Reinventing Barks

Carl Barks never had his eye on immortality, but it came knocking nonetheless. He never dreamed of fame or wealth or power, like Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge and Magica de Spell, but after he retired these visitors arrived at the door. When they turned up, he didn't quite know what to do with them. He's not the first to be flummoxed by fame.

Suddenly he had a public--a pushy public at that. First came the fans, avid readers of his comic books who paved the way for scholarship with their questions and interviews. They were happy just to be let in the door, however, and didn't probe too deeply. Next came the promoters, who also didn't probe; they shouted. Instead of asking Barks who he was, they told him: he was a Fine Artist with a capital F and a capital A--and they would help him realize some of that capital. Remember, the 1970s was the decade when fandom went commercial; it was a time of auctions and hype, and the beginning of the limited-edition comic art lithograph.

Barks should have given these yahoos the bum's rush, but he hadn't the heart. For seventy-five years this gentle man had knocked himself out meeting other people's expectations: as pillar of the family ranch ("a windy, dusty, profitless life" he called it); breadwinner first to a party girl, then to an alcoholic; father to two small children; and--something that's not much known--caregiver to his third wife's ailing mother. Dutiful new incarnations were a habit with him, like the series of jobs he had held and lost as a young man. This time, instead of a logger's axe or a rivet gun, he would wield a paintbrush. He picked it up, primed a few canvases, and set out to make himself into the pintail Rembrandt his public insisted he was.

Barks had studied painting briefly in the 1950s and again in the 1960s, but merely as a weekend's entertainment. Now oils became a vocation. He began rebuilding his files; all sorts of art and imagery turned grist to the aging cartoonist's mill. When he saw the poster of a still life by Willem Kalf, he begged a copy from his printer in order to practice its palette of browns and golds. Old copies of the National Geographic Magazine, once culled for adventure motifs, were scanned now for their moody color schemes and archaeological props. Interviews show his ongoing concern with draftsmanship and the craft of using oils. Barks took his role as a painter seriously.

The result should have been charming, but something went haywire. Small, unpretentious California scenes and cute color copies of past comic book covers gave way to large, self-conscious landscapes of coins and jewels in the McDuck money bin. Barks' third wife Garé used to quip that one mad fan had even requested a picture of Donald and Scrooge at the Last Supper. Certainly the collectors were trying to outdo each other in commissioning masterworks, and Barks was trying to please them. Because he was no longer guided by his own editorial sense, the light touch that had distinguished his comic art vanished. Spectacle and ornament became ends in themselves. That suited the culture vultures just fine, and the prices skyrocketed.

What of the artist? He had a laborer's respect for paychecks; there had been too many times in his life when he couldn't scrounge one. He knew that the paintings were a bluff and that storytelling was his real gift. "I wouldn't have amounted to a hill of beans if I hadn't gotten into those comic books," he once said. But the comics had never made him rich. Now dollars were flying around thick and fast. Barks took the money, and bought into the myth.

What followed--the deification and manipulation, the stock-market games with collectibles, the European goodwill tour--can be blamed on the promoters, but that isn't the whole story. Barks himself had a hand in shaping his public image, and it takes an effort for the devoted fan to realize this. We'd like to think of this grandfatherly gent as being candid with us; at some level, we need him to be our kindly armchair uncle. We forget he was a storyteller with an eye for drama, an ear for dialogue, and a strong sense of mischief. The best actors and opera singers know how to fake eye contact with the house, give each viewer the impression that they are playing directly to him or to her. From the moment in 1960 when fans first discovered him and started taking notes, Barks rose to the occasion by sprucing himself up and tweaking his history.

I'm not calling the old boy a liar. On the biographical front, he simply left things out. No doubt there were things he'd have loved to keep buried, like the night in 1951 when he slipped away from his drunken wife and took refuge in a motel to finish writing "Only a Poor Old Man." Barks had an old-fashioned sense of privacy that never gave ground to the public's right to know. On the other hand, the incident made juicy telling the one time he did let his guard down. Such juicy telling that he declared to his interviewer that Clara Barks, who used to go on binges and tear up his artwork, was quite capable of coming after him with a meat cleaver. You can see the cartoon image forming in his mind: harridan pursues geezer with butcher knife. It's like any number of the raunchy drawings he made for the Calgary Eye-Opener. And you can imagine Barks chuckling as he spun out the yarn and watched his listener react.

Of course, that was in the early days of his celebrity. Fine Artists don't have such episodes.

Something of this nature took place on the critical front as well. Barks never dissected his own creative process. He lived some of his story material, researched or imagined more, cobbled the whole lot together, and analyzed the action for motives and pacing; but never for satire, social commentary, or--God forbid--autobiography. Suddenly he was bombarded with what must have seemed like questions from left field. What inspired the Gneezles? How about the ball-shaped Terries and Fermies? What were his politics--his religion--his philosophy of writing? Were his characters true to life? Thrust unwilling into the spotlight--yet gratified by the attention--he replied with anecdotes and bromides that he hoped would fit the occasion and send his fans home happy.

He told them about the evening in 1944 when the house was so full of company that he couldn't concentrate (this gripe resurfaces in other anecdotes). So he took his bourbon into the garden, sat on the swing, and suddenly he thought of the Everglades. Soon more images popped into his head, visions of the gnome-like creatures that lived in the swamp's back reaches. "I just sat there and let the thoughts pour all over me" is how he put it. Next day he was hard at work drawing "Mystery of the Swamp." And sure, his characters were true to life; he always told it like it was. The heroes all had a bit of bad in them (true enough), and the villains had a bit of good. (That last bit's not true; Chisel McSue and any number of the pig-faced shysters have weaknesses but no virtues.)

Sometimes, when he felt that a wisecrack would suffice, his answer was quick and crusty--but always delivered with a self-deprecatory twinkle. "Philosophy of writing and drawing? Philosophy is at least four syllables long. I could never guess what the word means." As for the Terry Fermians being spherical: "I felt it was suited to what the little bastards did."

I've lived with the interviews and the idiom so long, I could almost write Barks' answers for him. It was a temptation sometimes to do so. The man who could blithely confess, "I used to rob from the Geographics," would become remarkably close-mouthed if you tried to pinpoint the photographs and passages on which he had modeled his drawings. Barks had the idea that an artist was someone who created out of thin air, not someone who arranged chunks of raw material into new and wonderful forms. To him that was stealing, not creation. It was a constant sore point between us. Garé Barks understandably sided with her husband. "Why do you keep tearing him down?" she would ask. "The job of a critic is to build up the artist."

In point of fact, both the Gneezles and the Terry Fermians owe a lot to Disney's animation mill, in which Barks labored for seven long years before turning his hand to comics. The scenes in which these characters swell and bounce and roll along the ground draw on standard animation gags. Barks may have seen Studio sketches for an aborted film about elves; certainly he worked on Snow White at a time when the Seven Dwarfs looked more like hillbilly gnomes than the chubby charmers they eventually became. The Geographic was also an influence, running illustrated features on the Everglades and the Carlsbad Caverns a few years before he created "Mystery of the Swamp" and "Land beneath the Ground" respectively. The Carlsbad article even includes a photograph of spherical rock formations huddled together like nesting Fermies. So much for the influence of bourbon and garden swings.

Once you start to dig, it's amazing what turns up: sea serpents, mountain carvers, seductive lady spies, haunted castles where skeletons swing swords, square people eating square eggs--all these recognizably Barksian motifs lie buried in Disney's morgue of abandoned concepts. There's even a file on the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. Fortunately, none of this spelunking matters. The morgue is a collection of half-baked ideas; the comics are a living, breathing body of art.

Over the last twenty years I've written so much about those comics that I don't feel the need here to convince you of their greatness. Everybody knows them; everybody has favorites. They will transcend Carl's prevarications, my analyses, even the ravages of time. Fifty years from now, when conservation has become too recondite or expensive a science to be lavished on duck paintings, when the world is owned in tandem by Disney and Microsoft--a bigger corporate octopus than Scrooge could ever imagine--somebody surfing some future version of the internet will unearth "Tralla La" or "The Golden Helmet" and fall under its spell. That somebody will be prompted to seek out more stories. Eventually he and his associates will summon up the grit to petition DisneySoft for the rights to republish.

And Carl Barks will have his immortality.

Copyright © 2001 by Geoffrey Blum
First published in Comic-Con International: San Diego Souvenir Book (La Mesa, CA: Comic-Con International, 2001), pp. 143-146.


Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum