Like Cary Grant and Buster Keaton, he played the same character in different situations, and a fairly complex one for a cartoon duck: arrogant, impractical, often downright foolish, yet also courageous, highly competent, and capable, author Peter Schilling argues in his modest book Carl Barks’ Duck: Average American (The Critical Cartoons) of finding joy and meaning in an often frustrating life. Disney’s Donald Duck reminds us of ourselves, and never more so than when Carl Barks (1901 – 2000) was writing and drawing him.
There’s no continuity from one duck story to another, and Barks doesn’t need it; as in Howard Hawks’ movies (Schilling sees Barks as a very cinematic storyteller, calling his comics “paper movies”), character is revealed through action, not a back-story. Donald and his nephews, unlike Barks’ monstrous creation Uncle Scrooge, are grounded in our reality: they live comfortably (in Burbank, later Duckburg), but are usually short of money, occasionally bored, and are given to bickering, pettiness, resentment – human foibles. The nine “features” and five shorts that Schilling writes about interest him not just because they’re good comedy-adventures, but because of what they tell us about Donald: that’s he’s “someone who just wants more out of his life,” which Schilling finds “exhilarating and inspirational.”
In “Maharajah Donald” (1949), our hero is a total tool; the real heroes are Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Donald would quickly evolve into the flawed adventurer of “Lost in the Andes” (1949), which satirizes both colonialism and the conservatism of preindustrial societies.
Schilling is no fan of Uncle Scrooge. He’s not buying the miser-with-a-heart-of-gold bit, but goes out of his way to praise “The Magic Hourglass” (1950) as “the most honest assessment of this bastard’s life: lonely, angry, veering into evil to get what he wants.” He’s no fan of Gladstone Gander, either, but then who is?
“Vacation Time” (1950) gets Schilling’s highest praise: “Like Buster Keaton, Donald will be initially perceived as a fool only to…reveal, in a terrifying and ultimately moving series of events, a hero unlike any in the Barks canon.” “The Golden Helmet” (1952) is a dark story about the evil in all of us. The “Brittle Mastery” shorts are an interesting lot: in three of them, Donald self-destructs, in another he’s a victim of fate, and in the last he refuses to be a victim at all.
The book is badly in need of an editor: typos, grammatically awkward sentences, and oddball capitalizations abound, and some readers may be put off by Schilling’s frequent use of profanity, which just seems weird, considering the subject matter. But those with even the remotest interest in one of the most resilient comic creations of the last century – or just count themselves among the diehard Donald Duck fandom – would do well to check out Carl Barks’ Duck: Average American to see Disney’s fowl at his finest.