Well, at least IDW/Yoe! didn't go completely crazy and give this reprinting of (most of) the contents of THE BARKS BEAR BOOK (1979) a title like BARKS' BIGGEST BIG BOOK OF BARNEY BEAR. The mind reels (or should that be, "the bind beels"?) at the implications of that.
Barks' non-Duck work from the 1940s has long deserved a handsome color reprinting such as this one. The incomplete nature of the contents, however, is disappointing. I've no doubt that copyright issues kept Barks' one PORKY PIG story and one ANDY PANDA tale out of this volume, but why were the two HAPPY HOUND (aka Droopy) stories and the BENNY BURRO solo efforts left out, seeing as how they were also based on MGM properties? Indeed, I happen to think that Benny worked better as a solo character than as a partner of the slow-moving, slow-witted Barney Bear. Here's why:
(1) Benny and Barney's "universe" is superficially akin to that of Duckburg, populated by dogfaces and the like, with the occasional exotic critter (such as an alligator, an elk, or a gorilla) thrown in. In such an environment, the existence of Benny, a sentient four-footed beast, is problematic at best. Things get even hairier when we see Benny in the company of dogs and cats who are treated as plain ol' animals. So what's so special about Benny, anyway? It's almost as if Kimba the White Lion were living among humans and conversing with them as a matter of course, as opposed to it being a skill that Kimba had to learn from Roger Ranger.
(2) There doesn't seem to be any reason for Barney and Benny to pal around with each other. Barney, especially in the later stories, lives in a house complete with cranky neighbors, a yard to keep up, bills to pay, etc. Amazingly, though, we never find out where, or how, Benny lives until he's seen at home in a late story. Most of the time, he just shows up in order to get a story started, or else is already present when the story begins. Donald and the Nephews, of course, had the "blood relations" angle to keep them together, not to mention the clear precedents set by the animated cartoons and the DONALD DUCK daily strip. Barney and Benny, by contrast, are together because... well, the title says so. No wonder Barks quickly got tired of the "wartime duty" and handed off the responsibility as soon as he could after the shooting had stopped.
The above being said, Barks' "Book of B&B" makes for a pleasant read, even if it rarely rises above the level of professional craftsmanship. Barks' artwork is certainly a highlight, with Benny being drawn in an especially charming fashion. Occasional flashes of Barksian cynicism are seen, with Carl sending up modern artists in OUR GANG #28 (Barney's messed-up attempt at a painting wins a blue ribbon) and getting comical mileage out of the postwar housing shortage in OG #34 (Barney sells his home to get away from obnoxious neighbor Mooseface McElk but then can't find or build a new home to save his life). In terms of story themes, Barks seems to bounce from "phase" to "phase" in a manner that he generally avoided in the DONALD stories in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES. Early on, B&B are mostly "on the road" (occasionally showing up in places like Mexico for no apparent reason), and many tales center around Barney attempting to master some skill, generally with Benny's unwilling assistance. Intriguingly, many of these "would-be mastery" tales involve becoming a hunter of some sort, which one might think would come naturally to a bear (but then, maybe that's the point of the gag). Along about 1945-46, the stories begin to resemble contemporary DONALD stories, with the unfortunate exception that the "sensible" Benny often causes trouble for Barney himself. By the end, with Barks' Western Publishing associate Gil Turner now providing many of the scripts, the tales boil down to a repetitive string of confrontations between Barney and Mooseface McElk, the Neighbor Jones wannabe.
If I had to pick favorite stories from this bunch, they would probably be "The Rainbow Pixies" (OG #29) and the very first story, the tale of the giant horn (OG #11). "Pixies" is a pretty straightforward, but funny, "tit-for-tat" tale. The horn epic, meanwhile, is the closest that B&B ever get to an "adventure," as the boys foil a kooky scientist's bizarre plot to create the world's largest and loudest horn through manipulation of a natural Western rock formation. I doubt that Barks would have tried to get away with such a zany antagonist in a DONALD story -- a walk-on gag player, perhaps, but not a legit foe -- but at least B&B accomplish something vaguely meaningful in stopping the guy.
The ancillary material here is pretty decent. Jeff Smith provides a bland but serviceable introduction, in addition to crafting a charming cover illo, and we get some real rarities in the introductory pieces, "Bear Right" and "Barks Bio Bits." A mid-50s photograph with Barks and such other Western Publishing luminaries as Phil De Lara, Carl Fallberg, Tony Strobl, John Carey, and Al Hubbard is very much appreciated; oh, to have been a fly on the wall listening to those fellows talk shop. Even better is a tantalizing sample of a newspaper comic strip, PIPSQUEAKS, which Barks worked up in 1953. I know that Barks was interested in drawing realistic human strips, even managing to get some human characters into his Duck stories of the early 50s, but was he really interested in "giving PEANUTS a run for its money," as Craig Yoe implies? I will have to consult Tom Andrae's book for more information, I suppose. Not that I think PIPSQUEAKS would have been a success -- it's drawn in an anachronistic style that somewhat resembles those advertisements of the 20s and 30s featuring adult cartoon characters with large heads and tiny bodies. But the mere existence of the strip suggests that, even while Barks was committed to working with the Ducks, he wouldn't have minded spreading his creative wings in a somewhat freer manner than was possible when he was working with Barney and Benny.