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.1 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 story every two weeks, with amazingly little repetition; reading from his earliest duck tales to his latest, one can watch him learning how to pace and structure a story, reaching a level of technical skill where the crazy dilemmas and the gags flowed effortlessly, then finally getting tired of the whole thing. At his best he was inspired, exhilaratingly funny and shrewd. His ten-page comedies have much in common with the television situation comedies of the Fifties, in that Donald Duck was portrayed as a suburban householder entrusted (for unspecified reasons) with the care of his young nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Each episode displayed the duck’s frustrated efforts to get the nephews to bathe, eat something besides candy, or show up for school in the fall, all of which they regarded as outrageous assaults on their personal freedom (an attitude which children didn’t have on television). Or Barks would show Donald battling surly neighbors and aggressive garden pests, or trying to find and hold down a job; all subverted, of course, by the duck’s famous hair-trigger temper and his compulsive tendency to overdo everything.
Barks’s stories would begin very simply and quietly—with Donald reading the want ads, or a self-help book, or planting a tree—and proceed, irresistibly, as in a nightmare, toward an extravagant series of complications from which there was no return, except, luckily, to the next episode. In a 1955 story, Donald is awakened by clattering trains and yowling alley cats, and moves himself and the boys to a multifamily Victorian house in the quietest part of town; the other tenants are a retired Swiss cheese taster and a writer who works entirely in longhand. That night Donald settles down to sleep, but the very silence makes him nervous; eventually he picks up the faint sound of the author next door, pacing up and down in squeaky slippers. Donald takes this as a challenge, and responds with a musical saw. The writer raps on the wall with his slipper; Donald gets a hammer. The author brings out his hi-fi; Donald runs tire chains up and down the air ducts. Finally, driven beyond endurance, the elderly cheese taster rises slowly from his bed (“I’m sure the papers said nothing about an invasion”) and ends the war by blowing his grandfather’s alpenhorn directly at the combatants. The last scene shows Donald in the hospital with a hearing aid.
All this was in the tradition of the Disney cartoon shorts of the Thirties and Forties, in which Donald Duck first appeared as a lazy good-for-nothing in The Wise Little Hen (1934). By the time of The Band Concert (1935), the duck was an accomplished nuisance, playing the wise guy opposite the straight man, Mickey Mouse. Probably because he wasn’t required to be cooperative or sensible, the duck eclipsed the mouse in popularity; during the war it was Donald who was cast as the average taxpayer or the typical G1, or (in Disney’s most famous propaganda film, The Fuehrer’s Face), as a German worker in a munitions factory, building bigger and bigger bombs and saluting his leaders frantically until he mutters (in Clarence Nash’s world-famous cheek-gurgling voice): “Aww, heil.” The New Yorker once described the duck as “personified irritability”; that was what made him a star.2
Barks, who had some experience as a magazine cartoonist, specializing in, of all things, risqué jokes, came to Disney in the year of The Band Concert and stayed until 1942. He worked mainly as a “story man,” or gag writer, in the studio’s duck unit. These were the most exciting years at the Disney studio, when the first successful animated features were made; working there was organized like a rigorous university education, with lectures and discussion groups on the art of cartooning. Disney’s curriculum stressed character, motivation, and logic, but encouraged experiment: “If you could find a reason for something, you could drag anything in,” Barks said later. But after seven years, Barks became bored. He had become a frustrated storyteller; the ten-minute cartoon shorts on which he worked typically centered on a single plot situation (Donald vs. the exhibits in a museum; Donald gets drafted; Donald goes out on a date, but the nephews come too, etc.), and Barks wanted to tell longer, more elaborate stories. He quit the studio intending to start his own comic strip, and opened a chicken farm in San Jacinto, near the mountains east of Los Angeles; like Donald, he drifted into the comic-book business because he needed the money.
The best children’s comic books at that time were produced by the Western Printing and Lithographing Company, and published by Dell. Western contracted with all the cartoon studios for the use of their characters; Barks initially drew comic books featuring Porky Pig and other archrivals of the Disney characters, as well as the ducks. Conscious of their position, Western and Dell were determined to be wholesome; they were jittery about parents’ complaints, and required their artists to stick to a strict morals code—no sex, no ethnic caricatures, no cruelty, very little physical violence—but beyond that left them more or less alone to develop their own story lines and invent subsidiary characters. Barks’s duck was less blatantly aggressive than the screen Donald, more of a worrier, and his rages built slowly. Eventually he even looked different: taller somehow, more slender, alert, unexpectedly graceful. His eyes got taller too, turning into long vertical ovals rising quizzically above his beak, which made him look positively intellectual, and registered an extraordinary range of emotions, from perplexity and suppressed guilt to all-out hysteria. As in the screen cartoons, the duck’s main preoccupations were his nephews, the neighborhood, and finding the perfect career to suit his talents, but Barks played up the discrepancies between Donald’s ambitions and perfidious reality. It was a more introspective approach.
Every job the duck took seemed doomed to failure. Hired to demonstrate cake baking using a new fast-rising flour, he is given boxes of it with instructions printed in an obscure foreign language. He carries on regardless; but soon discovers that unless the directions are followed precisely, the stuff behaves like an explosive. Or he decides to become a Western sheriff, having seen a lot of cowboy movies; his first day on the trial, he meets a friendly gang of cattle thieves and efficiently arrests one of their victims. (This particular episode also featured the most foolish-looking, tangle-footed horses that ever clopped across the West.)
Just to make it more humiliating, Barks surrounded Donald with relatives who were always successful, like his cousin Gladstone Gander, a goose with marcelled feathers and a flashy suit, who courted Donald’s sweetheart Daisy and never worked a day in his life—he lived by winning lotteries and finding wallets on the sidewalk. (Once, when Gladstone inherited a house-moving business and was required to transport an antique dwelling from one hilltop to another, a cyclone lifted it neatly across.) Even Donald’s nephews weren’t always cranky or defiant; as the comic-book series progressed they became immersed in their scout troop, the Junior Woodchucks, where they learned to build bridges and do calculus while Donald sat around watching television.
Then there was Uncle Scrooge. He first appeared in a Christmas story in 1947, a mean old millionaire duck who lived in a mansion adorned with art deco statuettes of athletic ducks, brass duck bookends, and portraits of money on the walls. “Here I sit in this big lonely dump waiting for Christmas to pass,” was how he introduced himself; but even after the Dickensian pretext for creating the character (Scrooge thinks the younger generation is soft, and challenges Donald to a test of courage; through a series of misunderstandings, Donald muddles through, and Scrooge turns friendly and generous) had been used up, Scrooge wouldn’t go away. Scrooge McDuck, to give him his full name, represented the ne plus ultra of the kind of success Donald was dreaming of. Scrooge had made his fortune prospecting in the Klondike, and had since acquired oil wells, real estate, fisheries, airlines, every conceivable kind of business. He made his money, he said, “by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties,” and was determined to be the leading tycoon in the world. To judge from his fantastic accumulation of cash, which his clerks had to invent new numbers to describe, he was.
What made Scrooge an attractive character was exactly that: he was all he was cracked up to be. He was dressed like John D. Rockefeller Senior, in a high silk hat, a frock coat, and spats, but he didn’t look out of date; in the comics, that was a tycoon’s uniform. He spouted the rhetoric of the Horatio Alger era, preaching thrift, self-discipline, and industry; he was single-minded in his pursuit of what he wanted, and counted no defeats, only victories. He was also devious, temperamental, and cheap. He hired his nephews to do various little trouble-shooting jobs for him, which took them to the Himalayas or the Antarctic or the Arabian desert, but never paid them more than thirty cents an hour. But he was capable of magnanimity. In “Back to the Klondike” (1953), Scrooge returns to the haunts of his youth to find a hidden gold cache, and remembers how Glittering Goldie, a dance-hall duck with eyelashes like barbed wire, had tricked him out of a sack of gold nuggets sixty years before. But when he meets Glittering Goldie again, an impoverished old woman living in a shack (with a pet grizzly bear), he feigns amnesia and lets her discover the gold cache. Scrooge was never merely lucky, like Gladstone; his success was the result of intelligence, imagination, back-breaking work, and accumulated experience; as he said, he sold road maps to Marco Polo. If Donald represented the ordinary guy, Scrooge was the artist.
Especially after he got his own magazine in 1952, Scrooge became a major figure and prime mover in Barks’s second type of story, the adventures. But these stories were originally conceived to show another side of Donald—to let him win for a change; to show that his restlessness and obstinacy could, under the right circumstances, become courage and determination. When Donald was searching for Viking gold, or confronting weird creatures on the moon, he managed much better than he did at ordinary jobs. There was also a change in the psychological atmosphere of these stories: in the adventures Donald’s antagonists were much crazier than he was. In Barks’s first original comic-book story, a melodramatic affair called “Donald Duck and the Mummy’s Ring” (1943), one of the nephews is abducted, by mistake, by the emissaries of an Egyptian potentate who hates modern civilization and wants to live like a pharaoh. The little duck is saved, and even makes friends with the eccentric bey, but the pattern was typical: these tales were about characters with obsessions, people who lived out their own peculiar vision of paradise.
This was just the territory in which Uncle Scrooge belonged. “The Second-Richest Duck” (1956) begins as Donald is cheerfully going out for a soda, and Scrooge gives him a lecture on his wasteful habits, which Donald, as usual, ignores. In a dark mood, Scrooge wanders into the park, picking up discarded newspapers, because they’re free; from one he learns, to his horror, that there is another duck in South Africa who owns an identical number of factories, mines, and oil wells as himself. Dizzy with the shock, Scrooge rounds up Donald, the nephews, and his financial statements, and sails for his rival’s turf for a showdown. The two old ducks take an instant dislike to each other, and fall to comparing assets in cash, gems, oil, pumpkins, and cranberries, and come out exactly even—except for one thing: they can’t decide which one, after a lifetime of thrift, has saved the most string. Over the years each has accumulated a huge ball of string, several feet in diameter, of apparently identical size.
They decide there is only one solution: to unroll the balls of string, due north across the plains of Africa. On the way, the string gets eaten by locusts and army ants, falls into canyons full of brambles, and gets trampled by giraffes and rhinos, but the old ducks roll on. They are scrambling through jungle by the time Scrooge wins, the string having been eaten, burned, and tangled down to a few feet; and as the nephews help the exhausted South African duck to retrace his steps, Scrooge asks Donald if this isn’t proof of the virtues of saving. Donald replies that, all things considered, he’d rather have a soda.
The moral of the story was not that money can’t buy happiness—nothing so obvious as that. Scrooge adored money; he kept his liquid assets in his “money bin,” an enormous vault in which he would frolic joyfully among the coins and greenbacks, as he said, like a porpoise diving through waves. Still, he had problems peculiar to his situation. The bills in his bin attracted mildew and mice; the bin itself was under assault from highway planners, and, often, from a persistent but inept gang of burglars called the Beagle Boys, who had been in prison so many times they called each other by numbers instead of names (even though they were, evidently, brothers). The strangest difficulties developed when Scrooge reached further than mere wealth, and started searching for the famous treasures of legendary history—the Golden Fleece, and the Philosopher’s Stone of the alchemists that transmuted base metals into gold. The Philosopher’s Stone, when found, was dangerous; it made Scrooge’s joints squeak and his eyes turn yellow. The Golden Fleece, which Donald and the boys snatched at great peril from a live dragon and some aging harpies, looked all right, and Scrooge had it made up into a coat, but the fabric was freezing cold.
In “Back to Long Ago” (1957), Donald raced Scrooge by plane, sail, and oar to a Caribbean island to hunt for an Elizabethan sea captain’s hidden treasure; but when the chest was unearthed, it contained nothing but the shriveled remains of some four-hundred-year-old potatoes, and a note from the captain: “It is my firm belief that these strange and wondrous vegetables will be greatly prized by her imperial majesty….”
Potatoes versus gold; sodas versus string. If Barks openly preached anything, it was respect for differences of opinion, the mysterious order of things, especially the natural order: in a 1957 story, Scrooge gets fed up with the smog and noise of Duckburg, which his own factories and smelters have produced, and buys a tract of unspoiled land in Canada, but cannot resist seeing its industrial possibilities—natural gas, mineral deposits, timber, moose steaks—as the ducks canoe through the quiet lakes. “Those reeds would make wallboard.” “Unca Scrooge!” cry the shocked nephews. For once, Scrooge is decisively foiled, by a tribe of midget Indians who live among the lakes, and Barks made it quite clear whose side he was on. Of course, Barks clearly relished Scrooge’s drive and ingenuity; it was his own heroic quality, like Donald’s gumption and nerve. Barks’s real villains were bullies and shysters, characters who weren’t willing to take their chances in the world, like the unscrupulous canner P.J. McBrine, a snouted individual who imported Brazilian beetles to destroy the Duckburg cucumber crop so that he could unload a warehouse full of pickled rutabagas. Even he reformed when he took a few bites of his own product.
Barks’s own early life reads like something out of American legend. His parents were homesteaders in southern Oregon at the turn of the century; born in 1901, Barks grew up among cowboys, attended a one-room school, and watched his father have a nervous breakdown during the bad years when prices went down and his wheat fields dried up. Barks himself worked as many kinds of jobs as Donald or Scrooge, as a farmhand, in a box factory, at a logging camp, riveting on a railroad. His stories about impossible jobs and get-rich-quick schemes are funny because they have a bitter, authentic feel; his wild shaggy-duck tales about lost treasures and incredible feats draw upon children’s mythology books and the National Geographic, but they have the flavor of real western folklore. The Klondike, astonishing as it seems now, was not so remote from his experience as it is from ours; his three generations of ducks tie together the old California of goldrush fever and the new culture of suburbia and self-realization. His ambivalence about Scrooge and his wealth was obviously autobiographical as well: drawing comic books was not a highly paid occupation. But where most comics dealt in wish fulfillment, Barks was honest. He talked about how difficult success really is to achieve, and raised the even knottier question of how difficult it is to assess or define.
Serious books about comics are still a rarity, and are generally not handled by mainstream publishers. Michael Barrier’s intelligent Barks biography has been circulating in the collector’s market for a few years now; it contains a wealth of information, both technical and personal, about the rather arcane worlds of animation and comic-book publishing, and includes an excellent catalogue raisonné of Barks’s work. A young company called Another Rainbow has undertaken the task of reprinting all of Barks’s stories in a hard-cover format; the series, about half finished now, is projected for completion in 1988. The artwork is reproduced from photostats of Barks’s drawings from Western’s files (the originals were generally destroyed, on the assumption that comic-book art was of no value), printed slightly larger than comic-book size in black-and-white, which has the advantage of bringing out Barks’s precise, elegant drawing. The set also includes some interesting interviews and sketch work relating to Barks’s Disney years, and, unfortunately, several ponderous essays by scholars who teach “popular culture” at various universities, most of which are unreadable or irrelevant. The stories can manage perfectly well without them.
Barks created one other character who appears in this set, a shy, lanky chicken named Gyro Gearloose, who was a brilliant inventor. His wonderful machines, however, invariably caused more problems than they solved, and, like Scrooge, Gyro toys with the idea of chucking it all and retiring to the California desert. He abandons his computers and jet-propelled vehicles, and journeys far into the canyons, where his only neighbor is a grizzled prospector with a mule. But Gyro has no idea how to survive in the wilderness, and soon collapses from thirst; he is rescued by two robots, who work for the grizzled prospector. He turns out to be a retired scientist from Duckburg who once had the same idea. He built the robots because, he explains, “I found the simple life is too hard to handle.” That was Barks’s message, his signature: There’s no such thing as a simple life. Over a decade ago Barks retired from comics to paint, and wound up doing oils of his ducks, which, to his surprise, sold very well. His fans had all grown up. So maybe he was smarter than the smarties after all; a happy man, and a lucky duck.
For an introduction to the subject, see Michael Barrier and Martin Williams, A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (Smithsonian/Abrams, 1981).↩
On the duck and his history, see Marcia Blitz, Donald Duck (Harmony/Crown, 1979).↩