Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Bird-Bothered Hero"

In comments on Ducktales 3, Joe cited this 1969 story--by the dream team of Kay Wright and Vic Lockman--as a candidate for previous Worst Disney Comic Ever. Joe tends to be way more positive than I am about these things, so his "endorsement" really carried a lot of weight with me, and it was necessary to immediately figure out what was what.
Of course, this is by necessity a fairly arbitrary judgment--and you really have to define what qualities you're weighing most heavily, which will necessarily differ from those that others choose--but…well, it's certainly not good, though it does dramatically demonstrate the essential rudderlessness of American Disney comics post-Barks. Not that there wasn't plenty of dreck published during Barks' tenure as well, but after his retirement, it sort of became de rigueur, even if today's offering is worse than most.

"Bird-Bothered Hero." I actually quite like that title. Sounds kind of Homeric, doesn't it? Ox-Eyed Hera, Wine-Dark Sea, Bird-Bothered Hero. But...that's about as far as the "praise" portion of this entry goes.

So the idea is the kids are doing some kind of Junior Woodchucks bird-calling thing, but Donald is unhappy with this, and really, how strange is that first panel? I mean, for all his weaknesses, Lockman had worked with these characters enough that he had a pretty reasonable idea of how--basically--they could be expected to behave. So what's with all the wak-ing? Why is he sounding like cartoon-Donald? I suppose we could posit that the ending 'wak's are there for wordplay purposes--to resonate not only with the initial 'wak' but also the one in 'waking.' I think that's giving the story more benefit-of-the-doubt than it deserves, however. Alternatively, we could suggest--and I find this substantially more plausible--that they're there because the balloon had been placed, there was a screw-up that resulted in there being an extra line, and new text was needed to fill it. Hence, wak! wak! wak!

There's more evidence that such tomfoolery might have been going on:

Note the way HDL have suddenly reverted to caveman-speak. If you REALLY wanted to defend this story (um…could I ask why?), you could note that dropping the article doesn't necessarily make it improper; that's something that you would do also for Cub/Boy Scouts, never mind the fact that you simply don't for "Junior Woodchucks." But I think the more likely solution is that adding a "the" would've pushed "junior" onto the fourth line, and there wouldn't have been quite enough room for the entire name to fit. So, once again, we get the elegant solution of just mutilating the dialogue as a whole. This thing just screams "effort," doesn't it?

It is hardly unprecedented for Gyro to come up with convenient inventions just as they're needed, but I feel like this one might set some sort of land speed record for that particular contrivance. I mean jeez, the nephew is barely able to finish vocalizing the desire before--mirabile dictu!--it is at hand! Not even a panel break. Really, now.

As a side note, I think Gyro is a hard character to write well: sure, he was sort of gimmicky from the start; an inventor because that provided a wide range of possibilities for Barks to crank out four-page stories, but in his hands, they often ended up possessing much more weight than you would expect from such things. Whereas, lacking Barks' gifts, other artists avail themselves of the same gimmickry, but rarely turn it into anything especially arresting.

Anyway, so, uh, Donald accidentally half-swallows the whistle. Can you imagine how much momentum there would have to have been for it to get lodged in his throat? Forget about choking; the impact alone would probably have serious, if not actually fatal, consequences.

…but no, he just gets "a funny feeling in [his] throat," to be remedied with soda. Yeah, okay. Fine.

And, of course, now breathing causes him to summon birds, including this carrier pigeon! Can't you almost just hear Lockman here? Oh man, gotta get this done, need a plot, bird! Message! Map! Okay! I suppose the idea is to introduce all this in such a rush that the reader doesn't even have time to ask: what? No dice on that, I'm afraid.

Actually, I like that image, if only it weren't connected to its story's ungainly, whipsawing plot. It helps that Wright only has to draw the ducks in silhouette.

Then, uh, this. You may be reminded of the ducks getting lost in a fog and falling down a hill in "Lost in the Andes." Then, you may feel shame at comparing "Bird-Bothered Hero" to a Barks classic. Hopefully, you won't wonder how it could possibly have been necessary to send the agent a map to the boat via carrier pigeon. Or why Donald's reaction at having fallen like this appears to be a sudden bout of clinical depression.

Bonk! Scrape! Bash! That is one intense impact! But wait: how 'bout Donald in the second panel? Can we have a close-up?

RAAAAAARR! As you can see, in his rageful glee he has grown a second pair of eyebrows. That's some goooood art-workin' right there.

Oh, yeah, and he coughs up the whistle at the end, as Gyro pounds him on the back hard enough to dislocate his shoulder. And here we are.

Bad, yes, but it's actually easy to envision how this same basic plot could've been good. Just imagine if Van Horn had done a story like this in the early nineties. The differences between that and this, however, are that A) it would've had better art; and B) Van Horn would've gleefully played up the absurdity of the scenario. Whereas the version that exists only plays up the "we need seven pages by five o'clock" of the scenario.

Actually, I think I'm gonna still give my personal favorite, "The Tommy Moccasin Trail," the nod over this one in the Disney badness contest. But really, it all comes down to what you're looking for. One is forced to concede that that story actually tries to make a point--it's a dumb point, incompetently made, but at least there's artistic intent, of a sort. In "Bird-Bothered Hero," there's only "oh shit--deadline's coming" intent. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Daan Jippes re-draw.

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Blogger Joe Torcivia said...


Wow! Ask and I shall receive! “Bird Bothered Hero”, served up on a plate and ready to go!

Taking half a second to analyze WHY I have held this one is such infamy for so long, you have to consider the STEEP AND SUDDEN DECLINE the DONALD DUCK title had undergone to get to this point.

Three years or so prior, it was drawn exclusively by Tony Strobl, its stories were a mix of contributions by Vic Lockman (when he was pretty good – think “Og’s Iron Bed”, reprinted more recently by Gemstone), Carl Fallberg, Bob Gregory, Bob Ogle, and who knows who else.

Beginning with the first issue released in 1967 (# 112), the title adopted a rigid format of a 14 page lead, the annoyingly juvenile (even for a KIDS’ comic) “Gold Key Comics Club” for the four-page centerfold, the four-page GOOFY guest story, the text story page, a seven-page Donald back-up (of which “Bird Bothered Hero” was one), and the two final pages were also devoted to that damned “Gold Key Comics Club”. And, no… my view of the “Gold Key Comics Club” is not that of a jaded “adult fanboy”. I despised that unwelcome intrusion into my favorite line of comics from the day I first saw it as a young reader.

Then again, that issue DID introduce Moby Duck, a fairly entertaining character (when handled correctly), who was viable for years, so it was still pretty good.

The period of 1967-1968 was pretty much issues like these – Lockman and Strobl working in the abovementioned format, changed-up by an occasional gem like Barks’ “Pawns of the Loup Garou”, originally drawn by Strobl from Barks’ layout. While not as good as the pre-1967 issues, they were still all right, with some true standouts.

More to come in the following comment...

August 14, 2011 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Now for Part Two, as Blogger won't let me do the whole thing in one shot:

The first issue released in 1969 (# 124) changed everything! Same format, but the two Donald stories were drawn by Kay Wright, who would mix on and off with Strobl into the early seventies. (The less said about the issues that FOLLOWED Strobl’s departure to work for the Disney Studio Program, the better!)

The Wright stories in that issue were reasonably entertaining, mitigating the jarring change in art somewhat, and the Goofy filler was uncharacteristically drawn by Paul Murry, giving the issue some needed familiarity.

As with 1967-1968, these 1969 issues were still “okay-to-pretty-good”, and we had Barks’ “Officer for a Day” (with a Barks cover) in # 126.

Then comes # 127 with a “generously-granted-kinda-okay” Lockman / Strobl 14 page lead, that telegraphed its ending miles in advance, but eked its way into the plus-column with an unusual appearance by Goofy in the main story. Closing that book was “Bird Bothered Hero”, with all the cited faults – PLUS the one you left out… uncomfortably large lettering, which had ALSO just begun not that many issues ago.

For a look at how these stories were lettered at their best, check the work of a letterer whose name I believe was “Rome Simeon”. Check “Og’s Iron Bed”, or any story published around that time, and compare it with this oversized ugliness. The way I have always identified this good letterer’s work is to say that he was the one who lettered Paul Murry’s stories, when Murry didn’t do it himself.

And, the STORY! Aw, c’mon! Of ALL the comedic possibilities to be had with Donald swallowing a souped-up, super bird-whistle… THIS is where they went? Falling from the sky onto the deck of a spy boat in the midst of some unconvincing fog?

You rightly mention what Van Horn would have done with this. Back then, putting it in a more ‘60s media context, I wondered how the great Michael Maltese would have handled this in an “Augie Doggie” cartoon – with poor ol’ Doggie Daddy swallowing the whistle to great comedic effect.

But, nope… falling from the sky onto the deck of a spy boat! Yeah, THAT was the way to go!

And you did me the greatest favor by reproducing the four-panel sequence where the boat emerges from the fog and Don huffs-and-puffs calling down what should have been a Hitchcockian flock of seagulls that crash the boat.

That was the SINGLE WORST sequence of panel art I had ever seen in a Disney comic book up to that point. Decades before the legendary DuckTales” # 3 would find a way to eclipse it!

So, take bad story, bad art, bad lettering, …and an incomprehensible decline in quality from not only the previous year – but even the previous issue, and you have my recipe for “Worst Disney Comic Ever”

…That is, until NOW, folks!


August 14, 2011 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...

Joe and Geo,

Gotta love the "rapid ribbon of exposition" that the spy master gives us after Donald falls into the boat. SPEED RACER couldn't have spewed forth that spasm of info any better (or worse?).

In addition to the "double eyebrows" bit, notice that Dewey is drawn (in the scene in which the device falls into Don's mouth) with only the tops of his oval eyeballs showing. That looks pretty peculiar to me, almost as if Dewey is squinting. Recall that Barks typically drew the boys' "eyeballs from a great distance" as simple dots. Not all THAT egregious, to be sure, but odd enough to be distinctly noticeable.

Despite its poor quality, and Geo's believable suggestion that this was a rush job, "BBH" possesses some artistic integrity that DUCKTALES #3 lacked. KW's art was terrible, but at least it was ORIGINAL and didn't use any clip art, Photoshopping, etc. That is what I believe DT #3's ultimate legacy will be -- that kaboom! didn't even have enough integrity to fulfill its responsibility to provide "honest" material.


August 14, 2011 at 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

OK, this is far from the most significant lapse in believability in this script....but, you say one wonders "how it could possibly have been necessary to send the agent a map to the boat via carrier pigeon." I'm wondering how it could have conceivably have been *possible* to do so. Don't carrier pigeons only go home to their roost? They can't just be trained to find a particular person. Is it thinkable that said undercover agent lived where the pigeon roosted? That would be a great way to stay undercover, to live with a bunch of carrier pigeons.

I know, I know, I'm putting more thought into this than the writer did.

August 14, 2011 at 11:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Being a hack used to a be profession in comics. *sigh* Days long gone by.

August 15, 2011 at 2:53 AM  
Blogger Pete Fernbaugh said...

Y'know, the first UNCLE SCROOGE I ever read was #192..."classic" Whitman-era stuff. At the time, I was young enough to still think the stories were "okay." They lacked life, were a bit routine and monotonous, but okay.

With a little Disney-comics perspective under my belt (and hundreds of Barks and Rosa stories later), I can spot their flaws from a bird's-eye distance. I've often thought, though, that the plot PREMISES on these Gold Key/Whitman stories weren't all that bad, and given fewer editorial constraints, a bit of executional care, and a capable writer/artist, they could be turned into something quite enjoyable.

Imagine that! Remakes that would actually IMPROVE upon the original material.


"Bird-Bothered Hero" should be scrapped entirely. It seems like Lockman cobbled together his story scraps to meet, as GeoX says, the 5 p.m. deadline.

That said...

"Bird-Bothered Hero" would make an EXCEPTIONAL ARCHIE story... :-)

August 15, 2011 at 9:59 AM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Sadly, we just lost a major figure from that era of comics.

August 15, 2011 at 3:38 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Rereading some of your old posts, I thought about this line of yours: "Forget about choking; the impact alone would probably have serious, if not actually fatal, consequences." Maybe the fact that a Disney Duck's beak is made of tougher stuff than mere human flesh is at play here.

January 8, 2017 at 1:51 PM  

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