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Leading Duck: An Interview with Peter Schilling about Carl Barks

duck_cover_800pxThe cover of Carl Barks’ Duck, Peter Schilling Jr.’s new study of midcentury cartooning legend Cark Barks, features the artist’s most famous subject in silhouette. This may be because a major media conglomerate owns Donald Duck, the subject in question, but the image still works. In Carl Barks’ Duck, Schilling argues that circumstances of Barks’ Donald vary from story to story but the character’s spirit remains the same—making Donald a modular yet memorable lead.

Barks produced his first comics work for Disney in the early 1940s and soon established a fan base even without credits in many of the publications to which he contributed. In the decades that followed, his body of work—inventive and lively; very much a product of its time—earned a critical appreciation matched by few other exports of the Disney empire. Schilling, author of the period-sports novel The End of Baseball and the illustrated Twain commentary Mark Twain’s Mississippi River, gives readers a first-person tour of Barks’ work that begins in Schilling’s childhood and covers several of the most beloved Barks duck comics.

The Comics Journal: Let’s start with a game. First, give someone who’s never read a Carl Barks comic the elevator pitch for your book, and then give someone who’s read every duck comic the elevator pitch for your book.

Schilling: I would say first, the person who has never read a Donald Duck book is really the audience that I’m trying to reach more than anything. If you’re interested in amazing stories—whether you like comics, novels, movies—I think the Donald Duck comics are very universal. Anyone can pick them up. There’s virtually no baggage other than people’s resistance to Disney . . . and maybe adults saying, “Well, I don’t want to be seen on a bus reading a Disney book.” The comics I chose [to write about] highlight Carl Barks’ storytelling skills and his art, but they also reflect this incredible character of Donald Duck. I liken him to actors in Hollywood’s golden age—Cary Grant—in that he’s a personality that wears a ton of different hats, and part of our enjoyment is in watching that personality be thrust into different situations. That would be my pitch for people that have not read them.

People that have read Donald Duck comic books—bloggers, critics, the diehards out there—I would say that [Carl Barks’ Duck] fits nicely within your probably-obsessive collection of Carl Barks stuff. But secondarily, I’d say this is definitely not an academic study of Carl Barks’ work. It’s a very personal argument for my favorite comics of his. And for that reason alone, I model my critical writing after some of my favorite film critics: Pauline Kael and David Thompson. I hope that my prose is exciting and interesting and makes you think a little bit differently about the work. Especially because there’s one Barks comic, “Vacation Time”, which is not written about as much as other ones like “Lost in the Andes” or “The Golden Helmet”.

I’m familiar with the books but not the body of literature surrounding Carl Barks. With “Vacation Time”, are you championing that story in a way it hasn’t been before? Or have other critics praised this . . . [?]

No, not that I’m aware of. And I haven’t read everything, but I have read quite a bit. The old Gladstone comics always had these really great essays in them, and I’ve read Thomas Andrae’s critical book on Carl Barks, but it’s true, I haven’t seen [critical work on “Vacation Time”]. The weird thing about it is, I don’t know if I like “Vacation Time” more because it was the biggest duck discovery of my adulthood? Because I never read that as a kid; I didn’t see that one. All the other stories I talk about were in comics I bought when I was younger. And then, probably in the nineties, I found “Vacation Time”, and thought, “This is amazing.” In May, the next Fantagraphics Donald Duck book [The Pixilated Parrot] will have “Vacation Time”, so it’ll be more available. I’m glad about that, because I talk about this story and worried it would be hard to get a copy of.

A page from "Vacation Time", as reprinted in The Pixilated Parrot.

A page from "Vacation Time", as reprinted in The Pixilated Parrot.

I should mention early that one of your main conceits, the Barks comics as “paper movies,” tripped me up. I found myself wondering if it gave the short shrift to those comics as comics. You mentioned Donald as the matinee idol, but I was hoping you could talk about how that idea developed and the advantages you found in that term.

I can totally see where you’re coming from—am I discounting the comic-ness of it, Barks’ own skills as a comic book artist? And of course Barks uses analogies himself to describe the stories. He’s called them novels. And he talked about them as little plays. For me, “paper movies” was an interesting analogy because probably my favorite time in Hollywood history is the thirties through the early sixties, when you had guys like Jimmy Stewart. They weren’t chameleons, the method actors that you have now, and the Donald Duck character is like that, because there’s no continuity other than, he lives in this one city, he’s got these nephews. And his personality never really changes. He’s always driven to get involved in whatever’s happening at the time. With varying degrees of skill.

Barks’ description of these stories as novels—especially now, with the advent of graphic novels—they don’t read like Maus, but they also don’t read like short stories. They’re digestible in the same way a two-hour movie is digestible.

I’m glad you mentioned Barks’ framing of his stories as stage plays or novels, because you made a decision to put your own frame on the work, but at the same time, you do some biographical criticism of the work. You talk about his financial struggles, his divorces. How did you decide what from Barks’ life or from his stated views was most worth accounting for?

The one I thought was most worth accounting for was definitely his struggles with money. He had a real work ethic. It could have been driven by the fact that, I think at one point, he got eight-hundred dollars for one of his comics, which I think represented three one-hundredths of a dollar per comic sold. Ridiculous, even for the time. And work means a lot to the character of Donald Duck.

An early analysis that I was going to pursue was that Donald really does personify a lot of the things the American middle class were struggling with in the wake of World War II. We’ve got this American dream of having a job, having a house, living a life, and Donald has all these mishaps in going about his daily business. So it’s Carl Barks’ own struggles with work. Listing off Donald Duck’s jobs, they go to ridiculous extremes—he’s a falconer at one point. But then you have Carl Barks’ own list of jobs. It’s crazy too.

Yeah. I was not familiar with the chicken rearing.

And the weird thing is that with Barks being an egg farmer, there’s a ton of stories that include eggs. One I don’t talk about in the book is called “Omelet”, and it involves Donald having a chicken farm that produces this huge sea of eggs that he’s trying to hold up with a wall. For some reason, he has this chicken farm up on a hill, and millions of eggs descend on the town below, and the only way they can clean up is to burn the city, which will cook the eggs so they can haul ’em out and rebuild the town. It’s a really nicely laid-out story.

His working life was most interesting to me; his divorces, less interesting. But if you want to look at the work from a critical feminist perspective, he doesn’t have any strong female characters.

Is it a stretch to call these comics post-Depression literature? When I first came to them, I was struck by how consistent a theme financial insecurity was.

I don’t think it’s a stretch by any means. I don’t mention it, but his family life was not very good. A lot of that was the Great Depression; alcoholism along with that. But once he got on his feet, he wanted to be a cartoonist—that’s what he studied to be—it was the same thing other Americans were going through at the time. You go through the Depression, this constant struggle, and then you have this reaction to that in the fifties, which is, “We’re done with the Depression, but let’s work-work-work, then we’ll buy things.” There’s a lot about Donald wanting wealth, which he rarely attains, though sometimes he does. I really think that drives both Barks and his character.

At one point you include Michael Barrier’s quote that “Barks was a writer first and an artist second, and his drawings have life because they are in the service of characters and ideas.” Now, that quote is baffling to me. What I like about the Barks duck comics is the way they read as a lesson in comics grammar. At the risk of sounding like the hollow formalist again, that marriage of imagination and function in Barks’ compositions is what I really enjoy. I’m not suggesting your book endorses Barrier’s claim. But where do you stand on that quote?

That quote really applies well to some of the comics, and I don’t think it applies quite as well to the other ones. For instance, you’re saying Barks uses his comics grammar to tell an amazing story. “Vacation Time”, I think, personifies that. Whole chunks of that are these drawings that propel you forward. In terms of a script, there’s nothing there. I compare it to Buster Keaton’s work—there’s a cinematic grammar there propelling you through the story, and Keaton used very few title cards to communicate the plot.

On the other hand, you have something like “The Golden Helmet”, which I think is a really well-written story. It asks, how do we give power to people? There are weird intellectual games at work—Donald’s going to take over [the United States], and he needs a lawyer to do this—and that was driven by Barks’ two divorces and his hatred of lawyers. In that case, the art really does support this interesting story. And one of the reasons I picked different stories [for Carl Barks’ Duck] is because they do speak to different strengths.

From "The Golden Helmet"

From "The Golden Helmet"

I assume the community of Carl Barks fans is a relatively gentle one, but have you encountered any criticism so far for your not-entirely enthusiastic discussion of Uncle Scrooge?

No. But I’m certainly waiting for that to come. And expecting it.

That's not to say ... All the Fantagraphics Uncle Scrooge releases, I’m going to buy. I like Barks’ art. I guess I would say, I’d read one Uncle Scrooge story, but then I’d need five Donald Ducks to get it out of my system.

That’s such a live-and-let live response that it sort of defangs my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway. In a lot of the Donald stories, you find Donald brushing off or underestimating his nephews, then coming to see their value. They’ll surprise him. Whereas the Scrooge stories tend to begin with Scrooge at peak miserliness, then he’ll show some humanity. Does the sentiment of one duck’s stories go much deeper than the other’s? The moral takeaways of a Donald story versus a Scrooge story.

This is, of course, my own very biased opinion: yes, I think there’s a much more interesting sentiment in the Donald Duck stories. In part because, even in the ones I picked for the book, there’s different takes. One where Donald’s just greedy; ones where he’s crazy; one where Donald’s a firebug, this lunatic, going around town. And so I feel like when Barks takes a new subject, he goes really into it with Donald Duck. And with Uncle Scrooge, it kind of always feels the same to me. The pursuit of money. Even the way that Barks draws everything, it gets to be a bit much—the dollar signs everywhere. It doesn’t feel like he challenges himself as much. “I need to humanize him, Scrooge has got to learn something.” It always feels like a pulled punch.

Sometimes there’s a slapstick ending. There’s one where Scrooge is fighting with this maharaja to see who’s wealthier, and they’re building giant gold statues of themselves reaching higher than skyscrapers. Scrooge ends up winning, and at the end, the maharaja is broke inside a barrel, but Scrooge has learned some little lesson . . . They just leave me feeling cold. The one Uncle Scrooge story I talk about [in Carl Barks’ Duck], they really go into this thing about greed, and it’s horrific in a way. And that’s what I like—I don’t need these stories with pablum endings.

What’s your impression of how Barks identified with Scrooge versus Donald? Is there something aspirational about Scrooge, or is it more that Scrooge’s hyperbolic wealth gives Barks license to tell whatever story he wants to tell?

I certainly think that Barks wished he could be wealthy. Obviously no one could be as wealthy as Uncle Scrooge. And Barks goes to ridiculous extremes—in one of the comics, Scrooge tries to buy a new business, and it turns out he owns everything in town. But with the Donald Duck ones, I feel like I’m looking at this guy’s personal statement. These are his struggles. Barks has mentioned that Donald’s unlucky—and I kind of counter that—but I think that’s how Barks saw himself. And he was unlucky. One wife attacked him a couple times with a knife. He wasn’t paid well by Disney.

I don’t know that Scrooge is aspirational. I partially think that Barks’ quest to find something popular is what drove him to continue those stories. This is my theory.

You note at one point that there’s perhaps only one mention of the word love in the Barks duck books, and there are no well-developed female characters either. As a critic, did you find yourself having to compartmentalize that failing? Or do you think that Barks’ ambivalence about women is something that permeates these stories?

I think each person will come to that differently. Maybe men will notice it less than women. Hopefully not. Part of the reason I can compartmentalize it a little bit is that there’s a certain nostalgia driving me through these stories. I’m amazed at the art; I think it’s really wonderful. If I hadn’t grown up with them, I may not have gotten into them as an adult. It’s hard to do that with the treatment of women and with race.

But I have to notice these things. And anytime Daisy Duck shows up, she’s such a poorly developed character. There are no good female characters [in the Barks duck stories]. There are very few women in them, and when they are in them, they’re never well portrayed.

I have trouble knowing how to read stuff like this, except reading it at some remove. You don’t want to condescend to a work just because you happen to have been born decades after, but to ignore it is not the right response either.

To me, the lack of female characters is less important in [a globetrotting comic such as] “Lost in the Andes” than in his domestic comedies, such as they are. There should be women in those more than there are. All these stories that take place in Duckburg, that involve jobs, involve schools, whatever—there’s hardly any women in them. And when they are in them, they’re stuffy battleships or they’re people like Daisy Duck.

Right. Although “Lost in the Andes” is a strange case in some respects. Less with gender than with race. The Peruvians in that story are so far removed from any recognizable culture that Barks almost sidesteps the usual issues of representation. . . . You’re familiar with “Volcano Valley”? It’s the story that has a very crassly depicted Latino person. For me, it’s not night and day, the difference between those works, but—

It’s interesting, because visually, there’s a modicum of respect for [native peoples]. Like in “Land of the Totem Poles,” Barks went to some extreme to detail the indigenous cultures from the Pacific Northwest. There’s this really nice panoramic drawing of a village, which is very accurate. But then, in the next scene, there are the typical idiotic depictions of Indians you’d find in a movie. It’s a bizarre paradox.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but he doesn’t identify those native peoples by one particular real name?

No.

It’s a weird line between respect and the visual cherry-picking of stuff that’s fun to look at.

Right. I think it’s the disrespect of ignorance. It’s not that he hated American Indians. I think his craft drove him to want to draw that village accurately, but he lived in this probably pretty white small town in rural southern California, so I think he said, “Oh, Indians are like how they are in the movies.”

He always talked about using National Geographic to find images for his comics . . . which is great, but if you don’t pair those images with any real character or personality, it creates a really weird disconnect for the modern reader. You say, “Look at this! This is cool!” and then by the next scene, you’re like, “. . . Oh. Holy crap.”

From "Lost in the Andes"

From "Lost in the Andes"

Let’s talk about that modern reader. Young cartoonists have never seemed to feel more comfortable dismissing a towering figure like Robert Crumb because of the racism and misogyny in his works. So, acknowledging that your book is not exclusively the product of nostalgia but nostalgia is one of the impulses there—these are stories that meant a lot to you personally—what do you see as Barks’ relationship with posterity? His role in the canon as time passes? . . . The association with Disney is another complicating factor. 

It’s a very complicating factor. I’m not actually aware of the anti-Robert Crumb movement, but it’s intriguing to see that lens as applied to Barks. Because in “The Magic Hourglass”, the Middle Eastern characters in a comic like that, they have no personality. They don’t have names. So I don’t entirely know. I think the Fantagraphics collections are going to help. They’re kind of like the Criterion Collection—a place in the canon, at least for the short term.

Certainly I think his art could be really influential. It’s just beautiful storytelling. But it’s hard for me to predict. I’d like to think that the comics are going to stick around, that they’re the type of things kids would love . . . but frankly, on the other hand, if I were a parent, and we’re getting toward an era where—I hope—we respect other races, we respect other sexes to the same degree that we respect white men, it would be nice if there were other stories for kids. When they have those other stories that tell them everyone matters, are [the Barks stories] so universal that readers can get past all the crap? Is this the type of thing little girls would like? If I had a daughter, I can imagine saying, “These are so great,” and then while reading it to her, “Crud. There’s not a single girl in this thing.” It’s very difficult for me to imagine the future and know where Carl Barks is going to be in it.

I feel more confident that the Disney crap that’s pumped out will remain more popular. Disney is this fairly Borg-like machine that tries to adapt and does a decent job at sucking people in no matter what’s going on in the culture. I don’t think that corporation has much interest in promoting Carl Barks. I think they’re fine with it, because one thing I’ll give the Disney corporation is they do tend to keep whatever archives they have in good shape, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to see these books all over Disney World.

Hergé’s an interesting point of reference for Barks. Who knows if Barks had ever seen Hergé’s work, but they’re contemporaries of sorts. Their work has a lot of the same things to recommend it and a lot of the same things that make it hard to swallow. Will Eisner too—especially as a fellow American, a working-class person. There’s some deeply unfortunate stuff in the Spirit comics—

That is an amazingly diplomatic way of putting it.

Yeah. But Eisner also did some very personal work—like Barks—under serious constraints. Once a reader has checked out the Carl Barks catalog, are there contemporaneous artists—and we can use “contemporaneous” loosely—you can recommend to someone who’s interested?

In Carl Barks? Maybe also the Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse comics, because one of the things I really like about Carl Barks’ Donald Duck is the adventuresome-ness of some of the stories. Those would be good. They’re also very exciting.

But actually, The Spirit is a great parallel—there’s some amazing storytelling in there. The way Eisner composes each panel, it looks like the greatest noir you’ve ever seen . . . as I drag that one into a comparison with movies as well. And, you know, again, we have these amazing stories that have these bizarre racial and sexual elements to them. One of the things I chafe at is, I don’t think it’s wise to entirely dismiss the past for its racism and its sexism, to pretend that these things should be thrown away just because there’s Ebony White—who’s just one of the worst characters ever in the Spirit comics, like a minority character in the Carl Barks comics—because I think that exists in a large degree nowadays, in a more subtle and insidious way. You see that especially in the way we treat African-Americans here in the north. That’s the need for #BlackLivesMatter.

To bring this back to the original question, I just started reading [Hugo Pratt’s] Corto Maltese, which are fun adventures, but I don’t know if there’s a lot to compare. Tintin—that’s one of those comics that, like these, balances between something for adults and something for children, which is fascinating to me.

Let’s end on this then, in the spirit of that. No pun intended. Ugh. I feel like Don Rosa is the small elephant in the room, but still something of an elephant in the room, because he’s the other name Donald Duck artist. What’s your take on Rosa relative to Barks?

You know, that’s something someone who loves Don Rosa would have to answer. Because I tried reading him, and there’s something about the stories I don’t like and something about his art I don’t like. I know he’s trying to connect to the end of the Barks stories—he looks closest to Barks at the end of his career, when Barks looked like he was kind of rushing things along. Rosa’s stuff, I am just not a big fan of. He’s the elephant in the room, but I choose not to acknowledge the elephant. I can smell it but I’m not going to look at it.

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11 Responses to Leading Duck: An Interview with Peter Schilling about Carl Barks

  1. Matthias Wivel says:

    Thanks for a great interview! I can’t wait to read the book. A few points:

    – Donald Ault has written with insight about “Vacation Time”.

    – The story about Scrooge and the Maharajah of Howduyustan and the Cornelius Coot statues is from the “Donald Duck” period and the author seems to misremember it. There is no pat morale at the end — Scrooge has learned nothing. After having spent untold millions on statues to outspend the Maharajah, he chases Donald away for suggesting he buy his erstwhile, now broke rival a cup of coffee. It’s a delightfully absurd and rather mordant critique of macho capitalism, fantastically visualized.

    – Female characters. I wouldn’t go as far as to say she’s a really multi-faceted character, but Magica de Spell is a much more interesting and ambiguous female character than Daisy.

    – Liberal hand-wringing. I kid, but at the same time I find the current reluctance to accept art that doesn’t tick all the PC boxes somewhat tiresome. Critiquing comics for their historical use of racial and gender stereotypes is valuable, necessary and all that, but the proliferating notion that truly great art cannot have any “problematic” content, is suffocatingly ideological, very comme il faut at the moment, and leaves us with very little to appreciate, in or out of the canon.

  2. Greg Hunter says:

    Thanks, Matthias–though I think “suffocating” is a slightly melodramatic. Anything that qualifies as truly great art should be able to withstand a little liberal hand-writing.

  3. Peter Schilling says:

    Thanks, Matthias for the comments.

    First, Donald Ault has written a great essay about the bending panels in “Vacation Time”, an essay that is all but impossible to find unless you buy the Gladstone Carl Barks Library of Donald Duck Adventures in Color (#18, $18 on eBay). In that piece, there is very little discussion about plot, and no discussion about “Vacation Time’s” place in the larger Barks canon (Andrae doesn’t even mention it). I stand by my comment that it has been ignored for the most part, with virtually no one praising it. Because they simply haven’t (in fact, Ault’s essay–which is great–puts this story in a larger context of how great Barks was, not how great this particular story is).

    Second, you’re right that the comic with Scrooge building statue after statue in an attempt to beat the Maharajah of Howduyustan is in fact in a “Donald Duck” comic. However, it is so focused on Scrooge that it was later reprinted in Scrooge comics. You’re right, there’s not any fable at the end, just slapstick (Scrooge chasing Donald and a fairly lame joke). Being early Barks, it’s better than most Scrooge comics, in that it is also mercifully short. Again, Donald and the nephews are reduced to mere sycophants, the adventure, such as it is, is money. You may find the stories about Scrooge fascinating; I don’t.

    Third, yes, Magica is more complex than Daisy. Daisy is one of the worst imagined characters in any great comic book series, so that’s like saying Will Ferrell movies are masterpieces compared to Adam Sandler flicks. Magica is one-dimensional and dreadfully dull after one story, where her pursuit of Scrooge’s lucky dime becomes fairly rote.

    Finally, “[T[he proliferating notion that truly great art cannot have any ‘problematic’ content, is suffocatingly ideological, very comme il faut at the moment, and leaves us with very little to appreciate, in or out of the canon.” Considering I mention at length that Barks belongs in the canon, I’m not sure I get your point. What I think is happening is that my critique of Barks’ racial stereotyping and his shallow female characters is troubling you, because I’m not saying ‘truly great art cannot have any ‘problematic’ content’–at no point in the interview do I say this. This book of mine, this interview, are all about the great art of Carl Barks, and I choose to address the problems I find in his pages. Ultimately, the canon must be read. It shall be read by women, and people of color, since they exist as readers, right? Ignoring these issues strikes me as absurd. Plus, there’s a very real question of would you let your children, especially if they’re girls, read these books? I would… but I bet they’d find them boring, because every child appreciates seeing people like them in the art they enjoy.

  4. Matthias Wivel says:

    Peter, Greg, thanks for listening.

    I agree that great art can and will withstand whatever ideological fad reigns at any given moment, I just find it tiresome how almost every informed discussion about comics these days end up circling around ideological issues. There’s a boring inevitability about it — as you say, Peter, your book isn’t really about that (if I understand correctly), but a third or so this interview predictably ends up talking about these issues. All fine, I get your point and don’t disagree, I just don’t find it all that informative after a while. I’d rather hear more of your thoughts about why Barks’ is good, not another exorcism of his problematic ideology.* You seem more convinced of his qualities in your comment above than in how you come across in the interview where, in addition to discussing his problematic stereotypes, you chalk up a large part of your enthusiasm to nostalgia. It just seemed to me unnecessarily apologetic.

    Oh, and while I take your point that people like to read about characters that reflect themselves, I don’t think Barks is too bad an offender here. In Denmark, where I’m from, he has many female readers, for example. And fortunately, there are other great classic kids’ comics, such as those of John Stanley or Tove Jansson, that have more engaging female characters. But yes, indeed, there’s still a dearth of real diversity in comics.

    I disagree that Magica is as one-dimensional as you say. There’s something fascinating about her obsession with Scrooge’s totem, his first dime, almost psycho-sexual if you’re willing to go down that route, and she brings out bizarre behavior in her opponent as well. I’m not saying she’s near to being the greatest female character in comics or anything like that, but your rather curt dismissal does not do the stories justice as I’ve read them.

    That goes triple for the Cornelius Coot story. It is not about making money, or about money being a great thing, and it is far from merely slapstick. Plus, Donald and the kids are not sycophants, they’re observers of an absurd theatre. But that’s just my opinion, of course.

    Regarding Ault on “Vacation Time”, he also discusses it, and particularly its splash page, in his contribution to this anthology: http://www.mtp.hum.ku.dk/details.asp?eln=200183

    As I said, I appreciated the interview and the excerpt published here the other day, and I agree that “Vacation Time” is a masterpiece (I’ve actually written about it, for what it’s worth, but not in English). As I said, I can’t wait to read the book.

    * I’m not trying to exculpate myself here — I also discussed these issues in my review of the Fanta “Lost in the Andes” volume on this site: http://www.tcj.com/reviews/donald-duck-lost-in-the-andes-2/ As I said, it’s very of the moment in comics criticism.

  5. Peter Schilling says:

    Matthias,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response and for reading the interview. Oh, how I wish your essay were in English!

  6. Hy Resolution says:

    No discussion of money paid in the 1950s can be taken seriously unless the amounts are inflation-adjusted.
    In the early to mid 1950s Barks might well have been paid $800 for a 28-page story, which took him about a month to draw. But $800 in 1952 corresponds to $7000 in 2015.

    If Barks had “struggles with money”, a lack of income wasn’t the cause. He was among the top 5% wage earners in California, as shown in a recent interesting discussion on Michael Barrier’s site.

  7. Peter Schilling says:

    Barks began making a steady income from the Disney comics in 1943, when he was 42. Yes, I am aware that he didn’t make $800 in today’s money–using your numbers, that means he made roughly $85,000 per year, and I don’t know if he had to pay any alimony, though I’m certain he also had his children to support. He retired in ’66, giving him roughly two and a half decades of good income. Not to mention, this income was not consistent. In 1949, the year of “Lost in the Andes”, he was paid $6,145 (or roughly $54,000 using your inflation standard), and was paid more as the years went by, but only for those two decades, and not the kind of money that puts you in silk for the rest of your life. I could not find that discussion on Barrier’s site. There’s this one, http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Feedback/feedback_funnybooks.html, but if you could link to the one you reference, that would be great. However, even if you are correct, he was not in the top 5% the whole of the roughly 25 years he was with Western.

    I find it baffling that you can look at these numbers and not think that Barks didn’t deserve more–$7,000 for a comic that sold 3 million copies is chicken feed, and that’s my point precisely. Barks’ wasn’t poor, and I don’t say that he was, but a person making good money for only half their adult professional life can be considered someone who “struggled with money”, especially considering that he continued to have money making schemes while with Disney, and continued to sell stuff in his retirement.

  8. R. Fiore says:

    In Funnybooks Michael Barrier makes the interesting observation that a panel in a comic strip is not the equivalent of a shot from a movie so much as a scene from a movie, and must depict a sequence of events in time. The splash page that illustrates this article, and the several other illustrations, are perfect examples of this principle.

    Gardening for food became a commonplace pastime during World War II. The blog Filboid Studge () reprinted a cartoon diary kept by MGM animator Irv Spence during the year 1944 in which Victory Gardening plays a recurring part.

    From the evidence provided by Funnybooks Western Publishing was by comics industry standards an relatively enlightened employer. Creators received bonuses based on circulation which augmented their income considerably. In recognition of the volume of work Barks was producing they put him on the payroll instead of being a mere freelancer. This meant he received employee benefits, and in recognition of his long service they gave him a pension. It’s true that according to general industry practice he surrendered ownership of characters he created in return for a job, but as a licensed property Disney brought an extraordinary amount to the table in terms of pre-sold properties and strong character designs. It’s not like Marvel, where Kirby invented most of the shebang in return for his page rate.

    There is an undeniable element of orientalism in Barks’ portrayal of the world. This is a natural byproduct of having so much of the world depicted by someone who was aside from his talent an ordinary guy. Whole books have been written about Barks comics as a guidebook to American imperialism, but I think a better word might be hegemonism. America didn’t seek to turn every country into a state of the union, but there was an assumption that the American way was the best way for everyone and it was doing the undeveloped world a favor to lead them in that direction. By assumption I mean assumed in the same was as one assumes it’s good to get in out of the rain. Even so, you find in Barks’ work more than usual qualms about consumerism and the dilution of other cultures by outside influences.

    You don’t need to excuse or ignore racial humor in comics but I think you have to accept it as a condition of reading comics of this vintage. It becomes all the more inescapable the farther you descend into the lowbrow. There’s a quite valid argument for seeking an inner life entirely free from racism, but the means for this has a name and that name is censorship.

  9. Dave says:

    I don’t think it’s ideological to draw attention by Barks’ failure to portray particular kinds of characters in a “human” way, especially when arguably his greatest skill is the humanism and humanity in his storytelling. I think that incongruence, that striking inconsistency, is why this issue keeps coming up in relation to his work.

  10. Hy Resolution says:

    Where did I say that I thought Barks didn’t deserve better pay? Nowhere.

    The inflation adjustment isn’t “mine”, but the U.S. government’s – see here.
    $6,145 in 1949 is not $54,000 in 2015, but > $60,000.
    By way of comparison, 82% of individuals in the U.S. aged 15+ had an annual income < $60,000 in 2010 (source).

    Yes, Barks’s income varied considerably through the years, as clearly demonstrated by Kim Weston in the Barrier discussion.
    There was also a $250 per month alimony for many years – a substantial hit.

    Still, looking at the earnings side, it would appear that by and large Barks lived in financial comfort and security after about 1938 or so, up to his retirement (when there may have been lean years until the paintings took off). Certainly he was much better paid than the median wage-earner of his time.

    Given the many sweeping statements of low pay by Western from “Barks scholars” through the years (invariably citing page rates in 1940s-1960s dollars), the median wage comparison and inflation-adjusted earnings come as quite a surprise, at least to me. The Barrier thread is the first serious payment discussion I’ve seen.

    Relative income is one thing, but was Carl worth more? Was he underpaid? Hell yes, absolutely – we can agree on that.

  11. J.D. says:

    This is a great interview, and I’m looking forward to reading the book. I agree with Peter that “The Golden Helmet” is Barks’s masterpiece, and that Barks at his best is a very good, complex artist in a way that most people — blinded by the Disney association — might not be able to see right away.

    I think Peter short-sells the complexity of the early Scrooge stories (though he might not in his book): “Only a Poor Old Man” explicitly says that Scrooge has given up something precious and irretrievable in life (specifically, the freedom Donald enjoys without even thinking about it) in order to become the person he is. The romance in “Back to the Klondike” is a fairly dark one, with some creepy implications; whatever Scrooge’s month with Glittering Goldie was like, we can be pretty sure that it wasn’t suitable for print in a Dell comic. (Don Rosa’s more sentimental take on the Goldie-Scrooge relationship never rang true to me.) “Tralla La” shows Scrooge’s fortune as a destructive force, bringing ruin to an idyllic society. I suppose you can interpret the endings as pulled punches, but they don’t feel like that for me.

    The almost total absence of real female characters from the Barks stories is something that would bother me in almost any other fictional universe. Somehow, it doesn’t. It’s one of the many mysteries of Barks: How, for example, does he make the three nephews such wonderful characters without bothering to give them any characteristics that distinguish them from one another? Huey, Dewey, and Louie are all basically the same character, and yet somehow I don’t remember ever being bothered by that. Same with the Beagle Boys. Somehow, Barks created a world that was so vivid and real that he made the unconvincing convincing.

    If you look at the characters Barks invented, the ones who really fired his imagination and inspired his best work, they tend to be strange, obsessive loners with a single defining quirk: obsession with money, inexplicable good luck, the weird inventor. (Donald himself is something like this, except that his quirks change from story to story.) I think Barks just never stumbled across an idea for a female character who really engaged him the way that Scrooge or Gladstone did. Saying that girls wouldn’t be able to identify with Barks’s male characters (not true, in my experience; most of the Barks fans I’ve met have been female) strikes me as being a little like saying that humans wouldn’t be able to identify with talking ducks.

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