Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andesby Carl BarksFantagraphics Books, 240 pages, $24.99.
Is Barks overrated? Is he really the comics master that people claim he is or was it simply that most of his contemporaries -- especially where Disney comics were concerned -- were so dull in comparison? Did the mystique surrounding Barks -- the fact that he worked anonymously for so long -- stoke his legend? In praising Barks, are we merely praising the surface elements of his work and ignoring whether his stories are stand up to the sort of strong critical scrutiny? Does mere nostalgia drive the bulk of our interest in his work? As one person put it on Twitter: "Is the worship of Barks just another case of comics culture's elevation of craft over everything?"
I really don't think so. Certainly it's easy to get lost in the surface elements of Barks' comics -- the simple, clean lines, the skilled detail in depicting other cultures and lost civilizations, the slapstick humor. I suppose to some extent there might be a few people who come to Barks expecting to have their molecules re-arranged and will walk away sorely disappointed and wondering what all the fuss was about.
But like Herge, another exemplary creator who made comics primarily for kids and later found an audience of devoted adults, Barks' duck stories are richer, more compelling and smarter than a cursory glance might suggest. The key I think, is that the craft is in service to the stories. Unlike, say, Neal Adams or Jim Aparo -- artists whose enjoyment was largely if not solely dependent upon their facility in rendering and layout pyrotechnics, and rarely upon merits of the story being told -- Barks' real skill was as a storyteller. Everything was in service to the greater good of the story, which in turn helped ensure the stories themselves were praiseworthy.
At any rate, now we can all judge for ourselves. After decades of Barks' work being given to us in either sloppy, piecemeal fashion or hard-to-find, incredibly pricy oversize volumes, Fantagraphics has taken it upon themselves to release Barks' complete duck stories in easy-to-peruse, relatively inexpensive hardcover books, the first of which, Lost in the Andes, is now available.
Rather than start at the beginning, editor Gary Groth opted to begin in the middle with what's largely considered Barks' best work and backtrack at some later date. Which means that Andes is technically the seventh volume in the eventual series, but never mind. It's a smart idea to begin with some greatest hits and Andes has its fair share, most notably the title story, which finds Donald and his nephews traveling to South America to find the source of some peculiar square eggs and stumbling upon a literally square lost city. One where everyone talks like Col. Sanders.
The ducks also battle a witch bent on destroying Christmas, race the insufferable Gladstone Gander to the South Seas, face off against zombies (the old witch-doctor kind) in Africa and test out toys for Santa Claus. In between all those adventures there's some really funny strips that are marvelous in their frantic construction build up of gag upon, like one where Donald suffers from constant nightmares and finds an unlikely cure when his machismo is in danger.
Most reprint projects worth their salt these days require some thoughtful essays and supplemental materials and Lost in the Andes is no different. Barks scholar Donald Ault provides a well-written biography of Barks and his significance for the introduction, and a number of critics including Rich Kreiner, R. Fiore and Craig Fischer provide some essays and commentaries on the various stories at the back of the book. I am a little wary when pundits discuss the overarching themes and deeper meanings in Barks' work. While I'm sure that such themes are present, however marginally, I worry that expounding upon them tends risks overstating or inflating their significance, thereby running the risk of robbing these tales of some of their charm and leading to some of the skeptical questions posed in my introduction. Few worries here though, as most of the essays are sharp and insightful without feeling the need to place the work in question on an academic pedestal.
In short, this is exactly the book that Barks fans and the curious have been waiting for. No doubt there will continue to be those who find the claims for Barks' greatness dubious and question the desire to hold aloft work that had little aim beyond wanting to amuse and entertain young readers and perhaps the occasional adult. But even held to that simple standard, Barks remains an exemplary cartoonist. His work is thrilling, funny and rather knowing about human nature without ever seeming trite or obvious, and despite the occasional pop culture reference it hasn't aged much over the decades either.
How good was Carl Barks? Pretty goddamned good.