Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Carl Barks

One of the most important things parents can do is share their loves and joys with their children. My brothers and I grew up in a home where both our parents were voracious readers. (We continued nighttime read-alongs past the age when it was really needed mainly to humor our mother because she enjoyed it.) Our dad introduced us to soccer and took us to films (including a remarkable number of art house flicks). He also shared his comic book collection with us.

He hadn't cared much for the Marvel line, but had a solid number of DC titles, mainly Batman, Superman and some crossovers. He also had plenty of EC horror comics and some early Mad books and comics. The real treasure, though, was his old Disney comics, most of them written and drawn by Carl Barks.

Back then, many comic book writers and artists were not credited, at least not at Disney, so our dad and his friends only knew Barks as "the good artist." Barks' artwork was a cut above, but he was an even better storyteller. His stories were funny, creative, and often stealthily educational while being very entertaining. For instance, rich Uncle Scrooge decided he needed a new coat befitting his wealth, so he hired his nephew Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey and Louie to help him locate the fabled Golden Fleece to make his coat. They encountered harpies, the minotaur and other creatures from Greek Mythology along the way. Huey, Dewey and Louie often saved the day, aided by the ridiculously invaluable Junior Woodchuck Handbook (boy, we wanted one of those – the Boy Scout Handbook isn't nearly as extensive). The stories of Carl Barks fall into the same category as the various muppet movies, Pixar films, and The Simpsons - they're just good stories that kids and adults can enjoy at the same time. (Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse comic strips are also superb, with some great yarns, although I'd give the edge to Barks. I also shouldn't slight Tintin, Asterix, and in a somewhat different vein, Pogo.)

Carl Barks had Uncle Scrooge, Donald and the boys search for the Fountain of Youth, the Seven Cities of Cibola, Shangri-La, a lost Incan city, the lost crown of Genghis Khan, the Flying Dutchman, head deep below the earth's crust and visit many other exotic and fantastical locales. One of the classics, Donald Duck and the Golden Helmet, has Donald and the gang racing rivals to archeological sites to find the titular item, and fighting for ownership of… North America. Come to think of it, the story hits the same themes of greed and the intoxication of power found in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only it's comedic, and features one of the most memorably slimy, suck-up lawyers you'll ever see. Another tale had Donald, who often made horrible decisions, inventing "Flippism," flipping a coin to make choices. Part one of the story had Huey, Dewey and Louie playing hooky from school (Barks had several stories like that). Despite their best efforts to shake Donald, he continued to hunt them down, aided by his uncannily accurate coin flips. Uncle Scrooge and Donald were often vain, greedy and prideful, but lovable despite that, while the kids were generally much more sensible. Carl Barks had a great feel for the kid point of view.

Many characters in the Disney duck-verse were created by Barks (who was born in 1901 and died in 2000). I only ever saw a few episodes of the Duck Tales animated series, but some episodes were based on Barks' stories and many of its characters were originally created by him. As the quite good Wikipedia entry on Barks explains:

He surrounded Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie with a cast of eccentric and colorful characters, such as the aforementioned Scrooge McDuck, the wealthiest duck in the world; Gladstone Gander, Donald's obscenely lucky cousin; inventor Gyro Gearloose; the persistent Beagle Boys; the sorceress Magica De Spell; Scrooge's rivals Flintheart Glomgold and John D. Rockerduck; Daisy's nieces April, May and June; Donald's neighbor Jones, and The Junior Woodchucks organization.

People who work for Disney generally do so in relative anonymity; the stories only carry Walt Disney's name and (sometimes) a short identification number. However, through the sheer quality of his work, people started realizing that a lot of the stories were written by one person, whom they started referring to as the Good Duck Artist. Later it was discovered that the Good Duck Artist went by the name of Carl Barks.

Barks' stories (whether humorous adventures or domestic comedies) often exhibited a wry, dark irony born of hard experience. The 10 pagers showcased Donald as everyman, struggling against the cruel bumps and bruises of everyday life with the nephews often acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding disasters Donald wrought upon himself. Yet while seemingly defeatist in tone the humanity of the characters shines through in their persistence despite the obstacles. These stories found popularity not only among young children but adults as well. Despite the fact that Barks had done little traveling his adventure stories often had the duck clan globe trotting to the most remote or spectacular of locations. This allowed Barks to indulge his penchant for elaborate backgrounds that hinted at his thwarted ambitions of doing realistic stories in the vein of Harold Foster's Prince Valiant.

Here's a few things I didn't know:

Barks' Donald Duck stories were rated #7 on Comic's Journal list of 100 top comics; his Uncle Scrooge stories were rated #20.

For the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have acknowledged the rolling boulder booby trap was inspired by the 1954 Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge adventure the Seven Cities of Cibola (Uncle Scrooge #7). Lucas and Spielberg have also made comments that some of Barks' stories regarding space travel and the depiction of aliens had an influence on them. [3] Lucas wrote the foreword to the 1982 "Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times." In it he calls Barks’ stories "cinematic" and "a priceless part of our literary heritage."

(The boulder in the Cibola story, scanned by Kit's Comics. Click for a larger view.)

Gladstone Publishing reprinted many of Carl Barks' stories starting in the 80s, and also printed some superb new stories in the Barks tradition by Don Rosa and others. They're out of business now, unfortunately. (The story I heard at the time was that Disney didn't want to renew their license when they realized the cash to be made directly.) Apparently, this Gladstone site still offer back issues, collections and lithographs, both the Barks library and reprints of the old EC comics. Some editions are pricey and aimed more for collectors. Me, I just liked the stories as a kid, and was excited to find some new tales as a teenager through Gladstone (including an elaborate and funny spy story set in Europe, where Donald and the boys were on vacation) Like other readers of Carl Barks, I remember his work fondly, and appreciate being introduced to it. So thanks to Carl Barks, and thanks to all the parents out there who pass on good stories, encourage imagination, and share their joys with their kids.

1 comment:

Rand Careaga said...

I grew up on "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories" in the 1950s. Each issue featured an adventure with Scrooge, Donald and the nephews. In the late 1980s I purchased a glossy coffee-table compendium of the best of these, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they'd worn: the writing was as gratifying (in certain respects more so) in my late thirties as it had been when I was not yet ten.