I'm going to pretend that "Lindsay Loonhan" isn't actually a play on the name of anyone and that she's just a relative of the never-seen Lulubelle Loon. And you can't stop me.

Above: the only solid evidence of Lulubelle's existence.

Here's a part where Joe pretends the diner's full and Scrooge waits:

Yeah, okay, this is still pretty goldarned weird behavior on Scrooge's part, but if I had to choose a favorite bit in the story, this would be it; it's strange enough to be entertaining, and yeah okay, seeing him mumbling the Ducktales theme amuses me and seems somehow appropriate--like the kind of thing one would do, were the fourth wall a li'l bit permeable--under the circumstances.

Wazzis "just a frail old man?" "Only a poor old man" not good enough for you, Torcivia? Hmph! :-p

It's bits like this that make Scrooge seem more manipulative than innocent.

So this goes on for a while, and seriously, how do things like the above not make you root pretty hard for our downtrodden blue-collar workers? I mean, come on. How can you let them get screwed over here? Well, you can like this:

(The idea being that they both came up with the same idea of giving him partial ownership to keep him out of their hair.)

Seriously, that picture of Scrooge in silhouette there--odsbodkins. He's quite clearly meant to look sort of sinister/triumphant (and now he's preventing other people from doing what he did, 'cause he's a big fat hypocrite). The whole ending can't help but be a serious downer.

Okay, so here's the thing: the operative fact about the original coffee cup gags--and a big part of what makes them work as gags--is that the stakes are so incredibly low. Scrooge cheats the guy, sure, but he cheats him out of so little that it's hard to get too indignant. I would even go so far as to say that the joke is mainly on Scrooge himself, for going to such absurd lengths. How much money must he have paid for folding cups, giant novelty mugs, and sponges to cut into doughnut shapes--none of which, obviously, he could reuse? In the modern-day follow-up, on the other hand, it's the guy's business itself that's in the balance. This puts a considerably different complexion on things, especially because of the gulf between the conflict in the originals (harmless) and in the sequel (not-so).

If it's hard to unequivocally condemn the sequel on these grounds, it's because Korhonen plays it rather coy with Scrooge's character and motives. He is shown to exhibit a kind of dull, passive obstinacy right up until the very end, making it unclear as to whether and to what extent this whole thing was a long con (and yes, this is somewhat amusing in places, but the net effect is just one of obfuscation). I give the story credit, then, for at least exhibiting some awareness that it would be kind of ruined if Scrooge were shown gleefully planning out a hostile takeover and then effecting this goal.

I don't think that this difference-splitting is very effective, for several reasons: first, because he obviously DOES take over the diner under false pretenses--he had to have given SOMEONE the false impression that, in selling to him, they weren't providing him with a controlling interest.

Second--and more interestingly--it is necessary to look at the form of the story. It's unusual among duck comics in that there is no anatid viewpoint character. Scrooge is pushed into the background as Joe and Kari Carrie take center stage. This partially justifies not characterizing Scrooge in more detail, but it also means that our sympathies are naturally and firmly with them and not him, and therefore, the takeover hurts more than it might otherwise. And yet, it had to be this way, because such a story where Scrooge was the viewpoint character--meaning we were explicitly meant to root for him--would just be intolerable. And yet and yet, a story where Scrooge didn't win out would have a hard time avoiding being contrary to the spirit of the source material. So as you can see, we're sort of chasing our own tail here; there were significant structural issues inherent in the concept itself that made the execution extremely tricky. Perhaps not impossible. But HARD.

So I guess overall, I have to say that, in spite of some good moments (and certainly through no fault of Torcivia's localization), the story just fundamentally doesn't work for me. Nonetheless, I'm glad to have read it and written about it, because it gave me an opportunity to think through some of these issues regarding viewpoint and structure and characterization and like that. And for now, that is all.



Blogger Joe Torcivia said...


(Long Comment Alert!)

As one of the “dragooners”, I’d like to say thanks for devoting space to “A Game of One-Cupmanship”. My comments are strictly MY OWN, and do not represent anything Kari Korhonen might have intended. In my view, Kari did a magnificent job of capturing the spirit of what Carl Barks did – and combining it with the blackout sensibilities of both the quick one-page gags and the structure of a Road Runner cartoon!

And, that’s how I saw the story when I received it from David. Something resembling a Chuck Jones / Michael Maltese Warner Bros. cartoon. Specifically, the undeniably classic “One Froggy Evening”!

The moral of the story seems to be “Leave well enough alone!” Just as it was for the construction worker who should have left the “singing frog” buried in the box, hidden away in a building’s cornerstone – so should Joe have left Scrooge to his one cup of coffee and piles of newspapers.

The moment he tampered with the natural order of things, he began to bring about his downfall. Perhaps, you found the downfall of Jones and Maltese’s hapless guy just as distasteful, but it would seem that decades of animation history and opinion would indicate that to be the minority position.

Oh, and for the record, “Joe” was the name he came with. I would never have named him after myself. But, with that done, I decided to work my wife’s name (Esther) into an offhanded reference, so that we might both be a part of the story. As an unseen reporter, completely of my own contrivance, Esther’s counterpart faired much better than my own.

To your points:

Joe probably COULDN’T expand. Either due to a long-term lease, or the simple fact that a successful business in a small space could be a failure in a larger and more costly space. Just ask most comic book shop owners.

I do not at all agree with the notion that all Duck stories should take place in the FIFTIES, despite Don Rosa’s success with that premise. Carl Barks, himself, brought his stories into the sixties, and doubtless would have continued to “move them forward” as long as he was active. So, why would I fail to do less!

All of that “newfangled stuff” was of my own design, so please blame ME and not Kari.

The other diner, with its escalating technological advances (Newspapers, to Cable TV, to WI-FI, to VR) was my own invention as a commentary on the ever-escalating technology of our everyday lives. The “DuckTales Theme” speaks for itself as the type of fourth-wall gag that I love. Lindsay Loonhand is my reaction to the ridiculous coverage of repulsive celebrities and their equally repulsive behavior – and the “three-headed cat” is just typical of the type of “journalism” that was associated with an Enquirer-style newspaper.

I’d like to think that Carl Barks would have taken a similar stand on the latter. Wouldn’t you?

Google insists that I must break this commentary into TWO PARTS, so we’ll end here and resume.

August 1, 2010 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Comments Part Two:

“Have a rich and full-bodied day!” was simply a coffee reference in the dialogue. Nothing more. You’ll note several of them throughout. David’s favorite was: “Coffee’s always darkest before the creamer!” – parodying “It’s always darkest before the dawn!”

“Coin references” were sprinkled throughout “Heads You Win, Tails You Bruise” in similar fashion. It’s just part of my scripting style.

If Scrooge said he were a “POOR” old man, he would be outright lying – and I didn’t want him to do that. By now (with the advance of time that we disagree on), “frail” might be closer to the truth – but not much closer, I’ll grant you.

And, why would Scrooge conning Joe out of one cup of coffee per day for DECDAES not have a terrible cumulative effect? Here, he acted more “efficiently”.

Honestly, in real life, this would not be a funny story, but within an escalating gag fantasy involving talking ducks and dogfaces, I think it works very well. And, as I said, it worked very well BEFORE I got hold of it.

Part of what makes Scrooge McDuck one of the greatest characters to debut in the comics medium IS that he’s not always “good”, but you basically root for him anyway! Just maybe not in this case.

Some final insider detail:

The “Free Meal If We Don’t Say Hello” was my own contrivance, because (as written) Joe seemed to take the defeat for that sequence WAY TOO HARD for the loss of just one cup of coffee. He did get a MEAL out of Scrooge, after all (again, as written). So, I had to create something more crushing, just to match the art. Also, I got to “call back” to it later – in a panel you reproduced in your review. I love when THE SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY “call back” to a previously laid gag, and I enjoyed doing it here.

Also, only two things changed from my original draft. I originally named Joe’s niece “Carrie Outt” (Carry Out, get it!), but David thought that to be to lame and dispensed with it!

However, David more than made up for that with his addition of “HAWKS NEWS”, replacing the blander “Eyewitness News” that “Esther Egret” was a reporter for.

I enjoyed the review, and am glad to have provided “DVD commentary” for it.

Thanks for running a great Blog!

Joe. (Not “Joe” the Coffee-Man!)

August 1, 2010 at 11:33 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Hey, thanks for the inside information. I think "leave well enough alone" is probably an accurate interpretation, whatever the implications of that may be.

So when you're setting out to localize a story, do you get a copy where the basic action in each panel is indicated, and it's your job to break this down into natural, appealing dialogue? How does this work, exactly?

August 2, 2010 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

You’ve more or less got it.

Stories come in a variety of ways.

A PDF or a scan of the finished art. Dialogue can already be in the balloons, or it can come as a separate script document – or both.

Said dialogue also exists in varying forms from “ready to almost ready to use” to generic, stripped down, and bare bones, conveying what is meant to be said in the balloons. “One Cupmanship”, for instance, came with fine dialogue to begin with, so my challenge was all the greater.

Speaking just for myself, I write all my own titles, and try to do the best job I can with the dialogue. At every opportunity, I add additional gags, references (Barks and other pop cultural), and character bits, to make it the lively kind of story I’d like to read.

My motto is “A generic left on a page is an opportunity lost!” Witness all the signs in “One Cupmanship”. I tried to make them ever-changing gags of their own.

Background stuff to crack a smile at, like Barks’ “Helper gags”. They were not so in the original.

The key is to “write to the art”! The art is fixed, as are the balloons. So, you must make it work… and make it fit.

Finally, a great editor (especially one on the same wavelength) is a tremendous asset – both to you and the story! David Gerstein is one of the best – and a great deal of fun to work with!

August 2, 2010 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Did you have to get special permission in order to use the first line of the Ducktales theme? I ask because I know of an author who quoted just five words of the Beatles song "Yesterday" in a short story, and there were all sorts of copyright issues and whatnot before it could be published, and special credit had to be given to the Beatles on the copyright page. Knowing Disney's close protection of their copyrights, I wondered if anything difficult had to be done regarding that line...

August 3, 2010 at 1:18 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Something like that (the "Yesterday" thing) is, theoretically, entirely within the bounds of fair use. The only way you'd have legal issues is if some rights holder wanted to be a real dick about it and you didn't have the time/money/inclination to deal with a court battle.

I don't see why the Ducktales thing would be any different, even if Gemstone didn't have the rights to the series (and I'm pretty sure they did).

August 3, 2010 at 3:17 AM  
Blogger ramapith said...

Gemstone's license covered DuckTales. We printed both old and new DuckTales stories in UNCLE SCROOGE now and then (the Launchpad solo stories counted as DuckTales), as well as anthologizing some of Marv Wolfman's and Bob Langhans' early 1990s work.

August 3, 2010 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...

Joe, Geo et al.,

Greetings from Vancouver -- where, speaking of coffee, there seem to be three types of street corners in town: (1) corners with a Starbucks on them, (2) corners with a Tim Hortons (the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts) on them, and (3) corners with a Blenz Coffee shop (a local outfit, I suppose) on them. If Joe (the coffee one, not the comics-writing one) ever wants to get out from under and start a new business, he should NOT come here. The market is super-saturated -- not unlike the sponge donut Scrooge used in one of Barks' coffee gags, in fact...

I think you both make good points here. Scrooge's "Thing That Wouldn't Leave" routine DOES mutate into something slightly more "sinister" (for lack of a better word) by the end... and yet, at the same time, the reader's sympathies ARE drawn to Scrooge, in admiration of his sheer cussed doggedness if nothing else. I suppose that if he had REALLY wanted to be a bastard, Scrooge could have kicked Joe and Carrie to the curb completely. The final triumph of "smarter than the smarties" Scrooge may not be to everyone's taste, but it is preferable to Joe and Carrie being unemployed, I'd say!

Bill Van Horn sends his best. He and his wife had me over to dinner this p.m. and were very hospitable.


August 4, 2010 at 12:56 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Man, you people and yer big-shot Disney-comics friends...yer killin' me here.

That's cool, though. I should have a new Van Horn entry up here pretty soon.

August 5, 2010 at 3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally off topic and for that I apologize, but as a fellow Scrooge lover and a admirer of Don Rosa, I wanted to point out this fascinating article discussing the recent movie inception and
Rosa's Dream of a Lifetime. Here is the link.

August 6, 2010 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

I'm rather disappointed of how Mr Torvicia says he translated. For me, what I want is the more TRUTHFUL TO THE ORIGINAL TRANSLATIONS as possible. So I think that the translator should have access to the original dialogues in italian, norwegian or whatever, to try to use the same sentence structures and so on.

May 24, 2015 at 5:27 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

I'm disappointed (after reading what Mr Torvicia said) that the translator hasn't got the original dialogue in the language of the original author… If I was in charge of translations, I'd insist that the localizations must be as truthful to the original as possible ! Actually, if stories could have subtitles, that's what I'd chose. Of course, it's not possible but it gives you an idea of my opinion.

May 24, 2015 at 5:28 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

You have stumbled upon a fraught area of contention. I'm sympathetic to your way of thinking--I'm a literature PhD with a strong investment in the fidelity of literary translations, after all--but on consideration, I can't quite agree. I think the standard mode of Disney-comics translation, as pioneered by Geoffrey Blum and continued by Torcivia and everyone else--is the right one. First and foremost, these things are meant to *entertain.* It's no good for a story to be perfectly accurate to the original script if that original script is really bland and uninteresting. Plus, we're talking about comics created in a different cultural context; they're just going to seem alien (well, some of them do anyway--but MORE alien) to an American audience if they aren't given a localization that puts them in line with the American Disney-comics tradition.

May 24, 2015 at 7:48 AM  
Blogger Fethry Duck said...

@GeoX - A meaner person would read your post as "Americans are too stupid to like this if there's no Lindsay Lohan references, so it's a necessary evil" :V
I can understand the point of this kind of localization. It effectively makes things read better, and can make things funnier. On the other hand, it'll always make me a bit queezy... I can only imagine, had I written this story, how would /I/'ve felt on learning an American writer had decided "yes, what this story needs is Ducktales mentions!" when I personally don't like Ducktales? Eh. Not an easy answer to this.

July 22, 2015 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

"Did you have to get special permission in order to use the first line of the Ducktales theme? I ask because I know of an author who quoted just five words of the Beatles song "Yesterday" in a short story, and there were all sorts of copyright issues and whatnot before it could be published, and special credit had to be given to the Beatles on the copyright page. Knowing Disney's close protection of their copyrights, I wondered if anything difficult had to be done regarding that line..."

Even if I know it's not exactly Disney that produces the comics but rather a publisher with a license granted by Disney, it would be stupid from Disney to sue the comic for that since they'd pretty much be suing themselves (suing their licensed publisher = weakening the society = weaker sales = less money in the Walt Disney Company's pocket).

January 3, 2016 at 9:48 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Well, you say that, but if it's taken as a general principle, since ANY such violation would presumably therefore count as Disney "suing themselves."

January 4, 2016 at 1:54 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

"Totally off topic and for that I apologize, but as a fellow Scrooge lover and a admirer of Don Rosa, I wanted to point out this fascinating article discussing the recent movie inception and
Rosa's Dream of a Lifetime. Here is the link."

—> By the way, this article is wrong. According to Don Rosa, he got the concept of "Dream of a Lifetime" from a fan who suggested him the idea in a letter; but Rosa later found out that the reader had apparently ripped off Inception in said letter.

February 15, 2016 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Hey there, I had this idea. Would you be disturbed with this story so much if Donald Duck was in Dinner Joe's place ?

March 11, 2016 at 6:01 PM  
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