Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Treasure of Marco Polo"

In his essay in the Magica de Spell volume of Gladstone's jumbo Comic Album Series, Geoffrey Blum puts forth the proposition--supported by quotes from Barks hisself--that the character was introduced to provide a "safe" way to tell stories: by the sixties, people were becoming more aware of the nature of imperialism and the potentially exploitative nature of the kind of treasure hunts that made Scrooge famous, so a different kind of story was called for--hence, the need for a "non-political" foil for Scrooge. Of course, as Blum also sharply notes, it says a helluva lot about our culture that the pell-mell pursuit of wealth over anything else could be considered "non-political," but there you have it.

I should probably do an entry on Magica, but that would necessitate rereading a whole bunch of Magica stories, and I doan wanna. Not my favorite Barks character, is Ms. de Spell (although certainly less irksome than April, May, and June!). So instead, let's take a look at 1966's "Treasure of Marco Polo," which is not a Magica story but which provides further credence to Blum's argument. You would think, from the title, that this would be a traditional treasure hunt story--but you would be misshapen. It's not like that at all, and it shows an awareness of geopolitical realities--although, as we will soon see, it is hardly "non-political."

So: Scrooge has purchased a life-size jade elephant statue, purported to have been a treasure Marco Polo was taking from Cathay until he was attacked by pirates and the statue went MIA. The issue of Westerners stealing Eastern artifacts isn't really addressed, although you have to wonder:

He imports exotic art and keeps it in a jumbled pile in a safe? That hardly seems respectful. We never get a more explicit critique, however.

The treasure is being shipped from the revolution-torn nation of Unsteadystan. However, when it arrives, the crate proves to be empty, except for the elephant's tale--and a stowaway:

"Oh please GOD don't let him speak with a risible caricature of a Chinese accent," you think. Fortunately, your wishes are granted: he has no discernible accent at all. Not that foreigners must always sound identical to Americans, but given the limitations of the duck comic format, staying away from these things is probably for the best. For the most part, this story is admirably restrained and respectful when it comes to the Unsteadystani culture. The stowaway--who turns out to be quite a cool character--is named Soy Bheen. He hid onboard the ship to escape a rebellion led by Wahn Beeg Rhat (yeah, foreign names are always like this in these stories), and he suggests that in return for being sneaked back into the country, he could perhaps help to find the elephant. So it's off to Unsteadystan! Would you like a quick swipe at American exceptionalism? Observe:

In general, this story seems much more aware of the genuine dangers of this kind of mess--it's closer to realpolitik than one often sees in these stories. Although I'm not sure why there appears to be at least one Spanish-Unsteadystani rebel involved:

Yeah, the rebels look a bit more like World War II caricatures of Japanese than one would perhaps ideally like, but that's about as bad as it gets--not too, considering. Wahn Beeg Rhat is interesting because he seems to be an Oriental version of the standard Barksian pig-faced villain:

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the Prince of Unsteadystan, Char Ming--the only guy who can stop the rebellion--has gone missing. One guess as to who he might be.

Anyway, I won't go into all the minutiae of the plot: Scrooge and Donald get captured and are to be executed--it's actually a pretty sobering situation, and speaks to the increased level of real-world-type violence we see throughout the story:

Soy and HDL rescue them--although it involves a harrowing journey:

Egads. Anyway, they make it. Beeg Rhat orders his troops to murder the prince, but they refuse, which refusal proves somewhat reactionary:

Obviously, revolutions aren't fun and games for anyone, and often they lead to governments that are as repressive as or more repressive than those they replace. This is unquestionably the case. But what the panels here conveniently elide is the fact that rebellions don't just happen in a vacuum for no reason. Are we really to believe in these "good old days?" And even if they seem preferable to the current situation, is returning to them really our ideal? Char Ming may be a good ruler, but as ever, this is not a substitute for a good system. I suppose what this reflects is a general uncertainty: how does one react to a sociopolitical situation that seems to be rapidly falling apart? Reverting to the "good ol' days" may seem like a tempting prospect, but I think the truth is, there probably is no particularly good solution.

But we don't have to worry about that now; this is, after all, merely a comic, with absolutely no greater import. So Scrooge wins the jade elephant as well as Marco Polo's other lost treasures; however, he has an uncharacteristic but welcome spasm of generosity:

Hurray! Unsteadystan will rise again! And possibly get rid of the "Un!" Does this represent, perhaps, an implicit realization on Scrooge's part that there's something kind of wrong with pilfering other cultures' historical treasure? I'd like to think so!

In spite of a few problems, this is actually a very good story, with an effective villain and, in Char Ming, a surprisingly excellent hero. One wishes Don Rosa had penned a sequel (even more than one wishes that for almost ANY given Barks story). It's nice to see that even at this late stage of his career, Barks was capable of hitting, if not quite a homer, then at least a solid, inside-the-park triple.



Blogger Monkey_Feyerabend said...

This old post is so sad without comments! Here I am!

Just to say that some days ago I read this story in a French translation. Such version only speaks of a "war", and never mentions the word "revolution". On the one side, the men of the bad guy are still called "rebels"; but on the other, the translation of the whole thing gives the idea of two symmetric forces at war. But nowhere is explained who the enemy of the rebels is. The forces loyal to the monarchy? Or another group of rebels? It looks like a civil war, but you never really understand what is going on.
It was the less satisfactory part of the reading, I was thinking "what the hell Barks...what's going on in this country!?". But now reading your (by the way, beautiful) post, I get that the translator made a mess by turning the word "revolution" into a generic "war". Were they trying to make the story look less reactionary? If that's the case, that was quite clumsy...

November 6, 2015 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love this story. When I read the part about siesta I can't help but laugh out loud, because it is so true and so hilarious. I knew he has played on it in Volcano Valley, but I just love it here.

October 16, 2017 at 4:30 AM  
Blogger Simon Habegger said...

Though no one is likely to read this, it is actually kind of remarkable how accurately this comic depicts a certain phase of Thailand's 20th century history. After WWII, the young heir to the throne returned to Thailand from where he'd been studying in Switzerland for quite some time, to a government that had adjusted to operating without a monarch. Over the next thirty years, Thailand had a series of coups and unstable governments in which the young king gradually consolidated power and became one of the most important members of whatever government was on top.

Unsteadystan is obviously Thailand -- the king's crown looks Thai, the buildings look Thai, the airport is in a town named after Bangkok. The general air of halfhearted political violence is very Thai (in one coup, the Prime Minister escaped by swimming from the Navy ship where he had been captured to shore). It's not a perfect picture, but it is very reminiscent -- I wouldn't be surprised if Barks had seen a National Geographic article about "Thailand's Young King Struggles to Modernize An Ancient Land" or something like that.

January 19, 2021 at 11:43 PM  

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