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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
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
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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