The more I stare at Carl Bark’s Duck comics the more I understand their brilliance.
You might remember my last review of a Carl Barks Ducks collection where I started to see his genius; with the latest collection from Fantagraphics, “Christmas on Bear Mountain”, I’m really beginning to see the light. The metaphorical clouds are opening above my head and the light of Barks’s virtuosity is shining on me more and more.
The thing is, Barks’s work is understated. It’s contained. It’s all about smartly designed panels filled with wonderful energy and artfulness. The genius of Carl Barks is all about subtle facial expressions and simple scene setting, about delightfully vivid characters and thoughtfully brilliant adventures. If you read Barks quickly you get the joy, the energy and the wonderful personalities. But the longer you take to move through Barks’s stores, the more you notice the man behind the curtain and appreciate the decisions that he makes that bring his world alive and the graceful approach he takes in sharing it with readers.
And though there are a few moments and scenes in “Christmas in Bear Mountain” that might rankle some modern readers – not surprising in a book that reprints comics from 1947 – most of this book is a timeless treasure.
For one thing, it includes the first appearance of Uncle Scrooge, in the magnificent title tale, and Scrooge earns his Dickensian appellation in the story. “Everybody hates me and I hate everybody”, Scrooge mutters…
…and then sets about trying to sabotage the holiday for Donald and the nephews unless Donald can show some courage. What Scrooge doesn’t know is that Donald has been dealing with a bear cub running around his tiny cabin…
This being a Disney comic everything works out well – Donald and the boys receive nice gifts for being brave – but it’s weird and surprising to have Scrooge be so different from the kindly and stingy adventurer he would become in later stories.
This collection is bookended with Christmas stories. The final piece in this book, “Three Good Little Ducks” is equally madcap, telling the tale of how Huey, Duey and Louie, afraid that Santa (a.k.a. Donald Duck) won’t bring them presents because of all the pranks that they play, try to treat Donald well. Of course, the good deeds backfire badly:
Again characters aren’t quite right here; the resourceful nephews will move beyond these pranks and become really magnificent and imaginative characters in future stories (and there is a hint of that in the fear that they feel for treating Donald so poorly). It’s satisfying but not as satisfying as it could be.
One thing that reminds me of stories to come is the adventure yarns that Barks created in 1947. “Adventure Down Under” is a completely charming and fun tale about a vacation that Donald and his nephews take to Australia. Through the usual Barksian circumstances, the ducks find themselves hunting kangaroos, especially Mournful Mary, a ‘roo whose heart is broken because her baby has been killed.
Typical of Barks, madcap events ensue; also typical of Barks, there’s an inherent sweetness to this tale, a somewhat subtle message of acceptance of others that gives his adventure tales their perfect dab of sweetness to give the tale some real heart and get the reader involved in the plight of the characters. It’s easy to imagine a young child in 1947 being obsessed with Mournful Mary’s life and delighting in the love that she feels for Donald.
Another adventure story in this collection, “Ghost of the Grotto”, is the story of Donald and the boys who become involved with a ghost ship and a mysterious kidnapper when they’re in the middle of an expedition to mine kelp for an iodine factory. The pretext of the story doesn’t matter much, except that it’s a charming sort of old-fashioned touch that bespeaks real world concerns in 1947.
The story also involves a very old man in a suit of armor, a very fierce mouse, and a spectacular giant octopus that doesn’t like food with too much pepper. “Ghost of the Grotto”, is pure delight, especially with its unpredictable plot in which one event tumbles unexpectedly after the next.
The final adventure strip in this collection was more problematic for me. “Volcano Valley” starts well, with Donald accidentally buying a military surplus plane for $3 and flying to the strange country of Volcanovia, but the 30-pager becomes tedious and vaguely racist early on, as Donald discovers that all the people in the South American country are lazy layabouts who are always taking siestas.
Filled with contrived events (a jail that happens to fall apart in an earthquake and that spares Donald and the nephews) and a weird setting, this is the weakest piece in the book. It’s still pretty wonderful, but for a change the negatives outweigh the positives in a Barks story.
But the rest of the book is as charming as you want Carl Barks to be. Look at the madcap energy in this page from “Fireman Donald”:
That image of “naked Donald” in the final panel makes me laugh because I’ve sometimes wondered about naked Disney toons (pity me).
Or the intensity of the nephews and the pain of Donald in this page from “Masters of Melody”:
And this page from “Donald Mines His Own Business” has a strangely contemporary feel for the late 1940s, with its talk of V2 rockets and other perils:
My favorite strip in the book is “The Waltz King”, a story where Donald inexplicably gets amnesia after practicing his dancing to take Daisy to a grand waltz event, and then beats up all the other men who are attending the dance.
These scenes of an abusive Donald, so un-Disneylike and unhomogenized, made me laugh uproariously. This is a Donald that we don’t usually see at the theme parks, an unbalanced, borderline psychotic jerk.
“Christmas on Bear Mountain” helps make me more and more a fan of the master cartoonist Barks. Even though this collection is a little bit out of character for the Good Duck Artist, with its occasional vague racism and characters that act slightly strangely, this book is still full of terrific treasures and brilliant storytelling.