I have been asked to write a tribute to Carl Barks for The Comics Journal. But I can't. I can't. Actually, everything I've done professionally for the past 13 years has been a tribute to Carl Barks, and a great deal of the fan writing and comics I did long before that. Even before the fanzine work, I was creating my own panel-by-panel copied versions of Barks classics as early as the mid `60s, comics that no one has ever seen, just for the thrill of telling such grand tales with my own hand. Every story I write and draw and every cover or pin-up I draw has, hidden somewhere in the art, my dedication to Him -"D.U.C.K.", "Dedicated to Unca Carl from Keno" (my real first name). In every one of the several hundred interviews about my work of the past decade (mostly in Europe), I always endeavor to turn the conversation at some point to the subject of the man who created the world that so many of us simply imitate in our new stories, to make sure that as many people as possible know who all the credit should go to. My whole life could arguably be considered a "tribute to Barks" ever since I gave up my engineering career in 1987 and liquidated the family construction company in order that, rather than carry on my grandfather's and father's work, I could instead carry on the work of Carl Barks (after my fashion, at least).
But now ... I am called to sum up that lifelong tribute in a few paragraphs for a magazine. No. I can't even try it. Anything I write would be so pitifully inadequate that I would be shamed by my lack of ability to express such a sublime subject! The Duck fans and friends around the world might be expecting the most moving tribute of all from me ... and I'm not up to that responsibility. To see what Carl Barks' body of work means to me, I would rather people look at my comics and the level of joy and enthusiasm I try to put into handling his characters, even when my inexperience as a cartoonist falls short of what I wish I could devote to his creations. But to not write something for TCJ when asked would seem very odd. So, my solution is to use this "soapbox" for another reason: to try to tell Americans something they don't realize - to try to explain to Americans the magnitude of the popularity and importance of this man's work throughout the world.
What we all know is that Carl Barks was hired to write and draw original Donald Duck stories for Dell (Western Publishing) in 1942 - these historical tidbits are surely covered in another part of this issue. He had to take that shallow, slapstick, animated-cartoon character and develop it into something that could sustain comic-book stories. We all know how Barks created a whole world around Donald, a hometown, a rich uncle (!!!), and many other heroes and villains during the next 25 years of work. Barks comics are the best-selling issue in American comics history, selling up to 3,000,000 copies each month! When a comic sold as little as a mere million copies, Dell would cancel it as a "failure"! If comics sold 3,000,000 in America in 1952, what should they be selling in the year 2000? 6,000,000? 10,000,000? But what does an average successful comic sell these days? Someone told me about 20,000 issues. Well, that can only work due to the "direct sales" system. When that direct sales system was launched in the early '80s, there were no Disney/Barks comics in America. Since comic books were only a small portion of Western's business, they ceased producing them rather than try to figure out how to exist in the failing market as companies like DC and Marvel had no choice but to do. Disney comics were not part of the switchover of comic books from a mass medium for every kid in America to a cult-hobby for a small hard core of superhero collectors. So, even when Bruce Hamilton's Gladstone Comics so valiantly and superbly returned Disney/Barks comics to America, though they did quite well, they could never successfully battle that break in tradition. They were still successful and profitable until they ceased publication a few years ago, not due to a lack of profit, but out of frustration with dealing with the licensing corporation that interfered too much and helped too little.
Therefore, in the American comics world of 2000, Carl Barks is seen as someone who did wonderful comics some 35-60 years ago and is fondly remembered by aging collectors and professionals. But what of the rest of the world? Same there?
Hardly! After World War II, across the continent of Europe, between the years 1947 and 1951, Disney comics began to appear. One theory I have about their popularity is that these were the first forms of mass entertainment to take the minds of the people, young and old, off their miseries and continuing tribulations in repairing and living in devastated cultures. And what was the lead story in each of these Disney comics? Sure, just as in the American Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, the star was Donald Duck ... and the lead stories were by one Carl Barks. In fact, virtually all of these new comics were titled Donald Duck & Co .... the only country that instead started a Micky Maus & Co. comic was Germany, but they had just proven how contrary they were, anyway, so it's hardly surprising. (Naturally, the cover and lead story in Germany's Micky Maus & Co. was still Barks' Ducks, so no matter.)
To say these comics were merely "popular" is laughable. Within a few years the Donald Duck titles across Europe were all made weekly. That's right - weekly. And they have remained so until the present day! Unlike in America, European comic sales never dropped off in the '60s due to TV - there was no break in the tradition of Disney comics. How popular are they? As popular as Spider-Man? As popular as the X-Men? Gosh, how could that be, huh?
I know some specific numbers for several of the countries I'm invited to the most -Donald Duck & Co. in little Norway sells a quarter of a million copies each week. In Finland, the Donald Duck & Co. weekly sells 350,000 copies per issue! In such countries, the Donald Duck weekly is not simply the best-selling comic (sales of other comics are a tiny fraction as large), it is the best selling anything. No publications outsell the weekly Donald Duck comics in these and other European nations. Donald Duck is literally a national hero in these countries. A prime minister might make a reference to Scrooge McDuck or Gyro Gearloose in a speech before parliament. For decades Donald Duck has come in first in the write-in category of the Finnish presidential elections. When the first child is to be born to a new family, the traditional thing the future-parents do is order a subscription to Donald Duck & Co. for the new family, so that the tradition of having Donald Duck as the centerpiece of the family entertainment will be carried on to yet another generation. Aside from these weeklies, there are monthly Donald Duck comics, quarterly editions, special editions, and numerous series of digest-sized Donald comic books, each issue of which stays on the newsstand rack for years. When you walk into a news kiosk in Stockholm, the first thing that greets you is a wall of Donald Duck publications. My full set of American Disney comics occupies merely one long shelf in my comics "vault" - I once visited a collector in Oslo who had a full set of Norwegian Disney comics (again, virtually all Donald Duck titles), and the collection filled the walls of an entire room!
But back to that main publication, the Donald Duck weekly comics: the fact is that the publishers have reliable polling methods that tell them consistently in each European country that every issue of Donald Duck & Co. sold is read by at least four people. Figure it out - this means that each weekly issue of the Finnish or Norwegian Donald Duck comics are read by 25-30% of the entire population! How many issues would a comic have to sell per capita in North America in the year 2000 to be as well read? I calculate about 80 million copies! But let's be conservative - if we ignore the readership of the European comics or the fact that they are weekly, and just look at per-issue sales, an American comic would need to sell a mere 20 million copies to be as popular as Donald Duck is in Europe. And I was told that an American comic hopes to sell 20,000 issues. That means that in Europe Donald Duck is not merely ten times more popular than a typical American comic book, nor a mere 100 times more popular. Donald Duck comics are one thousand times more popular with European readers than American comics are here.
So, what does this have to do with this Carl Barks guy? You know the answer to that, right? In the days when Barks was the star writer and artist on these stories, he created all the new characters and situations - all the other writers followed his lead. When Barks retired in 1967, the Disney Duck "universe" virtually froze. The Disney Duck stories created in the 21st Century (when we get there on Jan. 1, 2001) will involve the exact same characters as were in the final story that Barks penned. Jerry and Joe created Superman... Stan and Steve created Spider-Man ... and these comics still (barely) exist today. But are the characters and situations recognizable when compared to the originals? Not only was Carl Barks both writer and artist of his universe, but it has not changed one iota in the 33 years since he laid down his pen. Why should it? His stories are still the best-selling comics on this planet. Why mess with success?
And what of Carl Barks' old stories in the year 2000? There have been artists and writers all over the world adding thousands upon thousands of stories to the Barks Duck universe for decades. But when a 40-50 year old Barks reprint appears in a new weekly, it is mentioned on the cover because after all these decades it is still the Barks originals that are the most popular with readers young and old - even with the kiddies who don't know it's a "classic" reprint.
Carl Barks is unknown to the American public who have long-since forgotten that Disney comics existed in some long-ago age ...just as they have no knowledge that there were people like Hal Foster or Burne Hogarth drawing newspaper comics before the era of ... whoever draws Garfield. A certain percentage of American comic-book collectors know quite well that Carl Barks was "the Good Artist" who wrote and drew the favorite comics from their youth ... and the younger collectors sometimes know that a "Carl Barks" comic is worth more according to their price guide bibles, but few of them really know or care why. But in Europe the name Carl Barks is a household word! His name might be the answer to a crossword puzzle clue in the daily newspaper! A department store might use a scene from "Square Egg Valley" in Plain Awful as part of a window display because they know that everyone who walks past that window will recognize a Carl Barks story. The newspaper interviewers who I talk to in Europe (not interviewers from some Euro-comics-fanzine, but the lead feature writers of major dailies) all have a profound knowledge of every Barks story they grew up with, as well as the life of the author. But let me end this rant with this fact: In Norway in about 1992 and then again in Finland as a "Y2K" event, major newspapers asked groups of scholars to list the 10 greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Again, note well that these were recognized, highly respected critics and scholars of world literature, not comic-fanzine journalists. And one expert in each of these polls included "the works of Carl Barks" in their lists. While the news of Barks' passing was seen in very few newspapers in America and reported on even fewer radio or TV newscasts, in Europe the sad news was flashed instantly across the airwaves and every newspaper - they realized the world had lost one of the most beloved, influential and well-known creators in international culture.
Carl Barks was not as good an artist as, f'rinstance, any of the crew of the wonderful EC comics. He wasn't the "wordsmith" of, for example, Walt Kelly. I don't think anyone would try to argue that he was the best comic artist or best comics writer of all time ... but to try to put Carl Barks in these lesser categories is to belittle his worth. I'll leave it to the other tribute-writers with better word-skills than I have to explain the many attributes that made his stories so wonderful. Simply put, he had the ability to create the most popular and widest read and most reprinted comic books in world history ... comics that I loved so much that I forsook my own family heritage and inheritance and my expensive engineering education just for the thrill of being involved with his creations. As with me, his comics have changed the lives of literally millions of children growing up on his work around the world.
I'll list my criteria: based on how universally popular his stories were and are; based on the fact that he was the sole writer and artist who created this Universe that has been carried on by so many others for so long; based on the number of pages and number of stories he told in a 25-year career; based on continent-spanning sales totaling several million copies per issue of comics that have used his work as their foundation for the past five decades and continuing; based on the sheer number of people whose lives he has impacted in their philosophies of life, their imaginations, and their future careers; based on how many novelists and movie-makers and comics writers and artists cite Carl Barks as their 'major influence and inspiration'; based on the simple percentage of the population of this planet that has grown up loving Carl Barks stories or stories based on his characters; based on all of that, I say (and I am not the first) Carl Barks is the greatest storyteller of the 20th century. And notice I did not include the word "arguably." If you disagree with that, you are simply wrong. He was born early in the first year of that century, and he died in his 100th year of life during the final year of that century. It was his.