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DuckTales: The Disney Comics That Inspired The Cartoon Classic

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
DuckTales: The Disney Comics That Inspired The Cartoon Classic

The original DuckTales was a bit of a trailblazer. It was one of Disney’s first forays into original television animation — after The Wuzzles and Adventures of the Gummi Bears — the first time an animation studio gave a TV cartoon a truly substantial budget, foreseeing the costs could be recouped through first-run syndication and cable reruns. But most significantly, it was the first original series to star Disney’s iconic cartoon characters.

In developing the show — which followed the globe-trotting adventures of the world’s richest duck Scrooge McDuck, his three grand-nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, madcap inventor Gyro Gearloose, and blundering pilot Launchpad McQuack — creator Jynn Magon took inspiration from the much-loved and classic Donald Duck & Uncle Scrooge comics written and drawn by Carl Barks, who was universally known as “The Good Duck Artist” and one of the most influential and loved cartoonists in comics history. The new DuckTales reboot on Disney XD, developed by Matt Youngberg and Francisco Aragones, is poised to dig even deeper in this vein, actually incorporating Donald into the main cast. Furthermore, several shots in the awesome opening sequence directly echo classic Barks images and paintings.

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Now, Barks wasn’t the first person to bring Disney ducks to comics — that’d be Al Taliaferro who, with writers Bob Karp and Ted Osborne, brought Donald to newspapers in the daily Silly Symphonies newspaper strip, as well as a solo Donald strip. But Barks was the person to draw the first American Donald Duck comic book.

When Western Publishing and Dell Comics first got the license to produce comics with Disney characters, they mainly focused on reprinting newspaper strips. But by 1942, they were running out of material. Oskar LeBeck, Dell’s West Coast editor, went to the Disney studios in Burbank and was allowed to poke through the archives for any unused material that could be printed. He found the script and storyboards for an abandoned feature film called Morgan’s Ghost about Mickey, Donald and Goofy hunting for the lost treasure of historical pirate Henry Morgan. Realizing its potential as a comic, he hired Karp (also a story man at Disney) to rework the story to center around Donald and the nephews, and hired Jack Hannah (a longtime director of Donald and Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoons) and Barks to illustrate it.

RELATED: DuckTales Cast Reveals How The Characters Differ From Classic Versions

Interestingly enough, Barks was offered the job just as he was about to leave Disney to open a chicken farm in San Jacinto, California. He had grown frustrated with the wartime culture of the studio, and had developed a sinus problem caused by its air conditioning. The first comic, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, was published in Four Color Comics # 9, and was a resounding success. Barks still left Disney to open his farm, but in order to make a living, he asked Western if more Donald Duck comics were needed. After he improved on a plot he was given, he impressed Western so much that he was essentially given creative autonomy for what would become a multi-decade run of adventure stories, comedies and gag strips in the pages of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.

Ducktales’ new intro honors Carl Barks’ Duck work

Barks improved on the onscreen persona of Donald and the nephews by essentially ignoring them. His Donald didn’t fly off the handle quite so often; instead, he was a neurotic, greedy every-duck, while the nephews became something of a Greek chorus whose all-knowing Junior Woodchucks Guidebook had the solution for any problem. But Barks’ most lasting creation arrived in 1947 in a story called “Christmas On Bear Mountain.”

Needing a, well, Scrooge-like figure to bump up against Donald and the boys for the story, Barks created the miserly, misanthropic Scrooge McDuck, whose first words snarled at readers were, “Here I sit in this big lonely dump, waiting for Christmas to pass! Bah! That silly season when everybody loves everybody else! A curse on it! Me – I’m different! Everybody hates me, and I hate everybody!”

Reckoning that Scrooge’s vast fortune would be a good motivator for future stories, Scrooge retuned for 1948’s “The Old Castle’s Secret,” where he recruited his nephews to search for a lost treasure in the Clan McDuck’s ancestral home of Dismal Downs, in Scotland. The story — considered one of Barks’ finest — worked so well that Scrooge began appearing more and more. By 1950, he became the main focus of Barks’ tales over Donald, and in 1952, Uncle Scrooge was launched.

Page 2:

How Scrooge McDuck Inspired a TV Show

There were plenty of other fine creators penning Disney comics in those days — Paul Murry, Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard, among others — but Barks’ duck stories were widely considered the best, helping Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories  to briefly become the best-selling comic book in the world, with a circulation in the millions. Sadly, like all Disney comic creators, Barks toiled in anonymity according to the Mouse House’s demands (mainly to preserve the illusion that Walt Disney himself was involved in these comics). Even then, his work was so distinctive that fans took to calling him “The Good Duck Artist.” Barks’ identity was uncovered by fans in the 1960s and, after he realized how popular his work was, he received permission from Disney to sell oil paintings based on his classic stories. These were huge hits, selling at auctions for thousands of dollars.

By this time, Dell Comics folded, but in 1981, two longtime Barks fans, Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran (who also published the first reprints of the EC Comics oeuvre) founded Another Rainbow Publishing with the ambitious goal of collecting all of Barks’ 500 stories in high-end print. The Carl Barks Library, a set of 30, black-and-white, oversized hardcovers collected in ten slipcases, was published from 1984 to 1990.

RELATED: DuckTales Gets Dangerous: Darkwing Duck Joins Disney XD Reboot

While The Carl Barks Library was the publisher’s crown jewel, Another Rainbow also had a subsidiary in Gladstone Publishing. Named for another Barks creation, Donald’s eternally lucky cousin Gladstone, the publisher sold single-issue reprints of Barks stories and Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse stories, as well as The Complete Carl Barks Library In Color, a series of comic albums reprinting Barks’ stories in full color, paperback and at a lower price point. It also translated European Disney comics by Romano Scarpa, Daan Jippes (who can imitate Barks’ style so well, he repeatedly recreated missing or damaged Barks artwork) and others and published other famous Disney cartoonists like William Van Horn and, most famously, Don Rosa. Rosa, a lifelong Barks fan, not only created his own endearing stories and characters for the city of Duckburg, but also wove all of Barks’ references to Scrooge’s history into a single timeline, from which he derived the legendary, multi-award-winning 12-part story, The Life And Times of Scrooge McDuck.

By the time Gladstone and Another Rainbow came along, DuckTales and its compatriots on the Disney Afternoon were taking syndicated TV by storm so, naturally, Gladstone published a DuckTales comic, with new stories featuring a core cast of Scrooge, Launchpad and the nephews, written and drawn by Van Horn and others, alongside adaptations of TV episodes mostly written by Frank Ridgely and drawn by the Jamie Diaz Studios. Each of the 13 issues was sort of like a mini-trade paperback, jammed with fun stories that stay true to the spirit of the show and, in most issues, a reprint of a classic Barks story (which, inevitably, overshadowed the new stuff in terms of quality).

In 1990, with the comic book speculator market in full swing, Disney canceled Gladstone’s license and opted to publish comics itself under the Disney Comics imprint.  The company quickly imploded under the weight of unreasonable sales expectations and flooding the market with too many titles. It folded in 1993, but not before publishing 18 issues of its own DuckTales comic.

Befitting Disney Comics’ star-studded approach to the medium, their DuckTales kicked off with “Scrooge’s Quest,” a seven-part epic involving Scrooge and the nephews battling the sinister Magica De Spell for the fate of Webby and Scrooge’s Number One Dime, and the devious Flintheart Glomgold, who wants to rule Duckburg. Written by Marv Wolfman with art by Cosme Quartieri, Robert Bat, Ruben Torreiro, Carlos Valenti, and Anibal Uzal, “Scrooge’s Quest” is a loving, stunning tribute to the Barks adventure stories of yore, with a cameo by Barks himself as Scrooge’s banker, Gavin Cash, and a montage recreating classic Barks scenes.

Carl Barks’ comic book cameo

Wolfman left after “Quest” concluded, and new writer Bob Lahrens came aboard to launch “The Gold Odyssey,” another multi-parter that took Scrooge, the nephews, Launchpad and Glomgold into murky jungles and distant planets in pursuit of gold. It’s a fun story, and is more married to the show than “Quest” was.

“Odyssey” wrapped shortly before Disney Comics shut down for good in 1993. The license reverted back to Gladstone, who promptly resumed its old publishing slate, minus DuckTales. However, there were still DuckTales comics published in the digest-sized magazine Disney Adventures’ comics section, which notably had a five-part crossover with other Disney Afternoon shows in 1994 with “The Legend of the Chaos God.”

Gladstone continued publishing classic and new-to-America stories, with proper credit and scholarly notes written by editor Geoffrey Blum. But when the comics industry crashed in the late 1990s, the publisher was hit pretty hard. Only two titles — Walt Disney and Scrooge — survived the crash by converting to a prestige format. In 1998, the license expired and, for the next few years, there were no Disney comics in the States at all, outside of occasional movie adaptations by Dark Horse.

In 2003, Diamond founder Steve Geppi launched Gemstone, which secured the Disney license and picked up where Gladstone left off, even resuming the comics’ numberings. The focus was on newly-translated comics and reprints, including the prestige-format Barks/Rosa Library. Gemstone also expanded into the bookstore market, collecting Barks stories under the title of Carl Barks’ Greatest DuckTales, and continued Russ Cochran’s reprinting of EC archival material. But by 2008, unpaid printing bills and an uncertain publishing climate due to the Great Recession put Disney comics in limbo once again.

Page 3:

How Disney’s Duck Comics Rose One More

But not for long; BOOM! Studios, under its BOOM! Kids imprint (now known as Kaboom!), acquired all Disney licenses in 2009 and sought to bring new DuckTales comics to the U.S. Utilizing the translation services of David Gerstein (who worked as an archivist, editor and writer for Disney Comics and Gemstone) and Jonathan Grey, BOOM! published several classic European DuckTales stories in the pages of Uncle Scrooge, along with a new DuckTales comic, written by famed game designer Warren Spector, drawn by Leonel Castelliani, Jose Massaroli, Torreiro, and Magic Eye Studios, while Braden Lamb handled colors. Lasting only six issues, the story crossed over with BOOM!’s Darkwing Duck comic for “Dangerous Currency,” a story so ill-received that when Joe Books recently collected the BOOM! Darkwing comic, it was dropped and declared non-canon.

BOOM! lost the license in 2011, but shortly thereafter, the classic Barks comics would soon find a whole new audience. Fantagraphics began publishing The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library, putting all Donald and Scrooge stories in non-chronological order to better attract a general audience on the sheer strength of Barks’ talent. The series of inexpensive hardcovers features uncensored stories, fresh scholarly notes on each story from figures like Blum and Barks scholar Donald F. Ault, with gorgeous digital coloring by Rich Tommaso that perfectly recreates the originals for modern eyes. They’ve been an enormous success for the storied publisher and a twelfth volume, Uncle Scrooge in: “The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan” is set for release in August. Fantagraphics is also currently publishing The Don Rosa Library, a chronological collection of Rosa’s work curated with his supervision, new coloring by Tommaso, and at a larger size to better capture Rosa’s highly detailed art.

Monthly Disney comics got their chance to live again when IDW Publishing acquired the licenses for “Disney Standard” characters in 2015 and currently publishes Donald DuckUncle ScroogeMickey Mouse  and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories on a monthly basis. Edited by Gerstein and Sarah Gaydos, and using Grey as a translator and adapter, alongside many others, IDW is also reprinting the 1990s Donald Duck-as-superhero comic The Duck Avenger, while collecting the Golden Age Donald Duck newspaper strips under the Library Of American Comics imprint. To tie in with the new DuckTales cartoon, IDW is launching a new ongoing comic written by Joe Caramagna and drawn by Paolo Campinoti, Gianfranco Florio, Andrea Greppi and Roberta Zanotta.

EXCLUSIVE: IDW’s First Ducktales Story Details, New Covers Revealed

The long, winding history of Disney comics didn’t just inspire DuckTales; the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark  was lifted directly from Barks’ “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” and numerous other pieces of pop culture have taken cues from Barks’ classic tales. So after checking out the new show, dive into a back issue bin or comiXology’s Disney Comics section like a porpoise, burrow through it like a gopher, and find something that will enchant and transport you as these characters have been doing for generations.

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