Long the object of a vociferous cult following among fans of comic books, Carl Barks has only recently achieved widespread fame--despite the fact that literally millions of baby-boomers grew up reading his work.
Between 1943 and 1965, he worked anonymously on the "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories" series for Dell, creating baroque adventures for Donald Duck and his Duckburg friends and relations--Huey, Dewey and Louie, Daisy, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose and, of course, Scrooge McDuck. This large-format anthology contains newly re-colored versions of 12 of Barks' best stories, along with interviews, sketches, caricatures and other comic memorabilia. It's a veritable cornucopia of nostalgia for anyone who grew up during the late '40s and '50s.
Barks was working in the Story Department of the Disney studio in 1942 when he and Jack Hannah (who directed many of the Donald cartoons) adapted "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," the story for an unproduced animated feature, to comic book form. (A mint condition copy of this 10-cent comic now sells for more than $2,000.) When Barks left the studio later that year, Dell asked him to write and draw an original story for their Disney series. They had been relying on reprints of the daily "Mickey Mouse" and "Donald Duck" comic strips and were running out of material.
Barks' "Donald Duck and the Mummy's Ring" proved so successful that he spent the next 22 years devising some of the best-loved stories in comic book history. He transformed the hot-tempered suburban Duck of the cartoon shorts into a reluctant adventurer. He sent Donald and his nephews to the wilds of Asia, Africa and South America and even into outer space, where they encountered such unlikely characters as Gu, the Abominable Snowman, the Gilden Man of El Dorado and Muchkale, once the richest man on Venus.
In 1947, Barks created his most famous character: Uncle Scrooge McDuck, whose dollar's worth totals "Umpteen Centrifugillion," "Impossibidillion Fantasticatrillion" or just "three cubic acres of money." The ultimate caricature of a miser, Scrooge adores money for itself, rather than for the goods or power it confers: "I love the feel of it and the smell of it, and I love to dive around in it like a porpoise and burrow through it like a gopher and toss it up and let it hit me on the head."
Although he often recalls his early days as a sharp-eyed prospector or a shrewd trader, Scrooge emerges as a tycoon in spite of himself. When a crisis arises, he relies on Donald and his nephews to solve it. Aided by the encyclopedic "Junior Woodchuck's Guide Book," Huey, Dewey and Louie rescue Donald and Scrooge: They concoct the noxious Oxide of Strombolium pill that debilitates the giant King Sturgeon in "Land of the Pygmy Indians," and capture the lemming that inadvertently steals the combination to Scrooge's money bin in "The Lemming With the Locket."
For Americans, Barks' work represents pleasant memories, but in 1972, Chilean Marxist writers Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart denounced the Disney comics as propaganda designed to further the exploitation of Third World countries. Their vitriolic pamphlet "How to Read Donald Duck" ("Para Leer al Pato Donald") concluded, "As long as he (Donald Duck) strolls with his smiling countenance so innocently about the streets of our country, as long as Donald is power and our collective representative, the bourgeoisie and imperialism can sleep in peace."
While Donald and Scrooge tend to patronize the natives they encounter, they hardly behave like ruthless capitalists. In "Back to the Klondike," Scrooge arranges for retired saloon keeper Glittering Goldie to find his hidden cache of nuggets, rather than leave her in poverty, and sacrifices millions to protect the miniature aliens in "Island in the Sky" and "Micro-Ducks From Outer Space." For all his miserly ways, Uncle Scrooge is too soft-hearted to profit from anyone's misery.
Anti-duck riots are rare in Latin America, probably because Scrooge's mock adventures are too far-fetched and funny for anyone to take the charges in "How to Read Donald Duck" seriously. (The contest between Uncle Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold for the title of richest duck in the world comes down to a question of who's saved the biggest ball of string.) As long as "Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times" is on their night tables and represents collective childhood nostalgia, the millions of adults who grew up reading Carl Barks' comics can sleep in peace.