Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Carl Barks: Conversations

Donald Ault, Ed.
University Press of Mississippi (2003) 238 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Who is Carl Barks? So begins Donald Ault's enlightening introduction to a volume of interviews that tells us just that, and indeed a great deal more—making the reader wonder how it could be that the man behind the creation of Disney's Scrooge McDuck, hundreds of Donald Duck comics, and many other memorable characters was himself never identified, until he was in his late 50s, by a fan named Malcolm Willits.

In the first book of its kind, Ault has, with some kind of superhuman drive and focus, not only provided the answer to this question in a careful selection of interviews presented chronologically from the first (by Willits 1962, first published 1968) to the last (Ault, 2000); he has succeeded in showing for all the world the phenomenal and multifaceted genius of Carl Barks (1901-2000) through the artist's own words. The man whom many consider the greatest comic book artist of all time is here revealed as a master draftsman, painter, storyteller, and finally, a lucid and sincere conversationalist who is known the world over through images: Uncle Scrooge diving into his money bin, Donald Duck going in for a haircut to instead get his ass trimmed. Whomever you are, whatever your involvement with comics and/or animation, more than a few of such images persist in the memory—and they are the work of Carl Barks.

Ault concisely states the purpose of the book in his introduction:

The purpose... is twofold: to introduce Carl Barks to an audience who has never heard his name before and simultaneously to tell the millions of readers and fans around the world who are already familiar with his work something new about him, to reveal the man as he emerges in his own words through interviews and conversations rather than through his work itself.

And that work is and has been ubiquitous for most of the past century: Carl Barks's images and stories have become part of worldwide consciousness, even transcending his mediums, and have influenced the thought and work of countless other artists, including filmmakers such as George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg—Barks's work is consciously alluded to in the "Rolling Boulder" scene from Indiana Jones. Though Ault points out that three (rather specialized) books on Barks were published in 1981, two to high acclaim, since that time Leonard Maltin, in Disney News, has suggested that "The most popular and widely-read artist-writer in the world... is one about whom most people have never heard." To get a sense of this, simply do a web search on "Carl Barks"—and then do one on Uncle Scrooge McDuck or Donald Duck. Yet one quickly gets the sense that this book is just the beginning of general public awareness of Carl Barks, which heretofore has essentially been relegated to Internet discussions on comic book artists and perhaps, to a lesser (and more recent) extent, interdisciplinary academic study of popular culture.

Donald Ault's own work and teaching related to Barks have pushed the hypothetical boundaries of what such a term as "interdisciplinary" really means—for as the present volume shows, the study of an artist as unique and phenomenal as Carl Barks includes, well... everything. Hence Ault's regret at not being able, due to space constraints, to include the full texts of interviews with Barks to which he has access, and mine, for not being able to address each one. But while it's almost certain that these Conversations will be followed by many other works on Barks that will render "Who is..."questions unnecessary, Ault's book will be remembered as the first of its kind and the work by which subsequent studies will be judged, especially as these primary sources will necessarily be returned to again and again. We have Donald Ault to thank for this, and the first part of this review stands, then, as something of an appreciation; for, to answer the pending question, I knew who Carl Barks was. At least that's what I and about a million other people may have thought.


A Literal View of a Life

Briefly, Carl Barks was born in March 1901, on a family ranch in a small town in Oregon. He goes into the details of his family life in most of the interviews, often in some depth; but whom and what he was can probably never be discerned by a simple chronology of his life.

Barks had a brother, Clyde, who lived into his 80s, while his mother died in 1916. Carl had an 8th-grade education in a one-room schoolhouse and only a few lessons at a cartoonist correspondence school while a teenager; he then moved to San Francisco for two years and worked odd jobs while trying without success to find cartoon work at a newspaper. He moved back to Oregon and married his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, worked as a laborer during the 20s, and while refining his drawing skill and grammar successfully sold gags to the Calgary Eye-Opener, a job he continued well into the 30s, when he left his wife and moved to Minneapolis to eventually become a full editor.

In late 1935, Carl Barks responded to an ad to join Disney, applied, and was accepted. He worked his way up quickly in the company, re-married in 1938, moved to San Jacinto, CA in 1940—and in 1942 completed the first story of his own for Disney. From then until he retired from Disney in 1966, Carl Barks wrote and drew all but 30 of the Donald Duck 10-pagers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories (some 260, or 2600 pages!) though these works were never signed, as it was assumed most of the readership thought Walt Disney himself did all of it. (Maybe a few of the children did).

In the mid 40s, Barks also did non-Disney comics work for Western Publishing. The next year his second marriage broke up, as his abusive alcoholic second wife, who had destroyed some of his work, left him, taking with her everything he owned. Yet in 1951, Carl Barks completed the first full-length Uncle Scrooge "one-shot" (32-page) comic for Disney; from then until his retirement, he produced some 70 more, as well as about 175 Donald Duck stories and countless other comics and stories, for a total output of over 6000 pages! Barks is quite candid about many of these instances in Conversations.

Eventually Barks was given almost complete autonomy in his work for Disney, and after his retirement was allowed to produce work (especially paintings) of Disney characters signed by himself, royalty-free, for many years. Married again (this time it worked) he began, in effect, a second career, and was active until his late 90s. As his renown grew internationally, he was the recipient of numerous recognitions and awards, and indeed is the only artist to ever receive the Disney Legends Award (1991). He died peacefully in his sleep on August 25, 2000. His earliest influence was the great Winsor McCay, author of the groundbreaking and highly influential Little Nemo comic series. This was 100 years ago, but its title may sound slightly familiar.

But even so, "Who was Carl Barks...?"


Carl Barks in His Own Words

Reading through the twenty-four interviews that make up Conversations, one quickly moves beyond the "Who is..." question, which has been answered in a literal sense in Ault's introduction and chronology, to another question which can be put many ways though it asks, essentially, "Why is Carl Barks so important?" The interviews reveal a likable and intelligent yet solitary (and perhaps somehow melancholy) man who truly loves his work and appreciates his fans, but who was also an autodidact with only a rudimentary formal education, a former laborer, who began doing the work he did "to earn a living" in the midst of Depression and wartime America. While aware of his contributions to comic art and American (later international) society, he doesn't see what the big deal is beyond the simple story, and becomes a little confused, flustered or impatient by questions that take the matter "off the drawing board," as it were, to a more theoretical realm. Though he admits to Donald and Lynda Ault that he had begun and had some success with artistic experimentation (outside a formulaic, pre-established mold) in 1949 and in the same context speaks of his fruitful period of narrative innovation in the 1950s and in painting in the 70s and 80s, "Barks himself,"says Donald Ault, "Was never able to acknowledge or understand consciously the full depth, complexity, and influence of his work. At some fundamental level [however]—'deep beneath the subconscious' as he once said—he recognized the power of his talent and the gift life had given him in the opportunity to use that talent to its fullest" (Introduction). It seems that Barks saw himself as a gifted artisan of sorts—grateful to Disney and aware of his own unique creative contributions, but certainly not as a "genius." While he never gives an impression of false modesty in these conversations, he likewise never comes across with an "It's about time you guys showed up" attitude that would be equally disingenuous. In fact, the well-spoken Barks is, I think, completely forthright.

Barks, then, was neither a savant nor a frustrated would-be MOMA artist who did work that resembled that of Damien Hirst or Julian Schnabel, furtively in the middle of the night. He half-seriously replies to a question put by Ault in 1973 concerning a Disney in-joke that referred to "Barksism", a poking fun of what he called his "ultra-conservatism"—a partially affected dislike for any musical score that didn't sound "like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry," as opposed to the Fantasia aesthetic of the time, which he associated with those people who found value in "that slap-dab Picasso type of [modern art]." Conversely, in his wide and seemingly inexhaustible imagination, Barks constructed characters, situations and indeed entire worlds based on myth or what Ault calls "displaced myth"—aptly for someone who, being audodidactic and as such uncontrived in "mythic" presentation, unlike certain artists who tiresomely allude to the Iliad or the sources of Titian paintings in their work, find the real source which, if one believes Jung (and many others), is implicit in all of us.

This phenomenon among artists of all types and all generations is of course heavily documented, among "folk" artists and popular writers, especially, and Barks to a large extent was both. Yet he demonstrates his integrity of purpose and the way he saw himself as an artist perhaps most fully and unequivocally in Ault's 1999 conversation with Barks titled "Those Things That Came Along in the 20th...":

CB: These [paintings of mine] are pictures of a fad that went by during the 20th century... the whole fad, I think, has died. I believe...the Disney ducks are dead.

DA: You don't really believe that do you?

CB: I believe it; I don't see why they would keep on going, so many new things are replacing them.

DA: So do you believe the art was intrinsic?

CB: Well, I don't know why, but I believe all this stuff that we're talking about now will just be something that nobody will be interested in about 10-12 years down the line.[Comic book art] was something in a time that passed long ago and is now obsolete.

CB: I didn't realize that I was putting so much depth and philosophy and all that stuff into the stories. Kind of a shock to find out that some people can see great meaning in certain things I did.

It's clear that this particular conversation was unsettling for both men. It is also clear that Barks sees himself as the exponent of an outmoded medium, the comic book. This, if not his tone, is fairly consonant with his attitude throughout the almost 40 years over which the interviews take place, though slight contradictions and misrememberings are to be expected over so many years and considering Carl Barks's very advanced age at the time of the last conversations. And opinions can change, and people looking back over their lives can often find themselves in very dark moods. Yet the approach of other artists to Barks and his work is both fascinating...and inspiring.


Barks's Legacy in First Person

While it's of course a truism that things change, that Carl Barks is not Winsor McCay and that things like PlayStation have to some degree replaced the "classic" comic strip or comic book and that Finding Nemo presents a computerized animation that would have seemed grossly affected to Barks—something of a purist in an "affected" medium, it might be paradoxically argued—like myth itself, the stories are not that different and the comic book has influenced both its computer-generated descendants and assured its own survival as a popular art form by its influence on the graphic novel, painting, multi-media work, and so on.

Every interview, or "conversation" in the book is wonderful and informative in its own way. I wish I had space to discuss something of the interchanges between Barks and Paul Ciotti, J. Michael Barrier, Edward Summer, Klaus Strzyz and Michael Naiman, in particular—and all the others, but by that time, you've already ordered the book from Amazon, it's there, and you've read it. I believe I understand how difficult it was for Donald Ault to leave anything out—this is the first review/essay I've written, ever, that I feel I could re-write next week and not duplicate a quote or a sentence. If that isn't a hearty recommendation, well, you're just not into it, is all.

But yet it moves... further, to Barks's artistic legacy. For me, the real highpoint of Conversations is the 1992 interview with Gottfried Helnwein, the Austrian-born creative genius whom Donald Ault has justly called "One of the greatest conceptual artists of the past hundred years." If you're not immediately familiar with the name, he has several terrific websites, all of which can be accessed through links on any of the others: http://www.helnweincomic.homestead.com is a great place to start, and you might realize you're familiar with his work, as well! His interview engages Barks in a spirit of imagination and play, and Barks responds to it: What if there were a real Duckworld? What would its layout be?

If anyone can take this idea into the 21st century in current available media, it's Helnwein, whose surreal Duck portraits reveal a dark undercurrent probably always present to one degree or other in Barks's own work—Helnwein's ducks are surreal, haunting, yet strangely funny at the same time. A parody of the dark side of the comic, the work reminds one of Chris von Allsburg, WeeGee, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, others. And this is just where the influence is most obvious, in paintings of Donald Duck.

"'Pride goeth before a fall,' I think, was the main theme of a hell of a lot of my stories" Barks once told Ault. "...I believe the fact that I laid it on the line and never tried to disguise the perils of life was the main thing about my stories... they had parallels in human experience." Barks "Told it like it was." At its root, he seems to see this morality as the catalyst for his success, or at least a major aspect of it. Or, as Ault puts it, "The body of Barks's work stands at least in part as a form of visual narrative therapy with healing power capable of saving his readers from the monotony and depression of everyday life" (Introduction xxiii). This amalgam of quality comic entertainment combined with the honesty and indeed realism of this achievement, when mixed with genius and tenacity, created what remains among the most original and enduring art in all mediums the world this past century, today, and tomorrow.

And so that's who he was. This Carl Barks.


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