CARL BARKS1901 - 2000
For a moment on Friday morning, my world stopped. I received the phone call at work that morning from a fellow Duck fan that Carl Barks had died.
It wasn't too long after I first seriously got into comics that the generational tide kicked in. Comics were a medium with a 50-year tradition at that point. We were just getting to the point where the innovators, founders, and original creators of all our favorite characters were facing their own mortality. I suppose the biggest impact hit when Jack Kirby passed. Ever since, we've seen a steady stream of the greats leave us one by one. But it never really hit home until we lost Unca Carl.
Carl Barks was 99 when he left us on Friday morning.
I never met Barks. But of all the old-time greats, he had the greatest impact on my comics life. His stories may have first come alive for me on the small screen in DUCKTALES, but they truly resonated on the printed page. It's all too easy to get trapped in that little world of talking ducks. There are stories of his that I own multiple copies of colored by different colorists on different sizes and weights of paper. I've reread them each time I bought them. How could you not? They suck you in better than anything else.
Doing a little bit of math, I see that Barks' best work came from his pen while he was in his forties, fifties, and sixties. He was active painting throughout his seventies, eighties, and a good portion of his nineties.
He created Scrooge McDuck at an age when most men today want to trade in their SUVs for little two-door sports cars.
He painted masterpieces worthy of exhibition at an age when most of us would just be happy to cash our Social Security checks.
Carl Barks led an amazing life. It's the kind of story that would make an award-winning documentary. If you thought the lives of Hollywood stars were fascinating, reading the life story of Carl Barks and everything he did will leave you in awe. From being a Disney gag writer to chicken farmer to comic book artist to painter and more…
We're lucky enough to be able to follow a small part of that life through his drawings. The body of work he left behind is impressive, to say the least. For twenty-five years he created stories that would be read by millions not only in this country, but all over the world. Those stories would be reprinted more often in this country than any super-hero comic you care to mention. If you take in worldwide reprints, your mind would boggle.
The biggest irony of Carl Barks' career, perhaps, is that his little tales, replete with Americana, achieved greatest fame overseas. In Scandinavia, he is treated like a god. (They already have a king, and Carl Barks' creations probably have better name recognition and favorability. ;-) In America, you can't find a simple Scrooge memento in a Disney Studios store at the local mall. You're hard pressed to find anything at Disneyland, for that matter! Meanwhile, in other countries, you can get a Scrooge McDuck piggy bank for opening up a checking account at the local bank. But I digress…
Carl Barks was one of the best storytellers of the twentieth century. Certainly, in comics, he ranks right up there with Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. While his art would often look plain and structured in three- and four-tiered pages, his ability to tell a story was masterful, honed by years of practice.
There were generally two types of stories Barks did. The first was the short and comedic ten-page gag stories, which were often featured in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES. This would be the "Donald gets a new job" type of story, which strung together a series of gags to their inevitable conclusion. Character was ever important in these stories. Donald's short temper and the nephew's desire to be good Junior Woodchucks and keep him honest often were at odds, and that kept the comedy coming.
The second type of story is probably the one most people remember Barks for. The adventure stories could run twenty to thirty-two pages, but always finished inside of the same issue. There were no such things as continued stories in Barks' day. Using a trusty stack of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC for photo reference and factual background, Barks would send the ducks all over the world in pursuit of treasure.
(You see, Scrooge wasn't obsessed with wealth. He was obsessed with adventure, and the pursuit of treasure was his excuse. Each coin in his money bin told a story. That's why those coins were always difficult to lose on wasteful spending, or Donald's latest Get Rich Quick scheme.)
This isn't meant to ignore or diminish his artistic skills. While his pen and ink skills were, indeed, on the decline by the 1960s, Barks was still able to portray some masterful and memorable images. His ducks were stylish and simple, not needing a whole lot of lines or tedious crosshatching to fill in their characters. The characters emoted naturally when Barks drew them. It was more than just facial expressions, although that might have been charming enough given the bone structure of a duck's face. ;-) He had the body language down pat, and the senses of motion and animation were always present. Scrooge leaned on his cane, but didn't rely on it. When adventure struck, he could barely be bothered with it.
By the end of his storytelling career, Barks' ducks looked a little flatter, maybe slightly less animated. They were telltale signs of a tired artist. The linework wasn't as fluid. But, still, I'd line up any of those 1960s stories against most any modern super-hero or small press comic as far as storytelling and character work go.
When necessary, Barks could pull out all the stops. One of the most memorable panels in all of comics for me, for example, is the half-page splash of the dam bursting with Scrooge's money from the very first Uncle Scrooge Adventures story, "Only a Poor Old Man." Barks drew in every single coin. You could hear the timber of the old wood damn break, and hear the rush of water following behind the clanging of the coins.
When it came time to send Scrooge and the nephews down below the surface to investigate a series of earthquakes ("The Land Beneath the Ground," 1956), the Terry Fermies' games were shown in startling detail. The Terry Fermies, themselves, were little more than solid lumps of red and blue color. Merged together and placed in "The Land Beneath the Ground," they formed memorable patterns, standout images, and a wonderful sense of motion. All of that was placed against a sometimes photo-realistic backdrop. Such was Barks' style. While his characters would be fluid and animated and cartoony, the backgrounds were always drawn with a keen eye towards detail and realism. There was no stylization apparent there.
One web site lists the final Barks art tally to be 6,215 pages of comics drawn, along with 190 covers and 396 scripts. That just counts the Disney comics. That doesn't include his adult cartoons from the 1930s, his animation gags, or his other works, such as the "Porky Of The Mounties" story reprinted in "Bugs Bunny and Friends: A Comic Celebration" trade paperback a couple of years back.
Nor does it count Barks' second artistic career - painting. For the last thirty years of his life, Barks enjoyed doing watercolor recreations of his Ducks in situations he made famous.
This is hardly the end for Carl Barks. The stories, the characters, and the memories he left behind will be with us always. And when Disney comics publish in America again, a whole new generation will get a taste of what it meant to read comics starring talking ducks that will make them stand up and cheer. Stories that will make them think. Stories that will make them laugh until they cry.
I envy them getting the chance to experience it all for the first time.
We miss ya already, Unca Carl.