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Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Don Rosa in Review – The Complete Captain Kentucky

Here’s the truth: I wrote The Pertwillaby Papers review without ever intending to do a follow-up with Captain Kentucky, Don Rosa’s semi-sequel-but-actually-just-a-dream newspaper strip. I knew I would have serious problems if I tried. But the more I thought about it, the more I could not justify to myself why I wouldn’t say something about the comic. I knew I was going write about the third volume in the set when it came out. So why didn’t I want to write about this one?

It took me a little while, but I realized why I was so resistant to the idea of reviewing it. While I have quite a lot to say about the contents of the book as a whole, the strip itself is a puzzle, and one I could not solve.

So here is one of the strangest things I’ve ever written: four reasons why I’m not reviewing Captain Kentucky (and a review of everything else in the book to make up for it).

Why I’m Not Reviewing Captain Kentucky

1. I’m Not From 1970s Loo-uh-vuhl

Captain Kentucky Episode 96

The premise of Captain Kentucky is that Lance Pertwillaby is Captain Kentucky, a well-meaning and comically destructive superhero set in the real world Louisville, Kentucky. The real world meaning real Louisville landmarks, celebrities, and current events at the time of the comic’s setting, 1979 to 1981. It’s very tightly bound to real events, real places, and real people. Reading Captain Kentucky, I am in the position where I’m not just disassociated from a very specific setting, but a very specific time period.

In effect, reviewing this comic strip is like asking me to research and report on the veracity of the claims contained in a travel brochure for Pompeii before the volcano erupted.

2. The Format

Captain Kentucky is written in a format that I can’t categorize. It’s not written like the newspaper strips I love, such as Mickey Mouse, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Peanuts, or even The Pertwillaby Papers. A typical Captain Kentucky strip was published weekly in the Sunday papers, half a page per strip, with the occasional full page episode. And it’s difficult to talk about precisely for that reason.

Captain Kentucky Episode 18

There are stories being told in Captain Kentucky, but the strips fall in to a strange hybrid between standalone and continuity-based storytelling. It’s a strange feeling, where I’ve read some four to eight pages of a storyline, only to start reading the next page and think, “Ah, okay, I guess that was the end of that.” It felt like a sequence of events that we saw a piece of, rather than a continuing story. And it’s just not something I’m prepared to delve in to because I don’t understand how or why it was written that way.

Captain Kentucky Episode 87

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the half-page strips allowed Rosa’s art to shine in a way the original 128 strips of The Pertwillaby Papers did not, and that he is astoundingly capable of maximizing the content of each strip relative to the space he’s given. Just look at the above strip for an example.

Early episodes of the comic were definitely cluttered, but eventually he struck a good balance between the two. The end result is surprisingly clean considering how much he’s doing with the space.

3. The Premise vs. What It’s About

In order to understand why it’s difficult for me to review Captain Kentucky, we have to go to Storytelling 101. Specifically, we need to talk about the difference between the premise of a story and what it is about, and where Captain Kentucky might have gone off the rails. Let’s take a look at another comic strip as an example.

The premise of Calvin and Hobbes is that Calvin, a hyperactive and imaginative six year old, plays with his imaginary/maybe-not-imaginary friend, the stuffed animal Hobbes.

But that’s not what the comic is about, that’s the premise. A premise on its own means nothing, because it is simply the vehicle in which to tell stories. It’s the about that we remember.

Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip about a hyperactive and imaginative six year old and his imaginary/maybe-not-imaginary friend Hobbes the Tiger, and how even though there are sad things about humanity’s nature and the world we live in, there are just as many wonderful things in the world to discover.

The reason I didn’t talk about this concept in The Pertwillaby Papers review is simple: the comic is explicitly focused on comedic adventures, not emotion. It’s smart, fun escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But Captain Kentucky is a completely different kind of comic. While still saturated with the typical wit and art I expect from Rosa, it’s more personal, starting with the premise: it allows him to show his love for his hometown, lampoon and pay homage to various famous figures, and express his opinion and viewpoint to a willing audience.

Captain Kentucky Episode 38

As I said earlier, the premise of Captain Kentucky is that Lance Pertwillaby is Captain Kentucky, a well-meaning and comically destructive superhero set in the real world. But that’s not what the comic is about. It’s actually very difficult for me to figure out what Captain Kentucky is about, because the comic is doing all sorts of different things. Little things, big things, fun things, good things, bad things. But if I was forced to make my best guess, I’d say the theme was Don Rosa’s frustration with people.

I don’t mean to say that the entire comic is Don Rosa taking his personal issues out on the world, far from it. He is completely honest in his opinions on subjects, and writes in a way where he’s allowed to express them, but Captain Kentucky is, in fact, a comedic adventure strip starring a bumbling superhero. But the way it was executed somehow led to a sort of insularity, and was therefore more difficult for me to connect to as a reader.

What I found striking is when he drops the pretense of humor that I find myself enjoying and connecting with the comic far better than the usual stuff, like this strip here:

Captain Kentucky Episode 64

That strip is all the more telling when you read the article about why he retired from comics, and shows exactly why he worked at it for so long.

I do admire his efforts to expose himself on a more personal level with Captain Kentucky than any of his other comics. Even the space between the tiers of each strip was used to express his personal viewpoints on whatever he felt like saying, popular or not. To be so open, not to an international audience like the one he deals with now, but to the people of the city you grew up in, is not the act of someone who was willing to compromise or play it safe.

4. I’m Not Sure if I Like it or Not

When it comes to my likes and dislikes, I don’t have too many grey areas, but Captain Kentucky definitely falls in to that place.

For every pro I put on my list, there’s a corresponding con: The art is great, but Rosa never really mastered how to lay out a half-page strip in a way that fully shows it off. I love the premise of the comic, but I’m not sure what to make of the execution. The jokes can be funny, but I can tell I’m only catching one out of every three he’s throwing at me. He’s willing to try new things throughout the strip’s run, but it feels unfocused. The comic has a strong personal voice, but I feel somehow distant from it.

I just don’t know what to make of this comic.

And that’s my list, told in full. Hopefully now you understand why no matter my efforts, I simply can’t review Captain Kentucky. The rest of The Complete Captain Kentucky, however, is more than fair game.

Extras

Bonus Features: Unlike The Complete Pertwillaby Papers, I’m not actually in this book… but I can hardly hold that against what they did include! With 64 pages of bonus features (including the two bonus comics of Phalanx and The Home Computer Handbook) consisting of in-depth interviews, profile pieces and rare art, if you’re a Rosa fan the book is worth checking out for these pages alone.

The QR codes, meant to help you look up some of the locations and people in this book, are a great idea. But I think they would have been better served as pages hosted on an individual site, written from Rosa’s own perspective, rather than linking to things like wikipedia.

Phalanx: Rosa, in his introduction to the bonus comics, mentions he tried to submit Phalanx for syndication, and likely would have continued to do so if he hadn’t already had a job waiting for him after college. While the twelve strips of this comedy-adventure printed here show promise and could have likely been reworked to something very interesting (and I have heavily praised his work on The Pertwillaby Papers newspaper strips), I can understand why Phalanx wasn’t run.

Phalanx Episode 4

Each strip had a much slower pace than an episode of the Pertwillaby Papers, and without the recap panel he used so effectively there, each strip lacks context as a standalone piece. The comics tended to lack strong gags, despite being a comedic adventure strip. While the art is typically excellent Rosa, the layouts of each strip felt wasteful. The story was arguably better suited for a comic book, or a half-page Sunday strip, than running in a daily newspaper. But if nothing else, it’s an interesting look at the road not traveled.

Just because something is flawed, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

The Home Computer Handbook: If you’ve ever dealt with computers, these one-off comics on tech issues printed for a local computer club still resonate.

The Home Computer Handbook

I don’t have much more to say about them, just that they really make me laugh, especially having grown up in a tech-savvy household. I really think people don’t give Rosa enough credit as a cartoonist, himself included.

Presentation: As it is part of the same collection as The Pertwillaby Papers, the book is beautiful, with the same hardcover and thick, glossy paper. Horizontally formatted at 8.2 x 11.6 inches, the artwork is reprinted as big as was possible. The full-page strips are spread across multiple pages, but it’s a compromise that’s both understandable and hardly noticeable, considering the way Rosa generally sticks to strict tier-usage in his layouts.

The in-depth interviews, originally printed in magazines, have been shrunk down in a smaller font to fit the book’s format while keeping their original layouts. The amount of material successfully crammed in to this book is a testament to how much care was put in to its construction.

Unfortunately, there is exactly one thing in the book that I really can’t excuse: there is no table of contents. There was one in the Pertwillaby Papers, but this book needs it more due to the sheer amount of bonus material in it.

Final Thoughts: I don’t regret buying the comic, nor the time I spent reading it. And if you’re a Kentucky resident or a Rosa fan, I strongly encourage you to check it out for yourselves. The book itself is great, and would be interesting even without the 150 strips of Captain Kentucky. But it’s gonna take someone a lot smarter than me to review them.

The Complete Captain Kentucky can be purchased at www.danibooks.de with a little help from Google Translate, with digital copies available from Amazon.com.

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Don Rosa in Review – The Complete Pertwillaby Papers

When I look at The Pertwillaby Papers, I can’t help but think of Aaron Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin created and wrote The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, and is well known for packing every episode with wall-to-wall dialogue. Upon finishing the show for the first time, I was eager for more of his work, and found his first show: Sports Night. It was a critically acclaimed sitcom from the same creative team of Thomas Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin, but cut short two seasons in to its run. And when I popped it in, I was shocked!

Exchanges I saw on The West Wing had originally appeared in Sports Night, having been re-purposed in a different context. Scenes, speeches, subplots, all lifted from The West Wing’s predecessor, as though Sports Night had only been a rough draft. Sometimes Sports Night had the better take, though more often The West Wing did. But whenever I saw that kind of lift, I couldn’t help but marvel, not just at the brazenness of stealing from yourself, but the way context and execution can completely alter an idea even from the same author.

You can see why The Pertwillaby Papers is fascinating from that perspective alone. Don Rosa has openly admitted that Lost in (an alternative section of) the Andes was at heart an Uncle Scrooge story, and later rewrote it as Son of the Sun, his very first Duck story. Stories, characters and jokes from The Pertwillaby Papers are shamelessly used for his Duck stories, sometimes made better, sometimes made worse. I purchased the books as a matter of curiosity, and much of my joy reading it was playing the same game I do when I watch Sports Night.

But there are many who adored The Pertwillaby Papers before Rosa ever did Son of the Sun, and I think it’s worth examining from that perspective. For that reason, I won’t be comparing it to his Duck work in this review. It deserves that.

So let’s talk about the collection of this beloved adventure comic by my favorite comic book creator.

(Episode #1-65) Untitled: This story (not even retroactively given a title) introduces the main cast, with a storytelling style closer to the traditional four panel gag-a-day newspaper comic than the adventure series it would become. Based around the premise that Lance is trying to make his way through college without official enrollment or tuition, and villains Smyte and Roatch attempting to expose him through petty revenge, the college setting allowed for a great cast of characters and humorous scenarios.

Episode 11

What’s particularly notable about this section for me are some of the different ways Rosa told the story. Some strips didn’t feature the main cast at all, instead allowing side characters to get a ‘scene’ to themselves. This created a more fully populated world, rather than the barren vacuum world most newspaper casts exist in. The vertical recap panel for each strip was a genius way of conserving space and minimizing “As you know”s in the dialogue, and of course, the use of personalized speech bubbles helped to give more personality to the characters in this limited space.

Episode 43

While the art may have been a more amateurish Rosa, it is still Rosa, best evidenced by the anti-abrasium sequence. It may not be Rosa’s favorite, but I think this is the funniest of the Pertwillaby Papers tales.

(Episode #66-127) Lost in (an alternative section of) the Andes: In this second story, most famous for its adaptation to The Son of the Sun, Lance Pertwillaby seeks out the temple of Manco Copac. And wow, what a difference from the first story! Not only was the focus changed to action/adventure, everything, from the art, the lettering, the layouts, the pacing, even the recap panels were elevated far beyond that first story. Take a look at this plane crash to see what I mean:

Episode 86

All that in the span of a four-panel sized newspaper strip. Brilliant.

One of the great advantages of the four-panel format is its brevity. There’s a sequence at the beginning which is entirely exposition, but beyond that, the story keeps moving forward, with each strip admirably attempting to stand alone while still building towards the iconic climax. And at 61 strips, the story never feels like it’s wearing out its welcome. It is an extremely well-executed piece of comic storytelling. And despite my affection for the later tales, I believe that this is the best story of the Pertwillaby Papers, devoid of filler or over-complication. Why the comic didn’t end up in syndication upon Rosa’s graduation I will never, ever know, because I would love to have seen Rosa progress as an artist in this medium.

(Episode #128-133) Sub-Zero: After leaving college, The Pertwillaby Papers was revived in a serialized comic book format. The episodes (as he titles each strip/installment) became 10-15 pages, and he clearly relished the opportunity to cram as much as humanly possible in to every panel. The dialogue, character designs, set pieces, sequences all became far more elaborate and detailed, showing what Rosa could really do if he had a chance. And seeing the difference blew me away.

Episode 130, Page 5

The story was a three-way race through the Arctic, with murder, betrayal, Nazis, and the occasional poop joke. Sub-Zero marked the comic’s first stabs towards suspense, and pushing more towards black comedy. Each episode moved the story towards a grand climax, reading like a story broken up in to six installments, while still being a largely readable entity on its own. No easy feat in the short span of time he had to tell the story in each episode! But while I might be a fanboy, I’m not a blind fanboy, and I did see problems with the story.

Episode 131, Page 1

Episode 131, Page 2

The first being what you see above: The recaps at the beginning of each installment. They’re delivered by the characters rather than captions, and it is a frustrating reading experience: this method makes an effort to treat every reader as though it were the first time they’d ever picked up the magazine, which I understand, but it wastes space on the page and is tedious to read. No new information, story elements, or character information are revealed within these recaps, and I had to stop myself from skimming over them the first time through. While the one you see above made an effort to inject humor in to the process, it’s still a daunting read. With careful application of caption boxes, it would have read more smoothy and allowed for more of the story to be included in each installment.

The second, and I’m hesitant to say this because of the time it was written, is that the characters are not particularly well developed. I can’t tell you very much about them or their personalities, and this is especially problematic with Lance – the main character. There’s very little about him outside of his obliviousness, verbosity and preference for milk, which makes him a more flat and reactive character. This isn’t a great way to get jokes out of a character, or draw in the audience.

Episode 132, Page 1

The comic isn’t designed to delve in to the psyche of the characters it’s portraying, and that’s fine, but without some character motivation it’s very easy to feel disconnected from Lance. Sub-Zero is still a quality piece of storytelling, especially for its time, managing to take a complex story better suited to a movie and make it play in a comic book format. There are a number of great, memorable moments throughout, and it ends just as it should.

(Episode #134-138) Vortex: I’m going to take a minute here to just show you a page of Sub-Zero

Episode 131, Page 6

And a page from Vortex.

Episode 137, Page 8

I can only assume that during the writing of Sub-Zero, Rosa was saving up to buy the gallons of black ink he’d end up using in his take on a journey to the center of the earth. Vortex is gorgeous, and my mouth was hanging open from the painstakingly detailed artwork. For me, that alone would have been worth the price of purchase.

While Sub-Zero was telling one story across six installments, Vortex better utilized the serial format by writing each episode as a distinct entity in and of itself, lending a uniqueness to each installment that made the comic more varied and interesting. Each episode still advanced the overall plot, was enjoyable as a piece of storytelling taken by itself, and ended with a cliffhanger for the next episode. While that may not sound like much of a difference compared to Sub-Zero, it’s actually much closer to the newspaper format The Pertwillaby Papers was born from, extrapolated to comic book form to great effect.

And you have no idea how much better Vortex reads because of these changes. It can still feel its length sometimes, but no one ever said you have to read the whole thing in one sitting. If there are any comic writers reading this, I suggest you steal liberally from the way he tells this story.

(Episode #139-141) Knighttime: Moving away from the varied format of Vortex, Lance and company find their way to the time of King Arthur. Knighttime is an unfinished tale (though he reveals how it would have ended in an interview), spanning only three episodes, and it’s a real shame. The Pertwillaby Papers had the option of continuing through Fantagraphics in the form of graphic novels, but it appears Rosa chose to work on Captain Kentucky instead (why he didn’t ask to do The Pertwillaby Papers as a newspaper comic is a question I ask myself every time I read that collection). That said, Knighttime has great scenes, better characterization for Lance, better staging and layouts… and is oppressively difficult to read.

Episode 139, Page 5

The sheer amount of text in this story makes me cringe. I can forgive some of Rosa’s quirks from earlier installments, which tended to be text-heavy to keep the plot moving in this short space, but he went way over the line with this last tale. As long as you prepare and pace yourself throughout the story you should be fine, because once you get past the inelegantly written dialogue Knighttime is truly a spectacle. It never stops bringing the funny, and some of the best moments of the series come from these last three episodes. And I have to say, the best cliffhanger Rosa’s ever done was the last panel of the whole series.

Extras

Khulan: This fantasy comic, written by Rich Fay, is pretty weak. It’s Rosa art, which is something, but it’s not very good Rosa art: unsurprising for content produced by two high school juniors/seniors. With the use of prose panels in the vein of Prince Valiant, Khulan proves that not all experiments are successful.

Khulan, Page 2

Tagdenah: These two fantasy stories written by Patty Payne, starring the mysterious roaming wizard Tagdenah, are a serious departure from the typical Rosa style of art and storytelling. They are a fascinating look at what might have been if he’d ever developed a permanent partnership with someone. Even the strange style of captions for dialogue works to fit the story’s mood, and I’ve never seen that used correctly before: as much as Rosa bemoans his lettering, the story would have fallen apart with a lesser letterer. Fitting a complete story in to such a small page count, especially a more serious one, is no small feat: I am truly impressed. I would love to have seen more from her.

Tagdenah, Page 1

Bonus Features: Now, I’m in the bonus features, so I’m a little biased. But my interview with Rosa isn’t the only thing there: there’s a cover gallery, an interview with David Campiti, newspaper clippings, convention drawings, previous introductions and other great miscellaneous Pertwillaby content. It’s as complete a collection for The Pertwillaby Papers as anyone could realistically hope to achieve. The only thing missing for me is that Rosa didn’t write new, individual introductions for his Pertwillaby Papers stories, but rather an introduction for the book as a whole, and another for the non-Pertwillaby Papers comics.

Presentation: Absolutely amazing. At an oversized 12.75″ by 9″ and printed on thick, beautiful glossy paper, the artwork is presented with in its full glory, with all the detail as it deserves to be seen. The actual layout of the book by Jano Rohleder is excellent, tucking in as much content as possible. However, I would have preferred the covers be placed at the beginning of each story, and for episodes to be marked by page number in the table of contents. There are also a couple of very minor typographical issues in the text that I’m sure will be corrected in the next printing.

There are, however, some printing errors. The first panel of Sub-Zero has been clipped, possibly from improper scanning, as seen in the comparison between the Fantagraphics and Don Rosa Classics printing.

Episode 128, Page 1 (Fantagraphics)

Fantagraphics

Episode 128, Page 1

Don Rosa Classics

There’s also a printing error I can’t explain, seen below, though it only occurs in this one spot. Episode 40

Unfortunately… one thing absolutely does interfere with the reading. 2/3rds of a page from Tagdenah are missing. Editor Jano Rohleder has promised to include a sticker that you can use to re-insert the missing panels, and the error is not present in the digital copy. Despite how it may sound, The Don Rosa Classics are still the most beautifully put together comic compilations I own, and the little faults don’t detract from my undeniable pleasure reading the book.

Final Thoughts: For those of you who know Don Rosa as someone with a talent for Duck comics, you’re right. But he is more than that. He is a comic book writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and cover artist, and whether it’s with Scrooge McDuck or Lance Pertwillaby, he knows how to create great comics. If that’s what you love, this is the book for you.

And if you’re going to get anything out of this review, let it be this: meticulously researched, obsessively detailed in its art and writing, funny, and verbose just shy of a fault, The Pertwillaby Papers is Don Rosa to the bone, and I love it.

The Complete Pertwillaby Papers can be purchased at http://www.danibooks.de with a little help from Google Translate, with digital copies available from Amazon.com.

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