The Barko Factor
Sometimes research is a matter of luck, or at least lucky timing. In 1997, when Carl Barks published a collection of his color pencil sketches, I noted with a chuckle that one of the drawings set in Scrooge's money bin was called Garden of Moolah-a cute and typically Barksian turn of phrase. I gave it no further thought till a few months later, when I chanced across the review of a new biography of Alla Nazimova, the Russian actress who gave Valentino his first starring role. Nazimova was one of the highest-paid screen sirens of the early 1920s, and she spent a large part of her wealth buying and remodeling a Hollywood mansion that she jokingly called the Garden of Alla. There she entertained luminaries from Feodor Chaliapin to Greta Garbo-until the funds ran low. Then she tacked on twenty-five Spanish bungalows and turned her estate into a chic residential hotel. Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Parker, Scott Fitzgerald, Errol Flynn-the guest book reads like a Hollywood Who's Who.
With so much hard-drinking talent packed onto three and a half acres, it's no surprise that the Garden of Allah, as it came to be called, featured regularly in the gossip columns. Barks would have read the local papers, might even have tried to peek over the garden wall while driving past on Sunset Boulevard. Today the estate and its mistress are forgotten: the gardens were bulldozed in 1959, and we have other, glitzier symbols for wealth and self-indulgence. But Barks grew up with this one, hence the nostalgic joke in the title of his drawing.
The trick, if you're nosing into the past, is to keep yourself open and not hunt too hard. I can remember Garé Barks telling me about the fan who found a feature on Alaskan sled dogs in the National Geographic. He was certain he'd stumbled on the source for "North of the Yukon" (Uncle Scrooge 59)-until she gleefully pointed out that the comic was published several months before the magazine. I've since gone looking for that article, and if there was a feature on sled dogs in 1965, the Geographic's index doesn't list it. Maybe Garé was misremembering. More likely she was pulling my leg.
At the time I wasn't worried; I was following another trail. The more I got to know Carl Barks, the more it seemed to me that Scrooge's sled dog Barko was an autobiographical projection. The equivalence of names alone was too strong to ignore. In 1989 I asked the artist point-blank to confirm this, but he just grunted, "Barko seemed to be a logical name for a dog. He wasn't named after me." Well, if the great man wanted to be coy, that was his business. I knew that Barko, like Scrooge, was a frontiersman, an emblem of the tough but honest way of life with which Barks had long identified. Scrooge is the artist's reclusive nature, Barko is more outgoing, but when the chips are down, they pull together. "North of the Yukon" presents us with two faces of an aging champion who still has what it takes to beat modern courts, cons, and media campaigns. You tell me that isn't a story about Barks.
Still, I was a bit chagrined six years later when Donald Ault faxed me a letter and a newspaper clipping he had just reeived from the duck man. "One Left from 1925 Serum Run to Nome," proclaimed the headline; it was the story of a ninety-year-old sled driver. "The enclosed clipping appeared in our local paper a few days ago," Barks wrote. "It is good to read the true story of the famous dog sled rescue of Nome with the diphtheria serum. I remember you liked my story of Uncle Scrooge and the old sled dog Barko, who was supposed to have been Balto still alive after half a century.
"As you can guess, my memory of the saving of Nome ws not perfect. My recollection was that one dog team pulled the sled the whole way from Fairbanks. Anyway, it doesn't matter much anymore. Less than one one-hundredth of one per cent of Americans read Disney comics these days."
I had never heard of Balto or his master Gunnar Kaasen who delivered the serum through murderous weather on February 2, 1925. I hadn't seen the bronze statue to the husky in Central Park, nor the animated film by Steven Spielberg, which would not be released until later that year. As it turns out, I may have been spared. Kaasen was just one of twenty sled drivers working in relays. He and Balto carried the serum the final 53 miles to Nome, but the longest and hardest leg of the journey was run by a driver named Leonhard Seppala and his lead husky Togo. They covered an astonishing 260 miles, east over Norton Sound to meet the preceding musher, then back across the ice floes to hand on their cargo to the next relay. The effort wore out Togo, who was unable to race afterwards but who sired numerous pups in his retirement. Many modern breeders of Siberian huskies can proudly trace their dogs' lineage back to him. "I guess we just don't attach that much importance to Balto," one of them commented recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.
So Barko/Balto/Carlo is also Togo.
"Truth?" said Alla Nazimova. "What is it? There is one truth when you are seventeen and another when you are thirty-seven." Like Garé, she would have been delighted to flummox us by pointing out accidents of history: The Garden of Allah is also a novel by Robert Hichens, a painting by Maxfield Parrish, and a film starring Marlene Dietrich. It's unlikely that Barks would have read Hichens' book, but he might well have seen a reproduction of the Parrish painting in the Disney Studio's reference library, and he recently remarked that his first wife Pearl looked a bit like Dietrich.
In the end, as Barks himself observed, it doesn't much matter. What counts is the way he glommed onto these scraps of the past, used them to bolster his vision, and rekindled in comic books the glamour of a fading era.
1998 by Geoffrey Blum
Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum