On History: Carl Barks' Duck Review

By | Tuesday, February 14, 2017 1 comment
I picked up Peter Schlling's Carl Barks' Duck, I think, last spring but, despite being barely over 100 pages, didn't get around to reading it until last week. Barks was, of course, famous for his Donald Duck comics which, although frequently unaccredited, were still known to be of superior quality. He was known as "the good Duck artist" and worked on those stories for about a quarter century. Schilling's book, then, examines some of Barks' stories to find out what made them so great.

I've probably read only a handful of Barks' comics over the years. As a kid, I think I found funny animal stories better suited to animation (or, at least, for the popular characters I was familiar with) so I didn't really get into the Disney or Warner Brothers comics much. As an adult who's trying to spend more time actively learning about the entire medium... well, there's just so much out there that I haven't really gotten to Barks yet. But that's one of the reasons I picked this book up: to see what the deal is, and what I should be on the lookout for.

Schilling divides his survey up into seven sections, and examines one or two of Barks' stories in each. Although each section is essentially just an overview of the story, Schilling weaves his commentary throughout, pointing out important elements as they crop up, and each section building on the themes and ideas presented in the one before. Several individual panels are reproduced in black and white in each section, and there's a collection of color plates towards the back to highlight splash pages and large spotlight pieces. These are all helpful, of course, but Schilling's verbal descriptions often make them unnecessary (although I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say redundant). I think there was perhaps one panel I wished had been included, not because it wasn't described well, but rather I simply wanted to see Barks' illustration technique.

Schilling's primary points are that Donald Duck, under Barks, represents the average American fairly well, and the stories contain the moral message that adventure and learning are joys unto themselves; any rewards on top of that are superficial at best. That the typical markers of success and winning are meaningless without the effort of trying in the first place. Trying and failing is better than not trying but still succeeding.

Schilling's writing is pretty casual and breezy. I read the entire book on a 3-ish hour plane ride, with an extended break in the middle somewhere. He makes his points well using, as I suggested above, picturesque examples. Although he's obviously quite partial to the material and harbors an obvious love of some of these stories going back to his childhood, he's still able to point out a variety of criticisms, not the least of which are some unfortunate racial stereotypes that Barks used. I think more could be said regarding those points, but Schilling's focus is on how Barks' portrays Donald himself and all other characters, including the eponymous Huey, Dewey, and Louie, take a notable back seat. So arguably, the racial depictions in these stories are a distraction from the points Schilling is trying to make, and could likely fill another volume by themselves. He does acknowledge these problems, at least, and admits that they are unfortunate tarnish marks against otherwise solid storytelling.

I know I certainly gained a better appreciation of Barks' work through reading Carl Barks' Duck, and I have a good list of stories to look fo specifically in tracking down Barks' actual work. At $12.95, I found this to be a more than worthwhile read and I'm be looking to see what other similar works publisher Uncivilized Books will be putting out in their Critical Cartoons line.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Matt K said...

I am on much the same page. I am aware of the classic duck comics' reputation. I fondly remember the Ducktales cartoon inspired by them. But of the comics themselves, I have only ever read a handful which my mother managed to hang onto over the years. (You have most of these now.) I'm not even sure who wrote or drew those.

There is, indeed, just so much material.