Review by Frank Plowright
The experts providing short commentaries on the stories featured in Island in the Sky point out that for several of them Carl Barks falls back on plots he’s used before. While certainly true, it’s a strange expectation that a creator who by then had spent almost twenty years producing stories about Disney’s ducks remain entirely original. Yes, ‘The Paul Bunyan Machine’ is another plot where Scrooge so fears losing his money he transports it away from the money bin to somewhere he considers safer, and unforeseen problems occur, just as in The Twenty-Four Carat Moon there had been a second money showdown with Flintheart Glomgold. The devil is in the detail, and in both cases the mechanics of the plot differ from earlier stories, and the jokes supplied are funny. So, as drawn, is the monstrous Paul Bunyan machine which requires larger panels to accommodate it, and even then almost squashes the Beagle Boys out of them.
Another recurring theme is small people, which occur a fair amount in Uncle Scrooge stories. The more successful are the aliens encountered in the title story, while those met in the Sahara are part of a story where Barks’ period lack of inspiration does show through. It’s largely adventure and mystery without jokes, which is fine enough, but doesn’t meet expectations from Barks. The most successful longer story is ‘All at Sea’, in which Scrooge needs to transport gold from Africa knowing the Beagle Boys are on his trail. The comedy returns here to good effect, and while Barks might no longer be rendering the locales as expansively, he treats us to some glorious silhouette panels and some absurd singing and dancing Beagle Boys.
The invention and precision of Barks’ Gyro Gearloose stories are consistently under-rated, and there are a succession of gems from his first solo comic. He teams up with members of Scrooge’s extended family in each of the four eight-page stories, and expands on elements he’d already introduced in earlier Gyro stories. He’s always taken for granted at best, and taken advantage of at worst, as Duckburg’s inhabitants can’t appreciate the genius in their midst so he travels from door to door selling inventions from a cart, and his silent little helper often saves the day without Gyro realising. Also included is a story plotted by Barks, who pencilled the first three pages before abandoning it, with Don Rosa completing it in 1990. With the memory of having to draw multiple rats for ‘All at Sea’ presumably fresh in his mind, Barks didn’t want to draw a story featuring even more rats lured out of town by extra-potent cheese. The combination is a delight.
While most of the content is better than some critics would have you believe, it is true that some of the shorter Scrooge strips lack inspiration. The leisurely paced ‘Yoiks! The Fox’ reworks old gags to lesser effect in an arbitrary plot. The best of these shorts is the funny ‘Hound of the Whiskervilles’, which manages some comments about abstract art, returns Scrooge to his distressed ancestral home in Scotland, and includes the brief nod to Sherlock Holmes suggested by the title.
Not everything in Island in the Sky is Barks firing on all cylinders, but many subsequent duck creators would have been happy turning out something like ‘The Witching Stick’, which is average for him.
All these stories were reissued in the 1990s by Gladstone in European album format, available as Uncle Scrooge Adventures 28, 29, 30, and 31 and Gyro Gearloose 3, with greater analysis of individual stories found by following the links.