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Carl Barks: Disney Legend

Updated on August 8, 2011

The creator of Duckburg, Scrooge Mc Duck, The Beagle Boys, Junior Woodchucks, Gladstone Gander and others - the legendary comic master Carl Barks, was one of Disney's most celebrated and talented comic book writer/illustrators. Not only were his drawings particularly good but his stories were highly readable, escalating adventures. Barks's duckensian exploits ran a little deeper than the average comic book and included such sophisticated elements as satire, irony and occasionally, scepticism.

Barks's portayal of Donald as the imperfect 'everyman' was tinged with pathos and he introduced greater subtleties into the relationships between the prominent residents of Duckburg. Donald's bright nephews, Huey, Louie and Dewey, with their trusty Junior Woodchuck Manual, often accompanied their Uncles, Scrooge and Donald, to faraway places. Their adventures were not only educational - exploring ancient civilizations such as the Incas, Conquistadors and Mayans, as well as remote cultures found in exotic locations like Tibet and Alaska - they revealed individual character traits that played out around the dynamics within the Duck family. They were all very 'human' and thus flawed but it made for richer, more interesting characters.

Singing in German, Donald does the creating for a change.
Singing in German, Donald does the creating for a change.

The Good Duck Artist

Prior to 1960 many readers believed Walt Disney drew all the comics himself, as there was no attribution given on the books themselves. However, astute Disney comic fans noticed differences in the drawings and storylines and a buzz developed around the anonymous "good duck artist".

Barks was sixty years old before his anonymity was uncovered by his appreciative readers. One early fan..Joe Cowles, received a generous reply from Barks after he wrote to him in 1960:

Dear Joe: In reply to your letter of the 13th. I must say I'm not sure my advice about cartooning would be very helpful, as I am pretty ignorant on the subject myself. the Donald Duck comic book work is about the only experience i've had in the business, and I just feel my way along on that.

However, if you'd like to look at my work methods and see how I develop my ideas into plots and plots into drawings, you're welcome to pop in any day, afternoon or evenings.

The wife and I always go shopping in the mornings.

Our home address is 1421 Poppy drive, Hemet. Poppy Drive is a new residence treet off south Girard Ave. just east of Hemet. Girard is the street that runs from Highway 74 to the Ramona Bowl. Telephone number is OLive 8-3712.

It would be a pleasure for me to meet a reader who digs comic books. Up here in the bible belt people only read the good book and the Walnut Grower's Nutshell News.

Sincerely Yours
, Carl Barks

From Meeting the Master by Joseph Cowles

The young fan did go on to visit Barks and his description of the meeting is fascinating. According to the then nineteen year old Cowley, Barks was tall and smiling and "relaxed, alert, quick, funny, attentive, capable and a bit shy -all at once". He also noticed that Barks wore hearing aids and that his wife Garé, herself an artist, had an arm missing. The cartoonist showed Cowley some of his work sheets and the latter was bowled over by the crisp, definitive lines: "Each of the half-page masterpieces he showed me was impeccably, impossibly perfect."

Carl barks in the studio...circa 1960s
Carl barks in the studio...circa 1960s

Carl Barks's Disney Career

Barks began his career at Disney in the 1930s as a trainee animator, working on the story boards of Donald Duck shorts and contributing gags. Having worked on a film project, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, which was subsequently dropped before production, he paired up with Jack Hannah and turned the redundant film project into a comic strip, published by Dell in 1942. Disney comics were at that time licensed out to Dell/Western Publishing and the same year Barks quit the Disney animation studio, citing allergies and WWII conditons as the reason.

For over two decades Barks made Disney comics for Dell/Western, as well as several non-Disney titles (Boy's and Girl's March of Comics, Barney Bear and Benny Burro)- and finally stopped drawing comics in 1968. After his retirement he began painting canvases for pleasure, many of them Disney duck scenes which, needless to say, are highly sought after and command exceedingly high prices. One painting, "Mardi Gras ," was sold by Sotheby's in 1997 for $505,000.

"The Golden Fleece" ..oil painting by Carl Barks, 1972
"The Golden Fleece" ..oil painting by Carl Barks, 1972

Philosophical Underpinnings

I've always looked at the ducks as caricatured human beings. In rereading the stories, I realized that I had gotten kind of deep in some of them: there was philosophy in there that I hadn't realized I was putting in. It was an added feature that went along with the stories. I think a lot of the philosophy in my stories is conservative—conservative in the sense that I feel our civilization peaked around 1910. Since then we've been going downhill. Much of the older culture had basic qualities that the new stuff we keep hatching can never match.~Carl Barks

Barks has said in interviews that he much preferred working on the ducks than Goofy and Mickey Mouse - Goofy was too 'stupid' and Mickey too 'perfect'.

I always felt myself to be an unlucky person like Donald, who is a victim of so many circumstances. But there isn't a person in the United States who couldn't identify with him. He is everything, he is everybody; he makes the same mistakes that we all make.~Carl Barks

Carl Barks comic. This is the first issue where Scrooge featured as th main character.
Carl Barks comic. This is the first issue where Scrooge featured as th main character.
Scrooge and Barko from "North of of the Yukon". Barks sometimes made references to himself in the comics.
Scrooge and Barko from "North of of the Yukon". Barks sometimes made references to himself in the comics.

Scrooge McDuck

Scrooge Mc Duck is generally regarded as Bark's greatest invention and indeed he is a complex, interesting character; on the surface the ulimate ruthless capitalist with mysogynistic tendencies but with under layers of a more complex personality.

Never happier than when bathing in cold hard cash (he had a money-bin which contained three cubic acres of moolah), money is for Scrooge an emotional crutch; his raison d'etre and his solace. Rumour has it Scrooge is worth one multiplujillion, nine obsquatumatillion, six hundred twenty-three dollars and sixty-two cents. Not bad for a guy who apparently doesn't even own a pair of pants.

Yet for all his cynical obsession with riches, there are hints of a heart. Scrooge is a self-made duck with a hard past but is not without a nuanced ethical sense.

In North of the Yukon Scrooge gets involved with an old husky dog called Barko, a former sled team champion who rescues him from the icy waters of a frozen river. At the end of the story, Barko himself gets into trouble on the river and Scrooge must make a snap decision to save a bag which holds a vital receipt representing his entire fortune or Barko. In spite of money being the defining feature of his existence, he saves Barko... "I can't let you drown, old boy! That would be welching on my debt to you!"

Such scenarios illustrate that Scrooge is a multi-layered character with a deep-rooted sense of honour, not merely an irascible, self-serving miser and it's this kind of character shading that set Carl Barks apart from the rest.

Donald Duck..spawned the Donaldist movement
Donald Duck..spawned the Donaldist movement
Carl Barks in later years (Scanpix/Reuters)
Carl Barks in later years (Scanpix/Reuters)


Carls Barks remains very popular in Europe where Disney comic books enjoy a wider readership than they do in the US. The Donaldist movement in particular, holds him in high regard.

Donaldism was founded in Norway in the 1960s and the German Society - D.O.N.A.L.D. , which publishes the zine Der Donald, in 1977. Members are avid supporters of Donald Duck and/or are Disney comic archivists and reseachers.

According to Fanlore, the goings on in Duckburg are meticulously dissected and discussed by enthusiastic Donaldists. It's also about indexing and collecting the comics, via what is known as the Inducks Project. The aim is to "reconcile all the comic sources that are considered canonical (which those are may vary, usually at least all of Carl Barks' stories) into coherent theses about the universe we see in them."

Who knew the political and social structures of Duckburg had such import?

Authors Note

Growing up, we always had a pile of old Disney comics around - remnants from my father's childhood and whenever I could, I'd use my pocket money to pick one up at a fete or opportunity shop, to add to the collection. I loved them and in fact I was looking at the pictures even before I could read. The Carl Barks comics were aways the ones I enjoyed the most and I'd actively seek them out above the rest.

Carl Barks died in 2000 at the age of 99 and had the satisfaction of knowing he was considered one of the most significant comic book creators of the 20th century. From all accounts as well being an outstanding creative talent, he was a thoroughly lovely man. I would like to have met him so I could have thanked him for all the reading pleasure he gave me as a child.


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