October 19, 2016:
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
October 19, 2016:
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature earlier this month, my first thought wasn't of how wonderful (or terrible) it was that he'd received the award. I've enjoyed some of Dylan's work, but I don't own any of his recordings, and I don't listen to much pop music of any kind. On the rare occasions when I want to listen to pop, I am most likely to seek out CDs by Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers or other performers of that vintage. Performers, that is, who were active before rock 'n roll lost its sense of humor. I don't think anyone has ever called Dylan a barrel of laughs.
My first thought was, in fact, not of Dylan but of Carl Barks, and of how inconceivable it always was that he would ever receive recognition remotely comparable to what Dylan and other rock musicians have received, even before Dylan got his Nobel. Barks was honored by comics fans, and intermittently by governments, in the United States and abroad, but he never got the sustained, serious attention that his stature as an artist demanded. (I'm talking about his stature as a comic-book creator, of course, not as a painter of ducks. The less said about the paintings, the better.) The same could be said of other comic-book artists and writers, but Barks is the one whose best stories bob up in my consciousness with remarkable frequency—like Dylan songs in other people's minds, I suppose—and that reveal new facets every time I read them.
I wonder if the comparative neglect of Barks has something to do with the lack of a well-developed vocabulary for talking about really good comic-book stories. I intermittently turn to handbooks (if I may call them that) like James Woods' How Fiction Works and David Lodge's The Art of Fiction because they heighten my awareness of what I'm reading and my understanding of how authors achieve the results they want. In Funnybooks, in particular, I tried to put to use some of what I'd learned from such books, by explaining, as the occasion arose, the techniques that Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley used to give their stories so much comic life. But I wish there were equivalents specifically for the comics of books like Woods' and Lodge's, because a lot of what fits when you're writing about prose doesn't fit nearly as well when you're writing about comics. For example, I don't know how you'd go about discussing "free indirect style" as it relates to comics, because I don't know how it could relate.
Many people reading that last paragraph would immediately invoke the name of Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, but I would have to demur. It has been a while since I read that book, but I remember feeling then that McCloud's handling of time, especially, was inadequate, and that his book, like so many other books about comic books, took too much for granted the importance (artistic as well as commercial) of the superheroes. And the whole notion of writing a book about comic books as a comic book, which is what McCloud did, has always struck me as terribly misguided.
And speaking of comic books...
I've recently made my wife a little happier by beginning a serious effort to cull my comic books, especially the superhero titles that I read with some regularity from the 1960s to the 1990s. I've decided to keep some of those comics for the time being, titles by the more distinctive artists and writers who worked in the genre, people like Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman, but that leaves hundreds if not thousands that need a new home. The Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State is taking a box of comic books (and a second box of real books), but donating or selling the rest is turning out to be harder than I expected. I've written to a long list of dealers, including some I met in person at San Diego last summer, but the response has been minimal. For the most part, unless a comic book is at least fifty years old (and in excellent condition), no dealer is interested in it. Presumably, buyers can be found through eBay, but that's a last resort. I understand that other veteran collectors are running into similar difficulties in shedding their surplus comics; maybe a long-lived bubble is finally bursting.
It's tempting, in these circumstances, to dump my comics as expeditiously as possible, even if that means a trip to Goodwill, but we all know that the odds are that those unwanted comics will turn out to be worth fabulous sums a few decades from now. At my age, that really doesn't concern me, but younger collectors have to look further ahead. I'd welcome your thoughts (and, especially, the names of reputable dealers who may be stockpiling stuff that no one much wants at the moment).
From Milton Gray: I just read your article, "Don’t Think Twice," and just wanted to express a thought about Carl Barks, especially his work from about 1948 to 1952. I have always been amazed, and thrilled upon first reading, of the great uniqueness of each of his stories. Instead of being just about Donald’s conflicts and relationships with his nephews and Daisy, the primary subject of each story was wildly different from the others, and it was always a surprise what the next story would be about. Just in a single year, 1949, one story was about the nephews charging money in a gully to create echoes, another story has Donald accidentally turned into a super hero (“Super Snooper, the mightiest mortal that ever trod the sod”), another story has Donald believing that Gladstone has gotten embarrassing love letters that Donald had written to Daisy, another story opens with Donald being chased by terrifying creatures from Mars (which is a series of nightmares Donald has), and so on. The sheer genius of such wildly different subjects, and each one done with such depth and intensely funny humor, just amazes me even today!
[Posted October 24, 2016]
From Kel Crum: Enjoyed your blog entry with the unlikely comparison of Bob Dylan and Carl Barks. I've always found Dylan to be pretty funny, actually, when I listen to his "talking blues" numbers, as well as that song that insists everybody must get stoned that somehow got titled "Rainy Day Women." Still he's best known for songs like "Blowin' in the Wind " and it's hard to get tongue-in-cheek with that one.
As for Barks, he is well regarded in the comics community, but ever since Gladstone and Gemstone and Disney started reprinting his comics, there was a need for new material to keep the comic books going. None of the new stuff (including the foreign imports) appeals to me. I cringe when I hear from people who say they prefer the work of Don Rosa. The man has talent, but his career is built not on creating his own world but on paying tribute to someone else's. And too many of his stories, like "The Money Pit" (kind of echoing your feelings about rock and roll), make me think comics are taking themselves too seriously.
With all the new stories floating around, the old Barks stuff is getting lost in the shuffle. Most folks think of Scrooge as a Disney or "Ducktales" character. "Carl Who?" Like all great characters, Scrooge McDuck has a shelf life, and I'm really not interested in any new treasure hunts. Geez, doesn't he have enough money already?
But the Fantagraphics reprints are nice.
[Posted November 10, 2016]
From Donald Benson: Have you tried regular used bookstores? Half Price Books and some local independents will often have a box or two; sometimes packed in batches of a single title.
Does anybody outside of collectors and long, long-time readers buy regular comic books? I'd already drifted away from comics when they went to 15 cents; when I returned it was for reprints in trade paperbacks and actual books (including the stiff-covered Gladstone/Gemstone run of Walt Disney's Comics and Uncle Scrooge). I unload some of them on now-grown nephews and nieces, by way of bulking up the inevitable gift card at Christmas.
MB replies: "Regular used bookstores" are at least as scarce in my area as comic-book stores, of which there are two within reasonable driving distance.
[Posted November 11, 2016]
From Joseph R. Cowles: Does Scrooge have a "shelf life" [as Kel Crum suggests in his comment above]?
I guess the companion question would be "Is Scrooge evergreen?"
Sorta depends on who's asking, don't it? And which artist and writer produced any given story.
December 1947. I am six years old and have been reading for about two and one-half years. Reading quite well, without Mother's assistance, for nearly half that time. Understanding (usually) the story lines, the gags, the conflicts, the pratfalls. Laughing at the jokes, reveling in the adventures. Delighted by Christmas on Bear Mountain [in Donald Duck Four Color No. 178, 1947].
Once in a while I enjoy a Bugs Bunny story. A Pig or Panda tale. But mostly it's those adventurous screwball ducks that charm me. Not all the duck stories. Just certain ones. I'm somehow able to identify the "good stories" by the way they're drawn. Others simply fall flat. There's some sort of correlation (not a word yet in my vocabulary; nor would I be likely to use the word relationship in attempting to describe the experience), some sort of better than the others experience which my young mind picks up.) A certain delight that isn't there, simply doesn't exist, in most of the other duck stories. And the ones I do delight in, the ones I want to look at longer, and read again and again, have a commonality I haven't yet words to describe, an uncommon commonality my youthful vocabulary isn't yet able to grok.
Today I'm an adult of many years, halfway through my eighth decade, closer to eighty than seventy, and the works of Carl Barks-—including Uncle Scrooge-—have been an important part of my life throughout all but the first several diaper-clad crawling around on hands and knees years of it.
That's a long time to have been a "fan" of and remained enthralled by the creative work of a single individual. Other cartoonists, other comics characters, in other times of my life, have given me pleasure. Few and far between, those. And unfortunately without the longevity. But none with the same something that so captivated me more than seven decades ago and which even today, at this advanced age, warms me with pleasure.
I did find, and still find, great enjoyment in the illustrated adventures of Conan the Barbarian as drawn by Barry Smith in—when was it? The late 1960s and early 1970s. The craftsmanship was there, the capable hand, the strokes of ink on paper. A number of artists drew Conan stories, as a variety of artists drew Disney Ducks stories, but for all their beautiful excitement, even Smith's brilliant Conan stories hadn't the breadth or depth or wit or wisdom or evergreen captivating superiority of the Duck stories written and drawn by Carl Barks.
It's true that not all Barks stories are equal in their enchantment. A few didn't quite engage the reader. And I guess that's a condition to be expected of any artist or writer or craftsperson. Sometimes the deadlines, the pressures, the exhaustion and personal circumstances overwhelm even the best of creative minds. Occasionally, the magic touch doesn't come across. But with the works of Carl Barks, those "off days" were few and far between. We fans nearly always seemed to get our dime's worth.
Carl gave us far more than he was given in return, but that's a story for some other time.
So the question at hand is, does Scrooge (i.e. the works of Carl Barks) have a "shelf life"?
That rather depends, doesn't it? I say it depends on how each of us, individually, process information. How our minds and memories work. And how our temperaments behave. For some, perhaps a single shallow reading of a Scrooge story, or other Barks tale, is sufficient. For others, the delight of rereading a story over time opens one's mind to even more humor that may have been missed in an earlier read.
Take, for example, Carl's story of Omelet [in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories No. 146, November 1952]. It was funny when I first read it as an eleven-year-old in 1952. As I returned to the same story a number of times over the years, as my intellect matured, as my sense of humor developed, I found the tale to be more and more amusing. The progression developed from funny to side-splitting. Why? I have no reply for such a question. No way to identify what takes place in my innermost thoughts. In a dozen readings over the years, that absurd story has for me continued to become better and better and better.
So: does Scrooge (the character) have a "shelf life"? I say not. (Carl's roster of Scrooge stories is what I'm discussing here, not the pale imitations of the old miser offered up by others; well-meaning perhaps, but uninspiring writers and artists.) Scrooge McDuck, the world's richest fictional character, is evergreen: fresh and delightful and captivating for every new audience that comes along. As long as there are human beings to be born, there will be human beings to obtain unbounded delight in reading and rereading the Carl Barks stories of the old miser's adventures, misadventures and foibles.
As a body of work, Carl's tales have the capacity to delight readers of thousands of years hence . . . literally until the end of time itself.
The Carl Barks stories of Scrooge McDuck are unquestionably evergreen, and without peer.
[Posted November 20, 2016]
From Kel Crum: I feel like I should make a clarification regarding Joseph R. Cowles' response to my post. When I suggested Scrooge had a "shelf life," I was not dismissing the original Barks stories as dated, but saying that the Duckburg denizens are limited as far as new adventures go. In MB's words (hope I'm quoting right) "There was only so much you could do with Scrooge and Barks had done it all". New stories by new artists strike me as either too derivative or too uninspired, and even Barks himself seemed to be getting tired of the format towards the end. I like The Simpsons too, but I think 500 episodes is more than enough. Come Sunday night I think I'll leave the tube off and read something”—maybe "A Christmas for Shacktown."
[Posted November 27, 2016]
Here's another photo, via Don Peri, from the visit to Little Rock last month by Don, at left, and Pete Docter, who are flanking Phyllis and me at the beautiful old Capital Hotel (circa 1880s). We were about to have dinner at the hotel's excellent restaurant. Among the hotel's many other virtues: ceilings tall enough to accommodate someone of Pete's towering height.