Review: ‘Dracula, Starring Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Frankenstein, Starring Donald Duck’
Dark Horse’s recent suite of trade paperbacks collecting adaptations of classic literature starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, which are basically Classics Illustrated-style comics with parodic elements and Disney branding, have varied quite a bit in their approach and in their quality. They may have saved the best for last, though or, at least, they’ve saved the best for latest, as Dracula, Starring Mickey Mouse and Frankenstein, Starring Donald Duck are the best of the half-dozen books.
Credit for that goes to writer Bruno Enna and artist Fabio Celoni, the particular creative team who collaborated on both of these particular comics, although one imagines the particularly long afterlife of these two 19th century horror classics and their stars in film, cartoons, and comics likely played a role in their accessibility. Relatively few classics are as primed for comic and/or comics adaptations as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are, after all.
In both cases, these installments of the line avoid some of the extraneous filtering layers of narrative—Don Quixote, Starring Goofy and Mickey Mouse, for example, was set in modern times and mirrored the plot more than adapting it, and Hamlet, Starring Donald Duck, similarly involved a parallel, Hamlet-like story and a rather more elaborate than necessary framing sequence.
All of the books in the series, being Disney comics for kids, avoid any talk of death, blood, and gore, and with these two entries that avoidance must have been awfully challenging, as one stars an undead, blood-sucking fiend and the other stars a creature made up of parts stolen from corpses. Enna meets the challenges head on, coming up with fairly clever ways around any PG-13 topics that don’t strain, let alone break, the plots of the source material.
Celoni’s art sings in both books. Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and company are all, of course, perfectly and instantly recognizable, even in period attire and when their characters are amalgamated to characters from the novels. Mickey is Jonathan Ratker, playing the part of Dracula‘s Jonathan Harker, for example, and Donald is Victor Von Duckenstein, rather than the title character of Frankenstein. The supporting casts of their respective comics fill out the casts of the books, and even the extras and animals are designed in a classic Disney cartoon style.
The rendering though, is another matter entirely. Celoni’s artwork is extremely detailed, full of texture, shading and crosshatching, even on the cartoon character stars. In Dracula, he favors dynamic layouts and occasionally startling angles or close-ups, and in Frankenstein the poses and gestures are more melodramatic still, approaching the operatic.
Of the two, Dracula is the straighter adaptation, following the plot so closely that the only changes seems to be ones made to condense the novel into less than 80 pages, to add gags, and to somehow avoid any and all mention of death.
Mickey’s Jonathan Ratker visits Count Dracula’s castle on business, and he ends up imprisoned there by his seriously strange host, who is drawn to resemble The Phantom Blot as Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film that seems to have had the most influence on the visuals of any of the previous movie adaptations.
In London, Dracula seeks out Minnie Mouse’s Minnina, who is staying with Clarabelle/Clara-Lucia Westerna. Horace Horsecollar plays one of her three suitors, Pegleg Pete is the Renfield-like Pete Pegfield (who is obsessed with collecting files, rather than flies), and, when a specialist is needed to combat Dracula’s malign influence, it is Dr. Goofy Van Helsing who arrives.
This Dracula hails from Beetsylvania, and, rather than feasting on blood, he’s really, really into beets. He whispers beet recipes into the ears of his victims, nibbling them in the process, while feeding upon their life force, until they themselves become beets and must be planted in the ground (rather than, you know, buried). The only thing that can counter Dracula’s beet-based powers is, of course, garlic.
Enna and and Celoni draw some suspense out of this element of the story, so that a reader fully expecting the count to be a literal bloodsucker are strung along a bit. Suggestions of gothic horror and deadly violence are repeatedly implied, only to be resolved in unexpected ways, like the book’s final gag, revealing just what, exactly, Van Helsing planned to do with the mallet and wooden stake he secretly carried in his bag the whole book (spoiler: It’s not to put through anyone’s heart).
Beyond the changes that soften the material, others are there just to make it sillier. For example, Dracula’s various forms include a cloud of mist, a huge black wolf, a large bat, and, randomly, an ostrich.
Their Frankenstein is perhaps even more clever than Dracula in its overall conception, although it is distanced from its source material a bit by being billed within as “Duckenstein by Mary Shelduck.”
Another epistolary novel rendered short on the epistles in being turned into a comic, it is basically structured like its source material. Captain Gus Walton is writing a letter home to his granny when his crewmen find a delirious and dying duck in the frozen wastes of the north, his feet encased in a huge cube of cartoon ice. Once they nurse Donald/Victor Von Duckenstein back to health, he tells his life’s story. He tells of how he grew up with his uncle (Scrooge, of course) and competed for the affection of his crush Daisy against his very lucky peer Gladstone, before being sent away to college, where he met mentors played by Gyro Gearloose and Ludwig Von Drake.
An artist/inventor obsessed with bringing to life the vibrant colors of the alchemists of the ancient past, Victor eventually experiments with something “Gyrempe” had discovered, and then buried in the ground to hide it until he can figure out what to do with it. He called it…cardboard!
Thus this post-modern Prometheus is a creature crafted from cardboard and paint, and animated—not reanimated, just animated—by chemicals and lightning. When creator and creation part ways, Victor returns to his family home, now complete with analogues for Huey, Dewey, and Louie, while Duckenstein follows the same path as Frankenstein.
As with their Dracula, Enna and Celoni’s Frankenstein similarly has a happy ending, with Victor and the creature reuniting on Gus’ ship in the Arctic, where Victor tells his lonely creation that he now has plans to draw and animate “a wonderful land, a place full of amazing creatures” like Duckenstein, which he sited in Calisota (the fictional state where Duckburg is).
If a magical land on the west coast filled with colorful, animated characters sounds familiar, well, it ought to. Here then, finally, Enna and Celoni seem to draw a line between Walt Disney himself and Shelley’s Frankenstein, two eccentric, larger-than-life geniuses who have unlocked the god-like secrets of creation itself.
It may have been meant to be more a metafictional gag than a metaphor, but it works as both.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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