Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK: TRAIL OF THE UNICORN by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Press, 2014)

This sixth volume in Fantagraphics' Carl Barks reprint project presents us with our first "split decision" cover -- by which I mean cover images taken from two stories collected herein, as opposed to just the headlined tale -- and, probably not coincidentally, the first truly questionable choice of a cover-featured story.  It's not that "Trail of the Unicorn" (FOUR COLOR #263, February 1950) is a bad story; during the years 1949-50, the period from which the long and short matter in this volume are taken, Barks arguably didn't do ANY bad stories.  In terms of sweep and/or storytelling prowess, however, I would have to award either "Letter to Santa" (CHRISTMAS PARADE #1, December 1949) or "Luck of the North" (FOUR COLOR #256, December 1949) the palm as the book's most distinguished effort.  Since this collection wasn't published at holiday time, "Luck of the North" probably deserved the cover all to itself... and, wouldn't you know it, there's a scene from that story on the cover's upper half.  I'd like to have heard the debate over how this cover came to be arranged.

Disclaimer time: I have a particularly intense love for "Luck of the North."  It's always been my favorite Donald-and-the-boys adventure and carries a particular nostalgic punch for me that not even some of Barks' better-known and higher-praised stories can match.  My first exposure to Barks' work came sometime in the mid-70s, when I came into possession of a copy of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS DIGEST #44 (December 1973).  At the time, I didn't know who Barks was, and I wouldn't until 1977, when I read the info in a copy of the OVERSTREET PRICE GUIDE.  But, consumed though I was at the time with collecting RICHIE RICH, I couldn't help but be extremely impressed with the material in this small, muddily-reproduced digest.  It would take a decade or so before I decided to take the plunge and invest in the CARL BARKS LIBRARY, but it was the warm memories of the enjoyment I had had with these stories that finally motivated me to do so.

"Luck of the North," to me, is pretty much flawless.  The drawing is more attractive than that seen in, for example, "Lost in the Andes," the Gladstone/Donald rivalry plot is among the better ones of its kind (including "Trail of the Unicorn," in which Gladstone actually cheats at one point to get the upper hand on his cousin), and the psychological complexity of the adventure, with Donald creating a phony treasure map to get the obnoxious Gladstone out of his hair, only to succumb to guilt and take off to the "great white North" to make amends, should be much more iconic than it arguably is.  The (spoken) dialogue-less page in which Donald "cracks" and realizes the gravity of what he's done is one of Barks' most famous sequences.

There are many more arresting images sprinkled throughout the story, some of almost sublime subtlety.  Notice the minute, yet meaningful, differences in the expressions on the Nephews' faces in the scene in which they recognize that Donald has swiped the wrong map from Gladstone:

This wistful backshot is also a favorite of mine; I particularly love the pose of the Nephew sitting on the ledge of the Viking ship:

And, of course, there's the triumphal last page, a foreshadowing of sorts of the even more dramatic wrapup of "The Gilded Man," with Donald and the kids coming out on top (or somewhere near there) after 32 agonizing pages of twists and turns.  In truth, this ending is even more emotionally satisfying than that of "The Gilded Man."  I always thought that the discovery of the ancient Norse map was Donald's reward for his earlier decision to atone for his wrongdoing and go after Gladstone to try to keep him out of danger.

"Letter to Santa" is most famous for its eye-popping opening splash page and the interior no-holds-barred steam-shovel battle between Donald and Scrooge, but the story itself is quite good, featuring plenty of slapstick and an interesting early portrayal of Scrooge.  At this early stage, Scrooge isn't unwilling to spend money (in this case, for HD&L's desired present of a steam shovel), provided that he gets due credit for his efforts.  This bespeaks a certain level of promotional ego that would wither over time, though never die completely.  The Scrooge of a story like "North of the Yukon," who would rant and rave over the idea of being featured in a magazine, might look a bit askance at a version of himself that declares, "What's the use of having eleven octillion dollars if I don't make a big noise about it?"  The Scrooge of "Letter to Santa" is also a bit more Donald-like in his displays of temper and his ability to give as good as he gets in a slapstick fight scene.  It is clear at this point that the sclerotic, somewhat querulous Scrooge of such earlier stories as "Christmas on Bear Mountain" and "The Old Castle's Secret" will never be coming back.

The "small works" in this collection, all of which date from just before the short period in which Barks temporarily stopped producing "ten-pagers" for WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES in order to concentrate on longer stories, feature such distinguished fare as "Super Snooper" (WDC&S #107, August 1949), Barks' swipe at the superhero genre, and "Rip Van Donald" (WDC&S #112, January 1950), with its peculiar conceit of an ether-addled Donald visualizing a "future Duckburg" of wobbly buildings and piecemeal people.  And, yes, to give them their due, "Trail of the Unicorn" and its FC #256 companion story, "Land of the Totem Poles," are also first-rate, though a little lighter in heft than "Luck of the North."  You can't really go wrong with any story from a prime period like this.  Impeccable production values and a story that comes with the highest of blue-ribbon recommendations from yours truly... what could be a better selling point?

6 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

I’ll never pretend to understand the various editorial practices and considerations that go into compiling such a book, but perhaps one reason “Luck of the North” may have lost out to “Trail of the Unicorn” as the edition’s cover feature might be because “Luck of the North” DID have a relatively recent hardcover reprinting from Boom!

…That, and the charging unicorn is such a cool image.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Or, they might have thought that, with MY LITTLE PONY being so popular, putting a unicorn on the cover would be a great selling point.

Or not.

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

Um, I'd say NO on the ponies, but I will direct you to story-page 14. panels 4 and 5 of SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP # 3!

...You won't be sorry!

Deb said...

Actually, the cover to Fantagraphics' Christmas on Bear Mountain has illustrations taken from two different stories on the cover. The pic on the top with Donald and his nephews gathered around the tree is from Three Good Little Ducks while the bear illustration is (obviously) from Christmas on Bear Mountain.

As for the current volume, the Super Snooper story has many panels that would have made a fun cover illustration, but the story really has no official title, and I doubt that Fantgraphics wanted to lead off on a ten pager.

Chris Barat said...

Deb,

Ah, I think I see why I made a mistake. I assumed that the tree image MUST be from Bear Mountain, since the Ducks do have a tree in that story, and I figured that they MUST have been shown around it at some point.

Chris

Anonymous said...

Chris, in your comments on "Letter to Santa," you did not mention what I consider to be a very remarkable scene in that story. After the steam-shovel battle Donald and Scrooge get hauled into court and the judge declares that the fine for their little set-to is one million dollars.

In the next panel Scrooge tosses the judge a wad of cash and says, "Here's two million! Put the rest in the kitty in case we come back here." Is there any other time when Scrooge is that cavalier with his cash?

By the by, was "Luck of the North" published before The Vinland Map was announced as giving proof that the Vikings got to America before Columbus? If so then Mr. Barks lucked out with his prediction of a Viking map being found. (I know, The Vinland Map isn't authentic; but for a time it was believed to be real.)

Richard Smyers