Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from the Calgary Eye-Opener?
It was Whiz Bang that started the avalanche. What began in 1920 as a mimeographed pamphlet pecked out on a borrowed typewriter could claim, only three years later, a national circulation of 425,000. In fact, Captain Wilford H. Fawcett's little joke sheet provided financial grounding for the Fawcett publishing empire: we have Whiz Bang to thank for the Gold Medal line of paperbacks and the birth of Captain Marvel. Today this publishing bombshell is remembered only by a line in Professor Harold Hill's tirade against the corruption of River City youth. The Eye-Opener, too, would be forgotten if it weren't for the work of one cartoonist.
Our all-American magazine was actually a foreign import, the brainchild of a Canadian entrepreneur named Robert Chambers Edwards, who founded a newspaper near Calgary, Alberta on march 4, 1902. The title Eye-Opener alludes to an alcoholic wake-me-up for the morning after. "No one can refuse taking one," said Edwards slyly, and he was right. The first issues were published sporadically as he moved from town to town taking potshots at local authorities, but by 1912 the paper had a wide and steady circulation. When Old Bob, as he came to be known, died an M.P. in 1922, Harvey Fawcett, brother to Captain Billy, bought American rights to the title, moved all the files to Minneapolis, and turned the Eye-Opener into a humor magazine on the order of Whiz Bang. He continued to print a Canadian edition, but that varied from the American issue only by a line on the title page. This is how matters stood when Carl Barks came on board.
The years was 1928, and Barks was hard at work in a railroad yard in Roseville, California, heating rivets to repair the banged-up cars of the Pacific Fruit Express. He'd been at the job five years and was heartily sick of it, but riveting did pay enough for him to purchase a range of joke magazines, and he could sample others at the barbershop. He began submitting cartoons to the Eye-Opener and-mirabile dictu!-they published a couple. Soon they took a couple more, then a whole sheaf. Even the prestigious Judge and College Humor were persuaded to accept a few drawings. Barks was elated; he was not yet thirty and already a professional cartoonist. He quit the riveting gang and spent his next year working free-lance for the Eye-Opener, turning out a steam of cartoons and generally making himself indispensable.
Meanwhile Harvey Fawcett was running his magazine into the ground. Soon he, too, went on the skids, having parted company from his more successful brother. Poverty and alcohol took their toll, and in 1931 the Eye-Opener passed into the hands of a contractor named Henry Meyer. Meyer reviewed his new property, decided that the staff needed a shaking-up, and called on Barks.
"Meyer was enough of a businessman to see things weren't being run right around there," the artist recalled. "there was too much drinking and playing around, and not enough production. So he looked over the list of gag men and decided that hell, I was a hard-working son of a gun. So he sent a telegram to me, asking if I would come back there. I had enough money to send a telegram saying I didn't have enough money to get back there. He sent me money, and I closed my affairs very rapidly and gave away the big stack of joke magazines I had. What I could carry in a valise, I carried with me. I got into Minneapolis in November of 1931."
For the first year or so Barks was in his element. He stayed indoors plying a pen instead of a sledgehammer, warmed by a stove instead of a bucket of red-hot rivets. At a time when he could look down from his office window and see crowds of the unemployed rioting on the steps of City Hall, he was earning $110 per month, a scandalously good salary. He and the magazine's new editor, Ed Sumner, got along well and tried to launch a more respectable humor magazine named Coo-Coo in 1932. (It lasted one issue.) He was even starting to date the woman who would become his second wife, a telephone operator in the apartment hotel where he lived.
It was Barks' first taste of a more bohemian sort of life. It should have suited him, but it didn't. His habit at any job, as we know from accounts of his Disney years, was to keep head down and nose to the grindstone. That wasn't the way things worked at the Eye-Opener. Barks must have had some inkling of the modus operandi before moving to Minneapolis, for in 1929 he drew a sketch of the staff in chaos watching Little Aspirin, one of the magazine's rowdier characters, flaunt her legs and her gin bottle. That drawing would prove prophetic.
In 1932 the magazine was bought out again, this time by Captain Billy's ex-wife Antoinette Fisher Fawcett using her recently acquired alimony. Before long she had fired Ed Sumner. "She wanted to put on her own type of heavy drinkers," Barks quipped. Annette's editorial by-line was "The Henna-Haired Hurricane of Laughter and Joy," and it fit. "Quite a lot of the time, there wasn't enough left after Annette got her fingers into the incoming checks. She lived in the Radisson Hotel in a very expensive suite, and she entertained very lavishly whenever there were any visiting celebrities from Hollywood in town. She would just take everything that came n and spend it. The printers and linotypers, those guys were all waiting for their money. Some of us poor devils--there was myself, and there were three girls in the office--we would get half of our checks, maybe.
"Finally, we were getting pretty well behind, and so were the printers. So they just closed in on Annette one time and told her, 'All right, if you don't want to go into bankruptcy, make an arrangement with us to run the business. You can still be editor if you want to call yourself so, but we will take care of all the checks that come back from the distributors, and pay off ourselves and your employees, and when it's all clear again, you can have your business back.' That was the status of the thing at the time I left."
Barks moved to California in 1935 over the protests of the assembled printers, linotypers, and engravers, who offered a substantial raise. For a few years he continued to contribute cartoons, but only a scattering. Annette hired back Phil Rolfsen, who had been editor before Henry Meyer made his clean sweep, and the monthly joke book chugged along. "They put out a magazine with some nude photos in it," Barks recalled. "they got picked up by the mails for sending obscene mail, and they had to have a little trial. Nothing happened." By then the Eye-Opener, like many of its competitors, had run its course. It died a quiet death in the early 1940s, about the time that Whiz Bang was also winding down.
Barks got out when the getting was good. For seven years the Eye-Opener had given him an income, a training ground, and a showcase for his art, but he had earned those benefits. He had been copyboy, editor, star cartoonist, and, as he put it, bill staller-offer. "The whole book would have been written and drawn by me if there hadn't been a few patient gag men out in the breadlines who sold us jokes and cartoon ideas now and then," he once boasted. Sometimes he would sign the writer's name to a drawing to make it look as if the magazine had a larger staff; at other times he used pseudonyms. Once he resigned as Associate Editor, content and quality changed noticeably.
It's tempting to think that the Eye-Opener was unable to survive his departure, just as it's tempting to claim that his retirement thirty years later hastened the decline of another newsprint phenomenon, Western Publishing's line of Disney comic books. Neither would be the case. The joke magazine and the comics were creatures of their era. In their glory days Barks was a mainstay of both, but the times moved on, and so did he.
Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum