By Carl Barks. Released in North America in 1948 and 1949, first published in various Walt Disney comic books by Western Publishing. This new edition released by Fantagraphics.
It seems rather odd to say this, but I never grew up reading Carl Barks. My comic book experience as a child was pretty much Archie, Asterix and Tintin. I read the occasional Plastic Man as well, but DC and Marvel just held no interest for me. Likewise, though I enjoyed Disney movies and the odd short I saw, the lack of Disney Channel in our house meant I missed out on the desire to get more Donald Duck adventures at any cost. And I’d never quite had enough word of mouth to get the many re-releases of Barks’s material over the years. But Fantagraphics has had some excellent archive material over the years, and when I heard them announce this, even though it wouldn’t technically be published in order, I decided to sit down and figure out why this man is so revered.
I didn’t end up disappointed. This is really fantastic storytelling. Another review of this volume compared it to Tintin, and I think that’s very apt. There’s the adventures in foreign lands, the constant peril, the occasional wacky gags thrown in to alleviate said peril, and of course good old American ingenuity that, thankfully, never verges on jingoism quite as much as Tintin sometimes did. Heck, there’s even some questionable racial caricatures, although again I note that compared to what other artists were doing at the time, Barks was miles ahead. These aren’t cartoon cannibals or witch doctors – even if they’re drawn in a comic based around cartoons.
The volume takes in one year of Barks at his ‘peak’ – 1948 and 1949 – and features four adventure stories of 20-30 pages in length, about nine shorter comedy stories that are 10 pages each; and ends with a series of one-page gag pages. For those who are hardcore about reading in order, the actual publication dates are on the final page, but I didn’t really notice any issues – these aren’t continuity laden strips. The adventure strips are the best of the lot, so it makes sense to pack the front half with them. Lost in the Andes gets the cover and title, and rightly so -it has an epic flavor that the others don’t quite hit, and even manages to be majestic, while still believably starring Donald Duck. The search for square eggs is nicely silly, and manages to merge nicely with the lost world Donald and his nephews find. This is the longest tale in the book, but the pacing never lags.
The other three adventure stories aren’t quite as good, but are still well worth a read. Voodoo Hoodoo was apparently censored in some previous Barks books, and is presented warts and ll here, including its African zombies and witch doctors. (Shouldn’t the zombie be Haitian? Oh well, never mind…) Most of all, it features a thoroughly despicable Uncle Scrooge, who I’m presuming has not yet become a featured player, and who seems to happily wish a fate worse than death on his own nephew. Race to the South Seas also features Scrooge being a jerk, though slightly less malevolent here. I also met Donald’s cousin Gladstone, who appears to have immense good luck but a horrible personality. This helps make Donald more sympathetic than he otherwise is. Lastly is The Golden Christmas Tree, which doesn’t work quite as well, mostly as the story is less realistic, and has a mawkish moral not written by Barks tacked onto the end.
(Regarding the African and South Seas natives: This could be a good gift for children, but you might want to explain how times have changed and discuss the stereotypes of yesteryear, even if Barks is nowhere near the level of Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.)
The little 10-page stories veer more towards the comedy end of the spectrum, and several of them feature Donald as the hot-tempered impetuous duck we know from the screen, as opposed to the likeable adventurer we’d grown used to before. Even here, though, Donald can surprise us. One of my favorites was a rewrite of the animated short Truant Officer Donald, where Donald’s nephews try to skip school, but find the new truant officer manages to be a match for them. I also enjoyed a story where Donald is plagued by recurring nightmares, and his nephews try to help cure him. This is a classic ‘things snowball out of control’ plot where the absurdity of the ongoing situations makes everything funnier. And for those who want good old classic Disney plots of Donald outsmarting himself or infuriating himself, there’s stories where he gets onto a quiz show and tries to raise a sunken boat on the cheap that should be right up your alley. Lastly, the one-page gag stories are just that – funny. You really don’t ask for anything else when the story’s a page and stars Donald Duck.
I can’t judge the look of the comics against previous editions, but I don’t really have any issues – everything looks clear and sharp. I have heard that Race to the South Seas was mastered from original art for the first time in decades, so I imagine those on the fence might be interested in that. The book also has a big introduction giving a history of Carl Barks, and short essays at the back on each of the ‘main’ stories, i.e. the adventures and the 10 page comedy shorts. These essays vary wildly, with the best providing useful information and context, and the worst sounding like they were lifted straight from the densest section of the Comics Journal’s prose. Which, given this is a Fantagraphics release, shouldn’t be too surprising. :)
I picked this up thinking it’d be a good chance to see if I liked Carl Barks and what the fuss was all about. Well, now I get it – and I’m hooked. The second volume, out in May, apparently will focus on the years 1952-1953, and be more of an Uncle Scrooge edition. Which is fine, he needs to win me over after his horrible behavior here. But overall, this is well worth the purchase for any fan of classic comics.