Carl Barks – who from 1943 to 1966 labored in obscurity as the unacknowledged author and artist of some 500 Disney stories, comprising more than 6,000 pages of comic art – must be considered, along with Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, among the greatest cartoonists ever to work in the comic book medium. Barks’s stories, published primarily by Western Publishing, are among the most celebrated and fondly remembered works of 20th century comics. Comprised almost entirely of stories featuring Disney’s hapless Donald Duck, wily nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Barks’s work also included a number of Barks-created characters, including cantankerous billionaire Uncle Scrooge, villainess Magica De Spell, inventor Gyro Gearloose, the lucky dandy Gladstone Gander, the scheming Beagle Boys, and, of course, the fictional locale of Duckburg.
Barks’s genius translated into a financial windfall for Western. When he began contributing to Western’s flagship title Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in 1943, the already popular title’s circulation increased from 252,000 copies a month to an astonishing 3,000,000 a decade later. An entire generation of comics enthusiasts grew up reading Barks’s Duck comics, perhaps most notably film producers George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, who notably appropriated Barks’s work with their wildly successful Indiana Jones franchise.
In 1960, a Barks fan named John Spicer was able to penetrate the wall of secrecy (Western’s house policy was that only Walt Disney’s name appear on the comics) surrounding the talents behind the beloved Duck comics, extracting from Western the name of the comic artist – the “Good Duck Artist” as he came to be known among fans – with the identifiable style. Soon after, Barks received his first fan letter and, so accustomed to working in near-total obscurity, thought it was a practical joke concocted by friend and Dennis the Menace gag writer Bob Harmon. (It was later revealed that Western intentionally withheld fan mail from Barks in order to keep Barks in the dark concerning his popularity, mostly out of fear that Barks might use such recognition as leverage to demand a higher salary.) Once Barks’s name was revealed, his fame grew exponentially and, following his retirement, Barks produced a not inconsiderable income producing hundreds of paintings for the collector’s market, works that have since considerably appreciated in value. For some time, Disney’s corporate management essentially gave Barks permission to produce the paintings using their copyrighted characters, until lawyers convinced them that doing so opened them up to potential copyright infringement. As a result, Disney reneged on their agreement, severely impacting the then elderly Barks’s financial security. With typical grace, Barks raised no ire, even though, technically, many of the characters upon which Disney claimed copyright infringement were Barks creations.
In many ways, Barks’s stories were a reflection of his life, with Donald as his alter-ego (though for Barks, an inventor of sorts, Gyro Gearloose was the more autobiographical creation). The success that came so easily to Uncle Scrooge and which continuously falls into the lap of cousin Gladstone Gander’s lap always seems to elude Donald, who is up against forces that he cannot control. The modern world, in fact, seems largely set up to deny Donald the very success that motivates him, and which continuously propels him toward disaster. Where Donald’s adventures result from a matter of survival – making ends meet, essentially – for Uncle Scrooge, who has no real need of money, adventuring is more or less an enjoyable way of passing the time, or a means of adding to his already unimaginable wealth, often at the expense of some imaginary, yet thinly disguised third world cultures that exist at the margins of the modern world. These societies are often presented as utopian, or indeed in possession of artifacts whose value remains symbolic until ascribed value by Scrooge’s exploitation. There is no risk, and, theoretically at least, no gain. Scrooge’s only risk is the loss of his fantastic wealth, most often at the hands of the scheming – if hopelessly inept – Beagle Boys. Thus, Barks’s Duck stories, are largely an examination of the absurdities of social progress. Success is always determined monetarily; only the Junior Woodchucks, whose idealistic values are determined by the ever-present Woodchuck manual, can pierce the ultimate meaninglessness of Donald and Scrooge’s fortune and thrill-seeking, instead regarding adventure as an opportunity for self-improvement and self-knowledge, a goal that always escapes the thrill-seeking, ego-maniacal Scrooge and the money-hungry Donald.
Fantagraphics has done a great service to the legacy of Carl Barks in the publication – in no discernable order – of these handsome hardcover library editions. (This is the sixth volume released, but is volume eight; unfortunately, the numbering does not appear on the cover; instead, one has to consult the volume’s back pages.) The colors are vibrant (some detractors say too vibrant; I disagree), and the larger print-size highlights Barks’s unmatched virtuosity as a comics storyteller. The energy of his storytelling overshadows his often utilitarian layouts.
This volume contains thirteen classic Barks stories, including the hilarious “Land of the Totem Poles,” which features some of Barks’s maddest character designs, the effervescent title story “Trail of the Unicorn,” “The Great Duckburg Frog Jumping Contest,” and “Luck of the North,” one of Gladstone Gander’s finest, along with eight one-pagers, with obligatory cover reprints and essays. In short, this is another stunning installment of impeccable – and much needed – color reprints of the work of a comics master.