Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: The Old Castle’s Secret
Review by KC Carlson
Fantagraphics’ latest Carl Barks Disney Library volume stars Donald Duck and collects most of Barks’ Donald stories from 1948. For those keeping track, The Old Castle’s Secret is Volume 6 of the Library, which Fantagraphics is issuing in random order — so far, alternating with volumes starring Uncle Scrooge.
Like the other Donald Duck volumes in the series, this collects three full-length Donald stories (usually from Dell’s Four Color series), 11 ten-page stories originally from the classic Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories comic book, and a bunch of one-page gags that rounded out the Four Color issues.
The first story in this volume is the title story. “The Old Castle’s Secret” is a classic featuring the second appearance ever of Barks’ creation Uncle Scrooge McDuck. The McDuck fortune is in bad shape, and thus Scrooge enlists the help of Donald and his three nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie to travel to Scotland to recover lost fortunes hidden in the old Castle of Dismal Downs. And of course, the castle is haunted.
I’ve read this story before, so I’m not surprised that I recall some things about it. But I’m remembering everything exactly as I read it before — not just dialog word-for-word, but details in the artwork (like the empty extra-large suit of armor that belonged to Sir Roast McDuck, who holds not a sword or a spear but a knife and fork). But here’s the thing — I’ve only read this story twice before. The last time was 30 years ago (when it was collected by Another Rainbow), and the time before that probably another 15 years back, when I read it as a child. Yet I remember clearly every detail about it.
Such is the power of Carl Barks’ work. His storytelling is designed to appeal to youngsters as well as folk who are as old as Scrooge. And it has that way of burrowing into your brain, and staying there forever, once you read it. Which is great for people like me, who can barely remember the comics I read last week!
Magic in Ten Pages
I’m enjoying the Donald Duck volumes just slightly more than the Scrooges, since Donald’s books always contain a generous helping of mostly ten-page, set-in-Duckburg stories staring the hair-trigger duck and his nephews. The kids in these earlier Barks stories are feistier, maybe even a bit bratty occasionally, which is a welcome reminder that they weren’t always the know-it-all Junior Woodchucks that they evolved into as Barks matured. Even so, they’re still much smarter than Donald most of the time!
These shorter stores (almost all first appearing in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories) offer up all kinds of surprises, mostly because the less epic nature of these stories is not so permanently embedded into my active consciousness. Plus, Barks wrote most of these to be joke-fests — featuring some of his most memorable “throwaway” characters, with always fantastic names. Favorite this time around: Prof. Pulpheart Clabberhead!
I think my favorite of the 10-pagers is the one now called “Donald of the Coast Patrol”. (These were originally untitled stories that Barks scholars have later ascribed titles to for ease of discussion.) Donald is assigned to watch a deserted stretch of coastline that smugglers are apparently using to smuggle in “jewels from the Orient.” Of course, Donald sees no problems in a random hot dog stand that pops up out of nowhere and mysteriously changes hands several times in just 10 pages. (Or does it?) Plus, Donald doesn’t think twice about the walrus that waddles ashore.
Meanwhile, Huey, Dewey, and Louie are rebuffed by Unca’ Donald after wanting to assist, so they climb up into the nearby hills, where they have the perfect vantage point to see that the various hot dog vendors are all the same person (in not-so-clever disguises) and that the walrus is actually a femme fatale in a walrus suit. (In a Barks story?) Another girl, this one with tattoos and wearing a formfitting bathing suit, is rescued by Donald, who is instantly smitten. “I fell off a passing yacht, kind sir!” says the seductress. “Phooey on Unca’ Donald!” say the nephews. Needless to say, the kids save the day — and Unca’ Donald’s job — at least for now, since we never see him in this job again!
Another duck family member makes his first appearance in these short stories. Gladstone Gander debuts in “Wintertime Wager” and appears again in “Links Hijinks”. He’s more annoying than supernaturally lucky in these early stories. Scrooge also appears again in “Foxy Relations”, setting up Donald to be outfoxed by a fox. Daisy Duck also appears briefly in a pair of stories.
But the ten-pagers aren’t all jokes and fun. Barks occasionally offers up some stories with real dire consequences, such as “Rocket Race To The Moon”, where Donald and the boys are stranded in space without enough fuel to get back home. And in “Pearls of Wisdom”, Donald faces actual death when a rare unsafe scheme dreamed up by the nephews actually turns dangerous.
The ten-pagers are amazing, but my absolute favorite story in this volume is one of the one-pagers, about Donald being persnickety about the size of the field the boys are playing baseball in — because he’s scared of broken windows. The joke is all in the last panel, with a portentous newspaper headline and Donald’s perfectly-drawn reaction to it. I laughed so hard that I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes. Sharp-eyed readers should also pay attention to other jokes hidden in what Donald is reading in other stories throughout the book.
Stories Restored to Their Original Form? Check!
Also in this volume are two other feature-length stories: “Sheriff of Bullet Valley” is another classic, while “Darkest Africa” is not as familiar, as it was infrequently reprinted. When it was, it was edited for “politically correct” and other reasons. (The Ducks are none too kind to other animals in this story.) “Darkest Africa” also wasn’t originally one of the Dell Four Color stories — it was first printed in the “giveaway” Dell series March of Comics #20. The original 1948 version of this story has never been reprinted in English — until it was fully restored for this volume. This is explained more fully in the substantial “Story Notes” section in this (and all) volumes, written by Barks scholars from around the world.
My only regret about this series, is that I have to read the volumes pretty fast in order to get the word out quickly to you about how great this series is. When you read them, you should slowly parse them out — perhaps one a night — and maybe share them with somebody else in your house. Carl Barks’ stories were meant to be shared. They are some of the most memorable stories of all literature — not just comics. (The publisher provided a review copy.)