Carl Barks is a titan of early American Comics History, and one that is not associated with the superhero genre. For this reason, and because I had read reprints of his Scrooge McDuck stories as a child, I was motivated to review this Fantagraphics Books anthology. It covers both short and long form works by the artist from 1948 to 1949.
The first, and to this reviewer most inventive, of these stories is the titular “Lost in the Andes”. Here we see Donald Duck as the fourth assistant museum janitor, when he makes a startling discover about a group of cubed stones – they are actually eggs! Of course an expedition is hatched to find the chickens that would lay square eggs, and Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie are just the ones to end up making the arduous trek up the Andes to find the chickens. They finally stumble through mist in the upper Andes Mountains (in a sequence that Jeff Smith of Bone perhaps paid homage to many years later) and land in an area that appears to be a forgotten Incan city.
Barks is at his best in these exotic locales. In fact, one can discover in the back and front matter that has been curated by Fantagraphics that Barks often drew from National Geographic as a starting point for these fantastical departures. These essays in the front and back of this collection add a great deal of contextualization to Barks’ work and help to place it in a broader context. Readers will learn from these essays that though his work on the Donald Duck and other Disney books were unsigned, people recognized the quality and as the “good artist” he developed a legion of fans.
One area that this contextualization is absolutely necessary is the racist depictions of certain peoples and characters in some of the stories. The most egregious of these takes place in the “Voodoo Hoodoo” zombie story. This story is set in motion by the rapacious greed of Scrooge McDuck some seventy years before. He used thugs to evict a group of Africans from their land and a “Witch Doctor” sent a zombie after him. The zombie mistook Donald for Scrooge and thus Donald and the nephews were embroiled in a new adventure. So, in the story, we see a townsperson, Bop Bop, drawn in a Jazz outfit with exaggerated facial features and speaking with a stereotyped black dialect. The only thing that a person in 2012 can reasonably see is a racist depiction of a black person. When the ducks and the zombie Bombie make their way to Africa we see Africans drawn in blackface. While this is the most egregious, it isn’t the extent of the racist, or borderline racist, examples in this volume. Public and school libraries need to be aware of this before purchasing and leveling the title for your collection.
This is some of Barks’ earlier comic book works with Donald Duck and the triplets Huey Dewey and Louie. We also see appearances by Gladstone Gander and Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge in particular was heavily featured as the main character in later versions of the Duckville stories. The shorter stories are all artfully done and clever. Barks’ artwork really shines, he makes great use of geometric shapes to convey the ducks across each page, and uses copious amounts of sweat and surprise lines to give them a great sense of animation and movement. They are able to convey a lot of personality in very few frames of comics. As more than half the book is these shorter stories, this is quite important.
Fantagraphics has done comic scholars and Disney scholars alike a great service with this collection of early Carl Barks stories. The contextualization that the scholars provide is invaluable. This is an anthology that serious Barks fans and scholars would do well to read, casual readers might wait until later and more celebrated stories appear.