Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes
Review by KC Carlson
Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes is the first in a new series of books collecting the comic book stories of Carl Barks, “The Good Duck Artist”. Barks is thought by many to be not only one of the greatest writer/artists to work on the Disney Ducks, but also one of the greatest comic book storytellers of all time.
The book series itself, called The Carl Barks Library (although this designation does not prominently appear anywhere in the actual book), requires a bit of explanation. Each volume collects a loosely defined time period (generally a year or two), reprinting all of the Barks material of that era. Lost in the Andes focuses on the Donald Duck stories published from late 1948 through mid-1949. This year was a key period of Barks’ development on the series, featuring some of the earliest appearances of both Uncle Scrooge and Donald’s rival Gladstone Gander, so we can see the development of those two key characters.
As point of reference, here are some key dates in Barks’ duck timeline:
Barks’ first major artwork on Donald Duck: “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold”, published as Dell Four Color #9, cover date October 1942. Barks illustrated half of this 64-page story (the other half is by Jack Hanna), and the story is written by Bob Karp.
First Barks solo Donald story: “The Victory Garden” (10 pages), published in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories #15, cover date April 1943. Barks provides full artwork, and this is also credited as his first duck script (although this was a rewrite of another author’s original story).
First Uncle Scrooge story: “Christmas on Bear Mountain”, published in Dell Four Color #178, cover date December 1947. Scrooge appears in a 20-page Donald Duck story, written and drawn by Barks.
First Gladstone Gander story: “Wintertime Wager” (10 pages), published in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories #88, cover date January 1948. Written and drawn by Barks.
All of the above stories will be reprinted in subsequent volumes of Fantagraphics’ Carl Barks Library. I’m simply mentioning them here so you can put the stories in Lost in the Andes into proper chronological perspective. This isn’t Barks’ first Duck work, but some of his best-known.
So What’s in This Volume?
Lost in the Andes sets an excellent template for future volumes, as it features examples of all three major story types that Barks used over his career:
- long adventure tales — usually near book-length (by 1948, that meant 32 pages)
- 10-page stories for Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories (generally pure comedy)
- and 1-page gag strips, used where needed.
This particular volume features the adventure stories “Lost in the Andes” (Four Color Comics #223, April 1949), “The Golden Christmas Tree” (One-Shots #203, December 1948), “Race to the South Seas!” (Boys’ and Girls’ March of Comics Giveaways #41, 1949), and “Voodoo Hoodoo” (One-Shots #238, August 1949). [Note: Four Color, Four Color Comics, and One-Shots are all part of the same long-running anthology series.]
“Lost” is classic Barks, portraying the crazy search for a mythical city where chickens lay square eggs. “Christmas Tree” finds Donald and his nephews battling an actual super-villain, a shape-changing old witch who is trying to destroy Christmas. “Race”, another classic character-building story, keeps it all in the family, as Donald finds himself in competition with his lazy (and lucky) cousin Gladstone to prove his worth to the manipulative Uncle Scrooge. And “Voodoo Hoodoo” is one of the oddest Duck tales yet, featuring the odd (but friendly) Bombie the Zombie, in a story that I’m betting didn’t get reprinted much.
Short and Sweet
Nine short stories (usually 10 pages each) are also collected, including the notable slapstick-y “The Crazy Quiz Show”, the crazed “Donald Duck’s Worst Nightmare”, and the caper-esque “Pizen Spring Dude Ranch”. Gladstone reappears (with a Scrooge cameo) in “Rival Beachcombers”, and Scrooge manipulates Donald again in “The Sunken Yacht”. “Managing the Eco System” is a classic Donald vs the nephews battle, and Barks gets to draw hundreds of animals (and a proto-Beagle Boy) in “Plenty of Pets.” But I think my favorite of this bunch is the crazy Christmas tale “Toyland”, where we discover that Santa has Don and the boys on the 1948 version of speed-dial (a telegram), so they can travel to the North Pole to product-test new toy ideas.
Finally, there are seven single-page gag strips. Most of the short stories and gag pages were originally untitled in their original publication. The stories were titled after-the-fact by Barks historians, mostly for ease of discussion and comparison. These historians had to fill in a lot of blanks over the years — even Barks’ name and history weren’t widely revealed until the early 1960s. Until then, he could only be identified by his definitive artistic style. He was referred to as “The Good Duck Artist” or “The Duck Man” until his identity was eventually researched and revealed.
Lots o’ Fun (and a little learnin’, too)
The Barks scholars are out in force in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes. Nine of them are present in the 26 pages of commentary and notes, the best of which is the eight-page introductory essay by Donald Ault. The essayists have a tough time here, straddling the unfortunate situation of this volume not collecting Barks’ first works, yet being the first volume published.
Some introductory material is needed here, such as Barks’ personal history and background, but it is going to look out of place once this volume takes its natural place chronologically after the earlier material is collected. I hope we’re not subjected to the same background material in volume after volume, as already the text material is somewhat overwhelming to read all at once (due to most of the notes being collected at the end of the book). Now that I know the format, I’ll re-read the specific notes pertaining to each individual story as I go along, flipping back-and-forth from the stories to the commentary in the back.
Aesthetically, it makes sense that the notes are all collected after the stories. It’s just that the massive blocks of academia may be daunting to the more casual reader. (Frankly, a little Barks scholarship goes a long way with me. Barks’ history was fantastic, his imagination and craftsmanship even more so. But one occasionally gets the sense from some of the essayists that Barks is the only comics creator that matters, and that is obviously just not so.)
One thing I did dislike was having the table of contents split into three, spread throughout the book. Granted, having separate content listings for each story format (adventures, short stories, and gags) gives the volume a pleasant old-style children’s book quaintness, but I would rather ease of operation had won out here. It’s simply much easier to have a complete listing of the contents (story titles and page numbers) all in one place.
A Beautiful, Substantial Volume
These gripes are minor in relation to the beauty and quality of this book presentation, as well as the stories themselves. I’m so happy that Fantagraphics chose a smaller format for this series, as opposed to the wave of massively sized books that have flooded the market over the past decade. Yes, it’s always wonderful to see comic art published at a huge size (or at least at the size the artist originally rendered), but not when fumbling with massively heavy or outrageously physically oversize books (or both).
This version of The Carl Barks Library is published at the approximate size of the original comic books. (Although with over 200 pages’ worth, it’s a thick comic.) It’s wonderfully hand-held, so it can be read in a easy chair, or lying on the sofa, or easily carried for reading on a trip. You won’t need a specially-sized bookcase to store this and future volumes. The printing quality is sharp and clear, the colors solidly produced and not day-glo garish, and the paper quality is extremely nice — thin enough to be flexible, yet not so thick as to be ostentatious. And solid enough so that there is no color bleed-through. The spine and binding seem tight, despite my copy being banged around by the USPS.
The stories, of course, are outstanding. Most of the long adventure tales are classics in their own right. I wasn’t as familiar with the ten-page WDC&S stories, having only casually read those over the years (and seldom in a chronological, historic context). They largely read like the best Buster Keaton or Laurel & Hardy shorts, filled with smart comedy, slapstick, and crazy stunts. Barks’ artwork is at its most flexible here, frequently showing the manic side of Donald that we don’t generally see in the longer stories. (That makes them more true to the animated Donald Duck shorts.) Plus, Barks comes up with some of the most brilliant schemes and swindles — most perpetrated against Donald for comedic effect. The super-compressed plotting makes everything more frenetic — and more funny!
Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes is an excellent start to Fantagraphics’ Carl Barks Library. And the first Uncle Scrooge collection is being readied for mid-2012 release. What an excellent time for classic comic book and comic strip collections! With all of this wonderful material again easily obtainable, it sets the bar higher for current comics creators to reach their full potential, and for publishers to work harder to produce new and better material to compete in the marketplace. Faced with the choice of a “new” Barks or Pogo collection and a lackluster six-issue superhero snore-fest (that’s probably still not a complete story), I know what I’d choose!
Editor Gary Groth has been interviewed about the project. (The publisher provided a review copy.)