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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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    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thanks for visiting DaNoblest. I guess the characters are only as complicated as the reader wants them to be..;)

    • DaNoblest profile image


      9 years ago from California

      Very Interesting read. Thank you for sharing this. It brought back many memories of the duck cartoons that I watched as a child. I never knew the characters were so complex.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Rod, think how even more distinguished you'd look if you had the three cubic acres of money to go with it!

      Shame about the Aus. comics situation.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      9 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Hmmm! You are right. Don't mind looking distinguished.

      Yes, well the Australian comics of the 1960s were a dismal lot and worth forgetting. Unfortunately the artists and writers of my generation did not have a platform to launch themselves from. Like I said too much protection and when the protection went comics fell over night, publishers lingered on for a while but the end came pretty much with a whimper. Of the publishers only Frew remains and the only thing they publish is The Phantom.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Rod, Edward G Robinson wore spats in 'Little Ceasar' in 1931 so they still lingered into the 20th Century! But yeah, It may have been a nod to Scrooge's Scottish heritage as spats originated with traditonal highland dress...apparently. Geeze, I'm sounding like a Donaldist!

      I don't recall any Australian comics at all, except perhaps Ginger Meggs, which I never read but have heard of. Nor are those names you mentioned familiar. I didn't read Marvel..I didn't think to read them. I was strictly a Disney girl. Sounds like I might have missed out.

      Rod, you'd look superb with spats and a cane! So distinguished.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      9 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Yes, Jane, I know what you mean about the 1940s. Even so, spats were popular enough in the 1890s and pretty much went out of fashion sometime in the 1920s. So we were always dealing with an old-fashioned duck!

      The Phantom comic that came out in Australia in the 1960s didn't interest me at all. The ink on the cover used to come off on your hands. It had cheap written all over it. Today The Phantom is a lot more classier and the covers are glossy and the ink doesn't come off in your hands. Also the art looked amateurish in the '60s compared to what Marvel and D.C were dishing out. Nowadays some of the Scandinavian artists that pop up working on The Phantom are top notch.

      As an Australian kid I was so disappointed that there wasn't an Australian outfit at the time putting out the good stuff.

      Australian comics producers had gotten fat and lazy in the '40s and '50s because their product was so heavily protected by the government. When government bans were lifted and the more sophisticated material came flooding in from England and the USA it caused a lot of damage to the local industry that was just getting what it deserved for not keeping up. In the end Frew was just left with The Phantom, an American comic strip character published here in comic book form.

      As for art, I was a big Jack Kirby and Gene Colan fan. Jack Kirby could draw robots, futuristic cars and cities, aliens and monsters like nobody's business and he had been doing it since the 1940s. Gene Colan was also a vintage artist who's career stopped for a while due to WW2 (He served as an MP in Hawaii for a while) but resumed soon after the war. He came to work for Marvel in the 1960s where he did his best work. In terms of style he was America's answer to Toulouse Lautrec. Now when you look at Toulouse Lautrec's better paintings and posters what grabs your eye is the glorious illusion of movement. This idea thrilled me and continued to do so.

      Yes, it is a very rum deal when you don't even get your name on the comic. It also means you are more easily replaced and unless you are very good like Barks you will quick-smartly be replaced.

      A rum deal...I haven't heard that expression in some time but I have always liked it. I wonder if I would look good in spats carrying a cane.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Haha@the spats..he was an old-fashioned duck! Remember some of those comics date right back to the 40's.

      I did prefer Carl Barks to many other comics.I didn't even like the Phantom much, though I was aware he was considered a lot cooler than Scrooge Mc Duck...but then again, I didn't really give him much of a chance.

      It's a rum deal when you don't even get your name on the comic, I agree.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      9 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I always felt, Jane, that people like Carl Barks never really got the credit they deserved for what they did for Disney.

      My sisters would sometimes buy Disney comics and share them with me.

      I hated the use of color on the covers. Way, way too bright. You needed to put on sunglasses to just look at them. I thought Marvel and D. C. did the covers MUCH better and so did Harvey.

      The art was always good on the inside of the Disney comics and I suppose that is what counts. The writing was almost always good too.

      I almost bought a Disney comic that was in German. I was very tempted. Since then a German friend has sent me one in German. I also have a Marvel re-print in French.

      It always amazed me how Uncle Scrooge always walked around in spats. But he was a fun character.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi Jeff, well it is kid stuff really...when I got to around age fourteen, the comics no longer held the same interest for me. But Carl Barks was very, very good.

      Thanks for stopping by...nice to see you.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Drbj..Ubbe Iwerks is not a name that you would invent! It's great though. Thanks very much for the read and rating.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Stan, yes I can't image a modern celebrity giving out their address and phone number so cavalierly - sign of the times I guess.

      That quote about 1910 came from a much longer interview and I've p'robly doen Barks a disservice by not ncluding the whole thing. He went on to talk about the great cathedrals, culture ideals etc. He was born in 1900 so I guess he saw a lot of things fall by the wayside.

      But y'kmow I think you're right about each generation looking back at the old *in my day* thing with a rosier glow. I'll bet it has something to do with connections to youth and hopefulness.We think the old days were better because that's when we were young and innocent...maybe.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thanks dahoglund.One thing I'll say about Walt Disney...he knew talent when he saw it.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 

      9 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      You know, I've heard a lot about Scrooge McDuck comic books in the past few weeks. When I first discovered comic books, I dismissed Scrooge McDuck as "kids' stuff," but now I wonder if I haven't been missing out.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      What a great job you did with this one, Jane, and a remarkable tribute to both Carl Barks and his animations of Donald Duck.

      I knew of one of Disney's chief animators, Ubbe Iwerks (that really was his name) but did not know about Carl. So thank you for this magnificent introduction to Carl Banks and his work. Rated UP! :)

    • Stan Fletcher profile image

      Stan Fletcher 

      9 years ago from Nashville, TN

      First of all, thanks for bringing your face back. Lovely.

      Second, I wasn't really sure this would interest me, but it kind of blew me away. Very inspiritional for one right-brainer to read about another's success. The story of the fan corresponding with him, and his openness to it, was heartening too. In this current age of celebrity, I'm not sure that happens much anymore.

      And lastly, I was really fascinated to hear him say that 'we' have been going downhill since 1910. Is that just a human trait? To think that we're going downhill? That seems like a common theme for many, and one that I've thought myself. If that's true, then the world is ALWAYS getting worse and worse, and I'm not sure I believe that. Interesting thought though.

      So glad I stopped by....Very well done.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I really liked this and it has raised my opinion of Disney works.


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