I have a confession to make. I have never read Carl Barks’s or Don Rosa’s Duck comics.
This has been a gaping hole in my repertoire of comics knowledge that I have become more self-conscious of each year… until now. I received a Fantagraphics collection of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stories titled after its first tale, “Trail of the Unicorn”, last week and was blown away by what I discovered.
Carl Barks has earned a reputation as one of America’s greatest cartoonists and nothing I say can or should change that. His work has been discussed by some of the best critics in comics at publications like The Comics Journal. In depth analysis of his personal life and travails have added a more comprehensive look at how his comics came to be. I cannot add much of value to these topics, but what I can add is a different perspective: that of an outsider.
I don’t know what I expected upon opening Trail of the Unicorn, but what I found was pure comics. There is a stigma amongst some readers that comics about Disney characters are childish. What I saw could absolutely appeal to children, but that is because it is capable of appealing to anyone. It is impossible to resist being pulled into the story from the first panel to the last.
The very first page puts Donald and his three nephews into action right away, setting them off to visit Uncle Scrooge. It utilizes a 2×4 grid that is the standard for all of Barks’s comics collected here. Although it is sometimes twisted and adjacent panels are occasionally merged, the rhythm of the pages is a constant. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are commonly praised for their use of the 3×3 grid as the basis for all of Watchmen, but Barks is establishing the value of consistent pacing years before either of those men would pick up a comic.
The art within those first panels is the real hook. Barks’ characters are expressive and his scenes well chosen. In the first couple of panels, it is clear that a wide variety of clear faces can be structured from very few lines. Donald’s initial face is attentive, focused on some unseen point, while his arms hold up the telephone and receive to balance his upper body in a symmetrical form. That expression does not change much in panel two, but minor alterations make a significant difference. His eyebrows are raised to become the highest point on his head, but just barely. There is also a touch of shorthand at play with dots spinning about his head, but even with them gone his look of astonishment remains.
The choice of frame utilizes all eight panels of the page. After the title, Donald is always in motion either moving across physical or emotional space between each panel. Every panel connects clearly to it predecessor and successor without imitating their imagery or drama. Change is a constant, relying on the reader to engage in the process of closure constantly and therefore keeping their attention rapt in the story at hand.
This collection has been recolored by Rich Tommaso, an industry veteran with almost twenty years of coloring experience. His work adds to the rich feel of Barks’ art without being distracting. Without access to the original newsstand prints, it is impossible to discuss the faithfulness of Tommaso’s work. Yet it provides the feel of a comic printed in the 1950s, with a limited palette that has been carefully chosen. Cool yellows, blues, and greens provide a calm background for the dynamic, black and white shapes of Donald, his nephews and their vehicle on the first page. The result is a reading experience that feels both authentic and enjoyable.
This page introduce the titular story of the volume: “Trail of the Unicorn”. It’s a good selection to introduce the collection, as it features a diverse number of the technical and thematic merits in Barks’ work. The element that struck me most about this story was its strong grasp of action as storytelling. Once Donald and his nephews find the unicorn, it attacks them in a thrilling sequence that left me crouched over the comic.
The transition between every panel creates a clear sequence of cause and effect that can easily be described purely in terms of “therefore” and “but”. The unicorn charges a boulder, therefore it splits the boulder in half, but Huey is behind the boulder, therefore the unicorn is left to charge him. One thing leads to the next, building tension and excitement. No panel in the sequence is unnecessary. Everything serves a purpose and is driven by the story. This evaluation is especially obvious in the action sequences, but can be applied to the entire story.
I re-read this sequence immediately upon finishing it, but without the use of word balloons. I then re-read the entire story so far without word balloons. It quickly became clear that Barks’ sense of visual storytelling was so well-honed that his words were not necessary for comprehension. Read in complete “silence”, the stories retain their impact and lucidity.
“Trail of the Unicorn” also hinges on greed as a primary motivator of adults. Donald does not go to capture the unicorn in order to help his Uncle Scrooge, but because Scrooge offers him a reward of $10,000. He is antagonized by both Scrooge and his cousin Gladstone as the former hounds him about expenditures and the latter attempts to swindle the reward away. Every adult figure present in the story is driven by a desire to earn money. The ultimate reward for Donald is not any greater lesson or intangible asset, but a reward even larger than $10,000.
That thematic element contributed to my favorite story of the collection, “Letter to Santa”. Scrooge and Donald both attempt to get Huey, Dewey, and Louie a steamshovel for Christmas, the one thing on their letter to Santa that Donald forgot to mail. They believe the young ducks want a real steam shovel instead of a toy and do their best to obtain not just a piece of construction machinery, but all of the credit. They both manage to purchase a steam shovel, but destroy them in a battle to reach the boys and be the hero of the day.
In this story Donald and Scrooge are both the heroes and the villains. They realize genuinely good motives throughout the story. Donald feels great shame at having failed to mail their letter to Santa. The both very much want to see their nephews get what they want for Christmas. The infamous miser Scrooge is happy to part with money as soon as he hears what is at stake. Yet their good intentions are not enough to win the day.
They both become concerned with receiving the credit and gifting the steam shovel in what they consider to be the “right” way that they almost ruin Christmas. Santa Claus appears to save the day, but the mayhem caused by the heroes of the story is still incredible. This sort of morality play may be best exemplified in “Letter to Santa”, but is at play in most of Barks’ stories. Heroes are deeply flawed and villains are rarely all bad. Despite the slapstick and fantastic adventures, these stories feature truly human characters at their core, even if they look like ducks.
Barks’ work is iconic of American storytelling. It does not shy away from the ugliness that most people carry within them. Greed, vanity, and foolhardiness are always amply available. The perspective of these comics is not nihilistic or cynical though. Not everything is well, but it is always good enough. When a hero acts badly, there is an element of love to it, a romantic notion of family and history that drives even their worst choices. It is after those insane moments, when Donald and Scrooge battle with steam shovels in a city street, that we are able to see ourselves. We are capable of terrible things, but that does not remove our ability to be good. Donald’s rage and Scrooge’s frugality do not make them villains. It makes them simply human.
That was my first experience with the stories of The Good Duck Artist, Carl Barks. These comics are a revelation of what both comics and cartooning are capable of. The stories are expertly told, a great deal of fun to read, and provide a non-cynical take on the human condition. This collection is pure comics, and that’s an incredible thing.