Friday, March 13, 2015

Guest Review - Donald Duck and the Golden Helmet

Doug: Welcome to another guest post. Today Edo Bosnar is back with a review that's just a bit off the beaten path, at least as far as what we've traditionally done here at the BAB. Sit back and enjoy -- as I remarked a couple of weeks ago, it's high time we enjoyed the work of one of the masters, Carl Barks, at this place.


Walt Disney's Donald Duck & the Golden Helmet (December 1978)
Carl Barks 

Edo Bosnar: Like pretty much everybody that frequents this blog, I was and am a super-hero guy first and foremost, but I think I’ve mentioned a few times in the comments that I had an Archie and funny animal phase that lasted for about 2 1/2 years (from roughly the ages of 9 to 11). At the time, I really cut down on super-hero comics in favor of these two genres. And the funny animal comics I liked best by far were the Disney ducks, i.e., Donald, Uncle Scrooge, etc., which were being published by Gold Key at the time.

So I still have many fond memories of reading stuff like this. And the interesting thing is, even after I had stopped actually buying comics featuring the Disney characters, I often found myself digging out some of those comics and re-reading them well into my teens (something I never did with my old Archie comics). It was only much, much later that I learned that many (most, actually) of those “duck tales” I liked so much were written and drawn by a guy named Carl Barks, whose fans literally span the entire globe and who is considered by many to be one of the greatest comics creators, ever.

And a few of my favorite Disney comics at the time were published by Whitman, under the Dynabrite imprint. The back cover showed some of the other titles that were available at this time (1978).

I also remember having Mickey Mouse and the Beanstalk, Uncle Scrooge: The Golden Fleecing (also featuring stories by Barks) and the Bugs Bunny book mentioned at the bottom – and no, I didn’t have, nor ever even saw the Star Trek books. A few years back, I scored a cheap and rather battered copy of this one I’m reviewing here, which was only in slightly better shape than my long-lost original.

I hope this review will convey why these Barks stories are so loved by so many comics fans worldwide. The thing to note is that instead of doing “funny” animal stories interspersed with (often not very funny) gags and then a punch line ending, Barks basically wrote full-on adventure stories for young children. He’s often been compared to Jack London and similar writers, which is fair I think, because he was in fact writing for the same audience. And he was undaunted by the fact that his main characters were talking, partially-clothed ducks and other animals.

The main story in this book, “The Golden Helmet,” was originally published in 1952. What I’m going to do is just do a rundown of the set-up, because it’s kind of complicated, but also illustrates (pun intended?) the way Barks crafted his stories. It starts out with Donald bored at his job as a museum security guard. He hears some strange noises coming from the Viking ship he’s daydreaming about, so he climbs inside and finds some scowling, grumpy guy with a flashlight tapping on the planks.

Wondering what the guy was up to, Donald ends up poking around the ship himself until he comes across a loose peg that’s attached to an old deerskin map. He takes it to his boss, who tells him the map was made by a Viking named Olaf the Blue, who landed on North America years before Eric the Red, and left a golden helmet at a specific site in Labrador to prove this, and his claim to the land. All this time, the scowling guy was outside of the office eavesdropping – this is what he was looking for!

The curator is elated by this great historical discovery, and he’s about to organize an expedition to Labrador, when the scowling guy, named Azure Blue, bursts into the office with his aptly-named lawyer, Sharky. He claims to be the descendant of Olaf, while Sharky presents them with a document about a medieval pact among the rulers of Europe drafted at the time of Charlemagne, whereby “any man who discovers a new land beyond the seas shall be the owner of that land, unless he claims it for his king.” While all of this is fanciful, I think it was a nice touch that Barks mentioned actual historical figures while spinning his tale – I know when I first read it I appreciated the references to names that appeared in my history textbooks at school, like Eric the Red and Charlemagne.

The curator is alarmed because the law was never repealed, meaning that if Azure finds the Golden Helmet which proves Olaf’s claim to all of North America, as his direct descendant he will become the ruler of the continent! Hmm… really?

The curator astutely asks how Azure can prove his lineage, to which the lawyer responds with what will become the most oft-repeated of his many wonderful legal maxims in this story, “Flickus, flackus, fumdeedledum” meaning, for those of you who don’t know, erm, Latin, “How can you prove he isn’t?”

Azure grabs the map, and sets off to find the helmet that will secure his apparent claim to the title over North America.

The curator and Donald discuss their next move. Donald says he’ll pop Azure over the head with his club, which the curator dismisses, because he “might miss,” and so suggests a better plan. The curator redraws the map from memory and tells Donald he’ll have to travel to Newfoundland himself to beat Azure to the helmet. He pulls some money out of the museum’s safe to finance the expedition.

Donald then runs home to tell his rather phlegmatic nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, that they’re going to Labrador.

That’s basically the set-up, which I think illustrates Barks’ storytelling style and also highlights the differences between these comics specifically aimed at children and the more ‘sophisticated’ fare to which those of us reading super-hero comics were accustomed – one of the things that I actually recall wondering about as a kid, and found even more amusing as an adult, is that neither Donald nor the curator ever at any point even entertain the notion of contacting the authorities in the US or Canada. But Barks didn’t let details like that bog him down while trying to tell a good adventure story, and besides, Donald Duck (and his nephews) are supposed to be the heroes, not some random American G-men or Canadian Mounties.

The meat of the story is the race between Donald and his nephews and Azure and his lawyer (and the curator, who also decided to head up to Labrador himself – as curators do), with all kinds of mishaps, obstacles and twists and turns along the way, involving, among other things, a polar bear, icebergs, and fights over who will claim the Golden Helmet once it’s found.

Suffice it to say, everything works out, and in the end, Donald is back to his security job in the museum, with something of a new outlook on life. I hope the scans I provided also convey how rich the art is; even though these are kids' comics featuring talking animals, I love all of the little details in the panels, and also the facial expressions of the various characters.

This particular book includes two more Barks stories, one called “The Lost Peg Leg Mine,” which is another adventure that features Donald, his nephews and Uncle Scrooge, and a shorter one called “The Dogcatcher,” which is more of a gag story, the kind that’s more typical of funny animal comics.

All in all, this Dynabrite reprint book is a good little package: 50 full pages of comics printed on high-quality paper with a cardstock cover and no ads, all for 69 cents. I highly recommend it and similar reprint books from the 1970s if you like the Disney ducks and/or the work of Carl Barks (for those of you living in North America, I think it’s pretty easy to find reasonably priced or even cheap copies of these, as an alternative to those very pricey Fantagraphics hardcover reprints of Barks’ work that have been published more recently).


Redartz said...

Nice review, Edo! It's good to see Barks, and the Disney ducks, get some love on the BAB. Even during the height of my Marvel zuvembiedom, I would pick up the occasional Uncle Scrooge or Donald Duck- specifically because of Carl Barks' storytelling.

And you are quite right in mentioning the quality of his artwork. Somewhere I read that, back when Barks' stories were being newly published (and Disney didn't credit individual artists and writers, hesitant to draw attention from Walt Disney's name), Barks was referred to as "the Good Artist". His backgrounds, the detail he puts into his global scene sets, even the countless coins held in Scrooge's money bin: all testify to Barks' skill, talent, and love for his craft...

Anonymous said...

Yes, great review Edo. At this time (late '70s) in the UK there was a comic called 'Mickey Mouse' which reprinted various Disney strips - one of my schoolfriends had a letter printed in the comic and he brought it in to show us. This is the sort of story I would have loved reading before I discovered Marvel. That would be an interesting 'Who's The best' - Donald Duck or Daffy Duck, or more widely Disney or Looney Tunes. Let me guess - it's already been done !

Garett said...

Good review Edo! I like the choice of Barks, as I've never read his stuff but have heard so much about him. This type of storytelling reminds me of the travel adventures of Asterix or Tintin. Nice art, like the realism in the coast scene that you wouldn't expect in most cartoon books. I'll be on the lookout for these comics!

Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.
Garett, the comparison to Asterix or Tintin is apt, and I think that's one of the reasons why Barks was and is so popular among European comics fans in particular.
And Colin, I don't actually think we did a showdown between Donald and Daffy - that's a great idea. For my part, I'll say that in the comics I prefer Donald by a very long shot (I had a few of the Daffy Duck comics back in the day - very forgettable). However, in the cartoons, I would give Daffy a slight edge - if we're talking about the earlier Daffy cartoons, in which he was sort of an unhinged mischief-maker, and not the later, grumpy Daffy who was mainly a foil for Bugs or Speedy Gonzales.

Martinex1 said...

Edo, great and original review. Barks was really amazingly talented. The detail in that ship and sea panel is pretty darn nice. People take for granted, because they are perceived as kids' comics, how difficult the artwork is. It is not easy to draw Donald. Keeping the beak in perspective at all angles is very challenging. I would dare to say, it is sometimes more difficult than human figure drawing as the angles are imaginative. I took some animation classes many many years ago, and those funny animals were not so funny when you had to get them right. Lots of talent in those creators.

As far as Daffy vs Donald, I agree with Edo. Daffy in his early and truly loony incarnation is hilarious. The Warner Brothers' stable of animators were top notch comedians. But nobody could beat Barks in the comic form.

I like the variety today's post brings.

Dr. Oyola said...

Good work, Edo!

This is an area I have really been meaning to bone up on, especially since one of my favorite books of comics criticism (if not my VERY favorite) is How to Read Donald Duck a scathing Marxist read of the Donald Duck comics that were made available in South America, significantly re-written to reinforce American hegemonic agenda. The writers of the book had to flee Chile when Pinochet took over and thousands of copies of the book were burned. Furthermore, it remains a banned book in the U.S. - very difficult to get your hands on, because even though it use of images should be fair-use since it is an academic book, Disney uses their legal department from keeping copies printed or imported here for violation of copyright.

Anyway, based on that I would love to read the original un-edited versions and compare them to the examples re-printed and analyzed in the book.

Redartz said...

I fully agree with the prevailing opinion so far; Daffy on screen and Donald on the page. One of my absolute favorite comics as a kid was Walt Disney Comics Digest 5. It featured the last new Barks story to see print, a sea story about pirates featuring the Beagle Boys (" the terrible Beagle Boys"). I wore that digest out. Think that will ne added to the list of comics to reacquire...

Martinex- very cool that you had some animation training. That must have been challenging, yet fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Great review, Edo. I think I had the odd Disney comic back in the late 70s (Walt Disney Comics & Stories maybe?), but I don't remember any specific issues; I doubt if any of them were by Carl Barks, though. Sounds like his idea of adventure comics was along the lines of Tintin...throw the hero into a bunch of dangerous situations and watch the fun as he gets out of them!

Mike Wilson

Martinex1 said...

Yes Redartz, many many moons ago when the earth wasn't yet cool, I worked in animation (for about a millisecond). I was honestly horrible at it. For me, it was very difficult, meticulous, and tedious work. That was in the days when most everything was hand drawn and painted. I really struggled; you have to have the steady hands of a surgeon.

There is a clarity and precision and artistry that folks in comic creation and animation have a talent for. I have a great appreciation for what they do.

Most of us just have trouble tracing. If you see up close how clean some of the linework and inking the talented artists can handle, it is amazing.

Barks could do anything. The panels that Edo shared are complex. Look at the waves and the splash. And the facial expressions (ON A DUCK!). Very expressive and wonderful.

The Buscemas and Barks had different subject matter but the talent on both ends of the spectrum was incredible. As Edo describes the complexity of the story, there was also a complexity in the storytelling of the art. If you don't read the text, it is still very clear what is happening. Moods and attitudes of characters are definitely easy to read.

Really glad I was reminded of these books.

Doug said...

Not a day goes by around here where I don't learn something. It may be about our regulars, but most often it's a nugget about the topic du jour that's shared by our regulars. Today was both.

Love this place.


And "You Really Got Me" by Van Halen suddenly comes across via shuffle play, and it's Friday, indeed!

Anonymous said...

I never thought of Carl Barks as "THE good artist." There were a lot of very good artists and writers, working for different publishers, in various genres (funny animal, teenage comedy, super hero, westerns, war, science fiction). But Barks was at or near the top of the list.

Karen said...

Edo, thank you for this review. I have to admit, I never read any Disney comics (or other 'funny animal' books) and reading your review and looking at these pages has actually piqued my interest! I'm really pleased that you were able to bring something so different -yet such a vital part of comics history -to BAB!

Redartz said...

Anon- just to clarify, the term "the good artist" was used apparently by fans and readers of the Disney duck books of the day. As they didn't know Barks' name, they diferrentiated him based upon the quality and detail of his artwork.

BK said...

Love it. Love Barks as well and especially this, one of the few stories set in Canada!

Had a few of these Dynabrite books. I'm fascinated by all the moves Dell/Western/Gold Key were making at the time. The Dell/Gold Key split. Price changes and variants. Weird format. Pre-bagged comics. What a wonderful age was the Bronze.

Humanbelly said...

Real quick, late comment (very busy day yesterday!)--

We would acquire the occasional Disney comic, my sisters & I, when we were young-- usually purloined by my Dad from his students at school (he was "that" kind of teacher/principal). One that endured for years was a giant-sized telling of Mickey & the Beanstalk that was wildly and delightfully expanded from the Disney film version. While I LOVED all of the Disney cartoons as a child, even then I could never get past the fact that I couldn't understand a DARNED THING that Donald ever said-- as well as about 75% of the words from Mickey! It kinda drove me nuts-- so their "voices" I heard in comic form became much more real to me than Donald's on-screen strained squash-mush or Mickey's high falsetto monotone. Goofy? Okay, he was perfect-- but his voice was well-done stock "dumb yokel". . .


Edo Bosnar said...

HB, as I said, I also used to have the Dynabrite reprint of Mickey and the Beanstalk, which I really enjoyed as well (albeit not as much as the Donald and Uncle Scrooge stuff).
And you make an excellent point about voices. Personally, when reading the comics, I always heard a "normal" human voice in my head for Donald (and the others for that matter), and never the sputtering, half-quack, half-growl and largely unintelligible Donald voice from the cartoons (as funny as it was). Also notable is that in the comics stories that Barks wrote, Donald was not nearly as short-tempered as the character we see in the cartoons.
In fact, I think an easy way to tell if a comic story was not written by Barks is if Donald is angry and combative like he is in the cartoons. As far as I know, Barks basically ignored the cartoon characterization and just created his own little world and reality for Donald and his supporting cast.

Unknown said...

Thank you friend amazing jooooob

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