March 27 is the birthday of Carl Barks. Some of you already have a smile beginning, but others are trying desperately to remember what they learned in art history. Don’t bother, because it isn’t likely he was mentioned in your art textbook. Carl Barks drew comics.
Ah, but what comics they were! They dealt with life, love and developing a compassionate and caring society. This is admirably shown in his story A Christmas For Shacktown, wherein the ducks close ranks to provide Christmas for those poorer than themselves. Even Barks greatest creation, Uncle Scrooge, gets dragged into the effort, with the usual amusing results. One of the rare things about Barks was that he could do stories about the better American values without being heavy handed or preachy. You read the story, enjoyed the art and hardly realized that he had also stirred your emotions and nudged them in a positive direction.
Another claim to fame for Barks is that without him Donald Fauntleroy Duck (didn’t know he had a middle name, didja?) would have remained second fiddle to Mickey Mouse. When Western Publishing decided to create new comics centered around Donald, Carl Barks took the character, expanded it from an irritable, irascible semi villain, to a deeper character- one with conflicting motives and emotions, an archetype of a normal human being, sometimes cowardly, sometimes heroic.
Barks eventually turned Donald into the ultimate realist, using Donald as a foil to explore various myths and legends such as the seven cities of Cibola, the flying dutchman and the abominable snowman, all of which, of course, turned out at least to have a logical explanation. In doing this Barks never talked down to anyone. He assumed his reader, be they ten or fifty, knew as much about the topic in question as himself.
Barks also created a rich life for his ducks paralleling American society. He created the town of Duckburg, a typical middle-American town, as well as the Junior Woodchucks and the Littlest Chickadees (their oft-time rivals) analogous to the boy scouts and girl scouts. Themes of American life ran through many of Barks stories. Donald was often the foil of Uncle Scrooge, whether he wished to be or not (labor and capital); had to deal with his girlfriend Daisy (an independent modern woman who was often more competent than he was); and of course, his nephews in the Junior Woodchucks who seemed to know so much more about everything than he did (the increasing importance of education).
Barks was more than a keen observer of society. Aside from the human depth of his stories there was also the art. Clean, crisp and detailed, each panel had a charm all it’s own. At times comic and dramatic, it moved the story-line along practically on it’s own.
Carl Barks has had a tribute in National Geographic and there is a “Carl Barks Day” in Merrill, Oregon (a town reminiscent of Duckburg in the best possible ways) but the greatest tribute to Carl Barks is his legion of staunch long-time fans (and I count myself as one). Barks died in 2000, but left behind a legacy unparalleled in American popular culture. Disney created Donald Duck, but Carl Barks raised him and turned him into a human being.