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Uncle Scrooge’s Father
WALT DISNEY GAVE US DONALD DUCK, BUT ANOTHER MAN GAVE HIM HIS CHARACTER—AND HIS FAMILY
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Animation was very labor-intensive in the 1930s. Every frame had to be drawn and colored by hand (these frames, called eels, are highly collectible today). Since 24 frames flash by every second, a single hour of animated film required 86,400 drawings. People hired to color these frames were expected to do as many as 65 a day. That’s what Carl Barks did when he began at Disney Studios. But he soon showed a marked talent for storytelling. He submitted an idea for a mechanized barber chair for the now-classic Donald Duck cartoon Modern Inventions and was soon involved in collaborating on the stories for other Disney cartoons. But in 1942, with Disney rapidly converting to producing films for the armed forces, Barks left to open a chicken farm. (That was less odd sounding in the early 1940s than it is today; chicken farms were widely thought to be an easy road to riches at the time. Betty McDonald’s classic memoir The Egg and I dates from the period.)
To fill up his spare time, he contracted with Western Publishing to draw Donald Duck comic books. He quickly changed Donald’s persona. In the movie cartoons, Donald had been just an irascible duck with a nearly impenetrable speech impediment; in the comic books, he became much more nuanced and lived in a particular place, Duckburg, with a regular assortment of friends, relatives, and neighbors. Uncle Scrooge made his appearance in 1947, in a comic book titled Christmas on Bear Mountain . Although Walt Disney invented Donald Duck, it was Barks who gave him his modern appearance and attributes.
DISNEY’S CLAIM TO IMMORTALITY DOES NOT LIE WITH HIS ARTISTIC SKILL. HIS GENIUS WAS ENTREPRENEURIAL.
Besides having a genius for the peculiar art of cartoon drawing, Barks proved to have a wonderfully inventive mind for names and throwaway commentary. Scrooge McDuck’s greatest rival in business, known as “the second richest duck in the world,” was Flintheart Glomgold, a name Charles Dickens would have relished. And in one comic book written shortly after the end of World War II, Huey, Dewey, and Louie are seen exploring a junkyard. On top of one pile of rubbish they pass is a book, its title neatly lettered in: Mein Kampf .
As Barks’s comic genius flourished, he deeply influenced the children who devoured his work. Besides the odd business historian who couldn’t draw his way out of a paper bag, he influenced such modern visual titans as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford escapes from a boulder rolling down a tunnel toward him is taken directly from the Scrooge McDuck comic book The Seven Cities of Cibola .
Although Carl Barks’s art was known around the world by the time he retired from drawing comic books, in 1966, his name was not. In the world of Walt Disney, the only name is Disney, except for the actors in his nonanimated films. But as comic-book collecting became a considerable business in itself, Barks began getting the recognition he deserved.
In 1999, Paper Dreams , a serious book by John Canemaker, of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, examined the work of several Disney artists. Barks’s comics have now been published in hardcover in black and white and are being issued, in 51 volumes, in their original color. Perhaps most indicative of just how good an artist Carl Barks was, and of how important the comic book has become in the history of American art, is his work in oils, which he began to paint after he retired. At first he sold his paintings for a few hundred dollars each. But in 1998 one was sold for—are you sitting down?—$500,000.
Scrooge McDuck would be very pleased indeed.