Dec 5, 2013

Reviews: Donald Duck: Christmas on Bear Mountain

If your interest in the Complete Carl Barks Library currently being put out by Fantagraphics is from a historical perspective, Christmas on Bear Mountain would surely be on the shortlist of what to get if you're limiting your purchases. This is because this volume contains the first appearance of the one and only Uncle Scrooge McDuck, and although he's only a minor character in the title story (and was not planned to return), the seeds for what his character would eventually become were already planted.

Historical perspective aside, though, the stories are full of the Barksian whimsy and humor and cleverness and slapstick that I've come to expect from him throughout collecting these volumes. We've got a giant octopus keeping people out of an old ship, a country full of volcanoes, a fake treasure map that actually leads somewhere, Donald creating a "vengeance machine" (I love that I can type that), and more.

As with the other volumes, the time period this was created in should be kept in mind, as some of the humor is obviously dated, and that includes some racial stereotyping that, at least for me, got old fast in this volume, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of (since they were clearly in the other volumes as well).  However, the slapstick and the whimsy, as well as the dynamic portrayal of the characters by Barks is timeless. When a kangaroo adopts Donald and puts him into her pouch, it's still funny. When Donald thinks they're only dealing with a baby bear and gathers his courage, only to turn the corner and run into the bear's mother, it's still funny. When the giant octopus makes its grand appearance, it's still got impact. The only things that haven't aged well are the topical things, and thankfully there isn't much of that.

As ever, Barks has a level of sophistication and complexity, especially when it comes to the idea of what these characters want. It's presented to us, the readers, that these people just want money, for example, but that's really just a smokescreen, isn't it? What they really want, more than anything, is adventure. When Donald says he wants to rest for an entire week, we believe him, and we don't notice that he just comes alive when the door-to-door salesmen bug him too much — he doesn't want to rest, no matter how much he says he does. He's Donald Duck, and he wants adventure, even if it's in the confines of his own house.

The stories in Donald Duck: Christmas on Bear Mountain first appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #80-87, Donald and Mickey Merry Christmas #1947, and Full Color #147, 159, and 178, from May 1947 to January 1948, and are listed below.

Long Stories

  • Christmas on Bear Mountain. Uncle Scrooge's first appearance happens because he wants to have fun on Christmas, so he invites Donald and the boys over to his private lodge. But before he gives them any presents, he wants to make sure Donald is fearless, so he plans to dress up as a bear and try to scare them. But what happens when actual bears get to Donald before Scrooge does? The comedic timing and facial expressions Barks uses in this one are pretty incredible. Uncle Scrooge isn't Uncle Scrooge yet, of course, but you could already see the seeds.
  • Volcano Valley. Donald buys a model plane (for $2.50 — welcome to 1947), but ends up getting a real plane, so a citizen of Volcanovia named Pablo Mañana buys it from him for what turns out to be the equivalent of $3.00. They end up going to Volcanovia, where volcanoes are everywhere, everyone is lazy, and Donald can't leave unless he performs a great heroic act. Unfortunately, as funny as this probably was in 1947, it just now reads like a really long joke about how Mexicans are lazy. Not Barks' best work, even if it was all in jest. And as a comment on this review of it shows, it could be more amusing than offensive. I guess there's a lesson though: stereotypes don't age well, or maybe that a one-note joke would have worked better if it didn't run for longer than 10 pages, but the small ideas of a country full of volcanoes that erupt every so often that milk churns into butter right away are still clever enough to entertain.
  • Adventure Down Under. Donald gets hypnotized into thinking he's a kangaroo, so he and the boys end up in Australia, where he sets off to hunt Mournful Mary, the queen of the kangaroos. Mary ends up taking  a liking to Donald, and then some cannibals (who are actually drawn as people instead of anthropomorphized animals) capture our hero and it's up to the boys to save him.
  • Donald Duck and the Ghost of the Grotto. Donald and the boys get a new gig as kelp-gatherers, but the town they're doing it in has a mystery: every 50 years, a boy is kidnapped, and the only clue is that it involves a man in armor. And, and, and, there's a giant octopus involved.

Short Stories
  • Donald's Posy Patch. Donald wants to make his garden the best in town so he can win a cash prize from the mayor, but every time he leaves it alone, Huey, Dewey, and Louie decide to trample it all up by playing games! What's Donald to do?
  • Donald Mines His Own Business. So one day, the boys decide to pretend they're treasure-hunting, and they make a fake treasure map and... promptly forget all about it. Donald finds it a while later and thinks it's real, so he looks through an atlas and matches up the fake map with a real location! And the adventure continues.
  • Magical Misery. The boys pull a magic trick on Donald, who, because he's Donald, decides he's just going to learn magic altogether and show them up. He demonstrates for the boys, and then he calls Daisy over. Unfortunately for him, the moment Daisy shows up, the boys have already tried figuring out his tricks and have started messing around with his equipment...
  • Ring Wrongs. Donald sends the boys away to Grandma's for a week, planning to just stay in bed and sleep as much as possible, but he can't do it when salesmen ring his doorbell every five minutes. The ending of this one has a punchline to the punchline that I thought was a really nice, subtle touch. Also, it has Donald creating a "vengeance machine," so what else would you want?
  • The Waltz King. Daisy wants to join a waltz contest, but Donald doesn't know the steps. The boys help him out, but he gets so tired that he wakes up the next day having forgotten everything! Can Daisy win the contest, and what will the boys have to do to help?
  • The Masters of Melody. Donald learns that music should be taught at an early age, so he buys instruments for the boys, but all they want to do is go out hunting frogs. Donald sits them down and makes them learn anyway, but the problem is, they're no good at it!
  • Fireman Donald. Donald gets a job as a fireman. That's it. That's my whole summary of this story. You can just imagine the mess he gets into.
  • The Terrible Turkey. Donald wants to hunt a turkey and the boys just want to keep playing tricks on him.
  • Three Good Little Ducks. It's Christmas Eve and the boys are worried that they haven't been good enough all year to get presents, so they go out of their way to be nice to Donald, so, of course, trouble ensues. A lot of the time, these short stories have Donald and the boys at each other's throats, but this twists that around and, in the spirit of Christmas, shows their affection to each other.
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:
  • Fashion in Flight
  • Turn for the Worse
  • If the Hat Fits
  • Machine Mix-Up
I'd place this collection as better and funnier than the last two, although I wouldn't say it's as good as Lost in the Andes or Only a Poor Old Man. But that's not a knock on it at all, since those are probably the gold standards for Barks' stuff.

Still highly recommended.

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