I have a small confession to make: I've never been a huge fan of Carl Barks's Donald Duck comics.
Oh sure, I enjoy Barks's stories when I read them. His comics are charming and fun and thoroughly wonderful.
But I've never quite understood why he's so beloved by so many comics cognoscenti. When I say beloved, I mean truly beloved. Will Eisner is respected, Jack Kirby inspires awe, but Barks is truly loved by a certain subset of fans. He's loved like a father figure. He's praised for the warmth, energy and absolute charm in his stories. But Barks is also praised for something extra, some inexpressible additional force that moves him in the pantheon of comics creators from being great to being truly unequalled.
So while I've always understood that Barks is great, I've rarely seen why Barks is seen as so transcendently brilliant by many of his critics.
The latest collection of Barks Duck comics, The Old Castle's Secret, is a perfect illustration of my dilemma about Barks. This book is an absolutely delightful assortment of stories, a thoroughly charming, delightful collection of vivid stories full of clever wordplay and slapstick action. On its own, without the hype, this is an outstanding addition to any fan's library of comics. Of course this is also a book that you literally can share with any family member without the slightest twinge of guilt or concern.
The book collects three feature-length stories, eleven ten-page stories and a smattering of one-page tales, all by the great Barks, with commentary and biography included to wrap up the package.
The lead full-length story, which shares the name of this book, is only the second tale ever to feature Scrooge McDuck. Uncle Scrooge would, of course, become a vitally important part of the Ducks' universe, as well as being a complex and fascinating character in his own right, with a complex history and ingenious motivations.
Scrooge was frequently also the instigator of the Ducks' adventures, the driving force to move himself, Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie off to one exotic locale or another. In this tale his greed is the driving force to get the ducks over to Scotland, where they have a set of delightful adventures in a mysterious castle — adventures that might involve a mysterious creature that just might be a ghost…
"The Old Castle's Secret" shows all the subtle wonder of Barks that I sometimes miss when reading too quickly, most especially the lead characters' seemingly boundless kinetic energy. Donald is perpetually hovering slightly above the ground while consumed in an apparently inexhaustible level of excitement and energy. For those of us who grew up with Jack Kirby and his successors, Barks's ducks have a little less dynamism than the Marvel superheroes have, but the dynamism of the ducks is no less boundless.
Barks is also a master at clear composition and the intelligent use of negative space. The characters are almost always dead center in the panel, which makes reading easy but also gives Barks the room to play with other elements on the edge of the panels. Readers never have to work to figure out what's going on in a panel, so the storytelling always stays focused on the vivid lead characters — unless some aspect of the story forces Barks to shift focus for a panel or a page.
We see that shift in "Darkest Africa", a seldom-seen full-length tale that sends Donald Duck and his nephews to Africa in order to search for the world's rarest butterfly.
"Darkest Africa" is rarely reprinted for several reasons: there are racist villagers and some general cruelty to animals; however, this is the most vibrant and thrilling tale in The Old Castle's Secret. "Darkest Africa" is full of hardscrabble jungle adventures, secret identities and spectacular escapes with the help of friendly elephants. The whole tale culminates with a thrilling elephant stampede that is intensely exciting — considered a bit too intense for kids in the late 1940s, which is another reason this story is seldom seen.
"Darkest Africa" rambles and rumbles around, nearly every page containing wonderful adventure depicted with incredibly clear storytelling. Aside from the racist images of some African tribesmen, this wacky yarn feels completely timeless for me.
We see Donald and the nephews, warts and all, as we read this book. These characters are tremendously flawed. Donald, Scrooge, the nephews and the people in the background are all a little bit crazy: Donald is greedy; he's a braggart; he's short-tempered and grouchy and sometimes pathologically inconsiderate like all the rest of us. But those flaws are also a big part of why these characters are so popular; in their weaknesses, these anthropomorphized animals become human.
In another story, Donald makes a foolish bet that he can go swimming in the river on Christmas Day, lest he lose his home to the obnoxious Gladstone Gander. The problem is that it's the coldest Christmas on record, with temperatures reaching 35° below zero, and Donald is way too scared to go in the water. Hijinks galore ensue from Donald's hatred of the cold — just look at the charmingly slapstick way that Donald resists getting in the water, all outlandish exaggeration that's still calmly controlled.
Barks often seems to be walking a tightrope with his artwork. Everyone seems constantly on the verge of completely flying out of control of their emotions and their bodies. Barks conveys that craziness with boldly exaggerated artwork. But the art never seems to ever be out of control. He follows his own storytelling rules: characters react (or overreact) in vividly ridiculous ways, but they're never exaggerated to the point of distortion. Anatomy never gets elongated like Roger Rabbit's eyes or other hyperbolic cartoon tropes. That kind of overstatement was the province of the Looney Tunes cartoons. With Disney and Barks, realism put the characters at front of the story rather than the silliness.
Maybe the wackiest story in the book is the ten-page yarn in which Donald buys hypnotic glasses and ruins an important party by convincing Daisy and the nephews they that are monkeys. Mayhem follows as the ducks think they're monkeys swinging
from the trees while flinging food all over the fancy garden and not-so-happy guests.
I cracked up every time Barks shows Donald Duck in a pair of absurd hypnotizer glasses while the other ducks' faces twist into crazy distortions. This untitled story is all very madcap and crazy. Barks tells the story in ways that have to delight any reader.
The more I read of Barks's comics, the more I come to love them. The Old Castle's Secret hasn't get made me a Barks superfan, but it does help move me in that direction. Wow, Carl Barks really was a genius.