Sunday, December 20, 2015

"It's a Wonderful Christmas Story"

This Christmas, we will look at some Italian seasonal stories. The idea was that we were going to cover all Italian Christmas stories that have been published in the US, but given that that number has abruptly, like, quadrupled, it is no longer feasible. Which is a good thing! More cheer for all! Anyway, hopefully I'll get to at least one or two of the newly-published tales, but we will start with some ol' Gemstone material.

I'm going in order of least-favorite-to-favorite, so we start with this, a Romano Scarpa effort from 1998. Man, the what-if-you-didn't-exist part takes up only a small portion of It's a Wonderful Life, but when you know something is an It's a Wonderful Life take-off, you know that's the only part that's being talked about. Of course, the Italian title doesn't actually reference the movie; it is called “Mickey and the Sweetness of Christmas,” which seems very generic and generally a lot worse! Still, it is what it is. And I'll have more to say about that anon.

We open with a surprising slab of gritty realism. Mouseton's economy is in freefall, apparently. Was there some Italian depression in 1998 that I should know about? Certainly, this is a tone you don't see struck very often in Disney comics, though it's obviously here to set up the story.

Pete's plot: surprisingly diabolical! One of his best-ever, I'd say—and it works perfectly, too! Mickey would be totally fucked if not for his final change of heart!

Seriously, good job there, Pete! That was a really clever manipulation. I must say, it doesn't say anything good about Mickey that he just always automatically assume that Pete's actions can never, ever be anything other than diabolical. I mean, not that he's not mostly right, but what happened to the idealistic believer in human nature in early Gottfredson?

Really, how horrific must Mouseton's jail be if, after spending one night there, he's become so filthy and disheveled that everyone just assumes he's a transient and Pluto doesn't even recognize him?

But that was only the first part of the plan: to get Mickey out of the house so's Scuttle can sabotage his Christmas ornaments so's they blow up. Whee!

Again, a plan that worked beyond Pete's wildest dreams, though I must say, it requires Mickey's pals to be extremely lacking in the quality of mercy, such that this atypical behavior means WE'RE THROUGH, NO EXPLANATION PERMITTED. And at Christmastime, yet.

Well, on to the Wonderful Life stuff—here presented by the appropriately secular Santa Claus. It's obvious why this “what if you'd never existed?” stuff is so popular—it's an easy yet irresistible concept, and while it can be done well, it it's also well-suited for an extremely lazy, hackish writer (not that I'm accusing Scarpa of these things). It it has to be admitted, though: when you think about it for even a moment, it starts to look comically narcissistic: yeah, a world where I didn't exist couldn't would be a horrible, useless pile of dung, right? How could it not?!? “Your life DOES have meaning!” is a perfectly inoffensive message, and perhaps useful to keep in mind when you're feeling depressed, but it easily shades over into self-aggrandizement. And, let's face it, it's almost certainly not true that you, personally, were the only person who could do what you did. None of us are really that significant on our own, as much as we'd like to think otherwise.

Also—and I realize I'm just deconstructing the hell out of this for no good reason—you have to consider that you not having existed is going to change so many unforeseeable variables in the lives of those close to you that they're just going to be totally incomprehensible to you if you look at them. It's not going to be life-affirming, just baffling. But all that is neither here nor there. Let's just accept the basic premise, to the extent that we're able.

Well, this is it. In most stories, this would take up a lot of real estate, but here Scarpa squeezes it all onto one page, almost as if he just wants to be over and done with it. Let's go over each panel individually, shall we?

First Panel: So Casey's the chief of police. And this, I can only assume, is supposed to be bad because he's only semi-competent at best? But things like this are a good illustration why these scenarios seem so dubious: you can't just say “all things being equal, it would be bad if he was chief,” because all things are NOT equal. I would go so far as to say that zero things are equal. How do you know how he'd respond to this new position? Maybe he'd rise to the challenge! Hell, maybe he did; this panel doesn't actually suggest otherwise, we're just meant to assume it. But people aren't static like that, as much as a comic might want to make us assume otherwise.

Second Panel: Kind of interesting, this. As much as people like to go to the ol' “Goofy's not really dumb, he just things differently” bromide, that is not at all a consistent thing in practice. Here, his situation looks kinda pretty exactly like that of a person with mild mental disabilities who is able to live basically independently but nonetheless needs some light supervision, which he's not getting. There's a kind of poignancy here, and I think this is clearly the best of these little vignettes.

Third Panel: Mmm...seems like a bit of stretch. I mean, can you actually point to a story (in Gottfredson, preferably) where Mickey helped him “control his ego?” I guess I'll allow it, though it's pretty borderline. Anyway, it's not all bad: apparently Clarabelle's stuck by him.

Fourth Panel: A bit oddly-phrased: not “he was demoted to...” but “he switched to...” Was this a voluntary demotion? Without meaning to, Scarpa seems to be insulting O'Hara pretty badly. Without Mickey around, he's useless at solving crimes, so he's no longer chief. Sounds...fair? I mean, it may be a tad unfair to say that he solves all his crimes thanks to Mickey—since we don't see the ones where Mickey doesn't get involved—but probably not that unfair. Still, maybe Casey is a better chief than he was! You don't know!

Fifth Panel: Yeah...when it comes to the girlfriends of the suffering [male] heroes in Wonderful Life stories, it seems almost inevitable that their outcomes are going to be sexist as shit. Imagine how horrible her life must be without the one man who gives her meaning! Bah. I don't totally understand the narration box there: “when she's not seeing Mortimer...” When she's not seeing him, she's single? When she's not seeing him, she's teaching needlepoint classes? What's your point? And why are these things bad?

Sixth Panel: This one is just weird. Is it really taking an ultra-conservative “preschool is ipso facto bad!” position? I dunno, if that's the case—or even if it's just saying “preschool is worse than spending all their time with Mickey”—Scarpa undermines himself by making them look so happy. Also, don't you think they're going to make friends and experience social development that they wouldn't have otherwise? I feel like this really worked out pretty well for them.

Seventh Panel: Yes, okay, given that this character was introduced specifically to play this role in this story, I cannot argue with the results. But, again, he looks pretty happy with the whole situation.

Eighth Panel: Another super-weird one. OMG! My beloved house! And people I don't even know live there! This might make more sense if there had ever been any indication that we were meant to have a sentimental attachment to Mickey's house, but as it know, Mickey, whether you exist or not, they're presumably living and arguing somewhere! Your existence or lack thereof isn't materially affecting this in any way! I guess you have a point with the Pluto business, though. I could cavil, but it would not be in the spirit of the season.

So anyway, a real mixed bag. On the whole, certainly not all that memorable, though.

But don't worry, foax! The day is saved thanks to Pete's change of heart! If you kept in mind all the things Pete has done over the years—I recently read Gottfredson's “Mystery at Hidden River,” in which, among other things, he attempts to feed Clarabelle into a sawmill—something like this would not seem tenable. Is Pete a lovable antagonist, or just a psychotic one? Opinions vary! But what the hell, I like redemptive stuff like this, especially in a Christmas story.

BOY, sucks to be all those people with money problems who didn't randomly happen to save a banker's son, dunnit?

Sorry, the cynicism just wells up in me uncontrollably when faced with something like this. Hmph. Maybe instead, Scarpa could've taken another cue from It's a Wonderful Life, and had Mickey's already-existing pals help him out? Seems like a better idea to me.

I'm a sucker for concluding dinner-table tableaux like this, though. Interesting to note that these wordless cameos were the first time that both Trudy and Atomo appeared in the US. I like the fact that Pete, Trudy, and Scuttle are stealing the silverware, though I'm less enamored of the way the narration box feels compelled to call attention to this. It would be a lot more amusing without that. Note that Pluto there just looks completely stoned out of his mind. Also: why are Trudy and Casey slapping hands like that?

Well, never mind! I JUST got home, and I'm kind of too jetlagged to come up with a good conclusion to this entry! Not a transcendent story or anything, but YOU COULD DO WORSE! Probably. Expect more tomorrow, hopefully.



Anonymous Elaine said...

I agree on the implausibility of the reaction of Mickey's friends to the ornament explosion. I think Scarpa could have had them react less extremely and still have had Mickey's Christmas gathering appear to be ruined.

It also doesn't make sense that Pluto doesn't recognize Mickey because his clothes are a mess. Though I will say in Mouseton's defense that it's not a night in jail that reduces him to the appearance of vagrancy: it's getting near-smashed by the crane as he's saving the cyclist.

One of the things I find very irritating about "It's a Wonderful Life" is indeed the sexism behind the depiction of the wife's alternate life (which, may I point out, doesn't even make sense within the context of the movie's narrative--she has at least one other suitor she could have married, and her personality would not lend itself to that outcome in any case). So I was annoyed to see the same trope used here of Minnie. I did wonder whether Scarpa mentioned Mortimer, or whether that was David's nod to our awareness that she had at least one other suitor, even if not such an attractive one. I agree that as it stands, the meaning of "when she's not seeing Mortimer" in relation to the panel's depiction isn't at all clear.

December 21, 2015 at 12:07 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Good review; I didn't know that story.

About the "seeing Mortimer"… You know, my feeling about it is that Mortimer being mentioned must be courtesy of the translator; I might be wrong, but I don't recall seeing any Scarpa story with him, or really any significant Italian story with him in the role as Minnie's Gladstone Gander that he's well-known for in the U.S.. He appeared from times to time, but for instance contrary to Gladstone Gander, he's not the kind of character about whom you're going to wonder where he is if a story doesn't mention him. A Donald comic where Daisy is angry at Donald has 90 percents of chance to include at least a dialogue like "I'll go dining with Gladstone tonight, Donald ! Grr !", while Mortimer's existence is not addressed in most stories where Mickey and Minnie have an argument.

Similarly, I think that the "no dog by that name lived here" bit has been added in the translation, because it simply doesn't make sense, either. He never lived here ? Yeah, so what ? He probably found another master somewhere. It'd be weird if Pluto had happened to move to the house Mickey would have occupied even if Mickey had not adopted him…

December 21, 2015 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Monkey_Feyerabend said...

Hey, this is a "French" story!

December 22, 2015 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Huh, I hadn't noticed that. Interesting!

December 22, 2015 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

My time to shine :

I read this story years ago and while I can't find the copy at the moment (a lot of my issues of Disney comics went to basement to make space for books and such) I remember it well enough to make few observation about difference with the translation publish in Poland :

1) Morty and Fredies fate in "No Mikey universe". This one I remember 100% well cose I found it shocking at the time. In Polish version narration box clearly states that Because Morty's and Freddie mother couldn't take care of them on her own she had to put them in ORPHANAGE, which is the reason why Mickey's reaction is so shocked. It wasn't run by Pete mind you.

2)Horace... I'm not sure did any of this stuff appear in American publication but many of European stories did in fact turn Horace ("Flanerise" him as some would say) into a bit of a prankster, "let's get rich quick schemes" guy who likes to showoff. So yhe, In context of those stories this fate makes more seance. Not that much in Gottfredson universe as far I know.

3) Chief O'Hara was clearly DEMOTED in Polish version.

4) As far I recall there was no reference to Mortimer. Minnie was just lonely, but Mortimer was very obscure in stories Publish in Poland at that point so...

5)In the "E tu Plute?" panel Mickey didn't have a speech balloon.

As for the "It's a Wonderful life" tropes.... A month ago I was commenting on My Little Pony episode which made similar scenario (with a little bit more variant as characters actually time travel to alter their history)and I made this observation about the concept in general. For the sake of being lazy I'll just copy-paste it here, hope you find it interesting...

"Ok, time to say it... 'It's a wonderful life" scenario episodes SUCK! At least in context of a long running show [and comic books in this example]. Yes, it can be creepy as hell and there are some powerful emotion in seeing all your favorite characters entire past be alter in the worst way possible... But that's my point. It's somewhat dishonest to take well established, strong characters and say "See, just because ONE person didn't appear in their lives (or ONE event didn't happened) they ALL had no character on their own to make their lives work out for the better and now they are ALL miserable and depressed" (I'm talking when it's played straight, not the countless "without you our lives are now f--cking fantastic" parodies) It's just suck out all the third dimension from their personalities and feels horrible unfair to them. Wouldn't it be way more satisfying, hearth lifting and a stronger message to say - "Yes, their life are radically different in someways but they are still manage to work it out in a different way and they still have fine lives, cose they can be strong on their own?" AAAARH!!!!"

December 22, 2015 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Lugija said...

There's also the case of "Well Mickey (and many other characters in other stories set in established worlds) has saved the entire world dozens of times. Why isn't the entire world dead or under the Phantom Blot's/Pete's/Any one-off big villain's rule?"

Yeah, these scenarios usually fall apart with too many questions. Obviously they can be explained with whoever doing the showing just pulling the vision off their backside to cheer the person up.

December 23, 2015 at 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Much as I am irritated by the movie, I will say that the short story on which it was based has a more reasonable set of counterfactual scenarios--the movie hyped it up. And I do think the basic plot-line of showing someone "what if you were not" is a clever fictional version of the basic reassurance that you matter, you've made a positive difference in the world and in people's lives, you would be missed. And I think there *is* a basic human truth to that (for all but psycho/sociopaths), so I have no problem with the story-line itself. Even though it's true that it could well be the case that in other, unidentifiable ways, the people around me might actually be *better* off had I not existed!

In any case, the Wonderful Life story-line gave us "The Duck Who Never Was" and that story makes me very happy. If the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" were erased from the timeline, then there would be no "Duck Who Never Was"! A counterfactual world I want no part of.

December 23, 2015 at 11:18 AM  
Blogger Mesterius said...

Awesome to see you posting so frequently again! :) I just came by for the first time in a month and was delighted to find a whole handful of reviews I haven't yet read. Just one quick comment on this remark regarding Mickey's reaction to Pete as a charity collector:

"... but what happened to the idealistic believer in human nature in early Gottfredson?"

Um, have you *read* Mickey's encounters with Pete in early Gottfredson? :P (I know you have -- that was rhetorical.) As far as I recall, ever since their first meeting in the strip, Mickey would suspect Pete of foul play no matter how innocent he might seem ("Island in the Sky" is one prime example). As idealistic as Mickey generally is, it seems to me he makes an exception (as you say, with good reason) where Pete is concerned.

January 4, 2016 at 10:36 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Food for thought. Shouldn't the Mickeyless word be a dystopia run by the Phantom Blot or something?

September 25, 2016 at 3:57 PM  
Blogger elfolampo said...

Who knows, maybe it is a dystopia run by Pete, after all it's Peteston and not Mouseton in the alternate reality. Also, Goofy mentioning it's not even january might seem a non-sequitur, but it's probably a reference to italian's carnival tradition for practical jokes (usually in February).

August 27, 2023 at 5:23 PM  

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