Carl Barks and
the Art of the Comic Book

by Michael Barrier

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

M. Lilien: New York, 1981

228 pages March 2007

Pleasures for readers

Donald Duck - Land of the Totem Poles (Disney title) Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by Michael Barrier is described by its author as several books in one, and so it is. But first, it is the foundational work about the Disney Ducks as they were developed in the comic-book medium by writer and artist Carl Barks from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s.

Barrier's three sections of this large-format book begin with a Preface, an expanded version of his biographical, historical, and analytical essay, "The Lord of Quackly Hall" (1967). This Preface is ninety pages, including some black-and-white reproductions, and is very thoughtful and appreciative. Another hundred pages is a bibliography of Barks' work in assorted comic books, including some non-Duck ones. And there are some appendices, including an overall chronological listing.

The bibliography is annotated, with niceties such as changes in reprinted versions as well as assorted comments by Barrier and by Barks himself:

I have tried to assemble a bibliography that holds some pleasures for readers, as well as for those who simply need a scrap of information. ... that rewards browsing ... filled with delightful surprises, especially in the form of insights into Barks's thinking about his own work. It was worth knowing, I think, where the idea for the "Seven Cities of Cibola" originated, and whose picture is on the wanted poster in "The Mummy's Ring", and what Barks thought about deletion of two pages from "Mythtic Mystery."

What would have been quite helpful is a title index to the stories, but unfortunately most of the stories were as untitled in their original appearances as they were unauthored. Or rather, generically titled and authored: "Donald Duck" by "Walt Disney". (Gladstone added story titles for their later reprint of the complete set as the Carl Barks Library.)

Writing and plots in the comics

Michael Barrier shows how in the comic books Carl Barks developed the character of Donald Duck from the earlier animation short films (Barks had worked on a number of those), in which Donald was shallow, hot-tempered, and unintelligible. In animation, a quick succession of simple sight-gags was about all that could be provided.

In the comic books, however, the writing came to dominate — especially the writing of the anonymous creator, Carl Barks — bringing opportunities for real plots and interesting depths of character. This is the true Donald Duck as a person, for whom the animations were only an overture. Similarly for Donald's nephews, Huey, Louie, and Dewey.

Barks also invented for the comics such memorable individuals as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, and (for ongoing villains) the Beagle Boys and Magica de Spell. In varying combinations, these folks furnished Barks with many adventures which were exciting, hilarious, or both.

Barrier points out tidbits and virtues, not always obvious, in many classic stories from "The Seven Cities of Cibola" (Uncle Scrooge No. 7, September 1954), with its mythically evocative trail-following beyond the horizon in the Southwestern desert; to "Statuesque Spendthrifts" (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories No. 138, March 1952), about the mind-boggling competition between Scrooge and the Maharajah of Howduyustan to build the largest statue of Cornelius Coot, founder of Duckburg.

From these myriad riches, I'll mention here just one other of my own favorites, the little philosophical gem, "Flippism" (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories No. 149, February 1953). Why can't we solve all our problems with a timely flip of a coin at the decision point?

Plausible science fiction and mythology?

Michael Barrier is negative about some of the later developments, but I disagree that this was largely downhill and devolutionary after the mid-1950s or so. For instance, Barrier says:

Near the end of the fifties, Barks turned in Uncle Scrooge to stories set in outer space; he evidently found in them a kind of release. But he took no pains to make them plausible, and so they failed even as fantasy. On earth, by contrast, some of his "scientific" explanations of myths and legends (the Flying Dutchman, for example) were labored and relentless. The delicate balance between the fantastic and the mundane, which Barks had struck so well, so often, was lost.

How much plausibility do we really require, when we take our talking ducks from Duckburg and send them off on space exploration? As a dyed-in-the-wool science-fiction fan myself (child of two SF fans), I've always thought these stories work quite well: spaceships, aliens, inhabited asteroids; as well as plots with matter transmission, telepathy, and such exotica right in Duckburg. They are charming and funny, and more sincerely attempted and successfully achieved science fiction than many routine offerings from their contemporary science-fiction specialty magazines.

On the other hand, when Barks invents ingenious explanations of myths and legends, he does not please Barrier with that approach, either. Barks' rationale for the sailing ship in perpetual full sail but glimpsed only rarely by sailors in extreme weather, the fabulous Flying Dutchman, is both neat and (may I say it) plausible.

Journeying from gosh-wow

Barrier also faults Barks' structure of the later stories:

Increasingly, Barks would rush through the preliminaries, sending the ducks off on an adventure without bothering to establish a pretext for it. Gone were the days when he would devote half of a story's pages to getting the ducks where they were going, as he did in Uncle Scrooge No. 5 (1954), when he took eighteen pages (out of thirty-two) to get the ducks to Atlantis.

This is a key H. P. Lovecraft criticism of science fiction in the 1930s: that it needed more focus and less gosh-wow, and Lovecraft suggested concentrating on the wondrous space journey itself. Present this one scientific challenge in suspenseful detail, and the journey is the reward of the story. However, after the SF storytellers describe two or three first-flights to the planets in detail, what next? Hang up our space helmets? Any maturing genre or fictionalized specialty needs less introduction after the typical reader — either experienced or expectant — knows his way around.

If the ducks have (for instance) a number of adventures in the African interior, must all those stories take half the pages to explain how the ducks get to the interior of Africa? Of course not. It is not rushing through the preliminaries to start a story at or near the major setting and on the verge of the major action. The prolific Western novelist Louis L'Amour kindly pointed this out to me long ago.

Fun and wonder

Generally, Barrier prefers the earlier Duck stories, as more dramatic and conflict-heavy. That's reasonable, but many of the later stories are sheer light-hearted fun, which is fine with me. As William Blake points out, not all the parts of a great epic can be thundering dramatic high poetry; some parts must be prosaic as well. In the long epic of the Disney Ducks in comic books, I think there are many kinds of wonderful stories, and Carl Barks is the master of them all: the Lord of Quackly Hall, as Michael Barrier affectionately dubs him with a phrase from Barks himself.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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