It’s been a while since we’ve taken a look at a Carl Barks’ Donald Duck collection. As such, let’s jump in with the latest collection from Fantagraphics, Under the Polar Ice. Is it good?
According to the official description provided by Fantagraphics:
In this collection of internationally acclaimed Donald Duck comics, Donald and the nephews are stranded in the Arctic and face peril in the jungle!
In this collection of classic comic book stories, Huey, Dewey, and Louie earn a trip to the North Pole in a submarine — and Donald stows away! Fortunately, when they find themselves stranded, Gyro Gearloose invents a flying sled! Then, when Donald announces that he’s taking the nephews to South America, he pledges to protect them from all the dangers in “the wildest part of the jungle” — including a sheer mountain cliff, a raging river, and a swarm of crocodiles. But who is saving whom? This book has 170 pages of story and art, each meticulously restored and newly colored, as well as insightful story notes by an international panel of Barks experts.
Like in past reviews, we will cover each story in the collection itself in mini-reviews, with some exceptions due to their theming. We begin our look with the titular story…
Under the Polar Ice
Donald Duck is looking to get some help peeling potatoes after failing at his duties at his lodge, but his nephews are busy with their own project that’ll take all day. However, in trying to sabotage them, Donald lands himself further in trouble with a trip to the North Pole!
Under the Polar Ice is a weak start in comparison to past titular stories in these collections. It lacks a lot of personality, charm, and humor. It’s mostly just about Donald Duck making things worse and worse for himself, and not in an over-the-top or silly manner, but more in a way that feels both jerk-like and incredibly stupid. For instance, it begins with him declaring he’ll ruin his nephews’ contest so they can help him peel potatoes, then later deciding to hike to Greenland from the North Pole.
It’s a very short story as well, so the pacing is fast. It moves a bit too quickly, jumping from point to point in a manner that makes the story feel rushed. Most of the jokes don’t land, outside of one, and the ending itself just feels so abrupt. This story just does not start things off on the right foot.
The Watchful Parents
Donald Duck and the Nephews head down to South America for a little business trip. Donald promised the organization he’s a part of, The Watchful Parents, he’ll keep his nephews safe. However, with him, things are easier said than done.
This is a better tale than the last, focusing more on Donald as a parent than just being an egotistical jerk who constantly tries to squirm out of his problems. Sure, he has some issues, but he at least means well and the silly antics that he and the nephews get into are entertaining. Plus, the ending and punchline of it are at least very amusing.
There is some racial insensitivity in this one, as the family comes across a Native tribe, and they are not depicted in the most enlightened way. It is an unfortunate product of its time and may bring the story to a screeching halt for some, but it is short at least. Hopefully, this won’t be a recurring problem…
The Good Deeds
Huey, Dewey, and Louie convince Donald to try doing more good deeds instead of bad ones. Donald gives it a shot, secretly hoping it might lead him to some rewards. Of course, nothing ever goes quite so right for our angry duck.
The Good Deeds is a winner in the collection, telling a simple but entertaining tale from start to finish. While it certainly has some of those jerk moments from Donald, the antics and situations are far more entertaining. Everything Donald does backfires in different, silly ways, leading to far funnier moments. Everything builds and builds until it blows up in an over-the-top finale that is befitting of the character himself — predictable, but still funny regardless. There’s not a lot to the story, but it is easily a great time.
For some reason, one Wednesday a year, a terrible curse seems to strike the town, causing lots of people to lose their hair. Uncle Scrooge thinks it has to do with a tribe he sold tonics to in the past. It’s up to Donald and the boys to fix this mess.
The setup for Black Wednesday and many of the ideas and story points are good, especially with the resolution and how it ties back to an earlier throwaway line. Donald comes off very well here, wanting to solve this mysterious case and help the town out. Nothing about it is bad from a technical standpoint, and it can be entertaining at times.
But this story is a rough read. Once again, the ugliness of the time with racial stereotypes comes into play, especially in the depiction of Native Americans. It is very iffy, from their actions to the cringe-inducing racist dialogue/dialect they speak. It was hard to read and while, again, it is from a different time and it’s important to never forget the awfulness of the past, it still doesn’t make for a great reading experience.
The Wax Museum
One of the highlights of the book, The Wax Museum is a silly romp from start to finish. Donald Duck gets a job at a wax museum and his nephews are determined to make sure he doesn’t slack on the job. It opens on a good joke and remains fairly funny the entire time as Donald experiences his first night. It is the most straightforward of the stories, with no odd detours and the characters are all at their funniest in the pure absurdity of things. The only odd thing is the use of actual humans and human historical characters in a world with nothing but animal people. It just felt so odd.
Mastering the Matterhorn
Huey, Dewey, and Louie decide to climb the Matterhorn to be the youngest ducks to do so while Donald gives chase. Despite only being eight pages or so, this is a meaty tale that’s better than a lot of other stories in the collection. The story crams a lot into its pages, moves at a brisk pace and has plenty of good jokes, an enjoyable reveal midway through, and a good, if cheesy ending. No issues here at all. Just a nice, short experience.
The Master Glasser
Donald’s new job is replacing/fixing glass for people. While he’s good at it, he wants a real challenge and to gain some positive press. This is a slower-paced story, one light on humor until it reaches the end where all the buildup pays off. You know something bad will happen, but how it will go down is unknown. It is a pretty amusing finale due to that build-up, ending in the only possible and appropriate way it can for Donald.
Knights of the Flying Sleds
The nephews are currently caught up in the world of knights and chivalry, wanting to see if they can live up to them on a very snowy day. This is one of the weaker stories in the collection due to a lack of good jokes, a weak story that kind of wanders around aimlessly, an ending that just feels rushed, and Donald Duck unfairly getting picked on. While yes, sometimes life being unfair to Donald can be funny or payback for his poor behavior, it felt more unpleasant and mean-spirited than usual at times, like him getting beaten up or being sued by his neighbor for the actions of his nephews.
Riding the Pony Express
While enjoying their time at a dude ranch, Donald volunteers to join a reenactment event where he plays a cowboy for the Pony Express. All he has to do is escape the other tourists, acting as Indians who attacked a Pony Express outpost. However, the tourists have no intention of letting him off easy, even when he stumbles into actually having to deliver the mail.
Once again, much like Black Wednesday, a potentially decent tale is cut down by a load of racism and ugliness. The plot itself is perfectly fine with decent twists, though it does land a bit too harshly on Donald, who really did nothing to deserve anything that happens to him. The big issue is with the tourists playing the Native Americans in the historical reenactment, using racist dialects and behavior throughout. Add in the horrifying scalping of Donald, the story is dead by the midway point. It is just so aggressively unpleasant that I couldn’t stand it.
Want to Buy An Island?
In a series of events that gets sillier and sillier, Donald Duck ends up buying what he thinks is an island paradise. This is by far the best comedy of the collection without a doubt. What starts as a tale of the Nephews learning about business in kindergarten, builds and builds until firepower is rained down upon Donald. It is an absurd story, but it revels in its absurdity by just going for it and having plenty of great gags throughout. The characters are all great, and the artwork is really on point with how it paces and lays out each scene.
The Christmas Cha Cha
Donald Duck has a plan for this Christmas season. Practicing his dance moves, he wants to win a town dance with Daisy and get her the big prize. He is also selling Christmas cards for the season to earn a bit of money for a present on the off chance he doesn’t win. Scrooge is pondering if he is out of touch with the poorer man, while the Nephews are wondering how they can decorate the town.
The longest and probably most complex tale in the collection, The Christmas Cha Cha is one of the better additions. Told across fifteen pages, the story can breathe, pacing out its story beats while having side stories. Every plot line is enjoyable and well done, leading to a resolution that works out well. Every character is endearing in their own storyline, which all connect back to everyone else’s in their own way. The ending is also very nice, giving Donald a win for once. While it is not the funniest story in the collection, it is easily the most heartwarming and a great Christmas romp.
Daisy Duck’s Diary
In a change of pace, the collection contains a group of stories that focus directly on Daisy Duck and her life instead of just Donald, his nephews, or even Scrooge. Each story, while not the funniest in the collection, is entertaining in its own way. They all deliver on a well-told, well-paced experience or add to Daisy’s character, helping to define her personality better than most of the stories I’ve seen in other collections.
Daisy feels like a good counterpart to Donald, just as flawed a duck but with her own strengths. She is rather vain and a drama queen, cracking if she doesn’t win a beauty pageant or taking pleasure in seeing a duck rival get soaked in the rain. However, she is also rather smart and observant, while also very caring and considerate, from solving Scrooge’s problems to trying to help out Donald whenever she can. She also does not take any guff from others, being more than happy to put somebody in their place if they get on her nerves.
Perhaps the weakest links in any of these stories are some of their smaller elements. For instance, the creepy guys that would not leave Daisy alone or take a hint in The Beauty Queen aren’t as funny today as they may have been in the past. Donald’s Party feels aggressively mean towards Daisy during the first half to the point where it is hard to believe that Donald and Daisy are even a couple. Otherwise, it is an enjoyable selection of Daisy stories.
Possibly the worst story of the bunch, this is a tale about Scrooge and Grandma Duck in pioneer times heading west on a wagon trail. To simply sum this one up, the story is not particularly interesting, everyone feels out of character (Scrooge is never this clueless), the continuity makes no sense, and the racist depiction of Native Americans feels even uglier than before. Not even the Story Notes in the back have a positive word for this one, pointing out that Barks only drew this one and the writer is unknown. Just a complete and utter dud.
Grandma Duck’s Farm Friends
Under the Polar Ice ends with a collection of stories that feature Grandma Duck and her farm. Unlike the Daisy Duck tales, Grandma’s collection of stories are kind of weak and not the best way to send off the book. Except for the first, Touché Toupeé, none of them are particularly bad by any means. There is an occasional joke that lands, the art is great as ever, and the plots are all fine. However, they lack in the personality, comedy, and storytelling of the past ones, with the exception of The Snow Chaser. The first tale is just bad because it is just so unpleasant with how everyone is pushed around and yelled at by this one neighbor, who ends up getting everything he wants in the end.
Probably the weakest aspect of this is Grandma herself and how little there is for her to do or be a part of. As the Story Notes point out, she really does take a backseat to everyone else in the stories. There’s little personality beyond being a nice and generous person, and she never feels like someone who drives the plot forward. It’s her neighbor, Scrooge, the nephews, or Gyro who stand out the most in Grandma Duck’s Farm Friends, not Grandma herself. It is a shame, especially with how much character is given to Daisy.
Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Under the Polar Ice is one of the weakest Donald Duck books to date. While its presentation, bonus content in the back, and the artwork are fantastic, a lot of the stories were underwhelming. Whether it be due to weak humor to unpleasant characters to aggressive amounts of racism, the collection was hard to read at times.
There were certainly plenty of good tales in the collection as well. For instance, the Daisy Duck stories, The Christmas Cha-Cha, or even Want to Buy An Island? were solid standouts due to great characterization, good humor, and delightful storytelling. However, it is hard to recommend buying the entire book for just these tales alone. Unless one is set on getting the entire series, there are other, better books in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck collection worth getting.
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