Goodbye, Carl Barks

This hasn't been the best of years for the elder statesmen of comics and animation.  Since January 2000, we've lost Charles M. Schultz and Gil Kane - to name just two of the giants we must now live without. And now, we learn that Carl Barks has passed away just shy of spending a century on earth.

Disney fans have every reason to mourn.

Barks was almost single-handedly responsible for the direction and style of the Donald Duck comic books from the mid 1940s until the late 1960s. Since then, his work has been reprinted multiple times in many languages, and he's found a worthy successor in current Disney comic artist Don Rosa. It's easy to overlook Barks' achievements for several reasons. Longevity allowed him to outlast much of his competition, but it also encouraged us to take him for granted. His anonymity (Disney did not allow any signatures other than the Disney trademark on Disney-created comic books) allowed him the freedom to create a wonderfully detailed world, yet also prevented many of us from giving him the credit he deserved. His work in what some call "funny animal books" guaranteed his stories a childlike innocence, but too many of us confused that with childishness. Carl Barks was worth far more than the entire stable of Image/Top Cow creators if we allow originality, story-telling ability, and audience size to be our criteria. If you ever enjoyed the TV series Ducktales, you are endebted to Carl Barks, as his comics were the major influence on that animated series.

Donald Duck was a blustery character with a severe speech impediment before Barks started Unca Scroogewriting his comic adventures. By the time Barks was through, Donald lived in a city called Duckburg, had a more fully developed character as a lazy but lucky duck-about-town, and constantly found himself at odds with his miserly, hard-working Uncle Scrooge. The speech impediment was never mentioned in Barks' stories, and it never needed to be. Barks took his characters on trips to exotic locales, turning a seemingly ordinary event in the city into an excuse to search for treasure in the Far East or Africa.  While Barks' obsession with National Geographic-inspired adventures was hardly unique (so-called Tiki music was popular in lounges in the 50s and 60s due to the likes of Martin Denny, and a rough parallel can be made between Barks and Ian Fleming), Barks' ability to deftly weave suspense, adventure, comedy, and willing disbelief into a single story was second to none. Even the anti-Disney, pro-Communist propaganda How to Read Donald Duck found ways to praise Cark Barks' abilities as an artist and storyteller.

When I was a child, I used to buy Disney comics at the local discount store. They were shrink-wrapped in packs of three, and I remember reading them with time better spent doing my math homework.  I wish I'd kept more of them. Disney comic books have always been uneven, but the comics with Donald Duck were always better than the rest. Many of the stories seemed to prophecy the wildly successful Raiders of the Lost Ark movie series. Exotic lands with strange customs, clever riddles and puns, fortuitous coincidences - these were the elements that Barks' lovable characters played off in their many adventures. Unlike the Disney animated films, which became progressively more inane and insubstantial as the 60s progressed, Barks' comics remained examples of economical storytelling coupled with ingenious and original plot twists. Like countless other children worldwide, Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics were a happy childhood treat, even if I didn't know who Carl Barks was until much later. They are among the very few children's comics that I still enjoy as an adult.

Due to Barks' cult status even among the cult phenomenon of comic books, you can find examples of his work either very cheaply or very expensively at conventions, hobby shops, or flea markets. While virtually any collectible with the Disney name has the potential to be wildly overpriced, Disney comic books aren't the most desired among most current comics fans.  I've bought reprints of classic Barks comics for less than 50 cents apiece in New York. One advantage reprints have over originals are credit lists for the stories. Thanks to current policies, Disney now gives credit to the formerly anonymous artists who create the Disney comic stories. Newly printed Disney comics aren't the easiest things in the world to find (in America, at least) but they're worth the effort.

Many of those who've read Barks' stories may have been unaware of who he was, but we were all touched by his humor and imagination. I hope that Heaven sets aside a few dozen acres so Carl can create Duckburg anew in the next life.

The images used to illustrate this obituary are copyrighted by Walt Disney and used within the guidelines of the Fair Use doctrine. No infringement is intended. This website is not affiliated with the Walt Disney Corporation in any way.

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