Carl Barks is widely considered as one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, and is, without a doubt, the grandmaster of Disney comics. As the author of many classic 'Donald Duck' stories, and as the creator of Duckburg and its famous inhabitants, Barks is among the most important comics creators of the 20th century.
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. 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. 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, that 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 would produce hundreds of 'Donald Duck' stories for this title between 1943 and 1966. He 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 ennemies, 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 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.
Most of these characters have also appeared in their own one-shot comic books, most notably the 'Uncle Scrooge' series, that contains some of Barks' best-remembered stories. Barks' clear and clever storytelling was fuelled by the articles he read in National Geographic Magazine and a rich imagination. In only ten pages, Barks explained the workings of the economy from a right wing point-of-view, in the story 'A Financial Fable'. The witty solution he 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 later used in real life. 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.
Besides his Duck-related stories, Barks has also produced other 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 '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 1968. He continued to write scripts until the early 1970s, that were illustrated by John Carey or Tony Strobl. These were mostly stories for the 'Junior Woodchucks' title, for which Barks delved into environmental themes.
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. From then on, European publishers of Disney comics did everything they could to recover all stories of the so-called "Good Artist", 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. His stories were also the basis for the animated Disney TV series 'DuckTales', that was originally broadcasted from 1987 to 1990.
Upon his retirement, Barks started painting for his own pleasure. These oil paintings were much appreciated by fans, and Barks got a temporary agreement with Disney for using the Duck characters - the same ones that he created. Barks furthermore became a popular guest at comic conventions around the world, and also paid visits to the Disney publishers in Holland and Denmark. 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.
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. Dutch artist Daan Jippes has redrawn all of the stories for which Barks had only written the scripts in a near-perfect imitation of Barks' style. 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 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).
Lambiek's Kees Kousemaker with Carl Barks in 1994