Review by Frank Plowright
By 1956 Carl Barks was at the peak of his creativity, turning out one gem after another, and these five stories form a masterclass, each planned in advance to match the season of publication.
An opening story about New Year resolutions is a twist on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, Donald vowing to be nicer to Huey, Dewey and Louie when it comes to making the meals they like, while they vow to resist unhealthy food. It sets the tone for the remainder, Donald, true to his character, unable to resist cheating, while Barks, true to his, ensures that cheats never prosper. The same applies to the second story about competing forms of eccentric transport across the frozen river. The sample art shows the ridiculous contraption created for Huey, Dewey and Louie, and the one Donald cobbles together is equally nuts.
He appears on the cover, but the middle story is the final Walt Disney Comics and Stories appearance for Gladstone Gander and his extraordinary good luck, Barks having found his boastful and gloating character unsympathetic. His attitude to Gladstone is reflected in the story, which is the weakest of the five here, the use of Glasdstone’s luck nicely contrived, but the surrounding material to reach that point equally contrived, with Uncle Scrooge uncharacteristically generous.
Donald trying out for Duckburg’s Olympic team is a type of story Barks excelled at, seeming to string together an effortless sequence of gags on a theme, when in fact the stories were so good because Barks’ standards were so high, and he worked hard at the pacing. At one athletic discipline after another Donald is pitted against a star performer, only for that star to be scratched, leaving Donald’s incompetence to lose the day. The jokes work, and they’re superbly drawn.
A casualty of Barks refining his craft was the gradual disappearance of Donald’s all-out explosive temper, the consequences of which were frequently seen in the earliest volumes reprinting Barks’ work from the mid-1940s. The nearest he comes by 1956 is seen in the final story when his garden is infested with gophers. Try as Donald might, there’s no way Barks is going to have him bettering nature.
These stories will eventually appear in Fantagraphics collections as they continue to compile Barks’ entire output, but until they do this is an album worth searching out.