Friday, May 28, 2010

Library comics Pt. 6: Some thoughts on Scooby-Doo #131-#151

The covers of these comics tend to be really great. Often times they tell a little story on their own, or a gently macabre gag (like Shaggy and Scooby inadvertently building a sandcastle full of tiny bats, above), and in general evoke the covers from classic kids comics like those published by Dell and Gold Key way back in the day.

Most of the issues I grabbed from the huge stack sitting on the library were determined by the strength of the covers, so I’m pretty confident that these covers do what comic book covers were originally designed to do—sell a particular comic book to a particular audience (Contrast that with all of the static, boring, interchangeable characters posing covers of today. I think the first 50 or so covers of Ultimate Spider-Man were so interchangeable that it didn’t matter which one was on which issues).

I also felt something I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in my life time while reading this: Disappointment that a cover promised a story that didn’t happen within. I was looking forward to seeing a leprechaun in Scooby-Doo #130, but the cover turned out to just be a gag for that particular cover, which probably came out in March or so. I understand this used to happen pretty frequently in the olden days, but I can’t recall ever experiencing it in my comics reading career (Now, kung fu VHS tape collecting, on the other hand…)

—These are really kids comics. It sometimes bugs me that the term “all-ages” is usually applied to comics that are actually just meant for kids, when the term “all-ages” should rightfully just be applied to comics that are actually geared toward entertaining readers of all-ages. These aren’t all-ages comics, they’re kids comics. As much as I love the concept and characters of Scooby-Doo (and I love ‘em a lot, but would need a couple hundred pages to tell you about it; endless repeats of the first few seasons of the show, and its various 1980s Saturday morning iterations, made up one of my first cultural experiences, and determined large aspects of my world-view for the first few years that I can remember), I had a hard time forcing myself to read through all of these stories.

Part of me wants to blame the format, as each book contains several mysteries, most of which use the original Scooby-Doo formula (common, non-violent criminal dresses up as a monster to scare people away from somewhere for some reason; the kids investigate and bust the criminal/monster). Seven-to-ten pages isn’t much space to build an interesting monster and present a plausible mystery, while allowing room for chases and gags.

But I think my failure to connect with the material in any strong way is actually a product of how faithfully the comics adapt the Scooby-Doo cartoons. See, as hard as this is for me to admit, Scooy-Doo cartoons are generally pretty terrible.

The things I liked most about it as a kid—the music, the action, the awesome monsters, the weird feelings I felt about Daphne—had nothing to do with the strength of the writing or the depth of the characters (The strongest of which were Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, who, as potent as they’ve become, were pretty basic in conception, a simple grafting of the opposite characteristics one would expect onto character of that type.)

Looking back on a lifetime of Scooby-Doo watching, I think A Pup Named Scooby-Doo was probably the best of them in terms of quality, and when I’ve watched later incarnations, like the direct-to-DVD movies, What’s New, Scooby-Doo? and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue (I love the character redesigns on this one, by the way), I’ve never really more than half-watched them, with the TV on or a DVD playing in the background while I drew or colored or worked out or whatever.

So in terms of providing engaging stories, thrilling mysteries, drama and humor, these comics are about the same as the television shows. They can be a bit more frustrating in that reading a comic book requires 100% of one’s attention, while it’s easy to devote less of that to a TV show, which moves ahead without you).

—While there’s a general format to these, in which two to three compressed TV show-like mysteries unfold per issue, they can occasionally be surprisingly experimental. Some issues include puzzles and mazes within the panels of a story, allowing readers to participate in a monster chase as Shaggy and Scooby do. Vito DelSante and Nick Purpura write a “musical” story, in which the characters "sing” the majority of their dialogue, their lines rhyming while musical notes appear in the various cartoon bubbles. There’s a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Shaggy imagines a world in which the gang never formed to fight pretend ghosts. Another story features a faux mystery arranged by the gang, leading to a surprise party for Shaggy. Scooby-Doo #135 opens with a retelling of 1969 episode “A Clue for Scooby Doo” from the villain’s perspective.

Oh, and then there’s one story that’s set in a women's prison. Swear to God.It’s called “Stars Behind Bars,” it appears in #148, it’s by Frank Strom and Scott Neely, and it sees the gang investigating the ghost of Lizzie Anderson, the first inmate ever incarcerated in Sentworth Penitentiary.

—There’s a surprising amount of variety in the artwork. I’m always genuinely fascinated by licensed comics, particularly ones like this, that are based on a cartoon which has had precious little basic design evolution in over 40 years. For the most part, all of the artists in these issues stick extremely close to the way the characters looked in 1969—some panels even swipe poses directly from stills, which is kind of disturbing—but there’s room for some real variety here, and I admittedly had more fun studying the different ways artists drew the characters than I did with the stories themselves.

My favorites are probably Tim Levins and Fabio Laguna, who have the most highly animated style. Their art has thick lines that helps it pop off the page, and their characters are all high expressive and full of life, seeming more fluid and capable of movement than comic book characters usually do.

I love the way Laguna draws Freddie’s unmasking face in #148. Check this out:
I think that’s the only time I actually laughed out loud while reading any of these.

Oh, and I also really loved the work of Karen Matchette, whose style pushes furthest away from that of the cartoons in terms of the principles, and whose extras and settings are created without the slightest attempt to ape those of the cartoons.

I plan on looking a little more closely at two specific stories in posts later this weekend, and one of those is a Matchette story, so I'll be posting much more of that later.

—Costuming is pretty fascinating here. The characters spend most of the time wearing the clothes they wore in the seventies, although there are a couple of instances of them wearing updated versions of them, and/or location-specific costumes (like Fred wearing a blue and white Hawaiian shirt while on vacation, for example).

—I like the way that all of Scooby’s dialogue has the first letter of ever word changed to an “R” to evoke his speech pattern. I’ve long been amused by the fact that Scooby is a dog who can talk, just not very clearly.

—Velma is often drawn much slimmer and a bit talker than she appeared in the cartoons. I blame the fact that the producers of the 2002 live-action movie (which I liked, shut up) cast the super-hot Linda Cardellini as Velma, necessitating that the cartoon character become gradually hotter.

—An occasional feature that I really enjoyed was “Velma’s Monsters of the World,” in which a few pages would be devoted to Velma talking directly to the audience about a “real” monster, be it one from mythology or a cryptid of some kind.

These generally feature Shaggy and Scooby delivering some form of corny joke at the beginning or the end of the feature, but in between Velma provides a nice, child-friendly summary of a monster of some kind, and allows artists to draw these creatures in something approaching Scooby-Doo style. I would love a book that was nothing but these things, a sort of Beasts! hosted by Velma and drawn by various Johnny DC artists.

The longest of these I encountered was in #134, a five-pager deoted to the silly creatures invented by lumberjacks, like the Axehandle Hound, the Hodag, the Hidebehind and similar American legendary creatures like the Jackalope.

Shorter pieces are devoted to Japan’s Rokuro-Kubi, Cadborosaurus and the Yeti. Here's a page from the Cadborosaurus story:

—I only encountered a Daphne hosted feature, once, but it was kind of fun too, even if I don't think anyone in Mystery Inc. is in any position to preach about fashion:

—While reading through these I found myself wishing DC would take advantage of the goodwill the characters surely have among comics creators to get some big-name, unlikely creators occasionally involved, the way Bongo does with it’s Treehouse of Horror annual specials.

I can’t speak for DC’s regular Scooby-Doo readers, an audience I most definitely don’t belong too, but I’d sure love to see the likes of Jill Thompson, Sergio Aragones, Stan Sakai, Dan Brereton and so on drawing Scooby-Doo stories every once in a while. Shit, can you imagine a Kelley Jones Scooby-Doo? Or a Richard Sala Scooby-Doo? I can’t tell you how much I would want to read a Richard Sala Scooby-Doo comic.

Scooby-Doo has the best letter column of all the Johnny DC titles. Check out the art it gets:


Jacob T. Levy said...

The casting of Linda Cardellini was inspired-- she was perfect. The issue was costuming her in clingy low-cut orange tops rather than the traditional Velma bulky orange turtlenecks (which admittedly would've been weird in Hawaii, but, then, so was the giant talking Great Dane.)

"See, as hard as this is for me to admit, Scooy-Doo cartoons are generally pretty terrible."

It seems like you mean something beyond "they had basic rudimentary Hanna Barbera animation," but you don't really tell us what. They were formulaic-- almost perfectly formulaic, even compared with a Silver Age Lois Lane story. But the formula was great, dammit. I refer only to the *original* formula, of course-- with the whole gang, the Mystery Machine, no Scrappy, no celebrity guest stars, and *no real monsters*-- the Dr. 13 era. Though I admit that as a kid I got pretty excited about the version that had the celebrities, especially the Adam West Batman episode...

I can see why the formula would make for a boring pile of comics-- but the pacing of reading a comic is different from that of watching a cartoon. What strikes you as so terrible about the cartoons themselves?

Caleb said...

What strikes you as so terrible about the cartoons themselves?

I liked the character design of the leads and an awful lot of the monsters )especially during the season that begins like this:

I liked all the music (themes and incidental music).

And I liked the vocal work some of the leads did.

So, um, everything else, I guess? Especially the writing and jokes.

Niel Jacoby said...

Oh god, what the hell is that that Scooby's putting in Shaggy's face?