The Duck Man

Before Carl Barks came along Donald Duck was just a bit player in a Walt Disney Silly Symphony short. It was inevitable, of course, that Donald would eventually land in the pages of a comic book, but to every cartoon aficionado's good fortune, the man responsible for translating Donald from film cel to paper was none other than Carl Barks, who breathed life and personality into the character with a rich narrative brilliance. Carl Barks is an "animal cartoonist" who possessed the gift of imbuing squat little ducks with the personalities of fully realized human beings, in the process writing and drawing highly entertaining stories that would appeal to children and adults alike.

Carl Barks was born the son of wheat Oregon ranchers in 1901. By the time he was 16 he was sure that wanted to be a cartoonist, but growing up in his rural surroundings he lacked the opportunity and instead spent his years of early adulthood in what he would later term a "windy, dusty, profitless life." Barks ran through anything that would furnish him a living, working as a farmhand, cowboy, muleskinner, lumberjack, printer, all with very little success.

In 1928, while working as a riveter, Barks decided to try his hand at cartooning and began selling gag cartoons to the humor magazines of those times, becoming good enough at it by 1931 to become editor and chief cartoon contributor to a ribald little humor magazine called The Calgary Eye-Opener. Those familiar with Barks' later clean-cut good humor might raise an eyebrow at his decidedly risqué early output. By 1936 Barks had gotten tired of drawing more than half the book, editing it, and composing stalling letters to those contributors the publisher had stiffed, and after five years dropped his editorship for the chance to work as an apprentice animator at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank California.

Meanwhile, Donald Duck, the diminutive fowl who would go on to rival Mickey Mouse as Walt Disney's major film and comics star, first waddled into life and the Big Screen in 1934, a mere cameo role in a Silly Symphony short, The Wise Little Hen. When the animated series made its debut later that same year so did Donald, drawn by Al Taliaferro. But the hot-tempered Donald was not to be limited to a supporting role and finally earned his own strip in the late summer of 1936. From comic strip to comic book was a natural step for Disney's duck, who made his first cover spot on Dell's hot collectors' item, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories #1 in October 1940.

Published by Dell (established in 1934 by George Delacorte), Donald's first comic book antics were reprints of the newspaper strip but when those began running low it was decided to start running original ten page stories. The man selected for the job was none other than Carl Barks, the cartoonist/writer who would catapult the foul-tempered, frustrated fowl into major comic book success. Barks had first started out his stint at Disney as an animator, moving up after six months to the story department, where one of his assignments was to outline a story for a projected Donald Duck feature, Pirate Gold.

The project was dropped but was later utilized as the basis for a Dell comic book one-shot, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (1942), which Barks worked on in collaboration with scripter Bob Carp and artist Jack Hannah. It was a good foot in Dell's door, and fortunate timing because Barks, due to a sinus condition aggravated by the studio's air conditioning system, was thinking of leaving the story department for a drier clime.

Fortunately for Barks, a full time job opportunity opened up at Dell and he was able to drop his original plan of becoming a chicken rancher and devote his time instead to ducks. His first solo effort at writing and drawing Donald was a 64 page story, Donald Duck And The Mummy's Ring, published in 1943 (a one shot that was valued at $900-1200 in a 1996 auction). Barks was a popular success with readers, who, appreciating his skillful blending of humor and adventure, begged for more. Barks was more than happy (and able) to do so, following up with a number of other stories like Hoodoo Voodoo, The Pixelated Parrot, and The Sheriff of Bullet Valley.

Barks divided his creative efforts into two types of stories at Dell. In Walt Disney's Comics and Stories Barks contributed the lead ten-page story, usually about Donald's more domestic antics in Duckburg, matching wits with his three nephews, Huey, Louie and Dewey (first introduced by Taliaferro in the Sunday strip) in futile attempts to deal with their imaginative shenanigans. In WDC&S #64 (January 1946), Donald Tames HisTemper, for example, poor Donald spends ten pages trying futilely to keep his resolution not to loose his temper while the kids ruin everything in the house with a kettle of hot taffy.

Barks' handling of this kind of slapstick proved so popular that at one point Walt Disney's Comics and Stories was selling more copies per month than the entire DC line does now. (With that in mind, it seems strange to realize that Barks' average pay rate for a story and art was $45.50 per page, a small fraction of the cost a collector would pay for an original today.)

As for the full-length stories that ran in Walt Disney's Donald Duck, Barks would employ his collection of National Geographic magazines as inspiration for humorous globetrotting adventure, sending Donald and the boys to the four corners of the globe, even to the moon and 19th century Spanish California. The cartoonist's own background in his early years as a cowboy, plus his many other professions, gave him practical experiences from which to build on Donald's adventures.

Barks would continue the travel motif with a great new character of his own creation, a Dickens-like miser, Scrooge McDuck. First appearing in a 1947 Walt Disney's Donald Duck tale, Christmas On Bear Mountain, McDuck was a money-mad entrepreneur given to diving into his immense money bin for a refreshing splash in his cash, drafting his nephew for many a treasure hunt. Donald and the boys traveled to Atlantis, the Andes (in search of square eggs), Volcano Valley, and even miles beneath the earth to the land of the earthquake-producing Terries and Fermies.

Barks knew he was writing escapist entertainment. The plots that so often featured the "far away and long ago" motiff were staged in those areas and times because they took the reader out of the present world ("Archaeology is interesting to practically everybody, and I was striving to get the atmosphere of ancient cultures and places into my stories.").

When not on treasure jaunts, Scrooge would anxiously fight off many an imaginative scheme of his nemesis' the Beagle Boys, ever persistent in their efforts to drain his money bin down to the very last nickel. Sometimes Scrooge was aided by another Barks original creation, Gyro Gearloose, a somewhat befuddled genius whose inventions had a tendency to backfire. Barks also originated Magica De Spell, a frustrated witch bent on acquiring Scrooge's very first "lucky" dime. Thanks to Barks' ingenious storytelling, his miserly character earned his own title, Walt Disney's Uncle $crooge, in 1952.

As many as 300 million Dell books appeared annually in the 1950s and their Disney titles sustain an enduring collecting interest. In 1962, however, Western Publishing and Lithography, which owned Disney publishing rights, moved Duckburg and its Ducks to the Gold Key line

As for Carl Barks, when he finally ended his career in 1973 he had racked up more than 500 highly collectable stories. The stature of his reputation rests not only on his fine drawings, but also on his observations on the human condition, which he depicted in thousands of humorous and satiric ways. The "Duck Man" has enjoyed a well-deserved lucrative retirement, pulling in high rates for his Duck lithographs and paintings. Oil painted versions of his most famous covers have sold for more than $200,000. Uncle Scrooge would applaud that!

(Shortly after this article was originally written, Carl Barks passed away on August 25, 2000.)

--Steve Stiles