Helnwein: How would you like the idea of building an actual Duckburg one day?
Barks: Who can tell what Duckburg really looks like?
Helnwein: If one studies your work carefully, there are a lot of indications. The money bin for example.
Barks: Yeah, the money bin is probably the outstanding building in Duckburg.
Helnwein: But I remember one in which the opening panel was a picture of the ducks up on top of a sky-scraper, looking down onto a big busy city with tall,mighty buildings, a wide river and steamboats.
Barks: I remember, yes. But that wouldn't be the Duckburg that people should remember. It would have to be a smaller Duckburg, with Daisy's and Donald's house in it and a few blocks further, Gladstone Gander's home; and naturally there would have to be Gyro Gearloose's workshop.
Helnwein: With all his absurd inventions, machines and robots. . .
Barks: And then up on the hill -- the gigantic money bin...
Helnwein: On one side the Beagle Boys would be drilling a hole into the exterior walls where the money would roll out. And inside the money bin everything would be guarded by traps these old canons, for example, that pop out of the ground. I would construct them in such a way that they would all function as you walk in.
Barks: oh yeah, one could have a lot of fun with such a money bin.
Helnwein: I always dreamed of diving through the money like a porpoise with Scrooge McDuck and burrowing through it like a gopher and tossing it up and letting it hit us on our heads.
Barks: In Germany they are still printing a lot of these duck stories, aren't they?
Helnwein: Yes, I think Germany is the greatest market for Donald Duck comics worldwide. There you'll also find the most fantastic fans. Have you ever heard of the Donaldists?
Barks: The Donaldists?
Helnwein: It is an association. Or better, an order, which sees itself as the keeper of the grail of the eternal and pure spirit of Donald. They believe that Duckburg actually exists.
Barks: Oh, I remember. I believe I did get one of their magazines.
Helnwein: Do you know, by the way, that your stories were translated into German quite brilliantly by a woman named Erika Fuchs.
Barks: She must have been very good, because in my conversation with fans, I always had the impression that the German readers best understood my humor, in contrast to the Italians, for example, where the spirit of my stories apparently was lost in the translation.
Helnwein: The Italians?
Barks: Yeah, the Italians, they really butchered the stories.
Helnwein: Erika Fuchs did translate the whole spirit, the meaning of the words.
Barks: I don't know how she did it-she must have had a very good knowledge of English.
Helnwein: What was the first comic strip you ever saw in your life?
Barks: Oh, - that was a long time ago, it was in my childhood around 1906 or 1907.
Helnwein: What was it? Little Nemo?
Barks: Yes, Little Nemo was the first comic that I remember - and then came "Happy Hooligan" and others, but I most clearly remember Windsor McCay 's Little Nemo - wonderful drawings.
Helnwein: Did you imagine back then, that you would be drawing comics yourself?
Barks: I believe so. I always wanted to know how to make something like this and I had a great desire to try it myself.
Helnwein: These stories used to appear in the Sunday paper in those days, didn't they?
Barks: Yes, we got the paper around Tuesday. In San Francisco the paper appeared on Saturday or Sunday, but we up in our home ranch saw it by the middle of the following week and it was always a total hit. We were living on this ranch up in eastern Oregon.
Helnwein: Which comic strip inspired you the most?
Barks: Oh, I've been asked that question many times. I can't think about any less than a dozen of them.
Helnwein: Popeye the Sailor?
Barks: One of them could have been Popeye the Sailor. I loved the stories,but I didn't care much for the drawings.
Helnwein: You liked the stories?
Barks: Oh, the stories were very funny, yes.
Helnwein: . . . and strange.
Barks: Yes, the construction of the stories, and the way the gags were phrased, and the way these absurd characters would be introduced. Weird-and they made no sense. Fascinating (laughs).
[Interruption of tape]
But I guess I was more influenced by drawings. I liked the art. I was more inspired by that than the stories or gags. So I was quite a collector of comic strips that had good artwork in them, like Prince Valiant.
Helnwein: By Hal Foster.
Barks: Yes, and Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond. There was no humor, and their stuff, their stories, were really awful-but I could just sit there and look at the drawings and be inspired. Of course, I couldn't use those drawings very much in doing the duck stories later on, except for the background or the atmosphere of the places the ducks had to go. That inspired me to do some nice drawings in there, and it helped to put those duck stories over and make them popular. You know? Because they appeared to go to real places.
Helnwein: What was the first story you wrote yourself?
Barks: That one here-that was in spring of 1943. They sent me a script from the studio-or from the editorial office. So then I got to do the second and third story, and as I went along, I was beginning to get pretty well established writing stories. At that time it was OK to make black ducks; in those days it was still possible to draw these black ducks. But today nobody would dare to do that, because it is insulting the blacks.
Helnwein: Well, I like those black ducks.
Barks: But look at this duck with the earrings; that would be totally impossible today.
Helnwein: Outside of Donald were there any other Disney character you liked?
Barks: There was one I couldn't stand; it was Disney's Goofy.
Barks: Goofy was simply a half-wit. I could never understand what was supposed to be funny about a half-wit. I liked Mickey for his purposes. He was good in adventure strips.
But the thought of having to draw something like this did not appeal to me. I enjoyed working with the duck because I could knock him around, and have him get hurt, I could let him fall off cliffs. It was lots of fun with Donald. With Mickey it would have been kind of dangerous, because Micky always had to be right. He always had to come out the winner. With the duck I had a comedian that I could treat badly and who I could make fun of.
Helnwein: Donald was the looser type.
Barks: That's right, he was a kind of looser.
Helnwein: But one with whom one could identify and whom one could love.
Barks: There were many other characters in Disney, but I cannot remember a single one who has survived.
Helnwein: What about Pegleg Pete?
Barks: Yes, he was a great scoundrel. But they also had Jose Carioca, a parrot, for a while, who came out of the "Saludos Amigos" animated movie. I don't think he ever became very popular with the people, because he was such an over-baring little snob - such a little know-it-all snob, I don't think he went over very well with the public.
Pluto was in a lot of their comic-strips, but he was a very artificial dog, so different from any idea one might have of a dog. I never liked him very much. He was a dumb dog, you might say.
No, when I think of all the characters Disney ever had, Donald was the best of all.
Helnwein: But before you took him on, he didn't have a personality. Only in your stories did he become a real human being.
Barks: That's right, he was just a quarrelsome comedian for their animated movies.
Helnwein: And you made a real personality out of him.
Barks: It seems that way. If you have a story to tell that somebody's going to be able to read over and over again, you have to put some substance into it. It takes more than just a bunch of pratfalls and bumps on the head. There had to be motivation for the different things the characters did, andrevenge for their mistakes. (laughs)
It took a lot to write a ten-page story. A lot of the guys didn't take the time to go into it that far and as a result there were a lot of the comic book stories that never lasted for very long. They came out and sold on the news-stand and were never heard of again.
But with my stories, because I worked so hard to make the story plausible and give it a reason for having been written, people would read it over and over again. They didn't throw the comic book away. So those stories are still alive today, while many others are gone and forgotten.
Helnwein: Did you have contacts to any other comic artists?
Barks: Very few. I remember one who was pretty successful with doing stories for Western Publishing. He told me I was foolish to put so much work into my duck stories. He had just started to work for a New York publisher who was putting out some stories about a couple of crows. And he said, "Oh, you can get twice as much per page than you're getting from Western Publishing." But I just couldn't see myself writing for those bunch of crows I didn't like their style or their reason for being there. They were just a couple of pushy jerks, and saw no chance to invent stories that had substance or any kind of dramatic development for that.
"Well", I said "I'd rather keep on like I am, on peanut wages but getting some personal satisfaction out of the stories that I write."
Helnwein: Over the years you have fully developed Duckburg with all its different personalities.
Barks: Oh yeah, that just evolved out of the fact that I had to keep getting some material to create new interests in each story I wrote . . . expanding little by little, making more of the city of Duckburg the places were these events take place and a little more about the people that Donald had to contact and do business with. The whole family just gradually grew and so did Duckburg.
Helnwein: It's funny, but I and many others of my generation have learned a lot from these stories, because they always contained some real information. Seriously, I've learned more from Donald Duck than I have in all the schools I went to.
Barks: Well, I don't know exactly why I did so much research for my stories but I had the feeling the ducks had to go to real places otherwise the stories would look silly. I know in the other duck stories in comics they went to islands like Booga Booga or something like that, places that didn't have any relation to reality. And they made their drawings in little squiggly backgrounds which didn't have the right character of, for example, the South Seas.
When I sent my ducks to an island in the South Seas, I gave it a name that sounded very much like it could actually be on the map of the South Seas. And I would go and look at pictures of plants and trees there, and islands and the mountains, and all the rest and I made my background look like the ducks went to just such a place.
Helnwein: At one point you became a little too realistic - do you remember the story about this chemical formula, which existed in reality, but which was a top military secret of the US.
Barks: Well, I'll tell you - I just stole that out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a big article on chemistry with all different chemical formulas and it was written in this gibberish - NH4 CH4 and so on and I just looked at a whole string of those things and looked at about the middle of that. And I thought "Well maybe it's harmless enough if I just take these bunch of chemicals and sort of jumble them up and stick them on a piece of paper." Well, that is what I did, and it turned out that it was a chemical formula.
Helnwein: A secret formula, wasn't it?
Barks: Yeah, it was a formula that would make some very powerful chemical substance.
Helnwein: How did you find out? Did the FBI or CIA contact you?
Barks: No, no, some fans wrote about it. They said that it was actually a formula for some chemical-but I don't remember what exactly it would do.
Helnwein: You are one of those few people after whom a planet was named.
Barks: Well, it was an asteroid. That came from one of my later stories, called "Island in the Sky," where the ducks tried to find a place for Uncle Scrooge to hide his money. And they passed a bunch of these small asteroids on the way there and some of these asteroids-they looked real, just like a jumble of rocks up in the sky-but when Donald stepped on one of them they went right down through them. And some of the men there at Cornell University where they had a whole laboratory for studying asteroids-with telescopes and everything-studying those things for generations I guess-somebody there read that comic book and thought that was quite a thing that these ducks could run onto a bunch of peculiar
asteroids on their way to the asteroid belt-little wandering objects in the sky, and they have little worlds instead of being just a bunch of blank rocks like we are taught to think of these objects in the sky. Anyway, they thought that was pretty good. My stories made the asteroids interesting and opened a possibility that there might even be some among them that would have a few vegetables growing on it.
Helnwein: And so they named one of their asteroids after you?
Barks: And so they named one of their discoveries after me: 2730 Barks. He wrote, telling me that they had named an asteroid after me and why and explaining what size it was. I guess there must have been about a hundred or two hundred acres of soil on it. In Uncle Scrooge's Life and Times on the very back page, there is a picture of it-a little dot on a big photo of the sky.
Helnwein: Well, you have a place to escape to when this world is destroyed.
Barks: In any case it would be big enough for a money bin.
Helnwein: But first you need to get there. You'd need Gyro Gearloose to make you a rocket.
Barks: Yeah, that's right.
Helnwein: Did you meet Disney personally?
Barks: Oh yes - I went to story meetings with Walt. Well, we were working in the story department-he was the guy who'd come in at the last session and a couple of times he also joined the production of one of these stories.
Helnwein: For the animated movies.
Barks: For the storyboards. All the drawings were up there and that's how we worked out the story.
Helnwein: How was it to work with him? There are people who claim that he was a dictator.
Barks: Well, I'll tell you, if you had a really good story, he was a very pleasant guy to have in the room. He would laugh and contribute more gags. But if the story wasn't good, he was a very critical guy. Well, he had to be. After all, it was his money that was paying us our wages, so if the story wasn't good, he would let us know. But generally we were very careful to have the story in pretty good shape before we ever showed it to him.
Helnwein: Was he really competent?
Barks: Oh yes - he knew exactly when a gag was going to fall flat. He would tell you that it needs more work or it needs to be shortened.
Helnwein: Did he also care about the drawing or was he more interested in the gag?
Barks: Well he didn't care much about the drawings. They just had to be enough of a drawing to put over the story. If we had made sharp, detailed drawings, high-class art, he would have gotten mad at us. He'd say: "I'm paying you guys to think of ideas and stories and to get something moving."
Helnwein: How many artists were involved with the story process?
Barks: Well, there were two guys on the story crew. And they'd just make very crude sketches, letter the dialogue-big type, so that you could sit, like here, and read the whole thing up on this wall in front of you on these storyboards without having high-powered glasses on.
Helnwein: How many people were in the sessions?
Barks: For a story conference there’d be Walt and the guy who was going to be the director of the story and the stenographer. And there would be a couple of other story crews from other story units.
Helnwein: There were several story units?
Barks: Yeah, maybe there'd be as many as eight-eight or ten people in the room. Walt didn't want to sit there and be the sole judge of what was on the storyboards. He wanted to get a kind of general reaction. He liked to hear somebody laugh back behind him or somebody pop up with some spontaneous idea that would help the story.
Helnwein: Were all these story units working on the same film?
Barks: Oh, no. They were just working on their own stories. Some were on the Pluto unit and others on the Mickey unit. And my partner and I would have to go to their story conferences whenever they had a story that would be shown on the wall. Yeah, the Pluto unit, and there was another duck unit, and a Goofy unit. But the Goofy and the Mickey unit didn't come in on our duck stories very often. Just once in a while.
Helnwein: Did Walt Disney recognize the quality of your gags and acknowledge it somehow?
Barks: Oh, evidently he did. He knew which of the story men was contributing the most to the stories. He could tell.
Helnwein: How many people worked on the final drawings?
Barks: That was all after the story had been accepted and photographed from those big storyboards. Then it went to the director, and the director would break it down into scenes and hand the format to the layout men. The layout men would make detailed drawings of what the place was like where the ducks were going to be doing this thing. It's like when we made sea-scouts, for instance. Donald and the three nephews planned to sail a boat, but I can't remember much about the thing anymore. It's so long ago. But the layout men would make drawings of this boat they were on. If it was a sailboat, why, they would have the rigging all drawn and make still-drawings of the ducks to show their size in relation to whatever it was the background was going to be. Then they would hand the layout over to the background department men, who made beautiful colored paintings of that.
Helnwein: And how many people worked on the final drawings?
Barks: Well, I guess on a story, counting the two original story men and maybe the guys that furnished one or two of the original gags, and the layout men, and the animators-I would say about fifteen all together. All of whose work went into one of those little movies.
Helnwein: And others would draw on the cels?
Barks: Oh, yeah. The ducks were being drawn and painted on cels. Transparent cels that lean over on top of these background paintings.
Helnwein: Lots of work.
Barks: Oh yeah.
Helnwein: You just showed me an old sketch, which you made during a union meeting. There are different caricatures of people, who are pointing at a figure of Hitler; what does that mean? Was there a union speaker holding a speech at the time?
Barks: Oh, well, that was after work, of course. That was in some building in Hollywood. After the Disney strike, we had a union formed, and all the people were supposed to go there and discuss union business about salaries and working conditions and all, and instead it was a bunch of these warmongers that were trying to get the United States to declare war on Germany and march our boys off to fight. And most of us guys in there didn't want the United States to get into the war at all. We thought, "Why in the hell?" We were over there and fought with Germany way back in 1916 and 1917, and it was supposed to have settled and brought peace to the world for all time. And here we are back again sending out guys over there to die, to have another fight with Germany. It just seemed like a repeat of a very dark tragedy to most of us in the studio. They resented the fact that we were being told by Melvin Douglas, a notorious communist that we had to go to war in order to save Russia from the Nazis, who were standing at the gates of Stalingrad. We didn't give a damn which side won as long as we could stay out of it.
Helnwein: Was Disney present at these meetings?
Barks: Oh, no. None of the Disney brass was there at all. This was a labor union.
Helnwein: Were you there when the great strike took place?
Barks: I was one of those in the story department. I wasn't affected by the strike. The story department wasn't striking. It was the animators and inbetweeners who were striking. The guys in the story department went through the picket lines every morning.
Helnwein: What was your view of the strike?
Barks: I was against the strike myself. I felt that they were destroying something there. The Disney studios were a place where there were no time clocks-you could come to work when you felt like it in the morning, and if you attended to your job and worked well and did plenty, you got paid pretty darn well. if you were one of the shirkers and a complainer and all, why, you would never get a raise. So it was the shirkers and complainers mostly who had organized this strike.
Helnwein: Do you think that Disney was fair to the artists employed by him?
Barks: Oh, he was fair, yes. Of course, he could have been a little more humane to his employees, but after all, those were hard times and he took a whole bunch of us guys in, who were lucky to make ten dollars a week at some kind of a job, and gave us twenty dollars a week. I know that a lot of the guys weren't grateful for that. They felt that if one of Disney's films made $100,000, that they should get half of that. Walt would take and spend the whole hundred thousand dollars on making a whole new movie.
Helnwein: Did Disney ever comment on your Donald Duck stories?
Barks: I don't even know whether or not he ever read my stories. It was the people from the publication department who took care of these things and who represented Disney's interests regarding the comic books. They knew what I did and the fact that they didn't lose their jobs and were all in there for the long term, getting good salaries, shows that Disney was satisfied with what they were doing. So I guess he was satisfied with what I was doing.
Helnwein: Did you learn about all the places you describe in your stories just from National Geographic Magazines?
Barks: Well, that was the biggest source of my information on world geography and nations and people and places.
Helnwein: Did you ever go to any of these places?
Barks: (Laughs) No, I've been in Tijuana, Mexico, and in Victoria, British Columbia.
Helnwein: Do you remember, when you drew the first duck in your life?
Barks: I think in grammar school, I scribbled one into a notebook. I drew the first Donald in 1935, when I came to Disney.
Helnwein: This was for animated films?
Helnwein: So your Donald was the first duck for a comic strip?
Barks: No, I think it came out in the newspaper first. They had a newspaper strip of Donald Duck.
Helnwein: But those newspaper strips were very short, right?
Barks: Yeah. And then they decided they could use a complete story just for Donald Duck. It happened that I was ready to leave the studio at that time and try that kind of business. And it worked out just right. The very first ten-page story was sent to me by the office, the editors. It was, well, not very well written and I revised the story a little bit. Made it gain a little character. And then, after that, I wrote the stories and drew them.
Helnwein: That's an incredible talent, to be able to draw it and really create the whole story.
Barks: Well, that was why they were a little better than the others. Sometimes, I would write the story and another fellow would make the pencil drawings and another guy would do the inking - all the spontaneity goes out of it.
Helnwein: Was there censorship at Disney?
Helnwein: Was your work ever censored?
Barks: They didn't censor it very often. Well, I'd worked for seven years at the Disney studios and had a pretty good idea of what they could use and what they couldn't.
Helnwein: I am thinking of the espionage story with all the spies and counter-spies and counter-counter-spies, where you drew beautiful human girls with real breasts.
Barks: Well, I got in trouble in about the second or third story that I wrote for them. I had Donald as being a lifeguard and I had this lovely duck woman - I sure got told off about that. The guy who was the art editor at the publisher made me spend a few hours down at his office just flattening the breasts of this gal.
Helnwein: Would you have liked to write more erotic stories with attractive girls if it had been allowed?
Barks: Oh, I would have loved to draw them.
Helnwein: So without these censorships you would have brought more sex into these stories?
Barks: I would have liked that. There wouldn't have to be more sex, necessarily, but just pretty girls. These girls that I had in the spy story, they were not “sexy”, but the fact that they had human faces, that is what the editors were objecting to. Because they didn't want to cross the line here where we've got these ducks working with people-real people.
Helnwein: But Donald liked these girls. He thought they were sexy.
Barks: Oh, yeah. Well, I'll tell you, at about the same time Disney had put out this animation movie Saludos Amigos in which the ducks were traveling down in South America. And Donald behaved like a real wolf. He was a lecher! He was just chasing all these pretty girls. Yeah, I think that was one of the reasons why I thought I could get away with it. But no. The comic books were for kids.
Helnwein: Was "The Milkman" the only story they didn't print because of too much brutality?
Helnwein: "Holy Night" was another one?
Barks: Yeah, that was another, and then there was one I made in which Donald was in a footrace at some fair or festival. it was a parody of the old story "The Golden Apples"-in mythology there was some guy who had to race against one of the goddesses. And another goddess gave him a bunch of golden apples, and he would throw these over his shoulder
whenever she got close to him, and she would stop to pick them up, and he'd get further ahead. And he managed to win the race. That was the old myth. So I based it on that, and I can't remember the details, but Donald would throw these apples over his shoulder-symbolic apples- and this beautiful duck girl that was racing against him would stop to pick
up the apples and Daisy was so jealous.
Helnwein: I believe it.
Barks: She started throwing things at Donald. And so they scratched the story. They said that Daisy was too unladylike. All of that stuff disappeared. I never read anything more of it. Never heard what became of the drawing.
Helnwein: When you retired, you began to paint in oil. But you were not allowed to paint your ducks, since the copyright belonged to Disney, didn't it?
Barks: Yeah. For five years I was just painting and drawing little landscapes and things. Selling them at art shows. And I wrote a bunch of scripts for the Junior Woodchucks. I did about fifteen of those I think. Those were pretty lean years. I wasn't making very much money out of it. But then, in 1971 1 think it was, some guy came by and asked if I could paint him a picture of that little old sailboat cover-September 1949, Disney Comics. Well, I told him, "Hell, no. I can't paint anything like that-with Disney ducks. I'd have to get permission." So he said if I could get permission, he would buy a painting. Well, I thought that might be a good way to make a few dollars, because I wasn't having much luck selling my other kind of paintings. I wrote George Sherman, who was in charge of the Disney publications department, and asked if it'd be all right if I painted this painting. He wrote back and said, "Sure. Go ahead." He could give me that permission for one year, so that started me off. I had permission to paint these ducks and sell them. He said they had to be paintings that were good enough that the Disney studio would not be ashamed of them, of course. So when I sent him a photograph of the painting, why, I got no complaint at all.
Helnwein: So you have been painting since then?
Barks: Oil paintings. Yeah, sure.
Helnwein: And you were able to keep the permission to paint and sell this art-work?
Barks: That's right. By the time a year had gone by, I had orders for enough paintings to keep me painting for another two or three years. And Gare called them up and said, "Hell, the year is up and I've got all these orders from people that want these paintings and what should I do?" And George said, "Well, as long as you don't say anything about it." Don't pester us, in other words, about the things, but just keep on doing it-act as if it was all right, and as long as I keep doing good high quality work, why, it is all right with them.
Helnwein: Were you allowed to reproduce them? To print them?
Barks: Oh, no. No, I could paint something which is sold to somebody and he could keep that painting to hang on his wall-now that was as far as it could go. So along in 1976, there was a guy up in San Francisco who took one of those paintings and made reproductions of it. And he took the reproductions and sold them for about $70 a piece, and he brashly sent me a royalty of I think about $5 for each one that he sold. And I thought, "Good God! This is not right. This can't go on. He should pay a royalty to Disney's for the use of their characters." So I let Disney's know what was
happening. Oh, Disney's right away just stopped. No more. Don't paint any more paintings, because we were afraid of this kind of thing would start to happen. So we just had to stop it. And I was so glad- I was tickled to death to be out of it, because the guys-the collectors-had begun to get real darn pushy. I could make a whole dozen of them mad because I had painted a painting for somebody that they thought they should have. Somebody that they thought had gotten ahead of them on the list. And it was impossible to keep track of the list. So that is one of the reasons why I just had to get out of the business. It had just got to be too much trouble to keep all these guys happy. And I was getting tired of painting ducks for that time anyway.
Helnwein: But you started again after a while?
Barks: Well, it was 1976-1982. That is six years' rest, six years of painting other things. And then another company got the license to put up lithographs, and they needed new duck paintings to go with those lithographs. That's where I started painting ducks again, for this new order. I could go ahead and paint ducks and sell the paintings. But now I reached a point where I'm used up-don't feel like I ever want to paint another duck again.
Helnwein: You will never paint a duck again?
Barks: I feel like I don't want to ever paint a duck again.
Helnwein: You must have drawn and painted millions of them.
Barks: I've painted so many of them. Yes, I've grown very tired of the subject.