JANUARY 4, 2021
MY EARLIEST MEMORIES of Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comics are pre-linguistic. Long before I learned to read, I was enjoying the primary-colored, intensely narrative, and visually pleasurable stories that leapt out at me from the revolving wire racks at Rexall’s and Woolworth’s, or lay squashed and faded like dead paper birds in the waiting areas of doctor’s and dentist’s offices. The covers were almost entirely word-free — often they didn’t even announce the titles of their feature stories or provide any plot summaries or sales pitches. There were only these bright, story-filled cover images of Uncle Scrooge sorting a sack of coins through a large meat-grinder-like machine, ice-skating dollar signs into the surface of a misty ice rink, or drawing clumps of bright gold coins from a sewer grate with a magnet attached to a fishing pole. There was something mesmerizingly attractive about these covers that completely absorbed my attention, and reopening the comics today after more than 60 years — thoughtfully being restored at a steady clip of two or three volumes a year by the dedicated people at Fantagraphics — they remain just as pleasurable as they were in my childhood.
I can’t clearly recall my first exposure to Barks; his bright, vital landscapes and relentless fugue-narratives just always seemed to be there, ambling around inside my head. They were truly “ubiquitous.” By contrast, I can clearly recall the first time I purchased a Batman comic — it was a 25-cent 80-page Giant “all super-criminal” reprint edition, featuring early appearances of Two-Face and The Joker, purchased for me by my mother in the San Luis Obispo Greyhound station. I can also recall the first afternoon I rushed home from school to watch George Reeves twisting gangster guns into pretzels with his bare hands in Adventures of Superman; or the first time I checked out The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle at our local red-brick library. But for the life of me, I don’t recall the first time I read Barks. Yet every time I dip into one of these attractively bound, carefully restored volumes, I find myself saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that! And yeah, swimming through piles of coins like a porpoise, and ducks skydiving over the Tibetan mountains. I remember all of that.”
In fact, it feels like it all happened just yesterday. To some other person who used to be me.
Unlike his employer, Walt Disney, Barks was a native Westerner. Born in Merrill, Oregon, in 1901, his family moved up and down the coast looking for work until he was old enough to look with them; then he quickly assembled the résumé of a perennially restless man. He worked in a feed lot store, a logging camp, a railroad car shop, and a box factory; he was a rivet heater, a mule skinner, and a printing press feeder. He moved south to Santa Rosa, back to Oregon, and south again, but rarely ventured far from the western coastline. At 17, he took a mail order correspondence course in cartooning, dropped out (presumably because of financial pressures), and continued privately cultivating his love of drawing over several years of itinerant labor and two difficult, unsuccessful marriages. Then, in 1935, he acquired a studio job at Disney Studios in Burbank, stayed for a few years until the air-conditioning aggravated his sinuses, and quit to start a chicken ranch in Goleta. When the chicken ranch failed (as symbolically recorded in one of Barks’s funniest Donald Duck stories, “Omelet”) he picked up a perfect (for him, anyway) gig-paying job producing stories, illustrations, and covers for the Disney comics — Four Color, Donald Duck, and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. He went on to establish his first original title, Uncle Scrooge, in 1952.
The original comics (many of which are now worth thousands of dollars in mint condition) were unsigned by Barks, and yet he soon imprinted his own unique signature on the stories, the characters, and the composition of each tight frame. For example, Barks’s “The Donald” (and of course I’m talking about the good “The Donald”) was radically transformed from Disney’s spluttery, anger-management-challenged, prat-falling buffoon into a far stabler and more sympathetic figure, whose chief fault lay in his inability to keep a job. In various stories, he failed at window-washing, furniture-moving, farming, cloud-seeding, handyman, you name it. In fact, the only recurring job he kept for more than a single issue was as aide-de-camp on Uncle Scrooge’s various wealth-seeking adventures, for which he was paid 25 to 30 cents a day (when, of course, Uncle Scrooge didn’t try to welch on him). As Barks recalled in several interviews in the early ’70s (gathered in the volume Carl Barks: Conversations, edited by Donald Ault), the original Donald Duck “was typed as a guy who had to be always squawking all the time and making a lot of noise, and he was cranky and belligerent. […] I was able to make him into a sympathetic character at times, and a hero, and a heel.”
In similar fashion, Barks didn’t accept the Disney playbook when it came to the nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, or depict them simply as “mischievous little guys that were always in conflict with Donald.” Armed with their keen eyes and Junior Woodchuck guidebooks, the nephews don’t “accompany” Scrooge and Donald on adventures so much as repeatedly save them from themselves. They are the mini-collective voice of reason on every one of Scrooge’s money-obsessed expeditions.
And then there was the steady stream of Barks’s newly invented characters, most notably Uncle Scrooge himself — who originally appeared in 1947 as a one-off Christmas-spoiler in “Christmas on Bear Mountain,” and eventually developed into a more sympathetic, even avuncular figure. Many other new characters arrived through the windows of Barks’s imagination as well, such as the masked, prison-ready Beagle Boys, and the slick-haired Gladstone Gander, and Gyro Gearloose, the irrepressibly mad inventor of rocketships, wishing wells, and firefly-tracking devices. Over several decades, Barks created a world that was un-Disneylike in almost every aspect. For one thing, the characters were more complex and unpredictable than the paradigmatic Disney versions, and they didn’t just act out elaborate gags with convenient resolutions. And Barks’s stories always sent his characters off exploring strange lands and ancient civilizations in a vastly imagined, inexhaustible world. “I did somehow put over the idea that there was a whole world out there. If you just went out and started digging around in it, you could find all sorts of adventures.” Barks’s stories weren’t restricted to the suburban homes and gardens of the Disney cartoons; instead, they were continually embarking on surprising expeditions into history, legend, geography, and weather.
Contracted as an uncredited functionary of the Disney corporation, Barks banged out dozens of pages every month at a flat rate of 10 to 20 bucks per page, without a health or retirement fund or any benefits whatsoever. But there were creative perks, as he recalled:
I was sitting there with no boss looking over my shoulder. I was just writing those stories as they came into my head and just drawing them the way I liked to draw them and turning them in; I wasn’t being pressured one way or another. […] I can’t express it, but I would get sort of, oh, loose at it, and go ahead and come up with anything I could think of.
He often recalled that his pay-per-page arrangement earned less than a studio or contract job, but he wouldn’t have given it up for the world. “I don’t think the Disney studio ever even read my comic book stories,” he once claimed. For which most of his fans can probably breathe a collective sigh of relief.
His stories infiltrated several generations of childhood imaginings, reached across many countries, and eventually inspired the popular animated TV series DuckTales, which attracted further generations of fans. And yet Barks had been doing “the duck comic book,” as he called it, for 15 years before he received his first fan letter; and by the time a small devoted community developed around his work (including the great short story and script writer, Charles Beaumont), Barks was close to retirement. In other words, when he was at his most productive, he was almost entirely unknown as a person; but once he was known as a person, he retired from what he was best known for doing. Perhaps it was this deep sense of isolation that caused Barks so much disappointment when he haunted news shops during the height of his career. “I always hoped that I would see some kid buy a Walt Disney Comics or an Uncle Scrooge,” he recalled.
I never did. They always picked up a Superman or a Harvey comic or an Oswald Rabbit, but never did one of them even look at an Uncle Scrooge, or a Donald Duck. I used to wonder what on earth did they do with these big stacks of Walt Disney Comics — they’d be two feet high sometimes. […] [E]vidently some kid would buy them always on the sly when I couldn’t see them.
Speaking from personal experience, many of us were buying Uncle Scrooge comics “on the sly.” Even as a small child, I felt a bit embarrassed to be reading stories about ducks with backpacks embarking on international scavenger hunts; I preferred to be seen reading the early Marvel comics, such as Ant-Man, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and all those other Man-ly titles. And then there was the idea of a character named Scrooge, who was associated with just about the most selfish man in the history of literature. (At Christmas, his name was an actual epithet.) As a result, I don’t recall reading Uncle Scrooge very often as I grew older. Except during the weekly visits to my grandparents’ house in Los Osos when I was four or five.
My grandparents lived in a rustic, cabin-like home about 15 miles from us; the fields around it were wide open. My Aunt Jean owned the lot next door but never developed it. And Grandma would often take us out with a wicker basket to gather blackberries from vine-entangled fences, and wildly growing, rusty crabapples and oranges. Afterward, she would cook a roast chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and steamed carrots, and my brother and I would argue over whose turn it was to eat the neck. (I have no idea why we thought that gristly, bony little phallus was such a choice item, but we did.) Grandma would leave out the wishbone to dry on the stove, and after dessert, my brother and I would each take hold of one end and pull. That contest, which we looked forward to every week, brought our meal to a close. (I recall that my younger brother always won the contest; but then, my younger brother seemed to win at everything.)
Afterward, my father would take down a green shoebox from one of Grandma’s storage cupboards, remove a set of iron gray clippers, and proceed to shear my brother and I like sheep. It was the part of every weekend that we dreaded, and neither of us possesses a single photo from our childhood in which we don’t look like a pair of aspiring militia leaders.
On the walls of the bare-beamed living room hung oil paintings of peeling-barked pine trees produced by Grandpa, alongside Grandma’s watercolors of roses and lilies. (They were both talented amateur artists.) Then the adults would watch the GE College Bowl, and my brother and I would read the stray comics we found lying around. Mainly there were annual paperback compilations of the daily strips of Little Lulu, Nancy, and Little Orphan Annie; but like diamonds in a sandbox, I would eventually dig up some old Donald Duck or Uncle Scrooge Comics, well aged and apparently well read. And once I found them, they would quickly grow more well read than they already were. Meanwhile, Grandpa sat in his faded red stuffed chair, smoking cherry-flavored tobacco out of his nicotine-stained pipes, and either pored over the box scores of his beloved Dodgers or reread one of the heavily creased Louis L’Amour paperbacks from a small wooden bookshelf beside the fireplace.
I didn’t know my grandpa very well, or why he had those comics in his house. But after 60 years, I still associate him with the comics of Carl Barks.
Grandpa wore flannel shirts and loose-fitting khakis, and sometimes those weird little bolo ties with a piece of onyx or jade in the knot. He was interested in the old West, and for his birthdays and Christmas, my father would buy him big hardcover art books by the likes of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. When I was three or four, he built me a varnished, open-roofed barn about the size of a doll’s house, and placed it in the backyard, populating it with hand-carved, hand-painted cows, horses, and dogs. One day, he took me out to see a black widow spider that had built its web in one corner of the toy barn. Grandpa turned it over with a large Bowie knife to display the red hourglass on its belly. Then he squashed it with an old shoe. I never went near that toy barn again.
He was slightly hunched over, balding, with long white wisps of hair, and a bushy white walrus mustache; he was also very skinny, and never seemed to drink alcohol. I could tell there was some friction between him and my father, and I don’t think my mother liked him very much. My mother thought he treated his wife poorly, but that was my mother — she was a firm believer in women and a firm disbeliever in men. Most of the stories my father told me about Grandpa made him sound like Barks’s Donald Duck — a comic character who failed at everything he attempted through a stubborn refusal to listen to any reasonable argument but his own. In one story, he sawed himself off the roof while making repairs. (My father loved to tell that story; it made him laugh out loud.) In another — the story I most enjoyed hearing — Grandpa was out with my father somewhere in Arizona. Their dog caught a rattlesnake, began whipping it back and forth, and the snake’s teeth snagged my grandpa’s arm. When they returned home, he went to bed and refused to see a doctor. “It’s just a scratch,” he told them. He lay in bed for several days until his arm turned purple and swelled up to the size of a watermelon. “And still that bastard wouldn’t call a doctor,” my dad recalled. “We were certain it was going to kill him. Then, one day, he just got better.” It was the only time I recall my father swearing about my grandpa, which struck me as sacrilegious.
His name was Walter Sylvanus Bradfield, and according to our family bible, he was born in 1895 in Kansas. (Yeah, we actually have a family bible.) My Aunt Betty recalled that he ran away before finishing high school and joined an evangelist tour “on the Chautauqua Circuit,” traveling ahead to distribute circulars and publicity, and assisting at meetings where he led the singing. I learned everything else I know about Grandpa from reading a fragmentary memoir he produced in the early ’70s, appropriately entitled “Hodgepodge,” which he Xeroxed and distributed to everyone in the family.
Most of the memoir focuses on Grandpa’s young adulthood, when he moved around a lot, from Arizona to Texas, through Mexico, and back to Arizona again. What struck me most forcefully about these pages was how much freedom Grandpa seemed to have when it came to choosing places to live. Scarcity (or a belief in it) never seemed to enter his life. A typical segue from one adventure to another was often something simple such as, “I needed a job, and went down to the local mining contractor.” Or he might note a time when he saved up $200 and decided to let “wanderlust take over.” In fact, his story reminds me a lot of the young life of Carl Barks. They both seemed prepared, at the drop of a hat, to leave one place or job and venture off to a new one. Then they would get up a few months later and do the same thing all over again.
At various times, Grandpa managed a boardinghouse, worked as deputy county recorder, a bank custodian, a foreman for the Southern Pacific railroad in Mexico, a restaurant manager, an investment banker, and for one week projector operator in a movie theater in Clifton, Arizona. Then, after Grandpa married Grandma, they ran a Mineral Springs Health Spa somewhere in Arizona before going bankrupt and moving west to Los Angeles, where my Aunt Jean took a job in group insurance at Desilu Studios, and my father finished high school. My dad once made some vague references about Grandpa’s plans to start a chinchilla ranch, but apparently those plans never came together. As a child, I often asked my parents what Grandpa did for a living and they would pause, laugh, and say something like, “Well, that’s a long story.” According to his surviving fragments of memoir, bound in a peeling red plastic binder, much of that long story is lost for good.
Grandpa’s memoirs are sprinkled with reminiscences of people who sound like characters in a paperback Western. There was Climax Jim, who started off his criminal career by stealing silverware, and eventually fled town after being charged with cattle rustling. Or Johnny Bradbury, who found simultaneous employment as both a sheriff and a train robber. Or my personal favorite, a “soldier of fortune” named Emil Holmdahl, who smuggled guns to Zapata and was later charged with stealing Pancho Villa’s head from a graveyard. Grandpa recounted meeting these men while playing cards or drinking in places called Harry Wright’s Saloon or Riley’s Ice Cream and Billiard Emporium. And while Grandpa declared himself suspicious of the miner’s union in the Clifton strike of 1915 (“It was not a labor organization but rather one of anarchists”), he expressed a personal affinity with his most poorly treated fellow citizens, such as Silas Two Horse, an “Osage Indian” who lived out his old age near the grave of the wife he lost as a young man, or an ex-slave back in Kansas known as Uncle Tom Smiley, who taught Grandpa and his friends how to fish, “find a bee-tree,” and “make baskets of hickory splints.”
For the most part, Grandpa’s memoirs envision an America in which various people shared a landscape abundant with natural resources. And there were only two things that seemed to concern Grandpa when he got older: that those natural resources might get used up or diminished; or that organized labor, or a bunch of lawyers, might try to turn everyone’s private property into some sort of public purse.
For my grandpa (and the same might be said of Barks), the world would get worse if it got smaller and less various — since this might well result in too many people fighting over what little was left.
Like my grandpa, Barks loved maps and National Geographic; and most of his stories are devoted to adapting real geographical spaces, such as Tibet, the Pacific Islands, and the South Pole, or recovering legendary ones, such as the maze of the Minotaur in Crete, King Solomon’s mines, and the hidden treasure-house of Genghis Kahn. Though Barks never traveled outside North America until he was in his early 90s, he imagined into existence a limitless world without borders, and is easily the least claustrophobic comic creator of his generation. While Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Stan Lee, and Denny O’Neill envisioned dark, brooding avengers hidden away in bat caves and solitary fortresses while endlessly repeatable villains (who never remained defeated for very long) plotted their next grudge match, Barks took his protagonists — and his readers — to the ends of the earth in every issue, and never visited the same faraway place twice. Then, in the very next comic, he took them to another end of the earth entirely.
Barks’s ducks live in a wide-open, super-abundant world. They rarely meet up with old enemies and are continually facing new challenges. They aren’t restricted to crime-embattled Manhattans or Central Cities, but are always already headed off in small intrepid duckish bands across deserts, icy mountaintops, swamps, and tundras; they hop screeching trains and shaky freight-planes in races to their next connection; they launch themselves across rocky blue oceans in rickety boats, and march stoically through every extreme of weather — hailstorms, rainstorms, thunderstorms, lightning strikes, earthquakes, tempests, hurricanes, and tornadoes. (Barks’s comics are visual poems to the endless permutations of wild weather.) Nobody imagined bigger, more howling spaces in our now-dwindling planet. And it’s hard to imagine anyone imagining such spaces ever again.
As Scrooge tells his fellow ducks (in “Riches, Riches Everywhere!”), wherever he goes he finds abundance: “I’ve always been able to find some kind of rich minerals anywhere I happened to be!” And he always finds them in “the poorest places!” In that story, Scrooge sets off into the Australian wasteland to prove his innate ability to randomly strike a pick and divulge something valuable — copper, gold, uranium, silver, you name it. The only thing he can’t find is the one thing he most needs in the desert — water. Probably because, at the time (before Nestlé and Perrier), water wasn’t worth anything: it was abundant, unpolluted, radically democratic, and free.
It may be hard to find interesting work in Barks’s world, but it’s always easy to live a decent life. While Donald fails at one job after another, he still manages to live in a bright house with a white picket fence, comfy beds, a well-stocked larder, and a perpetually burbling television. Meanwhile, Uncle Scrooge repeatedly proves that anybody can acquire wealth — especially if they’ve already got it. All you need to do is carry on looking for it. Scrooge goes looking for a “philosopher’s stone” that can transform anything into gold — and finds it. He goes looking for bottomless rivers of gold guarded by invisible gnomes — and finds them. He goes looking for a boulder-sized diamond on a passing comet — and finds it. And the fact that he can’t always return these bulging infinities to his storerooms never concerns him. Infinite wealth is always out there, awaiting the next adventure.
Scrooge is so wealthy that he doesn’t even know what he owns, how much, or where it’s located — though he measures it in the “jillions” and “skyrillions.” And the vast planet he explores is filled with secrets just waiting to be discovered by an intrepid traveler: dragons, goblins, Venusians, underwater gill-people, Pacific sprites, and infinitely wise Tibetan ducks on a Tibetan mountaintop who just want to be left alone by commercial society (and its bottlecaps).
Scrooge never seems to take wealth from anybody else — his employees are all well fed and prosperous. And when it comes to stealing profit from under the feet of native people, Scrooge usually succumbs to a firm sense of generosity. For example, when he finds that he “owns” the “homeland” of a native tribe called the Peeweegahs (in “Land of the Pygmy Indians”), he ultimately resolves to leave his tenants to their unspoiled land and culture. “My hopes are to keep these lakes clean and the air pure and the forests green,” Scrooge promises over a peace pipe. “I won’t put up any factories or smelters — at least I think I can keep myself from doing that!” Scrooge is a miser, a hoarder, who jumps at any opportunity to chisel his nephews out of their wages, or the local diner out of full payment for a cup of coffee. But he is never an oligarch. He loves possessing things but doesn’t care a fig about power.
In many of his world-trotting adventures, he returns home empty-handed; but that never dissuades him from setting out on the next one, or the one after that. When the “Seven Cities of Cibola” come crashing down, he climbs back to the surface, brushes himself off, and resumes digging for native arrowheads — since gathering native arrowheads was the only pleasure he went seeking in the first place. He loves accumulating money by doing something he hasn’t done before. When he returns to his youthful prospecting grounds in “Back to the Klondike,” he doesn’t recover his buried stash of gold but allows his old flame, Glittering Goldie, to steal back the claim he originally stole from her. Even when he manages to land on “The Twenty-four Carat Moon,” and acquires property rights from Muchkale, the reigning Venusian, by swapping him a handful of earth dirt, he ultimately concludes, “doggone if I don’t think he got the best of the bargain.” Scrooge’s world- and planet-hopping journeys are less about increasing his wealth than about the physical pleasure of gathering it, and almost every adventure ends with Barks’s human-like ducks still out there in the world exploring endless landscapes. A typical Scrooge story doesn’t, to paraphrase Tolkien, take readers on a journey “there and back again.” Rather, it journeys there and leaves it there — with Scrooge still seeking his arrowheads, or still pondering his solid gold asteroid. It’s as if Barks is continually telling us: Okay, I got you this far. Now find a way back on your own.
For Scrooge, wealth isn’t a matter of exchange value, or even intrinsic value; it’s solely a matter of the physical pleasure he derives from acquiring it, or hoarding it away in his ginormous silos and bank vaults, or swimming around in it “like a porpoise,” or burrowing through it “like a gopher.” He’s even happy to “toss it up and let it hit me on the head,” since his love of riches is really for the tactile, sensuous pleasure of feeling it flow over his skin and face. Most Scrooge adventures begin here — in the deeply private realm of Scrooge’s treasure house, filled with dunes of jewelry and precious metals stretched out in every direction. Then it moves out into the civic life of Duckburg, where something threatens to jeopardize either Scrooge’s wealth or the pleasure he takes from it. Then, as a proposed solution to this crisis, Scrooge takes off into the wide world to find more wealth — at which point, he either loses it or decides that he didn’t need it. The curtain closes and, in the next issue, a similar story starts all over again.
Barks’s stories are not this programmatic, but the recurring theme is — which is that the pleasure of life has nothing to do with the value of money or the things you can buy with it. Wealth is only good for the way it pleases the eye, or the flesh, or the way it transforms the landscape into glittering harvests. The world is big enough for Scrooge, his money, and all the various native people he meets along the way; they don’t have to impinge on one another. Scrooge can afford to be wealthy without exploiting native populations because Barks imagines a world big enough for all of them. Scrooge is not about geopolitics; he is only about the basic childish pleasure of possessing shiny, sparkly things.
Scrooge lives modestly and doesn’t erect huge, ugly Mar-a-Lagos, or adorn himself in Prada and Armani while flinging paper towels at hurricane survivors, or flit around the world self-importantly in private jets. (Uncle Scrooge always flies coach.) And his love for hoarding money never deprives anybody else of theirs. In fact, Uncle Scrooge (unlike his namesake) never expresses contempt for common men; his employees are always well dressed, well fed, and amiable — and quite openly critical of Scrooge’s shortcomings. Unlike most oligarchs we know, Scrooge responds generously to the cultures he meets. He’s cheap, yeah. He’s terrified of seeing his precious possessions depleted by burglars — double yeah. But he is not steadfast in his opinions; and he often learns from his adventures, most notably in “The Golden River,” when he ultimately decides that limitless wealth will only continue coming to him “as long as I can find places to build playgrounds to make kids happy.” But when this comic adventure ends and the next one begins, it’s the same old miserly Scrooge starting off on another adventure. He didn’t learn from the last one. He didn’t become better or wiser or less miserly. He just woke up again as the same faulty, obsession-driven protagonist he’s always been. He’s prepared once again to confront — and be changed by — the infinite world of story designed by Carl Barks.
And that is always the ultimate lesson (if there is any lesson) in every Carl Barks story. People (even duck-like people) aren’t fixed in stone. They are capable of sudden and surprising changes — often for the better. And don’t worry if they don’t change for the better in this particular story. Because there’s always another story coming at them from just down the road.
Every Scrooge adventure — and every sequence of comic panels — takes enormous liberties with geographical space; his characters rarely stay in the same place for more than a single shot and are always already venturing off into new places, or new perceptions of those places. Just take another look at “Cibola.” We start in the silo of cash; we move into the civic realm of Duckburg, where we learn that Uncle Scrooge has already mastered most available means of making money — such as owning sawmills, radio stations, auto factories, and peanut wagons (“I’m a regular old octopus,” he moans). Then we meet Donald and the nephews in their blue car before driving off with them into the desert. In the next 10 panels, they journey through canyons, arroyos, deserts, and dried-up riverbeds as they discover native arrowheads (the only money-making enterprise Scrooge hasn’t yet tried), and struggle blindly through a sandstorm — so blindly, in fact, that their figures are reduced to garbled shadows cut off from one another. Each panel, while it might seem simple in composition and use of color, is dynamic; it takes a narrative leap forward from the previous one. Donald and Scrooge might start off leading the nephews in one panel; but, in the very next, the nephews are explaining the sandstorm’s dangers (“These things can blow for days! Come on, Uncle Scrooge!”). Every frame produces little slips of peripety and recognition. Every page is electric with movement.
And, after only eight pages, the ducks discover the vast, incalculably wealthy remains of Cibola, including one mountain-sized booby-trap. (Lucas and Spielberg have acknowledged Barks’s influence on their Indiana Jones movies — what they have not acknowledged is that CGI never surpassed an aging, self-employed cartoonist hidden away in his converted Gilroy barn.) Eight pages is all it takes for Barks to make the transition from private wealth into the planetary everywhere.
What more could any kid ask from a comic?
What made the Barks comics repeatedly enjoyable is that they avoided formulas. The characters weren’t predictable; they never did what you expected them to do from previous iterations; and they changed in response to each situation they encountered. “I always thought they were human beings, just humans with ducks’ bodies,” Barks explained in late life. Which is probably why we can continually return to Barks’s comic fables and be surprised by them in ways that we can’t be surprised by the “political fables” of Orwell or Anatole France. In Orwell, the pigs are always pigs; they stand for a certain class of people who are always behaving in predictable, pig-like ways. But in Barks, the ducks are never just ducks: they are messy and surprising — just like us.
Barks’s stories are fables rather than allegories; they aren’t set in our world, nor do they represent it. Instead, they resolutely carve out their own unique sea-space in the ocean of story.
One of the best and earliest critical summaries of Barks’s work came from the art historian David Kunzle, who described Barks as:
[A] man who never seemed to have time or money for a vacation, whose life was continuous and seemingly monotonous labor, paid piece-rate at a level which never permitted him to save, who never had and never sought an adventure, who never traveled abroad and little in the United States (only into the California and Oregon forests), who lived, in other words, something of the life of the “average” U.S. worker (a life presumably shared by the parents of many of his readers) — this man wrote ceaselessly about a world of constant leisure.
When Barks was confronted with this passage during an interview, he replied in the laconic, no-nonsense fashion that punctuated every page he wrote and every panel he ever drew: “That’s too true to be funny,” he said. He was right.
Above his fireplace in Los Osos, Grandpa kept the yellowing skull of a creature with long curving fangs mounted on a varnished block of redwood. “It belonged to a saber-toothed tiger skeleton I dug up in the Arizona desert,” he often told me, puffing smoke out of his nicotine-stained pipe. “One of the last of the dinosaurs.” Then he would take me on his lap and show me the picture of a saber-toothed tiger in a small, heavily illustrated paperback book entitled The Golden Guide to Dinosaurs. If I could have taken home any two items from Grandpa’s house and placed them on my bookshelf, I would have chosen that skull and that book illustrated with gigantic, fierce monsters traversing wild, steaming landscapes.
One Christmas, I received a copy of the The Golden Guide to Dinosaurs from my parents; but the saber-toothed tiger remained on Grandpa’s hearth. And when Grandma died, Grandpa took it with him to an assisted living center near Lancaster. Every time I thought of Grandpa, I thought of that saber-toothed tiger skull, and an unencompassable world where people could run away from home, join evangelical touring shows, and consort with bandits, former slaves, and Indians. They could strike the ground randomly with a pick and divulge uranium. They could discover forgotten vaults filled with ancient treasure.
Shortly after Grandpa moved to Lancaster, I asked my dad if he had taken the “saber-toothed tiger skull” with him. My dad smiled, paused, and put his hand on my shoulder. He seemed a bit embarrassed. Or maybe he just didn’t want me to feel disappointed. “That wasn’t really a saber-toothed tiger skull, son,” he told me. “Your grandpa glued it together from a pair of boar tusks and a bobcat skull. He’s had it around ever since I was your age. He liked to bring it out and amaze the kids.”
In my early 20s, I visited Grandpa twice in Lancaster, driving a battered 20-year-old Toyota Corolla that had been rear-ended twice, with a trunk tied down with an old piece of clothesline. Then, in 1978, my dad called to tell me that Grandpa had barricaded himself in his apartment and wasn’t letting anyone in. He was growing confused and paranoid; he refused to see a doctor or be taken to a hospital. My dad suggested we meet in Lancaster and see if we could persuade Grandpa to leave his apartment.
By the time I arrived, they had already pushed open the door and taken Grandpa to the local ICU in an ambulance. Inside Grandpa’s apartment, there were dirty dishes everywhere, unwashed clothing, overturned furniture. The “saber-toothed tiger skull” lay broken in a dozen pieces on the floor. Seeing this broken fake artifact upset me as much as the fact that Grandpa died a few weeks later. Perhaps because it reminded me that our world would never be as big as it had been for Grandpa and Uncle Scrooge.
Except, of course, on days when I’m rereading the comics of Carl Barks.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).