Nov 24, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Writers #3: Carl Barks

Welcome to another installment of our countdown of the top 10 most influential writers of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential writer is Carl Barks!

Why Is He #3?

Ever since I first started researching this feature in May, someone unnamed told me that Carl Barks should be near the top of the list. I was having a hard time figuring out the whys and wherefores of that, since, as far as I knew, he was just the guy who created Uncle Scrooge. So I took it upon myself to read some Barks and more Barks and even more about Barks, and I stumbled onto this website, with a plethora of Disney stuff, and no shortage of Carl Barks material.

The thing about Carl Barks is that he's what Scott McCloud would call an animist - to him, the story comes first, foremost, and above anything else you can possibly think of. Forget fancy page layouts, and forget trying to grab the reader with graphic scenes that feature maddening displays of power, forget even trying to imprint his own brand of drawing (Barks stuck faithfully to Walt Disney's model sheet) onto these characters - with Barks, the stories came first, which is why every single one of his stories utilized a grid, and everything that happened in the story just happened within the panels. Barks didn't pull any fancy tricks, and just told straightforward stories, and that's why it's so easy to overlook just how good he was. And he was good. Really good. So good, in fact, he's number 3.

Now, let's get down to business. What makes Barks so special? Well, one day, when working on a Donald Duck story for FOUR-COLOR COMICS #178 (December 1947), Barks decided to introduce a stingy but wealthy miser named Scrooge McDuck, Donald's uncle. Although Barks intended for Uncle Scrooge to only be a one-shot character, he grew to love the character, so he continued to use him, utilizing his wealth and his stinginess for major story possibilities. So the fans ended up loving him, too, and in 1952, Uncle Scrooge got his own comic - one, I might add, that despite an erratic publishing schedule, runs to this day.

Now, when you look at the comic books from that era, very few have aged very well with time. Most of the comics, as the Professor pointed out to me, would be a chore to read by today's standards. There are some exceptions, and Carl Barks' work on the citizens of Duckburg are on that list. UNCLE SCROOGE stories are as entertaining now as they were back then, and they will keep a kid turning the page for any number of pages, be it 1 or 40.

Now, you ask, how many kids actually did read UNCLE SCROOGE comics? Well, until Dell Comics folded into Gold Key Comics in 1962, Dell Comics was the number one comic book publisher in the United States, and in 1960, UNCLE SCROOGE comics sold over 1 million copies (Take note of number 2 on that list, WALT DISNEY'S COMICS & STORIES, to which Barks also contributed).

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that UNCLE SCROOGE was the highest-selling comic in the highest-selling period of comics history. This conclusion is reached via the following sources:

  • Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked says that the highest-selling period in comics history was after World War II and before the Senate Hearings in 1954.
  • Various books on comics have credited Funny Animals as the top-selling genre after superheroes.
  • UNCLE SCROOGE debuted in 1952 and was the top-selling comic in 1960.
  • Conclusion: The highest-selling period in comics history was headlined by Funny Animals, and it's safe to bet as anything else that UNCLE SCROOGE was the bestselling title.

An Uncle Scrooge story would typically involve Scrooge trying to either make money or protect his money, and he and Donald and Huey, Dewey, and Louie would go pretty much anywhere around the world - the Himalayas, China, anywhere - in order to achieve their ends. And when Carl Barks wanted to build a world, Carl Barks would build a world. Look at this sequence from UNCLE SCROOGE #5, when they discover Atlantis!

Now, Barks also created a whole universe of characters, from villains like Magica De Spell to heroes like Gyro Gearloose, and with the notable exception of Otto Binder, no one before him had done it to such a large extent. It can also be argued that Barks' creations were more diverse than Binder's, most of whose creations were really derivative of the original character, Captain Marvel.

Perhaps the true symbol of Barks' power is the fact that, like all Disney artists, he worked in complete anonymity. He was referred to only as "The Good Duck Artist." However, his work was so loved that the fans went out of their way to actually uncover his name - not an easy feat in the days prior to the Internet.

For creating universes of joy and wonder, for stories that hold up over time and across the seas, and for working in anonymity and still being sought after by fans and creators alike, Carl Barks is number 3.

Where Can I See His Influence?

Not only can you see Barks' influence on anyone who's ever tried doing the Ducks since him, especially on Don Rosa, but he is also widely loved in Europe - to an incredibly larger degree than he is in his own home country - where various countries have actually published THE COLLECTED WORKS OF CARL BARKS.

Anyone who also tried to create a universe of colorful characters - including Stan Lee and the Marvel Bullpen - can thank Barks for proving that it can be done.

In addition, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been highly influenced by Carl Barks, stating specifically that the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was Barks-influenced.

Barks also has an asteroid, the 2730 Barks, named after him.

What Works of His Should I Read?

It  really is a gigantic shame that THE COLLECTED WORKS OF CARL BARKS isn't even printed in America, much less in other countries that rely on America's distribution system. In the meantime, your best bet is to try and find a copy of UNCLE SCROOGE: HIS LIFE & TIMES.

Furthermore, BOOM! Studios has been reprinting some Barks stuff recently.

Who's next on the list? Come back tomorrow for the second most influential comics writer of all time, same Cube time, same Cube channel!


Henrik E. Kock said...

Of course he's no. 3 in the top 10 ... he's my idol and hero when it comes to the FANTASTIC stories about life in Duckburg!!!!!!!!

Monkey_Feyerabend said...

Rather than the (wonderful) stuff on Scrooge, I would point out more the magic and still impressive "human comedy" atmosphere of his stories, and therefore consider Barks's Donald Duck - especially the one in the stories of the 40s - as his main offspring.
About the fortune of Barks outside the US, a couple of things. Italy, Brazil, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and partially Germany have locally produced a huge amount of Disney comics since the 50's (I think it all started in 55 when the Italian publisher was running out of Barks's and Gottfredson's stories and asked his own employees to start doing the job...). Each of these countries has his own Disney school, but all those schools can be considered continuing the path traced by Barks. Since these countries keep producing new Disney comics on a regular daily base, you can talk of HUNDREDS of comic authors for whom Barks a guiding star.
Regarding european comics readers, I remark that: 1) Barks is the most reprinted artist, not only in fancy books for collectors, but also in the weekly and monthly cheap comics; 2) practically every kid in Europe reads a certain quantity of Disney comics at some moment in his life, it is kind of a cultural feature of the continent. Considering these two aspects, one can view Barks as one the few cultural bonding agent for the latest generations of Europeans.

Duy Tano said...

Thank you for the well thought out comment! As a citizen of an archipelago, it is quite mind-blowing to me to think of Barks uniting a continent of landlocked nations. I trust you've read my other columns about Barks?

kromak said...

Just adding that Italy produced some (illegal) Disney stuff when they started to run out of official daily strips. King Features, that had the rights over the Disney strips, threatened to sue them, which forced them to stop. Argentine started to produce offical Disney stuff, covers and stories in 45 (perhaps before) with the work of the great penciller, Luis Destuet. penciller, Luis Destuet.

Duy Tano said...

I'd like some of the best stuff to really be translated one day, especially Marco Rota's.

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