Carl Barks

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Carl Barks : biography

March 27, 1901 – August 25, 2000

In 1908, William Barks (in an attempt to increase the family income) moved with his family to Midland, Oregon, some miles north of Merrill, to be closer to the new railway lines. He established a new stock-breeding farm and sold his produce to the local slaughterhouses.

Nine-year-old Clyde and seven-year-old Carl worked long hours there. But Carl later remembered that the crowd which gathered at Midland’s market place made a strong impression on him. This was expected, as he was not used to crowds up until then. According to Barks, his attention was mostly drawn to the cowboys that frequented the market with their revolvers, strange nicknames for each other and sense of humor.

By 1911, they had been successful enough to move to Santa Rosa, California. There they started cultivating vegetables and set up some orchards. Unfortunately, the profits were not as high as William expected and they started having financial difficulties. William’s anxiety over them was probably what caused his first nervous breakdown.

As soon as William recovered, he made the decision to move back to Merrill. The year was 1913, and Barks was already 12 years old; but, due to the constant moving, he had not yet managed to complete grade school. He resumed his education at this point and finally managed to graduate in 1916.

1916 served as a turning point in Barks’ life for various reasons. First, Arminta, his mother, died in this year. Second, his hearing problems, which had already appeared earlier, had at the time become severe enough for him to have difficulties listening to his teachers talking. His hearing would continue to get worse later, but at that point he had not yet acquired a hearing aid. Later in life, he couldn’t do without one. Third, the closest high school to their farm was five miles (8 km) away and even if he did enlist in it, his bad hearing was likely to contribute to his learning problems. He had to decide to stop his school education, much to his disappointment.

From job to job

Barks started taking various jobs but had little success in such occupations as a farmer, woodcutter, turner, mule driver, cowboy and printer. From his jobs he learned, he later averred, how eccentric, stubborn and unpredictable men, animals and machines can be. At the same time he interacted with colleagues, fellow breadwinners who had satirical disposition towards even their worst troubles. Barks later declared that he was sure that if not for a little humor in their troubled lives, they would certainly go insane. It was an attitude towards life that Barks would adopt. Later he would say it was natural for him to satirize the secret yearnings and desires, the pompous style and the disappointments of his characters. According to Barks, this period of his life would later influence his best known fictional characters: Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and his own Scrooge McDuck.

Donald’s drifting from job to job was reportedly inspired by Barks’ own experiences. So was his usual lack of success. And even in those that he was successful this would be temporary, just until a mistake or chance event caused another failure, another disappointment for the frustrated duck. Barks also reported that this was another thing he was familiar with.

Scrooge’s main difference to Donald, according to Barks, was that he too had faced the same difficulties in his past but through intelligence, determination and hard work, he was able to overcome them. Or, as Scrooge himself would say to Huey, Dewey and Louie: by being "tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties." Even in the present of his stories Scrooge would work to solve his many problems, even though the stories would often point out that his constant efforts seemed futile at the end. In addition, Scrooge was quite similar to his creator in appearing often to be as melancholic, introspective and secretive as he was.

Through both characters Barks would often exhibit his rather sarcastic sense of humor. It seems that this difficult period for the artist helped shape many of his later views in life that were expressed through his characters.