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[Groop]The Cartoonist Who Had His Ducks in a Row

The Cartoonist Who Had His Ducks in a Row

Carl Barks was "the good duck artist." Barks, who died Friday at the age of 99, went to work for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories in the 1930s, and he labored in obscurity his whole career. Very few comic book artists and writers got credit for what they produced: They were hired to turn out company product, and they did. Nonetheless, Barks's work--among other things, he created Scrooge McDuck and the gigantic square money bin in which he slithered among his golden coins like a happy porpoise--had its fans from the very beginning. Not knowing his name, children wrote fan letters to him addressed to "The Good Duck Artist."

Charming as that sobriquet is, it gives the impression that Barks's great skill lay in, well, drawing ducks. It's true that he did this expertly. He was a wonderful cartoonist, and his figures have comic vitality; he was particularly good at expressions of exasperation. But it was as a storyteller--a children's book writer, if you will--that Barks was exc!
eptional. I know this because I'm one of the people who read his stuff as a child, and I remember it into adulthood the way I remember the Oz books.

Before his comic book career, Barks had worked in the Disney animation studios as an "in-betweener," someone who provides the connecting drawings between the major poses drawn by the cartoon's director and chief animators (there are 24 film frames to a second, of which a director might draw four to six, outlining the figure's basic movement). It was not challenging work, and besides, working on Donald Duck--who pretty much did nothing but throw one tantrum after another--had a certain sameness to it.

When Barks moved to comic books, he did for Donald what Chuck Jones did in cartoons for Bugs Bunny: gave him a more sophisticated personality and put a spin of wit onto the jokes. Barks expanded on the personalities of Donald's three identical nephews--Huey, Dewey and Louie, distinguishable only by the colors of their billed beanie!
s; they patiently put up with Donald's erratic nature, frequently bailing him out of scraps with tips from the Junior Woodchuck Handbook.

In a repeating motif that's always a hit with kids, the boys were the cool heads who saved the day when the high-strung Donald became hysterical or their Uncle Scrooge became gaga with greed.

Ah yes, Scrooge. The top-hatted, spatted miser (spats on a duck were one of Barks's greatest inspirations) whose fortune brought him more nervousness than joy. Predators always lurked. There were the masked Beagle Boys, nefarious thugs who coveted his gold.

There was the evil enchantress Magica De Spell, with her sloe eyes and Bettie Page hairdo, who was always plotting to steal Scrooge's lucky dime. There was Donald, whom he tried to support by giving him jobs, but who frankly had a head like a knot of wood and could almost invariably be relied on to lose money.

Donald had his own problems. Aside from stingy Scrooge there was Gladstone Gander.

Gladstone strutted around with his eyes half shut, peering with lazy superiority at lesser mortals who had not been born with his fabulous luck. Gladstone was lucky the way the ocean is wet. He didn't have to buy lottery tickets: The winning one would somehow be caught on a breeze and waft right into his pocket. He was so lucky he was blase about it, bored really--a trait that drove the hard-working, under-rewarded Donald up the wall.

We all know a Gladstone, don't we?

Barks's highest flights of fancy came in his plots, which had the surprises and quirky inventiveness in which children delight. In "The Land Beneath the Ground," Scrooge is horrified one morning to discover that his precious money bin is . . . empty! After he recovers from his swoon, the nephews discover that the previous day's earthquake had cracked the vault and all the cash fell into a crevice. Soon everyone is following a mysterious cavern deep, deep, deep underground, and encounter the civilization of th!
e Terries and the Firmies.

The Terries and the Firmies are identical round-bodied folk, although one group wears bow ties and the other four-in-hands. Their country is domed by the immense vault of Earth itself, held up by enormous pillars, and their idea of fun is to roll themselves completely into balls and launch themselves at the pillars to see who can cause the biggest vibration. Thus, earthquakes. Quidditch, hah!

No sense spoiling the story by revealing how our heroes resolve things. Suffice to say that the Junior Woodchuck Handbook, though not the deciding factor, comes in very handy. And that Donald may have no luck but lacks not for pluck. Brain triumphs over brawn, common sense over pretension, sanity trumps craziness.

After all, these are children's stories. Perhaps being able to write so well for children is what gave Barks such a long life.

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