Dec 7, 2012

Reviews: Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown

I was only six pages in on Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown, when I found myself already chuckling in my seat.

Just like with last year's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes and this past July's Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man, this latest addition to The Complete Carl Barks Library from Fantagraphics is nothing less than a visual and narrative treat. Every story is delivered adeptly by a master craftsman, made even more impressive once you realize that Barks doesn't deviate at all from his basic layout, that of four-tiers per page, of two panels per tier. Sure, sometimes he'd combine two panels or change their sizes, but nothing crazy; nothing the JH Williams and Marcos Martin fans (of which I am one) would go crazy over.

(Side note: I believe keeping the tiers was a way for production to be able to cut up the strips for various formats, because sometimes the strips would be presented in a more landscape format, and for that a page that Barks did would be cut in half and presented as two different pages. Sometimes these things dictate the type of innovation you can do.)

But that only serves to highlight how good Barks was inside and in between the panels. Every story in A Christmas for Shacktown flows smoothly, panel to panel. There is immediate closure between two images, and with panel size and sometimes shape being the only tools at his disposal, it's impressive how much he knows to change in order to emphasize any given panel, any given moment. And of course, his facility with body language, gestures, and expressions were off the scale. There are artists whose work you just can't explain, and Barks is one of them. "Read this. Yes, it's got ducks in it. It's really, really good." That's the best way I can describe his craft, both as writer and artist.

In fact, if anything hurts A Christmas for Shacktown, it's the consistency of the high quality, as well as the way Fantagraphics scheduled these books to come out. They never made it a secret that they wanted to start with the best stuff instead of going chronologically, and since this is the third book, it's to be expected that there's no real way for the quality of the stories to go but down, and this is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Barks tends to repeat themes — adventure on the high seas, dumb luck, two-faced lawyers, for example — but he does them so well that it looks like the progression of these books, while downhill, will be a slow descent.

It's going to be great.

The stories in Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown first appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #135-144 and Full Color #368, 408, and 422, from December 1951 to September 1952, and are listed below.

Long Stories
  • A Christmas for Shacktown. Donald's nephews — Huey, Dewey, and Louie — pass through Shacktown, which is the impoverished side of Duckburg. Daisy Duck agrees to host a party for them, but they need 50 dollars to buy the Shacktowners a turkey and a toy train, and it's up to Donald to get 25 of those from his miserly, penny-pinching Uncle Scrooge McDuck. This is difficult enough to begin with, but it's made even harder once the floor of Scrooge's vault gives way and all his money goes down a deep pit. (In an interesting side note, Shacktown was the setting for the first comic book that the legendary underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb, ever did. Let that stick in your head for a second.)
  • The Golden Helmet. While working as a museum guard, Donald discovers an old log detailing the whereabouts of the golden helmet of Olaf the Blue, who discovered America centuries before Columbus. Unfortunately, a little-known law states that since Olaf the Blue claimed America, it means that his nearest of kin will be able to claim the entire continent once the helmet is found. This story utilizes two Barks tropes: sharky lawyers (he's even named Sharky) and adventure on the high seas!
  • The Gilded Man. Donald has taken up stamp collecting, and he's after a one-cent magenta stamp from 1856, which is worth $50,000. Unfortunately, not only does he have to compete with his cousin, Gladstone Gander, whom all luck shines upon, there's also only one such magenta stamp accounted for in the world, and it's in the forests of British Guiana. This story is probably my favorite in this collection, just because of the way it wraps up. Barks usually saves his endings for punchlines, turning things into jokes, but this one offers a bit more narrative closure.

Short Stories
  • The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill. This is the first appearance of Scrooge's money bin, and like most other stories that feature his money bin, it's about how incredibly protected it is and how the Beagle Boys, those dastardly burglars, manage to find a way to take his money anyway. If any story is hurt by Fantagraphics' not putting this series out in chronological order, it's this one — we've already seen a money bin story in Only a Poor Old Man, and that one was better. Still, this one's pretty good.
  • Gladstone's Usual Good Year. Donald is determined to beat his lucky cousin Gladstone in a raffle for Thanksgiving turkeys, no matter how many tries it takes! Of course, it's impossible to win against Gladstone, ever (one of the boys even remarks that " Cheating against Gladstone is only self-defense!"), and it's very entertaining to see how Gladstone keeps winning.
  • The Screaming Cowboy. Donald writes a song called "The Screaming Cowboy," but whenever he plays on the jukebox in an inn, an avalanche starts. The boys try to figure out what's causing them, and run into an old recluse named The Snow Hermit.
  • Statuesque Spendthrifts. The Maharaja of Howduyustan shows up in Duckburg, and Scrooge is offended by people proclaiming that the Maharaja is richer than he is. So the two of them get into an outspending contest  to see who can build the biggest statue of Cornelius Coot, the founder of Duckburg. And things get hilariously ridiculous.
  • Rocket Wing Saves the Day. The boys have a bird named Rocket Wing, who is incredibly fast but has a tendency to stop in midflight unexpectedly, thus rendering him useless in races. Donald decides to have some fun with the bird, which gets him in trouble with Daisy. It starts a string of misunderstandings. Hilarity ensues.
  • Gladstone's Terrible Secret. Donald and the boys want to figure out why Gladstone is so lucky, and they decide that he must have a lucky charm in his safe. Gladstone is desperate to make sure they don't see what's in there. What could he be hiding? This is also the first appearance of Gyro Gearloose, Duckburg's wacky inventor.
  • The Think Box Bollix. If not for "The Gilded man," this may be my favorite one, because it just shows how much fun Barks was having. Duckburg may be full of anthropomorphized animals, but it's also full of regular animals. Gyro Gearloose then invents a machine to make those regular animals intelligent, and Barks just goes wild. Donald dresses up as a wolf to frighten the boys; a now-intelligent wolf chases Donald so he can have roast duck... it's just a fun play on the whole concept of anthropomorphism, and it shows.
  • Houseboat Holiday. Donald takes the boys out on a boat for vacation, but pretty soon they're out of drinking water and gas! Everything that could go wrong, goes wrong.
  • Gemstone Hunters. Donald gets gypped into buying a piece of land because of some gemstones he finds there. But the gemstones are just regular rocks colored with dye! Donald tries to get his money back by pulling the same trick on his cousin Gladstone, but as we've covered before, you can't win against Gladstone....
  • Spending Money. Uncle Scrooge has too much money. There's no space in his offices for it anymore and no banks will take them, so the only option is to spend it! He hires Donald to spend several bags of money, and they and the boys go spend it all around the country, which of course is torture for Scrooge, for whom spending money is anathema. The punchline is really funny.

The 1-pagers. I'm not going to summarize them because, well, they're a page long, but just for the sake of cataloging them, here they are:
  • Full-Service Windows
  • Rigged-Up Roller
  • Awash in Success
  • Stable Prices
  • Armored Rescue
  • Crafty Corner
  • Treeing Off
  • Christmas Kiss
  • Projecting Desires
I've said it before and I'll say it again. With any comics from a certain age, you have to keep in mind when they were made and account for the stylistic differences of the time. But not with Barks. His stuff is as good as ever.

Highly recommended.

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