Know Thy History: Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and the Disney Ducks
They ride tall ships to the far away,
and see the long ago.
They walk where fabled people trod,
and Yetis trod the snow.
They meet the folks who live on stars,
and find them much like us,
With food and love and happiness
the things they most discuss.
The world is full of clans and cults
abuzz as angry bees,
And Junior Woodchucks snapping jeers
at Littlest Chickadees.
The ducks show us that part of life
is to forgive a slight.
That black eyes given in revenge
keep hatred burning bright.
So when our walks in sun or shade
pass graveyards filled by wars,
It’s nice to stop and read of ducks
whose battles leave no scars.
To read of ducks who parody
our vain attempts at glory,
They don’t exist, but somehow leave
us glad we bought their story.
That poem was written by the man known by the world as the Good Duck Artist: Carl Barks. Donald Duck may have been created by the late, great Walt Disney, but it can be argued — very successfully, in fact — that he didn’t come into his own until Carl Barks wrote stories about him. More importantly, Carl Barks is the creator of Donald Duck’s wealthy uncle: a self-made duck with a top hat and tiny pince-nez glasses named Scrooge McDuck.
The world of race cars, lasers, and aeroplanes would never be the same again.
(Incidentally, much of my info for this piece comes straight from the Wikipedia entry on Carl Barks, which is super detailed. I have a feeling Don Rosa wrote it.)
Carl Barks, called the “Hans Christian Andersen of comic books” by fellow legend Will Eisner, was born at the turn of the century: March 27, 1901. He lived in a world where cowboys still carried around revolvers and the big city meant somewhere located close to the rail lines. He was the simple son of farmers from the small town of Merrill, Oregon. (Current population: 844.) By all accounts, he had a lonely childhood. Neighbors were a half mile away. School was two miles away… end even then, there were only eight or ten students. He worked hard doing farmwork: breeding attle, cultivating crops, selling to the local slaughterhouses.
Barks would’ve liked to continue his education, but, alas, he’d developed hearing problems. Hearing aids were not easy to come by in those days, and bad hearing meant poor education. Barks decided not to move on to high school and instead drifted around, taking on odd jobs. He went from being a woodcutter to a mule driver to a cowboy. Along the way, he met several people, all blue collar folk just like him, who liked to joke with each other a lot just to get through the day.
While such an experience would probably be a downer for most of us, Barks, instead, decided to use it as an inspiration. He remembered experiences, the ups and downs (mostly the downs), and they would form the basis for his portrayal of his most famous characters: Disney’s Donald Duck and his own creation, Scrooge McDuck.
Barks had taken a few corresponded classes on art. He’d tried to sell his drawing to some small press newspapers beforehand, but with little success. He did find work at the Calgary Eye-Opener, which Wikipedia describes as a racy men’s cartoon magazine. (Don’t get too excited, readers: I did an internet search of those old papers, and “racy” apparently means talking about smoking and boozing a lot. Those looking for cartoons of ladies in knee breeches and bloomers best look elsewhere. Namely, within the pages of Ally Sloper.)
However, Barks finally got his big break when he was hired at Disney in 1935 as an in-betweener. (You know, the poor scrubs who have to draw all the tiny animation panels in between the key cells.) Working conditions at Disney were pretty poor in those days, though, and ongoing health problems caused Barks to quit in 1942.
He stumbled upon his true destiny, however, while moonlighting as a comic artist for Disney adaptations. He did half the artwork for Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, a 64-page story adapted from an unproduced feature. Looking for a stable income, he asked the publisher whether there was a regular artist for Donald Duck stories. He got the job and toiled away at the stories anonymously (as was the general practice in those days). The stories would draw heavily from Bark’s own experiences. One story chronicles Donald’s escapades at a chicken farm. Barks himself had played around with starting a chicken farm in the San Jacinto area after he quit Disney’s animation studios.
Scrooge McDuck made his debut in the 1947 comic story, “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” What was originally a bit part eventually became the foundation of the entire Duck universe. Barks envisioned Scrooge and Donald to not be at all that dissimilar. Both were irritable cranks, after all. But while Donald was based on Barks’ life as a journeyman, Scrooge seems to have been based on his later successes. Scrooge got to where he was through sheer perseverance, someone who became the “World’s Richest Duck” through hard work and cleverness. (“Tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties,” he would say to grand-nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.)
And, oh yeah, Scrooge was totally responsible for planting into every child the dream that they, too, can swim through a bin stacked high with coins.
Scrooge would travel the world going on boss adventures with his nephews, facing every challenge with sheer pluck. For references, Barks would often draw on pictures he found in National Geographic magazine. Dismal Downs, the ancestral home of the Duck clan, was based on an article he’d come across about British castles. The references helped to give a certain sence of authenticity to his background illustrations, which were full of strong detail due to Bark’s one-time goal at writing more “serious” comics.
From there, Barks went to to create a myriad of classic characters: Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, the Junior Woodchucks, Gyro Gearloose, Flintheart Glomgold, and Magica De Spell.
Eventually, fans of the Duck stories would catch on that there was a “Good Duck Artist” behind all of it. Eventually, fans managed to guess the identity of the farmer’s boy from Merrill, Oregon. Through fanzines and conventions, the name of Carl Barks spread until Carl Barks became the most well known artist to write and draw a Disney comic book.
The influence of the Carl Barks stories show up in the strangest of places. You know the infamous boulder scene from Indiana Jones that has been parodied, like, everywhere? Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas have admitted that the sequence was inspired by the same trap in the Uncle Scrooge story, “The Seven Cities of Cibola.”
Hey, do you know Osamu Tezuka, the guy who basically invented manga in Japan? He mentioned that his artistic style was heavily influenced by Bark’s Scrooge McDuck stories.
Barks remains a huge influence in Europe, where the Disney Duck stories remain popular. His style has been meticulously replicated by Dann Jippes, Freddy Milton, and Don Rosa…
the current torchbearer one of the most prominent torchbearers of the Disney Duck legacy and creator of the Eisner Award-winning The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.
And finally, there’s DuckTales, perhaps the gold standard for all weekly animated series. Many of Carl Bark’s original Disney Duck stories would find their way into this landmark cartoon… apparently to the chagrin of some hardcore Disney Duck enthusiasts like Don Rosa (who’s not that complimentary of them in the comic reprints I’ve read). However, for a kid growing up in the 80’s, these were eye-openers … an amazing revelation that corporate icons like Donald, Scrooge, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie were capable of being in fun stories and adventures. It’s also in the running for quite possibly the best theme song of all time:
So there’s the inspiring story of how a guy who once had to take odd jobs where he could take ’em ended up changing the comic field around the world. It’s a success story that Scrooge McDuck himself would’ve been proud of.