In 1948, Carl Barks’s domestic life was a mess. His second wife Clara was drinking hard, coming apart at the seams. By his account, she was increasingly violent, tearing up his comics and throwing his original artwork out the window, threatening to rip it up. In 1950 she developed cancer and surgery left her leg amputated at the knee. Barks built her a prosthesis. Having no insurance, he paid the medical bills out of the page rate he was receiving from Western Publishing for his duck comics. The alimony he would pay to her for thirteen years after their divorce the following year too.
These comics were the best of his career. Work was an escape for him: “When the dishes would stop flying, the bottles breaking, why, I could sit down and the ideas would just flow in on me,” he recalled in 1973. And indeed, his work of c. 1948–54 ranks amongst the most consistently inspired, inventive, touching, and plain fun in the history of comics.
Fantagraphics’ inaugural volume in their complete edition of Barks’s Disney comics drops the reader in right at the onset of this creative surge, covering the years 1948–49. In addition to containing the standout story, “Lost in the Andes”, after which it is named, the book contains several of Barks’s long- and short-form masterpieces, in the latter category including such career highlights as the acerbic and wickedly funny media satire, “The Crazy Quiz Show” (1948), and the loopy psychosexual comedy “Donald’s Worst Nightmare” (1949).
“Lost in the Andes” (1949), which Barks often singled out amongst his favorites, is justly one of the most famous of his oeuvre. The author, who only left North America once (and late) in his life, was a real armchair Marco Polo; his long-form stories more often than not involved globetrotting adventures. He would invariably ground these stories in realism, drawing upon his collection of National Geographic magazines and other sources in rendering a particular locale convincingly, which accounts for a lot of their allure.
Occasionally, however, he would tweak these scenarios into the surreal, and nowhere did he do this as memorably as in “Lost in the Andes”. The premise is delightfully ludicrous: third assistant museum janitor Donald accidentally discovers that what was thought to be a pile of cubic rocks from the Andes is, in reality, eggs. Barks extrapolates wildly but eloquently from this: scientific and especially commercial interest in Donald’s find results in an expedition to the Andes in search of its source. Ever the subject of hierarchic fiat, Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie end up heading into the mountains alone, after everyone else has lost interest after having eaten an omelet made by the kids from square eggs decades past their sell-by date.
In a forgotten valley—Plain Awful—the ducks discover a square city inhabited by square people, who speak in a Dixie drawl (adopted from an earlier visitor from "Bummin’ham, Alabama") and subsist entirely on square eggs that grow from square rocks. The ducks discover the secret of these “rocks” and return triumphantly to civilization, but because of a crucial mistake the mission nevertheless—and naturally—ends up a big fiasco.
The manner in which Barks integrates the square society into a naturalistic mountain environment makes its absurdity especially delightful. The ‘lost civilization’ trope is unmoored from both its colonialist and romantic foundations to function on a more symbolic level. It becomes a reflection of colonialist desire, organized according to an eminently exploitable, constructive logic, populated by hicks (who have discarded their own language in favor of a homey American dialect) and promising an endless supply of eggs that are "easily stored" and "stackable like bricks." The Lost Horizon of capitalist desire, it turns out, is not only grotesque, it is Plain Awful.
This all comes alive through Barks’ eloquent cartooning. The gum bubbles incessantly blown by Huey, Dewey, and Louie not only afford him a hilarious running gag—as a visual comedian in comics, Barks is rivaled perhaps only by E. C. Segar and André Franquin—but also a potent metaphor for the ideological foundation of the ducks’ endeavor: sweet, sticky, calorically empty, volatile and precariously inflated (Donald repeatedly threatens to "start a war" if things do not go his way, and in classic comic book-ending style ends up blowing his top quite locally).
The round, expansive nature of the bubbles however simultaneously points to the initiative and resourcefulness of the ducks, leading to their discovery of where the square eggs come from. Unsurprisingly—and in a stroke of Barksian genius—anything round turns out to be anathema to the Plain Awfultonians, forcing the kids to negotiate a delightful paradox to save the day, a paradox that one senses reflects the culture that made them.
The book simultaneously contains two other, somewhat more naturalistically founded colonialist adventures, which deepens the insight it offers of Barks as a cartoonist who eludes ideological pigeonholing. Socially conservative and clearly informed by the cultural prejudices of his time, he was at the same time blessed with a healthy skepticism and an equal-opportunity sense of the absurd.
The beautifully rendered “Race to the South Seas” (1949), for example, is a slapstick replay of Heart of Darkness, in which Donald and his nephews compete with their insufferably lucky cousin Gladstone Gander to find and save their outlandishly rich Uncle Scrooge, thought lost in the wild, only to realize that he prefers living out his colonialist fantasy to himself, cannibals worshiping his spats.Though portrayed with more than a hint of pride, the natives here are largely of loinclothed Hollywood stock. Interestingly, however—and in contrast to the broad blackface of the following longplayer, “Voodoo Hoodoo” (1949)—their bodies and faces are rendered with surprising naturalism. One suspects that the main reason for this drastic shift in approach to the depiction of natives between two stories published the same year is the reference material employed, but it nevertheless adds nuance to the story and creates an interesting frisson at its center. “Voodoo Hoodoo” is a darker piece, telling the story of Bombie the Zombie, who is sent to inflict a curse upon Scrooge for once having stolen the land of his African tribe in order to build a rubber plantation: “They wouldn’t sell, so I hired a mob of thugs and chased the tribe into the jungle,” Scrooge explains smugly (remember, this is still the early, mean Scrooge; Barks would eventually make a whole man of him). In other words, and despite the fact that they play the part of villains (with pointy teeth and bones in their noses), the natives are given a perfectly sound rationale for their actions.
The story is essentially about power: Donald travels to Africa to cure himself of the curse that was meant for his unsympathetic uncle. There he meets the voodoo priest, who in spite of this mixup decides to take out his anger on Donald, because he is powerless to avenge himself on the real culprit. And in the middle we find Bombie, the powerless dupe who ends up exploited by every other character in the story, including Donald and the kids, who end up walking away uncaringly, having gained no particular insight. Although a highly moral artist, the Barks’ world is more complicated than whatever principles he sets up to guide his imperfect characters; its absurdity is writ in humor.
These two stories exemplify the meticulous approach taken to the material in this series. For the first time since its original printing, “South Seas” is here published in a version derived from the recently discovered, original artwork, whereas all previous reprints were based on a reconstruction with Dutch master chameleon Daan Jippes cleaning up the inferior printed material available. While comparison cannot but heighten one’s estimation for Jippes’s work, Barks's original line is just that much more nimble and clear. Beautiful. (Let's hope a solution is also found for the stories "Santa's Stormy Visit" (1946), "Darkest Africa" (1948) and "Donald Duck Tells About Kites" (1954), which have so far only been reprinted in feebly restored Dutch versions).
As for “Voodoo”, it is here published uncensored. To my knowledge, all other reprints, except the recent Barks collection published by Egmont in Northern Europe (2005–2008), featured a doctored version in which the racial caricatures of the African natives were toned down somewhat. Here this partial whitewashing is dispensed with, leaving us with a more historically truthful product.
Easily the most controversial issue raised by this book, however, is the new coloring of the comics, executed by Rich Tommaso. Editor Gary Groth has stated that the principle is to reproduce as closely as possible the coloring of the original comic books with changes made to the work only in case of obvious errors, as well as “when we thought we could improve it (or for the sake of consistency) and when we know Barks disliked the coloring.”
This is clearly what was done: comparison reveals that Tommaso has stuck closely to the original coloring, making only the occasional, generally minimal correction. Besides fixing the ubiquitously skewed register of the originals, the main difference is that the colors here, although just as saturated (the 100% yellows are particularly glaring), tend to be slightly lighter and more muted. A somewhat strange concession, it would seem, to contemporary fan sensibilities that wince at the bright and garish. But it is by no means a calamity.
Aficionados will question the choice to color the strips at all, rather than leaving them as Barks drew them, in black and white—as was done beautifully in the first comprehensive archival edition, Another Rainbow’s Carl Barks Library (1983–90)—while purists will question the choice to recolor instead of restoring the original printed colors—as achieved so successfully in other archival projects such as Fantagraphics’ own Krazy Kat, Popeye, and Prince Valiant series. A third objection is that the original colors were not good enough and should be jettisoned in favor of entirely new coloring.
Regarding the first reservation, it is important to keep in mind that the strips were drawn with colors in mind—colors were part of the finished work, and to eliminate them is to change the work into something else, an object of study rather than living history. Similarly, the second position favors archival authenticity over the crisper, more current quality achieved by recoloring. Such an approach, however, would risk lessening the appeal to a large part of the intended, youthful readership of these comics, and would arguably deny them a different kind of authenticity, namely the crackling visual experience that the original readership must have experienced when holding a freshly minted duck comic.
The third objection, while fair to an extent—those comics were not always equally well colored—is ultimately less helpful, in that it presupposes a new, better coloring without needing to define it. Earlier attempts at recoloring have been uniformly terrible, and while one could easily imagine them being improved upon (the bar is depressingly low), it is hard to imagine a new color job that would not be controversial. The fundamentalist choice adopted here at least has the virtue of staying true to the original comics as they were read and appreciated by hundreds of thousands of readers.
Besides, the original coloring is generally quite good, striking a fine balance between naturalism and graphic effect and pretty consistently enabling the storytelling. The coral atolls of “South Sea” come to life through a simple combination of blue, yellow, and green, evocatively distilled from nature, but if an image pops better with a pink brick wall, then the brick wall is pink. And in defiance of naturalism, backgrounds often change color between panels enlivening the storytelling in a way uniformly colored neutrality would not. Of course one need look no further than to two of Barks’s sources of inspiration, Prince Valiant and the Terry and the Pirates Sunday pages, to acknowledge that things could have been better, but taking into consideration that this coloring originated with underpaid coolies in the Western sweatshop, it is a remarkably good job.The comics are printed on fairly light uncoated stock, recalling the tactile quality of the original comics and allowing the colors to breathe. Furthermore, they are reproduced close to the original comic book size, which would seem a no-brainer but was not done in any of the earlier complete editions, all of which were oversize. Jacob Covey’s cover design, if a little busy and in places somewhat indelicately arranged, is attractively retro and does its job well. The main problem with it, and indeed the layout of the book as a whole, is no volume number is offered anywhere, while the original publication dates of the comics is only divulged in small print on the very last page. As mentioned, this first volume covers the years 1948–49, which will actually make it the seventh or eighth once the series is complete (Barks started his Disney comics career in 1942). Why this is not considered in the design is bizarre.
Worse, however, is the decision not to present the stories in chronological order, but rather to mix them up according to no immediately discernible logic beyond the evident wish to lead with the title story. There is some sense in separating out the longform adventures from the ten-pagers and one-pagers as is done here, but why not at least arrange each section according to original publication date? That the editors prefer this nebulous concoction when they have otherwise decided to package the individual volumes chronologically is strangely inconsistent. It leaves the reader with an unnecessary jumble where chronological insight into Barks development month for month would have been easily achievable—as indeed it was more or less in all earlier complete editions, and is in Fantagraphics’ own concurrent series compiling the Mickey Mouse comics of Barks’s contemporary Floyd Gottfredson. Here’s hoping the editors will reconsider this choice for the rest of the series.
The comics are bookended by various editorial material, ably helmed by distinguished Barks/Blake scholar Donald Ault, a leading authority and the most insightful analyst of the Duck Man’s life and work for more than four decades. He opens the present volume with an informative introduction to Barks that negotiates admirably the balance between facts and their interpretation (even if it takes for granted perhaps a little too readily the factuality of Barks’ own, retrospective accounts of his life), and additionally contributes a couple of brilliant short analyses of individual stories in the closing “story notes” section.
A number of other comics critics and scholars also contribute short essays to this section of varying, but generally good and sometimes excellent quality. It would be great if some of these writers were given the opportunity to write more substantial essays for future volumes. When compared to the Mickey Mouse series' near-excess, the extra material is generally rather light here. While I would not propose going all-out museum as is done in those books, it would serve this series well if a wider range of supplements, including sketches, interviews and the like, were considered.
These criticisms notwithstanding, this is a series that finally promises Barks done right, promising a major revival of one of our greatest cartoonists.