Hindsight Bio: Carl Barks, 1901-2000. Carl Barks created stories for children. If comic books were to be viewed as a species of literature, then he worked in that branch of belles lettres dubbed "juvenile" in the book trade. But those scoffers who pronounce "kiddie lit" with a lingering sneer have doubtless forgotten Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne and Kenneth Graham and Lewis Carroll. And Barks’ carefully crafted oeuvre, like that of this revered band of storytellers, appeals to adults as well as children. It engages their imagination. And their admiration, too. And no author—whether Joseph Conrad or Arthur Conan Doyle or Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare himself—can hope for a loftier accolade or achieve greater acclaim.
Once he matured in his talent, Barks proved a master craftsman who sometimes produced masterpieces of his art and always produced vital and entertaining tales. For most of us, he had created a world, a world in which goodness is rewarded and evil is punished (but not too severely: the evil, after all, is a rather small bore evil rather than the overweening sort we find in supervillains bent on conquering the universe or in demagogues fomenting ethnic purity).
It was also a world of good-natured laughter and the giddy excitement of rollicking adventure. In short, it was both funny and fun. And moral. Barks’ stories championed honesty, hard work, loyalty and resourcefulness. The Puritan ethic. American values, through and through. Pioneering American values.
Commenting upon Barks’ work at the time of his death, Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of the Walt Disney Company, said: "Carl Barks was one of the most gifted artists and inventive storytellers ever to work for Disney and the undisputed Comic Book King. When it came to creating imaginative tales for Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and the other classic Disney characters, no one ever did it better. He challenged our imaginations and took us on some of the greatest adventures we have ever known. His prolific comic book creations entertained many generations of devoted fans and influenced countless artists over the years. Carl’s joyful humor and stylish storytelling will certainly be missed but his timeless tales will stand as a legacy to his originality and brilliant artistic vision."
Nice. But Barks was not on the Disney payroll for much of his career. His paychecks for most of his life came from Western Publishing, for whom he drew comic book stories about the Disney water fowl. But before sitting himself securely at the drawingboard, Barks worked as a farmer, logger, riveter, muleskinner, pseudo-cowboy, and printing press feeder (to name a few of the jobs Barks held)—all of which gave him insight into the work-a-day world of numerous occupations, the kind of knowledge he would later put to use as Donald Duck moved from job to job with each issue of the comic books.
Born March 27, 1901, on his father’s grain ranch near Merrill, Oregon, Barks joined the work force early, laboring in his father’s fields. In 1918, he left home ("a windy, dusty profitless life" as he called the life there) to try his luck in the outside world at the litany of jobs just mentioned. In 1923, he married and went to work as a repairman in a railroad yard in Roseville, California. While in the railroad game, Barks began moonlighting cartoons to such famed humor magazines of the era as Judge and College Humor. He also submitted cartoons in to a little-known publication called The Calgary Eye-Opener, which had been founded in 1902 in Canada but which was then (since 1922) published in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1928, the Eye-Opener bought some of his cartoons. And then, in 1931, the magazine was sold, and the new publisher, casting about for a productive editorial staff, saw Barks' work and asked him to join the staff. In November 1931, Barks bundled up his worldly goods in a single valise and journeyed to the midwest. And for the next four years, he was the magazine's associate editor and staff cartoonist.
The Eye-Opener was firmly in the tradition of "naughty" humor magazines that followed in the footsteps of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, which began in 1920 as little more than mimeographed pages of jokes stapled together. According to Barks historian Geoffrey Blum, The Eye-Opener was "pocket-size and printed on cheap paper [and] packed with saucy rhymes, anecdotes about virginity preserved and lost, and pen-and-ink cartoons showing a little too much leg to be respectable"—that is, girls and sexy innuendo, barnyard humor, boozers and losers, continuing characters, preachers, cops and judges and the law, circuses, freaks, "ugly hags and fat bags," as well as those "leggy lassies" just referred to.
Later, Barks reported that he was paid about $90 a month for writing and drawing "about half the book" as well as editing the remainder and pacifying contributors that couldn’t (yet) be paid. He provided cartoons in all the categories of the humor of the period, sometimes sexist and racist but no more so than any of his colleagues of that time. His drawings are neat and cleanly rendered, better made than many of this ilk at the time. Uncluttered artwork with deftly spotted blacks, appealing in its simplicity but otherwise partaking of the cartoon styles of the day (with a generous nod to John Held, Jr., and Russell Patterson, whose influence was pervasive throughout the twenties and well into the thirties). The prurient interests of that era were enflamed more by stocking tops, garters, and lace underwear than outright nakedness—pretty tame by today’s standard. (But then, by today’s standards, almost everything is pretty tame.)
Then in 1935, Barks saw a chance to escape the hand-to-mouth existence of the ribald magazine game: he answered an ad for cartoonists at the Walt Disney Studios. He joined the ranks there in November as an in-betweener, and, like all Disney artists, attended art classes for several months—his only training in cartooning save for a few lessons in the Landon School mail-order course. As soon as he showed a gift for gag-construction, he was moved to the story department. His favorite character was Donald Duck, and he helped boost the character to stardom, collaborating on about three dozen shorts about the Duck, including Modern Inventions, Good Scouts, and Timber.
While Barks always admitted he learned much at the Mouse Factory, by the summer of 1942, the air conditioning at the place was too much for his "leaky sinuses," so he started thinking about leaving. In November, he moved to San Jacinto with his second wife and set up a chicken farm. Once dried out on the desert, he began in early 1943 doing Donald Duck stories for Western Publishing, which produced the comic book offspring of the Disney Studio. Before long, he was regularly producing a ten-page Donald Duck story for every issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories.
The ten-pagers (as these ventures in WDC&S are termed) are much like the animated cartoons—a series of incidents, "gags," as Barks put it, strung together around a over-arching theme. They are distinguished by a dilemma that initiates an action of escalating mayhem, a string of comedic crises, each more extreme than the last, that culminate in a comic crescendo, yielding a denouement with moral import (not so pronounced as to be a "lesson," but a definite moral posture nonetheless).
Because Barks’ cartooning has its roots firmly in animation where the visual component is the very raison d’etre, his work was always highly visual. Later, as his plots became more complex, Barks needed verbiage to explain and elaborate, but he did not substitute verbal meaning for visual meaning. He blended the words and the pictures in the best cartoon manner to achieve a meaning and significance neither was capable of alone without the other. To appreciate the gags, particularly, we need to comprehend both words and pictures.
Most of the ten-pagers involve some brand of contest. Donald’s nephews challenge him, or Donald wants to prove something about himself to them, or he undertakes to solve a problem. Regardless of the provocation, a Barksian morality infested the stories from month to month. One time the story seemed to prove that extremism is ultimately destructive. Another time, events demonstrate that braggarts are always deflated. In another, greed leads to defeat. And in yet another, the egotist who listens to no one and heeds no advice is likely to be proven wrong.
But the ten-pagers weren’t what gave Barks his stature as a creative cartoonist. It was the more exotic adventure stories. And for these, Barks needed a slightly different Donald.
These book-length tales had a rhythm of their own. They were not comedies like the ten-pagers. They had comic moments—the opening sequences, usually, and the ending; and throughout there were laughs provoked by the ducks’ extreme reactions to life-threatening perils. But mostly, the long stories were straight adventure from the first menace through the middle until the denouement.
In the ten-pagers, Donald was a logical extension of the hot-tempered bumbler of animated films. As the parent figure for his nephews, he was a disciplinarian but usually a wrong-headed one. As their self-appointed role model, he was a braggart and, predictably, a fraud. Over-all, then, he was a blustering, bragging bungler.
But in the book-length adventure stories, Donald became something more. It is a mark of Barks’ skill as a storyteller that he could take this hot-headed fumbler and make him occasionally heroic—and make us believe it. He was still bumbler enough that his nephews had to rescue him from whatever predicament his impetuous enthusiasms got him into. But occasionally, he was successful enough at whatever he attempted to justify his own good opinion of himself, a neat sleight of characterization.
Still, there were inconsistencies. If the plot demanded, Donald would be cowardly. (It made him better material for jokes). But if the plot required heroism, he was heroic. Most often, however, he was good intentioned, brave when his nephews were threatened but not much any other time, and impulsive, quick to act and acting without thinking—which got him into trouble that he couldn’t get out of without a substantial assist from Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Still, Barks made it all fit into one personality—a signal storytelling achievement.
Said Barks: "I always felt myself to be an unlucky person like Donald, who is a victim of so many circumstances. But there isn’t a person in the United States who couldn’t identify with him. He is everything, he is everybody; he makes the same mistakes that we all make. He is sometimes a villain, and he is often a real good guy, and at all times, he is just a blundering person like the average human being, and I think that is one of the reasons people like the duck."
In short, Donald emerged as a fairly resourceful adventurer—impulsive still but not out of control. And then came "Christmas on Bear Mountain" (December 1947), a winter’s tale celebrated for introducing Scrooge McDuck, who would emerge as Barks’ stellar creation.
Scrooge came along simply because Barks was doing a Christmas story and thought of conjuring up his own version of the Dickens yuletide stalwart.
"I got to thinking of an old rich uncle," he once explained, "and gradually the story just kept building. Donald would have to get into a situation where I could use this rich uncle. And the kids wanted Christmas trees, and they wanted snow and the different things that go along with Christmas. So all the elements were there, and I just started hooking them together. Now, I can’t say where these things come from. I have a situation that has to be solved, and somehow all the parts just commence coming into my head from someplace, and I just fit them together.
"And pretty soon," he continued, "I had fitted together a story of the ducks getting permission from their rich uncle to go up on Bear Mountain and use his cabin overnight. Well, that, of course, meant that the rich uncle had to have a reason for doing that, so I brought in this thought that he wanted to know whether Donald was a real brave duck, and that led to the bear, and the situation of testing Donald’s courage. That’s the way those stories build. I have a bunch of things that have to go into a story, and so I just keep feeling around for the best gags that fit in. It’s like sewing together pieces of a shirt."
But the rich old duck had the moral rents of miserliness in the fabric of his character, and it’s clear that Scrooge wasn’t sympathetic enough a personality to endure. He made only periodic appearances in the duck books, and then in "Only a Poor Old Man," the first Four Color book (No. 386, March 1952) with Uncle Scrooge in the title role, Barks found the formula that would make Scooge the star he was destined to be.
The key development occurs right at the beginning with the now-classic scene of Scrooge in the money bin, diving into the heaped-up lucre "like a porpoise," burrowing through it "like a gopher," and tossing it up and letting it hit him on the head. This inspired maneuver immediately casts Scrooge in a different light. He isn’t greedy for money in order to gain the power it brings or the things it can buy; he isn’t a miser for the pure sake of possessing money alone. No, for Scrooge, his money is a toy. He plays with it. And in the act of playing, he reveals his childlike nature.
With a childish miser, we can be sympathetic. We find this idiosyncrasy comical; and he who is possessed by it is, likewise, amusing. Amusing not threatening. No longer just a grasping somewhat evil miser, he is now an comically quirky compulsive obsessive with a pronounced streak of Yankee ingenuity and Puritan ethic.
When the nephews ask him how he amassed his fortune, Scrooge says: "I made it on the seas and in the mines and in the cattle wars of the old frontier. I made it by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties. And I made it on the square."
"Only a Poor Old Man" was a watershed story. After it, Barks was able to use Scrooge for almost any purpose. His passion for money as a plaything was always good for a laugh—and it also served to remind us that, after all is said and done, Scrooge is just a child. But an adventurous one. His wealth financed many a wild escapade over the years, providing Donald and his nephews with a durable device for getting from Duckburg to the Andes or to the bottom of the ocean.
Barks’ favorite stories include "Lost in the Andes" (the "square egg story," which he liked because it was "technically" a good story), "In Old California" (because of its sentimental quality—"I think I got a kind of musical tone to my dialogue in the writing, which I was almost playing Spanish music to"), "Land of the Totem Poles," "Vacation Time," and "The Horse-Radish Story."
He liked the latter because it gave him a chance to show an aspect of Scrooge’s character. "He was up against a situation where he could dissolve all of his troubles by just leaving a guy to drown out there in the ocean, but he perpetuated his troubles by rescuing the guy and saving his life"—even though the rescued personage was an out-and-out scallywag beyond redemption, which he speedily proved.
In the other major support characters that he concocted—Gladstone Gander and Gyro Gearloose—Barks completed his portrait of the American mythos. If Scrooge was capitalism, then the virtuoso inventor Gyro represented the technological expertise that nurtures capitalism. And Gladstone, so lucky he need never work or otherwise lift a hand—well, without a certain measure of luck, no one wins on the stock market, that ultimate symbol of capitalism.
Gladstone appeared in more of the ten-pagers than Scrooge ever did, and it is therefore probably fitting that he presented the reverse image of Scrooge. Says comics scholar Michael Barrier: "Scrooge’s life of unending toil is in truth not far removed from Gladstone’s life of unending idleness; one is the other, turned inside out. Both characters are vessels for human failings that have expressed themselves in other ways at other times, and will again.
"Because Barks is a twentieth century artist," Barrier continues, "he worked with materials that were ready at hand, like our obsession with money and luck, but his subject matter was not the twentieth century as much as it was human nature as he saw it.
And he did not see a vision of loveliness. Barrier again: "Barks is a highly conservative man, with a generally cynical view of human nature, and no one who reads the stories from his best years could come away believing that he is optimistic about man’s perfectibility."
But we can rise above our faults, Barks’s stories say again and again, by working hard and by being honest and loyal and diligent. Barks earned the admiration and affection of generations of readers because his stories so thoroughly embodied these enduring axioms of the American mythology while also making us laugh and smile.
As a creative talent, however, his achievement was to construct a world that obeyed these principles and was at the same time so apparently real that we could believe in it and in the truths it represented.
The banging on the tin drum and the tootling on a toy horn that once called us to far-away adventure in the Barks books may be muted somewhat in the later years, but the world Barks had created had a life of its own regardless.
Barks’ work is a ringing testament not only to his talent but to the persuasiveness of the medium itself when deployed by a master. Barks’s words yoked to his pictures convince us that the preoccupations of half-naked ducks are worth our attention. The pictures—energetic, cute drawings of water fowl in shirts and hats—seduce our eyes, but the stories enthrall, capturing our hearts and ensuring our loyalty.
So convincing is Barks’ visual-verbal spell that we accept without quibble the patently silly notion that Donald and his nephews need a boat in order to traverse any stretch of water, a frequent predicament in the stories.
Barks, of course, was the first convert to this gospel. Said he: "I’m afraid there were times when I kept thinking of those ducks as human beings and treating them as human beings, and I even reached a point in the story in the first issue of Uncle Scrooge [when] I called him ‘only a poor old man.’ I didn’t call him a poor old duck. So I guess I always felt they were human beings, just humans with ducks’ bodies. All their problems were the same as humans had. I guess that I humanized them."
So persuasive is his picture of the duck universe and the reality of the ducks’ humanity that we readily overlook clanking plots with coincidence piled upon coincidence in towering pyramids of improbability. Having accepted talking shirt-clad ducks as our fellow beings, we can scarcely balk at the too-convenient plot twists at every crossroad in the tale.
Clearly, the ducks—for whatever reason—appealed to Barks on some profound level of his creative psyche. Their personalities as he developed them engaged his attention and stimulated his imagination, which produced inventive stories, which resulted, in turn, in more complexity in the personalities under his pen, further stimulation, more invention, and so ad infinitum.
To say that the work Barks produced under these very favorable circumstances is the work of genius is not to stretch the truth at all. And we are lucky, those of us who read his duck stories growing up (and, even, grown up), to have had the pleasure of his company. Now that he is gone, it is sad to contemplate the obvious: we will have no more new duck stories from the duck man—"the good artist."
But we haven’t had any new ones for over a quarter of a century. What we do have—and always will have—are all those he produced during a long and creatively absorbing career. And they, by now, have become part of the cultural heritage of America. Donald and Scrooge and Gladstone and the rest are as securely lodged in the backs of our brains as Alfred E. Neuman.
And we can return to the body of his work again and again, finding new pleasures at each revisitation. In that, we have cause for rejoicing. We shall remember him every time we read a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—every story that teaches us something, every story that makes us laugh as well as feel. And the body of work that Barks leaves behind should stand not as a memorial but as an inspiration to go and do likewise—to make good stories, stories that entertain and elevate the human spirit.
And that reminds me of Tennyson’s ringing affirmation in "Ulysses": Come, my friends,
‘Tis not to late to seek a newer world ... To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
There may be no joy in Duckburg tonight, but tomorrow—ahh, tomorrow. We may yield momentarily to grief at Barks’ passing, but tomorrow—or the next day—we will re-visit his stories, and his legacy will comfort us with its inspiration. Tomorrow and thereafter, we’ll be everlastingly thankful that Carl Barks once walked among us and, with surpassing invention, imagined a world of ducks and pictured that world and told us stories about it. And about us.
For more stories about the
great creators of comic books, check out a book of mine called The Art
of the Comic Book; for hints about its contents,