Friday, January 18, 2013

Carl Barks & The Art of Being a "Good Duck Man"

Carl Barks is known as Disney'sGood Duck Man” — emphasis not entirely mine. When Barks worked in Disney's comic book stable during the '40s and '50s, it was standard practice for Disney to publish without giving credit to either writer or artist. Other artists penned Disney duck adventures, but Barks's stood out as exemplary — hence the moniker.

Carl Barks adhered to an eight-panel narrative structure, the norm for the still-burgeoning comic book industry of the early '40s. While some might find fault with the absence of variety or experimentation (Barks was certainly no Jack Kirby or Jim Steranko), he exploited the format to remarkable effect. This is a page from The Golden Helmet (1952 — click on the pictures for a closer look):

Panel 1 sets up the crux of Donald's predicament: he's underemployed as a museum security guard, resorting to flights of fancy to stave off tedium. His reverie is interrupted by an interloper who nudges Donald into active duty — the first time Donald is required to actually guard something. When we reach the concluding panel, the peculiarity of the scene causes Donald (and the reader) to wonder what this is all about.

The next eight panels draw Donald further into the mystery:

Here Barks combines the art of silently advancing the story via Donald's snooping and tapping — a Visual Narrative technique common to the animation studio Barks left behind — and colours it in with Donald's internal monologue of reason/speculation.

Needless to say, the discovery leads to the compressed “Tom Swift” sort of adventure Barks was famous for. As for characterization, much is said about the complex moral nature of Barks' ducks — sci-fi provocateur Rudy Rucker goes so far as to label them “anti-heroes.” This is surely overstatement made for effect, but Barks was nevertheless keen to exploit his heroes' moral vulnerabilities. In this adventure, Donald will briefly succumb to the allure of the MacGuffin, a Golden Helmet which confers ownership of all of North America to its bearer.

That said, what I find charming about Barks' heroes is their facial innocence. Contrast Donald's snooping with that of the Dickensian villain he interrupted. Donald begins in state of mild pique, wondering what this grotesque, suspicious-looking malcontent was looking for. The more he ponders the puzzle, the more benign his facial expressions become, until — oh joy! — he discovers what the villain missed. It is this innocence that draws the reader in and allows him to take pleasure in the hero's later (and tirelessly repeated) renunciation of the same.

Now re-read those panels. “That guy was looking for something else — something he got wind of in an old Viking book, maybe!” “Those translators of ancient writings come across some strange secrets sometimes!” Even with the gratuitous use of the exclamation mark, do you “hear” those sentences in Donald's spluttering quack? The voice I hear is that of a mature adult male, and it's a voice common to his young nephews as well. (In fact, it's a voice not far removed from that of my father, who would read these adventures to us kids after our Saturday night bath.)

Some years back Disney mounted an animated series based loosely on Barks' adventures. The one episode I watched was surprisingly faithful to the source, but I was left completely cold. Voice was a huge impediment to my enjoyment. Scrooge sounded like Mike Myers impersonating his Scottish grandmother, the boys sounded like mice being squeezed through a penny-whistle, and Donald sounded like the lame duck he's morphed into since he stopped spanking the kids and started attending anger management workshops.

Viewers unfamiliar with the comic books were able to take the series at face value and judge it (approvingly, for the most part) for what it was, while those of us who'd worn the books thin were dissatisfied. The true artistry of comic sequential art is, as Scott McCloud so brilliantly elucidates, invisible — it is what the reader brings to the work, under the artist's subtle prompting. At his best, Barks' colluded with the reader on a level of silently shared intelligence that, today, seems almost formidable.

The geeks at Boing Boing are admirers of Barks, and occasionally puzzle over the near-extinction of the Funny Animal Genre. I believe the unusual longevity of Barks's duck stories shines a telling light on this species' endangered status. But that's material for another post.

The panels here are all from "The Golden Helmet"
an adventure included in the Fantagraphics
volume, Donald Duck: "A Christmas For Shacktown"


Joel said...

My own history with Carl Barks: I was not allowed to have comic books as a young kid, but one of the family restaurant's we went to had Donald Duck comics in the waiting room. I'm not 100% sure they were Carl Barks to be honest, but at least they made use of his signature characters Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose, Magica De Spell, et cetera. I've never really looked at it since, and would love to become re-acquainted with it one day.
A few years later when Ducktales came out i was in 4th grade, and everyone at school loved that series. I guess we were just about the right age for it. I assume this is the series you are referring to in your post?
For reasons I was never entirely clear about, someone at Disney made the decision to send Donald off to the Navy, and the show was entirely about Uncle Scrooge and his 3 nephews. Donald only ever appeared in a couple episodes (one of which must have been the one you watched, it sounds like.)
Since I have only the foggiest memories of those old Donald Duck comics, I've got a million questions about what they're like. But rather than bother you with all of those, one of these days I think I'll just have to track down these Carl Barks volumes for myself.

Darrell Reimer said...

Ducktales is indeed the show I refer to. I suspect Donald was shipped back to the Navy because it was proving increasingly hard for the actor to quack lines like, "Those translators of ancient writings come across some strange secrets sometimes."

If you go the Fantagraphics route I'd advise against "Lost In The Andes," their first collection. It has some good stories, but also some real stinkers that even Barks felt ambivalent about. Also, Fantagraphics hadn't yet settled on the format they wanted, so the book's organization is a bit of a mess. "A Christmas In Shacktown" (A) is good, as is "Only A Poor Old Man" (A).