Epic storytelling in Disney’s universe – Carl Barks and Duckburg Essay

Carl Barks and Duckburg “Duckburg was sort of figured to be near Burbank, but obviously it had to be moved around to fit the requirements of whatever story I was writing. So it became a place of fantasy, like a fairy-tale locale. It had a desert, a lake, a sea, snow, tropical hurricanes, anything that was needed. ” Carl Barks 1 “Carl Barks is The Comic Book King! ” Roy E. Disney2 Duckburg is a ‘typically’ American town where everything is possible. Situated on the West Coast of Calisota it exists in the hearts and minds of every child who has ever read one of Carl Bark’s stories.

On a visit to this town you can find Donald Duck trying to raise his nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey, working (for pitiful wages) for his ‘umpty-squazillionaire’ uncle Scrooge McDuck, and fighting with Gladstone Gander over the affections of Daisy Duck. Gyro Gearloose will be inventing something amazing to prevent the Beagle Boys and Magica De Spell from robbing Scrooge, and on the outskirts of town Grandma Duck will be inviting the whole family to a proper country feast. Who was the man who created all this?

Carl Barks was born to German parents in 1901. Drawing occupied his time from an early age, but he tried a number of different jobs before he applied successfully to work for Disney in 1935. He was hired as an in-betweener, and later moved to the script department, where he was responsible for such gags as the barber’s chair scene in Modern Inventions, and the skating scene with Bambi and Thumper in Bambi. 3 In 1942 he drew the comic book Donald Duck finds pirate gold together with Jack Hannah, the first full-length comic book to star Donald.

Working on this story, Barks realised that he preferred the calm of his own home to the busy environment at Burbank, and this, together with a sinus problem brought on by the air conditioning, led him to resign. He bought a chicken farm, but soon wanted to get back to drawing. At the same time the company that held the license for use of the Disney characters in comic books, Western Printing and Lithography, were looking for artists. This turned out to be the perfect job for the then 42-year-old.

Working from the comfort of his own home, he could create the stories he had always dreamed of making. From 1942 to 1966, Carl Barks wrote and drew about 500 stories, but the people reading his work never knew his name. All the comics were headlined ‘Walt Disney’s’ and artists were only referred to as ’employees of the Walt Disney Studio’. However, dedicated fans still recognised Barks’ work. They knew there was something different about his stories, and he became known as ‘the good artist’4. His name did eventually become public knowledge, but fame came to him long after he had retired.

This anonymity was part of the reason for Disney granting him an unconditional licence to paint the Ducks when he, in 1971, approached them asking for permission to do an oil painting for a fan. These paintings became extremely popular, and the licence was withdrawn in 1977, after Barks had made 122 of them. However, due to demand from fans from all over the world, the licence was reinstated in 1981. His paintings continue to be as popular as ever, some selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions. 5

What did the ‘Duck Man’ actually do, and what was it that made his stories so special? Comics had existed for centuries, but became the ninth art they are known as today towards the end of the 19th century, with the newspaper strip ‘the Yellow kid’. For a long time the concept of the three or four image strip remained the principal media for the ‘funnies’, but towards the end of the 1930s, the comic book became a phenomenon. The first ‘Superman’ adventure was published in June 19386, and was soon followed by other superheroes, like ‘Namor the Submariner’, ‘Batman’, and ‘Captain America’.

The counterpart for the adult market was the ‘crime comics’, often with graphic description of violence. However, these were not only read by adults, and according to Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the innocent [1955], they were actively recruiting young readers. For parents who did not want their children exposed to either the glorification of crime or the description of superheroes with unrealistic powers, Disney did offer an alternative. Still, this alternative consisted of ‘animal comics’: funny stories featuring Mickey, Donald and their friends.

The characters were usually one-dimensional and the humour rarely moved beyond the slapstick gags. In his comic books Carl Barks created a new genre. When he started drawing Donald, the duck had been known as a troublemaker with an exploding temper and a voice that was almost impossible to understand. Barks gave Donald a more human personality, moved him from the farm where he had lived his entire life as a sleuth, to the city where he became responsible for his own house and his nephews.

With the promise that he would never write anything that he would not buy himself, Barks set out to reach a new audience and conquer a whole world. His stories were the safe, (relatively) non-violent ones that parents had come to expect from Disney, but he gave them something extra – adventures and personalities. The inhabitants of Duckburg are not heroes to look up to, but they are characters in which all readers can recognise something of themselves. The stories can to a certain extent be seen as a critique of those that were on offer when Barks started drawing.

He created villains such as the Beagle Boys and Magica De Spell, but knew very well how he had to treat them: “I knew that I was not to glorify crime. I could have the Beagle Boys always stealing, but I tried to do it in a very comical way. It had to be a fantastic kind of crime that a child could not imitate. “7 This was particularly important at a time when the influence that the comics were having on children was just becoming an issue, as they were accused of leading to juvenile delinquency much the same way that films and video games have been in the recent past8.

Barks’ critique of superheroes, or of the people who read about them, is visible in a comic from 1949: Super Snooper. 9 In this story Donald gets upset when he finds his nephews raving about how wonderful Super Snooper (a character in a comic book published exclusively in Duckburg) is, and believes that they think less of him because of the fact that he is incapable of ‘jumping over giant buildings’. By mistake, Donald drinks a radioactive drink, which makes him run faster than light.

However, as he is about to demonstrate his newfound powers to his nephews, the effect wears off, and he passes out. The final page sees the nephews throwing away their comics, as they are ‘too dangerous for adults who do not understand that it is all fairytales’. The fact that Barks created the city of Duckburg is important, as the ducks here have a fixed base in a place that is always the same and constantly changing. The most interesting building must be Uncle Scrooge’s Moneybin, containing ‘three cubic acres’ of money.

This is the centre of town both historically and geographically, as it is placed on ‘kill-motor hill’ where the old ‘Fort Duckburg’ used to stand, and the rest of the city has been built around it. It has had to face some fierce attacks from the Beagle Boys over the years, but it is still standing, mostly due to the stupidity of the criminals’ and Gyro Gearloose’s brilliant inventions. Hints about the founding and the development of Duckburg can be found throughout the stories, but it would take an extremely dedicated fan to remember them all.

However, all readers do know the basic facts, such as the name of the founder – Cornelius Coot. He acquired Fort Duckburg from British soldiers who were anxious to leave months of fighting with Native Americans behind them, and soon realised that making peace and opening up for trade would be a more efficient way of running the outpost. In the years since, the city has grown, but the exact population figures are difficult to pinpoint, as it at times appears as a quite little town, and at others as a metropolis. Uncle Scrooge himself is probably the most influential character created by Barks.

He was first seen in Christmas on Bear Mountain. In this story Barks needed a gloomy, rich uncle, and the final character was a mix between the Dickens one that gave him the name, and Sidney Smith’s character Uncle Bim from the Gumps daily strips which premiered in 1917. 10 At first he was an old man, ridden by arthritis and hostile towards a world where he no longer felt at home. This personality served the first story well, but as Barks realised that he wanted to keep using Scrooge, he had to make him younger, so that he would be able to go on all the adventures that his ‘father’ had in stall for him.

Scrooge eventually became extremely popular, and also got his own comic book, and it is here that one finds the best Barks stories. What gained Barks the name ‘the good artist’ was not his drawings (albeit excellent), but his adventures. He did not confine the ducks to their hometown, but instead he took them on journeys, leading them to the furthermost corners of the world, and, on occasions, into space. Their destinations, some real and some imaginary, came to life in front of the reader, something which is quite impressive considering that Barks never left North America until his 90s.

Instead he started out thinking about something he would like to do a story on, and then he would consult his copies of National Geographic to see what he could find on the topic. Doing this he managed to weave in a lot of facts and descriptions in his stories, which thus, to a certain extent, served an educational purpose. One of the most celebrated stories is Lost in the Andes from 1949. Here the Ducks travel to the Andes to search for hens laying square eggs, after Donald has discovered one during work as a museum guard.

They find ‘Plain Awful’, a place where the inhabitants speak a strange southern dialect (from the last English speaking person to visit the place), and are blissfully unaware of the existence of round objects. The visitors do achieve their goal, and return with two chickens, only to later find them both crowing. Barks’ stories influenced a generation of children, some of whom would later use his ideas in their own work. The scene in the Steven Spielberg film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones escapes from a boulder rolling down a tunnel toward him is taken directly from the comic book story

The Seven Cities of Cibola. 1 Another celebrated director, George Lucas, has said about his own experience with Barks that: “My greatest source of enjoyment in Carl Barks’ comics is in the imagination of his stories. They’re so full of crazy ideas – unique and special. “12 However positive they are perceived by the majority of readers, these stories have also been criticised of being racist, and of advocating an American hegemony over the entire planet. For a person who caricatured almost every people and civilisation in the world without other background information than some photos and articles, this was probably inevitable.

Natives, particularly in Africa and Asia, are often portrayed as simple beings, easily falling for the tricks played on them by a money hungry Scrooge. However, the stories do not in general end on this note, and the Ducks usually find themselves functioning as anthropologists and bridge builders, learning from their newfound friends. Still, stereotypes do abound, and Barks’ political standpoint (he was a registered voter for the Republican Party)13 can also be seen, particularly in a story from 1966 – The treasure of Marco Polo.

It takes place in Unstedeystan, a South East Asian country where the king has recently been overthrown, and where the revolutionaries are wreaking havoc. Scrooge has received a shipment from the country, supposedly containing a valuable jade elephant, but when he opens he box only the tail is left. As not even a revolution can stand between Scrooge and his money, he decides to go get his elephant back. However, the guide he employs to show him around, Soy Bean, turns out to be the crown prince, who needs to get the elephant back as it is a symbol of royalty, and the only thing that can bring peace to the country.

Scrooge decides to give up his claim to the treasure and in stead help Soy Bean. As the elephant is retrieved and is shown in public, the people decide that they have had enough of the workers ‘paradise’, and want to go back to monarchy. Carl Barks retired in 1966, at a time when the American market for such comics had started to decline, and the majority of children in the English-speaking world have since then not encountered the Duckburg inhabitants through this media.

However, the Disney animation has also benefited heavily from Barks contributions, and a show such as Ducktales is based almost entirely on characters either invented or developed by him. In Europe the situation has been different. The comic books have had a strong position, and most of the writers who create the series today are European, many of them working for Egmont, the Danish company holding the license for distribution of Disney comics almost over the entire world.

One such artist is the Italian Marco Rota, who draws mainly historical stories, often about Vikings. However, the one artist deemed eligible to be Carl Barks successor is an American who wrote his first story, Son of the Sun, in 1988: Keno Don Rosa. Because of his admiration for Barks, and the fact that he sticks strictly to the ‘Barksian’ facts, fans have accepted him as the new authority on the Ducks. He is most famous for having written Scrooge’s biography – This is your life Scrooge in the early 1990s.

Bringing together all the hints about the worlds richest duck that he could find in Barks’ stories, he managed to create a 12-chapter epic, detailing Scrooge’s history from birth up until the day he appeared in Christmas on Bear Mountain. This epic has been highly controversial, praised by the majority of readers, but criticised by those who did not like the mysticism taken out of Duckburg. Many fans felt that by writing this biography, Don Rosa had done what many film version of books do: visualised a story in a streamlined way, thus ruining the individuals own version.

However, this criticism has not prevented Don Rosa from being hugely popular, and he has continued to write epics. One might say that if Barks created a universe, Don Rosa is writing the history book on it. A part of this history details the creation of the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook,14 and starts when the contents of the Library in Alexandria are not lost, but instead kept by a secret organisation. The strength of Don Rosa’s stories is that they always have a strong basis in facts.

He is (as was Carl Barks) a fan of National Geographic, and says that he enjoys writing ‘real’ stories because “history is fantastically interesting, but I wouldn’t have the same excuse for diving into a distant civilization if I weren’t an artist. “15 The stories that Carl Barks created have been known and loved by children from all over the world for more than fifty years. The new form of comics that he created, containing neither superheroes to look up to, nor ‘safe’ one-dimensional animal characters, offered children something new.

In his stories they could go on adventures to distant lands, learn to love the town of Duckburg, and, most importantly, recognise themselves in the inhabitants. The stories were not always what would be considered politically correct today, but they reflected opinions existent in the American society of the day. Moral lessons were aplenty, and characters who were selfless and who cared for others got further than those relying of luck (Gladstone Gander), money (Scrooge) or crime (the Beagle Boys and Magica De Spell). The stories can be analysed in many ways, but can only best be described in one – as extremely good entertainment.