Features

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.

Ad for Toucan, the official blog of Comic-con and Wondercon