Carl Barks

72

Carl Barks : biography

March 27, 1901 – August 25, 2000

Barks’s stories (whether humorous adventures or domestic comedies) often exhibited a wry, dark irony born of hard experience. The ten-pagers showcased Donald as everyman, struggling against the cruel bumps and bruises of everyday life with the nephews often acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding disasters Donald wrought upon himself. Yet while seemingly defeatist in tone, the humanity of the characters shines through in their persistence despite the obstacles. These stories found popularity not only among young children but adults as well. Despite the fact that Barks had done little traveling his adventure stories often had the duck clan globe trotting to the most remote or spectacular of places. This allowed Barks to indulge his penchant for elaborate backgrounds that hinted at his thwarted ambitions of doing realistic stories in the vein of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.

Third marriage

As Barks blossomed creatively, his marriage to Clara deteriorated. This is the period referred to in Barks’ famed quip that he could feel his creative juices flowing while the whiskey bottles hurled at him by a tipsy Clara flew by his head. They were divorced in 1951, his second and last divorce. In this period Barks dabbled in fine art, exhibiting paintings at local art shows. It was at one of these in 1952 he became acquainted with fellow exhibitor Margaret Wynnfred Williams (1917 – March 10, 1993), nicknamed Garé. She was an accomplished landscape artist, some of whose paintings are in the collection of the Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art. During her lifetime, and to this day, note cards of her paintings are available from Leanin’ Tree. Her nickname appears as a store name in the story "Christmas in Duckburg", featured on page 1 of Walt Disney’s Christmas Parade #9, published in 1958. Soon after they met, she started assisting Barks, handling the solid blacks and lettering, both of which he had found onerous. They married in 1954 and the union lasted until her death.

No longer anonymous

People who worked for Disney (and its comic book licensees) generally did so in relative anonymity; stories would only carry Walt Disney’s name and (sometimes) a short identification number. Prior to 1960 Barks’ identity remained a mystery to his readers. However, many readers recognized Barks’ work and drawing style, and began to call him the Good Duck Artist, a label which stuck even after his true identity was discovered by fans in the late 1950s. Malcolm Willits was the first person to learn Barks’s name and address, but two brothers named John and Bill Spicer became the first fans to contact Barks after independently discovering the same information. After Barks received a 1960 visit from the Spicer brothers and Ron Leonard, he was no longer anonymous, as word of his identity spread through the emerging network of comic book fandom fanzines and conventions.

Later life

Carl Barks retired in 1966, but was persuaded by editor Chase Craig to continue to script stories for Western. The last new comic book story drawn by Carl Barks was a Daisy Duck tale ("The Dainty Daredevil") published in Walt Disney Comics Digest issue 5 (Nov. 1968). When bibliographer Michael Barrier asked Barks why he drew it, Barks’ vague recollection was no one was available and he was asked to do it as a favor by Craig.

He wrote one Uncle Scrooge story, three Donald Duck stories and from 1970-1974 was the main writer for the Junior Woodchucks comic book (issues 6 through 25). The latter included environmental themes that Barks first explored in 1957 ["Land of the Pygmy Indians", Uncle Scrooge #18]. Barks also sold a few sketches to Western that were redrawn as covers. For a time the Barkses lived in Goleta, California before returning to the Inland Empire by moving to Temecula.

To make a little extra money beyond what his pension and scripting earnings brought in, Barks started doing oil paintings to sell at the local art shows where he and Garé exhibited. Subjects included humorous depictions of life on the farm and portraits of Native American princesses. These skillfully rendered paintings encouraged fan Glenn Bray to ask Barks if he could commission a painting of the ducks ("A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By", taken from the cover of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #108 by Barks). This prompted Barks to contact George Sherman at Disney’s Publications Department to request permission to produce and sell oil paintings of scenes from his stories. In July 1971 Barks was granted a royalty-free license by Disney. When word spread that Barks was taking commissions from those interested in purchasing an oil of the ducks, much to his astonishment the response quickly outstripped what he reasonably could produce in the next few years.