Getting My Ducks in a Row
How I Write a Disney Comic

Carl Barks left behind him a rich tradition of jokes and stories. His Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics boosted sales for Western Printing in the 1940s and '50s, so much that the editors tried to ape his storylines after Barks retired in 1966. When sales declined, they fell back on reprinting his work. He is still the model for Disney's prolific comic-book publishing machine in Europe and has inspired such latter-day duck men as Don Rosa, Daan Jippes, and myself. I've read his stories since childhood. I can imitate the pacing, the cadences of speech; I've even polished up a handful of his unfinished plots. Without Barks, there would be no duck comics today.

At the same time, I can imagine old Carl (he'd have been 102 this year) harrumphing at some of the subjects I tackle. My own stories tend to reflect my interests: they're riffs on a theme from fiction or music that's lodged under my skin, or a crotchet I want to air. For instance, the soul-switching machine in "Double Exposure" is based on an apparatus in that short-lived TV series, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, but I'd like to think my Röntgen camera is more than a gothic plot device. It's a springboard for exploring the politics of dressing edgy, our culture's fascination with the bad-boy image. Picture the sorceress Magica de Spell inside Scrooge's body, swanning around Duckburg in black leather and lecturing the city fathers on getting in touch with their shadow side. Barks, who could imagine potions that dehydrate ancient races and destabilize modern faces, might still have balked at a gimmick that skirts gender-bending.

Similarly, the life-size projections in "A Holo Victory" owe their existence to fantasies plucked from Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and--would you believe?--Mozart's Magic Flute, but the story itself is a projection of what happens when neighborly squabbles reach the boiling point. I wrote it as a science-fiction daydream, but that dream began in a rage against a bossy neighbor, and some of the dialogue is lifted straight from life. Even so, I balked when my editor suggested jacking up the holographic violence in one scene. As Barks observed, you can't write horror comics for Disney. He solved the problem many a time by writing comedy; but his backyard farces about Donald and Neighbor Jones can get mighty explosive. It's a thin line that divides our laughter from our dark side.

For that reason, Barks would have shunned this kind of introspection. He'd have preferred to show you around his studio. Well, I don't have stacks of drawing paper or a light board or ten different nibs to my pen, but I do have writing down to a system. It's my living, after all. And while I don't keep a file of National Geographics on hand for inspiration, I have a hefty library of books and CDs and, when that fails, access to the internet. I can let you into my workshop.

Every story begins as notes: notes scribbled down while reading or listening to music or--God help us--barreling along the freeway. (Ideas must be snatched at the instant they arrive.) When enough notes have accumulated, I gather up the scraps of paper and type a synopsis. This forces me to weave my ideas into a storyline. Much dialogue is drafted at this stage; it helps builds connections between the key scenes, using characters' gripes and wisecracks to carry the reader from, say, one crisis at Scrooge's money bin to another at his warehouse. Just finding and polishing the words I want helps knock off rough edges and sometimes change the thrust of my initial inspiration. Often I write too much dialogue and have to throw perfectly lovely wisecracks into the wastebasket.

Once the synopsis has been vetted (or shredded) by my editor, I revise and tighten. New possibilities present themselves. The editor insists that Huey, Dewey, and Louie cannot yearn to own a dog because they already have a great big Saint Bernard. All right; if I've got to mention Bornworthy, what gags can be created by actually bringing him into the story? More ideas accumulate, I research canine breeds or bird species or some recondite point of black magic--my bank balance keeps dipping--until finally I have to produce a story.

For the first two years, I would sit in my living room blocking out each script in longhand, with chamber music pouring from the stereo. That was fun, but it took too long, and transcribing the handwritten pages took longer. Now I go directly to the computer and start typing dialogue, using a previous script as template. Egmont, the Danish publisher for whom I work, has a rigid scripting format--callouts, punctuation, plain type for this and boldface for that--so it helps to have a framework laid out. If I'm still not sure what's going to happen when the ducks reach the Siberian pine forest in Chapter Two, I trust to momentum. It's amazing what adrenaline can accomplish, but first you have to build that adrenaline by pounding out Chapter One.

When you're writing dialogue--when I'm writing dialogue--the work goes quickly. Dramatic pronouncements and sassy retorts come easy to me, and I jot in stage directions only to remind myself of crucial points in the action. Dialogue for a twenty-four page script--that's roughly 200 frames--might take no more than ten days. Adding stage directions--then thinning them so the editor doesn't blow a gasket--could burn up two weeks more. I know exactly how each drawing has to look, and I'm prepared to describe it--camera angle, scenery, props, lighting, poses, motion lines--down to the crook of Daisy Duck's little finger on a teacup. As part of Egmont's format, I also provide miniature grids showing the panel divisions on every page. That's how I learned to draw in Microsoft Word.

But language is my medium, and I work it. Once the editor stopped me dead in my tracks by saying, "You don't think I send the artist what you actually wrote, do you? Leave him something to do!" On the other hand, he was thrilled with the paintings and photographs I sent to model "Quest for the Golden Tusker"; he requested maps and floor plans for two other stories; and I can tell from the finished inks for "Powerplay on Killmotor Hill" that artist Massimo Fecchi saw my pencil roughs. One picture's worth a thousand words, it seems.

When the script is done and paid for, the editor will still want revisions, often months down the line. Perhaps he's caught a glitch in the storytelling or decided to tone down my satire. Now and then the artist gets into the act: Daan Jippes objected that using a metal detector to find Scrooge's dime in "Race for the Golden Apples" was too obvious, and he was right. I had to unpick several scenes in order to remove the device, but at least I got to do the unpicking.

Such rewrites can be time-consuming but are generally easy. Six months after completion I'm less invested in a story and more open to making changes. If I'm lucky, I may get to critique the artist's pencils and even his inks. In the case of a pro like Jippes, this is largely unnecessary. With up-and-coming talent, it's more important, and I can only pray that the editor relays my comments. Nothing's more annoying than to spend a day going over someone else's work--worse, someone else's vision of your work--and then to be told, "I didn't bother the artist with all your nitpicks; at this stage we only want to catch major errors."

Now the pages are off to production and out of my hands. One stage remains, but for better or worse, it's a stage that doesn't involve me. Each European publisher hires a translator to cast my script into the local language. Most of them trample it with hobnail boots, paring down, simplifying, and tossing out perfectly good jokes. Only once did a Swedish translator contact me; he was worried about some gags that wouldn't translate, but more worried about the morality of my story "World Wide Witch." Was it ethical to punish Magica de Spell for an internet crime technically committed by Donald? What did that say about the ducks' scruples? And why hadn't my editor told me that Don Rosa had already established a first name for Scrooge's secretary?

I should have been grateful for being consulted, but I could see a long, pointless e-correspondence developing, so I bit him rather hard. No translator has contacted me since. While perusing an Italian edition of the story, however, I was pleased to see that translator Alberto Becattini had footnoted one untranslatable gag, and his publisher had cared enough to print that note in the margin. There's scruples for you.

So when a story finally sees print--more than a year after I've written it, and in a language not my own--it feels like the work of another man. In truth, we're a collective: Barks, channeled by me, via editor, artist, then translator--not to mention the typesetters, programmers, and colorists. One of my colleagues calls it a sausage factory. Sometimes I'm blown away at how an artist has divined my intentions or made my story so totally his own that quibbles don't matter. At other times I want to tear out my hair.

That doesn't make me any less proud.

Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum
Disney character art copyright © 2003 by Disney Enteprises


Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum