By Phillip Salin
“Who is Carl Barks?” In the future that question may seem just as silly as ‘”Who is Aesop?” Phil Salin brings us up to date on the importance of the man who created Uncle Scrooge...
Once upon a time there was a wonderfully inventive storyteller and artist whose works were loved by millions, yet whose name was known by no one. Roughly twice a month, for over twenty years, the unknown storyteller wrote and illustrated a brand new humorous tale or action adventure for millions of loyal readers, who lived in many countries and spoke many different languages.
The settings of the stories were as wide as the world, indeed wider: stories were set in mythological and historic places, in addition to the most exotic of foreign locales. As well as elements of the past, elements of present and future technology frequently played a critical role.
Most of the stories centered around themes such as the importance of individual initiative; the virtues of hard work; the dangers of incompetence; the need to resist thieves, bullies and tyrants. Yet somehow, the stories were never didactic or boring; somehow, these truisms were made fresh and entertaining. These stories were full of libertarian values, yet were never advertised as such.
All this lay hidden from the awareness of most parents, lurking within the pages of mere comic books. I am talking, of course, about the Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories of Carl Barks.
From 1943 to 1963, Barks wrote and drew over 500 humorous stories which were published under someone else’s name: “Walt Disney.” Approximately every two weeks throughout this period he created a story starring either “Walt Disney’s” Donald Duck or “Walt Disney’s” Uncle Scrooge. Yet it was Barks, not Walt Disney, who defined the unique comic book Donald—as different from the cartoon or newspaper strip versions as butter is from margarine, or as Hans Christian Andersen is from Fractured Fairy Tales. It was Barks, not Disney, who created and fleshed out the satiric world of “Duckburg” and populated it with an enduring set of humorous new characters including two central, remarkably non-”Mickey Mouse” heroes: Uncle Scrooge, the “richest duck on earth,” and Gyro Gearloose, the world’s greatest inventor. It was Barks, not Disney, who invented these and other Duckburg characters and plot devices used without attribution by the Disney organization ever since, both in print and on the TV screen: Scrooge’s Money Bin, the Junior Woodchucks and their all-encompassing Manual, Gladstone Gander, Magica DeSpell, Flintheart Glomgold, and the Beagle Boys. It was Barks, not Disney, who wrote and drew those marvelous, memorable stories, month after month, year after year, and gave them substance.
I started reading Barks’ stories as a kid in the mid-1950s. As I got older, one by one, I gave away or sold most of my other comics; but not the Donald Ducks. Somehow they seemed to stay amusing when other comics faded. There was something refreshing about them that I never seemed to grow tired of; nor was I alone. Starting in college, I found that an alarmingly large percentage of my friends seemed to be acquiring a taste for spending an occasional hour sprawled in the living room, chuckling at Duck tales, reading and rereading the best ones, just as I had always done. Perhaps there was more to this than mere nostalgia. Perhaps I had fallen in with a bad lot. Or perhaps I had discovered a new communicable disease.
Naturally, it had never occurred to me to wonder who created these stories—the answer was printed prominently in large, cursive letters on the cover and at the beginning of every story: Walt Disney. If I had thought about it, I would have realized that Walt probably had other things to do besides drawing and writing 15-30 pages of comic books each month. I would have thought about the implications of the fact that some Duck stories were obviously drawn and written by crude artists, while others were just as obviously “good stuff.” I would have noticed that it was only The Duck stories, not “Walt Disney’s” Mickey Mouse, or “Walt Disney’s” Chip and Dale, that were ever interesting. And, of course, most strikingly, I would have noticed that I wasn’t interested in Donald Duck film or newspaper cartoons. Just the comic books.
None of these thoughts crossed my mind until the mid-70s, after I had graduated from college, traveled a bit, and returned to my home town. The local comics store in San Rafael at that time consisted of a couple of boxes kept next to the counter at The Record King, owned and managed by Mr. Joe Colabella. I would occasionally drop in and browse through these boxes, more out of nostalgia than any acute interest. One day I noticed Joe had begun pinning copies of old Duck comics up on the wall, right next to the well-known superhero favorites: Superman, Spiderman, the Spirit, and the Justice League of America. So I asked about them. It turned out Joe was aggressively buying up all he could find—he was actively “accumulating” Ducks, so to speak! It was Joe who finally explained to me that there had been several authors and artists of the Donald Duck comics, but only one who did all the really great stories: Carl Barks.
Joe passed on a few additional tidbits of information that I find disquieting to this day. For many years. Barks was not told how many people read his work (the answer was: millions, every month). He had no idea that whenever the folks at Western Publishing used a Duck story by some other writer or artist, they received large quantities of angry mail protesting the change. He had no idea that people saved his stories, re-read them, and showed them to friends. For almost twenty years, the people he worked for neglected to give him copies of fan mail (presumably, there was quite a lot of it). Finally, in 1961, by accident, a fan letter happened to make it through; Barks found the praise in this letter so embarrassing he was convinced it was a hoax.
Moreover, Joe explained, Barks’ Duck comics were rapidly becoming widely collected and even valuable, in spite of the fact that they had always been printed in very large numbers. Slowly I came to realize that my continuing enjoyment of these stories was not some kind of lamentable lapse of taste or idiosyncrasy, but a common and justifiable response. It somewhat restored my confidence, and not just in myself. It was mighty nice to know that there were a lot of others out there who knew good fun when they saw it, and weren’t too stuffy to say so.
But, granted that Barks’ comics were great fun, could there be more to them than that?
Nowadays I find most comic books unreadable; but as a kid, I loved them, all of them. One of my brothers swears he learned to enjoy reading books from reading comics, not from the public school system. At any rate, let’s agree that most comics are junk. Sturgeon’s Law—“90% of everything is crud”—certainly applies to comic books, as it applies to science fiction, television, sculpture, paintings, popular and classical music, and libertarian tracts.
What about the other 10% of comic books? These are the ones that use the form to its best advantage. Judging from the marketplace, comics are especially useful at portraying “larger than life” battles between good guys and bad guys, i.e., super-heroes and super-villains. The artwork is often appealing, sometimes innovative and exciting. I can’t say I’ve ever read a super-hero series whose stories struck me as particularly strong on insights about life, but I don’t find the possibility inconceivable.
Besides super-hero adventures, comic books have also long been used as vehicles of satiric, occasionally instructive tales, often involving a bunch of “funny animals.” It is a childish mistake to think that these stories are about animals. From Aesop’s Fables to Orwell’s Animal Farm and Adams’ Watership Down, many stories conveying mature insights about human life have been dressed in animal’s clothing. The idea that animal stories are only for kids is for the birds.
Whereas super-heroes tend to have uncommon, stylized physical characteristics (the Flash has uncommon speed; Superman is uncommonly strong), funny animals may have uncommon, stylized personal characteristics. This creates a great potential for amusing conflicts and broad satiric humor. So it is with Barks’ ducks. Uncle Scrooge is uncommonly industrious and acquisitive. Gyro Gearloose is uncommonly inventive. Uncle Donald is uncommonly stubborn. Huey, Dewey and Louie are uncommonly independent and resourceful. All are uncommonly enthusiastic and inclined to take the initiative.
Now, in the hands of a typical comic book hack, Uncle Scrooge would have been treated like any stereotypical miser; but in Barks’ hands, Scrooge’s uncommon thriftiness becomes not only tolerable, but (for the most part) actually appealing. When Donald is stubbornly wrongheaded, Barks plays tricks on him without mercy; but when Donald is steadfast in a good cause, Barks makes sure our sympathies are on his side. Here is where we begin to see the heart of Barks’ enduring appeal. It is not just that Barks is in the upper 10% of comic book artists and storytellers in terms of mere competence; it is that Barks is perceptive about human nature and values; When we read Barks’ fables, unlike Aesop’s, or “Walt Disney’s” we are reading stories that express a consistently upbeat, adventuresome, intensely individualistic sense of life.
Most of Barks’ stories contain elements extolling the virtues of initiative and entrepreneurship. One of my favorites is Maharajah Donald[*]. It begins with Donald unfairly paying the nephews with only “an old stub pencil” after they have cleaned his garage. The irrepressible kids then initiate a series of clever, voluntary, and mutually beneficial exchanges until they are the proud owners of a steamship ticket to India. When they and Donald arrive there, Donald gets into deep trouble. He is held captive by a local prince and is about to be fed to ravenous royal tigers. The kids are rupeeless and desperate, wandering the streets outside the palace, searching for a way to get Donald out of his predicament. Walking along, they spot an object lying unclaimed and unwanted in the middle of the road. As only an entrepreneur could understand, the kids immediately exclaim, “An old stub pencil! We’re rich!” And in not too long, they are, and use their resources to bail Donald out of trouble.
Huey, Dewey and Louie would make great employees or great business partners. Never just along for the ride, their eyes are always open to new needs and opportunities. When in Land of the Totem Poles[*] Donald gets a job selling an unknown product (steam calliopes) in a brand new, exclusive territory (the Kickmiquick River, which is located, according to the map, “way up in the wildest country there is”), the kids’ immediate response is: “Say! That outghta be good country to sell something in! Why don’t we be salesmen, too? Sure! We’ll get a line of goods and clean up right along with Unca’ Donald.” Naturally, selling turns out to be a bit harder than anyone suspected; but not impossible. By the end of the story, as a result of paying special attention to customer demand, the kids have learned how to sell even such a white elephant as a steam calliope.
Although a number of Barks’ stories play with some aspect or other of business or economics, there is one in which economic theory plays the central role. This amazing story, Money from Heaven (my title—most of the stories had no titles) manages to address inflation, income redistribution, and the creation and maintenance of wealth. Its beginning is a meteorological version of wealth redistribution: a tornado picks up all the money from Uncle Scrooge’s famous money bin and randomly rains five billion quintuplatillion umptuplatillion multuplatillion impossibidillion fantasticatrillion dollars across the countryside. Uncle Scrooge is now a pauper and everyone else is a multimillionaire. Most people immediately quit their jobs and hang out signs saying “gone to see the world.” Scrooge, however, simply keeps farming (even handing out guns to Huey, Dewey and Louie, to protect the property he is creating). In the finale, the wandering populace finds that goods have become scarce, since almost everyone has stopped producing them. When people get hungry, food is available at Scrooge’s farm—but for amazing prices: hams for $1,000,000,000, cabbages for $2,000,000, etc, etc. It’s not long before the Money Bin is full again. Life, and then prices, return to normal. “Easy money” is shown to be illusory, and the true fountainhead of wealth is shown to be focused, productive work.
To enterprise, hard work and ingenuity, Scrooge McDuck adds a love and appreciation of the dollar that borders on romance. This is how Barks’ Uncle Scrooge explains where his money came from, in Only a Poor Rich Man[*] “I made it on the seas, and in the mines, and in the cattle wars of the old frontier! I made it by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties! And I made it SQUARE! This silver dollar—1898! ... I got that in the Klondike! Froze my fingers to the bone digging nuggets out of the creeks! And I brought a fortune OUT, instead of spending it in the honkytonks! And this dollar—1882! I got that in Montana where I punched cows while I looked for a homestead!...You’d love your money, too, boys, if you got it the way I did—by thinking a little harder than the other guy—by jumping a little quicker.”
One of the main Barksian norms is individual responsibility for exercising reason and judgment, combined with a ready ability to learn better, from experience, and from others.
Barks usually chooses Scrooge or the nephews as role models, as when Scrooge recounts how in the old days during the gold rush, “the other waddies laughed at me when I filed on a claim that was all mountains and rocks! But I’d poked around and I knew that under that scrubby grass was one-third of the world’s known copper!” Someone is always telling the kids what they can, can’t, or shouldn’t do; sometimes the kids obey, but not if they believe they know better. In Frozen Gold[*] Donald and the kids have flown a plane into a desolate arctic town. Shortly thereafter, Donald is kidnapped. When the kids ready the plane to go search for him, the local sheriff stops them: “Hold on, there! You lads are too small to fly that plane! Go back to the hotel before you hurt yourselves!” They protest that they do “know how to fly the plane! Honest, we do!” The sheriff decides: “You’re stubborn little fellers! I better lock you in your room! It’s for your own good!” Do they just stay put and do as the benevolent, all knowing (but wrong) authority figure says? Nope. And as a result of taking initiative, they manage to rescue Donald before he comes to harm.
Barks often treats Donald as the ultimate straight man, providing wonderfully ironic examples of how not to act. For example, in Flipism, Donald becomes an adherent of the fatalistic philosophy of flipism, which says that you should live your life by making all decisions with a coin flip. The story then shows what kinds of consequences would result from trying to avoid life’s responsibilities in such a way. In the climactic panel of this story, one of my great favorites, Donald and the kids drive their car over a hill and are suddenly presented with a surrealistic version of the LA freeway system. Donald exclaims, “Oh my Heavenly days,” while the kids’ caption reads, “We can see that here is where flipism gets the acid test!” Following a series of decisions made in devout adherence to the tenets of flipism, Donald ends up in court. The following dialog between the judge and Donald says it all:
Judge: So you drove the wrong way on a one-way road?
Donald: Yes, your honor. It was like this—I’m a flippist. I tossed a dime to see which way I’d go.
Judge: You did!...Well, that makes these charges against you seem rather silly! I’m not going to fine you the usual $5.00 for wrong-way driving, nor the usual $10.00 for disrupting traffic!
Donald: Thanks Judge.
Judge: But I am going to fine you $50.00 for letting a dime do your thinking for you!
The Golden Helmet[*] is one of the best libertarian stories I know of, but I have never seen it mentioned in any libertarian magazine.
As the story opens, Donald is a guard in the Duckburg museum, making his rounds. He spots a suspicious character snooping around an old viking ship, unsuccessfully looking for something. Later, Donald discovers an old map, which he gives to the museum’s curator. The map describes the location of a golden helmet buried by a viking named Olaf the Blue on the coast of Labrador to prove himself the discoverer of the new land. Barks’ plot now begins to thicken.
It seems that during the reign of Charlemagne, in 792 AD the rulers of all the nations gathered in Rome and drafted a law which read: “any man who discovers a new land beyond the seas shall be the Owner of that land, unless he claims it for his King!” Since Olaf the Blue claimed North America for his own, it now belongs to his nearest of Kin!
As the curator exclaims, “Great Caesar’s ghost! That is the law! And it has never been repealed!”
The suspicious character turns out to be Azure Blue, the direct descendant and legal heir of Olaf the Blue. His attorney (Lawyer Sharky) now threatens: “Will you hand my client his map or must he have you and everyone in America arrested for trespassing on his property!” Blue intends to “return and exact tribute from you—my slaves!”
The rest of the story involves a race to find Olaf’s golden helmet, for he who possesses it is the rightful owner of all of North America!
The Golden Helmet delightfully satirizes bad laws, lawyers, museums, modern art, and even naive interpretations of property rights theory. But to my mind the most significant aspect of this story is its ending: in turn, each character obtains the golden helmet, including the good guys.
Azure Blue grabs it so that all the inhabitants of North America will become his slaves. When the museum curator gets the golden helmet, he announces that “I’ll run the country for the benefit of the Museums! Everybody will have to go to a museum twice a day!”
Donald starts out by announcing that he’ll “throw this thing so doggoned far the fish won’t even find it!” but then, egged on by Lawyer Sharky, he begins to fantasize: “I’ll let people go on just as they are. I won t take a thing away from them! Let ‘em have all the land and oil wells and mines they want but [I’ll own] the air! I’ll own the one thing that nobody can do without. I’ll make people wear meters on their chests. And every breath they take will cost ‘em money!”
Eventually Donald comes to his senses and renounces power. But now Lawyer Sharky makes his own grab for the helmet and begins proclaiming what life will be like with him as Emperor.
Luckily, Huey, Dewey and Louie have not fallen prey to authoritarian fantasies. They pelt Sharky with dead fish, knocking the helmet off his head and into the ocean depths. As Huey announces “There goes the Golden Helmet! Now nobody will own North America!”
I challenge anyone to find a more libertarian tale than this.
I have emphasized Barks’ strengths as an individualist and libertarian moralist. However, many of Barks’ finest stories are simply very funny. I especially recommend the following:
Omelet (in which Donald & the kids outrageously mismanage a chicken farm); Stranger than Fiction (pokes fun at literary snobs); The Second Richest Duck (aka “The Great Ball of String Contest”) [**]; The Land Beneath the Ground (A treatise on where earthquakes come from, really) [**]; Christmas for Santa (memorable Holiday silliness); Lost in the Andes (Where do square eggs come from? Square chickens!) [*]; Tralla La (in which Scrooge accidentally initiates a money-economy in Shangri-La) [**]
Most of Barks’ stories are fun reading at least once, though a few are weak, particularly some he wrote in the last few years before he retired. (Incidently, Barks makes his home in Santa Barbara, California.) His best stories seem to stand reading and rereading extraordinarily well, much like a favorite song, book, or movie. From personal experience, and that of my friends and family, they are an excellent tonic for low spirits.
Obtaining copies of Barks’ best work takes a bit of attention and involves trade-offs. The problem is, even though it is continually being reprinted, at any given point in time most of Barks’ work is out of print. Even very large used-comic stores rarely have more than 5% of Barks’ works in stock. And, of course, prices for used comics are sometimes rather high. (An original copy of Maharajah Donald, for example, currently costs more than $1000!). Also, quality of reproduction has varied tremendously since the early 1940s (mostly going downhill).
I recommend starting by obtaining a copy of Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times. This beautifully produced giant trade paperback was originally available only in an expensive, limited edition. It contains an Appreciation by George Lucas, an “Introducktion” by Carl Barks, reprints of eleven classic Scrooge stories, and background information by Mike Barrier.
A good companion collection is Walt Disney—Donald Duck from Abbeville Press. Although the stories have been reprinted with all the frames re-sized to small scale (obscuring somewhat Barks’ careful attention to pacing and emphasis), the color is excellent, the price is affordable, the binding is durable, the distribution is wide (bookstores as well as comic stores), and the selection of stories is quite good. (The book contains The Golden Helmet, and is the only place where Maharajah Donald has ever been reprinted since its first printing, 1947.) Abbeville also publishes a volume of “Uncle Scrooge” stories, as well as a volume of “Huey, Dewey & Louie” stories, both due to be reprinted soon.
As a next step, consider asking your local comics store to begin saving copies of each month’s crop of new reprints from Gladstone Publishing. Gladstone is an excellent publisher which is doing a great job of reprinting the stories with good quality reproduction, together with notes about their history. However, Gladstone is also reprinting for American audiences duck stories which were written in Europe by other people after Barks retired. Normally, each Gladstone comic contains at least one story by Barks. Be careful when reading the reprints to notice which stories were written and drawn by Barks and which ones were done by someone else. Although many of the European stories attempt to duplicate Barks’ style, humor, and values, few succeed.
Also, you might see if your local store has inexpensive used copies of some of the better stories. If you can find a salesman who is knowledgeable, he may be willing to point you towards the “classics.”
The best source of information about Barks and his work is Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by Michael Barrier, available through comic stores.
You may wonder why I haven’t suggested libraries. Most libraries won’t carry anything to do with comic books. What do kids know, after all, about what’s worth paying good cash money for, reading and re-reading, loaning to their friends so they’ll read them too? It’s quite an irony: even though customer demand has resulted in perhaps a billion copies of Barks’ stories being printed world-wide so far—a figure equalled by mighty few artists of any medium—neither the literati nor the librerati have any idea who is Carl Barks.
Collections:Barks, Carl: Uncle $crooge McDuck—His Life and Times. Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 1987.
Philip Kenneth Salin (1950-1991) was an American economist and futurist, best known for his contributions to theories about the development of cyberspace and as a proponent of private (non-governmental) space exploration and development.
This essay first appeared in Liberty magazine in September, 1988, and is reprinted by permission of Salin’s widow.
All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.