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Comic Legends: The Subterfuge Fans Used to Learn Carl Barks' Identity

Welcome to Comic Book Legends Revealed! This is the seven hundred and fifteenth installment where we examine comic book legends and whether they are true or false.

Click here for Part 1 of this week's legends. Click here for Part 2 of this week's legends.

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COMIC LEGEND:

Fans had to use subterfuge to get Dell Comics to give out the real identity of "The Good Duck Artist," Carl Barks

STATUS:

True

Nowadays, the name Carl Barks is held in very high esteem (he recently was voted by CBR readers to the Top 50 of both the Top Comic Book Artists of All-Time list AND the Top Comic Book Writers of All-Time list, as you can see here).

That acclaim is for good reason, as Barks was one of the most inventive comic book artists ever, consistently delivering action-packed yarns as he would send Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and their young nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, on outlandish adventures....

These adventures, though, would always come with a good deal of character work, as well, especially with Barks' original creation, Uncle Scrooge, who he had the most freedom with developing as a character...

In any event, while Barks was amazing during his long career as the main comic book artist/writer for Walt Disney's world famous comic book series (published by Dell Comics in the United States and then translated all over the world by various other publishers), Dell (and Western Publishing, the company that actually produced the comic books that Dell would then publish and distribute) made it a point to not only not list the names of the people who drew their comics, but actively HIDE their names from the rest of the world.

Thus, it was left to the fans of the world to identify Barks simply by noting that, hey, this one artist was a lot better than the other artists on these comic book anthologies and thus, Barks became known just as "The Good Duck Artist" (which is a shame, by the way, as there were other excellent artists working on Disney Comics at the time. They just weren't Carl Barks, ya know?).

In any event, as the years went by, what we now think about as modern fandom began to start up in the late 1950s and while most of that fandom was about science fiction stories or superhero comics, there were also Disney fans. These fans all wanted to know who the "Good Duck Artist" was and so they came up with clever ways to find out.

Jim Korkis wrote an excellent article on the topic for MousePlanet here. I'm just going to summarize what Jim went into great lengths on, so please, be sure to read Jim's article if you're interested in this topic.

Malcolm Willits was a Disney fan who, like many, had written in to learn the name of the "Good Duck Artist" in the early 1950s and received no reply. Later in the decade, though, Willits was in the U.S. Army and was an editor of of the Army newspaper. A few years earlier, he and some friends had put together an impressive looking science fiction fanzine. Willits sent a copy of the fanzine to Disney Studios along with a letter (on his U.S. Army letterhead) asking about doing a feature on the "Good Duck Artist" and Disney actually sent him Barks' information! However, Willits didn't actually do anything with the information right away.

Fast forward to 1959, when Willits was part of Disney fandom and had exchanged some letters with another fan named John Spicer. Spicer and his brother Bill, after being rebuffed in their initial attempts at finding out Barks' identity (the standard "we don't give out that information" reply) decided to pose as a high school art teacher who was looking to teach a lesson about the technical side of writing and drawing comic books and they wanted to know the name of the "Good Duck Artist" to ask him/her some technical questions.

Someone at Disney sent Spicer Barks' address.

Spicer then sent Barks the first true fan letter that Barks ever received and the response from Barks was hilarious - he literally couldn't believe it!

He responded to Spicer, "After eying your letter with dark suspicion for several weeks, I have decided to answer it on the assumption that it could be a genuine fan letter. You see, I have a friend in Oceanside who just loves to play practical jokes and writing phony letters to his chosen victims is one of his jokes…My friend writes gags for the daily and Sunday ‘Dennis the Menace’ newspaper feature. His name is Bob Harmon, and if the name of John Spicer happened to fit one of the Dennis artists at Carmen Valley, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But, as I stated above, I’m going to write this letter on the assumption that John Spicer is a genuine, on-the-level young man with a better than average discerning eye for differences in art and writing styles. Ninety-nine readers out of a 100 think Walt Disney writes and draws all those movies and comic books between stints with his hammer and saw building Disneyland. It is a pleasure for us ghost writers and artists to meet an occasional sophisticated person who knows that he doesn’t."

Isn't that amazing? He COULDN'T BELIEVE SOMEONE WOULD SEND HIM A FAN LETTER!

As it turned out, Dell/Western/Disney had only sent him three reader letters over the previous 17 years, and two of them were people ripping his work. They just held back all of the fan letters, presumably wishing to keep Barks from knowing just how popular he was.

Spicer told Willits about the response and so Willits then wrote to Barks, as well, and Barks was, again, stunned that he actually had fans. He wrote to Willits, “I have spent 17 years in the dark, wondering what the readers of my stuff really wanted. It would be an enlightening experience to talk to one. In the event you phone, my wife will answer the call, my hearing aids which are okay for ordinary conversation are shuttery for telephonic jazz.”

Willits then became the first fan to actually visit Barks and Barks' wife at their home in June 1960. Barks actually then visited Willits the following year! Spicer and his brother and another friend visited Barks later in 1960.

By the end of the 1960s, Barks' name was finally well-known. Honestly, though, there was still some roadblocks in the place of Barks' fame that I'll probably address in future legends!

Thanks, again, to Jim Korkis.

Check out my latest TV Legends Revealed - How did confusion over the rights to Rocky and Bullwinkle lead to the creation of Darkwing Duck?

OK, that's it for this week!

Thanks to the Grand Comics Database for this week's covers! And thanks to Brandon Hanvey for the Comic Book Legends Revealed logo, which I don't even actually use on the CBR editions of this column, but I do use them when I collect them all on legendsrevealed.com!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is cronb01@aol.com. And my Twitter feed is http://twitter.com/brian_cronin, so you can ask me legends there, as well!

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See you all next week!

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