Review by Frank Plowright
The biggest problem with Fantagraphics’ otherwise very welcome and all-encompassing collection of Carl Barks’ output is the presentation in chronological order. As with their earlier Complete Crumb, it all-but ensures there are no absolute solid gold five star collections, as every now and again standards slipped. Over a twenty five year career during which Barks produced an absolute minimum of one ten page story every month this was inevitable. Let’s not forget, though, that Hergé’s reputation rests on 22 Tintin albums produced over 45 years. Even including his two lesser known series doesn’t double that total. By comparison, in 1954 alone, one of the years featured here, Barks produced four full length Uncle Scrooge stories, two of them among his best, several back-ups, a dozen ten pagers for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and a couple of additional one page gags every month. That’s over an eighth of Hergé’s lifetime output in a single year.
This is worth stressing because despite all the reverential contextualisation at the back of this book, there are some lesser stories presented. In isolation the title story is solid five star material, and by almost any other creator ‘The Lemming with the Locket’ would probably also be ranked as highly, yet here they’re surrounded by work that doesn’t quite match that standard. Concentrating on the longer stories, while stunning visually, Barks pretty well admitted ‘The Great Steamboat Race’ could be improved by producing another Uncle Scrooge steamboat story two years later. The surreal whimsy of ‘The Mysterious Stone Ray’ doesn’t quite hang together, and a trip to Australia only picks up toward the end. Interviews with Barks after his retirement reveal excessive editorial interference compromised ‘The Golden Fleecing’.
Yet when Barks is at his peak it’s a magical experience. ‘The Seven Cities of Cibola’, here retitled, is the first of the great Uncle Scrooge travel adventures combining an exotic location, a quest for treasure, villainy afoot, and bravery and resourcefulness throughout. In a tightly plotted gem Barks combines two old Arizona legends, adds the Beagle Boys, includes a wealth of good gags and conceives a sequence seemingly reworked for the opening of the first Indiana Jones movie. The cartooning’s great and there’s a solid conclusion. ‘The Fabulous Philosopher’s Stone’ is almost as good, and the lemming story astounds by the sheer number of visual gags alone as Scrooge desperately attempts to retrieve a note of the complicated numerical sequence for his new safe. These stories are educational, superbly drawn and stupendous fun, timeless in their charm.
Barks, at this stage at least, had the freedom to vary his page count on longer material, so as long as it didn’t exceed the pages in an issue he used as many or as few pages as required to tell his story, yet there’s no indulgence. Everything is compressed to the necessity. The best of the shorter material is a morality tale in which in order to inherit a bequest Scrooge must produce a watch passed down from his ancestors. Being the person he is, the watch has little sentimental value, but when it might be the key to more money he’s desperate to locate it.
It’s largely acknowledged that Barks was a master of the longer stories, but don’t ignore his one page gag strips. These are under-rated, and very good at playing off Scrooge’s tight-fisted character.