Taking a Humorist Seriously
By Barbara Melendez
TAMPA, Fla. (April 22, 2010) – Carl Barks is hardly a household name. Yet, he’s an American whose name is known throughout Europe but scarcely in his native country. His work is known to countless baby boomers who grew up with Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. Though he singlehandedly wrote and drew over 7000 pages of comic book stories, the self-educated artist went unknown because his work was published anonymously under the Walt Disney banner. The creative talent of Carl Barks is now being introduced to students at the University of South Florida by a scholar who considers him an unsung hero and forgotten treasure – using a special collection of his work.
“I discovered that Carl Barks had written and drawn the very best Disney comics – the ones with that special “wow” factor for readers young and old – when I was in graduate school in the early 70s,” said USF English Professor Michael Shuman. “As it turns out, that wasn’t too long after Barks was ‘discovered’ by fans when Disney finally revealed Barks’ name.”
Shuman grew up reading Barks’ comics since he was nine years old, in the late 50s. He went from being entertained to becoming intellectually curious.
“Barks’ work interests me both as entertainment – his stories are fun to read and his art is appealing – and as social commentary,” Shuman said.
Seeing there was plenty to warrant serious consideration, Shuman’s interest inspired him to teach a course he titled Carl Barks and the Twentieth-Century American Humorist Tradition, to provide the attention he believes Barks deserves.
“Barks is an absolute master of satire,” said Shuman. “He’s right up there with Twain as an artist who looks at the American condition and exposes all sorts of foolishness in a context that appeals both to children and to adults. His characters have grown-up motivations and express adult foibles, yet the artwork and antics of Donald, Scrooge, and their waterfowl friends keep the kids laughing, too. Both Twain and Barks portrayed children as capable and intelligent, and kids often end up teaching the adults a thing or two in both authors’ works. That’s very appealing, of course, to a young audience, and the more mature messages are valuable for readers of any age.
“For example, in one story from 1948, Barks pokes fun at the new philosophy of child-rearing exemplified by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book on child care was published just two years earlier. Donald is counseled by Professor Pulpheart Clabberhead – ‘the friend of all children’ – to bring up his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in a permissive atmosphere allowing them to do just about anything without getting into trouble. So the kids proceed to paint on the walls, flood the bathtub, and pretty much destroy Donald’s house without their uncle exercising that famous temper. The story closes with Professor Clabberhead chasing the little ducks with a switch, ready to lambaste them for exploding firecrackers under his chair.
“Twain had the same way of exposing cultural shenanigans. In Tom Sawyer, everybody knows the scene where Tom tricks the other boys into whitewashing the fence. Then Twain steps back and says, ‘in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.’ That’s exactly the kind of lesson we learn from a Barks story.”
Making a strong case for taking Barks seriously, Shuman illustrates his key points in a variety of ways.
“In addition to giving students an excellent perspective on social and cultural trends in the mid-twentieth century, I think Barks’ visual narratives provide a great parallel with many of the great comic movies of the period. We’re watching films by the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Abbott and Costello, and I think my students are really picking up on the social commentary as well as the outright slapstick humor that Barks’ comic book stories has in common with these important films.”
Shuman relates to his class that Barks was poorly paid as an artist in the Disney Studios story department from 1935 to 1942 and only began making money during his retirement years in the 1970s when Disney granted him permission to paint the famous duck characters in oils. Shuman says those paintings now sell in the $200,000 – $500,000 price range.
Shuman is doing more than explaining who Barks was – a young man during the depression, who knocked around in a variety of jobs – logger, cowboy, printer and mule driver. “Barks’ hardscrabble life gave his comic book stories an edge of reality, and his stories show the positive spirit of the American people, who always seem to be able to laugh at their own misadventures.” The professor is also showing his students what Barks accomplished. Disney granted Shuman permission to create a course pack for his students with reprints of over 800 pages of Barks comic stories.
“It would have been impossible to locate inexpensive Barks material otherwise,” Shuman said. “Barks’ stories are still reprinted regularly in comic books, most recently by Gemstone Publishing, and some are reprinted now in hard cover format by the current license holder, Boom! Studios. But these go out of print very quickly and generally are expensive to buy on the back-issue or collector’s market.
“I think students are enjoying the Barks stories, particularly the longer comedy/adventures, and are a little bit amazed that there can be so much depth to a comic book tale. A few students had trouble getting used to the visual conventions of the comic book, but we’re reading Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics, and I think that’s helped quite a bit. Several students already were comic book readers when they came into the class, and of course they were able to take off with no problems.”
One of Shuman’s students is encountering something entirely new.
“I understood that we would be discussing comic books and Carl Barks’ work in general but initially had not given serious thought to the presentation of the material and what would be taught exactly,” said Dee-von Martinez, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in creative writing. “I realize now that comic art has a great history that started centuries ago and that it bears similarities and differences to other art forms like literature and film. The material that we have discussed in our class is very different from any other I have learned about. It is interesting to see that this type of material, comic book art, can be presented in a serious way that is informative, interesting, and relevant.”
Barks influenced others who have appreciated his work. Shuman explains that George Lucas acknowledges using Barks’ ideas in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“Remember that scene where a booby-trapped boulder comes careening toward a trapped Indiana Jones? The same thing happened to The Beagle Boys – the gang of prison-garbed dogs constantly trying to steal Uncle Scrooge’s fortune in The Seven Cities of Cibola, a Barks story from 1954.”
Lucas himself said: "What I think I enjoy most about Uncle Scrooge is that he is so American in his attitude. These comics are one of the few things you can point to and say: 'Like it or not, this is what American is.’ And it is for just this reason that they are a priceless part of our literary heritage.”
In another instance, Barks interfered with an inventor’s ambitions.
“Barks wrote and drew a story in 1949 that involved a rather ingenious method of raising a sunken ship: the ducks filled the ship with ping-pong balls, which apparently are buoyant enough to do the job. In 1964, a Danish inventor used pretty much the same method to raise a real freighter that had sunk in Kuwait’s harbor. But when he tried to patent the idea, the story goes, he was rejected because the Barks concept was already in print and therefore constituted ‘prior art,’” Shuman said.
All of Barks’ comic book work was collected in a 30-volume hardcover set published in black and white by Another Rainbow Publishing between 1984 and 1990. A similar set – in color – was recently published by Egmont in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.
“Barks is very nearly a household name in Europe but neglected in the United States, an unfortunate situation as his work is so entirely American in character,” Shuman said. “I think that Barks’ stories are underappreciated in this country because, first, we just don’t appreciate the comic book as a legitimate art form the way, say, the Japanese and the Dutch do, and secondly, because these comics are tough to find at an affordable price. I think it’s time to give Barks the scholarly attention his work deserves.
”A few students might have been put off at having to watch black and white movies or – yikes! –a semi-silent film like Chaplin’s Modern Times. But overall I think my students are learning some important things about American culture and having fun at the same time—and that’s been my goal all along.”
Disney characters copyright ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. Disney Enterprises does not sponsor or endorse the University of South Florida or the class described in this press release.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.