With the December publication of Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes, Fantagraphics will bring the classic comics stories of cartoonist Carl Barks (1901-2000) to bookstores in a comprehensive collection of handsome, durable hardcovers. This first volume is actually the seventh in the series’ complete timeline. The publisher elected to debut the series with stories that represented the artist working at peak form, in the years between 1948 and 1950. The books will be released at a rate of two per year for a total of 30 volumes, to conclude in the year 2026.
Barks is a rare example of an artist who transcended the anonymity of freelance corporate character/property development to become known through the individual quality of his efforts. After a host of odd occupations earlier in life, Barks was the editor and chief cartoonist for a few years at a risqué pulp magazine, The Calgary Eye-Opener and then began to work for Disney Studios. His time spent as an animation “in-betweener” gave him a revulsion for such repetitive drawing, but also taught him the skills necessary to envision three dimensional environments and to keep his characters consistent, or “on-model.” He was a natural storyteller and quickly moved up to Disney’s story department, contributing ideas and storyboards to more than 36 Donald Duck cartoons. When he could no longer work at the studio because their air-conditioning aggravated his sinuses, he came to draw the comic book version of Donald and therein found his métier.
Barks defined a fuller character for Donald Duck than his furious, often unintelligible film incarnation and developed his cartoon nephews Huey, Dewie and Louie. He single-handedly created mega quatrillionaire Uncle Scrooge, the criminal Beagle Boys, the entire town of Duckburg and its varied inhabitants, as well as a plethora of likely and unlikely global cartoon ethnicities. Barks’ comics were unsigned, but his fans were able to identify his efforts: for years he was known only as “the good duck artist.” After Barks’ retirement in 1966, collectors finally tracked him down to commission him to do oil paintings of “his” ducks. The artist was able to negotiate with Disney for the right to do so, an unusual concession from a company famous for jealously protecting its assets.
Surprisingly, Barks claimed influence from the great adventure cartoonists such as Roy Crane and Hal Foster. He said of Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff: “Caniff’s…girls were believable and his situations always developed logically. When he put suspense into the plot, the readers could feel it from the toes up.” Similarly, Barks’ work displays a mastery of his chosen medium; his fertile imagination and his staging and acting skills bring the stories to life. The longer tales are ambitiously scaled exercises in world-building that have influenced several generations of cartoonists and Hollywood filmmakers. Barks’ comics work stand alongside the best selling comic books of all time, reaching a worldwide peak circulation of 3 million. He is now widely considered one of America’s greatest cartoonists.
In an email interview with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, who is also the editor of the Barks series, PW Comics World discussed Barks’ life and work, his relationship with Walt Disney and the enduring humanity inherent in his work.
James: The similarly grounded Roy Crane’s early odd-job resume parallels Barks’. The older generations of cartoonists often had extremely dramatic life experiences. For instance, Jack Kirby and Charles Schulz both served in WWII and that greatly affected what they ended up doing.
Gary Groth: It seems pretty certain that Barks’ imagination was fueled by life experience. Of course, one irony is that he had never been out of this country until he was very old (in his late 80s, I think) and yet some of his best stories took place all over the world. It’s probably impossible to generalize about how important life experience truly is for the artist; depends on the artist. First, experience by itself is meaningless since it requires skill and talent to transform any experience into something artistically worthwhile. Second, one can never underestimate the “experience” of an inner life (e.g., Emily Dickinson). An uneventful life can, in the right hands, be profound. But, I think Barks’ work is somehow reliant upon his array of experiences; without them, he would’ve been a different artist.
James: Barks was anonymous—like many cartoonists of the time, he was uncredited on the comics he worked on—and I am unsure of his feelings about the size of his paycheck. But he was able to write and draw relatively free of interference for decades. That makes me think he was blessed with editors who were unusually sensitive to his abilities. Can you tell me anything about his relationship with Western/Dell, the publisher at the time?
GG: I’m not sure the Western editors were particularly sensitive. My impression was that Barks delivered acceptable work and they didn’t feel as if they had to muck with it. I have no idea if they actually were aware that it was as good as it was, but I rather doubt it. My understanding is that his relationship with Western was somewhat distant—both geographically and editorially. He did the work, sent it in, and didn’t get much if any feedback. They would occasionally lay down an editorial edict, such as when they took him off longer stories and told him to concentrate on the shorts sometime in the ‘50s (which disappointed him, but which he did without complaint, being the professional that he was.) I think he was content with his payment, though I assume he wouldn’t have minded if it had been larger.
James: Can Donald’s dealings with Scrooge be read as a reflection of Barks’ relationship to Walt Disney? Scrooge is the ultimate “one percenter” and (in this volume, at least) he is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. He is a miser and an opportunist who never pays unless sued. He moves about the world to consume and exploit anything and anyone he wishes. He is hardly self-made, because he believes a charm enabled him to prosper; he is unsure what is responsible for this, but often ascribes it to his “Lucky Dime.” Barks worked hard all of his life. Can Scrooge be a stand-in for the eccentric Disney, a man of vast resources, a “cartoonist” with a ubiquitous signature who rarely if ever drew, whose work was constructed by other artists?
GG: Sure, Scrooge could be a stand-in for Walt, but a) I don’t think that’s knowable, and b) I can’t imagine how or why it would make any difference. That said, I think Barks respected Walt and wouldn’t have created such an enduring character out of mean-spirited urges. He believed in hard work, but there’s no evidence that he thought Walt didn’t work hard or would’ve resented him; he’s in fact on record as praising his creative acumen. I’d be loathe to psychoanalyze him, either, and impute any subconscious motives to him; that way lies, if not madness, futile literary digression. Part of Barks’ genius was that the ducks were characterologically protean, according to the needs of the narrative, and that this inconsistency didn’t harm the work as a whole one iota. Scrooge could be downright nasty and cruel or merely lovably penny-pinching (and occasionally a big softie), Donald could be craven or courageous, and the boys could be smart or foolish.
James: Given that these stories were done for children, they have quite a cynical edge. They are often about the poorer ducks’ efforts to get a little piece of Scrooge’s fortune and Donald and his nephews put out a lot of effort towards that goal. They work, they travel the world, they sail for months. The brave and resourceful little ducks often fail despite their travails and rarely are their less-deserving adversaries adequately punished for their parts in the general unfairness.
GG: Barks could certainly be cynical and it seemed as if he became increasingly cynical in his later years, but however cynical or pessimistic his point of view was throughout his life—and the extent to which he was either is arguable—I don’t think it was consistently or tendentiously applied in his creative work. In this volume, for instance, “Race to the South Seas” is one example of the opposite— Lucky Gladstone gets his comeuppance and it’s Donald and the boys who, after so much good faith effort, reap the reward. On the other hand, Barks said that he wanted to “tell it like it is” and not sugar coat reality and there are plenty of examples of that, too—the fact is, brave and resourceful people fail all the time and scoundrels often go unpunished. “The Sunken Yacht” should have particular resonance today, for example for reasons I hope I don’t have to elucidate.
James: Barks is unusual for his time because he enables readers to sympathize with the victims of Western imperialism and capitalism. For instance, the black characters in “Voodoo Hoodoo” are drawn in a stereotyped manner but as your writers point out, Scrooge’s relatives must bear the brunt of their backlash against the mogul, which is presented as justifiable reactions to oppression. The visual representations are still problematic though, as in such racist caricatures as Caniff’s, Connie, and Will Eisner’s, Ebony. No matter the mitigating narrative intent, can one justify handing “Voodoo Hoodoo” to an African American child? Not all of the “othering” fits its justification—for instance, in the end the nephews have the zombie Bombi “flatten the whole tribe,” they turn a dead man on his own people—and why are the residents of Plain Awful so naive as to not be able to understand where their square eggs came from?
GG: Ariel Dorfman beat you to this in his How to Read Donald Duck (to which Tom Andrae’s Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book is a rejoinder). I agree that that there is a critical subtext toward imperialism and colonialism, less so capitalism, it seems to me (as far as I can tell, Barks was pro-capitalism). Barks is by no means didactic, though, so I wouldn’t call his stories ideological in any overt sense. My impression is that the political dimension of the work was placed at the service of the story and was not necessarily consistent. A strictly political reading is going to offer up contradictions—as you yourself point out; Barks was not a polemicist. The visual representations are problematic, which Jared Gardner addresses in his essay on “Voodoo Hoodoo.”
I’m not sure what you mean by not being able to “justify handing Voodoo Hoodoo to an African American child.” I couldn’t imagine just handing a copy of “Voodoo Hoodoo” to an African American child at random—and I’m not sure what age the hypothetical child you’re referring to here is. I wouldn’t presume to advise African American families what to read or not to read to their children on political grounds. Families are free to prohibit their children from experiencing any American culture that reflects politically regressive attitudes or images, but that would include vast swaths of culture from the 19thcentury and the first four decades of the 20th. I think it’s very much to Disney’s credit that they did not demand that this work be sanitized or censored. Aspects of past culture that we disapprove of should not be erased.
James: It does speak highly of Barks’ talent that he emerged from the anonymity of Walt’s shadow to get his due. The humane qualities attributed to him by your writers were ascribed to his parent company when he was anonymous and so he certainly helped define Disney’s public persona. He transformed corporate properties into vehicles for his personal expression and now, his name on the cover is bigger than Walt’s. In the introduction, Donald Ault states that Barks “fundamentally altered millions of people’s lives.” This might also be said about other creators of mass media, from Caniff to Harvey Kurtzman, or Jack Kirby, or Charles Schulz, or Disney himself—but what distinguishes Barks’ work from the greater part of Disney’s output and from that of his highest comics contemporaries?
GG: I think you answered this question yourself when you cited his “humane qualities.” The only artist you refer to above that I’d put in Barks’ league is Schulz and for the same reason—the humanity with which they endowed their characters. Barks’ comics somehow flourished within the strictures he was given. His imagination allowed him to either use or ignore those boundaries to his advantage, just as, in a more interior way, Schulz’s imagination allowed him so much play within the strictures he chose. Barks’ work could be absurdist, satirical, or farcical within an adventure setting, a travelogue, a domestic comedy while maintaining those small, innate human values that reposed within his characters.
This simply wasn’t true of the other duck artists who worked at the same time, regardless of how technically accomplished their craftsmanship was. It certainly helped that Barks was a one-man show when so much of Disney’s efforts were collective efforts, too, I suspect. I can’t help but think that so much of the human quality came from how he drew the ducks, how alive they were on the page. I can’t put my finger on it, but look at a duck drawing by Barks and a duck drawing by, say, Al Taliaferro and, as good as Taliaferro is, they lack that subtle life Barks was able to imbue his ducks with.
James: The stories were drawn with the specific intent that they were to be colored but the original coloring was not in Barks’ own hand, he did no guides. In an interview with John Benson in Panels #2, Barks said that the coloring was done by the publisher and that he “never had any way of indicating what the color was going to be.” He said that any notes he did make were ignored. Was the colorist on your edition, Rich Tomasso, allowed some freedom in interpretation without feeling that the original color schema is sacrosanct?
GG: Rich was given leeway in interpreting the best colors. That said, the original coloring was generally pretty good. We have changed it from the printed comics when we thought we could improve it (or for the sake of consistency) and when we know Barks disliked the coloring, we will try to change it to what we think he would have preferred (for example, he was especially vocal about the irrational color of the rooftops in the story “Old California,” so we have changed those to reflect the color that they actually were). We had flirted with the idea of publishing the work in black and white because the line work is so gorgeous, but Disney and we both ultimately concurred that color was the way to go.
James: Does the addition of Disney to your roster affect what you are able to publish? I imagine it will infuse some juice to your distribution prospects, as Fantagraphics’ Peanuts collections do. Maybe such successful series also make it so you are more able to take more chances. But for instance, would they begin to object to some of the more subversive material you also print?
GG: Are you saying that we could publish more subversive material than we’ve already published? I shudder to think what that might be. No, Disney has never suggested or hinted that we would have to restrict our publishing program. Donald and Mickey have certainly been well received in the book trade and may have increased our profile among booksellers. I think Disney chose us to publish these characters because of our reputation for quality that is consistent with our entire line.
James: Who do you see as the audience for these books? Children? Older collectors?
GG: All of the above. Obviously, I don’t see small children plunking down $25 for a hardcover book, but I do see their parents buying them and reading them to their kids. Barks is one of those cartoonists who can be enjoyed equally by children and adults and we’re hoping to reach both.
First published on Publishers Weekly