During the 1940s and 1950s, fans of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books loved stories written and drawn by one particular artist, the "good duck artist" as he was lovingly called. He remained anonymous (the comics listed no credits, just the "Walt Disney" name) until he was "discovered" in 1959 and it turned out that the name of the "good duck artist" was Carl Barks.
Barks began his career with Disney in the animation department in 1935 but quit over working conditions in 1942. He started doing some work in comic books and he was hired in 1943 by Western Publishing to draw – and soon to write as well – the adventures of Donald Duck. During the next 3 decades he would produce roughly 500 duck stories. He teamed Donald with his three nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie and created a place for them to live (Duckburg) and introduced a colorful cast of ducks, such as Donald's cousin, the lazy but lucky Gladstone Gander, and his most famous creation, Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. (Both characters appear in this premier volume.)
This first book starts off with stories from the 1948-1949 period, as Barks is hitting the peak period of his storytelling. (Earlier Barks’ work will be collected in later volumes). The highlight of this volume is "Lost in the Andes," a large-scale adventure story starring Donald and his three nephews. They travel to South America in search of the source of several square eggs found in the museum where Donald works as a janitor. They find hidden in the Andes a lost civilization where everything is square and round shapes are forbidden. Barks tells a fast-paced yarn with beautifully drawn backgrounds, especially of the lost city itself.
The setup of the book groups the longer 20-30 page stories from this period together, then the shorter 10-page stories followed by a group of quick one-pagers. The story sizes showcase Barks’ ability to entertain regardless of length. The longer tales allow Barks to send his ducks on a grand adventure, while the10-pagers give the ducks a chance to deal with more domestic issues, and the one-pagers are amusing gags.
Barks, the artist, is a master cartoonist, drawing lively, expressive characters with a graceful sense of movement. His beautiful, detailed backgrounds plant the ducks in a fully realized world that adds weight to his storytelling. Speaking of storytelling, Barks’ imagination gives the ducks plenty of situations – from the exciting adventure ("Lost in the Andes," "Hoodoo Voodoo") to hilarious home life ("Donald Duck’s Worst Nightmare," "Plenty of Pets"). But besides the entertaining plots, Barks’ appeal is in his characters. He gives his ducks many human frailties and while they usually try to do the right thing, they make mistakes, get angry, frustrated, and even fail.
Fantagraphics Books, which is currently collecting the comic strip adventures of that other Disney star, Mickey Mouse, does its usual high quality work here as well. The design and layout of the book is a handy comic-book size hardcover with bright, colorful reproductions of the comics. Besides the comics, there are articles on Barks and analysis on each story by American and European "duck scholars" who offer historical context on the social commentary that Barks sneaks in.
Because of his popularity, Barks’ stories have been collected many times before, all over the world, but this series will focus on – and include all of – his duck work, which means that Donald and Uncle Scrooge will be together again, in color, for a new generation of readers. These are stories adults and children can share and enjoy (although please note, there are a few racial stereotypes that were common when the stories originally appeared). For both newcomers to Barks' work and diehard fans, this is a book that any comic book reader would love to find under the Christmas tree.
Rich Clabaugh is a Monitor staff artist.