Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jungles, Ducks and Stamp Collecting

There is a horrible gap in my blog. Early on, I did post about Scrooge McDuck. That post, by the way, is cited as a footnote in the Hungarian-language Wikipedia entry on Uncle Scrooge. HA! I'm big in Hungary! How many of you can say that?

But I don't think I've written about Carl Barks' Duck stories since then. I did review a Don Rosa Scrooge story a few years back, but nothing else about Carl Barks.

I've covered over a hundred Jack Kirby stories. I've covered several Sgt. Rock stories drawn by Russ Heath. But I've given the last of the three greatest comic book artists ever short shrift. That shall not stand.

Barks was a wonderful writer as well as artist. His Duck stories (whether involving Scrooge or Donald) were completely different from superhero stories, of course. In fact, it's my understanding that Barks wasn't a fan of the superhero genre.

But all the same, I think that Barks as a writer accomplished something very similar to what writers such as Edmond Hamilton or Otto Binder did in the superhero genre. He took the inherent logic of a world containing talking animals and slapstick humor, then used that logic to craft truly exciting adventure stories. Just as the writers working for Mort Weisinger took the various elements of Superman's universe and crafted internal logical stories out of that.

What brings Barks' stories to the top of the heap in terms of quality was a combination of his skills as writer and as artist. His art is so much fun you often can't stop looking at it. Barks used his visuals to tell a well-constructed adventure story without ever sacrificing humor. He showed honest emotion---sometimes exuberantly and sometimes with amazing subtlety.

His writing complemented this--humor combined with great characters and strong plots. It was an amazing balancing act--telling stories that meshed slapstick humor and funny animals with a sense of real danger and adventure. These elements always blended together perfectly, full of cleverness, wit and heart.

"Donald Duck and the Gilded Man" (Four Color #422--Sept/Oct 1952) is a great example of this. Donald has gotten into stamp collecting, hoping to make enough money to pay for a trip to British Guiana in hopes of finding a rare stamp worth $50,000.

A summery of the story would make it sound like it meanders without a clear purpose. The action goes from Duckburg to South America and back to Duckburg, as Donald and the nephews trail a letter with the rare stamp on its envelope into an uncharted jungle, have a run-in with a lost tribe and a supposedly mythical giant, then chase the letter as it is forwarded through the U.S. mail to one address after another. The story bookends with encounters with Donald's impossibly lucky cousin Gladstone Gander.

But it doesn't meander at all. It follows the logic of Donald's universe and everything that happens makes sense in that context. Gladstone's involvement at the beginning of the tale leads to Donald getting the money he needs to go to South America. The search for the stamp logically leads Donald and the nephews deep into the jungle. Their capture by the Gilded Man forces them to use their wits and whatever items they have at hand to escape. When something fortuitous happens to help them along, it doesn't seem contrived, but rather seems to be another perfectly logical part of the story.

Like just about every story Carl Barks wrote, it is stuffed with so much pure fun that it leaves you with an almost uncontrollable urge to tell other people about it.

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