There are few storytellers in comics history that are more revered than Carl Barks, a titan figure who was one of the three inaugural members in the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame — the other two were Jack Kirby and Eisner himself, who once called Barks “the Hans Christian Andersen of comics.”
While Kirby filled the skies of multiple universes with superheroes, gods and aliens, Barks has a legacy that is more narrowly defined: The Oregon native was the creator of Duckburg, a place he populated with Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys and others both feathered and furry.
Fantagraphics recently announced a deal with Disney that will allow them to reprint the Barks run in a truly definitive collection. Our Geoff Boucher caught up with Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth to discuss the project’s heritage and ambition.
GB: It’s hard to talk about Carl Barks without mentioning emotion — there’s a startling depth of emotion in the characters themselves and then there’s the connection that fans and collectors feel toward his work. Can you talk a bit about that? It seems similar somehow to Charles Schulz.
GG: I think the connection — which I agree with — that you’re seeing between two cartoonists who couldn’t, in many ways, be farther apart from each other, is that they both succeeded in creating vivid characters who lived in a fully realized world, distinctly stylized but analogous to our own in all the important emotional ways so that it didn’t matter if there was a dog dreaming of being a World War I fighter pilot or a family of ducks going on an adventure looking for the source of square eggs. There is in fact an emotional truth at the center of Barks’ work; he even said that this was his primary goal, though I can’t dig up the quote at the moment, perhaps I’m thinking of when he told an interviewer that in his stories he was “telling it like it is” and “laying it on the line.” The comics critic Don Phelps once told me that it was Barks who made Donald Duck a citizen of the nation of comics characters, which I always remember as being a particularly eloquent way of saying that he invested Donald with such humanity.
GB: You’ve spent a lot of time studying the work and life of Barks. What would you point to as a turning-point moment in his career? And can you explain your publishing plan moving forward? How many volumes will be published and over what period of time?
GG: I have mapped out roughly 30 volumes of Barks’ duck stories, published at the rate of two per year. Barks drew his first duck story in 1942 and became very good very fast. But he was 41 when he drew “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold,” so he was already an accomplished craftsman. I’m not sure I’d point to a specific turning point, but I think he hit his stride in the mid- to late ’40s, which is why I chose to start our series with what will technically be the seventh chronological volume in what we call “The Carl Barks Library.” There was also a sentimental reason: “Lost in the Andes” was Barks’ favorite story — as well it should be because it’s undoubtedly among his best stories. The second volume we’re publishing — technically the 12th in the series — is “Just a Poor Old Man,” titled after the lead story and filled with stories starring Uncle Scrooge. As you know, Barks invented Uncle Scrooge — as well as so many other characters in the Duck universe — and Scrooge, I think, re-energize him, making these, again, some of his best stories. The third volume will be “A Christmas for Shacktown,” featuring that story, of course. I have to admit a slight prejudice in favor of Barks’ longer adventure stories, which may be another reason I chose this period to publish at the beginning.
GB: Disney is a vast empire driven by the work of thousands of artists and creators in multiple media over close to nine decades. How would you frame the contribution and legacy of Barks in that arena — in other words, how did the work of Barks echo in Disney history?
GG: I am by no means a Disney expert and don’t want to suggest I am, so I don’t think I can authoritatively answer that question. I can say that I think, in a way, Barks worked “outside” the Disney empire — he conceived, wrote and drew his stories in his studio and with virtually no supervision from Disney. His editors at Western and the Disney supervisors approved the work, of course, but invested in him a degree of trust and autonomy that I suspect is rare in the Disney organization. He was given Donald Duck and the three nephews and built upon that foundation, creating many memorable characters and fleshing out their lives. His comics sold in the millions in the 1940s and 1950s, so quite apart from his artistic achievement, he was an important part of Disney’s commercial success.
— Geoff Boucher
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AMAZING PHOTO: Disneyland, opening day 1955