Carl Barks is - together with Floyd Gottfredson - the grandmaster of Disney comics. While Gottfredson established 'Mickey Mouse' as a comics character in the newspapers, Barks did the same for 'Donald Duck' in the comic books. Both combined high quality illustration work with a talent for captivating storytelling. Each artist enriched their characters' universe with colourful and recurring personalities, which are still used by many Disney comics artists today. Yet the admiration for Barks goes further, almost to cult levels. Compared with many other "funny animal comics" his characters feel more real, believable and relatable. Donald and his nephews are portrayed far more intelligent and sympathetically than their original cartoon versions. They aren't just one-note personalities but complex individuals with mood changes like any other normal human being.They received a hometown, Duckburg, with many unforgettable inhabitants like Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose and his Little Helper, Neighbor Jones, Magica DeSpell, The Beagle Boys and Donald's multimillionaire uncle Scrooge who eventually became the star of his own series. From this location Donald and co. could travel the entire world, which gives the comics a more epic feel. Many stories revolve around treasure hunts and escapist adventures in exotic settings. But Barks also excelled in clever satire, funny gag-based stories and moralistic, yet never preachy tales. This scope and versatility made him one of the most important and influential comics creators of all time. His stories have all become classics and are still widely read among all ages today.
Born on a ranch in Merrill, Oregon, Carl Barks spent his childhood working on the farm, studying agriculture and drawing. In 1918, he left for San Francisco to try his luck in illustration, inspired by cartoonists like Winsor McCay and Frederick Burr Opper. Later in life he would also express admiration for the work of Roy Crane, Harold Foster, Alex Raymond, E.C. Segar and Milton Caniff. He had no success, and returned to Oregon, where he held several odd jobs, including farmer, woodcutter, turner, mule driver, cowboy and printer. This life as a "Jack of all trades" would serve as a fruitful source of inspiration for his 'Donald Duck' stories. By 1923, Barks had his first cartoons published in Judge magazine, and especially in The Calgary Eye-Opener. In the following years, Barks drew several cartoons for this men-oriented magazine from Minneapolis, that featured a lot of sexually themed jokes.
Cartoon from the Calgary Eye Opener
In 1935, Barks found employment at the Walt Disney Studios, where he was hired as an inbetweener. He was soon transferred to the story department, where he worked as a gag writer and storyboard artist, alongside Jack Hannah. The man predominantly worked on cartoons starring Donald Duck. He has cooperated on the shorts 'Modern Inventions' (1937), 'Donald's Ostrich' (1937), 'Self Control' (1938), 'Donald's Better Self' (1938), 'Donald's Nephews' (1938), 'Good Scouts' (1938), 'Donald's Golf Game' (1938), 'Donald's Lucky Day' (1939), 'The Hockey Champ' (1939), 'Donald's Cousin Gus' (1939), 'Beach Picnic' (1939), 'Sea Scouts' (1939), 'Mr. Duck Steps Out' (1940), 'Donald's Penguin' (1939), 'Bone Trouble' (1940), 'Put-Put Troubles' (1940), 'Donald's Vacation' (1940), 'Window Cleaners' (1940), 'Fire Chief' (1940), 'Timber' (1941), 'Golden Eggs' (1941), 'Early to Bed' (1941), 'Truant Officer Donald' (1941), 'Old MacDonald Duck' (1941), 'Chef Donald' (1941), 'The Village Smithy' (1942), 'Donald's Snow Fight' (1942), 'Donald Gets Drafted' (1942), 'The Army Mascot' (1942), 'Donald's Gold Mine' (1942), 'The Vanishing Private' (1942), 'Sky Trooper' (1942), 'Bellboy Donald' (1942), 'The Spirit of '43' (1943), 'Donald's Tire Trouble' (1943), 'The Old Army Game' (1943), 'Home Defense' (1943) and 'Trombone Trouble' (1944).
Several characters who would later reappear in Barks' comics already debuted in some of these animated shorts, including Huey, Louie and Dewey (1938), Cousin Gus Goose (1939) and Daisy Duck (1940). 'The Spirit of '43' has Donald taking advice from a stereotypical thrifty Scotsman who shares some resemblance to the Uncle Scrooge character Barks would develop five years later.
He also cooperated on a 'Donald Duck' movie project called 'Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold'. The film was eventually dropped by Disney. Barks, Hannah and writer Bob Karp did however team-up to turn the story into a comic strip, which was published as a comic book in Dell Publishing's 'Four Color Comics' series in 1942. Barks left the animation studios shortly afterwards, because the studio's air conditioning worsened his existing hearing problems, and because he didn't like the wartime propaganda films the Disney Studios was producing at the time. He started his own chicken farm in Southern California, but was also asked by Western Publishing to write and draw stories for their monthly comic book Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. Barks wasn't the first to draw comics based on Donald Duck. Al Taliaferro already had a succesful newspaper gag comic starring Donald since 1938. But Barks managed to shape the duck universe to more ambitious levels.
Barks would produce hundreds of stories with 'Donald Duck' and his family between 1943 and 1966. Barks not only matured the rather one-dimensional angry duck from the cartoons and the newspaper strips and turned him into a part-time adventurer, but also crafted a colorful cast of relatives, friends and enemies, all set in the town of Duckburg. The most famous of them all is the rich and stingy Uncle Scrooge McDuck, who first appeared in the story 'Christmas on Bear Mountain' in 1947. The brilliant inventor Gyro Gearloose (1952) and his Little Helper (1956) - a little robot with a lightbulb-head - have also become comic book icons. A rich uncle paves the way for a wide range of villains, such as the crooks gang The Beagle Boys (1951), the equally rich Flintheart Glomgold (1956) and John D. Rockerduck (1961), and the witch Magica De Spell (1961). But Donald also has his own adversaries to deal with, such as his ever-lucky nephew Gladstone Gander (1948) and agressive neighbor Jones (1943). Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie still kept some of their original mischievousness, but often out-smarted their uncle thanks to their all-knowing Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook. In 1952 Barks even thought up a founder of Duckburg - the 19th century colonist Cornelius Coot - whose statue is seen everywhere. And he gave Duckburg a neighbouring city with whom the Duckburgians have an ungoing rivalry: Goosetown. Barks invented so many recurring characters that no other 'Donald Duck' artist ever managed to top this. At the same time not all characters he used were purely his own creations. The most obvious example would be Donald himself, who was the brainchild of Disney animators Dick Huemer, Art Babbitt and Dick Lundy. Ted Osborne and Al Taliaferro on their part created Huey, Louie and Dewey, Grandma Duck and Donald's St. Bernhard's dog Bolivar in the 'Donald Duck' newspaper comic strip.
Most of these characters have also appeared in their own one-shot comic books, most notably the 'Uncle Scrooge' series, which contains some of Barks' best-remembered stories. Barks distinguished himself from a lot of other children's comics artists by offering quality in both his artwork as well as his narratives. He was a master in crafting epic adventure tales, full with thrills and mystery. Donald's poverty and Uncle Scrooge's lust for fortune often set the plot in motion. The ducks frequently have to defend Scrooge's Money Bin against threats like thieves and even witches. Other times they engage in treasure hunts to exotic countries, ancient civilizations and/or distant planets. Barks was often inspired by articles and photos he read in National Geographic Magazine. He spent many hours researching each story, even if it took place in a fictional location. Whether he drew a jungle, a mountainous era, ancient temples or vast oceans he wanted it to look believable. Atmosphere was equally important. Fantastic monsters, mystery and suspense were recurring ingredients of his stories.
While displaying such quests Barks never lost sight of his characters. He never saw them as '"funny animals" but approached them as "humans who just happened to look like ducks." The artist could relate to Donald since he too had experienced poverty, unluckiness and loneliness in life. But just like Donald and Scrooge he never gave up, a virtue he also expressed in his work. Several comics provide readers with life lessons about friendship, family union, perseverance, the rewarding aspects of honest labour and the shallowness of money.
Barks was able to add humanity to his stories without ever coming across as saccharine or overly idealistic. Some stories even have a rather cynical streak. The protagonists don't always get what they want in the end. Even Scrooge can be quite ungrateful to Donald, Huey, Louie and Dewey, after they accompanied him to get even richer. Barks also moved beyond the one-dimensional "good vs. evil" characterizations so common in children's comics. In a 1973 interview by Donald Ault he said: "(...) The thing that is most important about my comics is this: I told it like it is. I told the kids that the bad guys have a little good in them, and the good guys have a lot of bad in them, and that you couldn't depend on anything much, that nothing was going to always turn out roses. (...) I laid it right on the line that there was no difference between my comic characters and the life these kids - the readers - were going to have to face."
Some of Donald's adventures are clever satirical metaphors. In 'Tralla La' (1954) Barks lampoons both capitalism and colonialism. Scrooge travels to a country without a monetary system where the people live in peace. Yet when he throws his bottle caps around the inhabitants start treating them as valuable items. The greedy duck realizes the financial possibilities and brings over as much bottle caps as he can, until the paradise is ruined forever. 'A Financial Fable' (1950), on the other hand, defended capitalism over the dangers of easy money. When Scrooge's entire fortune is blown away by a cyclone and scattered all over the country, everyone in Duckburg is suddenly a millionaire. As they all quit working Scrooge quietly runs a farm with Huey, Louie and Dewey as his helping hands. In the end Scrooge has the monopoly on every possible accessory that the Duckburgians need and thus gets back rich in an instant.
Thanks to the global reach of the Disney imperium Barks' comics were read by millions of people across the world. As such they managed to have a remarkable impact on our present society. The witty solution Barks came up with in 'The Sunken Yacht' (1949) for recovering a yacht from the bottom of the ocean - by using a large amount of ping-pong balls - was in 1964 used in real life by Danish inventor Karl Kroyer. Funny enough Kroyer hadn't read this particular story and only learned about it when he tried to apply a patent for his discovery in the Netherlands. As the Dutch are infamous 'Donald Duck' readers they were quick to point out that his idea had been invented by Barks some 15 years earlier.
Another story, from 1944, had Donald utter some techno babble after receiving a blow to his head. This gibberish, however, turned out to be an actually accurate mathmatical formula and was used to describe the newly discovered carbene methylene in 1964. Even the way Donald mixed it with other substances happened to be scientifically correct! Barks' comics also influenced pop culture. The classic Uncle Scrooge story 'The Seven Cities of Cibola' (1954) served as the inspiration for the opening sequence of the 1981 film 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark' by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Although his tenure on comic books lasted little over twenty years, Barks' production was immense. He wrote and drew a monthly 'Donald Duck' story for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories (his famous "ten-pagers"), a title for which he also regularly made the cover illustration. Four or five times a year, up until the early 1950s, he made epic and humorous adventure stories with Donald and his family in the 'Four Color Comics' series of one-shot books. He drew the first issue of the solo 'Donald Duck' title in 1952, but left the following issues to other artists from the Dell staff, such as Jack Bradbury, Dick Moores, Phil De Lara and Tony Strobl. From 1953 he drew long adventure stories for the quarterly 'Uncle Scrooge' title, while also producing the back-up stories starring 'Gyro Gearloose'. He additionally produced a great many filler gag pages, and a couple of one-shot comic books with the other Duckburg characters, like 'Gyro Gearloose', 'Daisy Duck's Diary' and 'Grandma Duck's Farm Friends'. The latter two were from scripts by Bob Gregory and Vic Lockman, respectively.
If all this wasn't enough, Barks has also produced non-Duck stories for Dell/Western. He made one 'Mickey Mouse' story ('The Riddle of the Red Hat' in 1945), and also worked on some of the non-Disney titles. Between 1944 and 1947, Barks wrote and illustrated 26 stories of MGM's 'Barney Bear and Benny Burro' for the Our Gang comic book. These stories were collected in 'The Carl Barks' Big Book of Barney Bear' by IDW in 2011. Barks furthermore drew Walter Lantz's 'Andy Panda' for New Funnies in 1943 and did one story with 'Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig' ('Porky of the Mounties' in 1944), but found that the characters didn't suit him.
The "Old Duck Man", as Barks affectionately was called, stopped drawing comics in 1966. He continued to write scripts until the early 1970s, which were illustrated by John Carey, Kay Wright or Tony Strobl. These were mostly stories for the 'Junior Woodchucks' title, dealing with environmental themes. From 1992 onward, these specific stories were redrawn by Dutch artist Daan Jippes to give the artwork a closer resemblance to Barks' style.
Because all of his work was anonymous, it wasn't until the rise of comics fandom in the 1960s that people learned that one man was responsible for these classic stories. In 1960 the identity of the "Good Duck artist" was discovered by the brothers John and Bill Spicer, who visited their hero and made his name more widespread through various comics fanzines and conventions. From then on, European publishers of Disney comics did everything they could to recover all stories, resulting in a Barks revival. In the States, Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran of Another Rainbow Publishing collected Barks' Duck-work in the luxury ten-set 'Carl Barks Library' in the 1980s. From 1985, Barks' work was also introduced to a new generation of US readers in the comic books published by new licensee Gladstone Publishing. Fantagraphics has been reprinting Barks' 'Donald Duck' and 'Uncle Scrooge' stories in their original colors in a new collection edited by Gary Groth since 2011.
His stories were also the basis for the animated Disney TV series 'DuckTales', which was originally broadcasted from 1987 to 1990. The show used various characters Barks created and shaped, like Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose, Flintheart Glomgold, the Beagle Boys and Magica DeSpell, but others were omited, most notably Donald Duck, who only appeared briefly in the entire series. Donald's role from the original stories was replaced by the clumsy pilot Launchpad McQuack, because Donald's voice was unsuitable for a starring role. Other characters were remodelled. The Beagle Boys for instance, who were all identical clones in the original stories, were individualized. Flintheart's nationality was changed from South African into Scottish, since South Africa received too much bad publicity in the 1980s over its apartheid policy.
Upon his retirement, Barks started painting for his own pleasure. These oil paintings were much appreciated by fans, and Barks eventually received permission from the Walt Disney Company to depict the Duck characters in these works - ironically all characters he mostly created himself. Some were general scenes depicting Donald, Scrooge, the nephews and co. But the most popular were the ones based on classic moments from his adventure stories. Barks painted everything with a keen eye for detail and atmosphere, almost like a 17th century baroque masterpiece. The paintings were a nice compensation for the fact that not much of Barks' original comic book pages have survived. Naturally they sold for very high prices. Barks also made semi-erotic paintings, which featured duck-billed men and women in titillating but never explicit situations. These works were - of course - not distributed by Disney, but they have gained notoriey among Barks fans and were even exhibited in 2011 during the 'Comics Stripped' Exhibition at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan, NYC, along other private erotic drawings by famous comics artists.
Barks also received more awards during the final years of his career. He was the recipient of the Shazam Award for Best Humor Writing (1970), an Inkpot Award (1977) and a Disney Legend Award (1991), as well as inducted in the Eisner Award Hall of Fame (1987).
Barks furthermore became a popular guest at comic conventions around the world, particularly in Europe where his work is very beloved. The Dutch city Almere and Swedish capital Stockholm both have roads named after him. Some of Barks' characters have even gained more popularity in certain parts of Europe than elsewhere. John D. Rockerduck, for instance, is firmly established as Uncle Scrooge's main rival in France and Italy, while the Danish and Dutch publishers use Flintheart Glomgold for that role. In 1994 Barks paid a visit to the continent, meeting with Disney publishers in no less than 11 countries: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The tour was an initiative of Bob Foster. A trip to Switzerland was also planned, but later cancelled. Much to the 93-year old artist's surprise his visit received a lot of local press attention. In Finland he was even officially greeted by a government minister. His final years were however clouded because of a legal dispute with his former managers. He died from leukemia at his home in Grants Pass, Oregon, in August 2000, at the age of 99. While his passing barely made headlines in his home country it was front page news in many European countries, particularly the most duck-crazy of them all: the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. In 1983 an asteroid was named after Carl Barks. The choice was justified by the 1960 'Uncle Scrooge' story 'Island in the Sky'. Incidentally Donald Duck also had an asteroid named after him in 1995.
Carl Barks with the writers and artists of the Dutch Donald Duck during his visit to the Netherlands in 1994. From left to right, top: Piet Wijn, Harry Balm, Ed van Schuijlenburg, Michel Nadorp, Carl Barks, Mau Heymans, Jaap Stavenuiter, Frank Jonker, Wilma van den Bosch, Ben Verhagen, Hilbert Bolland. Bottom: Jan Kruse, Daan Jippes, Lucas Abedy, Bas Heymans.
The work of the always humble Carl Barks has remained an influence on comic book artists to this day. The Danish and Dutch production of Disney comics still use his stories as a blueprint. American artist Keno Don Rosa has used elements from Barks stories to further explore the younger years of Scrooge McDuck in the fan favorite 'Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck' series. Besides the redrawn Barks scripts, Dutch artist Daan Jippes also applies a near-perfect imitation of Barks' style for his own stories. But Barks has also served as an inspiration for artists outside the Disney spectrum. Osamu Tezuka, Albert Uderzo, Art Spiegelman, Cal Schenkel, Gary Panter, Robert Crumb, Evert Geradts, Karsten Weyershausen, Dillon Naylor, Annibale Casabianca, Windig & De Jong and Matt Groening have all mentioned Barks as an influence on their work. An image of the story 'Wishing Island' (1958) inspired Roy Lichtenstein's painting 'Reflections: Portrait of a Duck' (1989). Another huge fan is Austrian artist and painter Gottfried Helnwein who considers Barks the greatest artist ever and said: "I learned more from 'Donald Duck' than I did from all the schools that I ever attended." He also interviewed his idol in 1992 and curated the first museum exhibition of Barks, a retrospective which was shown in ten European museums. Film director George Lucas named Barks' work "a priceless part of our literary heritage" and wrote the introduction to Fantagraphics' new release of Barks' classic Duck stories.
Lambiek's Kees Kousemaker with Carl Barks in 1994