Helnwein, Gottfried.  Wer ist Carl Barks.
translated by Steve Ortman

Carl Barks - the Author
by Carsten Laqua

"My greatest source of enjoyment in Carl Barks' comics is in the imagination of his stories. They're so full of crazy ideas - unique and special..." George Lucas!

For those who have read them, the stories are, more than the drawings, what make Carl Barks' comics so unique. With clearly defined images, which are littered with gags and surprises, these stories appear even in the most exotic scenes almost always realistic.

Donald's Golf Game Sketch (by Barks)When Barks started to write a story he began according to his own accounts with the end. He invented a situation for his feathered protagonists and then decided how they could have arrived at that. According to Barks his ideas stem from his multi-faceted job life. How he then however was able to perfectly assemble all the small story segments into a complicated plot could never be answered by Barks himself. And thus this analysis will remain an attempt to reach the reasons of Carl Barks talent to writing stories. Inspiration cannot be explained by words. It can only described from the exterior. So says Barks' wife Garé: "During the night Carl would get an idea or a solution to something that bothered him in his sleep and awoke him. In the morning he would say that he had a wonderful idea but that he had not written it down. He could not remember it no matter how hard he tried. It was just gone. That's why he started to place pencil and paper to the bedside. I heard scribbling, scribbling, scribbling in the dark and said: 'Put the light on so you see what you're doing'"

Barks started with his drawing of comics as late as 1942, at the age of 41. Twenty years at different jobs had shaped him. That's why there is hardly any sentimentality in Barks' stories. Barks: "I have myself experienced the chasms of human beings, the intricacies of technology and the mercilessness of nature."

He had his "apprenticeship" with Disney. Since 1935 he worked there at first as drawer between two phases before he was taken into the Story Department of Walt Disney. Here had to work with a film star who had already been reasonably developed on the big screen: Donald Duck. Donald Duck #271 CoverThe Donald of his first stories where then like the one in the movies: one-dimensional, playing tricks, irascible and stupid. The work with cartoons was however considerably different from that of a comic artist. With Disney one looked for possible sequences of action. Gags to make it exciting was what Barks worked for every day. He soon realized that his talents where somewhere else. He always searched for a motif to find the focus of his story. He left the Disney-Studios on November 6, 1942. In a conversation with the author Mike Barrier, Barks judged his time with Disney as follows: "I would say the key reason was that you had to have a reason for everything. Once you had found a motif for everything you could put everything in it. I think it is that what I have most of all learned at Disney: to analyze whether a story was necessary or not."
At the beginning of 1943 "Western Publishing", which had the license to produce Disney Comics, contacted Barks. Even during his time with Disney he had drawn a comic book along with a colleague. Now it was the April edition of "Walt Disney's Comics & Stories" (WDC&S) for which Barks converted the existing manuscript into a completely drawn story. In May, already, did he write the script himself.

Barks started the structure of a manuscript normally with a few gags which he used to contrive a basic theme. This he then complemented into a story. Only when he had spread these in front of his mind to fit on pages did he know that he had enough substance.

At the comic convention of 1976 in Boston, Barks explained his subsequent procedure: "I tried every page especially those in the rear part of the story to end with a moment of suspense to make the reader curious for the next page. (...) Sometimes a story did not fit into this representation. But that's how we had learned it when we had worked with short cartoons. Every few seconds there had to be a climax on the screen. I have tried to conceive my Duck stories after this principle.

"At the outset I have bought a big black board and when I had finished half a page or a full page of blue pencil drawings I have pinned them in the correct order on it. After about five pages I have leaned myself back and looked at the big picture and read it in its entirety. Sometimes I have taken down two or three pages and erased a lot and changed. In this way I could better illustrate the development of my story."

Just as his black board equals the story board during the development of cartoons, the panels of Barks' early comic stories appear like frozen images from a film. Only in the second half of the 40s did he take something out of the action and put an equilibrium of drawings and dialogue in its place.

He created his characters in the same way as he crafted his action. He especially found room for that in the longer Donald Duck stories which originally appeared in Four Color comic books (they are now chronologically reproduced in the Barks Library: Donald Duck Adventures - Noted by the translator!). One can see this difference in comparison to the ten-page long humorous pieces in WDC&S with Donald Duck and his nephews. Mike Barrier described the difference in his biography "Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book" as follows: In the shorter stories Donald and his nephews fight each other, though in the longer stories they need each other. Therefore children could identify themselves with Huey, Dewey, and Louis because they on the one hand had to fight their own differences with their parents and on the other hand in the longer stories they could show how important, namely how grown-up they could be.

Toward the end of the 40s Barks started to use more and more distinctly the faces of especially Donald to show different moods  but also comical situations. Always added were polished dialogues. Barks understood exceedingly well how to combine exactly these two levels, those of the images and those of the texts, and at the same time he knew how to use them in a completely different form. Like almost no other comic artist Barks had been able to create comics that can be read to satisfaction by both children and adults alike. Barks used his freedom as a comic artist to let the dialogue exceed that what the images demanded. In difference to children books where the language of children is used the comics are already understood by viewing the images. So Barks could use the second level where the dialogues are in order to create something interesting for adults.

Barks' narrative talent expresses itself not only in the quality of the stories but in the many characters he invented without which today's Disney comics would be unimaginable. Aside of the characters taken from the Donald cartoons he soon invented many own characters. They were necessary for Barks to create a broader variety in his comics.

One of his earliest inventions was the irascible neighbor Jones who, after his potential was exhausted, disappeared after a few years from the scene. In 1946 Donald was given a girlfriend: Daisy Duck. At first she was only the bone of contention between Donald and another of Barks' creations, the always lucky Gladstone Gander. It was only later that Barks developed Daisy's character.

Barks created his most famous figure in 1947. The story "Christmas on Bear Mountain" sets out a grumpy old eccentric who said of himself: "I -I am different. Everybody hates me and I hate everybody!" With Uncle Scrooge Barks had created the perfect counterpart for Donald Duck. It is always Scrooge's stinginess that brings problems for Donald and which makes us feel for him and thus makes him for the perfect identification role for those of us who are always left behind.

The earlier Scrooge was modeled after Charles Dickens' "Scrooge" and Andy Gumps' "Uncle Bim", says Barks. Still Barks was yet contend with his character: "Scrooge in "Christmas on Bear Mountain" was only my first idea of a rich, old uncle. I had made him too old and too weak. I discovered later on that I had to make him more active. I could not make an old guy like that do the things I wanted him to do."

An important basis for the broadening of his realm of action already was laid in the next story featuring Scrooge. In "The Old Castle's Secret" (1948) Scrooge's money was used as a motif to make the Ducks travel to distant countries with all the other possibilities for up-coming stories.

Scrooge's money could be seen for the first time in "Letter to Santa" (Christmas Parade 1, Dec. 1949), again he wore a stick and glasses but was energetic like a young adolescent. Shortly after that followed his top hat. In 1951 Scrooge's hobby to bathe in his money was revealed but his future enemy number one was introduced, the Beagle Boys.

Scrooge soon became popular. Already in 1952 he received his own comic book: "Uncle Scrooge". The first story filled the whole magazine. In "Only a Poor Old Man" Scrooge was for the first time the main character of the story and was far more likable than before. Barks had realized that a grumpy old man was not a good main character. In the next comic book, in the wonderful "Back to the Klondike" Barks voluntarily gives away money to his youthful love. Such a "mistake" Scrooge hardly ever repeats later on. "Back to the Klondike" is a key story in Barks' work because here it is explained where Scrooge has all his money. Barks:

"On purpose I have made it appear as if Uncle Scrooge had made his money at a time when the world was not yet overcrowded and one could still go to the mountains and find riches. I have never seen in Scrooge one of those millionaires who have made their fortune out of the abuse of other people. Yes, he had a lot of money, but he was nevertheless no criminal."

In 1952 Barks had reached the peak of his creation. In his Duckburg there were already many characters that are today as up-to-date as they were then: the Beagel Boys, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose and naturallly Uncle Scrooge, to name only the most important. Barks created all of them.

A flock of "Donaldists" has tried to bring order to the Barksian universe. Who is related to whom? What kind of occupations did Donald have? How much money has Scrooge really? etc. The confusions that were created here only show that the continuity of Barks' universe does not lie in a continuous building up of the stories. Mike Barrier wrote to that:

"Barks similarily unsure about the amount of wealth of Uncle Scrooge.

to be continued...
translated by Steve Ortman
originally appeared in:
HELNWEIN, Gottfried.  Wer ist Carl Barks. 
Radolfszell: Neff Verlag, 1993. (p. 238-241)