Aug 16, 2012

Reviews: Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man

So at the beginning of the year, I reviewed DONALD DUCK: LOST IN THE ANDES, the first of Fantagraphics' Donald Duck volumes for The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. Last month, I was able to purchase UNCLE SCROOGE: ONLY A POOR OLD MAN, the first in their collection of Barks' tales centered around the miserly, penny-pinching Scrooge McDuck.

I'm surely going to sound like a broken record with this particular review, but that's only because these tales have been so consistent in terms of quality. In the first review, I said that reading old stories necessitates taking the time period in which they were made into context, and that Barks defies this axiom. It's still true here. These stories still hold up, sixty years after they were made.

I'll get to the listing of the stories in a bit, but first I want to focus on what I feel is the best story in the entire collection, entitled "Tralla La." As is common with Barks' 20-pagers, the three-act structure is firmly in place. A goal is set in Act 1 (Scrooge is tired of the stress his money is giving him, and thus he wants to go to Tralla La, a place where no money exists) and the Ducks (Scrooge, Donald Duck, and the nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie) all set out to achieve that goal and slapstick ensues. Act II sees them achieving that goal (getting to Tralla La), and usually this is where Barks lets loose with his expertly detailed artwork that, especially since it comes right after the slapstick portions, is particularly jarring. You end up thinking "Whoa, where'd that come from?"

In Act 3, everything changes as one of the tin caps from Scrooge's medicine bottles is found by a Tralla La native. Since it's completely new, it's now sought after by the natives. Scrooge has brought in the concept of greed, something they've never had before, and in this world of anthropomorphized ducks and beagles, you can read this story and think "Yes, that's exactly what would happen." It's believable.

And that's the true strength of these Barks stories. Underneath the exaggeration, underneath the trappings, there is truth. Not only is Barks' Scrooge very entertaining; Barks' Scrooge is also very real. It makes you laugh, tickles your brain, and reflects the human condition. It hits every single cylinder, and there simply aren't many comics — or works of fiction, at all — that I can say that about.

The other stories in this volume are listed below.

Long Stories
  • Only a Poor Old Man. The title story of this collection features a simple plot that has Scrooge trying to figure out ways to save his money from his arch-enemies, those nasty Beagle Boys! The solutions are zany and fun, and if I'm right, it's also where the iconic image of Scrooge diving into his pile of coins first appears.
  • Back to the Klondike. Probably the most famous story in this collection (or the most famous Scrooge story in general), this is a take on the Gold Rush fiction that was so prevalent at the time. Scrooge goes back to the Klondike to collect money from a woman he knew, Glittering Goldie. But Goldie has nothing left, and the resulting story is actually genuinely heartbreaking. This story was adapted into the Ducktales cartoon, but I thought that version humanized Scrooge too much. The original story was more subtle and more deftly told.
Oil painting recreation by Barks of a panel from "Back to the Klondike."
Okay, fine, this moment doesn't actually happen, but the painting is pretty.

  • The Horse-Radish Treasure. Chisel McSue, last heir of the Clan McSue, finds an old contract that would entitle him to Scrooge's entire fortune, unless Scrooge can retrieve a specific batch of horseradish from the bottom of the sea and deliver it to Jamaica. Adventure on the high seas ensues! One thing I really like about this is that it shows that Scrooge plays by the rules — he's a man of honor. He doesn't want to use his money to find a loophole (not that he would, anyway); he acknowledges the contract and wishes to honor it.
  • The Menehune Mystery. Scrooge and the boys have a plan to take Scrooge's fortune to a private island just near Hawaii, when the Beagle Boys catch them and force them to work on the island! But there are things happening in the island unseen to the naked eye, and that may just help Scrooge and the boys out.
  • The Secret of Atlantis. This story is just incredible. It starts off with Scrooge collecting a debt from Donald, which leads to Scrooge getting the idea to buy every single 1916 quarter in the world and toss all but one out into the sea. The one he keeps becomes extremely valuable, but it gets damaged after a load of slapstick and hilarity. So they go off to retrieve one of the coins he tossed into the sea, and they find the lost continent of Atlantis. It's incredible. I can't overstate how good this story is enough.

Short Stories
  • Somethin' Fishy Here. Donald plays a trick on Scrooge to make him believe that fish is now the currency of the world, thus rendering him effectively broke. Scrooge decides to pick himself up and rebuild his fortune, in fish, right then and there. Can he do it? (Yes, he can. It's great.)
  • The Round Money Bin. Scrooge has created the perfect spot for his fortune — a new round money bin, protected at all times! But the Beagle Boys have caught him again and are taking his fortune away, except for his Number One Dime, the first coin he ever earned.
  • Outfoxed Fox. Scrooge wants to buy up the houses and lots of Donald and his neighbor, Jughead Jones (no, not that Jughead Jones) so he can build a factory there. They won't sell, so he convinces them both that there's treasure hidden in their houses. It isn't long before they're tearing their own homes apart!

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:
  • Osogood Silver Polish
  • Coffee For Two
  • Soupline Eight
  • Fare Delay
  • Height of Finance
  • The Checker Game
  • Barber College
  • Follow the Rainbow
  • Itching to Share
  • Ballet Evasions
  • The Cheapest Way
  • Bum Steer
  • Hospitality Week
  • McDuck Takes a Dive
  • Slippery Slipper
  • Oil The News
  • Dig It!
  • Mental Fee

The hardcover is completed nicely by an introduction written by the one and only George Lucas, who's never made a secret of the massive influence Barks has had on him, as well as essays on the stories that are in this collection Professor Donald Ault of the University of Florida, who also wrote the introduction to LOST IN THE ANDES, finishes up the book with an essay on the life, career, and work ethic of Carl Barks.

All in all, another fine collection by Fantagraphics. I'm looking forward to the rest of these, as these stories have a level of entertainment to them that is still hard to match today, and a level of truth and insight that simply cannot be denied. Go do yourselves a favor and get this one, folks. You won't regret it.


Ben Smith said...

It's completely impossible to explain just how good these stories are. Fun all-ages entertainment just doesn't cover it properly. There is a magic to them. They are as deep as you want them to be. Pure entertainment, or if you choose to look at the message underneath it all, it's there too. It's not as super serious or philosophical as some modern comics, and yet, I feel like the level of skill and storytelling ability of Carl Barks is much more sophisticated than most other writers and/or artists could ever be. Simply brilliant.

- Back Issue Ben

alxjhnsn said...

I love these books and the format is part of the pleasure. They are the right size to read and the paper and covers are quite nice.

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