Barks was born in Merrill, Oregon to William Barks (1858-1940) and his wife, Arminta Johnson (1860-1916). He had an older brother named Clyde (1899-1983). His paternal grandfather was named David Barks, and his maternal grandparents were Carl Johnson and his wife, Suzanna Massey. Barks was of Scottish lineage on his maternal great-grandfather's side.
In November 1935, when he learned that Walt Disney was seeking more artists for his studio, Carl decided to apply. He was approved for a try-out which entailed a move to Los Angeles, California. Carl was one of two in his class of trainees who was hired. His starting salary was 20 dollars a week. He started at Disney Studios in 1935, more than a year after the debut of Donald Duck on June 9, 1934 in the short The Wise Little Hen.
Carl initially worked as an inbetweener. This involved being teamed and supervised by one of the head animators who did the key poses of character action (often known as extremes) for which the inbetweeners did the drawings between the extremes to provide smoothness to the illusion of movement. While an inbetweener, Carl submitted gag ideas for cartoon storylines being developed and showed such a knack for creating comical situations that by 1937 he was transferred to the story department. His first story sale was the climax of Modern Inventions, for a sequence where a robot barber chair gives an upside down Donald Duck a haircut on his butt and a shoeshine on his beak.
In 1937, when Donald Duck became the star of his own series of cartoons instead of co-starring with Mickey Mouse and Goofy as previously, a new unit of storymen and animators was created devoted solely to this series. Though he originally just contributed gag ideas to some duck cartoons by 1937 Barks was (principally with partner Jack Hannah) originating story ideas that were storyboarded and (if approved by Walt) put into production. He collaborated on such cartoons as Donald's Nephews (1938), Donald's Cousin Gus (1939), Mr. Duck Steps Out (1940), Timber (1941), The Vanishing Private (1942), and The Plastics Inventor (1944), and played a pivotal role on the creation, design, and introduction of Gus Goose.
The Good Duck Artist
Unhappy at the emerging wartime working conditions at Disney plus bothered by ongoing sinus problems caused by the studio's air conditioning, Barks quit in 1942. Shortly before quitting, he moonlighted as a comic book artist, contributing half the artwork for a one-shot comic book (the other half of the art being done by story partner Jack Hannah) titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. This 64-page story was adapted by Donald Duck comic strip writer Bob Karp from an unproduced feature, and published in October 1942 in Dell Comics Four Color Comics #9. It was the first Donald Duck story originally produced for an American comic book and also the first involving Donald and his nephews in a treasure hunting expedition, in this case for the treasure of Henry Morgan. Barks would later use the treasure hunting theme in many of his stories. This actually was not his first work in comics, as earlier the same year Barks along with Hannah and fellow storyman Nick George scripted Pluto Saves the Ship, which was among the first original Disney comic book stories published in the United States.
When asked which of his stories was a favorite in several interviews Barks cited the ten-pager in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #146 (Nov. 1952) in which Donald tells the story of the chain of unfortunate events that took place when he owned a chicken farm in a town which subsequently was renamed Omelet. Likely one reason it was a favorite is that it was inspired by Barks' own experiences in the poultry business.
But to earn a living in the meantime, he inquired whether Western Publishing, which had published Pirate Gold, had any need for artists for Donald Duck comic book stories. He was immediately assigned to illustrate the script for a ten-page Donald Duck story for the monthly Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. At the publisher's invitation he revised the storyline and the improvements impressed the editor sufficiently to invite Barks to try his hand at contributing both the script and the artwork of his follow-up story. This set the pattern for Barks' career in that (with rare exceptions) he provided art (pencil, inking, solid blacks, and lettering) and scripting for his stories.
The Victory Garden, that initial ten-page story published in April 1943, was the first of about 500 stories featuring the Disney ducks Barks would produce for Western Publishing over the next three decades, well into his purported retirement. These can be mostly divided into two categories:
- Ten-pagers, comedic Donald Duck stories that were the lead for the monthly flagship title Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, whose circulation peaked in the mid-1950s at 3 million copies sold a month.
- Humorous adventure stories, usually 24-32 pages in length. In the 1940s, these were one-shots in the Four Color series (issued 4-6 times a year) that starred Donald and his nephews. Starting in the early 1950s (and through his retirement) Barks' longer stories were almost exclusively published in Uncle Scrooge's own quarterly title.
Barks' artistic growth during the his first decade in comics saw a transformation from rather rudimentary storytelling derived from his years as an animation artist and storyman into a virtuoso creator of complex narratives, notably in his longer adventure tales. According to critic Geoffrey Blum, the process that saw its beginnings in 1942's Pirate Gold first bore its full fruit in 1950's "Vacation Time", which he describes as "a visual primer for reading comics and understanding... the form...."
He surrounded Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie with a cast of eccentric and colorful characters, such as the aforementioned Scrooge McDuck, the wealthiest duck in the world; Gladstone Gander, Donald's obscenely lucky cousin; inventor Gyro Gearloose; the persistent Beagle Boys; the sorceress Magica De Spell; Scrooge's rivals Flintheart Glomgold and John D. Rockerduck; Daisy's nieces April, May, and June; Donald's neighbor Jones, and The Junior Woodchucks organization.
Barks's stories (whether humorous adventures or domestic comedies) often exhibited a wry, dark irony born of hard experience. The ten-pagers showcased Donald as everyman, struggling against the cruel bumps and bruises of everyday life with the nephews often acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding disasters Donald wrought upon himself. Yet while seemingly defeatist in tone, the humanity of the characters shines through in their persistence despite the obstacles. These stories found popularity not only among young children but adults as well. Despite the fact that Barks had done little traveling his adventure stories often had the duck clan globe trotting to the most remote or spectacular of places. This allowed Barks to indulge his penchant for elaborate backgrounds that hinted at his thwarted ambitions of doing realistic stories in the vein of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant.
As Barks blossomed creatively, his marriage to Clara deteriorated (this is the period referred to in Barks' famed quip that he could feel his creative juices flowing while the whiskey bottles hurled at him by a tipsy Clara flew by his head) and they were divorced in 1951. It was his second and last divorce. In this period Barks dabbled in fine art, exhibiting paintings at local art shows. It was at one of these in 1952 he became acquainted with fellow exhibitor Margaret Wynnfred Williams (1917 to March 10, 1993), nicknamed Garé. She was an accomplished landscape artist, some of whose paintings are in the collection of the Leanin' Tree Museum of Western Art. During her lifetime and to this day notecards of her paintings are available from Leanin' Tree. Her nickname appears as a store name in the story "Christmas in Duckburg", featured on page 1 of Walt Disney's Christmas Parade #9, published in 1958. Soon after they met, she started assisting Barks, handling the solid blacks and lettering (both of which he had found onerous). They married in 1954, and the union lasted until her death.
Carl Barks retired in 1966, but was persuaded by editor Chase Craig to continue to script stories for Western. The last new comic book story drawn by Carl Barks was a Daisy Duck tale ("The Dainty Daredevil") published in Walt Disney Comics Digest issue 5 (Nov. 1968). When bibliographer Michael Barrier asked Barks why he drew it, Barks' vague recollection was no one was available and he was asked to do it as a favor by Craig.
He wrote one Uncle Scrooge story, three Donald Duck stories and from 1970-1974 was the main writer for the Junior Woodchucks comic book (issues 6 through 25). The latter included environmental themes that Barks first explored in 1957 ["Land of the Pygmy Indians", Uncle Scrooge #18]. Barks also sold a few sketches to Western that were redrawn as covers. For a time the Barkses lived in Goleta, California before returning to the Inland Empire by moving to Temecula.
To make a little extra money beyond what his pension and scripting earnings brought in, Barks started doing oil paintings to sell at the local art shows where he and Garé exhibited. Subjects included humorous depictions of life on the farm and portraits of Native American princesses. These skillfully rendered paintings encouraged fan Glenn Bray to ask Barks if he could commission a painting of the ducks ("A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By", taken from the cover of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #108 by Barks). This prompted Barks to contact George Sherman at Disney's Publications Department to request permission to produce and sell oil paintings of scenes from his stories. In July 1971, Barks was granted a royalty-free license by Disney. When word spread that Barks was taking commissions from those interested in purchasing an oil of the ducks, much to his astonishment the response quickly outstripped what he reasonably could produce in the next few years.
They ride tall ships to the far away,
—— Carl Barks, 1999
When Barks expressed dismay at coping with the backlog of orders he faced, fan/dealers Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran suggested Barks instead auction his paintings at conventions and via Cochran's catalog Graphic Gallery. By September 1974, Barks had discontinued taking commissions.
At Boston's NewCon convention, in October 1975, the first Carl Barks oil painting auctioned at a comic book convention ("She Was Spangled and Flashy") sold for $2,500. Subsequent offerings saw an escalation in the prices realized.
In 1976, Barks and Garé went to Boston for the NewCon show, their first comic convention appearance. Among the other attendees was famed Little Lulu comic book scripter John Stanley; despite both having worked for Western Publishing this was the first time they met. The highlight of the convention was the auctioning of what was to that time the largest duck oil painting Barks had done, "July Fourth in Duckburg", which included depictions of several prominent Barks fans and collectors. It sold for a then record high amount: $6,400.
Soon thereafter a fan sold unauthorized prints of some of the Scrooge McDuck paintings, leading Disney to withdraw permission for further paintings. To meet demand for new work Barks embarked on a series of paintings of non-Disney ducks and fantasy subjects such as Beowulf and Xerxes. These were eventually collected in the limited-edition book Animal Quackers.
As the result of heroic efforts by Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and screenwriter Edward Summer, Disney relented and, in 1981, allowed Barks to do a now seminal oil painting called "Wanderers of Wonderlands" for a breakthrough limited edition book entitled Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times. The book collected 11 classic Barks stories of Uncle Scrooge colored by artist Peter Ledger along with a new Scrooge story by Barks done storybook style with watercolor illustrations, "Go Slowly, Sands of Time". After being turned down by every major publisher in New York City, Kurtz and Summer published the book through Celestial Arts, which Kurtz acquired partly for this purpose. The book went on to become the model for virtually every important collection of comic book stories. It was the first book of its kind ever reviewed in Time Magazine and subsequently in Newsweek, and the first book review in Time Magazine with large color illustrations.
In 1977 and 1982, Barks attended the San Diego Comic-Con. As with his appearance in Boston, the response to his presence was overwhelming, with long lines of fans waiting to meet Barks and get his autograph.
In 1981, Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran, two long-time Disney comics fans, decided to combine forces to bring greater recognition to the works of Carl Barks. Their first efforts went into establishing Another Rainbow Publishing, the banner under which they produced and issued the award-winning book, "The Fine Art of Walt Disney's Donald Duck by Carl Barks", a comprehensive collection of the Disney duck paintings of this artist and storyteller. Not long after, the company began producing fine art lithographs of many of these paintings, in strictly limited editions, all signed by Barks, who eventually produced many original works for the series.
In 1983, Another Rainbow took up the daunting task of collecting the entire Disney comic book oeuvre of Barks—over 500 stories in all—in the ten-set, thirty-volume Carl Barks Library. These oversized hardbound volumes reproduced Barks´ pages in pristine black and white line art, as close as possible to the way he would originally drawn them, and included mountains of special features, articles, reminiscences, interviews, storyboards, critiques, and more than a few surprises. This monumental project was finally completed in mid-1990.
In 1985, a new division was founded, Gladstone Publishing, which took up the then-dormant Disney comic book license. Gladstone introduced a whole new generation of Disney comic book readers to the wondrous storytelling of such luminaries as Barks, Paul Murry, and Floyd Gottfredson, as well as presenting the first works of modern Disney comics creators Don Rosa and William Van Horn. Seven years after Gladstone's founding, the Carl Barks Library was revived as full-color, high-quality squarebound comic albums (including the first-ever Carl Barks trading cards) - the Carl Barks Library in Color.
Barks relocated one last time to Grants Pass, Oregon near where he grew up, partly at the urging of friend and Broom Hilda artist Russell Myers, who lived in the area. The move also was motivated, Barks stated in another famous quip, by Temecula being too close to Disneyland and thus facilitating a growing torrent of drop-in visits by vacationing fans. In this period Barks made only one public appearance, at a comic book shop near Grants Pass.
On October 22, 1991, Carl Barks along with 8 other recipients (including actress Julie Andrews and actor Fess Parker) received the Disney Legends Award from the heads of the Disney company at the time, Michael Eisner and Roy Disney, in front of the Animation Building at the Disney Studios. In his short acceptance speech Barks expressed his thanks for the great honour bestowed on him, and finished jokingly: I want to thank the Disney Studio for this award--not only for myself, but for all those comic book fans; the kids who used to buy my comic books for ten cents and are now selling them for $2,000.
From 1993 to 1998, Barks' career was managed by the "Carl Barks Studio" (Bill Grandey and Kathy Morby—They had sold Barks original art since 1979). This involved numerous art projects and activities, including a tour of 11 European countries in 1994, Iceland being the first foreign country he ever visited. Barks appeared at the first of many Disneyana conventions in 1993. Silk screen prints of paintings along with high-end art objects (such as original water colors, bronze figurines, and ceramic tiles) were produced based on designs by Barks.
During the summer of 1994 and until his death, Carl Barks & his studio personally assigned Peter Reichelt, a museum exhibition producer from Mannheim, Germany, as his agent for Europe. Publisher "Edition 313" put out numerous lithographs. In 1997, tensions between Barks and the Studio eventually resulted in a lawsuit that was settled with an agreement that included the disbanding of the Studio. Barks never traveled to make another Disney appearance. He was represented by Rev. Ed Bergen, as he completed a final project. Gerry Tank and Jim Mitchell were to assist Barks in his final years.
During his Carl Barks Studio years, Barks created two more stories: the script for the final Uncle Scrooge story "Horsing Around with History" (drawn by William Van Horn), which was first published in Denmark in 1994. Barks' final Donald Duck story "Somewhere in Nowhere", was first published in 1997, in Italy, with art by Pat Block.
Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein curated and organized the first solo museum-exhibition of Carl Barks. Between 1994 and 1998, the retrospective was shown in ten European museums and seen by more than 400,000 visitors.
At the same time in spring 1994, Reichelt and Ina Brockmann designed a special museum exhibition tour about Barks' life and work. Also represented for the first time at this exhibition were Disney artists Al Taliaferro and Floyd Gottfredson. Since 1995, more than 500,000 visitors have attended the shows in Europe.
Reichelt also translated the Michael Barrier Barks biography into German and published it in 1994.
Still living in a new home in Grants Pass, Oregon, which he and Garé had built next door to their original home, Barks died in 2000 at the age of 99, just a few months short of his 100th birthday, and seven years after Garé passed away.
Although he was undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia he was, according to caregiver Serene Hunickle, "funny up to the end."
Barks was survived by one daughter, 4 grandchildren, 6 great-grandchildren, and 8 great-great-grandchildren.
The work of Carl Barks would inspire many people from modern Disney comic authors such as Don Rosa to filmmakers such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg and Lucas have acknowledged that the rolling-boulder booby trap in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark was inspired by the 1954 Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge adventure "The Seven Cities of Cibola" (Uncle Scrooge #7). Lucas and Spielberg have also said that some of Barks's stories about space travel and the depiction of aliens had an influence on them. Lucas wrote the foreword to the 1982 Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times. In it he calls Barks’s stories "cinematic" and "a priceless part of our literary heritage".
Barks' Duck comics served as the inspiration for the animated series DuckTales. Of note, several of Barks' stories were adapted as episodes of the show.
In 1992, a semi-biographical story titled The Man Who Drew Ducks, written by Rudy Salvagnini and drawn by Giorgio Cavazzano, was printed offering a slightly different perspective on Barks and Scrooge. The story saw print in the United States in Uncle Scrooge #400 in 2011. Barks also had a cameo appearance in the final panel of the 4-part epic Scrooge's Last Adventure (not to be confused with the DuckTales episode of the same name), printed in the USA in Uncle Scrooge #417-420.
The video game Donald Duck: Goin' Quackers! is dedicated to the memory of Carl Barks.
Barks' Donald Duck stories were rated #7 on Comic's Journal list of 100 top comics; his Uncle Scrooge stories were rated #20.
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