Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Ancient Persia" and "King Scrooge the First"

One thing that Carl Barks was known to do was remake early stories--they were substantially different enough that you couldn't quite call it recycling, but the similarities were obvious. You can hardly blame the man: he wrote close to seven hundred stories in twenty-five years. Even if there are a fair number of one-pagers in that total, it's still a pretty prodigious output. So why not reuse old ideas? And the results are often interesting. "Land of the Pigmy Indians" is a big improvement over "Mystery of the Swamp," and if "Hall of the Mermaid Queen" pales in comparison to the story known either as "The Secret of Atlantis" or "The Sunken City"--well, what the hell. It's still fun. The stories in question today are another such pairing. The earlier one, 1950's "Ancient Persia," is a minor classic; its successor, 1967's "King Scrooge the First," isn't great, but it has a few genuinely startling moments that are worth highlighting.

Ancient Persia is goofy, yet ominous. Look at the opening panel:

The barrier between the ducks' safe suburban neighborhood--a neighborhood where you can relax and read the smash bestseller Guff and Stuff--and an ancient, dead world looks highly permeable. HDL aren't actually having visions of this other world, but the implication is obvious.

The story: Donald and HDL are dragooned by a mad scientist type into taking a trip somewhere Iran-ish, where they find an ancient city; it turns out that instead of dying like normal people, the ancient Persians reduced themselves to dust and are reconstitutable by a formula the scientist has developed. His goal here is to learn from them how they were originally desiccated so that he can do the usual mad scientist stuff. There's a definite undercurrent of cold war anxiety here:

Obviously, neither the world nor our heroes are reduced to dust, but the reconstituted Persians are. I didn't read this story during my formative years, but you can bet that if I had it would have traumatized the shit out of me. It really is kind of horrifying:

Gah! To sum up this comic's success, I cannot--I am sorry to say--do better than to quote Geoffrey Blum. BLUM!:

"Ancient Persia" breaks down the rules of reality. Where the desert appears most empty is where the sand dunes hide a city. Folk who should have died out eons ago turn out to be alive. The scientist, who seems at moments to be sensible, is dangerously insane, and Donald's own identity is threatened by the presence of a perfect physical double.

I wouldn't want to overstate things--the story has enough cartoon goofiness to drain much of the eeriness--but it definitely has a kind of tension that is unusual in these stories, and that's what makes it especially memorable.

"King Scrooge the First," from 1967, has the distinction of being the last Scrooge comic--the last comic, period--that Barks wrote before retiring. He didn't even draw it; he just did the story and the storyboards (Tony Strobl is the artist). Of course, whoever the publisher was at the time convinced him soon after to come out of retirement to a limited extent: he wrote and storyboarded (but again, didn't draw) a series of wildly uneven Junior Woodchucks stories (and at least one Donald story) during the seventies, but for various reasons, it's difficult to think of those stories as really being canonical. In a very real way, "King Scrooge" represented the end of an era. And a strange end it was, too.

The story: there's a mysterious fortune teller type from roughly the same area as "Ancient Persia." This individual shanghais Scrooge, Donald, and HDL, and takes them to this place, where he makes them drink a formula that causes them to revert in their minds back to their apparent ancestral pasts as the last members of some sort of Persian dynasty. One of the first things we get here is a pretty big WTF moment:


WHOA WHOA WHOA. Come ON now. I hate to use so admonitory a word as "inappropriate," but, um...huh. Maybe retirement wasn't such a bad idea.

We also get a bizarre little impromptu musical number from HDL which is good for a laugh:

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that the kingdom was invaded by an army headed by the fortuneteller guy, who consumed a formula that rendered him immortal. However, the duck ancestors hid the rest of the treasure before he could get it. So now he wants to make them relive the events of the past so he can figure out where it is. Typical, right? Except...not quite. Because his motives turn out to be...well:

[stunned silence]

All right. That really IS pretty shockingly dark stuff for a putative kids' story. On the one hand, it's hard not to remember that this was Barks' last Scrooge comic and to connect it with his acceptance of his own mortality; on the other hand, he wasn't exactly on death's door when he wrote it--he would go on to live for thirty-plus years, and, as far as I know, remain in sound body and mind 'til the end. Still--yow. If he was going to go out, this was a pretty dramatic way to do it.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You haven't read Carl Barks till you've read Erika Fuch's translation of his stuff!

May 7, 2010 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Yeah, I saw that article. I don't read German, alas, but it would definitely be interesting to read an English translation of the German versions. Twisty!

May 8, 2010 at 2:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found the constant juxtaposition between humour and scariness very memorable - The wedding scene ("we'll have the old ceremoney where the bride does handsprings and the groom is carried in on a tray") leads straight into the leering scientist ("at last I can do away with everyone and be alone in the world"). And earlier the scientist explains the drying process ("more so - they were dried completely into dust") Donald imagines a pile of dust - still going "quack quack". The radium vapour certainly freaked me as a kid living under the 1970s nuclear shadow.

June 4, 2010 at 7:33 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Re nothing in particular, in retrospect, it was a bad idea to smash these two stories together. They aren't THAT closely related, and I think they both deserve individual attention.

August 6, 2010 at 11:51 PM  
Blogger Ghormax said...

I am German and to be honest I prefer the American original. The German text is too unnatural. It has a unique style for sure but it is too far from the original. Barks used a colloquial and witty form of language which is hard to translate.

October 20, 2012 at 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the ancient Persia story when I was seven years old. *Yes, 7.* I'll spell it out for you: S-E-V-E-N… The story traumatised the hell out of me. Here I am at 49 years of age and it's still with me. So much so that I still remember it. I had to google it to find out what it was called and if anyone else was as terrified by it as I was. That brought me here.

It left a hell of a scar. I sold all my comics when I was 17 to a comics shop here in Australia where my guitar teacher worked. I told him all about it. He agreed it must've been a bit too much for a young 'un to take. Thanks, Carl Barks!

April 23, 2016 at 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello everybody,
I just worked my way through an H.P.Lovecraft story collection (the "Necronomicon"), and the lengthiest piece in there is the "Case of Charles Dexter Ward".
Reading it I got more and more of a deja-vu feeling - it's basically about reviving dead people through the use of different chemical agents, and reducing them back to dust (with the help of some demonical incantations) - and finally remembered where I read something similar before!
It's so analogous to Barks' "Ancient Persia", I wonder if he was directly inspired by Lovecraft's story.
And yes, reading "Ancient Persia" as a kid also scared me quite deeply - an outstanding story in this regard.

Best regards from Germany

PS: about Erika Fuchs' German translations: I think this is indeed one of the extremely rare cases where a translation was able to improve upon the original, adding a whole layer of intellectual depth and ironic humour.

PPS: I hadn't even realised till now that "King Scrooge" was actually a Barks story (due to the different artist). While the ending is super deep, the slave girl humour seems... inappropriate, yes.

December 6, 2017 at 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Josefina said...

I read the Ancient Persia story when I was very, very young and it occupies a very specific place in my head. I felt completely submerged into the world as if it were real, and given the nature of the story, it stuck with me.

I've always really liked it. It seemed so real.

I hate that they had Strobl do the newer one omg. Barks' later scripts done by Dan Yippes are far more digestible. The slave girl thing is extremely disturbing regardless of the artist, though. It reminds me of Matt Groening's new series. Old men being awful despite seeming OK when they are younger?? I guess Barks has had some problematic stuff in the past like there's always the racial caricatures of black people Barks did in that one Duck story that got censored so I don't know the name but I don't remember this level of sexual objectification. Reading those panels made me highly uncomfortable.

March 31, 2019 at 4:04 AM  

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