Classic Comic Collections From Fantagraphics: Donald Duck’s Christmas on Bear Mountain, Mickey Mouse’s Robin Hood, and Barnaby

As we reach the end of another year, I find this season an excellent time to read collections of classic comic strips. For one reason, as the year passes, I find myself looking back as often as I look forward, and historical strips remind me of the impermanence of existence … and yet, some things are remembered. Or rediscovered.

For another, comic strips from years past often provide purer, less ambiguous forms of entertainment, which is refreshing when stressed by family and cultural holiday expectations. For a third, a quiet way to relax indoors and read something good is welcome during the cold winter days.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Christmas on Bear Mountain

by Carl Barks, $28.99 US
Preview pages

Another end of the year, another Christmas-themed Donald Duck collection. This time, it’s historically significant — since the title story is Uncle Scrooge’s first appearance. (His second appearance is in the most recent Donald Duck volume, The Old Castle’s Secret, released this past summer.) In his introduction, Scrooge lives down to his name, sending his nephew Donald and his nephews to a mountain cabin stocked with food and presents only to scare him with a fake bear attack to test how brave he is. It’s a silly story with an artificial premise, but the cartooning is excellent in the many chases and shocked reactions, and ultimately, it’s kind of heart-warming.

The book has a great mix of one-pagers and longer stories, all published from 1947-1948. In various tales Donald attempts to win a gardening contest, follows a treasure map, performs magic tricks, faces off with door-to-door salesmen, gets all mixed up over a dance contest, and tries to become a fireman. They’re full of good, old-fashioned fun and humor, capturing activities from a simpler time leavened with great lumps of imagination and creativity as the stories sprawl in unexpected ways.

Unfortunately, that simpler time also indulged in stereotypes, as when Donald visits the “Volcano Valley” of Volcanovia, where the whole country wears sombreros and serapes, calls people “senor”, and sleeps all the time because everyone is so lazy. In Donald’s “Adventure Down Under”, he hunts kangaroo and gets kidnapped by pidgin-speaking “wild bushmen”. Otherwise, the adventure is exciting and the coloring terrific. I particularly liked “Ghost of the Grotto”, where Dewey gets kidnapped by an armored ghost while the guys are out seaweed-gathering on a ship.

There are story notes on the tales in the back, many of which are quite insightful. Unfortunately, the notes for “Volcano Valley” are the worst in the book. When the writer isn’t merely summarizing the story we’ve already read, he’s justifying the caricature accents and stating (without proof) that “Barks intended nothing… to be culturally derogatory.” Perhaps, but it’d be nice to know why I’m supposed to believe that. The other notes are much better, providing new insight into the tales. On the whole, an entertaining package, with one or two caveats.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Color Sundays Volume 2: Robin Hood Rides Again

by Floyd Gottfredson, $29.99 US
Preview pages

Gottfredson’s color Sunday comic strips from January 1936 through December 1938 are here collected. This will be the final volume of his Sunday work, since after this period, he gave up the job to focus on the daily strip.

As in the first volume, there are exceptional extras putting this work in context. The introductions are helpful in understanding the connections to the film cartoon Mickey, which were numerous.

Stories here include “Mickey’s Rival” (about Mortimer Mouse competing for Minnie’s hand), the Robin Hood adventure of the title, “Sheriff of Nugget Gulch” (a mistaken-identity Western involving mining for gold), some winter snow follies with the nephews, “Service With a Smile” (in which Mickey runs a gas station with Goofy, who drives him crazy), an adaptation of the “Brave Little Tailor” cartoon, and a variety of single-shot comedy gags, many of which co-star Goofy. Also included are later (dating between 1956 and 1976) fill-in strips Gottfredson did during Mickey’s “suburban dad” period (with some odd character designs) and other non-Mickey Disney work of his, adapting some of the movies.

Barnaby Volume 1

by Crockett Johnson, $35 US
Preview pages

The author of the wonderfully imaginative Harold and the Purple Crayon brings that creativity to the comic strip during World War II. This first volume contains comics from April 1942 through the end of 1943.

Barnaby is a typical boy who’s visited by the world’s strangest Fairy Godfather. Mr. O’Malley wears a hat and trenchcoat and is never seen without his cigar (which he calls his magic wand). It’s unclear, at times, whether he’s really a magical creature, a con artist, or a figment of Barnaby’s imagination (which would have to be rather odd to dream up this guy).

Johnson’s work is immediately visually distinctive, from the typeset text to his spare, clean-line style. It’s part of the modernist trend of the time, but its clarity keeps it readable and relevant today. There’s an odd conflict at the heart of the strip, between practicality and flights of fancy, as seen by how, early on, when Barnaby is trying to tell his parents about his new friend, Dad responds, “Try not to dream anymore, son.” That tension suits readers, who likely know, as Dad continues, “Nobody believes in pixies any more, son,” but maybe want to hope for something to disrupt daily life anyway.

Which happens soon enough, as O’Malley sets off the air raid sirens and keeps raiding the icebox and catches spies with the aid of a Nazi parrot and rounds up iron for a scrap metal drive, all while Barnaby’s parents worry about his “imaginary friend”. There’s an Ogre and Gus the ghost and a trip to the child psychologist and a new neighbor girl named Jane who gets very confused between what her parents tell her about seeing things and what she sees. My favorite is Gorgon the talking dog who, in one set of strips, starts teaching himself tricks.

O’Malley is a windbag who makes himself out as more than he is, and his tricks often leave Barnaby to take the blame for the garage blowing up, for example, but somehow, it all works out all right in the end. Barnaby’s good-natured, even-handed survival is inspiring, and O’Malley is worth having around just to make things more interesting. A wonderful read with humor that stems from the tension between suburban expectations and a yearning for a more creative, magical way of living.

Barnaby Volume 1 also contains information on how Johnson developed the strip (by Philip Nel, author of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature), an appreciation of his style by Jeet Heer, Dorothy Parker’s “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson”, and a set of annotations to inform the modern reader of the historical and literary references in the comic.

(The publisher provided review copies.)

3 Responses to “Classic Comic Collections From Fantagraphics: Donald Duck’s Christmas on Bear Mountain, Mickey Mouse’s Robin Hood, and Barnaby”

  1. Fantagraphics Posts Error Page Correction for Barnaby » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] noted, while reading the first volume of the excellent Barnaby, that the September 30, 1943, strip had the same two first panels. After checking with the […]

  2. Best Graphic Novels of 2013 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] BarnabyA 1942 comic strip by Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) would seem to have limited application to today’s readers, but this story of a boy and his cigar-chomping, might-be-a-con-man Fairy Godfather is charming, imaginative, and entertaining, even if the storylines involve coffee rationing, air raid sirens, and Nazi spies (who are also Ogres). […]

  3. Pondering Previews for May 2014 (Shipping July and Later) » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] heard good things about this classic comic strip for years, but even so, I was highly impressed with book one. I particularly enjoy the satire; even though this strip was published in the 1940s, making fun of […]




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