The Good Duck Artist and the Godfather of Comics

In less than a week, I’ll be presenting at the 22nd Annual Comics Arts Conference at Comic-Con on something I’ve been studying for three years. In my freshman composition class, we were instructed to vote on which of the classical elements we liked best. The class voted water and then we were told to write something for our final paper about our major related to water.

Being a Literature major, I naturally went with dissecting Carl Barks’ legendary portfolio of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories over Moby Dick or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge has nothing on the world’s richest duck.

I wrote this paper in a two-step format: the first and third sections were biographical information about Barks, something easy to do given the wonderful interviews with him in books published by University of Mississippi Press as well as the out-of-print, hard-to-track-down Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by famed animation and comics historian Michael Barrier.

The second section was a formal analysis of Barks’ work, as filtered through Will Eisner’s instructional books on comics, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. (In refining this paper, I also made use of Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative, which was released after Eisner’s 2005 death). I chose Eisner over somebody like Scott McCloud because to me, the fact that Eisner and Barks were contemporaries—although there is no evidence that they ever met—was a good enough hook to try and see whether the thoughts of one were influencing the other, conscious or not. Secondly, Eisner breaks down the method of sequential storytelling into its core and artistic components. From there, a rich analysis of Barks, particularly his artwork, can be performed.

It was rather hard to conduct my research as the wonderful Carl Barks Library series from Fantagraphics had not been released yet; the first volume, Lost In The Andes, came out about a week after I handed in my initial paper. But I found Barks’ stories regardless and found plenty of examples to draw from.

While most appreciations of Barks tend to focus on the whole of his solid storytelling skills, not many singularly praise his art. That’s a shame, considering how fantastic it is. He manages to keep Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie look like they do onscreen and makes all of his original characters—the Beagle Boys, Magica Despell, et al—feel and look like they coexist with those. But beyond generally pulling off the Disney aesthetic, Barks’ art is quietly innovative for its time, as Eisner’s guidelines reveal.

One of Barks fixtures is that the three nephews usually all speak in unison or divide a sentence up amongst themselves. This is economical lettering—it saves on having to write and letter separate dialogue—but it’s also eye-catching, forcing the reader to map out the flow. Barks does this all the way back in his first published story, 1942′s Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, for which he only provided artwork. He drew the majority of the pages, with the rest done by legendary cartoon director Jack Hannah, who Barks worked with closely as a member of the story team on Donald theatrical shorts.

Splitting up the balloons is a terrific way to use what Eisner describes in Comics and Sequential Art as a “desperation device. [The word balloon] attempts to capture and make visible an ethereal element: sound.” Notably, the speech balloons fit the words and give them plenty of breathing room.  One concludes that Barks lettered first before drawing the balloons, a nice touch.

Lettering, Eisner continues, “reflects the nature and emotion of the speech. It is…symptomatic of the artist’s own personality (style), as well as that of the character speaking.”  This story’s lettering impacts when conveying sound rather than words. On page three, Donald and his nephews are at their inn, having just escaped a torrential downpour. In the fourth panel, their lantern, their sole source of light, goes out. In the following panel, someone knocks at the door. The word KNOCK is written in yellow block lettering and shown three times, starting from the top and getting slightly larger each time, as if the person is knocking harder each time.

Besides showing the possibilities of lettering, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold also demonstrates the power and ability that panel layout and staging can accomplish. Animation, like comics, is primarily visual. Given that the script for Pirate Gold was derived from an aborted animated feature—something Disney historian Jim Korkis chronicles quite expertly — it was natural that Barks and Hannah would suggest a cinematic look in their panel layouts.

Because this story was originally published as a 64-page giant, there’s only three panels per row, rather than the traditional four. The fewer number of subsequently larger panels meant that Barks could concentrate more on broad action and comedy, allowing for some truly impressive silent and near-silent sequences like the one below.

As these two panels show, the greater sized pages and smaller number of rows let the story flow at an exhilarating pace. Such a sensibility underlines Eisner’s creed in Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative that “No storyteller should ignore the fact that the reader has other reading experiences.” While the term “mass media” means a whole lot more these days, at the time of “Pirate Gold” was published, radio, comic books and film all competed for young audiences’ attention, something Barks and his collaborators were undoubtedly aware of. Again, with this being an adaptation of a never-released cartoon, Barks and co. accurately captured the pace of peak Disney.

But it is with his original stories and characters that Barks’ art truly shines. Fantagraphics kicked off their Library with a collection headlined by 1949′s “Lost In The Andes!” rather than going in chronological order because they wanted to show what Barks was capable of. Barks himself considered the story his personal favorite.

It’s easy to see why. In addition to being at the very top of Barks’ trademark adventure stories, it’s full of terrific panels and sequences. The most famous panel is the ducks standing in awe at the ancient Incan ruins they’ve found “beneath the fog.”

As that panel demonstrates, Barks would take a real-world landscape—in this case, the ruins of Machu Picchu as depicted in a National Geographic article—and render it realistically, while shaping it to his purpose. Here, the ruins are square-shaped due to the fact that it is the city of Plain Awful, whose very inhabitants are square-shaped and eat square eggs (which the Ducks had come to find)

Donald Ault writes in his biography of Barks describing the Fantagraphics collection that Barks, due to his lack of formal education (he did not go to high school due to hearing problems and having to support his parents), felt a need to “make his otherwise fantastic stories as believable and accurate as possible…[and] famously turned to popular, readily available resources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic, and Popular Science.” But rather than the tracing and Photoshop manipulation artists like Greg Land, Barks took them and made them his own.

In his work with Scrooge, a one-off character developed for 1947′s “Christmas on Bear Mountain” and expanded into a globe-trotting hero, Barks really let his ambitions shine. The bulk of Scrooge-starring stories are adventures all revolving around the world’s richest duck and his enormous net worth.

The most common element in a Scrooge story is his vast fortune being threatened or depleted in some way. This plays off of the stereotypical image Scrooge embodies: the self-made 19th-century capitalist, replete with top hat. “Apparel…can tell instantly,” Eisner wrote in Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, “the strength, character, occupation and intent of its wearer.” Even with his many and varied emotions and poses, Scrooge’s uniform look signifies that money is number one on his priorities.

1954′s “The Secret of Atlantis”–which starts with Scrooge tricking Donald into paying him a long-owed dime and ends with the ducks having found and partied with the lost people of Atlantis— demonstrates that Scrooge’s apparel and gestures help sell the character and his motivations. Eisner dictates in Comics that a gesture should be “subtle and limited to a narrow range of movement” and “must clearly convey intended meaning.” Barks excels on both counts. A key expression is the sly, slightly scary look on Scrooge’s face when calling up Donald. It is malicious and slinky. Another great gesture is Donald’s face when he realizes, as part of not really paying him what he owes him, Scrooge gave him a “Balonian nickel.”

In 1958′s “The Golden River,” Barks demonstrates his full talent for postures.  A posture, as Eisner explains in Comics, is “a movement selected out of a sequence of related moments in a single action.” In this story, Donald and the nephews try to coerce Scrooge into giving five dollars for a playground fund. He refuses, but their repeated attempts to get him to donate ultimately land him in the hospital and nearly destroy his money bin. Told by a doctor to get peace and quiet, Scrooge is taken to a cabin in the mountains. Dewey tells Scrooge a story about a boy who is told by a magical gnome how to turn a river into gold. Scrooge dismisses the tale, but then a nearby waterfall starts flowing gold. Later, the others discover that hot springs force the gold up from under the river and over the waterfall. Working out a way to manipulate the hot spring to stem the gold flow, Donald pretends to be a beggar in need of $5 to coerce Scrooge. The others attempt to kickstart the hot spring to bring up the gold to reward Scrooge, but it backfires, nearly drowning them all and losing the money. But Scrooge has a change of heart and resolves to “build a whole playground for Duckburg! I’ll build a dozen playgrounds!”

The attempt at separating Scrooge from $5 leads to some great poses, even right at the start of the story. Right at the beginning, Scrooge is spitting fire, hand pounding on his desk as he leaps into the air as he rails at his employees, “I want some economy around here! There’s going to be money saved—even if I have to nail it to the floor!” His eyes are shut; his face bright red and his mouth wide open all perfectly convey his anger.

Later, in the hospital, an offhand mention of donating $5 causes him to leap out of his bed in astonishment and anguish. “Five dollars! … Five dollars! Screech! Screech!” he cries in horror, his eyes wide, his face blown away and glasses clear out in front of him.

The other characters have great postures too. Donald looks positively dumbfounded when told to get Scrooge “interested in games and having fun” by a doctor.  The nephews each have a unique expression after discovering any chance of getting their five dollars is lost: Huey’s eyes are closed in agony, Dewey lies dumbfounded, and Louie is just beside himself. Even minor characters, like an organ-grinder’s monkey sent to charm Scrooge out of the money, have great postures. The monkey salivates when Scrooge, smirking with triumph, offers him a banana instead.

Despite not being as venerated for his artistic accomplishments as he is for his overall storytelling skills, Barks demonstrates in his work that his visuals are competent and nuanced. They aren’t staid and stilted like most tie-in comics, but rather pulse with life and color all their own. Small wonder then that, while Barks was working on them, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories and Uncle Scrooge sold millions of copies. Despite working for no name credit—as all Disney comics artists did—Barks’ artwork was so recognizable that, before he was discovered by two fans in the late 1960s and his identity made known, he was simply called “The Good Duck Artist.” His style is so iconic and utterly beyond his contemporaries that it quietly changed the look of the entire comics medium.

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Thomas Speelman is a senior at Calvin College, double majoring in Literature and Writing. He has presented at the 2012 Grand Rapids Student Honors Research Conference, the 2013 William B. Fry Making Literature Conference at Taylor University, and now the 2014 Comics Arts Conference in San Diego. He's also a staff writer for the nerd culture website Another Castle. He blogs about comics, Star Trek, TV, and other such things 2-3 times a week at his personal blog tomtificate. He aspires to be a freelance writer, specifically about pop culture and comics in particular.

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Also by Tom Speelman:

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1 Comment

  1. I am so grateful that Fantagraphics is reprinting these books in the lovely hard covers with essays, colour corrections and the original covers reprinted also. The artwork and timeless stories really shine in these volumes and look great on the shelf next to Tintin and BONE. I finally get to read them for the first time, and they are absolutely brilliant.

    Thanks for a nice article good Sir.

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