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One Quack Mind

Good Duck Artist Carl Barks' Best Work Sadly Lost to The Dustbin

Frank Klein
THE MIGHTY DUCKS: (from left) Facility coordinator Dani Patras, curator Arnold T. Blumberg, and registrar Alyosha Hershberger check out the Scrooged! exhibit.

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 3/19/2008

The creation of a children's adventure comic-book story is a bit of magic. The cartoonist must string together a plot, held together with little more than gags and character moments, and come to a moral in the end, but the moral can't be too overbearing. Danger can be felt in the background, but things must generally be kept light. Thousands of artists and writers created such stories during the midcentury heyday of the medium, but none did it better than Carl Barks.

Born to Oregon farmers in 1901, Barks spent years as a laborer and struggling cartoonist before joining Walt Disney's animation team in 1935. In 1942, he left the studio, due to health reasons, and tried farming. But he soon began writing and drawing comic books, anonymously, for Western (aka Dell and Whitman), the publisher of Disney comics. After a time drawing all sorts of characters, he settled on Donald Duck comics, and over the next quarter century or so he created Duckburg, Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose, and other familiar characters and settings and cartooned hundreds of duck tales in titles such as Walt Disney's Comics and Stories.

Right around the time he stopped drawing in 1966 (he continued writing for Western through 1973), a number of his fans discovered whom he was--they figured out that Barks was the "good duck artist"--and he enjoyed a lengthy and fulfilling retirement. He was able to sell oil paintings of scenes from his duck stories for handsome amounts and was celebrated as a genius by comic-book fans for many years; from all reports, he was very healthy until shortly before his death, in 2000.

So here's a guy who didn't get started on his career until he was in his mid-40s, giving hope to late bloomers everywhere; worked anonymously, for relatively little pay (his books sold in the millions), for more than two decades; lived a long and happy retirement; and is now regarded as one of the great children's authors of the 20th century. If such a man isn't due attention, whether from biographies, documentaries, or museum exhibits, no one is.

Explaining why Barks is a great cartoonist is tough, though. His stories aren't that different in tone or execution than most children's comics, and while he was an effective artist, he wasn't a great or distinctive draftsman. And the story in Scrooged!--the Barks exhibit at Geppi's Entertainment Museum, which features the 1965 Uncle Scrooge-starring "North of the Yukon"--doesn't help.

It's hung a bit awkwardly, on four walls. Viewers must look up, down, then maybe backtrack to recall a plot point or important detail. That's the problem of any comic-book art in a gallery, however; it's meant to be read, not looked at. And "Yukon" is not an example of Barks' best work, coming as it does from very late in his career, when his art had atrophied into generic Disneyness, unlike his more idiosyncratic, Hal Foster-influenced art from the 1940s and early '50s. Nor does it contain the satire or hard knocks of his Donald Duck stories from the '40s-'50s, which were more stories done with kids in mind rather than kids' stories.

Not that Scrooged's curators, Arnold T. Blumberg and Andrew Hershberger, had any choice. Nearly all of Barks' original artwork is gone, tossed in the trash by his publishers--in fact, "Yukon" is the only full story known to exist, the curators say.

The rest of the exhibit is filled out by a number of the oil paintings Barks made in his later years and some other miscellanea: statues, toys, and the like. Unfortunately, those paintings are mostly awful. While they feature good compositions, and some of the later ones do some nice things with lighting and backgrounds, it's clear that Barks was a cartoonist, not a painter. He could effortlessly express movement and emotion with a few lines, but those same ducks become lifeless dolls--kitsch, and bad kitsch at that--when delineated in another medium.

Of course, there are reasons to check out Scrooged. The chance to see a full original story is an opportunity that can't be passed up for anyone interested in Barks or comic-book history in general. To connect with an artist, to reflect on his life and work, there may be no better way to do so than seeing his actual pencil and ink lines, to see the whiteout and other corrections. Despite the somewhat clumsy gallery configuration and Barks' too-slick line work on "Yukon," his skills still shine. He sweeps his characters along in this story of Uncle Scrooge, Donald, and his nephews heading to Alaska to prevent some chiseler from taking Scrooge's fortune, and the ducks' personalities come through, despite the limitations of their anthropomorphic forms and those bulging eyes.

And there's enough of Barks' work in print form scattered around the gallery--and the gift shop, of course--for visitors to read some his stories in their more natural environment. It's just too bad, thanks to the disposability of his form during the time he worked, that not enough of his art exists to mount a great museum exhibit.

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