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Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

Funnybooks[Click here to go to the most recent posting on this page.]

From Mark Mayerson: I enjoyed the book immensely. I'm pretty knowledgeable about Kelly, but I learned things. I hadn't made the connection between Kelly's dialogue and Amos 'n Andy, but it's obvious now that you pointed it out. I haven't gone through Kelly's comic book work chronologically, so I appreciate your pinpointing when Kelly seemed to become more sensitive to racial depictions. In his later writings, he implied that his views on race were consistent from childhood, so it was interesting to note the shift.

Finally, I'm amazed at what Kelly accomplished with regard to Pogo's copyright. I knew Oskar Lebeck's name and that he copyrighted Animal Comics, but little else about him. I assumed that Kelly wrote the early Animal Comics strips and that Lebeck gave him the copyright. Learning that Kelly most likely did not write the debut strips and that the copyrights were immediately assigned to Western made Kelly's liberation of Pogo's copyright all the more impressive. No doubt Kelly was aggressive about it, but certainly Martin Goodman, Harry Donenfeld, or John Goldwater would never have given up anything. Kelly was lucky that Western was willing to acquiesce.

(With regard to Goodman, I suspect that Harvey Kurtzman's Hey Look strips are now owned by Disney, even though they don't know it. I would be surprised if there are any documents ceding ownership to Kurtzman. I suspect because the strips were filler that Kurtzman was able to sneak them away without anyone noticing.)

Kelly took the Pogo copyright a second time once the strip was syndicated by the Hall Syndicate. In that case, there was the argument that it was a pre-existing property that the Hall Syndicate had no hand in developing, but there are obvious cases, like Milton Caniff and Roy Crane, where syndicates would not surrender ownership and the cartoonists moved on. While people rightly laud Will Eisner for establishing ownership of The Spirit at its inception, Kelly had to negotiate for ownership twice after the fact. Is there another cartoonist who ever accomplished that?

It was interesting to read that while Dell did not subscribe to the Comics Code, the hysteria over comics still negatively affected their editorial control.

While I was certainly aware that Barks was creating longer stories, it didn't hit me that he was doing it at the same time that companies like EC were limiting their stories to eight pages or less. That's really counter-intuitive. With EC clearly aiming at an older audience than the Barks ducks, you'd think that they would be the ones to be going for longer stories with greater depth. To my knowledge, the entire industry outside of Western was following the short-story model in the postwar years.

You didn't remark on this, but the postwar years saw a shift in the comics business from characters to genres. While certain superhero characters continued into the '50s, most of the successful books created in the post-war years were built around the genres of romance, war, horror and crime, most of which did not use continuing characters with the exception of various hosts. Books with continuing characters that deserved to live, such as Simon and Kirby's Boys' Ranch, were canceled. Western's success in the '50s was obviously bolstered by their licensing of properties from other media, but they were also one of the few companies to consistently feature characters over genre during that time period.

I do want to question something. Thad Komorowski quotes this in his review:

But as with Carl Barks, it is hard to argue that John Stanley was being exploited. Marge’s Lulu, like Disney’s Donald Duck, gave a gifted artist the head start he needed to do work that was far more extraordinary than anything he did, or may have been capable of doing, completely on his own.

I would argue that Barks and Stanley were exploited. Barks, at least, managed to achieve renown and financial security during his painting years, regardless of what you think of the paintings. But while he was creating comics, he was kept in the dark about circulation, fan letters, and profits. His creation of Uncle Scrooge and its launch as an independent title should have entitled him to a creator credit and profit-sharing in a just world.

With Stanley, by the time he split from Western, the lack of success of his other strips may not have had anything to do with their content. By the '60s, comic-book circulations were dropping. More people had moved to the suburbs, where newsstands were not as common. Gold Key's Dr. Solar and Magnus lasted longer than Stanley's new strips, but not all that much longer. Magazines like Collier's, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post were on their last legs. TV had completed its penetration of the U.S. and dominated all other media. By that point, Stanley's age and exhaustion may simply have caught up with him. Barks and Kelly both showed fatigue on the writing side by the end of their careers.Stanley may have made a mistake by sticking with Lulu so long, although he probably didn't have the opportunity for a better financial deal until the Western-Dell split. We'll never know what he or Barks might have done if Lulu or the Ducks were snatched away from them while they were at the height of their powers.

You document that Marge Henderson Buell made out like a bandit from Stanley's work while he was stuck with a page rate and no reprint fees. I've become very sensitive to the exploitation of creative people in mass media, and the fact that Stanley did great work under unfair circumstances doesn't negate that he was exploited.

I understand why you say that Funnybooks will have a limited audience. However, I do think it's an important piece of comic book and pop culture history and I'm grateful that you wrote it. As I said above, I learned things from it and that's a guarantee of the book's value to me.

MB replies: There's no doubt that the genres Mark mentions—none of which lent themselves to the presence of continuing characters—flourished in the postwar years, but there were such genre comic books in earlier years, too (Dell's War Heroes comes to mind), and there were plenty of character comic books in the postwar years, and not just the Dell titles. EC was, if not unique, highly unusual in its complete reliance on genre titles.

I'm not sure it's possible to generalize about the dominance of different kinds of comic books, at least not without lots of qualifiers, until the sixties, when superhero comic books were definitely the rulers of a shrunken market. For example, anthology comics of various kinds flourished in the prewar and war years as they did not after the war (a shift that may have had much to do with the shrinking page count, which left room for fewer features). Even then, though, Dell anthology titles like Walt Disney's Comics and Looney Tunes survived throughout the '50s, long after other anthology titles had died.

In order to say a cartoonist was being "exploited" it should be possible to measure, however roughly, the difference that cartoonist's work made to the sales of the comic books to which he contributed. If a cartoonist's work was adding several hundred thousand copies to a comic book's sales, but the cartoonist's page rate was the same as that of his colleagues, exploitation may be the right word.

But as I've written about Barks (on pages 191-92), it's hard to say that the excellence of his work made a significant difference in the sales of Walt Disney's Comics and Donald Duck. Uncle Scrooge was a different matter, of course, but even there the Disney connection was very important. Recall that "Walt Disney's" was unusually large above "Uncle Scrooge" on the cover of the first issue; Western wanted to make sure that its readers knew that this relatively unfamiliar character was part of the familiar Disney universe. In light of Uncle Scrooge's subsequent success, it's easy to forget that Western was assuming the risk that readers would not embrace the new title (as they did not embrace many other Dell tryout titles). That risk was entirely Western's; even if Uncle Scrooge had flopped, Barks would have been paid.

If Barks had wanted to write and draw a comic book with human characters that he owned, Western was ready to publish it, but he didn't want to take that chance (and no doubt felt he couldn't, given his financial circumstances). If Western and Disney exploited him, in a sense, they also provided him with security (prompt payment, checks that didn't bounce) that many other comic-book cartoonists did not enjoy. In later years, that security took the additional form of bonuses and then a pension.

With Stanley the case is more complicated, because he was so tightly connected with Little Lulu from the very beginning. The comic book always reflected his sensibility more than anyone else's. No doubt Little Lulu would have been less successful, maybe a lot less successful, without him. But I doubt that he could have enjoyed comparable success as a comic-book creator with characters that he owned. I say that not just because his post-Lulu work failed to take off—most of it is simply inferior to his best Lulu stories, more busy and frantic than funny—but also because his much earlier Dell character Peterkin Pottle (in 1949 issues of Raggedy Ann and Andy) suffered a similar fate.

I wish we knew whether Stanley had any ownership of Peterkin Pottle (whose stories were copyright by Western). If that feature had succeeded to the point that a Peterkin Pottle comic book became a reality, would Stanley have transferred his efforts to it? Would he have done so not just as artist and writer, but as the feature's proprietor? I doubt there's any way to know.

Of course, Western could have rewarded the excellence of Stanley's Lulu work with extra money, and maybe it did, as with Barks's bonuses. Supporters of the exploitation hypothesis might say, of course, that as welcome as such extra pay undoubtedly was, it still was given to the artist by the grace of the publisher, and that as long as the extra payment was discretionary, and not given as a matter of right, the exploitation was only softened and not removed. But I still lean toward the belief that it's hard to find exploitation when the "exploited" artist has assumed no financial risk and has in some ways—as in the opportunity to do artistically superior work—actually benefited from the presumed exploitation.

[Posted January 21, 2015]

From Joakim Braun: Quite a few facts of Carl Barks' financial arrangements with Western have surfaced in recent years. I believe in the early 1950s he had a monthly salary of $900 (an apparently fictitious arrangement), possibly for medical/social security purposes as a favor to some artists by Western, with the requirement that he deliver X pages per month, carefully discounted against his salary. Nine hundred dollars per month is a lot more than the $5,000 or $6,000 that he was paid as a storyman at Disney's in the early 1940s, and even back then he was probably a reasonably well paid cartoon technician. And remember, his $100 per month at the Eye-Opener was apparently an acceptable living wage during the Depression. Inflation was about 5% a year in the 1940s, so $5,000 in 1940 dollars equals $8,100 in 1950, if I get my math right. And $900 in 1950 corresponds to $8,840.76 in 2014, according to this federal government website. I believe Bernie Krigstein is on record as saying that he made $350 or so per month as an EC artist in the middle 1950s. I'm still ready and willing to believe that Barks was exploited (being one of the best storytellers in America). Nevertheless, and as much as it goes against my own prejudices, I find the conclusion inescapable that he made quite good money from Western, compared to both his former Disney salary and the income of one of the best EC artists.

MB replies: As Barks said, when he ceased being an independent contractor and became a Western Printing & Lithographing employee in the 1950s he became eligible for various company benefits (and he didn't have to pay sales tax on the stories he sold to Western). The page rate he was paid remained the critical figure, whatever he was paid as a "draw." If, as Barks believed, his page rate was no higher than what was paid to some of his less illlustrious colleagues, it remains true that for a long time he was given far more freedom than most of those colleagues, freedom that he said was worth at least ten dollars a page to him. I think to dwell too much on how Barks was "exploited" discounts artistic satisfaction as an important element in an artist's employment.

From Thad Komorowski: With regards to the question of whether or not Barks and Stanley were exploited, I still agree with you that they largely weren't. I do agree with Mark Mayerson that Western should've given Barks a credit on Uncle Scrooge (if not a creator credit, at least a byline), considering he drew just about every page of that title for so many years. But Barks was too refreshingly sane to resent his surroundings. As you hammer constantly in Funnybooks, Barks had a very unique opportunity for years to do the comics more or less as he wanted. (I use "hammer" in a good way—years of befuddling academia say Barks was greater than all the other funny animal comics combined, but you actually and clearly state why.)

Stanley, as you say, is more complicated. He too at least deserved a regular byline, no question. I couldn't agree with you more that the non-Lulu work is uniformly unsatisfying, the Walter Lantz stories being the sole exception (which fits, because he wasn't in the Lulu groove yet). Occasionally a masterpiece might arise (the Bongo and Bop story in Kookie No. 1 comes immediately to mind), but for all I respect him as a cartoonist, he seemed incapable of creating a personality that wasn't based on the Lulu and Tubby template. Exhaustion, obviously. But certainly Stanley's age didn't contribute to his disappointing '60s work, and considering how many terrible comics were getting published, it might just be possible that no one really liked the likes of Thirteen Going on Eighteen. (It's a hard call, but I like Barks's grumpy old man '60s work far more than Stanley's exhausted '60s work.)

I think Stanley really got kids, but he was only able to use younger ones for comedy successfully. I'm recalling a diatribe on John K.'s blog in which he trashed Stanley in his usual broad-brush fashion, and a dissenter (!) replied, "His kids were often mean as shit. Like real kids." That really pinpoints why Little Lulu is so much richer and appealing than his '60s follow-ups, Thirteen especially. Little snots acting up? Gold, and we'll forgive it (to a degree) because they're so unavoidably ignorant. Teens? Well, you better make it really funny, otherwise it's a painful reminder of how unappealing people can be in their teenage years and why no one remembers the time with much fondness. Unfortunately Stanley didn't pass that test. Not for me anyway.

MB replies: For me, the best Stanley teenage stories are the ones recognizable as his work in Henry Aldrich, from the early 1950s. The story in Henry Aldrich No. 4 (1951) in which any number of hysterical adults mistake dress dummies for corpses, is one of the funniest Stanley stories from any period—but not because the characters are recognizable as teenagers. They really have more in common with Stanley's versions of Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker. A few teenage trappings aside, Henry and Homer Brown are goofs who could be any age, and who could fit perfectly into a two-reel comedy when the best such things were being made.

[Posted January 23, 2015]

From Mark Evanier: As a long-time advocate for Jack Kirby and others whose income seems meager compared to their contribution, I have wrestled much with the issue of when a creator is being exploited, and it's especially hard with the ones who grew up in the Great Depression because they often seemed so grateful just to have the steady paychecks they received that it was hard to argue they were being swindled by the amounts on those checks.

On the matter of bylines, it's a bit murkier because a lot of them didn't particularly want or expect their names on their work. In the seventies, when I hired guys like Pete Alvarado and Owen Fitzgerald to draw comics I was editing, they usually resisted having their names on the work. I believe I gave Pete his first-ever credit on a comic book—even hand-lettered it myself— and I had to talk him into allowing it. At first he said no, then he asked me to credit him as "L. Pencil," then he finally said okay. He had to be talked into allowing it. Part of this was his animation background: He was used to viewing the work as the creation of the company (or at least, a team) and to not being credited, at least that specifically. I think there was also a bit of fear that if the work was signed, readers might write in and say "I don't like Pete Alvarado's work" and I'd give him fewer assignments. Yes, it's not logical that he wouldn't consider the opposite, but Pete, like a lot of his peers, was always worried the flow of work would stop.

In Owen's case, he had a different attitude: Those weren't his characters he was drawing. To him, drawing a Scooby Doo comic was like when he'd drawn Dennis the Menace and it was signed with Hank Ketcham's name. He didn't object much to the credit but he didn't expect or understand it. If he'd drawn Donald Duck or any other comic set in that character's world, he would never have imagined it having any name associated with it but Mr. Disney's.

Owen was one of the most gifted artists I ever knew. When he worked at Hanna-Barbera, others there looked at his work—produced as rapidly as any cartoonist anywhere ever managed—and they'd shake their heads and wonder, "How does he do that?" But as far as I know, at no point in his long career did he ever really think of creating his own strip and trying to become a Charles Schulz or Walt Kelly. The few attempts he made in that direction were at the urging or patronage of others. Left to his own motivations, he was just happy that someone was paying him to draw and that he made enough to not worry about rent or groceries. Is it possible to exploit someone like that? I know it's easy to do so but at what point is an employer obligated to give someone more than they demand?

I have less problem feeling Kirby was exploited because (a) he did demand more and (b) he was often lied to or promised things he never received. The issue might have been more clear-cut at Western had Barks and Stanley been employed directly by Disney or Marge. Western Publishing was somewhat uncredited, too. I'm sure that for his entire time with them, if Carl told someone he drew Donald Duck comic books, they assumed he was on the Disney payroll. With some of these gents, there was the feeling that they were ghost artists working for a ghost publisher...for editors who were also not credited. It was kind of like that was your accepted lot in life when you worked on The Duck, whether it was for cartoons, comic strips or comic books. That's a shame but I sometimes have trouble quantifying that shame...or seeing victims as victims when they themselves didn't see themselves as such.

MB replies: In regard to credits, I think it's worth remembering that working in comic books was a low-status occupation when the Dell comic books were in their heyday. Sparky Moore said of Nick Firfires, whose work appeared in Gene Autry and Buck Jones: "He would never admit that he did comic books. If anybody asked him, [he said] “I illustrate western magazines.” He always showed up at [Western Printing's Los Angeles] office in his big cowboy hat and a big belt buckle and all. He lived up here in Santa Barbara. ... I remember he’d come in, and he never associated with any of the other artists." There were undoubtedly many artists and writers who, if they did not shun credit for their work as Firfires did, still thought, essentially, why bother to claim credit for work that almost no one respects or takes seriously?

The history of the credits in Western's comic books was very uneven, with more credits in the early days, especially in the comics edited by Oskar Lebeck, and fewer in later years, but with odd exceptions like the very full credits in a few 1952 issues of Little Lulu and New Funnies, and Bill Williams's signed work for Henry Aldrich. Was there ever a real company policy in regard to credits, or just an ad hoc handling of them that resulted more often than not in no credits at all? I'd guess the latter.

Western itself was in fact an uncredited "ghost publisher" in the early years, at the very time when more of its artists and writers were being credited for their work than would be the case later. As I note in Funnybooks, it wasn't until 1948 that "the Dell comic books first bore, in small type on the inside front cover, the credit line 'Designed and produced by Western Printing & Lithographing Co.' Until then, Western was completely invisible to the readers" of the Dell and K.K. Publications comic books that it produced.

From Mark Kausler: I started to read Funnybooks thinking I would take it slowly, and then my inner fanboy took over and I finished it in about four sittings! I think I made the right decision in not proofreading your manuscript, since this is a lot of new territory for me. Although I knew most of the names you speak of, such as Gaylord DuBois, Oskar Lebeck, John Stanley, Moe Gollub, Dan Noonan, etc., I applaud your effort in connecting them all to the K.K. Publications/Dell/Western era in such an entertaining way.

I enjoyed the way you wrote about Oskar Lebeck’s intention to make comic books that straddled the line between comics and children’s illustrated literature, and the eventual triumph in those books of real “comic” stories. Thanks to the Stanley Stories blog, I had some foreknowledge of John Stanley's drawing the early Tom and Jerry stories for Our Gang Comics, but you put them into a time line and highlighted Stanley’s (and DuBois’s) efforts to turn Tom and Jerry into characters that came alive on the comic page. I hadn’t realized that the little mouse in diapers which they named “Tuffy” was their invention.

I also enjoyed how you revealed that DuBois wrote a lot of the western and cowboy comics for Dell, and the comic strip attributed to Zane Grey, King of the Royal Mounted. There are a few on-line lists of Grey’s works that include King, but obviously they are wrong. Cathy and I enjoy reading Zane Grey's novels and accounts of hunting, such as Hunting Lions in the Grand Canyon and The Last of the Plainsmen. Thanks to your mention of B.M. Bower, who was a pioneering western female novelist, we have a new author’s work to explore.

Thanks for writing about Carl Buettner, whose drawings I admire along with Harvey Eisenberg’s. Carl made the best drawings of Bugs Bunny in the 1943-44 Bugs Bunny comic strip that Chase Craig wrote. He sounds like he was quite a tough critic of his fellow cartoonists’ work when he was an editor.

I was intrigued by your account of the Story Book Records that Walt Kelly created in 1946. I really like his blustery vocals on the “Songs of the Pogo” record, such as “Go Go Pogo,” and I envy you having heard his earlier recorded vocals. It might be an interesting idea for a blog post if you could make a couple of the Story Book Records available. You could upload them to archive.org and link to them. I think a lot of Kelly fans would enjoy a post like that, especially now that the Pogo website seems to have disappeared.

I only spotted one typo, and that’s in the notes on page 384. In note 6 for Chapter 18, you state that “..'dollar flats' was well as adult books.” I think you meant to say “as well,” at least it makes more sense to me than "was."

I really loved your book, and have almost as much admiration for the early Dell comics as you have, reading them from thrift store and Comic-Con copies, not the originals as you have done. There is an unmistakable warmth to the prose in Funnybooks. As much as I like your book Hollywood Cartoons, I think you feel closer to the Dell comics than the old animated cartoons. My favorite sections of the book would have to be the Walt Kelly bits; this is the closest to an actual biography of Kelly that I’ve ever read.

MB replies: I acquired my dubs from Kelly's Story Book Records on condition that I not make copies of them, and I still feel bound by that agreement. I now have some of the actual records, though, and possibly I can make dubs from those records available here.

[Posted February 1, 2015]

From Thad Komorowski: Reading Mark Evanier's comment on how the fantastic Owen Fizgerald never imagined receiving credit for drawing others' characters, I was immediately reminded of Floyd Gottfredson feeling exactly the same way. Mickey was Walt's character, and he didn't mind Walt's signature on every single strip. So yes, a lot of artists writing and drawing characters they did not create probably never fathomed receiving credit. (Learn something, Don Rosa.)

From Kim Weston: With the availability of Carl Barks's payment voucher information on the internet, it is not especially difficult to come up with pretty accurate estimates of how much Barks earned each year from 1943 to 1969 from writing and drawing comic books for Western Printing & Lithographing. These records include what he was paid for each story or drawing he submitted and while there are some errors, those errors don't change the overall picture.

Not included in these records, however, are bonuses Barks received because of good sales on the comic books to which he contributed stories. And those bonuses likely significantly increased his income, at least in the years before the uproar about crime comics in the middle 1950s. So it is likely that at least through 1954, bonuses were a significant part of his income. In the early 1950s Walt Disney's Comics & Stories had a circulation of over three million, and Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck also had circulations in the millions. As sales decreased in the later 1950s, the bonuses probably diminished, and it is likely that by the 1960s they completely disappeared.

The only year I know for sure the size of Barks's bonus is 1948. On March 12, 1948, he received a bonus check for $1,441, probably on sales of comic books from 1947. He notes that it was his biggest ever. But apparently he generally got bonuses twice a year, and I don't know his other 1948 bonus, or those for any other years.

According to the US government CPI calculator, that March bonus check would have had the buying power of $14,155.04 in 2014. As circulation increased, Barks's bonus checks probably did, too. But his other bonus-check amounts are information I don't have. What I do have is his earnings from sales of stories and art from 1943 to 1969. It doesn't include magazine cartoons he might have sold elsewhere, but it does include most of his income other than bonus checks.

Was Barks exploited by Western or the Disney company? One can make an argument that he was, but he also made a very good living. He worked very hard for that good living, but he did make a good living. And he had a remarkable amount of freedom to write and draw whatever he wanted at least for the first decade or so. Even later, when there were more and more restrictions placed on him about what could and could not be done, he knew pretty much what the restrictions were, and enjoyed considerable freedom to work as he saw fit. For almost his entire career drawing comics, he wrote and drew stories, gags, and covers, turned them in, and got paid for them promptly. The work he was asked to redo or that was rejected was a very small percentage, and he mostly got paid even for that. Barks has also said that the freedom he had to work on his own and from home was worth $10 a page to him, this when he was making $40-45 a page.

Barks also said that he thought artists who did realistic-looking characters got paid more than he did. There is evidence to support that. In Robin Snyder's newsletter, The Comics, Matthew Murphy, an editor in Western's New York offices from about 1952 to 1970, writes in a memoir that when he was engaging Everett Raymond Kinstler to draw Max Brand's Silvertip, shortly after he started working at Western, he explained to Kinstler that Western paid $8 a page for script and $35 for art, plus $2.50 per page for lettering. And he says those rates didn't change while he was at Western.

Pay policies may have differed on the east and west coasts, but in December 1952, Barks's page rate rose a dollar to $27 a page for art including lettering, plus $9.50 a page for script. So Barks got $10.50 a page less than the rate offered Kinstler, but he was already earning more for scripts. And Barks did get regular pay raises, $1 in 1955, $2 in March, 1956, and another $2 in May, $1 in 1957, $2 in 1959, and another $1 in August, 1960 which brought him up to $34 a page for art and $11.50 for script, which is what the New York office was offering in late 1952, and still paying in 1970. In this context, one can make a good argument that Barks was being comparatively underpaid in 1952. But Barks did get bonuses, health insurance, and, eventually, a pension.

So, how much did Barks make? In 1948 he made $6,470 and at least one bonus of $1,441. According to the US government CPI calculator, those amounts had the buying power of $63,555.27 plus $14,155.04 in 2014, or over $77,700 in total, a pretty decent wage. And 1948 wasn't an especially good year. In 1947 and 1949 Barks made about $7,400 and $7,300 respectively, not including any bonuses. In 1950 he made about $8,800, and his sales of art and story grew to about $14,900 in 1960, his peak year because he took on a lot of extra drawing work to save up for an extended vacation. And again those numbers don't include any bonuses, which he surely received, at least in the earlier years. According to the CPI calculator, in inflation-adjusted dollars those earnings would be about $87,000 to $119,000 now.

Barks received his last raise in page rate in 1960, to $11.50 a page for writing and $34 a page for art. Covers had been $17.50 for the idea or script and $50 for the art, $67.50 total, since 1953 and art remained the same. But the script rate for covers did rise to $20 in November, 1962. In addition, the script rate for gag pages went up to $15 in November 1961.

In the 1960s his income declined about 25 percent as he did fewer pages in his last five years as he approached retirement. But still, in 1964 his earnings would have paid for my four years of tuition at Johns Hopkins University 1964-68, with almost $4,000 left over. My first year teacher's salary after graduating would have come up $700 short of covering my tuition, and relative to the economy, teachers were paid better then than now.

To offer a slightly different perspective on Barks's income, I compared, somewhat randomly, Barks's 1954 wages to the 1954 IRS information for California taxpayers. Barks's sales of art and story in 1954 earned him $11,100. Of 4,733,521 California tax returns in 1954, only 241,249 were for incomes of $10,000 or more. This puts Barks in the top 5 percent of all California earners (also New York), and probably a bit higher compared to all USA taxpayers.

Was he worth more? I would say yes! Would it have been appropriate for him to receive a royalty on the endless reprints worldwide of his work? Most definitely. But he still made a good living. And in the end, Disney did allow him to paint characters they owned copyright on, for his pleasure and to enhance his retirement income.

Barks art and script page rates

1942 - $10 art (3-tier pages)

12/23/42 - $12.50 art + $2.50 script

10/9/43 - $13.50 art + $2.50 script

11/27/43 - $18 art + $3.50 script (4-tier pages)

2/20/45 - $22.50

2/28/46 - $23 = $20 art + $3 script

12/30/46 - $25 = $20 art + $5 script

9/8/49 - $22 art + $6.50 script

11/2/50 - $23 art + $7 script

1/11/51 - $25 art + $8.50 script

9/27/51 -$26 art + $9.50 script

12/24/52 - $27 art + $9.50 script

3/17/55 - $37.50

3/15/56 - $39.50

5/31/56 - $41.50

Mar, 1957 - $42.50 = $31.50 art + $11 script

May, 1959 - $33 art + $11.50 script

Aug, 1960 - $34 art + $11.50 script

ADDENDUM:  in January, 2016, long after after the above post was written, I found records of three more bonus payments to Barks by Western:

4/1/49 for $1000.80

6/28/50 for $936.63

March 1951 (no day given) for $1,115.13

I still don't know how often he received such bonus checks, whether it was annually, semi-annually, more frequently or irregularly. Barks's regular earnings from creating comics in 1949, 1950, and 1951 were $7,278, $8,871, and $8,640, respectively, so those bonus checks represent increases in his compensation of 13.8%, 10.6% and 12.9% in those years. Barks said that his $1,441 bonus in March 1948 was his biggest yet, and it amounted to a 22.3% boost in his income over his page rate. His statement also implies that he must have received bonuses at least twice before; and it is highly likely that he continued to receive them through most or all of the 1950s, as Dell comics continued to sell very well until they raised the price of their comic books to 15 cents early in 1961. Other publishers kept their prices at a dime until they eventually raised them to 12 cents.

Finally poor sales caused Dell to drop the price to 12 cents and also contributed to the Dell/Western-Gold Key split. In Funnybooks, Mike Barrier reports that when Barks became a Western employee circa 1953, he started receiving vacation pay and bonuses twice a year that "averaged around 10 percent of what [he]'d been earning." It is not clear whether each bonus was about 10% of his annual earnings from comics or that the two combined were.  But in the years 1948-1951, the single known bonuses he received each of those years were in the range of 10-22% of his earnings from writing and drawing. So it is likely that his known earnings from his page rate understate his actual earnings by 10-20% or more.

Barks probably spent about six weeks creating the 36 pages including four covers that make up FC 386, Only a Poor Old Man.  He was paid $1,336 in 1952 dollars--that is $12,291.25 in 2017 dollars according to the IRS inflation calculator, or a little over $341 a page for writing, drawing, and lettering the comic book.  Based on known bonuses from the previous 4 years, it is likely that he also got a bonus that effectively raised his page rate 10-20%.

Despite his comfortable income, Barks still may have experienced struggles with money.  From 1952 to 1964 he paid alimony of $250 a month, $3000 a year, to his second wife.  That amounted to 20-25% of his known annual income most years in that period.  Such struggles probably informed his stories about Donald's struggles with money.  And his experiences with lawyers during the divorce certainly informed several of his contemporary and later stories, particularly The Golden Helmet and The Horseradish Ship story.

For a time in the early 1950s, the print run of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories was about 3,000,000.  But other titles were nowhere near that.  According to Barrier in Funnybooks, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories accounted for 10% of all Dell Comics printed in the early 1950s.  At their peak, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge had print runs of about 2,000,000, but other titles, including Mickey Mouse were a good bit lower.  But for the first Uncle Scrooge, it is likely that Western printed somewhere between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 copies.

Let us unrealistically assume, for a moment, that Western sold every one of those copies. Those copies sold for 10 cents each retail, but Western probably only received around 4 cents for each of those copies since retailers probably paid 5 cents for them and the distributors took a cut also. Printing and binding may have cost another penny, Disney, the biggest kid on the block, may have gotten a penny, though other licensors typically got only a quarter cent per copy printed.  If Disney got a penny, that leaves Western about 2 cents a copy. Times 2 million copies that is still $40,000.  But if they printed 1.5 million and sold 90%, that is only $27,000. And this was the first issue of a new title, although it was by a well-established and good-selling creator. And those 150,000 copies that didn't sell still had to be printed and still paid Disney a royalty. So that subtracts another $3,000 from the $27,000 income leaving only $24,000.  And even at that time, a 90% sell-through was very good.  If it was 80%, subtract another $3,000 and you have only $21,000 left.  Dell titles with print runs of 500,000 were likely to be cancelled.  Admittedly, these numbers are guesses, but they still offer some perspective on the economics of Dell Comics.

Yes, Barks was underpaid, but he was still paid well, got regular bonuses, was an employee of Western receiving benefits such as healthcare and eventually a pension.  All of which he worked long and hard for.  But he was perhaps not as exploited as some who throw around numbers like 3,000,000 would have you believe.

MB replies: I mention the print runs for some of the Disney comic books at several points in Funnybooks, as on pages 191-92, where I cite the print runs for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and Donald Duck from around 1950; those figures were provided to me by David R. Smith when he was the Walt Disney Company's archivist. Western Printing paid royalties on those print runs rather than sales to the consumer, which were considerably less in most cases. The print runs were of course based on anticipated sales of each title.

Dave also provided me with a scattering of figures for other Disney titles. Western paid royalties for the quarterly Uncle Scrooge on around two million copies in the early to mid-1950s—a figure a little lower than that for the monthly Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, but considerably higher than for the bi-monthly Mickey Mouse—before sales and print runs plunged after the price increase in 1961. The figures for the bi-monthly Donald Duck show it on a par with Uncle Scrooge in the early 1950s but falling off badly later in the decade, perhaps in a reflection of Barks's absence.

[Posted February 4, 2015; revised June 5, 2015 addendum by Weston posted May 12, 2017]]

From Gordon Green: I'm reading your marvelous new book. It is, very frankly, the book for which I've been waiting almost seventy years. As those somehow-familiar names pop off of the pages (Kay Kamen, Ward Kimball, R.S. Callender…), it's like I'm looking at an old family album. Thank you, my friend. It's wonderful!

[Posted February 19, 2015]

From Gregg Hammond: I have just finished reading Funnybooks and have to tell you how much I have enjoyed it. Putting together the history of just one arm of Western Publishing is a monumental task, especially considering how the company's records are practically nonexistent. An older friend of mine worked for Western as a salesman in the late 1960s, early 1970s. When I asked him in the 1990s if he had any catalogues or bill heads, etc., he told me he had only recently thrown all his files away. I think because Western was a child's publisher, everyday people just don't consider what it did as important.

But all their products were important to me: the Big Little Books, the coloring books, the Little Golden Books and Records, but none more so than the comic books. When my parents first bought them for me in the mid-60s, they were 12 cents. By the time I could buy them for myself, they were 15 cents. I loved all the Disney titles, but my favorites were Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, Mickey Mouse and Uncle Scrooge. It was a banner day for me when I plunked down 50 cents to buy the first issue of Walt Disney Comics Digest with 182 pages of comics. Wow!

I later had subscriptions to several of these titles and was very disappointed when Western canceled the subscriptions. I could no longer get them on any newsstands that were near my home on Long Island, New York. However, when we would go to New Hampshire on summer vacation, I could find them on the newsstands there.

I wrote to Western several times about back issues of single copies, and they would sell them to me in the early '70s, but by 1974 or so, all their subscription and mail copies seemed to be halted. They always wrote back very friendly and courteous letters. I had no idea that they were in such financial trouble. It was the company that published my favorite books and comics, and I just thought they were the best. Thank you for writing Funnybooks. It will go on the shelf next to all your other wonderful books, including Building A Better Mouse [the catalog for the 1978 Disney exhibition at the Library of Congress].

MB replies: I was surprised to learn that Western would sell individual copies of back issues in the 1970s, but I can concur that its representatives could be remarkably friendly and courteous in their replies to fan letters—especially considering that they so obviously had trouble understanding why anyone would take the trouble to write such letters. My own earliest correspondence of that sort, with Lloyd E. Smith, is referenced in Funnybooks, and I also have letters in my files from Western luminaries like R. S. Callender, Chase Craig, and Del Connell.

[Posted February 24, 2015]

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