Sunday, September 5, 2010

"The Mines of King Solomon"

People talk about Barks' quasi-historical/mythical "treasure hunts" as if they were a substantial part of his career, but when you come right down to it, you realize that he really only penned eight stories that can be unproblematically placed in this category ("The Seven Cities of Cibola," "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone," "The Golden Fleecing," "The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan," "The Mines of King Solomon," "The Flying Dutchman," "The Prize of Pizarro," and "Crown of the Mayas"). Out of his seventy-some Uncle Scrooge adventures, this represents a pretty small minority. Don Rosa actually wrote MORE stories following this pattern (out of a much smaller total oeuvre) than Barks did hisself. So why are they so disproportionately remembered?
Well...because six of the eight are stone-cold classics, is probably why. Really, if these were the ONLY things Barks had ever written, he'd still be a legend.

(To answer the inevitable question: "The Golden Fleecing" has never done much for me, and "Crown of the Mayas" is a pleasant but ultimately fairly minor sixties throwback.)

My dad's collection actually included all of these but "Crown" (no WONDER the ducks made such an impression on me!), so I have nostalgic attachment all over the place. But today's entry may well be my favorite. You don't necessarily think about these things when you're just casually reading, but the structure of this story is just about perfect. It lingers long enough to build tension and anticipation, and there are no arbitrary, pointless digressions. Furthermore, the setup isn't at all forced. In some of these, there's kind of a "here's a little mini-history-lesson! Now let's go, gang!" quality that, while hardly fatal, is a bit of an ungainly, let's say, way to get things off the ground (Rosa's treasure hunts are often especially guilty of this). None of that here. It's actually kind of too bad that the title immediately lets the reader know what the story's going to be about; it would be better off untitled, so as to let her discover this along with the ducks. But that's about the only negative thing I can think of to say.

Yup. Well, okay, maybe it's a little awkward, but it makes sense that such a big-time tycoon would have to do some traveling.

Naturally, Donald and HDL are coming along, and there's this thing with them having these magical Junior Woodchucks whistles that can summon any animal in the vicinity. This is one thing that you would initially THINK would end up as a pointless distraction, but as it transpires, the concept is very tightly woven into the story. Plus, the idea of having a whistle that lets you do that is just plain cool, especially for the kids in the audience. I know it was for ME.

There are a few brief segments in different parts of the world, in which animals are summoned to dangerous effect. This serves to both demonstrate the scale of this expedition and to show the range of what the whistles can do. Also, it's fun.

...and we slip, ever so surreptitiously, into the main storyline. I love this shit.

Treasure! Ancient Kings! Buried cities! A thousand elephants!

'Course, Barks' rock-solid characterizations don't hurt, either. I really like this dynamic that you sometimes see in Scrooge stories, where Donald's the sober, responsible one and Scrooge is the head-in-the-clouds dreamer. In a lot of Rosa's stories, Donald's main purpose seems to be to suffer allegedly-comical slapstick abuse. A little of that goes a LONG way, and I think the character deserves better.

Oh yeah--there are antagonists, too. These guys are well-done also; they add a sense of tension to the story without devolving into racist caricatures in any very problematic way. (HDL, having done camel calls to summon them--hoping to get wild camels to ride on--subsequently send them away with more calls).

This red sand is another great thing: Barks isn't afraid to draw things out, placing clues in a leisurely and natural fashion.

Once again: whistles to the rescue! And in a clever, logical way.

Paydirt! And the reward is worth it:

Actually, the colorist kind of lets the scene down a bit. My version features multicolored gems here, which I think is really what's needed to convey the full effect. Regardless, it's an exciting payoff, and Barks allows us to revel in it for just long enough--but not TOO long.

Alas, the bandits GET them, due to insufficient precautions taken by the over-eager Scrooge.

So in some essay--probably about Magica--Geoffrey Blum posits that the reason Barks backed away from stories like this in the sixties is twofold: first, because people were becoming more aware of the ugly realities of colonialism, and the idea of a rich Westerner coming in to try to steal cultural artifacts while simultaneously being a sympathetic character was becoming more untenable (in "Treasure of Marco Polo" Barks addresses this concern fairly explicitly); and second (and relatedly), because people in general were becoming more cynical about this mythic, romanticized past. However, you can see both those emerging problems even in this 1957 story. In the above, we are invited to ponder the question of why exactly Scrooge is more "entitled" to profit from this treasure than the bandits are. It's not as though he has any particularly noble motivations, after all. Also:

The bandits abandon the romantic, mythical treasure at the drop of a hat in favor of this more up-to-date, cosmopolitan form of wealth.

Anyway, Donald and HDL are lost somewhere in the mine, so Scrooge tries to signal them with the animal whistle, with predictable results.

Seriously, where the hell did Barks learn a word like "adit" (a real word which firefox's (admittedly fairly pathetic) spellcheck fails to recognize)? From his National Geographics, presumably. Smart stuff! Anyway, this whole treasure hunt breaks down into something like postmodern chaos. That's how you have to interpret it, anyway. There doesn't seem to be any literal reason why Scrooge can't make another try for the treasure, but he doesn't, so this concept of dissolution will have to suffice.

I like this a lot as an ending, though you gotta wonder--are we to assume that the only way to escape the animals was by boarding planes? Were they being chased out onto the tarmac? A strange image indeed. And, of course, one that results from rampant overthinking. This is a classic story, plain and simple.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting detail about the ratio of Barks' adventure stories, I would've sworn there were a lot more of them.
For some reason, I think this is the story that I least remember of the aforementioned eight....I'm going to have to go look for it :)

September 5, 2010 at 12:10 PM  
Anonymous Chris Chan said...

Could you please clarify your definition of an "unproblematic" quasi-historical/mythical treasure hunt? I would definitely classify "The Golden Helmet" and "The Gilded Man" as examples of these by Barks. Do you not include them because Uncle Scrooge does not appear in them? Does the fact that the treasure in "Oddball Odyssey" is actually made in Hong Kong disqualify it? What about "Back to Long Ago" and "The Cave of Ali Baba" and "Treasure of Marco Polo?" I'm not trying to nitpick here, I'm just not clear on why you don't include these.

September 6, 2010 at 12:59 AM  
Blogger Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Hey, if it weren't for nitpicking, this blog wouldn't exist. That kind of behavior is actively encouraged.

I was really only thinking of Scrooge stories, it's true; the whole enterprise seems to take on a rather different tenor without him. If I weren't, "The Golden Helmet" would probably have the greatest claim to be on the list; I don't think "The Gilded Man" really makes any effort to appear plausibly historical in any sense. "Back to Long Ago" doesn't strike me as so much a treasure hunt (the question of finding the treasure isn't very important) as a Donald-vs-Scrooge story after the manner of some of Barks' ten-pagers. Neither "Oddball Odyssey" nor "Cave of Ali Baba" actually feature real treasure, you'll notice; they're both riffs on the general theme, but from a more cynical, postmodern perspective. "Marco Polo" DOES, but it too is a departure; it starts as though it's going to follow the previously-established pattern, but then it turns into a story about political unrest without any significant treasure-hunting element. The fact that these stories exist must, I suppose, play into Barks' reputation, but it's hard for me to think of them in the same sense as the other treasure-hunting tales.

But in any case, it's not as though my categorizations are authoritative; there are certainly any number of ways to think about Barks' work.

September 6, 2010 at 2:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


This is an intriguing notion -- the idea that Barks didn't actually DO more examples of what Bill Van Horn once termed "plunging into the jungle to find the lost ruby." For sure, Scrooge very rarely exited stories of this type with any sort of completely unqualified "pecuniary victory." "King Solomon" is a particularly clever way of closing the books with Scrooge et al. having "lost the treasure" (though you end up remembering the adventure and the "thrill of discovery" much more than you do the slight disappointment of the ending).

It's interesting how Barks moved so easily between Scrooge being a more or less solitary figure and Scrooge being the head of a busy corporate empire. Recall the opening of "Tralla La" with the demands on Scrooge's time literally driving him nuts. "King Solomon" turns Scrooge into the ultimate hands-on corporate tycoon. DUCKTALES had the same sort of bifurcation, probably leaning more towards the corporate-giant interpretation.

I think that, had Barks done "King Solomon" before 1955, when his art was at its best, it would be far better remembered today. As it is, THE SLINGS AND ARROWS COMICS GUIDE -- a really interesting critical guide to comics titles, which has gone into several editions -- uses "King Solomon" as an exemplar of Barks' storytelling techniques.


September 6, 2010 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Mike Matei said...

The fact that Scrooge tells HDL not to bother sweeping over their tracks bothers me. He forces them to lug the tickets all over, they're his slaves the whole damn comic. Why would he not send them outside to go cover up the tracks. Then he could have also had some alone time to hump the rupies! I guess he was over excited and not thinking clear. Yeah, that's it.

September 26, 2010 at 9:06 AM  

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