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Happy Birthday, Carl Barks

March 29, 2010
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Saturday was Carl Barks’s birthday. Had he not died in 2000 at the age of 99, he’d be 109. Anyone else who grew up loving Ducktales has him to thank: For nearly 65 years he was involved with Disney, most famously as author and illustrator of the “Duck” comic books, and among his creations are Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone Gander, Flintheart Glomgold, Magica DeSpell, the Beagle Boys, and, of course, Uncle $crooge.

Born in Merrill, Oregon, in 1901, Barks grew up on a small farm his parents owned and purportedly took up a number of odd jobs (that would later be reflected in Donald Duck’s vocational transcience) before deciding, on a whim, that he should go into cartooning, taking up a job at Disney in 1935. In 1942, he began his celebrated tenure working on Donald Duck comics, his first effort being the comic adaptation of an unproduced feature animation film showcasing Mickey, Goofy, and Donald seeking some lost treasure of the pirate Henry Morgan. The book, plotline heavily lifted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; incorporating Mickey Mouse’s primary antagonist Black Pete; and entitled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, was a collaboration between Barks and another Disney artist Jack Hannah. With Pirate Gold, Barks made somewhat of a name for himself and went on to write and illustrate around 500 stories featuring the ducks, until his retirement in 1966. Disney comic-book artists were never given credit in those days, but the quality of Barks’ art and stories was so distinct that fans were able to identify his work and those among the knowing would refer to him as “The Good Duck Artist.” In his latter years Barks took up oil painting, something apparently frowned down upon by Disney—but in 1971, he was granted permission to use their characters to sell his paintings, which commanded high prices and provided financial security for the man in his old age (according to his biographer Michael Barrier, who, I think, overlooks the thematic density of the $crooge stories…as you’ll see).

All that aside, Barks’ stories got me into comic books when I was about five, and 23 years later, I still enjoy rereading them. Although now it’s not so much the adventure that’s fun (though it is), rather Barks’s sense of irony and hypocrisy. For instance, one of the underlying themes in his most famous works is the characters’ willingness to succumb to temptation. $crooge, of course, is the most obvious example, following the lure of wealth no matter where it takes him, but a better one is the citizens of the utopian Tralla La, who immediately tear their peaceful commune apart once a monetary system (of bottlecaps, no less) is introduced.

Tralla La is usually regarded as an attack on money and greed, but an interpretation more consistent with Barks would be that greed is a part of humanity, and that denying your humanity makes you all the more prone to it. Say what you will about $crooge’s ethics, he acknowledged and openly embraced his greed, but he made it his inspiration, not his life, and even in those rare moments when it did get the best of him, it would never be over bottlecaps.

The Golden Helmet, while not a $crooge story, is in a similarly dark vein, as the potential power of the helmet, which grants its bearer claim to all of North America, corrupts not only the villains, but also Donald and even his angelic nephews. Regardless of age, class, moral standing, or genus, we’d all be despots, given the chance.

But in addition to Barks’s insights on humanity and flair for adventure, he was also very funny.

A Cold Bargain is a superb lampoon on the Cold War, opening with an auction attended by the country’s wealthiest bankers, industrialists, all-around tycoons, and a shady agent of the fictional country of Brutopia (a parody of Russia). The item to be bid on is a ball of Bombastium, the rarest mineral in the world. No one knows what it actually does, but everyone figures that since it’s so rare it must have some incredibly important use. $crooge joins in and outbids everyone, including the Brutopian (who bids his country’s military budget of one trillion dollars plus all his people’s kitchen sinks [and is beaten by $crooge who bids one trillion dollars and six kitchen sinks]), but discovers that his trillion-dollar purchase must be kept frozen or else it will evaporate. And as $crooge struggles not only to maintain his investment but also to find another buyer for it as well as discover its purpose, he’s hounded, threatened, and assailed by the Brutopian, who’s convinced the Bombastium is a source of power far beyond that of plutonium — after all, it’s much more rare.

The punchline is that the Bombastium is ice-cream flavoring, a few grains of which can generate millions of gallons of delicious ice cream of any flavor, which is far too benign a purpose for the agent to be interested in, so he gives up his chase and goes back to Brutopia, but not before coining the delightful insult, “Rich pig of a duck.”

The direct heirs to Barks are Don Rosa and William van Horn — Rosa is a fantastic story-teller whose adventures rival even the Master’s (which is no small accomplishment — both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg acknowledge Barks’s influence on their creativity, and the rolling boulder scene in Raiders was a direct steal from the $crooge tale The Seven Cities of Cibola), and van Horn is a laugh-out-loud illustrator and farce-i-sist(?).
But this tribute is to him, not them, so I’ll let him end it with two precsient quotes.

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.

The thing that I consider most important about my work is this: I told it like it is. I told my readers that the bad guys have a little of good in them, and the good guys have a lot of bad in them, and that you can’t depend on anything much; nothing is always going to turn out roses.Happy

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