Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Best Christmas"

Hey, everyone.  Yes so obviously I’ve been an absent parent to this blog lately, but I swear to you, I have no intention of writing exclusively seasonal entries from now on (yeah, promises, promises).  I have been so busy lately, you wouldn’t believe.  Gah.  Still, hopefully I can make up for it just a bit with A Firestone Christmas, in which I cover the five Christmas stories that Barks wrote as giveaways for a tire company, of all things, every year from 1945 to 49.  Looking back, it seems kind of bizarre that Western had the guy whom they knew damn well was their best talent by a wide margin write so many stories for promotional giveaways.  Then again, your Strobls, your Murrys, your Mooreses, all did more of them than Barks ever did--it's just that theirs are justly forgotten.  Maybe all of them just had to put in their time in the salt mines.  AT ANY RATE, the advantage is ours. 

These may not be the all-time most sophisticated stories, but the first few WERE the first Christmas stories he ever wrote, and they definitely paved the way for the likes of “A Christmas for Shacktown” and “A Letter to Santa.”  But let’s not undersell them: they’re also fun in their own right.  I’m worried that these entries will be too short, but gimme a break—they’re eight-page stories, and while Barks is always Barks, they’re still not what you’d call massively thematically dense.  We work with what we have.  There’s a good overview of the five by Geoffrey Blum in this thing.  Maybe read that instead.

We begin with “Best Christmas,” from 1945, as our protagonists head out to “Grandma’s.”  You’d really think they would’ve called in advance, but maybe “Grandma” is too backwards to have a phone.  Sure, that’s it.

The main thing about this story is the way it crystallizes Barks’ warring impulses: the inbuilt resistance to excessive sentimentality, and the perceived need to nonetheless be “heartwarming.”  The above demonstrates the former to great effect; has Donald EVER been more bloodthirsty?

Also: GREAT JOB, colorist.  It looks like he’s throwing a ball of oobleck.

I always like the cart driver’s phlegmatic attitude as he inflicts violence on Donald.  The horse isn't too sure about this, though.

Could this be foreshadowing?!?  There MAY be a certain lack of subtlety here.

Also, the idealized poor-but-angelic moppets and their mother are, it must be admitted, pretty hard to take, and not JUST because they look like aliens.  Honestly, that’s even true in “Shacktown”—to which this is an obvious precursor—to an extent, but that is (of course) a much more sophisticated story, in addition to which, it has at least a patina of social realism—a sense that the poor people are part of a larger system.  Whereas here, it’s just one hundred percent obvious that their sole purpose is to impart a lesson.  Who can doubt that they blink out of existence as soon as the ducks leave?


The other problem—the more important problem, I should say—is Donald’s behavior here.  Barks had laid on his selfishness and obliviousness really, really thick, and for him, all of a sudden, to go from throwing a tantrum about not being able to swim around in candy (like a porpoise, one might say) to being totally reasonable about everything, with no indication of there having been anything to change his attitude, is enough to give the reader some mild whiplash.  Of course, it’s meant as a fake-out after the initial revelation, but it’s not a fake-out that in retrospect makes sense.   Barks' control of tone here was imperfect.

AAAAH!  IT’S “GRANDMA!”  I guess it’s not the comics’ fault; the “real” Grandma wasn’t in universal circulation at the time of this story.  It still throws me for a loop every time, though.  She certainly seems more active than the more familiar version.  Let’s pause a moment to ponder how duck comics would have been different had she been the one to become the default grandmother character.

WAY TO SPELL OUT THE MESSAGE, KIDS.  Also, if you hadn’t given the stuff away, you wouldn’t have come back, and you’d’ve found “Grandma’s” house as empty as the grave.  THEN what?!?

Still, the story DOES win points for ending on Donald’s smug insistence that everything is all thanks to HIM.  That at least goes a little way towards toning down the sappier side of the story.



Blogger Pan Miluś said...

"you wouldn’t have come back, and you’d’ve found “Grandma’s” house as empty as the grave. THEN what?!?"

Why... That would be the WORST Christmas ever :( No I'm sad...

December 21, 2014 at 8:14 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


Yeah, it's a bit sappy, but I've always liked this one. There's just enough bite in it -- mostly relating to Donald's behavior, at least pre-whiplash -- to provide some balance.


December 21, 2014 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger Richie said...

Great to see ya back, man!

I always thought this was partly written by someone else other than Barks; the way the sappiness is shoe-horned all of a sudden reminds me of the equally inelegant situation in "The Golden Christmas Tree". That one has much more documentation behind it to prove it happened whereas there's no evidence with this one, though. I still can't see Barks including this sort of stuff without a mandate from the higher ups.

December 21, 2014 at 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Yay! I was all sad because it was going to be The Christmas Without GeoX! But Santa/"Grandma" arrives, bringing all we need to celebrate in style: GeoX *and* Barks.

On Donald's conversion... I presume that the kids fill him in on the bare table & cupboard after the "You don't know how much worse a Christmas could be!" panel, and that's why he later accepts their announcement that they gave the Christmas Stuff away without exploding. What's missing is the visual depiction of this change of heart, as in the famous wordless panels in Luck of the North.

Which printing did you scan? In the Gladstone album of the Firestone stories, Donald is throwing a snowball, not oobleck.

I don't mind the fact that HDL spell out the moral, because that functions as a set-up for Donald to claim that he's been right all along. I find the next-to-last panel quite funny,when HDL make the moral explicit and Donald says, "That's beside the point!" Because what they've said would be precisely the point, were this a typical kiddie Christmas story.

December 21, 2014 at 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Food for thought: Could this "grandma", in fact, be Hortense? I mean, it's clearly not Elvira, so it stands to reason it must be Donald or HDL's other grandma. And she's certainly energetic enough. You might ask why Donald would refer to her as "grandma" in that case, but I don't think it's that unusual for parents to refer to their own parents as "grandma" or "grandpa" when talking to their own kids, to avoid confusion.

February 26, 2015 at 4:55 PM  

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