Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Island in the Sky"

Big thanks to David Gerstein for donating to Japan relief. David is trying to indoctrinate me into the world of mouse comics, so he asked me to write about a Gottfredson continuity, "Island in the Sky." Once again, I find myself doing something that falls well outside this blog's purview. But it's cool; I don't mind.

Well, I'll get to that eventually--this request will have to wait until I have obtained copies of the most recent issues of WDC in which the story was reprinted (yeah, I could find it online, but as far as reading goes, having the physical book is always preferable for me). So in the meantime, let's look at the Barks story of the same title, because why not?! I know a lot of people aren't too fond of it, but I have always regarded it with significant affection, for its cool science-fiction premise and for its portrayal of Scrooge. Also, reading this as an adult, I had that cool experience that you sometimes have: I had absolutely no recollection of it at first, but as I read, I started to realize, hey, wait a second--this seems familiar! And yet, I hadn't the faintest idea where it was going or what the conclusion was like until I actually got there, at which point it all came flooding back. I love it when that happens.

The story starts by thumbing its nose at the very idea of "continuity" in the duckiverse, as Duckburg is abruptly made over as the City of the Future. I really like the matter-of-fact way the caption box tells us that, oh, yeah, science in Duckburg is much better than it is in all those other crappy cities. Say no more!

Naturally, Scrooge has Big Plans. If it needed emphasizing, this really hammers home the fact that, for him, "money" as a signifier is entirely divorced from what it traditionally signifies--ie, spending power (then again, that's really not too different from today's tax-cut-hungry investment bankers). Good luck actually using that stuff when it's way up in the outer reaches of the solar system! But for Scrooge, of course, that's not a problem. You would think there would be other problems, however: specifically, with your money so far away, how would you possibly ever know if someone was sneaking out to steal it? And even if you could come up with some sort of surveillance system, actually stopping these hypothetical thieves would be none too easy.

Yes, an asteroid. Note that, in spite of all their technological advancements, Duckburgians still seem to have a very limited conception of "the universe." Also, here's one of my favorite Barksian phrases: "Oh my stars and little comets." I'm not certain that it originates with Barks, but I think it does--tell me if you have evidence to the contrary. Thinking this pleases me, because when you google it, you get a lot of results that don't refer to Barks at all--not that it's exactly ubiquitous, but it appears to have penetrated the popular culture to that extent.

Naturally, Scrooge gets the cheapest ship--though I have to say, it still looks pretty sweet to me. Also note the continuation of his perplexing unwillingness to make short-term expenditures even when they would very likely be beneficial in the long run--what if the ship breaks down and they have to go back and try again from the top? Might as well just make a cheery bonfire of money! Let me also note that he would almost certainly be dead by now if he always insisted on cutting things absolutely as tight as they can possibly go. All this isn't exactly criticism on my part; I'm just noting one of the central paradoxes of the character. Also, note the similarities between "I'll figure to the pint just how much I'll need" and the well-known short story "The Cold Equations," which does indeed predate this comic. The parallels don't go much deeper, however, as Scrooge's calculations prove to be not that exact after all--and, really, how could they be, given that he doesn't have any way of knowing how long finding an appropriate asteroid will take him. In these circumstances, the idea of figuring things out "to the pint" is kind of nonsensical.

Here's another instance of short-term thinking: if you're gonna go on a jaunt like this, you're gonna want to be in the best physical shape possible, because who knows? Limiting yourselves to a diet of crackers and water isn't likely to help in that regard--also, although an exact timeframe is never specified, we know that this is a multi-month trip, meaning that scurvy would be a real problem (no, real-world ducks don't get scurvy. Real-world ducks also can fly, and they have terrifying genitalia. What was your point again?)--there was a REASON to bring that orange juice along, Scrooge!

On the other hand, I like how they're wearing magnetic shoes to deal with the lack of gravity--and this is never explicitly noted in the comic itself. good eye for detail in that regard, at any rate.

Check out the cool asteroids. Seriously: really cool. An' take THAT, Earth-exceptionalism!

(I wanted to say "geocentrism," but that obviously has a different meaning.)

After not finding what they're looking for, they do reach this Space Eden, which is just plain cool, and we are simply not going to think about how this could possibly be possible. It's also a big relief after all those months of only having crackers to eat, which I imagine at the very least would make you develop a gag reflex.

There's also this smaller asteroid in the big one's orbit. It has birds, and it's also cool to think about what their migration patterns must be--I mean, they must spend part of their time on this one and part on the other. And we see Donald having a sensible thought--as I believe I've noted elsewhere, he's often the voice of reason in these Scrooge adventures, as opposed to his own ten-pagers, in which flying off the handle is par for the course. The fact that he's patting the bird just really completes the scene, somehow.

Oh, but there are natives here. Sure, it would be easy to get offended, but that would be mostly wrong-headed--sure, the portrayal isn't entirely devoid of paternalism, but the main focus is the ducks' initial and quite unjustified low-level xenophobia and condescension. Also, note that, for some terrifying reason, they brought along a high-caliber handgun (okay, so Donald's not entirely sensible)--as you'll realize when you think about it, going on adventures armed is not really part of their usual MO, and bringing a firearm on a space mission seems particularly ill-advised--one accidental discharge, and there's gonna be Big Trouble.

Point is, Donald scares off the birds with his imprudent gunplay--and the natives rely on having their eggs to eat, so if they don't come back, there will be serious problems. More fun speculation: how the heck can the Guidebook possibly tell how to translate alien languages? Well, if Rosa's "Guardians of the Lost Library" is to be believed (spoiler!), the Guidebook is actually a distillation of the knowledge from the Library of Alexandria. Clearly, the aliens that stopped by to help out with the pyramids also left behind some handy linguistic tips. Whee!

Here's another thing I like: the scenario of paradise so close yet totally inaccessible is piquant--the sort of thing that could make a great story in itself.

The way you can see Scrooge's brain working without him saying anything is well-done…

…as is the fact that he doesn't even say anything; he just does what must be done. I think his capability for occasional humanitarian impulses is too often forgotten about, which gives it all the more potency when you see it here.

Yes, okay, describing them as "monkeys" is undeniably problematic. But the denouement is just plain swell.

And it's in for a penny in for a pound--having sacrificed so much already, Scrooge apparently figures, aw hell--why not also spring for seven-thousand-dollar hot dogs and five-thousand-dollar soda and coffee?

As I said, I know some people dislike this story; if they could tell me why in comments, I would appreciate it. 'Cause in spite of my relentless nitpicking, I think it's pretty fantastic. Will the MM-based "Island in the Sky" match up? Find out in the not-too-distant future.



Blogger Joe Torcivia said...


I think you’ll find that Gottfredson’s “Island in the Sky” (…or as I knew it: “Mickey Mouse on Sky Island”) may very well be the best Mickey Mouse story of all time!

I don’t say that lightly, as the runners-up would include the original Phantom Blot adventure – and 1964’s “The Return of the Phantom Blot”, the single story that made me a Disney comics fan for life!

Also note: There are MANY DIFFERENT versions of this story in print, with differences both MAJOR and MINOR. You may do well to identify the source of the story, when discussing it.

Honestly, I’ve never noted a particular dislike for Barks’ “Island in the Sky”. Perhaps there exists a negative feeling toward his sci-fi efforts in general… but no singling out of this story in particular in any conversation or exchange I’ve had. Though, the comments here may prove otherwise.

Me? I LOVED IT – and still do! One the PLUS SIDE, I first encountered it in a “new” copy of Walt Disney Comics Digest in the spring of 1968… just about the time the main UNCLE SCROOGE title was demonstrating a very slight decline in the wake of Barks’ retirement. Said decline WAS “slight” at that particular time (“Dragon’s Amulet” and “Battle of Marathon”, both released in early-to-mid 1968, were good) – but a REAL decline was inevitably coming… leaving us to about a decade-and-a-half of Barks reprints in the UNCLE SCROOGE title.

On the MINUS SIDE, it was reproduced in a size smaller than I’d ever care to read again with my current pair of eyes! Yet, from that day, it remains one of my favorites.

If this story has a sizable number of detractors (beyond the sci-fi detractors in general), I’d suspect it is due to its “out-of-continuity” nature.

I’m the first one to admit that continuity has its place. In my comics scripts, you’ll find me adhering to it at every turn. (Barks, Rosa, and others.) But, DC Comics might have categorized this one as an “Elseworlds” – and that’s how I view it.

Beyond that, my reasons for loving this story pretty much reflect yours!


March 21, 2011 at 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed this story when I first read it; it was a nice change of pace from the usual 1950's duckburg. Seems to me it holds up well even today.
But damn you for that duck genitalia link; it can't be unseen!

March 21, 2011 at 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Richie said...

"In 1983 two of the greatest Disney legends, Floyd Gottfredson (Mouse Man) and Carl Barks (Duck Man), were interviewed together and asked to name the favourite story they had written. Gottfredson explained that his favourite was Island in the Sky (ran as a newspaper strip from 1936 to 1937)), a story based on a secret atomic-power formula. Then Barks astonished everyone present by announcing: 'The one I like best now after all these years in looking back over the whole chain of them that I did, was Island in the Sky'! Barks was referring to his own story in U$29 which, by pure chance, had the same title as Gottfredson's story..."

Yes, I know Barks' "favorite" story varied, as he gave different answers through the years, and gravitated towards "Lost in the Andes" anyway, but this is still pretty cool info, and what better time to share it than now?

Ducks got balls. Video of the day. I don't know if I'm terrified or amused as hell. At any rated, I laughed out loud.

I haven't read the story just yet, but it won't be long before I do; seems to be a very imaginative and well-put tale, where storytelling and wild imagination go hand to hand to provide us with an unique piece in Carl's library. Perhaps the "screw continuity" aspect of it could offend some purists, but at heart, it seems Barks put his mind and soul into this story.

The beak means otherwise, but that could be Donald petting a RL duck right there. Neat.

March 22, 2011 at 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Swamp Adder said...

Catching up on this blog late; I'm glad you posted about this story, because it's one of my favorites. One other little detail I like about it is the space suits the ducks get to wear: the first few times I read the story I thought it was just a silly inaccuracy (obviously half a space suit isn't going to help you very much in a total vacuum) -- but then I realized that it's actually a visual gag. The ducks normally don't wear pants, so of course they don't wear space suit pants either. That's what I like about this story: it may not be scientifically plausible, but it runs on its own kind of fantasy logic.

April 2, 2011 at 12:36 AM  
Anonymous Glasgow Kid said...

On the one hand, I admire Don Rosa's efforts to create a Duckburgian continuity where everything is connected and fits together.
On the other hand, I LOVE it that Barks just gave a sh*t and let his imagination run free.

February 2, 2018 at 12:13 PM  

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