This won’t be a comprehensive essay on Carl Barks, but I do want to begin by saying that if Barks isn’t part of your personal pantheon of great cartoonists, you really owe it to yourself to check out his work.
Barks wrote and drew more than five hundred comic stories about Donald, Scrooge, and the other famous Disney ducks, and is directly responsible for much of the lore surrounding them. (In fact, he created Scrooge McDuck personally, though he never signed his stories, and only belatedly received credit for his role.) Many of the stories are among the greatest humorous adventure stories of all time. And amazingly, Barks didn’t start working as a comic book artist full-time until he was in in his forties.
The story I want to focus on (briefly) is from a 1956 issue of Uncle Scrooge called “Land Beneath the Ground”. As you might guess based on the title, it’s a Hollow Earth story, loosely in the tradition of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
It begins when Uncle Scrooge reads a newspaper article about an earthquake in Chile, and worries that a similar quake may endanger his beloved money bin. Check out this rather shoddy scan of an early sequence:
I love how relaxed his story-telling is. Barks’ tales move with an impressively swift pace, but flow so smoothly that it’s easy to underestimate the grace and skills necessary to craft such a natural-seeming story. (On his good days, Peter Bagge displays a similar, seemingly artless story-telling ability, albeit within a much more profane milieu — part of the reason he’s so often underrated, in my opinion.)
Barks rarely shows off, but his technical mastery is almost always evident. A little later in the story, after Scrooge and Donald disappear into an exploratory underground tunnel, Huey, Louie, and Dewie descend to look for them. They come to the end of the trail and the page …
At the top of the next page, Barks turns things around:
That’s just beautiful, though the effect is a lot more dramatic and effective in context (if that doesn’t go without saying).
His sense of space is outstanding, and helps him to create a feeling of awe all too often absent from most of today’s “mainstream” adventure comics, no matter how many planets and universes are destroyed in them.
I’ll let you discover the rest of the story yourself. For the most part, this isn’t complicated, theoretical stuff that needs a lot of explication to understand, anyway. In some ways, Barks’ place in comics is similar to Robert Louis Stevenson‘s in English literature. They’re both so masterful that sometimes they’re taken for granted, their contributions to our culture overlooked or dismissed as children’s stories. Examine their works closely, however, and their qualities are manifest.
Apparently, Barks originally had aspirations to create more realistic, “adult” adventure comics, a la Hal Foster‘s Prince Valiant. Though Foster was no slouch, for my money, Barks, despite all of the many restrictions he worked under as an anonymous cog in the Disney machine, was able to create a world of danger and splendor even stronger and more enduring.
Someone needs to reprint (again) Barks’ best stories in the durable format they deserve. For now, eBay and cheap collections will have to do.