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 Quincy Rhoads
It was Carl Jung who first recognized that, through time and across cultures, humanity’s collective efforts result in common traits, or archetypes. Joseph Campbell later refined Jung’s observations and directly applied these archetypes to mythologies in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Any standard nerd worth their weight in collectibles is familiar with Campbell’s work because it was a large influence on George Lucas, especially Star Wars.
The work of Carl Barks can be considered just as influential. Lucas and Steven Spielberg admitted that they were heavily influenced by Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comic “The Seven Cities of Cibola” when creating Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Lucas has gone on to speak highly of Barks’ work in other ways. Star Wars and works of Steven Spielberg represent their own sorts of mythologies, but frankly they wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the work of Barks before them.The comics of Carl Barks are significant because they tap into the same deeply influential archetypes that appear across world cultures, and in many ways, they establish this practice in the comics medium.
Nearly every story follows an archetypal mode; comic books are an excellent form for this to thrive in. They feed our human need for storytelling with their use of broad strokes in writing and art. Many comics, particularly those preceding the Modern Age, work with a clear-cut moral code. They reinforce humanity’s need for certainty in a cold, certainty-free universe. The actions of superheroes and villains, like the wrestling described in Roland Barthes “The World of Wrestling”, explicitly depict the interior lives of the audience in an unambiguous, simplified way. Barthes says: “This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.” This analogy is easily extended to the oeuvre of Carl Barks, and particularly the behavior of Donald Duck as told by Barks.
Throughout his numerous iterations, Donald Duck, like Superman, Captain America, Hercules, or Hamlet, is a character with firmly established characteristics. This is the norm across mediums, but it’s especially familiar in the realm of comics where money-generating licensed properties appear again and again. The core characteristics remain the same but, as in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman or David Tennant’s portrayal of the eponymous Hamlet, artists may leave indelible marks on properties that they do not hold the copyrights to. It’s worth noting that for many years Barks was simply known amongst his fan base as “the good duck artist” because only Walt Disney’s name appeared on the series’ cover. This infuriated many fans, especially Peter Schilling Jr. (as he states in his introduction to Carl Barks’ Duck). Fortunately for Barks, this faithfulness and persistence from his fans has afforded him the attention he’s due, securing his name as a visionary of comic book craft.
Carl Barks is known for creating Duckburg and many of its inhabitants (a fact that especially resonates with millennials whose first real exposure to the works of Barks were through the cartoon Duck Tales), but it’s his deployment of archetypes through Donald Duck that is especially significant. In many of Donald’s adventures, Barks places him in situations that turn him into a sort of everyman. Through Donald’s ever preset quest to succeed in get-rich-quick schemes (much akin to Scrooge McDuck, but in a significantly lower tax bracket) he becomes a stand-in for the American middle class, the same audience who made up Barks’ audience. Donald and his nephews work jobs that are, frankly, bizarre—particularly the kelp harvesting business in “The Ghost of the Grotto”, and their quests for unicorns, the gold of various Northern and Southern Native Americans (in several different storylines!), square eggs, et al. Yet these jobs have a simple commonality: the procurement of wealth, the elusive stretch Rolls-Royces, the parity to Uncle Scrooge.
Of course, Donald rarely keeps his reward. He even returns the expense money advanced to him and the boys in “Trail of the Unicorn” because that’s the honest thing to do. Donald, as written by Barks, is not just a caricature of anger and greed, as many of Walt Disney’s other iterations have shown him to be. Rather, he is the model American—a duck readers can aspire to be. The cynical critic may write this off as capitalist hegemony, but to do so would be to ignore the craft behind Barks’ writing. Carl Barks is not known for creating the most riveting dialogue or narration, but his imaginative plotting is unparalleled. With crisp, clean line work he developed a kinetic energy and a limitless sense of adventure that has influenced comics ever since.
The world of comics is vastly different from that of Carl Barks in the early 40s. Pop culture’s views on comics are ambivalent—they kill at the box office, yet local shops flounder. What has remained a constant, though, is the world’s need to reassert values—to see our experiences reflected and clarified through the 4 color lens. The comics of Carl Barks embody these needs more clearly than any other creator. They inspire adventure, they assert right from wrong, and they are identifiable. Carl Barks’ Duck is more than a corporate license. He’s a stand in for us all.
Quincy Rhoads is a freelance writer. He’s written for HTMLGiant and Rain Taxi.