11 September 2013

The Duck Guy

by David Edgerley Gates


I, too, like Dale (post 8-27-13), read a lot of Hardy Boys books. But over time, they came to seem pretty thin, and they weren't a lasting influence. The guy who was in fact an early and lasting influence is Carl Barks.


Who he? you ask, as well you might. Barks was the Duck Guy. He started in 1942, with "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," and for the next thirty years, he wrote and illustrated the duck comics for Disney. This was a very different Donald from the animated cartoons. Barks reinvented him. He also came up with Duckburg itself, Scrooge, Gladstone, the Beagle Boys, the Junior Woodchucks, and the indispensable Woodchuck Handbook.

There were two basic storylines, the exotic and the domestic, with some variations. The exotics were adventure stories, like "The Golden Man," where Donald hares off to South America in search of the rarest stamp in the world---Barks himself was a homebody: he said he was inspired by back issues of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. The domestics were broad comedies, Donald the dogcatcher, for example, or his sudden enthusiasms for some new-found craze, like Flippism (which I can't fully explain, but Barks gets it across in a couple of quick brushstrokes).


He got better, too. Both the scripts and the draftsmanship are more and more sophisticated, moving into the 1950's. Some of the big panels are breathtaking, but often it's in the very small details, something that furnishes a room, or the way a static drawing can show Donald in full physical flight. There's a sense of plasticityif that's a word, a shapeliness in the framing of the images, and in the lack of clutter, although everything has a specific density. I'd like to call it genius. Barks knew how to make a panel chewy, so you had to look more than once.

And the plots. The familiar taken to a level of insane abandon is a favorite device, whether it's a snowball fight or the hunt for Ali Baba's cave. And it's snappy. There isn't any wasted motion. Most of the stories were told in ten pages, six panels to the page, but there were also more elaborate, extended adventures, that took up a whole issue of the Uncle Scrooge line, which was a quarterly title, not monthly. See below.

WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES came out every month. The lead feature was a duck story, then a Li'l Bad Wolf, and last, an installment of a Mickey detective serial, usually three parts. Back in the day, a year's subscription cost a buck, and any kid could cadge that up in bottle returns. Remember bottle returns? That was when the newsstand price of a comic book was one thin dime, and so was a raspberry lime rickey at the Linnean Drug soda counter. (Showing my age.) Each issue came to the door in a paper sleeve, and it was like opening a bag of potato chips. You couldn't stop yourself. Instant gratification. And the back issues were just as much fun, too.


The thing about Barks is that you can pick up one of those duck stories today, and read it again, and get the same rush. He's that good. It stands the test of time. And in fact, this is the guy who showed me how to tell a story. We outgrow the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, all due respect, but Barks will never grow old. His stuff is still as fresh as when I was in short pants.

6 comments:

John Floyd said...

Interesting column, David.

I remember reading someplace that if you owned the Junior Woodchuck Handbook, you didn't need any other reference book, about any subject. The JWC contained EVERYthing anyone needed to know.

John Floyd said...

Sorry. I meant the JWH. Or maybe JWCH . . .

Dale Andrews said...

I loved those comics when I was a kid so it sounds like we had the same childhood! There was a 5 and dime about two miles from our home and I used to walk there to plunk down my dime for the latest Donald Duck comic. And I loved the separate Scrooge McDuck comics that featured wild adventures with the rich unca. I don't think we ever heard Scrooge in a Disney cartoon (correct me if I am wrong!) until the 30 minute Mickey's Christmas Carol came out, in 1983, long after the comic books had ceased publishing.

Robert Lopresti said...

Funny, I can Hear Scrooge with a Scottish accent. maybe I am imagining it. i remember those comics. Remind me s little of Tintin.

By the way, go to Youtube and look up Bartime in Duckberg, a song by my friends Lou and Peter Berryman. The misspelling of Duckburg is the fault of the person eho put up the video, not Lou and Peter.

Anonymous said...

I remember the dime comics, too. It seems to me we had a subscription for a while that gave us a rotating set of comics -- Donald some times, Scamp or Chip'n'Dale or others at other times. But of course now that I reflect on it, I'm not sure. You sure brought up a lot of great memories, though.

Jeff Baker said...

I stumbled on the Gold Key reprints of those in the late '60's. Pure gold! Pure fun! And wonderfully well-written comic adventures!