Sunday, May 19, 2013

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK: "THE OLD CASTLE'S SECRET" by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics, 2013)

In 1948, Carl Barks was right on the cusp of his artistic and thematic "Golden Age," and his mind was a-bubble with ideas and, even more to the point, new characters.  The first two stories in this latest Fantagraphics collection represent, if not two of the best Barks tales, then two of the most fateful tales Barks ever crafted, in the sense that they permanently expanded his stable of major continuing players, and with characters of his own creation.  In the volume's headlined story, Barks made the fateful decision to bring back Uncle Scrooge, while in "Wintertime Wager," the ten-pager that immediately follows Barks' tale of Scottish Gothic, Gladstone Gander makes his first appearance.  Intriguingly, given Gladstone and Scrooge's ultimate importance in Barks' world, Barks was a bit quicker in exploiting the former than he was the latter; the insufferable gander would pop up in two more tales in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES before the end of 1948, while Scrooge didn't make his WDC&S debut until November of that year.  In these earliest roles, Scrooge and Gladstone are far from the characters they would ultimately become, but one can almost sense Barks' pleasure at hitting upon "keepers" who held far more promise for extensive use in future stories than his previous creations of Herbert and Neighbor Jones.

"The Old Castle's Secret" has its share of weaknesses -- overly convenient happenings, frankly bizarre "red herrings" strewn across the reader's path -- but has remained a favorite of Duck fans for years simply because of its legitimately spooky ambiance and (of course) the return of Scrooge.  Throughout much of the adventure, Barks maintains some humorous continuity with "Christmas on Bear Mountain," specifically, with that story's theme of "who really is/isn't a brave man."  Both Donald and Scrooge talk good games about braving ghosts to search the ancestral McDuck Manse, but, just as they did in "Bear Mountain," they both fold like accordions in the face of either real or perceived danger.  Oddly enough, as the story begins, Scrooge appears to have forgone his post-"Bear Mountain" belief that Donald really is a brave man; he doesn't even make particular mention of Don's initial attempt to sneak out of his responsibility.  This incident must have left a mark, though; later, when Scrooge and HD&L are trapped on a castle battlement, Scrooge dismisses the idea that Donald will come to rescue them.  Donald and Scrooge's ultimate participation in the solution of the mystery (with the Nephews, of course, doing the lion's share of the work) might thus be considered a final resolution of the whole "brave man" controversy.  The two older Ducks may not be as brave as they make themselves out to be, but they turn out to be brave enough to contribute to the successful completion of a peril-filled task.

The 1948 Gladstone is simply a loudmouthed rival of Donald's, as opposed to the ridiculously lucky "walking repudiation of the work ethic" that Barks would begin to develop in "Luck of the North."  Fittingly, the two characters are pretty much on the same moral plane in these early stories, engaging in constant bouts of one-up-duckship.  "Wintertime Wager" does provide a small hint of the future, however, by showing Gladstone as being ruthless enough to want to kick Donald out of his house on "the coldest day of the year" on the basis of a silly summertime bet.  Already, Barks seems to have the idea that, however often Donald may bring his problems upon himself, the reader should somehow want Donald to get the better of his cousin.  The contest simply hasn't entered the realm of the metaphysical as of yet.

The other two long stories reprinted here are "Sheriff of Bullet Valley" and "Darkest Africa," the latter of which has at long last been "fully restored" to something approaching the original version that appeared in MARCH OF COMICS.  All praise to Fantagraphics for this long-overdue reclamation job, but the story isn't particularly great; I actually prefer the "Forbidden Valley" remake.  "Bullet Valley"'s clever satire of the gap between Wild West movies and technology-augmented Wild West reality, by contrast, still holds up extremely well.  Most of the 1948 ten-pagers are still taken up with the crowd-pleasing theme of Donald's braggadocio and overconfidence getting him into trouble, and it's noteworthy that the best of the lot, the Dr. Spock-spoofing "Spoil the Rod," turns the template on its head, with Donald's humility and willingness to defer to an "expert" leading him to follow Professor Pulpheart Clabberhead's advice and let HD&L do what they will in what would today be called the boys' effort to "find themselves."  As with all good satire, you don't have to be aware of the specific idea being joshed in order to enjoy this story, but it helps.  Between the successful satire of "Spoil the Rod" and "Bullet Valley" and the important additions to the Barksian cast of characters, this volume, while far from Barks' best work, gives more than a few hints of the glories to come.  

2 comments:

ramapith said...

[Reposted to fix a typo:]

It's a shame about "Darkest Africa"; we had to bend over backwards to restore it, and yet—as you point out—it just isn't that special as stories go. If one forces oneself to overlook the ethnic/racial aspect of the natives (a hard task in itself), one wishes for more conflict between them, McFiendy, and Donald; as threatening as both the natives and the wild animals are perceived as being, there is little in the way of the scares, conflict, and harrowing escapes that their presence would suggest. Just a lot of back-and-forth chasing and sabotaging, almost all by the Ducks and McFiendy, upon which the African setting feels like so much window dressing.

Chris Barat said...

David,

That's a very good point -- Barks just basically uses the African setting as a backdrop; the story could have been set anywhere (where there are rare butterflies, that is). Compare "The Second-Richest Duck," in which the African veldt becomes a battleground of sorts for the Scrooge/Glomgold contest. Africa seems more of a "place" in that story.

Chris