Thoughts on Carl Barks's Hundredth Birthday
By Michael Barrier
Carl Barks in his study at Grants Pass, Oregon, on July 9, 1998.
Photo by Michael Barrier.
[Click here to read feedback about Barks and this essay.]
I last saw Carl Barks in July 1998, a few months after his ninety-seventh
birthday, when my wife and I drove down to Oregon from Seattle with
friends. We spent several hours with Carl, visiting him at his home
and then taking him to dinner at his favorite local restaurant.
He was in a buoyant mood; he had just put his lawsuit against his
erstwhile managers behind him, through a settlement that was very
much to his liking. But he was greatly changed, much slower and
weaker, since we had last seen him, in 1991. He was not mentally
impaired in the least, but to be as quick-witted as Carl Barks takes
energy, and Carl no longer had very much of it. We left Grants Pass
the next day doubting that we would ever see him again but hoping
that he would live to see his hundredth birthday. Sadly, he didn't.
Our 1991 visit is a happier memory. Carl's wife Garé was
still alive and well, and Phyllis and I had dinner out with the
two of them. Carl was in a good mood then, too, exulting in the
success of his paintings and the lithographs made from them. He
insisted on picking up the tab that night, in a departure from our
usual practice. We spent a happy hour or two after dinner in their
den, talking about many things. We even laughed about the auto accident
that put Garé in the hospital the night of their first date
(Carl was drivingnot too well, evidently), our laughter stimulated
by the comically exaggerated cartoon Carl drew of her then, completely
encased in a cast.
The next day, Phyllis and I drove out to Merrill to see the house
where Carl was born on March 27, 1901. I took a lot of pictures
and sent them to Carl, who returned them with abundant notes on
what life was like there in the first decade of the twentieth century.
He lived a hard, isolated life on that ranch, an isolation made
all the worse by his chronic deafness. How miraculous that he had
accomplished so much and lived so longand how wonderful, it
seemed to me then, that he was enjoying such great prosperity and
renown in his old age.
Barks as cartoonist and as painter: the original cover for Donald
Duck Four Color Comic No. 408 (1952) and the painting Barks
based on it twenty years later. Copyright Disney Enterprises.
Barks's oil paintings of the ducks were of course the source of
that prosperity, and of much of that renown. Barks was a painter
of ducks for about as long as he was an author of comic-book stories
about them, and his financial rewards from the paintings were certainly
much greater than those he got from his stories. For years before
he died, it was reproductions of his paintings, and not panels from
his greatest stories, that were ubiquitous as illustrations for
tributes to him. The paintings, and the lithographs made from them,
now command such prices that it is hard to imagine them hanging
anywhere but in the homes of the very wealthy. Some of Barks's admirers,
I understand, believe that the paintings have surpassed in importance
the comic-book stories that gave them birth.
Which is insane. The paintings, most of them, are awful. The early
ones are garish kitsch, the later ones more sophisticated kitsch
(as Barks became more assured as a painter, he took more care with
light, and he sensibly limited his palette), but they are all poor
stuff. The early paintings, so often based on his comic-book covers,
share some strengths with their sourcesthe shrewdly balanced
compositions, the precise expressionsbut the paint adds nothing.
In the later paintings, more respectable as mere paint, the ducks
are barely present, their faces and postures vacant as they never
were in the comic books.
Cartoon characters are creatures of line. In most good cartoon
artBarks's above allwe see expression, attitude, pose;
the characters are drawn in a way that encourages us to see those
things, and not a physical reality. What would be preposterous about
Barks's ducks as fully three-dimensional beingsthink about
those huge, exposed corneasis a large part of what makes them
so appealing as cartoon characters. A cartoonist may suggest that
his characters are three-dimensional by the way that he turns them
in spacewhether on the page or on the screenbut to go
beyond that, and give them not just weight but texture, is to risk
Unless, that is, the cartoonist is prepared to see out the consequences
of his choice, and to acknowledge that his cartoon characters, if
they were real creatures, would be hideous monsters. Barks did not
do that; when he painted his ducks he did not strive for either
the hallucinatory clarity of a Bosch or the nightmarish indistinctness
of a Goya. His ducks-in-oils are instead as vagueand thus
as pointless, as paintingsas the ducks on the painted covers
of many of Dell's "giant" Disney comic books of the fifties.
I was present in 1971 when Glenn Bray commissioned Barks's first
painting of the ducks. I knew Glenn's intentions were of the best,
but I could never quench the misgivings I felt about the paintingsas
objects, at first, for the reasons I've just stated, and then out
of concern about the paintings' ultimate impact on Barks's life
I bought one of Carl's paintings that same May day in 1971not
a duck painting, but a landscape called "Hay Day." (It's "too cartoony,"
Phyllis says; I'm sure she's right, and I'm sure that's why I like
it so much.) I didn't order a duck painting until I was somewhere
around sixtieth on the waiting list, and I fell off the list as
prices kept going up. In 1973, Carl and Garé gave Phyllis
and me a small painting of Uncle Scrooge, as a belated wedding present;
I treasure it, but I've never felt any regrets about not owning
one of the larger duck paintings.
Carl was, I'm sure, fully aware of my coolness toward the paintings.
I never felt that my skepticism about his oils strained our relationship
(which began with letters in 1966). Inevitably, though, as the paintings
and their spinoffs assumed a larger and larger place in Carl's lifeand
particularly after my book about him was finally published, in 1982we
were in touch less and less frequently.
When I saw Carl in 1991, it seemed that, financially at least,
the paintings had been an unalloyed blessing, but the events of
the succeeding few years, culminating in a lawsuit, changed my mind.
The Barkses were far from poverty-stricken before the duck paintings
came along. When Glenn Bray commissioned the first of those paintings,
they were living in a lovely, sunny home in Goleta, near Santa Barbara.
No doubt the paintings and the lithographs made from them contributed
marginally to the Barkses' comfort and security, but at a terrible
cost to Carl's peace of mind in his last years. The paintings, the
lithographs, the statuettesall of them were a terrible mistake.
How much better if he had never painted a duck.
A great deal of what I read and heard, in the weeks before and
after Barks's death, left me disturbed and anxious about his future
reputation. There was, for one thing, the anguished garment-rending
on the Internet after Carl's terminal illness became known; it felt
to me as false and worked-up as the mourning for the Ayatollah Khomeini.
It was not the way to take leave of a ninety-nine-year-old man who
had suffered terribly for months and who I am sure welcomed death
when it finally arrived. Inappropriate breast-beating can all too
easily give way to feelings of embarrassment, which can just as
easily metamorphose into resentment of the presumed cause of that
embarrassment. Were we really that upset about Barks? How annoying
of Barks to make us look so silly. And what was so great about Barks
It is through such mental processes that magnificent creators can
shrink in the eyes of people who owe them better. I fear that Barks
is being diminished in other ways, too, not least by the sort of
praise that stifles awareness of his most valuable qualities. Here
is, for example, Lloyd Grove, in an admiring piece in the Washington
Post: "It was as a storytellera children's book writer,
if you willthat Barks was exceptional." R. C. Harvey opened
a respectful, if distant, tribute in The Comics Journal by
writing, "Carl Barks created stories for children."
The quick and dirty answer to the latter statement is to say, well,
of course, he didhe was a comic-book artist
and writer, for crissake. To suggest that it's important that, say,
Harvey Kurtzman's or Jack Kirby's audiences skewed a little older
than Barks's is to split some very fine hairs. All of the great
comic-book creators wrote and drew for kids; what distinguished
them was not the nature of their audience, but how well they managed
to respond simultaneously to its demands and their own hearts' imperatives.
By that standard, Barks need take second place to none.
When he is measured by his best work, that is. Here we come to
the heart of the matter. What Grove was writing about, and what
Harvey may have had uppermost in mind, were Barks's stories for
Uncle Scrooge. It was as Scrooge's creator that Barks was
most readily identified when he died, and for many years his Scrooge
stories have been the ones most frequently invoked by his admirers.
Those stories are children's stories, often very good ones,
typically constructed with care so painstaking that it renders itself
invisible (the very quality so sadly absent from Don Rosa's earnest
Barks homages of recent years).
But the Uncle Scrooge stories are not Barks's best work.
That honor belongs to some of the storiesno more than a few
dozen in totalthat he wrote and drew for Walt Disney's
Comics & Stories and Donald Duck during a seven-
or eight-year period in the late forties and early fifties. By then
Barks had so thoroughly mastered the comic-book story as a medium
that he could make full use of the many hard lessons life had taught
him in his first five decades. His best stories are not children's
storiesthey are, instead, adult stories that children can
follow easily even when they're very young, thanks to Barks's unfailing
narrative clarity, and whose full meaning they can grow into, as
so many of us did.
It was because Barks's temperament permitted him to meet the demands
of child readers without flinching that he found himself liberated
to explore vast reaches of human behavior. Uncle Scrooge in his
earliest appearances was not just extraordinarily wealthy in a way
that a child could immediately comprehenddiving like a porpoise
through his cubic acres of cashbut he was also obsessed with
riches in a way that an adult could recognize.
In story after story published in those years, Barks revealed an
awesome understanding of how people's minds and hearts really workand,
typically, lead them astray. There was only rarely the sharp edge
of real satire in these stories; Barks was clearly too skeptical
about humans' capacity for salutary change to write stories that
had any sort of agenda behind them. However bleak his stories' underlying
message might be, though, it was always delivered with perfect comic
timing and robust comic action. He took seriously his obligation
to entertain the child reader.
I don't blame Barks because his work tailed off in the middle fifties,
from the great to the merely delightful. Given the political climate
thenand given Barks's acceptance, however grudging, of the
editorial constraints he worked within, whatever they were at the
timeit's hard to imagine that his stories could have retained
their sharp edge throughout the decade. But certainly his editors
were of no help. When Mark Evaniersolicitous, as always, of
the industry's legions of conscientious hackswrites in Comics
Buyer's Guide that "[Barks's] editorsChase Craig, in particularhad
more to do with the end-product than some Barks fans seem willing
to admit," he is all too correct. (To be fair, Evanier adds, "but
not a lot more." I disagree: I think the impact of Barks's editors
on his work was significant, and largely negative.)
What is already visible in Evanier's comments, and what threatens
Barks's reputation now, is a familiar leveling impulse, one that
tugs at our sleeves and asks rather plaintively that we tip our
hats to, say, Paul Murry and Tony Strobl as well as Carl Barks,
a leveling impulse that exalts the merely inoffensive at the expense
of the best. Such an impulse comes easily to the adult "fan" in
whom a child's natural lack of discrimination has hardened into
resistance to intelligent choices. I suppose you can be a John Byrne
fan as easily as you can be a John Grisham fan, but, especially
where Barks's best stories are concerned, "Barks fan" is an oxymoron
on the order of "Shakespeare fan." The artist's work is itself a
sardonic commentary on the sort of mind that can embrace something
There's no cure for all of these threats to Barks's standing as
a comics creator, except to keep asserting the value of his best
work (and hope that someone listens). I even despair sometimes of
Barks's work ever being properly reprinted. So many of the reprints,
like those in the Another Rainbow/Gladstone sets, seem harsh and
glaring by comparison with the comic-book originals (not to mention
travesties like the mutilated "Voodoo Hoodoo"). Photographing the
comic books themselves doesn't necessarily produce better results,
as the unfortunate reproduction in my own Smithsonian Book of
Comic-Book Comics proved. I can't think of a case in which I've
seen a Barks story reprinted and thought to myself, yes, that's
the right way to do it.
I used to worry a little about whether my strong feelings for what
I regard as Barks's best stories were rooted too firmly in my childhood
memories. I wondered if I treasured certain stories because I remembered
so clearly where I was when I read them or even where I was when
I bought the comic books. Re-readings have pretty much banished
that concern. I think now it is much more likely that I remember
those circumstances because the stories were so memorable, and not
the other way around.
Still, there is probably something about having been "present at
the creation" that gives Barks's stories a meaning for me that later
readers can't share. Just as, I suspect, the groundlings who first
heard Shakespeare's plays, in language that was wholly familiar
to them, and the shopboys who bought Dickens's novels in installments
and found themselves reflected in their pages, experienced those
masterpieces in ways that later readers cannot. Which is not to
say that those later readers won't experience Barks's stories in
ways that mean just as much to themperhaps struggling through
the modern comic-book equivalents of corrupt Elizabethan textsas
mine did to me.
Having known and loved Carl Barks himself gives the stories an
extra dimension for me, too, a not entirely positive one. I told
Carl, in my last letter to him, that he had been a stronger influence
for good in my life than any other man except my father. I felt
with Carl, as anyone would with such a father figure, a tangle of
emotions: a continual awkwardness, a sense that I was not doing
enough, or was doing things in the wrong way, or was not saying
the right things well enough or soon enough. My book about Barkswhich
should have been a source of joy to mewas instead a source
of endless frustration and anger, thanks to a spiteful publisher
and an incompetent typesetter. A reader who comes to Barks's stories
now, without all that emotional baggage, can probably enjoy them
with an untainted pleasure that I am no longer capable of.
I remember reading a collection of George Orwell's essays, years
ago, when I came across a sentence that almost made me drop the
book: "Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner
or later." I was reading that essay while returning from my first
trip to England, and my first (and so far only) visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.
The idea that Shakespeare could someday be forgotten was all but
inconceivablebut of course it's true. It has to be
true. And what is true of Shakespeare cannot be any less true of
a great writer whose finest work was published on newsprint in lightly
regarded magazines for children. The neglect of Barks's best work
today is, inevitably, only the prelude to a lasting lapse of memory.
That's a sad thought, perhaps, but it gives birth to a happier
one: how lucky we are to live in a time when Carl Barks's most wonderful
stories have not yet been completely forgotten. They are still with
us, nourishing the souls of those people fortunate enough to read
Goodbye, Carl, and thank you. Rest in peace.
[Posted May 2003]