Carl Barks' and Floyd Gottfredson's Disney Comics Are Great Popular Art

Categories: Comics
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Artists of vision toiling within the gears of a vision-suppressing machine, Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson drew and wrote great swathes of the best popular art of the twentieth century, mostly in the least auspicious venues available: comic books and comic strips credited to Walt Disney.

There, the work did what popular art too often doesn't: It actually delighted the millions who read it, rather than merely distracted or killed time for 'em.

Fantagraphics is currently collecting the work of both artists: Barks's transcendent Donald and Scrooge McDuck comics, and Gottfredson's sprightly Mickey Mouse serials. To the publisher's credit, the books are gorgeous but designed for readability rather than display. This is great art you can guiltlessly peruse in the bathtub.

First, the ducks. The initial volume in the Barks series is available this month, and it's all pleasure, a treasury of deceptively simple gag and adventure stories that fashioned with wit, irony, and impeccable craftmanship. These mid-century tales star Donald and his nephews, with cameo appearances from Uncle Scrooge, a Barks creation seen here in his earlier, more miserly days.

The longer stories here -- "Lost in the Andes," "The Golden Christmas Tree" -- are suspenseful, surprising, funny, and fresh, even when many of their elements are familiar adventure-comic standbys. Here, Donald attempts to batter in the door of a witch up to no good. She responds with a conjuration as funny as anything in the best years of Mad or The Simpsons:

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Funny as that is, these '50s stories are often adventures on a grand scale, and the stormy seas and jungle journeys are more thrilling than anything Hollywood (or Disney himself) was at the time imagineering.

These tales concern mysterious islands, lost civilizations, and -- perhaps inevitably -- man-eating natives, a fixture of cartooning in the first half of the last century. Barks worked this tradition later than most, and in these stories he acquits himself honorably: His natives are full-fledged individuals who only turn on the white folks (or, in this case, the ducks) after suffering at the hands of Uncle Scrooge's imperialistic capitalism.

Seriously, Uncle Scroooge's rubber business is painted as something like United Fruit, which prompts a native tribe to dispatch an old-school vodoun zombie to rub him out. Barks finds sympathy for the tribe and the zombie both -- as well as several spectacular gags.
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The hangdog zombie is somehow totally Disney, and quietly moving, but also as absurd as a Don Martin oaf.

In addition to four full-length adventure stories, all smart and satiric and crafted by Barks at the top of his game, Fantagraphics has included nine amusing ten-page stories, in which Donald is less of a pluckish everyduck and more of a harried uncle, as well as a host of one-page gag strips and many pages of illuminating notes. These kids' comics are far from kids' stuff -- this is for everyone.

Next: Mickey Mouse and the Temple of Doom


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