Wednesday, November 14, 2007


In 1947, artist/writer Carl Barks created Uncle Scrooge McDuck in story called "Christmas on Bear Mountain." The wealthy but incredibly stingy Uncle Scrooge served as the plot device to set up an adventure for Donald Duck along with Huey, Dewey and Louie. But Scrooge struck a chord with readers. Barks took the character and ran with it, creating some of the most imaginative and entertaining comic stories from the late Forties and throughout the Fifties.

It took a few tries to refine Scrooge's character. An early story, "The Magic Glass," told us that Scrooge's wealth comes from owning a magic hourglass. Though this is a wonderful story (involving an adventure in the Sahara Desert to retrieve the hourglass after it is stolen), Barks soon set this idea aside. Scrooge, it eventually developed, had earned every single penny now sitting in his impregnable Money Bin through hard work. He'd been "tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties." And though now getting on in years, he was still tough and smart.

In story after story, he protected his wealth from thieves such as the Beagle Boys or took Donald and the nephews on wild adventures in search of hdden treasures.

"Back to the Klondike" (Four Color Comics #456, 1953) is one of the best Scrooge stories, highlighting all the important aspects of Scrooge's personality withn the context of yet another entertaining adventure.

As the story opens, Scrooge is having serious memory problems, even forgetting who Donald is. A doctor prescribes memory pills, which work so well that Scrooge remembers a cache of gold he'd buried in the Klondike years ago when he first struck it rich as a prospector. So Scrooge, Donald and the nephews are off to the Klondike to recover the gold. Over the course of the story, we meet Glittering Goldie, a former saloon owner with whom Scrooge developed a love/hate relationship during the gold-rush days. There's a series of gags based on Scrooge's refusal to take his memory pills (hey, they cost a whole ten cents each---they're too valuable to swallow) and a set of mini-adventures involving a grizzly bear and a swarm of mosquitoes.

We get a flashback to Scrooge's days as a young prospector (and a nifty sequence in which we get to see him whip a dozen or so guys in a barfight). We get examples of Scrooge's greed and penny-pinching, but also an ending that shows he has a heart of gold hidden under his tough exterior. What's really good about this story (and about the bulk of Barks' work on Scrooge and Donald Duck) is the bizarre thematic balance struck by these stories. On the one hand, these are "funny animal" stories, with talking ducks and dogs involving one sight gag after another.

On the other hand, Barks' art was, well, realistic and the sense of real adventure he maintained was always palpable. The stories are both funny and exciting. The characterizations are both comedic and (on occassion) genuinely emotional. "Back to the Klondike," recently reprinted in a trade paperback and so easily available, is one of the best examples of this. In an industry that has given us the work of so many talented artists and writers, Carl Barks holds a comfortable spot amongst the best of the best. He, like Scrooge, was tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties.

SIDENOTE: The trade paperback "The Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge," by Dan Rosa, is a series of 12 issues dealing with key moments in Scrooge's life, from when he earned his first dime as a shoe shine boy in Scotland to his first adventure side-by-side with Donald and the boys. Rosa took hints dropped by Barks in various orginal Scrooge stories to fill out the old skinflint's biography. Rosa is a worthy successor to Barks, with the same talent for balancing humor and adventure. This is one of the best trades ever and should be considered required reading.

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