REVIEWS

Donald Duck “Lost in the Andes”

What George Herriman is to the American comic strip, Carl Barks is to the American comic book: an amiable and modest creative genius who–as Donald Ault writes in his introduction to Lost in the Andes, Fantagraphics’ inaugural volume of Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories in color–“recognized the power of his talent and the gift life had given him in the opportunity to use this talent to its fullest.” Despite an abundance of crises in their personal lives, both of these men, Herriman and Barks, found ways to practice intensely focused, unusually secure careers that seldom forced them to generate commercial work not agreeable with their personalities and compatible with their fertile imaginations. And their work, miraculously, never seems, never is, dated.

Beginning in late 1942 and continuing until his retirement in June of 1966, Barks produced, anonymously, over 500 comic book stories, roughly 6,000 pages, that he wrote, lettered, penciled and inked with “virtually no editorial supervision” by the notoriously brand-conscious Walt Disney organization. It’s amazing, as is Ault’s (and many others’) assertion that at one time Carl Barks was “the most widely read but least known author in the world.” That choice of noun–“author”–is dead accurate. Bark was a technically great cartoonist–his draughtsmanship was keen, lively and organized, the flow from panel to panel as liquid, as surprising, and yet as inevitable as a melody–but he was, above all else, a fabulous storyteller. The art of narrative was encoded in the man’s genes.

Whether the project was a one-page gag sequence set in a department store, a 10-page short story set in a TV studio or a 30-page adventure set in Africa or a South Seas archipelago, Barks introduced, with economy and clarity, the premise, the stakes, the characters, the incitement and the potential for antagonism; then once everything essential was in play, he crafted scenes and episodes, each one escalating from the one before, that pulsed with visual and verbal comic energy, illuminating personalities (usually personality flaws)  and abetting a coherent plot that hurtled toward an unforeseen climax and then to a perfect resolution of the story and its theme. Theme, not message.

For all my admiration of Barks’ work, I have an embarrassingly poor collection of it. I was pretty broke when Another Rainbow produced its comprehensive but pricey black-and-white Carl Barks Library, and I bought only a smattering of the reprint comics Gladstone published in the 1990s; what I do own and have read and reread over the years is the justly maligned (reconfigured pages, dropped panels, poor coloring) oversized hardcovers published by Abbeville Press in the 1970s. Okay for a Barks fix whenever the cravings came on, but certainly not ideal–so I’d been looking forward to the Fantagraphics series, and I’m happy to say it’s being done right. For one thing, this first installment doesn’t start at the very beginning of Barks’ comic book career (not, in other words, with 1942’s Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold); instead, and smartly, it collects work–4 long adventures, 9 short stories and 7 1-page gags–from 1948 and 1949, a period when Barks was in full control of his gifts. (Appropriately, the title story–the famous “square eggs” story–was Carl Barks’ personal favorite.)

Donald Ault’s introduction is impeccably done, presenting a succinct but nuanced biography of Barks as well as a fluid survey of his comic-book career, his work methods, and his impact not only on the art of cartooning but on twentieth-century popular culture. It delivers readers to the actual stories with just the right measure of contextualizing (and might, I hope, deliver some of those readers who want to know more to Carl Barks Conversations, edited by Ault, and Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book by Thomas Andrae, both published by the University Press of Mississippi). An appendix includes selected comic-book covers as well as cogent “story notes” on each of the stories and short gags contributed, with scarcely a trace of professorial reaching, by a number of Barks scholars.

Finally, what I appreciate most about the book–and here’s to you, Gary Groth, editor, and designers Jacob Covey and Tony Ong–is that, while it will fit very nicely on a shelf with other handsomely produced hardbound collections of classic comics, it also has the durable (but shiny!) look and feel of something made and meant for children. You can read the stories and the editorial matter; kids can read the stories. (Or just look at them.) I like to think that Carl Barks, an unpretentious storyteller who created for an audience of children whose intelligence, ingenuity and decency he never doubted, would approve and be gladdened by how his work, this time around, is being put back out into the world.

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40 Responses to Donald Duck “Lost in the Andes”

  1. DerikB says:

    It would have been great if this review did a little more explain why Barks work is so wonderful, rather than focusing on the history and packaging.

  2. James says:

    I’m unsure if you meant to imply that being an artist, or cartoonist, precludes authorship. In comics both art and text intact to express the narrative, and so both writer and artist are authors. If the comic is done by one person we have a single author, if it is done by a writer and an artist we have co-authors.

  3. johann tor says:

    Yes – but something about the colouring would be nice as well

  4. Anthony Thorne says:

    Not a bad review although I also would have enjoyed more details about the colouring. On the subject of Fanta and Disney I’d be curious to know what the issue is with Amazon’s stocking of the recent 2-book Mickey Mouse Gottfredson collection, where Amazon has removed the item for sale due to customers telling them there was something ‘wrong’ with the product. Maybe it’s just an Amazon inventory fuck-up or something. (I’m aware that I could obviously order this straight from Fanta but as a Melbourne customer who buys books in bulk from Amazon I tend to get my Fanta fix via that method).

    Just so I’m not leaving this post on a negative note I’ll add that Fanta are really kicking goals these days, moreso than I can recall in a long while. Pogo, Mickey Mouse, The Duck, Tardi and on and on – too much to keep up with.

  5. Gary had a copy of this at the Iowa City conference, and I was lucky enough to steal a glance at it. The coloring and design look absolutely phenomenal.

  6. Nick Gazin says:

    Yup. Also, I have a copy. So good. SOOOOOOO GOOOOOOD!

  7. Nick Gazin says:

    Coloring’s good. Don’t worry.

  8. Nick Gazin says:

    Yeah but the artist is the one who makes the marks that you end up seeing. Comics are ultimately dominated by the visual. It’s kind of like how a song is more about the music than the lyrics. If a comic or song is great it can be appreciated by people who don’t understand the language. The part that immediately will emotionally impact you ins the part that requires the least processing.

  9. Nick Gazin says:

    When something is really great it’s hard to put your finer on it sometimes. What makes Barks great is that’s great. He tells exciting adventure stories, draws beautifuly and has an inventive imagination. He managed to take a world famous character and make it his own, inventing a whole universe around Donald Duck and his nephews.

  10. patrick ford says:

    What makes Barks great is he has a finely honed talent, imagination, keen observational skills, a grasp of irony, and slapstick, insight, and good measure in all things.

    No one can convince another person an artist is great, at least I would hope that’s impossible. The very idea one person’s opinion of an artist would be formed based on the advocacy of a ”critic” rather than by reading the work would be a probably be deeply depressing to any creator.

  11. Dominick Grace says:

    Is this out? Amazon doesn’t list it as available until December.

  12. DerikB says:

    “No one can convince another person an artist is great, at least I would hope that’s impossible. The very idea one person’s opinion of an artist would be formed based on the advocacy of a ”critic” rather than by reading the work would be a probably be deeply depressing to any creator.”

    Sure, but the critic can convince one why they should try reading the work, spending the money/time on the work. The critic can provide a lens for looking at the work, but give it some context, can make a case for statements like “genius”.

    I’ve been convinced to read/watch/view plenty of novels, albums, films, comics, paintings, etc. based on what critics have written. In the end I may not agree with them, but that’s beside the point.

  13. patrick ford says:

    Derik, What I mean is it isn’t possible to explain why something is wonderful. A person has the read the work to access that.

    Giving a work a context is valuable. With Barks people might like to know he’s producing stories which targeted children, but that the stories can easily be appreciated by most adults. It could also be said with certainty that Barks is really good at creating Funny Animal comic books.

    Trying to argue Barks or almost anyone is a genius is an exercise best appreciated by people who are energized by theory based debate. There is a real chance in those kinds of debates that people end up telling you more about their own ideas than the thing they are supposed to be describing.

    Now I would say the recommendation of a critic who seems to in general share a good sized cross section of my own tastes would cause me to take a look at something unfamiliar.

  14. Ian Harker says:

    Yeah, i’m always disappointed in the technical analysis of comics in most criticism. I feel like most comics critics are coming from a literary background and don’t have a firm grasp on visual technique. They know what they like when they see it but fail to really say anything about what they see. When I read comics I’m always seeing the technique and approach of the image-making first and foremost. It isn’t enough to just say Barks is “classic” and “perfect”, say something about why those things are true.

  15. DerikB says:

    “I mean is it isn’t possible to explain why something is wonderful.”

    What? That is a total cop-out. Of course you can explain why a work of art is wonderful or whatever adjective you want to use. The person doing the explaining may have different criteria than the reader, but they can state those criteria (or make them implicit) and explain how the work fits them. That’s what criticism does. Otherwise it’s just… empty description.

  16. DerikB says:

    Ian says: “It isn’t enough to just say Barks is “classic” and “perfect”, say something about why those things are true.”

    Exactly. That’s all I’m looking for.

  17. patrick ford says:

    Derik, I don’t think it’s a cop out, but maybe you do. All I know is I couldn’t explain why an artist is great. And I’ve never seen anyone explain it in a way which is accepted as factual. For ever great artist there are loads of people who ridicule that artist.

    Debates of that kind aren’t much different from sports fans picking their all star teams, in fact they are even less logical, because there are no statistics in art related to merit.

    People interested in theory have studied it and enjoy tossing book-notes citations back and forth in a debate. People interested in sports can name the offensive linemen for every team in the NFL.

    In the end it all comes down to the performers.

  18. DerikB says:

    It’s not about factual. It’s not about objective criteria. The critic should be able to explain why he/she thinks a work of art is good/bad (to use the most generic of terms)… worthy of attention being paid or not… Else… why have criticism at all?

  19. patrick ford says:

    The kind of criticism which interests me places the work in the context of it’s times. The life of the artist, and the broader world he lives in. The life of the artist would include artistic influences both from teachers and other artists, as well as from other media, and the environment the artist lives in, the people in the area as well as the landscape itself.

    Also of interest are the artists political views, personal relationships which might inform their art, business dealings, and personal documents such as letters or journals.

    Trying to explain why a painter is “good” just seems impossible to me. There are to many diverse criteria which could be invoked.

    Now there are many forms of artistic expression where it’s easy to see if an artist has the necessary technical ability. Musicians, and dancers for example can’t get anywhere (particularly in classical forms) unless they have a finely honed technique, but most people argue against technique as artistic expression and see it as a facilitator, not an end.

    Trying to explain why Barks is great would be like setting up a row of sitting ducks.

  20. Ian Harker says:

    Or at least contexualize their contributions within the continuum/evolution of the medium itself. What lead to Barks and what came after/from him. Great artists build on what came before and leave the artform itself in a better place. Those are specific acts in my opinion and should be highlighted.

  21. Dan Nadel says:

    I’m baffled by the response here. Tom wrote a thoughtful short review of the book — exactly what was asked for, and what falls under the category of “review”. Not essay, not critical journalism, not art history — a review that looks at the book at hand, as a particular book, and what that book might embody. And moreover, he perfectly explains what makes Barks good, and what makes this volume different from the others. Anyone hoping to have all their questions — every facet of their life quandaries and theoretical bugaboos — satisfied is setting up a straw man. Disagree, sure, but this “why isn’t it exactly what I want it to be” business is rather silly. Worse yet, overly earnest vague blathering about what can be criticized, and how, is for dorm room bong (sorry, showing my age, I mean volcano) talk.

  22. Kim Thompson says:

    The Amazon destocking quirk has been fixed.

  23. Kim Thompson says:

    I read this thread right after watching a whole batch of BIG BANG THEORYs in a row and as a result all the caviling about the review came out in Sheldon’s voice in my head.

  24. Alec Trench says:

    “Bark(s) was a technically great cartoonist–his draughtsmanship was keen, lively and organized, the flow from panel to panel as liquid, as surprising, and yet as inevitable as a melody–but he was, above all else, a fabulous storyteller. The art of narrative was encoded in the man’s genes.”

  25. patrick ford says:

    In case there is any doubt, I thought the review was a perfect example of the type of review I find most useful.

  26. James says:

    Nick, yes, I know a lot of tunes that I have no idea of what the actual lyrics are— understanding the text literally doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of said tune, although I used to like it when the album had the lyrics printed on the sleeve. But comics are usually more explicit, the legibility of all elements is an important factor, at least on narratives that are supposed to be legible and coherent. You seem to be saying that in comics the artist is the main author, but I would not ever claim that the writer is NOT an equal co-author of comics…and artists have not had a problem sharing equal credit with writers as co-authors. It’s only recently that there has been a trend toward skewing credit towards writers and de-emphasizing artists.

    This isn’t really relevant to Barks, who was an anonymous solo act for years. Anyway, the book is excellent.

  27. DerikB says:

    You just had to throw a little put down in there at the end? Really? No one else has cast any aspersions on De Haven or anyone else in the comments.

    It didn’t seem like much to expect a piece of writing that leads off calling Barks a “creative genius” to follow through on that. And, ok I guess he does “perfectly explain what makes Barks good”: “technically great cartooning” and stories that have characters and surprise endings and themes. But that doesn’t account for genius, unless geniuses have really been devalued lately.

    Perhaps I’m misplaced in my comments, De Haven isn’t the first writer I’ve seen give Barks such hyperbolic (or not, someone might convince me) praise, but I figured this was the most likely place someone might follow-up on it.

  28. patrick ford says:

    The word genius has not been devalued, it’s just that many people won’t accept the OED definition of the word.

    “one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity”

    I once had a guy become incredibly abusive in arguing that no artist could ever be a genius. His thought was Picasso was a fraud, Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t design a house whose roof didn’t leak, Orson Welles was a clown who made wine commercials because no one wanted to see his movies. In his view only a scientist, or inventor could be a genius.

    Oxford Engish Dictonary:

    genius(ge¦nius)

    noun (plural geniuses)

    1 [mass noun] exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability:she was a teacher of genius[in singular] :that woman has a genius for organization

    *

    2 an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity:a mathematical genius

  29. steven samuels says:

    Check the publisher’s site. There’s often a lagtime between the actual release date and when Amazon has copies in stock.

  30. Kim Thompson says:

    LOST IN THE ANDES is now in stock at, and being shipped from, Amazon. The “Release Date” listed on Amazon is an “official” release date calculated as being four weeks after the book is being distributed to retailers, both brick-and-mortar and on-line, but books are generally made available a few weeks before then. It should be hitting comics shops this week as well.

  31. Jeet Heer says:

    I agree with Dan that there was no reason for this review to get into the larger issues of what makes Barks great. It’s enough to describe what the book is.

    Having said that, if DerikB is interested in a considered essay on Barks’ merit, I’d recommend Mike Barrier’s essay “The Duck Man” which is available in a volume called “The Comic-Book Book” edited by Don Thompson and Richard A. Lupoff. Barrier makes a more extended argument in his book on Barks, which is also worth reading. It’s one of the best monographs every done on a cartoonist.

  32. DerikB says:

    Thanks, Jeet. I’ll look up that essay.

  33. patrick ford says:

    Derik could read “Mickey Mouse and the Phantom Artist” by Bill Blackbeard while he’s dipping into the same book.

    Better yet, read the comics.

  34. DerikB says:

    I have read Barks before.

  35. patrick ford says:

    Derik, If you have read Bark’s then that’s all there is to it. I read All in Color for a Dime, and The Comic Book Book ages ago. At that time it was actually really difficult to read most of the things being written about in those books. Reading the enthused accounts of the various authors I imagined everything they were writing about to be great. As the years went by and I was able to read the strips it very quickly began to become apparent they weren’t all created equal.

    The Golden Age JSA? Well even as a kid I was dubious, but Roy Thomas was SO excited about those things I figured they must have something going for them. Well, they don’t, not even close, the material is just plain awful, and doesn’t even have a sense of weird energy going for it.

    I can’t imagine Barrier’s essay changing anyone’s mind about Barks. He starts of describing the authenticity (or in current vogue the verisimilitude) of Barks’ “atmosphere.” I imagine most people would look at that and say, “What” so the guy had a subscription to National Geographic.” Barrier says Barks’ characters have a richness of detail in expression and personality, but it would be easy for someone to say, “Bah! compared to what…Batman?”

  36. Peter Sattler says:

    I think that Derik’s response to this review was measured and perfectly appropriate — unless one thinks that the only purpose of a review, however short, is to express one’s visceral reaction and/or to describe a product for sale.

    This is not, as Derik notes, a matter of “convincing” people why a work is great. It may be a simple as explaining why you think a work is great, connecting your thoughts and reactions to things happening on the page/screen/canvas.

    What is the good of such writing?

    It helps a reader, even momentarily, to “see” the work again, to approach it from a fresh critical and aesthetic perspective. This is especially helpful when a work is as generally appreciated as that of Barks. (Who here really needs a reminder that this guy is really, really good?) Any review — every review — should take the time to pause, point toward the artwork in its specificity, and say, “Look here! This is what I mean. Let me show you.”

    Ironically, Pat Ford did just this kind of thing repeatedly for me in his kirby-l posts on Jack Kirby as a writer. He never quite convinced me, but his “reviews” were always evidence of one reader’s focused reaction to the work at hand — and they made me look at those works again, a bit more intelligently and perceptively than I had before.

    (Note: of course, the reviewer could talk instead about his reaction to the packaging, the introductory material, etc. But even that would require more effort, more focus.)

  37. patrick ford says:

    Bottom line is it just wasn’t that sort of review, as said it wasn’t an essay. I do appreciate focused critical examination of an artists work. A good example would be Thomas Allen Nelon’s “Inside a Film Artist’s Maze.” Nelson does not spend his time trying to convince people Kubrick is a genius, instead he examines the work itself.

    Peter, You are mistaking me for someone else. Perhaps a guy named Steve T. who wrote a few long reviews of The Losers, and The Eternals., etc.

    I’ve never reviewed anything in my life.

    Most of my comments on Kirby weren’t really specifically on Kirby at all. They rather had to do with the argument by some that cartooned dialogue and art are not realistic, and the seeming assumption that it is, or should be, an artists intent to present authentic anatomy or “realistic” dialogue. The dialogue issue being even more problematic than the anatomy. There is such a thing as realistic representation of anatomy. Even that is open for debate however. Whose anatomy is more realistic: Burne Hogarth or Noel Sickles? Michelangelo or Hans Holbein?

    However with an artist like Don Martin or Kirby I think it’s beyond argument their intent isn’t a realistic representation of form, and the same can be said of most of Picasso, and Matisse.

    So my point was always. Allow an artist his intent. What is the point of saying things like “Frank Robbins wasn’t ‘right’ for super heroes.” The only sense in which Robbins wasn’t ‘right’ for super heroes is it’s a shame he had to enter that gutter due to the decline in newspaper adventure strips.

    What I perceived was a fairly common attitude that all artists try, or should be trying, to draw in a “realist” style. And that artists who drew in a expressive, or cartooned style were only doing so because they had no choice, they just weren’t good enough to draw like Neal Adams or Alex Ross.

    The subject of dialogue is even more problematic because I’d defy anyone to say what “realistic” dialogue is. People trying to convince me there is any super hero comic book dialogue that is realistic would be hard pressed. What generally passes for realistic dialogue is dialogue which models itself after contemporary TV shows. The closer comic book dialogue sounds to “Hill Street Blues,” or “Lost” the closer to a TV version of reality it is.

    But, again why would a reader assume a cartoonist is working hard to write dialogue that would be seen as realistic?

  38. Noah Van Sciver says:

    That book is real good.

  39. I was curious about Barrier’s essay. He didn’t have it on his site, but here’s his essay on a particular Uncle Scrooge story, of which he says: “There are dozens of Barks stories in which he demonstrated his mastery of his medium, but “Only a Poor Old Man” may be the one where that mastery is most clearly visible.” Not sure it’ll convince Derik, though.

    As my first foray into Barks’ work, “Lost in the Andes” was fairly enjoyable. The book is, indeed, a beautifully crafted object.

  40. steven samuels says:

    @Charles:

    Better than “Lemming With the Locket?” Pretty much a laughable statement on Barrier’s part. Considering his massive output, picking a single Barks story as the “best” would be like picking the single “best” Schulz cartoon ever. No one would ever agree on a single one.

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