Thursday, July 31, 2014

"The Menehune Mystery"

Man, my original plan was to go through the four issues of Uncle Scrooge that were issued as one-shots before it became it's own line--until I realized that, in fact, it was only three one-shot issues.  "The Menehune Mystery" is the start of the line proper.  In retrospect, it seems apparent that I was confusing Uncle Scrooge with John Stanley's Tubby.  This is an unfortunate situation because it prevents me from making the brilliant observation that, of the four original stories, this is the only one that didn't receive a Ducktales adaptation.  'Cause it ain't true!  Bah!  Humbug, also.

Well, never mind.  But here's the thing: at some point in the past, I'm pretty sure I've complained about the fact that people on inducks are seemingly incapable of distinguishing between Romano Scarpa's good stories and bad ones, which could lead the inexperienced reader to incorrect conclusions about his overall oeuvre.  Of course, this is not much of a problem for Barks, inasmuch as he wrote very few stories which are not at least okay.  BUT THE FACT REMAINS: as of this writing, "The Menehune Mystery" is rated the twenty-fifth best Disney story EVER on inducks.  AND THE OTHER FACT REMAINS: it's a pretty darn shitty story.  Sorry if I'm trampling all over anyone's sacred cows (there's a bizarre mixed metaphor), but any reading even partially unclouded by nostalgia reveals that it's one of the worst things Barks ever did.  One of the reviews on inducks says: "When we were kids my cousins and brothers always selected this as the best of Uncle Scrooge stories in our solemn yearly Disney Comic Contest."  This makes me seriously conflicted, because on the one hand I love the shit out of the fact that they had a solemn yearly Disney Comic Contest, but on the other…man, I think the panel of judges may not have been wholly competent to carry out their assigned duties.

The funny thing is, I didn't read this as a small fry, and when I DID read it for the first time, I thought it was pretty cool.  We will get into the reasons for that and more a little bit hence, but the basic problem is quite simple.  This is the second big ol' Scrooge vs. Beagles outing.  In the first one…well, do I need to say any more about the first one?  It was an epic battle in which Scrooge's abilities were tested to the very limits, he comes desperately close to total failure, and only wins out due to a terrific effort of will.  Whereas in this one, he is totally, consistently ineffective throughout but wins anyway because magic elves.  Well, then.

The story makes a bad impression right from the start: this isn't the first time Scrooge has flat-out cheated his nephews (eg), but it's certainly the first time since Barks had put serious thought into what kind of a character he wanted Scrooge to be.  Sure, the "earned it square" business is frequently more than a little flexible, but to see it flouted so blatantly, so early on--man, I just don't like it.  It irks me, especially as it's totally unnecessary for the story that follows.  If we wanted, we could make a sour comment in which we rhetorically ask how different this kind of willing slavery is, really, from the kind the Beagles eventually inflict on the ducks.  That might be kind of interesting if the comparison were stressed in the story.  But as it stands, it's just something I made up, and it's not really very interesting at all.

If you're counting, that's five hundred quattuorvigintillion, if we trust the nomenclature here.  That's a mouthful.  The recurring sixteen cents are kind of interesting--someone should write a meta-ish story explaining that, if they haven't already.

Is Scrooge really suggesting that the penalty for opening one of his spinach cans is death?  This whole story just has something slightly off about it.  That bottom right panel is pretty funny, though.

And there's all this absolutely interminable shit about Scrooge's shipping plan and the robots actually being Beagles and blahdy fuckin' blah.  One can perhaps discern the embryonic traces of later, better, "Scrooge transports his money" stories, but what we get here just isn't interesting.

…particularly because they make all these clever plans, and they all turn out to be completely useless.  There's no point to any of them.  It's just making time.

So our heroes spend most of the story as slaves, until they're saved by a helpful deus ex machina.  The thing is, though, there is a certain appeal to this, which is why I liked it the first time I read it.  It's so shocking to see them so reduced, you can't help but identify and think MY GOSH THIS IS AWFUL WHAT WILL THEY DO?!?!?  As emotional appeals go, it's not very sophisticated, but it's effective in it's own crude way.  It's why I liked it when I first read it--and the appeal obscured the large and obvious problems with the story.  On rereading it, however, I couldn't help but bring my critical faculties to bear--which does not do it any favors.

…and the thing is, I think it actually could work.  It's surely interesting to see a situation in which, in contravention of the normal conventions, our heroes are suddenly denied all agency.  But the story never goes anywhere interesting beyond the bare premise (it ain't exactly Twelve Years a Slave, is it?), and I really, really think it's important for them to regain some measure of control at some point.  It never happens, though.  

I mean, a story where our heroes are imprisoned and then rescued by good faeries is essentially a faerie tale.  Only in a faerie tale, the protagonists would be saved because they helped the faeries or otherwise did something to demonstrate their exceptional virtue.  But that isn't the case here.  The ducks are only the good guys by default.  Of course, when it comes to real-world slavery, that doesn't matter--monstrous evils must be remedied.  But here, given the kind of story this is, that really doesn't work.  There has to be a positive reason to like them beyond the tautological "we like them because they're the heroes."

There are three escape attempts: 1) Scrooge tries to climb the mountain but gets caught in shrubbery; 2) Scrooge and Donald try to climb it but get sick from eating too much fruit; and 3) they climb it but don't have a match.

These efforts are all just so bizarrely hapless.  it seems really, really obvious that Barks was totally on autopilot here.

…oh, and also, stuff with HDL trying to catch fish, which also seems incredibly pointless, save that it provides the opportunity for exposition, making the eventual menehune revelation marginally less weird.  The structure here is incredibly questionable at best.

Pretty flowers, though.  If nothing else--and there's really precious close to nothing else--"The Menehune Mystery" sure does look good.  As you may know, this story was written around the time that Barks married one Margaret Wynnfred Williams, and the idea for it was suggested by the future Garé Barks, who had grown up in Hawaii.  Probably one should avoid this sort of two-bit psychologizing, but it's just way too tempting here: it's common for creative people with unhappy personal lives to channel all their energy into their work; hence, you get stuff like "The Golden Helmet."  But then--when they're happy, and don't need an outlet--you get stuff like "The Menehune Mystery."  Does this theory hold up?  Probably not--if it did, we'd have to assume that Barks was miserable throughout most of his career--but it seems plausible that a rush of new love could've led him to take his foot off the gas a li'l with this one story.  Hell, if we wanted to really push it, we could suggest that the whole thing is a metaphor for how he was feeling about his life: buffeted around and abused by forces outside his control until--miraculously!--he's saved by what seems almost like a supernatural power.  A religious experience for the devoutly areligious Carl Barks.  Well hell, it's romantic, anyway, even if it doesn't do much to excuse the story.

I mean my gosh, even at the end here, when it seems like Scrooge could actually be taking charge a little bit--he doesn't.  He still needs to be rescued by Hawaiian spirits.  Bah.

However, to end on a positive note, I want to quote Geoffrey Blum (from the intro to this album, which does not appear to be indexed):

"Hawaiian Holiday" [Gladstone's alternate name for the story] suggests a more leisurely gestation [than Barks' usual MO]: it unfolds like one of Garé's landscape paintings, panning around the island, blocking in details of tropic fruit, fish, and foliage, and adding the fine brush strokes that bring everything to life: the hints of local color, the smattering of Hawaiian phrase, and the final gentle revelation of the menehunes. . . . His preceding Scrooge tale was a  cutthroat treasure hunt on the high seas; his next would be an excursion to Atlantis.  "Hideaway," like Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, is an interlude between two storm works: a sort of Hawaiian vacation.

I really appreciate this take, because I think it's valid, and it's an eloquent, charitable defense of the story--and, indeed, why not try to see the best in it?  It certainly tracks with what I wrote above about Barks' possible psychological state around the time of his marriage.  It doesn't change my overall opinion--I still think the story fatally flawed in terms of structure and character and more or less everything--but it provides me with a useful alternative hermeneutic, by which I can sorta kinda half-appreciate it nonetheless.



Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Well, your not alone.

While I woudn't call this story 'shitty" I never enjoyed it that much. Mostly cose I just didn't found it that interesting and I agree Scrooge and the gang being Beagles slaves goes into unplesant territory. I didn't cared much for the little people as well...

July 31, 2014 at 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't speak for other people, but I'm an artist myself (a cartoonist, writer, painter and poet), and for me that theory of artists turning in better work when they're unhappy is definitely NOT true. Typically I can't even get myself to work at all when I'm really feeling down, and the inability to work typically contributes even more to not feeling happy.

July 31, 2014 at 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story is... weird.I have read this story. And the best I can come up with for it is that it's pleasant. It creates this calm, relaxed mood, because the art on the island is so vibrant. I still think that the actual art for Barks was at its best during his earlier Scrooge work, rather than the Lost in the Andes period that many people assert.

But this is definitely a weird, meandering sort of story. I personally think this is a lot better than stuff like the Mummy's Curse, from a technical perspective. It just feels like the idea for a story that was come up with by someone who, to my knowledge, wasn't a storyteller.

To me it's proof that even with the weakest materials to work from, Barks could come up with something readable simply by putting his all in to the other aspects of the story. In this case, the mood and art. So I'm inclined to give this a pass, but it definitely is an oddball at its best.

July 31, 2014 at 7:01 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Hmmm. In Blum's essay in #4 of the Gladstone U$A series, he more directly credits/blames Garé for the latter part of this tale and its overall trajectory. The Hawaiian setting and the role of the Menehunes were her idea. Last paragraph:

"Left to himself, Barks might have chosen a setting and characters with more dramatic potential. His preceding Scrooge comic was a treasure hunt on the high seas; his next would be an expedition to lost Atlantis. But "Menehune Mystery" had become Garé's tale; we see it in every leaf and flower that she inked. In the end the tale simply rests, like Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, between two stormy works. It's a sort of Hawaiian vacation for Barks, his wife, and us."

I don't think it's fair to blame her for the story's mediocrity, of course, as I agree there are problems enough in the first 2/3rds of the story. Though this does raise the question of how much of the prettiness of the story's art is attributable to Garé rather than to Carl.

I did not read this story as a child, so I don't know how I would have liked it then. My guess is that I wouldn't have liked it all that much. I did like stories with smaller-than-Ducks peoples, but you don't actually get to encounter the Menehunes here. And the endless scenes of forced labor and futile escape attempts are pretty grim. I do wonder why some others rate it so highly.

I did read in childhood a story I liked very much, Carl Fallberg's "Pineapple Poachers," wherein Mickey and Goofy encounter the Menehunes on Hawaii. They speak in rhyme, so yeah, it's derivative of the Peeweegah story. But overall I think it's a much better story than "Menehune Mystery."

One thing only I will say in Barks' defense. I agree that the faeries should have a reason for helping mortals, like that the mortals help them or have shown their decency. Barks does give the Menehunes a reason to help--especially to help HDL. Opu Nui says, "They helped you [by building dams] because you little and tired! They no like bad haoles who abuse you!" So, though Scrooge and Donald may not have shown any particular virtue, the BBs have shown enough evil to put the Menehunes on their victims' side. And HDL get added sympathy by virtue of being "little." And it is their appeal to the Menehunes that brings in Deus Ex Machina Airlines.

July 31, 2014 at 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Gregory said...

I actually just read this story for the first time, in one of those Fantographic collections.

My reaction was basically the same as yours ... a meandering plot where everything the heroes try do do fails wretchedly, and then suddenly fairies! What? Why?

August 1, 2014 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


Never cared all that much for this story, either, but your review brought forth a whole raft of clarity as to why. Since Gare inspired various aspects of the tale, perhaps Barks was so focused on how best to fit those elements in that he paid less attention than normal to story structure.


August 1, 2014 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I agree with much of what you say, but somehow it seems callous to think that Barks had to be in a dark place emotionally to produce his best work.

August 1, 2014 at 7:58 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Callous? Heaven forfend. Just noting a phenomenon that sometimes happens with creative types. As noted, I don't think Barks HAD to suffer to create, but I think he'd probably agree himself that he took refuge in his art during the dying stages of his toxic second marriage.

August 1, 2014 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...


I figure, is it better to have Scrooge rescued by faeries (once), or have him rip-snort his way through every story like Don Rosa’s “Superman Scrooge”?

The best way is to have a mix, and this one entry definitely makes it a “mix”.

Shifting to another context, was there ever a more full-of-himself (not without some justification) hero than Captain James T. Kirk? Yet, when it was the innocent “Orgainians” who rose up to prevent the Klingon – Federation war (and not the great Kirk himself), in the classic “Errand of Mercy”, did we feel the same way as you seem to do about faeries rising up to save some imperiled Ducks? Kirk DID feel cheated of his victory, but we viewers did not.

And, besides, THIS story is WHY they were called “The Terrible Beagle Boys”!

There certainly wasn’t anything “terrible” about them in their own comic… unless you were referring to the Kay Wright art!

August 2, 2014 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Either I never saw that Star Trek episode or I just don't remember it (it's been a long time since I was an active ST fan), but I think an analogy is unlikely to convince me that this story is less lousy than I think it is :-)

August 2, 2014 at 12:06 PM  
Blogger Natteravn said...

Hmm..., I haven't read this story since a was a child, but the only thing I remember not liking about it then was that (in the Norwegian translation at least) they never explained what or who the Menehune WERE, instead they always referred to them as if everyone was aware of menehunes, like they were gnomes or trolls or something more familiar.
I'm curious though, what exactly is it you don't like about this story ? You mention again and again that the story is flawed, but then you just describe the plot without actually saying what you think is wrong about it. Also "There has to be a positive reason to like them beyond the tautological "we like them because they're the heroes."" Why does it have to be a reason, why do we have to "like" them anyways in order to enjoy the story?

April 13, 2015 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I'm a little nonplussed; I could certainly quote for you reasons from the entry why I didn't like the story, but...they're right there. Start with this:

In [Only a Poor Old Man]...well, do I need to say any more about [it]? It was an epic battle in which Scrooge's abilities were tested to the very limits, he comes desperately close to total failure, and only wins out due to a terrific effort of will. Whereas in this one, he is totally, consistently ineffective throughout but wins anyway because magic elves. Well, then.

...and go on from there.

As for why I think you should "like" the heroes...because they're the heroes? Because a putative adventure story with no heroes to root for isn't much of a story?

April 13, 2015 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger Natteravn said...

But again, you are just describing the story, not what you think is wrong about it, yes he is ineffective throughout and wins due to magic elves, but why don't you think this is a good way to tell a story ? To me, that's sounds like a good story right there.
"As for why I think you should "like" the heroes...because they're the heroes?"
Yeah, I was a bit confused as to whether you were referring to the menehunes or the readers, but still, not every story has to have a likeable hero, sometimes it's the situations themselves, like in this one, that makes the story compelling.

April 13, 2015 at 12:11 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I suppose if you think a story where the protagonists are completely ineffective and "win" due to nothing more than convenient deus ex machina is interesting, I'm not likely to dissuade you, but for purposes of comparison see: pretty much any other Barks adventure story. The distinction should be pretty clear.

April 13, 2015 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger Natteravn said...

Yeah, there's a clear distinction, of course, I just don't feel it's a negative one. Always liked both kind of stories, don't think one is better than the other, just differently "flavored", these kind of stories give me very different emotions and feelings than Barks regular adventure stories. Your description, minus the "win", could also be applied to most of Franz Kafkas work, for instance, and there it's precisely the ineffectiveness of the protagonists that appeal to many of his readers. I suppose it resonates with the feeling many people have of inadequacy. And I feel it's kind of unique for a Duck story as well, which is always a good thing in my eyes.

April 13, 2015 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Mmm. I like Kafka fine, but I think it somehow unlikely that Barks was going for a sense of existential futility, nor do I think he accidentally hit it in any effective way. But let a thousand flowers bloom &c.

April 21, 2015 at 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Blitz said...

The gag about being thrown overboard wasn't about the penalty for opening a can. At the time, it was a cultural trope that no one liked spinach. The implication is that the crew would throw the cook overboard if he tried to feed them spinach. Scrooge is being funny.

I rather enjoy this one. I first read it back as comic album #11 from Gladstone, and I though it was a pretty epic yarn. From the tumultuous voyage over to the imprisoned life on the island itself, the backdrop of Hawaiian Hideaway (sorry, can't do this "Menehune Mystery" stuff) is a spectactual to behold. Packed with detail, care, and authenticity, you can feel Unca Carl paying tribute to his soon-to-be wife Garé's homeland.

Yes, the menehune ex machina is irritating. It was one thing for them to help the kids catch fish, but bailing them out at the end was pretty lame.

But it still doesn't spoil the atmosphere overall. Scrooge and Donald's treks through the jungle to light a signal fire are always highlights to me. Perhaps it's just my nostalgia, but alongside Sunken City and Poor Old Man, this stands near the top of the list of Barks' earliest Scrooge stories. Who doesn't enjoy a nice little vacation to Hawaii with the gang?

November 12, 2020 at 9:07 AM  

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