Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Too Late for Christmas"

Merry War on Christmas, y'all! To celebrate, here is "Too Late for Christmas."

What's "Too Late for Christmas?" you ask. Well, it's one of four stories by Pat Block and Ron Fernandez published in 1994 and 1995--four stunningly, unbelievably good stories, I should say. Afterwards, Fernandez was apparently sucked into a black hole or something, and Block started collaborating with his wife, Yoko Shelly. They mostly just wrote unexceptional short gag stories that various European artists illustrated, but they did a handful of very good stories all on their own and then sort of vanished. Except that then they did the cover for Donald Duck 360. Is that a harbinger? Please let it be a harbinger.

Still, the Fernandez collaborations remain unsurpassed in quality. They are everything that a duck comic can be, and it breaks my heart that the partnership did not last. I am haunted by the potential stories that never were. Serious question for anyone who knows: who the heck is (was?) Ron Fernandez? The man is a complete mystery. His inducks page is completely blank, and he's never done anything other than the Block stories. Where have you gone, Ron Fernandez? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

What makes these stories so good? That is somewhat hard for me to articulate. I feel that they follow effortlessly in Barks' footsteps, but not in a slavishly imitative way--they have their own distinct feel, yet they feel to me like completely natural expansions of the Barks canon. Of course, you could say something similar about Rosa's work, but these stories approach the source material from a completely different angle. At any rate, the salient point is that they're a joy to read. Indeed, while rereading "Too Late for Christmas" in order to write this entry, I was just boggled all over again by how fucking good it is. Let's see if I can articulate some of what's good about it (and, as always, pick some nits while I'm at it). It's actually kind of convoluted (it really needs to be read to get the full effect), so I'll just try to hit the especially important/interesting bits.


Actually, I think this illustrates a good deal of the appeal of these stories. This, of course, is Witch Hazel, who originally appeared in the DD cartoon "Trick or Treat" and subsequently in Barks' totally great adaptation thereof (the picture on the wall shows how HDL were dressed therein). Hazel was a cool character in the story, but she represented carnivalesque anarchy, basically--hardly a natural for a Christmas story, or as a candidate for experiencing Personal Growth. And yet, that's where she is and that's what she does and it works beautifully. It takes a certain all-too-rare kind of skill to both conceive of an idea like that and execute it well. Hazel also appears in Block & Fernandez's last story, "The Poorest Duck in Duckburg." It's very good, obviously (didn't I just get done singing this team's praises?), though not as good as this one.

Anyway, back in Duckburg...

Hey! Hey! Hey! All I'm saying is, if you're going to show the duck family with a dog, why wouldn't it be Bolivar? C'mon. "Humphrey." Hmph!

[Screams uncontrollably]

Actually, it's not that big a deal, I suppose, but really, it's pretty doggone jarring to see flippin' Goofy in a duck story, and not really in a good way. Yes, such crossovers happen, but it does rather break up the mood a little here, since this is not being presented as such a thing, and especially since only very minimal rewriting would have been required to have Gyro filling this role--right body type and everything--I cannot approve. Still, I think the impulse to fearlessly careen in unexpected directions is a big part of what makes these stories special in the first place, so even if it didn't work out quite perfectly here, I won't complain too much.

Anyway, one of the main threads of this story is that Donald wants to win the "best Christmas decorations" contest. But Gladstone.

Now, obviously, the way Gladstone's luck works is not wholly consistent, but still, this is a bit much. You notice that when he wins raffles, he at least has to buy a ticket. If he can just passively win everything just by existing, then he ought to just magically get everything in the world that is to be gotten--which obviously doesn't happen.

Anyway, Hazel stops by for general mayhem, not realizing that Halloween is over.

She loses her spellbook what gives her magic, and thus has to stay with the ducks. And here's where it gets possibly overly convoluted: crud, how are we going to get the spellbook back? Let's offer a reward! But for that, we need jobs! Okay.

Not that it's extraordinarily special, perhaps, but punchy dialogue like this is a good bit of what makes these stories work so well.

Hazel gets a job at a department store, and we get fun stuff like this:

Seems to fairly well--and humorously--capture the overly frazzled, consumeristic holiday atmosphere.

Ah, but Hazel has to learn what's really important.

The usual disclaimers have to apply here: as per usual in Disney comics, the poor people are more aesthetic objects than, you know, people. They're only there so the heroes can experience Personal Growth. There will be no interrogation of the socioeconomic roots of their problem--gotta avoid the suggestion that it might be in any way systemic--nor will there be any suggestion that there's any possible solution other than the magical (literally or figuratively) largesse of the more fortunate. Even Barks' generally exemplary "Christmas for Shacktown" is guilty of these things.

Can I note this and fully recognize that it's highly problematic while simultaneously liking it and finding it generally effective? 'Cause that's how I'm feeling. The fact that it involves so unlikely a character definitely helps. Mind you, the poverty on display here is pretty weak tea compared to that of "Shacktown," but that's pretty well always the case.

See, she uses the money that was supposed to be used for a "reward" to help the homeless people. The fact that it's not explicitly spelt out that this is what she's doing just makes it more effective.

Again, just wanted to point out some sharp, funny dialogue. The importance of good writing cannot be underestimated. Not that I need to point that out, given how many of you reading this are also writers.

Anyway. Some pyrotechnics, which are amusingly over-the-top, even with #$%#^ Goofy in the picture. Knock-down-drag-out Donald-vs-Gladstone fights are always satisfying.

...and there we go. Hazel gets her magic back and Donald and Gladstone are declared co-winners--except that Donald gets all the glory, because Gladstone's being chased around and zapped with dog biscuits(?). And the poor people get to be part of the economic system. Huzzah!

I realize that this summary may be a bit disjointed, but the story is complex enough that I think it's somewhat difficult to convey the whole feeling through a few isolated panels. It really demands to be read in its entirety.

Hey! you ask. Why is this going up so early? It's not Christmas for three days! That's because you're making an incorrect assumption. As I noted above, this isn't my Christmas entry; this is my War on Christmas entry. It's the most magical time of the year! The proper Christmas entry should be up on the twenty-fifth.

In all seriousness, I may be an irreligious sort of fellow, but I nonetheless value the spirit of the holiday a whole lot (when it's stripped of its materialistic trappings) and there are so many good Christmas stories that I feel it is a shame to restrict myself to just one a year.

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Anonymous Richie said...

One of my favorite things about this blog is the chance to encounter great stories by obscure artists, that I'd be unlikely to stumble across on my own anytime soon.

"A nation turns its lonely eyes to you" Nice writing, there!

Even though it indeed seems like you'd have to read the story to fully enjoy it, ain't that the case with pretty much every great one? I'd say you did a good job at raising interest in this one by showcasing the most interesting points.

Oh, and while I do not dislike Goofy (indifferent to him in comicdom, really) if he truly serves no purpose in the story other than providing his physical structure, that's a casting mistake, definitely.

...In a completely unrelated note, being mexican means I don't have access of any kind to Duck comics in my vicinity, so online shopping's my only hope. Any good collections of Barks/Rosa/Overall-Great-Duck-Stories you'd recommend? (English, please!) Thanks a bunch.

December 22, 2010 at 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Richie said...

BTW, Hazel's casting is an inspired move, while Goofy's may be not, yet...Hazel's later roles after "Trick or Treat" didn't place her with the Ducks; rather, most of her subsequent adventures paired her with Goofy, who didn't believe in witches or magical stuff, and it was up to Hazel to prove him wrong. I wonder if some of that was (perhaps unconsciously) considered when the duo decided to put both of 'em in this story.

December 23, 2010 at 1:50 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I have a question as to how Duck purists ought to view Donald's living conditions. Please forgive me if the answer to this is common knowledge. In a lot of the Mickey Mouse stories, Donald is clearly shown to live near Mickey and Goofy, and it is explicitly stated that Mickey lives in Mouseton. However, we all know that Donald and the other Ducks are most closely associated with living in Duckburg. Has there been any attempt to reconcile this two-hometowns issue, or are we supposed to assume that Mouseton and Duckburg border each other in Calisota and Donald lives close to Duckburg's border and Mickey and Goofy live on the border of Mouseton?

December 23, 2010 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Richie: thanks for the kind words--in fairness, though, I was quoting Simon & Garfunkel with the "nation turns its lonely eyes to you" bit. Thanks also for the info about Hazel--I honestly had no idea what her status was beyond the original cartoon and these comics.

As for comic collections, the upcoming Boom trade paperbacks look quite promising.

Christopher: actually, in all honesty, it's a silly debate to have; there's certainly no established "canon" regarding duck/mouse interactions. If I had to lay down some kinda law, I'd say it's probably the case that, for most artists, the duck and mice characters don't really *exist* in one another's "continuities" (an absurd word to use under the circumstances, I know). It was certainly the case that Donald and Mickey were frequently seen together in the old comic serials. However, over the years, a certain unwritten but very well-established separation has developed; yes, as I noted, there ARE plenty of cross-over things, but generally, ducks are ducks and mice are mice, even from artists who work with both sets of characters. And I know there are plenty of people other than me who vastly prefer the one over the other. So no, this story isn't breaking any kind of "rules," really; it's just an unusual thing to see.

December 24, 2010 at 1:54 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


Excellent review. At the time, Block and Fernandez seemed to be EXACTLY what American Disney comics fans were hoping for -- a pair of talented young creators (young by the standards of Rosa and Van Horn, I should say) who were enthusiastic about and committed to working with the Ducks. I know that a lot of Americans worked for Egmont and produced a lot of fine material, but B-F were working DIRECTLY for Gladstone, and that seemed quite significant.


December 24, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, I don't know if it's the same Ron Fernandez, but there *is*, I am told, a Ron Fernandez who is Head of Design in a San Francisco enterprise.

October 5, 2016 at 3:24 PM  

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