I remarked in my review of the last volume, A Christmas for Shacktown, that since these volumes aren't being released in chronological order, and because they've used up what they deem to be the "best," the perception of each succeeding volume would have little choice but to suffer. After all, if you started with the best, then what comes next can't be as good, right? That's in play here, for many reasons.
I've mentioned in reviews of previous volumes that the Barks books feature stories with multiple layers — yes, there's that basic entertainment layer, but there's some commentary under the surface as well about various issues (most of which, to my eyes, are about social class issues, hence Uncle Scrooge). That's not really here, unless they're even more subtle than the others and I just can't see it. This is pretty much pure entertainment.
And yet, it might actually be because of that that I think this is the funniest volume released thus far. Every story in The Old Castle's Secret is a lesson in how to tell a joke. My favorite is the 10-pager "Wired," in which Donald and the boys take jobs as telegram messengers. There's a running joke in those 10 pages that seem like they're there just to be amusing at first, but it turns out to be the punchline! The joke was well spaced out and well paced, and it just works to maximum effect.
Another problem Old Castle's Secret has is, simply, it came earlier than the other volumes. So Uncle Scrooge is in here, but it's not yet the final model for Scrooge. His physical look hadn't been finalized yet (no top hat, and the sideburns go down instead of upwards) and neither was his personality (he spends the title story scared of a ghost, which is definitively something the "real" Scrooge would not be). This volume also has the first two appearances of Gladstone Gander, but instead of being Donald's naturally lucky cousin who's an insufferable arrogant twat, he's just an insufferable arrogant twat. The defining element for him would come later.
Still, from a historic standpoint, it's interesting to see the evolution. And if you're just looking at this book in a vacuum and not in relation to the other volumes, they're still very entertaining stories. Also, this has Daisy Duck in a couple of stories, which is also interesting because she's barely in the preceding volumes, if at all.
The stories in Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret first appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #88-98, March of Comics #20, and Full Color #189 and 199, from January to November 1948, and are listed below.
- The Old Castle's Secret. Uncle Scrooge needs to raise some money, and he knows there's hidden treasure in the old castle of Dismal Downs, which he owns, as the last of the Clan McDuck. But the place is said to be haunted by the ghost of his ancestor, Sir Quackly McDuck, and he's too scared to get it on his own. Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie go with him to Scotland to help find it.
- Darkest Africa. While helping his nephews catch butterflies for a class project, Donald finds himself scouted by a butterfly collector and is hired to go to Africa to look for a very rare breed of butterfly. He and the boys end up competing against Professor Argus McFiendy, the most unscrupulous butterfly collector there is, who pulls out every trick in the book!
- Sheriff of Bullet Valley. Donald and the boys make it to Bullet Valley, where a gang has been stealing cattle from various ranchers. There's a $2,000 reward for capturing the rustlers, so Donald, inspired by the many Westerns he's watched, decides to go for it and gets appointed deputy. But something weird is happening — every time the boss of the Double X ranch gets near a horse, that horse all of a sudden has the Double X brand on it! Of course, Donald manages to put all the clues together... all in the wrong way, so the boys have to bail him out.
- Wintertime Wager. This is the first appearance of Gladstone Gander, who comes to collect on a bet he and Donald made during the spring — either Donald swims in the Frozenbear Lake on Christmas Day or he gives up his house to Gladstone! Fortunately for Donald, Daisy comes to his rescue, calling in a bet Gladstone made with her.Will this teach Donald and Gladstone the error of their betting ways? Okay, probably not.
- Watching the Watchman. Donald gets a new job as a night watchman, but he can't get the sleep he needs before his shift, so the boys have to help him stay awake through it! What happens when the place gets robbed?
- Wired. Donald finds out that messenger boys get big tips when they deliver to rich people, so he decides to get that job and make a fortune off of it. The boys decide to do the same thing, but Donald thinks they're horning in on his racket, so he tries to make sure they're out of his way. Of course, it's Donald, so it backfires.
- Going Ape. Donald wants to work his way upwards in society, so he decides to throw a big dinner party. To make sure it's memorable, he asks the boys to dress up in monkey suits and act like monkeys throughout the party. They won't cooperate, so he buys some hypnotic glasses... and let's just say the glasses get around quite a bit.
- Spoil the Rod. Donald is told by a child psychologist not to punish the boys under any circumstances and to encourage their mischief, so he takes that advice. Of course, the boys take advantage of Donald's new stance. How long before Donald has enough?
- Rocket Race to the Moon. Back in 1948, 21 years before man made it to the moon, many people pursued rocket science as a hobby. Donald gets chosen as a pilot for what would be the first trip to the moon, since his size is just right for making the roundtrip. But not only is he competing against Baron de Sleezy, a villain reminiscent of Peg-Leg Pete, the boys also stowed away on the ship, making Donald use up the gas before he could even think about going home!
- Donald of the Coast Patrol. Donald gets a job as a guardsman in the U.S. Coast Patrol, watching over a beach and making sure no one is running smuggling operations. Needless to say, there's a whole operation running under his nose. Needless to say, he doesn't spot it. Needless to say, the boys do. And needless to say, because he's Donald Duck, he chases the boys away, and the entire operation just keeps happening right in front of him, with him none the wiser.
- Gladstone Returns. Daisy needs five dollars, and both Gladstone and Donald tell her that they'll get it for her. But neither of them has five dollars! As it turns out, Huey, Dewey, and Louie do, so Donald tries to get it from them. So this is a ten-page story of how the same five dollars keeps changing hands.
- Links Hijinks. Donald wants to play golf and gets the boys to caddy for him. Knowing that Donald will be there the whole day, they decide to speed up the process by cheating and putting his golf balls into the holes each time before he can see where it landed. Thinking for real that he's hitting consecutive holes-in-one, he sends them away. And just in time, Gladstone shows up, and Donald bets him that he can make a hole-in-one. Uh-oh.
- Pearls of Wisdom. Donald has no money to buy Daisy a birthday present, so he and the boys go diving for pearls. If he can get fifty, he'll make a necklace. And of course, everything that could go wrong goes wrong.
- Foxy Relations. Uncle Scrooge has a big deal cooking with a businessman named Lord Tweeksdale, who doesn't want to sell to Scrooge because he doesn't believe the Family McDuck are sportsmen. So Scrooge sends Donald to participate in the fox hunting tournament, which, as I think we've established by now, is a big mistake.
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:
- Bird Watching
- Horseshoe Luck
- Bean Taken
- Sorry to Be Safe
- Best Laid Plans
- The Genuine Article