Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book
The Carl Barks Library
Yesterday’s trash may become today’s collector’s item; this is true, these days, of old comic books. Before rock videos, before television, they were the cheap popular entertainment almost universally shared by American children from the Depression through the mid-Fifties, part of the collective experience of both Jules Feiffer’s generation and Steven Spielberg’s. Comics are now bought and sold by collectors for high prices, sometimes, apparently, out of pure “nostalgia,” but also partly in appreciation; for this least pretentious of the mass media attracted a few first-class storytellers whose work ranks with the best of the cartoonist’s art, along with Thurber and Krazy Kat and Little Nemo. In the case of Carl Barks, rediscovering him as an artist meant uncovering his identity first, since all his work, like that of most comic-book artists, was published anonymously. But children who grew up in the late Forties and early Fifties knew his style and manner—he was the “good artist” who drew Donald Duck in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories for nearly thirty years. He was, besides, the creator of Donald Duck’s incomparable Uncle Scrooge.
Most comic books dished out fantasy. That was what they were for. The medium was invented mainly by pulp-fiction publishers as a promotional gimmick, and its first big hit was Superman, who in turn spawned a great host of imitators, patriotic crime fighters with magic powers and elaborate costumes. Barks came from a different tradition—he was an ex-Disney animator, and he did ducks, not supermen—but it was surely his affection for swashbucklers and shoot-‘em-ups that brought him to comic books and kept him there. His unique contribution was a duckish sort of adventure story in which nothing turned out as expected, and in which the exotic settings and dangerous derring-do were utterly transformed by a cast of quacking characters with very down-to-earth personalities. In other words, Barks was a natural satirist; his stories were high-spirited enough for children, but really addressed adult longings and worries. (In Steven Millhauser’s novel Edwin Mullhouse, a tongue-in-cheek memoir of childhood circa 1950, there is a description of how the five-year-old Edwin receives a subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories for his birthday, and of how his father, a college professor of English, spends the afternoon happily reading it. This scene may have been repeated in many households.) Barks’s real subject, as he once said, was the perversity of beasts, machines, and nature.
There were, generally speaking, two types of Barks stories. One was a series of ten-page comedies that ran monthly in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, the best seller among comic books (topping three million copies in 1953). The other type, the adventure stories, were longer and appeared in less frequent magazines with titles like Donald Duck Four Color and Boys’ and Girls’ March of Comics. Between 1943 and 1973, Barks turned out over five hundred in all, at a rate of about one …