Jan 30, 2012


I was fortunate to have recently purchased DONALD DUCK: LOST IN THE ANDES, the first volume of Fantagraphics' collection of Carl Barks' works for Disney's comics. I named Barks third on the list of the most influential comics writers ever, and to be frank, second and third place on that list were interchangeable.

I've mostly been exposed to Barks' UNCLE SCROOGE stuff, however,  so I didn't quite know what to expect. Donald Duck is, after all, the quintessential "unlikable" character in the Disney universe. This is, after all, what we've been taught through many a Disney cartoon. He's the cranky sidekick, the guinea pig, the butt of the joke. Right?

Wrong. Cantankerous as he may be, Donald Duck has depth in these 240 pages (and that's a sentence I was sure I would never type). And the stories are full of charm and magic that — and here's the amazing thing — still hold up today. When you read a comic from the Golden Age, a lot of the time, you have to take into account the context of the time. Production qualities were low, artists were working for hire with inadequate compensation, and, of course, the language of comics was still in its infancy. I've read a significant number of Golden Age comics, and while some really don't stand the test of time (too many to count), some do once you take the era in  the proper context, THE SPIRIT and CAPTAIN MARVEL being the most obvious examples. And then there's Carl Barks, who is the exception, because you don't need to take context into account. His stuff is as good now as it's ever been. And it is mind-blowing.

The first few pages of the main story itself are already full of the aforementioned charm. Donald, working at the Museum of Natural Science, cracks a square stone artifact. When cleaning up the mess, he realizes it's a square egg. This leads the authorities into a frenzy — egg dealers love the idea because they'd be easier to stack. Archaeologists love it because it means there's something to discover. So Donald and his nephews  (Huey, Dewey, and Louie) get sent to find a lost Andes civilization where, theoretically, square chickens lay square eggs. The imagination that Barks exhibited is evident in the characters (including a hoodwinker and a guy called "the craziest guy in the Andes") that the Ducks run into even before they reach the lost city they're looking for. And when they do reach that city, that's when Barks' work as an artist blows your mind, because you think that he's just into drawing cartoony stuff? No, sir, not at all.

The Masking Effect may be in play here.

The citizens of this lost town (the name of which I won't tell you, because it's part of the fun) as well as their culture, dialect, and law (intentionally singular) showcase the creativity that Barks was just filled with in this time period (1948–1949). I'm happy to say that I found myself achieving the perfect balance in savoring the art and the story as well as turning the page quickly enough because I couldn't wait to see what happens next. The problems that the Ducks get into are unusual and imaginative; the solutions are even moreso. Barks' linework is clean and fluid, with the expressions and body language conveying the charm and creativity of the story as perfectly as they convey what each character is feeling, thinking, or saying. And the final punchline wraps everything up in a nice, tight manner.

The 32-page "Lost in the Andes" story may be worth half the price tag of $24.99 alone. But then we have three more stories that are at least 20 pages long, nine 10-pagers, and seven 1-page gags. I'm just gonna do a quick rundown of each story.

Long Stories
  • The Golden Christmas Tree. Donald has to save Huey, Dewey, and Louie from a witch that wants to destroy all Christmas trees. The ending is a little hammy (Barks didn't write it), but the story highlights Donald's bravery in a way that even superhero comics of the time rarely did — Barks showcases a vulnerability, weakness, and fear in his protagonist that he has to overcome in order to save his nephews. Only Will Eisner was doing things like that back then.
  • Race to the South Seas. In a race to save Uncle Scrooge (an as-yet unrefined, ultra-cranky version), Donald squares off against his cousin, Gladstone Gander, the luckiest person in the world. Despite all of Donald's efforts, everything goes right for Gladstone without his even trying. How can Donald and his nephews win this? (Hint: they can't.)
  • Voodoo Hoodoo. Bombie the Zombie comes to town to enact vengeance on behalf of his master on Scrooge McDuck, but he mistakes Donald for Scrooge. Donald and the kids have to go to Africa to lift the curse. This story is particularly interesting for me because of the racial depictions in the story, which seem to offend absolutely no one, oddly enough, in a time where TINTIN IN THE CONGO and Ebony White from THE SPIRIT can't stop getting criticized. Regardless of that aspect, the story is yet another imaginative and fun romp through yet another exotic location. Note that Barks has been setting each story in different backgrounds: "Lost in the Andes" is in the Andes, "The Golden Christmas Tree" is on top of a mountain, "Race to the South Seas" is in the middle of the ocean, and "Voodoo Hoodoo" is in Africa. No one short of Herge willingly set his heroes in different locations each time. It's as if — GASP — Barks actually liked drawing backgrounds!
  • Toyland. Santa Claus takes the Ducks to the North Pole to test out the toys he's making and see if they're still suited to kids of the next generation. Donald's supposed to take notes. The story takes a turn that's just really feel-good. And if you remember playing with toys instead of video games, you may find this particular story a little bittersweet.
  • The Crazy Quiz Show. Donald studies every fact he can (some true, some false but feasible) to get on a quiz show. The hosts purposefully ask him unanswerable questions while asking his nephews easy questions (that they still get wrong). The kids constantly pick bikes instead of cash, leading into what is probably the funniest punchline in the whole book.
  • Truant Officer Donald. The kids decide to skip school, but they get caught by the new truant officer, who just so happens to be Donald. Mischief ensues, and the ending of this story is probably most indicative of how comic book Donald differs from cartoon Donald. See, cartoon Donald pretty much always loses. Comic book Donald somehow wins, even when he loses.
  • Donald Duck's Worst Nightmare. Donald needs to get over his recurring nightmare, and the solution is to find something scarier in real life. Just a fun, funny, and charming story. (I've probably overused the word "charming" way too many times.)
  • Pizen Spring Dude Ranch. A bunch of horsethieves are running a scam to get more money from Donald, and it's up to the kids to catch them. Again, just a fun story.
  • Rival Beachcombers. Gladstone Gander competes with Donald and the kids to find a very valuable ruby on a beach. Gladstone is probably my favorite recurring character here; he's just so ridiculously unlikable and it's fascinating to see how Donald and the kids win against someone whom they really, really can't beat. The two times Gladstone shows up, it really highlights Barks' cleverness.
  • The Sunken Yacht. Uncle Scrooge wants Donald and the kids to lift up a sunken boat. But he doesn't want to pay them for it. Donald exhibits a characteristic pride and an uncharacteristic dignity in this story, and is really played as the underdog. If any story makes you sympathetic towards Donald Duck, it's going to be this one.
  • Managing the Eco System. Probably the most "typical" Donald story, this has him involved in a feud with his nephews regarding echoes off a mountainside (they're pretending to make the echoes for money, and he wants to expose them). 
  • Plenty of Pets. The kids bring a bunch of pets home from camp and Donald wants no part of it. What could possibly change his mind, and how would the kids like that change of mind?
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:
  • Jumping to Conclusions
  • The True Test
  • Ornaments on the Way
  • Too Fit to Fit
  • Sleepy Sitters
  • Slippery Shrine
  • Tunnel Vision
The hardcover is completed nicely by an introduction by Donald Ault, an English professor from the University of Florida, as well as some notes and essays by other professors, teachers, and what-have-you on the stories presented herein. I'll admit to thinking that some of these essays are a bit overthought, but you do get to learn things, like finding out which Hollywood directors/producers were directly influenced by Donald Duck, the origins of the term "zombie," and factoids about Carl Barks' life.

Whether or not this will help usher kids back into comics is debatable (at a $25 price point, I tend to think that it's aimed more towards people like me), but Fantagraphics is doing us a great service here by finally putting Barks' work back into print. It's been too long, and it's about time, and I'm eagerly going to collect every single volume (the first UNCLE SCROOGE volume, ONLY A POOR OLD MAN, is out in June!).

Buy this, folks. You will not regret it.

1 comment:

The Professor said...

I agree with your review, and would add that here in the States getting these books at under $20 delivered (from Amazon) is a bargain. At that price I can let my six-year-old read these with abandon, which I wasn't willing to let him do with my precious Russ Cochran bound volumes.

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