Duck tales

I have a tendency to accumulate certain things without taking the time to enjoy them. Or rather, without having time to enjoy them… much as I’d like to be able to. One of my more regrettable obsessions — regrettable because of how much this stuff is going to weigh next time I move — is hardbound collections of classic comic strips. It all began with… was it Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts? Or maybe the Complete Far Side? Both showed up around the same time, shortly after I moved to San Francisco, and both were irresistible: Complete (or eventually complete in the case of Peanuts; after eight years, it’s up to about 1980, and Schulz died in, what, 1999? 2000?) collections of works that had massive impact on me as a kid. Peanuts practically taught me to read. So I’ve been accumulating them, as well as the complete Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes to boot, but I haven’t had time to read them.

I’ve decided to change that beginning with my latest purchase. This one’s a little different, though. Rather than representing potent childhood memories, this latest endeavor represents something completely new to me — Carl Barks’ legendary run on the Donald Duck comic books, back when he was forced to sign his work as “Walt Disney” and was known to the public only as “the good artist.” So far one volume, Lost in the Andes, has been released. I picked it up and  (gasp!) read it straight away.

It has been interesting. I love — love — the production values on this thing. Fantagraphics prides itself on the quality of its publications, and this might be their best yet. The overall look of the book perfectly captures the spirit of vintage 1950s design and typography, yet both aspects still feel fresh and contemporary. That’s no mean feat! The artwork has all been reproduced from the original film, I guess, so the linework is crisp while the colors are vivid and clean (but they still possess the muted flatness of true classic color; no Photoshop gradients here — but no screen tone moire, either).

The comics are fun, too, but honestly it’s the care put into reproducing them that mostly appeals to me. After all the praise and reverence Barks receives from the genuflecting masses, I guess I was geared up for something with a little more gravity. There’s no question that Barks was a fantastic illustrator and incorporated some impressively sophisticated jokes and highbrow references into his work, and that’s awesome. Disney comics must have been read by millions of kids, and here was someone lavishing them with fast-paced stories that made smart jokes and never talked down to the reader. I guess I just had my heart set on something more epic.

That’s no fault of the comics, of course. Barks could have phoned in a workmanlike performance, but he obviously poured his heart into crafting inventive stories for kids. Nah, I blame the comic historians who put him on maybe a little too high a pedestal. Nothing wrong with hero worship, but the essays and notes at the back of this very book perfectly embody the problem: They read like high school literary essays, enthusiastically assigning authorial intent and subtextual meaning to some funny comics about talking ducks. The essayists do that annoying thing where they concede that the author of the original works has openly said there was no deeper meaning to his work and then casually ignore his statements and praise him for his subconscious literary genius in a way that probably would have made Barks feel uncomfortable, based on what I’ve read about him. Sometimes a duck swimming in money is just a duck swimming in money, guys.

They’re also quick to whitewash — if you’ll pardon the expression — the frequent racist caricatures that dot these works. Lots of unflattering aboriginals here; of course, that was simply the nature of the times in which these comics were created, and that sort of thing is an unavoidable fact of life in works that predate the civil rights movement. But there are a few too many apologies here, a quickness to say, “Yes, lots of ugly stereotypes, but under the blackface those were actually the best characters in the story!” It seems a bit too disingenuous for my liking. I can’t blame a man for being a product of his times… but I don’t think trying to present the more unfortunate side of his otherwise great legacy as some kind of artful subversion of racism does anyone any favors.

So I guess what I’m saying is, the comics are a lot of fun. The presentation quality is glorious. And the commentary surrounding the comics will probably make you want to rip out the pages, Donald-like, and chew comically on a handful of pages while jumping violently up and down on the rest. As for me, I’m looking forward to the next book, which focuses on Uncle Scrooge… but next time, I’ll probably skip the essays.

17 thoughts on “Duck tales

  1. Haven’t picked this up yet, but I do love all these wonderful comic strip reprints coming out, especially from Fanta. I would also point to Popeye and Prince Valiant. Apparently Pogo Vol 1 is finally being released, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

    I’m glad to say I’ve really cut back on that bad habit of buying things that I won’t have the time to enjoy. Like everyone else it seems, I used to stockpile all sorts of junk – books, games, movies – and then have an enormous ‘backlog’ of stuff. But then I realized that working through a backlog creates a sense of obligation that starts to take away the enjoyment of said entertainment.

    With books, it’s not so bad, because they’re not going to go down in price. But paying $60 for a game, and then finally playing it when it retails for $20 – well, that’s just silly.

    • I have Pogo V. 1; it’s on my “to read soon” list… right after Osamu Tezuka’s “The Book of Human Insects” and volumes 1 and 2 of the Mickey Mouse dailies.

      And yeah, I’ve stopped buying games unless (1) they’ve been marked down, (2) they’re by Atlus and will probably be short-printed, or (3) I genuinely want the game and intend to play it straight away. The one other rule: If I review a game and keep the review copy for myself (usually the case with a cartridge game, since I don’t want to surrender the save file) I’ll buy a copy to place in the office library to replace the one I keep and prevent accusations of payola or whatever for receiving free games.

      Books like this, on the other hand, are usually cheapest if you preorder (thanks, Amazon) and not only don’t go down in price, they frequently go out of print and become far more expensive if you wait. So I don’t wait.

      • That’s a pretty reasonable list of ‘if’s in regards to buying games. I’ve done the exact same with Atlus games, and wish I had done so with some of the Ace Attorney games, which are ludicrously expensive, even for a used copy, considering how relatively recently the game was released.

        In which case, a flash cart comes in pretty handy. Sorry for not getting on the Ace Attorney bandwagon a little sooner, Capcom, but I won’t be paying $80 for a DS game to some amazon reseller.

        But these are lessons you eventually learn. And that’s why my unplayed copy of Etrian Odyssey 3 sitting in my backlog will never feel like an obligation.

      • That argument would be totally valid if Capcom wasn’t rereleasing the first 3 Ace Attorney games (e.g. the expensive ones) a hundred times over (slight exaggeration :)). Get them on WiiWare or iPhone.

      • To be honest, this never actually occurred to me. But my Wii is at home while i’m in school in Canada, and… well, no iOS device of any sort.

        In any case, I’ve only just finished the first game (finally), which I own, and only -intend- to play pirated versions of the (expensive) sequels, which I’ve already downloaded.

        But maybe now I’ll just wait and buy them on WiiWare because, yeah, I don’t have a valid argument now. Which, unfortunately for me, is something that my conscience requires.

      • Yeesh, a post dated 1 AM and you’d already bought $70 worth of hardback comics that came out today?

        Or are you talking about a different Pogo collection, and only had $30 worth of new hardback comics by 1 o’clock this morning?

      • Ah. They just hit comic shops today.

        The Duck book was more like $25 (bought mine); I didn’t check the Pogo one. I try to support my local shop where I can, but yeah, Amazon’s a pretty tempting way to go.

      • I looked it up. The two books cost me less than $35 total. I’d feel bad about not supporting my local comic shop, but my local shop is terrible.

  2. Not many of Barks’ stories have the ‘epic’ quality you mention – most of the treasure hunts move forward without any direct interaction with traps or ancient civilizations to butt heads with.
    If it’s epic you want, Don Rosa, a Barks diehard, was much better at fashioning such stories with the ducks, though he could get a little over-romantic at times.

    Would you like some recommendations for either of them?

  3. Some people already beat me to it here, but I’ll once again recommend Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck volumes 1 and 2, plus the companion books. Boom released them in a very nice hardcover series and they are a joy to read.

    I wasn’t aware Lost in the Andes had come out, I will definitely be picking that one up. I have the first volume of the Mickey Mouse dailies but haven’t read it yet, but plan to shortly!

  4. I’ve been reading through Boom’s Rosa collections this year and enjoying them immensely. Really crackin stuff, there’s usually a giant belly laugh every couple of issues. The guy knew how to pace a comic and could make the most ridiculous of premisses work. Amazing artist too.

    After I’m done I plan on going back to some the Banks stuff. I always though he was such highly regarded because he created these enduring characters and stories in the tight constraints of the Disney system and not all this other stuff. Isn’t enough that he was the fountainhead for this part of so many people’s childhoods?

  5. You’ve touched on a nostalgic nerve. I have fond memories of visiting my grandparents and reading the hardbound collections of Scrooge McDuck and other Disney collections that my Aunt kept there. That pleasure never evolved into a comic book obsession, however. I guess because I next picked up popular authors like Crichton and Grisham at the time and became a voracious fiction reader.

  6. I feel your pain; I’ve got a shelf full of hardcovers I haven’t read, and intend to purchase the Barks book today.

    The trouble with hardcovers is you can’t just throw them in a bag and carry them around to read when you have a few spare minutes. As gorgeous as these collections are, in most cases I prefer a paperback I can comfortably beat up.

  7. Jason Bergman (of Bethesda) mentioned these on his Google+ feed a few months ago. Would love a digital release.

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