Critical Cartoons is a book series and blog banner dedicated to comics criticism. To mark the release of Peter Schilling Jr.’s Carl Bark’s Duck, we present companion pieces to offer a little more on the subject of Carl Barks and all things Duck.
by Peter Schilling Jr.
As an artist seemingly obsessed with stories about earning a living in America, Carl Barks’ views on capitalism have been discussed in numerous sources, from Thomas Andrae’s brilliant Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity to Ariel Dorfman and Arman Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck (as well as numerous articles, papers, and web pages). Politically conservative (though loathe to discuss politics), Barks was a man who viewed American capitalism favorably, and this was reflected in many of his stories.
His best creation, Donald Duck (and the Donald we know today is, in fact, Barks’ creation, long since divorced from the early Disney cartoons) was a creature of work as much as Barks was—as I note in my book, Carl Barks’ Duck, Barks and Donald held a variety of wild jobs trying to make ends meet. Donald succeeded in some (stamp collecting, demolition, barbering) and failed in many more. Outside of cartooning, Barks failed outright, never making much of a living at any of his exploits outside of drawing Disney’s Duck.
Even here we see the man barely squeaking by—for his legendary comic “Lost in the Andes”, he earned a paltry $800… for a comic that sold around 3 million copies, which amounts to nine ten-thousandths of a penny per issue. Despite this, in later interviews, Barks has only great things to say regarding Disney (though he may have done so as not to threaten his livelihood creating oil paintings of Donald and Uncle Scrooge), and often spoke of his many financial failures with bemusement.
Had I been aware of the “lost” Barks short comic, which I’ll call “The Milkman” (as it has come to be known), I would certainly included it in Carl Barks’ Duck‘s seventh chapter, which examines Donald’s work stories. “The Milkman” is yet another shorter story that features our hero struggling with a job that he’s proud of—as the title implies, he delivers milk. Unlike the other work stories, however, this one serves as an unabashed (and a bit unrealistic) celebration of American capitalism.
The first panel shows Donald, exhausted and rising at 3 A.M. (!), to start his day. “Few people appreciate the lot of the milkman!” Barks’ writes in the dialogue box above the splash panel. The first page, of five total panels (including the half-page splash) shows our man with his eyes as slits, exhausted, beginning his day with a laundry list of troubles—two hundred customers, the cold “at this ghastly hour,” the various orders and his own amazement at the fact that he doesn’t screw up said orders.
Next the page literally and figuratively turns to suddenly see Donald proud and happy at his job: “I try to do my job right!” he says, and we see our milkman determinedly going about his work with intelligence and grit. He’s friends with the dogs, gives milk to the cats, tiptoes past windows so as not to disturb the slumber of his clients, and drops milk bottles “as silently as a feather falling on silk.” “Yessir, I try to be a perfect milkman!” Donald proclaims, walking steadily, though with an almost hypnotized look on his face (though that could be due to the insane hour of the day).
The following panels reveal Barks at his very best in terms of detail and panel composition. As with most of his shorter pieces, Barks’ panel layouts are fairly rote, eight per page, four rows of two panels each, which doesn’t change throughout this story (with the exception of page one, with its half-page splash). Drama is rendered with light and, to use a film analogy, “camera placement.” Donald is seen climbing a set of stairs, in a world of long shadows which are coming, we assume, from the moon or a streetlight (the comic that I have casts everything in a light blue, to indicate night, but Barks never colored his work or gave suggestions as to color, and since this one was unpublished, the coloring seems unimportant to our discussion). “Many of my deliveries are pretty hard to make!” he says, the narration now seeming to speak directly to us, or perhaps in a Studs Terkel-style oral history (Terkel certainly wasn’t on Barks’ radar when this was written, in 1957).
The next panel is gorgeous—there’s Donald, almost dancing around a porch littered with dangerous toys (tops and balls and trucks with wheels that he could slip upon), under a line of clothing hanging in the distance, our POV very low to the ground, grounding the scene much in the way Yasujiro Ozu did with his low camera angle. This gives great emphasis to the details on the porch, and the feeling of a thriving family, which will receive its nourishing milk from Donald. Despite his best efforts, Donald steps on a tack, yet keeps his mouth shut. And then the climax of this scene—a note, from the “poor widow who lives in this apartment!”
“I can’t pay for the milk you brought last month! But I need more milk for my little sick daughter!” Donald agonizes for exactly one panel, worrying about the fact that he will have to pay her bill, before happily stating, “I guess the treats are on me!”
Here we see Barks partially at his most maudlin (God, that note), but also showing off the heroics of his milkman, and essentially how great this world would be if everyone was just really nice to one another and did the right thing, the right thing being working hard. In this scene, however, one could certainly argue that he’s inadvertently revealed the weakness of capitalism as well—a poor mother doesn’t even have money for milk, but charity arrives from the pocket of the guy who can perhaps least afford it, the milkman. (Weirdly enough, Barks also undermines this gift, or deliberately diminishes its impact by calling the fresh milk “a treat”). God forbid this poor widow had any state assistance to feed her kids.
What occurs next is drama and slapstick and… cruel, for which this comic was rejected by Dell Publishing. Barks has crafted a workingman’s fable, but it needs its villain, and he arrives in the form of a man named McSwine. This portly, mustachioed ingrate seeks to get Donald fired so that he (McSwine) can take his job, where he will then “stretch out the milk with water, and cop myself some easy money!”
Forget that this makes no sense whatsoever (Why would he get the job? The milkmen also fill the bottles of sealed milk?), what transpires is wicked fun. McSwine creates a series of traps that make our man break bottles and knock shit over and “wake” McSwine (who was obviously always awake), and reduce Donald to a groveling factotum, apologizing and reminding himself that the customer is always right. Eventually, Donald reaches the end of his rope and, infuriated (even the nephews, recruited to help, become enraged), ends up, in a scene reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, slamming a window on the jerk’s hands, pinning him in place as they hogtie him and coat him in cottage cheese. One can assume it was this climax that caused Dell Publishing to reject it as “too cruel”.
The next day, the “scoundrel” (as Barks calls McSwine), calls the dairy to demand Donald’s firing. They assure him that yes, the Duck is gone. With this, the fat pig saunters down to the dairy to land that job, and meets the new boss—Donald Duck, who throws this guy five times his size out the front door.
And thus, the Capitalist fable has come full circle—a person who works hard, and with kindness, will be rewarded with success, in this case a promotion, and no more rising at 3 A.M., no more dealing with the McSwines or stepping on tacks. Barks was usually less blunt, framing his work stories as incredible adventures in his longer stories (“Lost in the Andes”, “Land of the Totem Poles”) or outright Mack Sennett-style slapstick extravaganzas whose engine is Donald’s vast ego. Here, Donald does everything right, and through his hard work, all is solved—hungry children get milk, evil is defeated, promotions abound.