Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK, VOLUME 2: A CHRISTMAS FOR SHACKTOWN by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

"The Christmas story in comics defined" -- not my words, but those of "Friend of N&V" and longtime confidant Joe Torcivia -- fittingly leads off this holiday-season release of the second DONALD DUCK volume in Fantagraphics' CARL BARKS LIBRARY series.  The stories in this collection were all produced during the early 1950s, at a time when Carl Barks' second marriage had disintegrated and he was trying to put his life back together.  Normally, I'm not a big believer in the theory that "hardship invariably breeds great art," but Barks' personal problems really did seem to spur him on to produce some of his finest work during this period.  For sure, he was at, or very close to, his artistic peak while laboring on the full-length adventures, ten-page stories, and gag pages assembled between these covers.

Barks produced a number of other good Christmas stories during his career, but "A Christmas for Shacktown" gets the "golden candy cane" as the best.  Contrary to R. Fiore's claim in the Story Notes section, however, I don't believe that it is an entirely typical reflection of Barks' rather jaundiced view of the Christmas holiday.  The previous "Letter to Santa" and "You Can't Guess!" were focused on gift-giving, rivalries, fights between pieces of heavy machinery, and other strictly non-sentimental aspects of Christmas.  "Shacktown," by contrast, smacks us right between the eyes in that very first splash panel with its scene of a guilt-ridden HD&L walking through a Shacktown filled with sad-eyed waifs, and all the comical twists and turns that the story takes thereafter take place in the sad shadow of those dilapidated houses.  You might argue that Barks tries to make the Shacktown waifs too winsome and thereby slips in some cynicism through the back door, but I'm willing to take his overall sincerity at face value.  How can I not, when the agnostic cartoonist provides us with one of the more amazing images of his career as a "throwaway" side-panel:


Scrooge does "balance" the sentimentality of "Shacktown" just a bit by presenting an Uncle Scrooge who harkens back to the bad old days of "The Magic Hourglass," in general attitude, at least.  But true to the essentially heartwarming nature of the story, Scrooge gets his comeuppance for being so reluctant to help with the Shacktown party, and in the most dramatic manner imaginable.  As in the conclusion of "The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill," the story that introduces Scrooge's Money Bin, we are left to wonder just how Scrooge's affairs will ever again "be as they were."  As if to make up for hanging Scrooge out to dry in these stories, "Spending Money" and "Statuesque Spendthrifts" present, in turn, a McDuck empire that literally controls the entire economy and a Scrooge who merely has to dip into his "petty cash" fund to brush aside a would-be challenger to his title of World's Richest Man.  Thank God for the development of tunneling machinery that doesn't jiggle... I guess.

If "Shacktown" is among Barks' best-loved tales, then "The Golden Helmet" and "The Gilded Man" are two of his most technically perfect ones.  The Inducks rankings currently list "Helmet" as #2 among all Disney comic-book stories, and I'm certainly not going to argue the general point, but I would argue that the ending of "The Gilded Man" is handled about as deftly as the ending of any comic-book story ever done, in any genre.  The manner in which Barks twines together his two main plot threads seems simple enough in retrospect, but, if you're reading the story for the first time -- or even if you haven't read it for a while and have forgotten some of the details -- you'll be amazed at how completely the denouement takes you by surprise.

My "sleeper story" in this collection is the ten-pager "Rocket Wing Saves the Day" from WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #139.  It's wonderfully drawn, and it's refreshing to read a story in which Donald and HD&L connive against one another but neither has to end up paying a real price (as compared to, say, those "New Year's Resolutions" stories in which having to do the dishes for a month is made to seem like getting sent to the Black Hole of Calcutta).  It's also amusing, in a slightly creepy sort of way, to watch HD&L put so much effort into training a non-anthropomorphized bird.  There are some plot holes in the story that bother me -- isn't it convenient that HD&L start playing choo-choo just when the whistle-loving Rocket Wing is flying by?  How can Dewey (or Huey, if you go by cap color in the subsequent panel) possibly SEE that tiny dropped note on top of the fish cannery building?  And what kind of guardian sends his charges out to cut seed potatoes, of all things, in order to get them out of his hair? -- but this is one of those Barks stories that has just always "worked" for me.  In truth, virtually all of the stories in this collection "work" for virtually everyone, which is why this volume is #3 on Fantagraphics' BARKS LIBRARY release schedule.

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