In the late 1980s, Disney had a series of afternoon cartoons airing that included Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and DuckTales. The adventures of Scrooge McDuck, Donald, and the nephews were my favorites to watch — at least until Gargoyles came along a few years later. Scrooge’s adventures were over-the-top, but with a touch of plausibility and humor for multiple levels of viewers, working in references to Tolkien, Dumas, and Shakespeare, amongst others. When I reminisce with friends about the awesome cartoons of our youth, DuckTales is always in the mix. And it’s no wonder. The mystique of Scrooge McDuck has stood the test of time. He first appeared in comics in 1947 as a one-shot character and has since grown to have his own comics, TV series, several books, a biography, and a regular listing on Forbes Magazine’s annual list of the 15 richest fictional characters.
Carl Barks’ work on the Donald Duck comics allowed him the freedom to experiment with a character and setting that was largely restricted in terms of animation. Though he was an anonymous writer/artist, he developed a strong following and was known as the “good duck artist.” Scrooge grew from a recurring catalyst in Donald’s adventures to a main character. Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man collects a variety of storylines from Barks’s 1952 – 1954 Four Color and Uncle Scrooge comics. These stories range from one-page gag strips, usually taken from the inside back covers of issues, to 30-page sagas, some of which have invited a great deal of speculation in regards to Barks’s motivations. Some of the more memorable strips include “Back to the Klondike,” a look into Scrooge’s past and a confrontation with an old flame; “The Horse-Radish Treasure,” a story of the McDuck family history and a darn-near-successful attempt to swindle Scrooge out of his fortune; and “Tralla La,” where Scrooge tries to find a society where money has no value, only to discover that he’s a poor influence on the citizens of Tralla La.
The art here truly pops with bright yellows, reds, and greens. The pages never feel garish, though, and the backgrounds are drawn with a surprising amount of realism. Barks often used photographs from National Geographic as a reference for his work and readers will see this influence throughout the book. In the opening story, “Only a Poor Old Man,” Scrooge attempts to hide his fortune from the Beagle Boys by sinking it in a lake. When the criminals destroy a nearby dam, the money pours out in a floodtide of coins. Barks conveys both the massive scale of the wave of cash and the grandeur of the valley created by the dam. The scenery in Tralla La and Hawaii is just as gorgeous. Barks had an eye for detail and this is reflected not just in the landscapes, but also in the knickknacks populating Duckberg.
Readers will want to be aware that, given the original date of the comics, there are some dated depictions of certain characters. The Menehune Mystery and Tralla La show native Hawaiians and Indians, a strong visual departure from Duckberg residents. The people of Tralla La are the most problematic by today’s standards and are drawn with slanted eyes, canonical hats, and pigtails. Living in a valley without any concept of money, they quickly become obsessed with owning a bottle cap that Scrooge has discarded. The bottlecap destroys their peaceful existence and endangers their livelihood when the old duck decides to rain bottlecaps on the valley, destroying their market value. The language is also antiquated and some readers may swoon over the prices listed – Scrooge laments paying a penny to get weighed or a nickel to get a newspaper.
Despite the age of the collection, Scrooge is a classic character and his book will appeal to many readers young and older. Fantagraphics offers a great deal of history on the character, comics, and Barks himself. A lengthy story notes section at the end of the book examines each story and its history and inspiration. The book itself is gorgeous and well-bound, making for a visual treat for any comic collection.