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.
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.
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.
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.
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