Carl Barks

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Carl Barks : biography

March 27, 1901 – August 25, 2000

The Good Duck Artist

Unhappy at the emerging wartime working conditions at Disney plus bothered by ongoing sinus problems caused by the studio’s air conditioning, Barks quit in 1942. Shortly before quitting, he moonlighted as a comic book artist, contributing half the artwork for a one-shot comic book (the other half of the art being done by story partner Jack Hannah) titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. This 64-page story was adapted by Donald Duck comic strip writer Bob Karp from an unproduced feature, and published in October 1942 in Dell Comics Four Color Comics #9. It was the first Donald Duck story originally produced for an American comic book and also the first involving Donald and his nephews in a treasure hunting expedition, in this case for the treasure of Henry Morgan. Barks would later use the treasure hunting theme in many of his stories. This actually was not his first work in comics, as earlier the same year Barks along with Hannah and fellow storyman Nick George scripted Pluto Saves the Ship, which was among the first original Disney comic book stories published in the United States.

After quitting the Disney Studio, Barks relocated to the Hemet/San Jacinto area in the semi-desert inland empire region east of Los Angeles where he hoped to start a chicken farm.

When asked which of his stories was a favorite in several interviews Barks cited the ten-pager in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #146 (Nov. 1952) in which Donald tells the story of the chain of unfortunate events that took place when he owned a chicken farm in a town which subsequently was renamed Omelet. Likely one reason it was a favorite is that it was inspired by Barks’ own experiences in the poultry business.

But to earn a living in the meantime he inquired whether Western Publishing, which had published Pirate Gold, had any need for artists for Donald Duck comic book stories. He was immediately assigned to illustrate the script for a ten-page Donald Duck story for the monthly Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. At the publisher’s invitation he revised the storyline and the improvements impressed the editor sufficiently to invite Barks to try his hand at contributing both the script and the artwork of his follow-up story. This set the pattern for Barks’ career in that (with rare exceptions) he provided art (pencil, inking, solid blacks and lettering) and scripting for his stories.

The Victory Garden, that initial ten-page story published in April, 1943 was the first of about 500 stories featuring the Disney ducks Barks would produce for Western Publishing over the next three decades, well into his purported retirement. These can be mostly divided into two categories:

  • Ten-pagers, comedic Donald Duck stories that were the lead for the monthly flagship title Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, whose circulation peaked in the mid-1950s at 3 million copies sold a month.
  • Humorous adventure stories, usually 24-32 pages in length. In the 1940s these were one-shots in the Four Color series (issued 4-6 times a year) that starred Donald and his nephews. Starting in the early 1950s (and through his retirement) Barks’ longer stories were almost exclusively published in Uncle Scrooge’s own quarterly title.

Barks’ artistic growth during the his first decade in comics saw a transformation from rather rudimentary storytelling derived from his years as an animation artist and storyman into a virtuoso creator of complex narratives, notably in his longer adventure tales. According to critic Geoffrey Blum, the process that saw its beginnings in 1942’s Pirate Gold first bore its full fruit in 1950’s’Vacation Time,’ which he describes as ‘a visual primer for reading comics and understanding… the form…."

He surrounded Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie with a cast of eccentric and colorful characters, such as the aforementioned Scrooge McDuck, the wealthiest duck in the world; Gladstone Gander, Donald’s obscenely lucky cousin; inventor Gyro Gearloose; the persistent Beagle Boys; the sorceress Magica De Spell; Scrooge’s rivals Flintheart Glomgold and John D. Rockerduck; Daisy’s nieces April, May and June; Donald’s neighbor Jones, and The Junior Woodchucks organization.