February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
WALT DISNEY GAVE US DONALD DUCK, BUT ANOTHER MAN GAVE HIM HIS CHARACTER—AND HIS FAMILY
It was, perhaps, fate that I ended up writing business history for a living, for when I was still young enough to have my nose buried in comic books, my favorite character was Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck’s billionaire uncle. Scrooge loved money and saw not the slightest reason to be embarrassed about having a great deal of it. Indeed, he loved to swim through the contents of his money bin, which measured a wonderfully meaningless “three cubic acres” in size. Usually aided by his nephew Donald and grandnephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Scrooge had excellent adventures. Once he added one dime too many to his bin and the floor collapsed, sending his fortune plummeting into an underground cavern. Another time, when his bin simply wouldn’t hold another dime, Donald volunteered to help Scrooge spend the excess. Learning at a fancy restaurant that a cherry on top of his sundae would cost an extra five dollars, Donald ordered a handful, while Scrooge nearly had apoplexy. But Scrooge wasn’t a miser either. In one story, he had a limousine so vast that it featured a secretary complete with office among its amenities.
Scrooge McDuck has been in the news lately because his creator, Carl Barks, died last year at the ripe old age of 99. His long life nearly coincided with the rise of an invention that, seemingly trivial at the time, would have major consequences throughout the creative world (see, for instance, the article on pop art in this issue): the comic strip.
Although grounded in caricature, which dates from the Renaissance, and in political cartoons, which began in the eighteenth century, the comic strip dates only to the 1890s. It differs from its ancestors in that it does not deal with real people and features continuing characters. The modern comic is also a purely American invention. The first real comic strip is generally regarded as being The Yellow Kid , drawn by Richard F. Outcault. It initially appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in February 1896. It was an immediate hit, and William Randolph Hearst quickly hired Outcault away for his New York Journal . Pulitzer just as quickly raised the ante, and Outcault returned to the World . The escalating offers and counteroffers for The Yellow Kid , part of the ferocious circulation war between the two press barons, gave rise to the expression yellow journalism . Within a few years most major newspapers had “funny papers,” and the founding of King Features Syndicate in 1915 allowed cartoonists to build national reputations (and earn handsome incomes) by appearing in many newspapers at the same time.
Carl Barks was born on an Oregon farm. Partially deaf as well as living on an isolated farm, he had a rather solitary childhood, a condition that often leads to an active imagination. He left school at 15 and earned his living in numerous physically demanding jobs from logger to riveter. Like many great cartoonists, Barks lacked formal training in art. But he had been drawing for years when he got a job with a humor magazine called the Calgary Eye-Opener .
In 1935 he applied for work drawing animated cartoons at the Disney studios in Hollywood. Walt Disney did not invent the animated cartoon, of course. It had been known for centuries that rapidly flipping through a sequence of pictures could produce the illusion of motion, and the first mechanical device to employ this technique, called a phenakistoscope, dates from the 1830s. The obvious, at least in retrospect, marriage of the comic strip and film occurred as early as 1911, when a comic strip titled Little Nemo in Slumberland , from the New York Herald , was adapted by Winsor McCay for the Vitagraph film studio. But it was Disney who made animation a major cinematic art form. Born in Chicago in the same year as Carl Barks, Disney, too, had a somewhat deprived childhood. After a stint as an ambulance driver in World War I, he got a job as a commercial artist in Kansas City. In 1923 he moved to Hollywood, where he formed a partnership with his brother Roy. In 1928 he released the first animated film to feature sound, Steamboat Willie , which also introduced Mickey Mouse. He soon invented Donald Duck as well.
But Disney’s claim to immortality does not lie with his skills as an artist. In fact they were mediocre. Instead, his genius was as an entrepreneur. He hired the best talent he could find and used it to build an empire based on animation, daring new concepts, and early exploitation of new media, such as television. Disney today, 35 years after its founder’s death, is a major American company. With typical daring, in 1937 Walt Disney risked everything to produce the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . It turned out to be a huge hit and made Disney a major power in Hollywood. He followed Snow White with Pinocchio and then Fantasia , a commercial failure at the time but now regarded as one of the most influential films ever made.
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.
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.