Book of the Month
What did the
Size: 248 pages
It’s both funny and sad that one thing we seem to do when we move from childhood to begin to enter adulthood is that we become much more regimented with the things we enjoy. With comics we become very concerned with reading the “proper” thing; the thing we “should” be reading. The “cool” thing. That usually means the latest from Marvel or DC Comics, or in my case, as I entered into my teen years in the early 1990s, that meant a lot of series from a new company called Image Comics. Reading the proper thing meant that a lot of books that weren’t proper, or were deemed too kiddie, were shunted aside for more issues of Youngblood.
When I was a young kid and didn’t care so much about the street cred factor of what I was reading, I read all kinds of comics. I read whatever I liked. Marvel and DC comics, sure, but there were also my friend’s copies of Tintin that I devoured, and most of all, there were the Walt Disney Comics, of which my favorites starred Uncle Scrooge. (It was only later in life, as I grew to understand such things, that I came to realize that the comics that I shunted aside as not being cool enough for a teenager were produced by two of the all-time great comic book talents.) I’m sure that the daily doses of Duck Tales helped my appreciation, but I have distinct and sepia-toned memories of coming home after school, teeing up a bowl or 5 of cereal, and grabbing my over-sized hardcover collections of Uncle Scrooge comics and reading them as I shoveled spoonful after spoonful of whole grain or rice popped goodness into my mouth. I must have read and reread those same hardcovers 100s of times in my youth, and it pains me to think that I have no idea where those books are now.
That brings me now to the iFanboy Book of the Month for September 2012: Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge, Vol. 1: “Only a Poor Old Man” by Carl Barks. This offering from Fantagraphics, which came out back in the summer right around Comic-Con, represents the beginning of the Uncle Scrooge portion of an effort to comprehensively collect Barks’ comic book work in beautifully presented hardcovers. It is, as it is explained in the afterword, the first volume of Uncle Scrooge material, but it will be the 12th volume overall in the Carl Barks collection.
Make no mistake, this isn’t just some nostalgia-fueled lark on which I’ve embarked. Carl Barks is a comic book and cartooning legend. In fact, he was joined by Jack Kirby and Will Eisner himself as the first class of inductees into the The Will Eisner Awards Hall of Fame. Barks is widely recognized as one of the finest writer/artist/cartoonist/storytellers in all of comics. I enjoyed his comics as a kid for their madcap adventures starring characters that I loved, but now that I revisit his work as an adult with a trained eye, I can truly see and appreciate the majesty and the wonder in his pages.
Scrooge McDuck was created by Carl Barks and first appeared in 1947 in a story called “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” As an obvious take-off of the famous Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck is not only the richest duck in Ducksburg, but he’s also a tight-fisted miser, world class paranoid, and the uncle to Donald Duck and grand-uncle to Donald’s nephews, the ever resourceful Huey, Dewey, and Louie. It is around these five characters that most of Barks’ Scrooge adventures revolve. But it’s really all about Uncle Scrooge.
This hardcover collection is filled with 27 stories, many of them one-pagers, but it also includes such classics as “Back To the Klondike,” “Tralla La,” and the titular “Only a Poor Old Man,” each weighing in at a meaty 30+ pages. Each of these stories has one major thing in common: Uncle Scrooge’s vast fortune. It’s the common element in every Scrooge tale—he’s either trying to keep it from being stolen (primarily by the insidious and surprisingly clever Beagle Boys), add to it (by both legal means and outright trickery), or escape the pressures of it (unsuccessfully). Being the richest duck in Ducksburg is no easy life and Scrooge’s moments of pure joy—when he’s swimming in the three cubic acres of cash and coins held in his giant money bin—are few and far between.
With so many of these different kinds of stories in one collection it’s easy to see what a master of storytelling Carl Barks was when you read a brilliant one page story followed by an epic 30 page story followed by five more brilliant one pagers. It didn’t matter how many many pages Barks had to work with; he knew how to tell a story, construct a gag, and masterfully draw in the Disney style. The one page stories are all gag based and are usually about Uncle Scrooge finding a way to save a penny (literally). Those stories are all fun and it is a treat to see how much Barks packed into one page without it becoming overwhelming. It’s storytelling at its elegant finest. But it is with the long stories that Barks truly shines. One of the great things about this collection is that in the back of the book there are extensive notes on each of the major stories written by professors, scholars, and Carl Barks experts. One of the things revealed in the notes is that Barks, while he loved drawing Uncle Scrooge and the gang, would break up the monotony of drawing all those round heads by plotting out grand adventures on which to take his characters. What you find while reading these stories is that while Barks was a master at drawing characters in the Disney style he was also great at drawing epic sea adventures involving great rolling waves and massive masted ships.
Carl Barks’ genius is not only about his wonderful art. He was an excellent storyteller who used his stories to not only tell jokes and send these characters on great adventures. He also told us about how they were as people and used them to examine real issues. Uncle Scrooge started out as a penniless prospector in the late 19th century, and by utilizing his smarts and work ethic he built a vast mining/shipping/media/oil/just-about-everything-else empire that resulted in his three cubic acres of swimmable cash money. He’s the classic American character (even though he’s Scottish) who embodies the Great American Dream. But it’s not easy and Scrooge does not live life on easy street. (He lives on B Street.) His vast wealth is a constant source of stress, so much so that one story—“Tralla La”—involves him moving, because his nerves are shot, to a mythical land deep in the a Himalayan mountains where the people have no money. That story then becomes about what happens when the concept of wealth is introduced to a society that did not have it previously. (Hint: it’s quickly destructive.) It’s thought provoking stuff that, had it not starred walking and talking ducks, might otherwise be found on a socially conscious program like The Twilight Zone. (Or, in actuality, decades later in The Gods Must Be Crazy.) But this is no anti-capitalist screed. Uncle Scrooge is presented, for the most part, as someone to be admired for his hard work and cunning. Barks just makes it clear that money can’t by you happiness and peace of mind.
And certainly not a moneybin secure enough from The Beagle Boys.
Devastated that Duck Tales is not on Netflix streaming.