Does anyone actually remember Barney Bear? Anyone younger than me, I mean.
Even folks of my generation (and older) might need a bit of prodding before going, “Oh yeah, that guy.” Barney was always the lesser cousin to Tom, Jerry, Droopy, and the other characters in the MGM animation stable. Clumsy, pear-shaped, and forever bearing a bleary-eyed, hang-dog expression that suggested he was either perpetually stoned or a little … slow, Barney Bear’s slapstick antics were never that memorable and never quite caught on with the movie-going public of the post-war years. These days he’s been largely relegated to obscurity, except among hardcore animation fans and comic scholars. The catch is that the latter group largely takes note of him not because the character is inherently fascinating, but only because his initial spin-off comic book stories were written and drawn by Carl Barks, a few shortly before Disney asked him to do something with that Donald Duck character.
Now these Barney tales, or at least the bulk of them, have been collected by Craig Yoe in an attractive, storybook-sized hardcover collection. As you might expect, it’s a fitfully entertaining book, amusing in parts, but nowhere near Barks’s best work and one more appreciated by fans than the casual reader.
Sensing the need for a foil, Barks pairs Barney up with Benny Burro, an even more obscure MGM character. The cool-headed Goliath to Barney’s impulsive Davey, Benny’s role mostly involves suggesting to Barney that perhaps his latest course of action is not necessarily the wisest (Barks does get some mileage out of inverting this relationship on occasion by making Benny the inadvertent cause of Barney’s misery via his normally common sense advice).
Most of the early stories –- say the first half of the book -- follow a set pattern: Barney decides to take up a new hobby or profession, like bullfighting, hunting or becoming a painter. Burro expresses reasonable doubts. Barney forges ahead anyway and ends up making a terrible mess of things, with both characters becoming injured or just generally the worse for wear. Occasionally they come out on top (the critics deem Barney’s mess of a painting an abstract masterpiece) but more often than not someone ends up in the hospital.
But by about the halfway point, Barks starts to liven up the formula by bringing in other supporting characters, like Barney’s grouchy uncle, an astonishingly cheap golf course owner, or Mooseface McElk, Barney’s ever belligerent neighbor. Expanding his cast ever so slightly helps Barks come up with new plot lines and gives the pair someone else to play off against instead of each other.
Barksologists will no doubt attempt to draw similarities between the Barney stories and the later duck tales. The aforementioned uncle naturally draws comparisons to Uncle Scrooge, while the belligerent McElk is a predecessor of Donald’s equally surly Neighbor Jones. Even some of the plots foretell themes Barks would eventually explore in greater depth. At one point Barney discovers he’s inherited land in the desert. Overcome with thirst, he and Benny incongruously pass up oil wells, gold, and diamonds (Benny, apparently, is a bit of an innocent simpleton, completely dismissing the diamonds as “glass rocks”) in exchange for a canteen of water. It’s a scenario that Barks would repeat in “The Magic Hourglass”, only to much better effect and with more thought put into the general riches equaling happiness.
Unfortunately, the characters’ limited personalities keep Barks tethered to the ground, or at least to Barney’s general neighborhood. Apart from a trip or two to Spain there’s little of the globetrotting and imaginative adventures that typify Barks’s later work. There’s only so much Barks can do with a slow-witted bear and his well-meaning donkey friend. The Big Book of Barney Bear has a few moments of inspiration that point to the sort of stellar work Barks would eventually produce, but for the most part it’s content to remain only mildly amusing. Kids and fans will be happy to consume it, but it won’t light a fire under them the way, say, “Lost in the Andes” or “The Golden Helmet” will.