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Carl Barks Conversations:

The Duckman Cometh

Paul Gravett (l) meets Carl Barks (r) in 1994.

I’ll never forget meeting "The Duck Man". I was lucky enough to meet Carl Barks twice in London in 1994 on what I believe was his first and only official visit to London. He came to The Cartoon Art Trust where I’d helped arrange a unique tribute evening, and a day or two after he met with a group of fans more intimately at a hotel. Barks’ timeless Donald Duck tales have been reprinted numerous times in America, from regular low-priced newsprint comic books to deluxe oversized hardbacks in black-and-white. But now Gemstone are about to issue The Carl Barks Collection, a projected ten-volume set, complete and in colour. So to mark this, I’ve dug out these special photos from fourteen years ago and my review of a fine compilation of interviews. It’s never too late to discover, or re-discover, one of the 20th century’s most humorous and humane American storytellers, not just in comics but in any medium.

After Milton Caniff and Charles Schulz, it is the turn of Carl Barks in the third in this essential series edited by M. Thomas Inge of books compiling Conversations With Comic Artists. From a wealth of interviews running to some 170,000 words, editor Donald Ault has painstakingly refined this down by a half to arrive at this revelatory sampling of 24 interviews with the creator of Scrooge McDuck, seven of which Ault participated in himself. These conversations b from Barks’ first ever recorded encounter with comic fans Don and Maggie Thompson and Malcolm Willits, conducted in 1962 but only published in 1968, to Ault’s very last visit with Barks at his home in 2000, only two months before his death. An English professor at the University of Florida, Ault is the ideal choice for this task. As well as sharing Disney’s famous duck’s first name, he brings years of close readings of Barks’ comic book classics and a deep respect and empathy for Barks’ determination to be a storyteller in control of his work in the face of extraordinary sacrifices.

For much of his career, Barks, like all Disney comic artists, worked anonymously. The only signature allowed was that of Uncle Walt himself, supposedly to preserve the illusion that he wrote and drew everything himself. Even when Barks’ identity initially came out into the open, first in May 1955 in a feature by Charles Beaumont for the periodical Fortnight and then in 1957 when collector Willits learned his name and address from Frank Reilly in the Disney strip department, it took considerable time before Barks became widely known among the fan community, let alone the broader public in America and around the world who read his multi-million selling comic books. The Disney company only allowed Willits’ and the Thompsons’ 1962 interview to be published finally in 1968, two years after Disney had died, and even then in only 475 copies of the fanzine Comic Art No. 7. Fittingly, this historic document opens the book.

Ault has gone to great lengths to find not only the best interviews available, but also to include unpublished or little seen gems. Nearly half of the conversations were either only partially published before or appear here for the first time. His sources range from the 1996 video production The Duckman to interviews from Germany, Finland and Italy newly translated into English. As Ault explains in his enlightening introduction, "One of the most important consequences of this book is the way it allows readers to put Barks’ life together for themselves in new ways, almost in the form of a jigsaw puzzle." Cross-referencing with Ault’s thorough 12-page chronology as well as the index, I found it fascinating to explore Barks’ lifestory as it unfolded through the conversations presented in the order they were conducted. There are inevitably some overlaps but I found it enriching to learn about Barks’ perspectives looking back on the same experiences.

Scrooge McDuck: The Expert
by Carl Barks

It became clear to me from the interviews which Ault himself assists with, that he formed a truly trusting friendship with Barks, which allows them to have some good-humored, candid discussions about the bad timings and wrong decisions Barks had to cope with through his life. My admiration for Barks only increased, the more I realized how he kept on trying and kept on working often in challenging circumstances and amid personal crises. He seems to have had a faith that, no matter what, he could start anew and make it through somehow. Barks dropped out of school in the 8th grade and, try as he might, failed to make a living as an aspiring young cartoonist. In this he got no encouragement from his first wife. She was only 16, he was only 20, and he soon had children to support as well. He put in years of hard labor, as a logger and a rivet-heater for the railroads, never settling for the unfulfilling life his wife was content with, but always trying to make it in cartoons. Eventually, he took the big gamble in 1935 and set out for California, with no money to get back home, determined to work for Disney’s animation department. Getting the job, his cashflow was so tight, he remembers being "reduced to eating fig bars. That was my breakfast, lunch and dinner", before he got his first paycheck.

Scrooge McDuck: Invasion Of Privacy
by Carl Barks

Barks’ second wife started out helping him with his artwork, but tragically she became addicted to drink. This made her destructive and self-destructive. She was prone to tearing up files copies of his comic books and threatening to do the same to his originals. As she succumbed to alcoholism, their marriage was disintegrating. At one lowpoint, when Barks moved out, he describes "living in a little room they made in a corner of a little warehouse. I had two blankets that I had gotten out of the whole deal and my drawing board, of course, and my [National] Geographics." When they were divorced, she took him for everything he had, even "a car that she couldn’t drive". Incredibly, Barks created some of his greatest work in these dire circumstances - indeed, they may have even helped him. He recalls, "Doing these stories was such a relief from my own everyday troubles and problems". This almost therapeutic quality, like some soothing balm for the troubled soul, may help to explain why Barks’ comic books continue to enchant readers worldwide.

If Barks had regrets, he does not seem to have become disspirited by them. Third time lucky, he found his true life partner in Garé. As for his earnings, he states, "I never made more money than a carpenter or plumber" and remember, on this he supported his wives and children too. His finances may have improved somewhat, when he switched to producing oil paintings and lithographs, although he became entangled in some unfortunate legal wranglings, the last things he needed late in life. Ault closes this book with his last touching conversation, taped on a visit to Barks’ home, only two months before his death from leukemia. Tired and weak, Barks remains dutiful, holding onto his responsiblities, coping with royalties, his family trust and a less than helpful bank. It ends with the mail bringing a state income tax refund and Barks laughing, "That kind of takes the pressure off for a little while." Barks said he had no fear of death nor any belief in an afterlife. "I think of death as total peace. You’re beyond the clutches of all those who would crush you."

Scrooge McDuck: Visitor From Underground
by Carl Barks

I heard one Barks conversation in person in London. In 1994, after Garé Barks died, Carl took his first trip abroad at the age of 93. His whistle-stop ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe took him to Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, where his comics have become phenomenally popular, national institutions read and re-read by generations. Sadly, in Britain, his work and his name are much less famous. At the time I was director of the fledgling National Museum of Cartoon Art in London and, during his stopover there, I was able to invite a band of admirers there to meet ‘the Duck Man’ and attend a reception, where he was interviewed by broadcasting celebrity and Barks connoisseur Paul Gambaccini. It was an honour and a pleasure to meet Barks and welcome him to the Museum. He was particularly taken with the absurdly serious, working models I demonstrated to him, which were based on the contraptions designed by the cartoonist William Heath Robinson, Britain’s equivalent of Rube Goldberg and definitely in the spirit of Barks’ inventor Gyro Gearloose.

Carl Barks visits The Cartoon Art Trust’s galleries
in Eversholt Street, London.

Barks watches a demo of the Heath Robinson
contraption for spooning peas into your mouth.

Laughs all round as Barks watches the
Heath Robinson bottle-opening contraption.

In the audience for that very special evening was a friend, David Clarvis, a lifelong Barks admirer and collector and a gifted illustrator and artist himself. Sadly, David passed away far too young last year, but through the intervention of our mutual friend, writer and film editor Ian Rakoff, the Disney comics colleciton he loved so much has since been acquired for the nation by the National Art Library. They now form part of the Rakoff Collection of Graphic Literature housed within the Victorian and Albert Museum in London, the largest and most significant comic book resource in the country. Once they are catalogued, they will be accessible to anyone interested in reading and studying them. Both this acquisition, and Donald Ault’s sterling effort on this remarkable book, demonstrate that the major cultural importance of Barks’ achievement is being recognised.

Posted: August 10, 2008

This article was originally published in Comic Book Marketplace in 2003. Scrooge McDuck images taken from The Book Palace‘s Carl Barks home page.


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