Tuesday, October 31, 2023

"The Fabulous Fiddlesticks"

 Is this appropriate for Halloween?  Well...Venice is commonly associated with Carnival, and with disguise more generally.  There are lots of operas in Venice that take that as a theme: Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Korngold's Violanta, J. Strauss's Eine Nacht in Venedig, of course Britten's Death in Venice.  What point am I making?  That I like opera, and, not to brag, but I know the names of several operatic works.  I think that's public knowledge.  But anyway!  Sure, let's go with it.  Why not?

Man, I was hoping that that "Christmas in July" thing would be the start of me blogging here more regularly, but then I almost immediately had to go and get a job that involved relocating and, you know, doing a lot to get situated; it's not like I don't have free time, but you know how it goes.  Well, here we are.  Let's write about another old Western story.  I was thinking a bit about Bob Gregory, and thinking, man, I know I keep saying that he was generally the best of the non-Barks Western crew, but is that true?  What else can we look at?  And I have the impression that this is one of his more famous stories, based on the fact that I think that I've heard upwards of two people mention it, and in a semi-positive sense at that.  That's about as much positive press as you can expect this kind of story to get.  I did read this when I was small, though it never stood out in my mind as being that great.  Still, let's check it out.

And let us start with that title.  "The Fabulous Fiddlesticks."  Now, you can call a violin bow a "fiddlestick," even though that would seem kind of archaic and also you'd be unlikely to do it in a classical-music context, which this story is in, and also it never refers to violins as "fiddles" and also it has nothing to do with bows specifically, but...what point was I making?  Right, that title seems irrelevant.  Is it referring to something specific?  It sounds vaudevillian, but I can't be more specific than that.  Still, it's okay; at least it's something.  If Gregory was purely taking pleasure in messing around with words, that is a noble pursuit.

Ah yes, of course.  This is why it's so noticeable and refreshing on those occasions when Scrooge is shown to have interests that don't involve money: they're so dang rare.  Although, in fairness, as much sheer nonsense as it is, Scrooge's last line there is fun.  "Fats Percussion and the Bouillabaisse Five" indeed.  Too bad Rosa couldn't work that into the "Life and Times."

Man, that is some intense gatekeeping from Donald about "real classical music."  What are you playing at, Donald?  I guess there was that one Barks one-pager where he and Scrooge snuck into a concert.  Anyway, of course, "bad violin playing" is a comics staple.  Tubby's musical efforts are familiar to all.  Has anyone in a comic ever played a violin well?  Probably just for contrast.

I think the reason people like this story is that it does make a half-decent effort at having a historical basis that you can take at least semi-seriously, after the manner of Barks.  Though not AS good, obviously.  Is he involved in opium smuggling (I mean, "spice," but you know)?  Seriously, how fucking wild is it that Britain was like "fuck you, we're going to sell hard drugs in your country and we will FUCK YOUR SHIT UP if you try to stop us?"  That is some depraved shit.

Anyway, the story riffs on things that may or may not be true about Stradivarius violins, which, fair play, is a cool, unusual subject for a Disney comic, however you feel about the finished product.

Although to be honest, this characterization of Donald isn't really doing it for me, with this "you have to do what I say" stuff.  Where does it come from?  It somewhat resembles that Barks story where Scrooge enlists his services to get rid of excess money, but...eh.

And, I mean, seriously, it's mainly just used for this clunky-ass bit of plotting?  Why, pray tell, is Donald going to be utterly uninterested in this formula?  Wouldn't the very obvious conclusion be that it might have SOMETHING to do with the mystery at hand?  It's somewhat like the thing Barks did on occasion where he would slip a seemingly irrelevant detail into a story early on to have it pay off later (most notably the box of dirt in "The Twenty-Four Karat Moon"), but here it's just nonsensical and dumb.  Bah!  BAH, I say!

Man, Donald looks PISSED OFF there.  This is more than a lighthearted prank.  Dude, it's not "free labor;" he paid you ten or twenty-five cents an hour.  Well...except in "The Menehune Mystery," so I suppose fair play in trying to get him back for that.  Still.  I dunno.

...if this is meant to be a legally-binding contract, I don't think you can just insert extra provisions into it after it's been signed.  Still, I am not a lawyer.  Someone ask Devin Stone; maybe he'll make a video.

Did you know that Venice has been steadily losing its population over the past century because absurd volume of tourists is rendering it unlivable?  I learned that at the Seaplane Harbour museum in Tallinn, where they were--maybe still are--having a Venice exhibition.  Bah to that, though I can't deny the romance of the idea of Venice, anyway.  And I dunno, fair's fair, I like how the general atmosphere here, to the extent that there is one.  Well, more or less.  What's the deal with those...rodents overlooking the canal?  They look like chipmunks, but those are New World animals, aren't they?  Squirrels?  Stoats?  What are these enigmatic beasts, and why?  Do these exude characteristic Venetian ambiance to you guys?  Or was Strobl just kind of doodling whatever to add visual interest?  In fairness, that's more than a lot of these artists would've done.

Yes, I think that we can fairly say that the ducks wandering around and talking to locals to get clues is a bit Barksian. OF COURSE he's eating spaghetti!  He's Italian!  What ELSE would be be doing!  It's sort of comical how artless this story is in its efforts to add local color.

Okay, this is dickish and a bit questionable from a character standpoint, or maybe any standpoint, but Scrooge's reaction to Dewey's debridgication (depontication?) actually factually makes me el oh el.

All this stuff about European bridges being transported to America and American bridges being recreated in Venice...I feel like I should gesture vaguely in the direction of postmodernism here, but I'll leave it at that.  I also feel like I ought to bring up that thing with London Bridge being relocated to Arizona, but that postdates this story, alas.

First question: why are gondoliers in charge of dismantling the bridge?  That seems outside their wheelhouse.  Yes, because it's the only job that specifically makes you think "Venice."  Got it.  Second: if I know my stereotypes about gondoliers, I know they're supposed to sing "La donna è mobile" or something along those lines.  I mean, I get that it's important for us to know that they are in fact the gondoliers, but it seems like there might be a more artful way to put that idea across.  Perhaps.

Also, this low tide thing.  Sure, everyone on occasion writes stuff with no purpose other than to tread water and meet the desired page count, but rarely so egregiously as here.  Well, enjoy it.  It is art for art's sake.  Allegedly.

And now, we get to the part where everyone ostentatiously goes on about how horrifically worthless the wood actually is.  It IS an interesting little mystery in theory, but sort of goofy in practice.  How many substances do YOU know where people constantly joke about how worthless they are?  It's odd, is all.

...the story keeps acting as though hand-crafting a violin, "Pastradi" or not, is a trivially easy thing to do.  I know the idea is to create a contrast between "Pastradis are super rare and valuable" and "non-Pastradi's are comically worthless," but I think that that is a dumb contrast.  Are we supposed to think that with the varnish, you can make great violins, but without it, they're much worse than those made with other kinds of wood?  That would be pretty dang weird!  You COULD say it, though!  But the story never does.  So...bleh.

GOSH, maybe you could've saved yourself a HUGE amount of effort by not just refusing to pay any heed to that note back when you easily could've!  I don't know!  I'm just some guy!

...mmm.  I thought that that "water skiing concession" thing was just a feeble throw-away joke, but it turns out it was a feeble throw-away joke with an equally feeble payoff.  Hurray!  I do like how the Italian stereotypes are...complicated? confused? by the inclusion of some sort of avant-garde sculpture, when it could've been a more typical Renaissance-type thing.

Anyway, back to the States.  Fun, fun.  Okay, okay.  Let's do this...

...I mean, granted, the image would have more punch if rendered by someone with more Barksian artistic talent, but it's still pretty good, under the circumstances.  Clearly, an effort was being made.  It would be perfectly reasonable to call it the highlight of the story.

Then again, it might be this.  The specifics here really make it: "Lin Chin Salt Water Crayfish," "Marco Polo," "Royal Italian Marine Society."  You might wonder, well...do the crayfish still exist in China, maybe?  But the story is close enough to the end that we're not gonna worry about such things.

So my first instinct is to ask "how is it worth a thousand dollars if we've established that the wood is worthless?"  But then, in fairness, we do have to concede that Scrooge seems to be including the cost of the trip in the thousand dollars he owes.  But can he do that?  Shouldn't this have been established in the contract?  This, I fear, is what comes of writing and signing a contract with no legal representation present.  No one knows what they're doing so they're just playing by their own rules.  Do any of them "have" to be doing any of what they're doing?  Who knows!  The actual legal system is irrelevant! They're just doing weird play-acting in their own confused little world!  Hooray!

I don't know.  I like him insisting on being bashed with a board and then objecting to it.  Just setting up your own weird system of punishment and then complaining about it.

Yes, okay.  Comment on the relative convenience of this seems superfluous.  But I just have to wonder what the dang deal with the wood is.  All the Venetians were constantly going into convulsions of laughter over how commonplace it is, and yet Scrooge was unable to find any before Donald did by accident, and these guys weren't either?  It can't JUST be in Venice; otherwise these guys would have to have been able to.  SO...apparently it's in several places at once that are completely unaware of one another?  Argh; this is the sort of thing that happens with stories like this.  The vagueness and requirement to make wild inferences that then contradict each other is highly reminiscent of Scarpa, and not in a super-great way.  But it's what happens, I suppose, when you really don't have a firm grip on your story.

Well, at least I like Diagonal Donald and Nephews.  This seems to sort of call back to the feel of the title.

So what have we learned here?

[resounding silence]

Right, okay, that's what I thought.  Well, contrary to, maybe, a few people, I wouldn't exactly call this one of Gregory's better efforts, for whatever that's worth.  Obviously it's better than stories that he wrote after suffering some sort of severe head trauma or possibly just seeing a Great Old One and losing his mind, but it kind of points in that direction more than you'd like.  Still!  Now, improbably, I've written two thousand words about it.  You may think that's bad, but hey, YOU READ THEM!  Let's face it: nobody comes out of this looking good.

Still, on that note, Happy Halloween!

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Blogger Pan Miluś said...

This remind me to check your "Only Opera blog" more often.

Right... I will try to inject at least a little of Halloween spirit here:

It was a foggy midnight when Ghosts and Gobblins gather around in the shodowy hallway of the spooky "Black cat castle" beyond the pumpkin patch to ponder that:

[see next posts after this one]

October 31, 2023 at 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

What have we learned here? A fine expression, useful in times of exasperation: Flesh and feathers can stand no more!

Happy Halloween! I have handed out comic books to a few dozen trick-or-treaters, and now I am off to read a stack of classic Halloween comics myself. Then, on Thursday, my two Día de los Muertos comics. As I drive this week, I am listening to the Barks Remarks podcast episodes on Trick or Treat and Wispy Willie & Hobblin' Goblins, as well as this week's Hound of the Whiskervilles. Good times!

October 31, 2023 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Oh bother, I completely forgot to check if you'd updated on Halloween and now I'm uncharacteristically late to the party! (In my defense, I had a book coming out.)

Fun review as e'er, and does a good job of highlighting the frustrating mediocrity at which many of the “good” Western stories wind up sitting; the completely off-the-wall ones often end up more memorable than the capable but ultimately soulless Barks mimicry. (This is also why, within certain boundaries, I'll often take a random vintage Italian story over a random Egmont story in reading experience if not objective quality: the Italian ones are at least strange in unpredictable ways even when they're clumsy.)

But this *does* have its good bits. I concur with Elaine and yourself that “Flesh and feathers can stand no more!” is a highlight.

I think the two "mysterious rodents" are just a pair of somewhat unconvincing-looking rats, to add to the purported spookiness of the place.

November 4, 2023 at 3:55 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Congratulation on your comic book Achille Talon :) I knew your name will be big in European comic book world one day ;)

November 5, 2023 at 6:26 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Just a tip: If you are running short on Christmas stories to review for December how about something snow/winter-related like Rosa's "Kalevala" or Barks "Luck of the North"?

November 29, 2023 at 10:04 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Oh, there'll definitely be Christmas material coming up sooner rather than later. :)

November 29, 2023 at 12:20 PM  

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