Today's lesson, class: Uncle Scrooge McDuck equals James T. Kirk.
What's that I hear at the back of the classroom? Consternation? Uproar? Disbelief? Snickering? I heard snickering, didn't I? Let me explain it in visual terms, then:
I hear you gasp in amazement and declare what? Is black now white? Is up down? Are dogs cats? Is Aquaman Sub-Mariner? What the Sam Scratch is goin' on here? Patience, comics and SF fans...all will be made clear in warp speed/two shakes of a duck's tail.
Let's flip open Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #1 (Ah ha! You knew it was going to come back to those dang Top Comics, didn't you?) and thrill to the sheer joy of the story within, Carl Barks's high adventure "The Doom Diamond." This isn't one of Unca Carl's most famous classics; it's at the tail end of his prestigious run on Uncle Scrooge. When I was collecting the big series of Gladstone's Complete Uncle Scrooge I kept waiting for this story to pop up, and it wasn't reprinted until the very last book...definitely one of Barks's final Scrooge tales. The magic and excitement is still there, however, and if it's not prime Barks, it's still tail and feathers above most other funny animal comics. In it, Scrooge, Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie board Scrooge's custom-designed souped-up pirate-proof super-ship to sail with ten million in gold bullion across the sea to buy a cursed diamond. Fast on their tails, er, trails, are Scrooge's perennial nemeses The Beagle Boys, who have built a super-sub of their own designed to thwart every one of Scrooge's defenses. Oh no! Is this the end of Scrooge McDuck? Will our dollar-hungry duck meet his end on the high seas?
Well, no. Scrooge makes mistakes, but he's a captain of bravery, creativity, ingenuity, and sneakiness. Sound like anyone we know? A certain starship captain renowned for his agile combat mind and his unparalleled bluffing skills? Why, it sures does sound exactly like James Tiberius Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. And even though Kirk's mission is to explore strange new alien females worlds and Scrooge's is to load up his money bin with more lovely moolah, Carl Barks has, in "The Doom Diamond," predicted the greatest Star Trek space battle of them all, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. For best results, cue up your Star Trek II CD to the track "Kirk's Explosive Reply" and then let's go to the play-by-play, shall we?:
(All film frames are from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; all comic panels are from "The Doom Diamond", written and drawn by Carl Barks.)
Kirk/Scrooge's ship is approached by an enemy vessel!:
Kirk/Scrooge calls the red alert!:
The enemy attacks!:
Expert advice from the trained crew:
Khan/The Beagle Boys demand: unconditional surrender!:
But both valiant captains are hiding a secret weapon!:
Point blank attack...the enemy is crippled!:
On board the shattered enemy ship, accusations are leveled!:
And Kirk/Scrooge sails away, crippled but still alive after their close call:
So, when somebody says, "Oh, Nicholas Meyer saved the Star Trek franchise," don't forget to grab them by the lapels, shake them angrily, and shout in their face: "And Carl Barks, too!" Really, they'll thank you for the correction!
Why, just about all that's missing from "The Doom Diamond" to complete the Kirk/Scrooge analogy is a scene where our hero howls the name of his nemesis in despair. Don't worry, duckfans, I created one here for you to go with Kirk yelling Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!:
In the end, you can't deny that both Kirk and Scrooge are heroic characters of the same high caliber. Sure, one may be a miserly talking waterfowl and the other one now shills for Priceline.com, but never forget that in the end both James T. Kirk and Scrooge McDuck live each one of their high-adventure days by the same credo...:
"I don't believe in the no-win scenario... I don't like to lose."
Courtesy of a two-page center spread in Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #2, let's set the Time Bubble for September 1967! South Vietnam holds its first elections! NASA space probe Surveyor V lands on the moon! Jim Morrison sings about getting higher on The Ed Sullivan Show! Harry Connick, Jr. is born! BBC Radio 1 is launched! But to heck with all of those things...The CBS Saturday Morning Cartoon Lineup trumps them all!:
(Click image to embiggen)
You young whippersnappers today with your Nickeledeon and your Cartoon Network and your Kids WB and your BBC America may find this hard to believe, but at one time American kids, hopped up on pure cane sugar and unfiltered cigarettes, had exactly three networks of Saturday morning TV viewing to choose from (except for the weird kids watchin' PBS). You had your choice of NBC, CBS, and ABC, and CBS surely was targeting the growing fans of comic books with these series, weren't they? According to this excellent survey page of 1967's Saturday mornings, ABC had CBS well-beat from 9:30 to 10:30 with the double-punch of the original Fantastic Four and Spider-Man cartoons, but I'd sure as heck be hanging onto CBS for the rest of the morning.
The banner on the ad reads "Saturday's Super Heroes," and hoo boy, they weren't kiddin': except for the day opening with (unshown in this ad) Captain Kangaroo and ending with The Road Runner, every single show on CBS's '67 lineup is science-fantasy heroic adventure. What's interesting is that of all the shows in the '67 CBS Saturday morning lineup, only two can probably be considered true "classics" (minus the word "camp" in front of that): Jonny Quest and Space Ghost. Jonny was in its third year, but no original episodes were being broadcast since the show's first season, perhaps contributing to its placement in the tail-end "graveyard" of the lineup at 12:30 PM. (But the cartoon lineup ran until 2 PM with The Road Runner!) Poor Space Ghost doesn't even get a picture in this cartoon ad; the man known south of the border as El Fantasma del Espacio was only in his second season, yet like Jonny, new episodes were produced only in season one and the rest of his run was re-runs. You can catch most of the other shows shown here on Boomerang and they haven't aged well, but those two seem to have stood the test of time. I'm fairly partial to the updated Space Ghost Coast to Coast and the Quest parody The Venture Brothers, and it's out of love for the original concepts that I came to enjoy the new ones.
By the early '80s the great art of action-adventure cartoons seemed to be at a nadir, replaced by gag cartoons like Heathcliff, The Smurfs, The Littles, Laverne and Shirley in the Army (their sargeant was a pig! Really!) and Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (they travelled in a time machine with a dog named Mister Cool!) Slowly the field began to build up again (Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was an early sign of the swing back) and by the mid to late 1980s we had turtles, transforming robots, real American heroes, and, by the early nineties, the height of the TV animation medium, Batman: The Animated Series. Which all goes to show: if you don't like what's on TV now, wait a while. Surely something you like will come along soon. Me? I'm waiting for the Gilmore Girls 2099 cartoon.
Purely to win brownie points with Tegan, here's a closeup of panel for The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure:
Secret messages? Way cool! I hope they spelled out ZJFZNZM RH XLLO ZMW MLG ZG ZOO OZNV.
Parents of today may think twenty-first century kids have a lot to keep track ofschoolwork, friends, instant messaging, Tivo, MySpace, MP3s, Gogurt, and a million other outside demands for time, which can dog-pile on the young 'uns of today and sadly lead to child stress and meltdown. Well, I'm telling you, those kids have nothing against the children of '67, who had to keep track of dozens of amazing Saturday cartoon shows in their pre-cell-phone limited memories! No wonder kids in the late 60s were snapping left and right! But Bully! (I hear you asking.) How the heck could we even keep track of such a wonderful line-up of senses-shattering action, adventure, magic and heroism back in the Summer of Love? Why, that's simple, true believers, because with the same thoughtfulness and generosity they will later show in allowing Julie Chen to report on both news and reality TV, CBS has provided a handy pocket chart:
Don't even bother asking Mom and Dad for permission to use the scissors, kids: just tear it out of your hard-earned comic! Who cares if you're ripping out a panel of Carl Barks's sublime work on the other side? No matter if you've just destroyed the future resale and collectible value of your weird-ass bumpkin Top Comic! Paste it in your scrapbook alongside all your Marvel Value Stamps! Just don't come crying to me when Mike Sterling tells you that Top Comic you want to sell to him is worth pennies instead of thousands because you tore out the freakin' chart!
Put on your detective caps and get out your meerschaum pipes, folks, because I've got a mystery I need help solving and I need the assistance of you good folks who might know a little more comics history than I do.
Recently I excavated a lot of my old comics from the Bully Longbox Storage Vault, including a lot of comics I wanna regale you good people with my stories of how they're my favorite comics. (Is What If? #11 the greatest comic about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, ever? You make the call!) But among the superhero stuff I found my old treasure of Gold Key and Dell comics...dozens and dozens of battered and worn funny animal and cartoon tie-in books that I just loved so much I read 'em to shreds. Among these, however, were what I have always thought of as the weird backwoods country cousins of the Gold Keys: Top Comics.
What the heck are these? Top Comics baffled me when I was just a wee tiny stuffed calf and they still are bit of a mystery to me now. There was only one place I was able to get them at: the long defunct-chain of Savarin Restaurants and Rest Stops dotted along the New York State Thruway, during those never-ending car trips from Syracuse to Oneonta or Schenectady to visit relatives. There was always a spinner rack with plenty of Top Comics, and I was allowed to get two or three. But I never saw 'em anywhere else in my life. For that matter, minor mystery B: what the heck ever happened to the Savarin chain? I wasn't sad to see 'em go...their brand of unenthusiastic diner food was kind of dismaying even to me at that age, and I was excited to eat out anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish and I was pleased when they were eventually replaced by Burger Kings and McDonald's. But why'd they go out of business? Whoa, whoops, I think I just answered my own question. Well, that solves the Mystery of the Disappearing Crappy Roadside Restaurant Chain!
Top Comics were, it's very clear, reprints of Gold Key Comics, and the indicia in each lists the publisher as K. K. Publications on North Road in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is another imprint of the octopus-like Western Publishing in Poughkeepsie, which published and distributed Dell and later Gold Key Comics. I'm simplifying that explanation tremendously for my purposes here. It's unpacked in a little more detail in Wikipedia's Western Publishing entry, but for my shiny dime nobody does a better job of clarifying the clear-as-mud Western story as Mister Mark Evanier, whose explanation here should be required reading for anybody interested in Dell and Gold Key. Come to think of it, maybe only Mark knows the true story behind Top Comics, but he don't mention 'em in his article. (Fill us in if'n you know, Mark!)
Anyway, these are clearly Gold Key comics under a different name. All the ones I have featured Disney and Warner cartoon properties, but from what very little I've been able to find on the web on Top Comics, they also produced issues of other Gold Key comics: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Lassie, The Three Stooges, Tarzan, Flipper, and probably many more. (Those additional titles are courtesy of a sales page on the Mile High Comics site.) In addition, every comic has extra "Gold Key Club Comics" activity, cartoon, and text pages clearly branding them as Gold Key comics. (More about some of these feature pages a little further down.)
That sales page, however, is just about all I can find about Top Comics on the web...there doesn't seem to be anything else major that I can find and certainly no real explanation for what the heck these things are in the first place. Googling "Top Comics" returns a bajillion results, almost all of them referring to either the series Tip-Top Comics (home of Nancy and Peanuts) or various "top comics" lists. Last time I checked Overstreet, which was admittedly a few years back, there was no listing for the Top Comics either.
So what do I know about these? Well, all of mine seem to carry a 1967 copyright date. They are all unpriced on the comics themselves: several of them have a somewhat generic sticker that says "15¢" affixed to the cover, but they don't all have 'em...and none of the covers shown on that Mile High page show these stickers, so I'm guessing the stickers might have been placed on there by the Savarin gift shop operator rather than the publishing company. That leads me to make this wild, unfounded guess: were these comics that were published for overseas, or maybe for military bases?
About half of the comics in my possession have no ads. The inside front and back covers are filled with black and white one-page gag strip reprints, and the back cover is a repeat of the front cover art minus the logo but marked "Pin-Up":
On the other hand, the other half of 'em do have ads, mostly of the "send away for this cool cheap crap" variety (click on the photo to expand to a much larger and legible size):
...which doesn't seem likely for overseas comics to feature American send-in ads, so I'm stiff baffled. So, comics blogosphere and four-color scholars, help me out here: what were Top Comics? Why were they labeled and branded as such? Why could I only find them in a roadside gift shop? Why weren't they simply selling the usual Gold Key comics in those venues? Huh? Huh? Huh?
All that said, the baffling mystery that even at the time vaguely nagged at the back of my stuffed brains never kept me from enjoying the rich comicy goodness of Top Comics. This is classic and primal 1950s and '60s cartoon comics material here, folks, and it was through these as well as my beloved Golden and Disney Comics Digests that I mostly developed my sheer love of the consecutive art medium. Plus, rabbits dropping anvils on top of ducks! You can't go wrong with that.
Among these sixteen or so Top Comics is absolutely one of my favorite comics of all time. My love for the story inside probably is reflected by its well-worn condition: Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #3...
...which features in its loose and curling pages (one even had a huge chunk accidentally torn out of the corner), quite possibly...no, make that absolutely positively, my favorite Uncle Scrooge comic story, ever: "The Great Steamboat Race":
I love this story: Scrooge finds out about an ancestor's never-finished steamboat race against a rival pig, and the pig's descendant and Scrooge decide to finish the race. There's one catch: both steamboats are sunk at the bottom of the muddy Mississippi. Well, there's another catch: the pig's got a professional salvage company to raise his boat. Scrooge has Donald and the nephews. There's a brilliant science gag in here where Scrooge's boat is raised using inflated inner tubes (not as clever as ping pong balls, but I wasn't aware of the genius of that story at the time). I've read this story hundreds of times and even when I eventually "traded up" for a cleaner and sharper copy in that big-ass Gladstone reprinting of the complete Uncle Scrooge, I still cherish and hold dear to my heart this tattered and battered issue.
Why? Because it is, as far as I can remember, my first introduction to the fantabulous work of Carl Barks. Take a gander (tee hee) at the splash page up above. Do you see any writer or artist credits? Nope, you do not. But like millions of other fans of Unca Carl, I instantly recognized quality and brilliance in his work, and I recognized that not all comics, or even all Uncle Scrooge comics, were created equal. The other shoe dropped in my head at that very young age: that people actually created comic books, and some of them were better than others. It was like a lightbulb flash going on over my head, but it started an entire lifetime of collecting, reading, and loving comics, and my search for the Good Ones, like those done by "The Good Duck Artist." Even before I knew his name I could tell that that Scrooge saga reprinted in tiny size in Walt Disney's Comics Digest where Scrooge unrolled his ball of string across Africa against Flintheart Glomgold was the work of that same guy who did the steamboat story. And the one where the Beagle Boys had a robotic submarine that fired diamond-sharpened bluejay missiles. And the one where Magica da Spell turned herself into a duplicate of Scrooge to steal his Number One Dime and was foiled by the nephews when she was rude to them. The best comics in the world...then or now.
So in the end, the mystery of Top Comics still makes me scratch my little stuffed head. But the magic will never stop.
Special bonus interior peeks!: all the Top Comics featured the usual-for-the-time Gold Key text, puzzle, and comics filler pages that were often a bit of a disappointment (they weren't truly comics, they were jus' takin' up space.) Mighty Mike Sterling over at Progressive Ruin recently posted a Gold Key quirky feature page of reader-submitted monster drawings, which reminded me just how much that particular page used to freak my little brains out as a kid:
Another regular feature was the aptly named "Can You Complete The Comic?," or, as I like to call it, "Western Publications Refuses to Pay Its Gag Men and Makes Kids Pay for the Privilege":
This feature mighta been more appealing to me if another Top Comic I remember buying at the same time hadn't featured the exact same gags, completed. I guess that Gold Key gag man finally overcame his writer's block with the help of some Savarin pancakes and a shot of rotgut whiskey, huh?:
Too young to vote? To heck with the establishment, man! While your 'rents are busy campaigning and ringing doorbells for Richard "Mister Clean Government" Nixon, and your crazy bohemian uncle keeps talking about how there's absolutely no way Bobby Kennedy won't be the next Prez, you can poo-poo those old squares and instead vote on something important: your favorite Top Gold Key Comics!:
Sadly, voter fraud in Ohio and Florida led to a manual recount, and after eighty-three days of scandal-ridden gerrymandering, the Supreme Court of Comics judged that dark horse Mighty Samson was the winner. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories was outraged! And of course, today Tarzan has a lucrative career on the lecture circuit with his multimedia PowerPoint presentation "A Tropical Truth: Saving the Rainforest (Do It for Tantor)".
Top Comics! They may remain a mystery, but the delight lingers on!