Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Safari from Komba Tomba"

Carl Barks was not the only creator of Disney comics back in the day, you know. That seems like an obvious statement, but given that Barks' work is constantly reprinted, whereas his contemporaries' is almost never, you would be forgiven for imagining otherwise.

But, no no. While Barks singlehandedly wrote the first seventy-one issues of Uncle Scrooge (excepting a few brief filler stories by others in the mid-sixties when he was running out of steam), along with the marquee story for almost every issue of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories from 1943 to 1965-ish (more than two hundred fifty issues), along with a bunch of Donald Duck one-offs in the mid forties to early fifties, along with miscellaneous art for other people's stories (he illustrated a fair number of stories for the one-off series Daisy Duck's Diary and Grandma Duck's Farm Friends, most of which haven't been reprinted since the seventies--get on it, Boom!!)--while he did all this, that was not the whole of Duckdom. More specifically, there was also the Donald Duck line, for which he rarely wrote stories. This line existed, however. And still does, sort of. So what the hell was going on there? Browse through the relevant section of Inducks (an incredible resource, truly) and you'll find story after story that was published and then seen never more (in the US, at least--all bets are off when it comes to those crazy, awesome Europeans). In the depths of duck past, there is Barks-world, and then there's this sort of shadow-world that nobody knows about or cares to.

Of course, there's no reason that just because these things exist, we should care about them. We are familiar with Charles Dickens. We are somewhat less familiar with Renton Nicholson, and I think few would argue with this historical verdict. But is it really plausible that Barks is the only artist to have produced anything worth remembering during the time in question? Sure, we are familiar with Dickens, but we're also familiar with Trollope. He may not have the same level of stylistic virtuosity, but he's still well worth reading. And anyway, I have personal experience here: the comics I read as a kid--inherited from my dad--included many issues of Donald Duck, so I have vague recollections of the stories, and I certainly don't remember disliking them, or even differentiating particularly between Barks and others. So I have nostalgic interest, if nothing else.

Anyway, thanks to the internet, anything is possible, so I rustled me up a whole mess o' DDs and started reading.


"Enervating," is the word I would use to describe the experience. Because young-me might not have been discriminating, but me-me is, and I cannot tell you how dispiriting the whole exercise turned out to be. With very few exceptions, the work of Barks' contemporaries was really, really…not good. Not even bad, necessarily, but consistently, leadenly mediocre. Barks wrote some bad stories, but even when they weren't good, they were at least thematically interesting, which is more than you can say for the works of Dick Moores or Phil DeLara. And really, even the worst of Barks generally has a certain baseline level of quality in terms of art, plotting, and pacing. With this motley assortment of also-rans, all bets are off. There are a lot of lousy contemporary duck stories, but if you asked me to compare today's second-tier creators with yesterday's, I would give the nod to today's in a heartbeat. It's not even close. Nostalgia is a powerful force, but in this case, it is insufficient to soften my opinion (or maybe I'd hate them even MORE if not for nostalgia).

That was a lengthy introduction. In any case: Tony Strobl (the extremely-distant-second-most-reprinted classic duck creator, probably for no other reason than extreme prolificacy) is the best of them. A lot of his stuff--most of it, probably--isn't up to much, but he is sometimes capable of producing a fairly worthwhile story. Like today's entry, first published in 1955, reprinted in 1976, and then ne'r seen more (nor likely to be seen again, given Boom!'s general publishing philosophy). There's plenty to criticize--and don't think I won't--but I still like it. I was thinking of trying to write something about a more characteristic story of the time, but it's a depressing thought. Maybe I'll manage to steel myself for the task one of these days.

You want to know the set-up? Here's the set-up:

Obviously, this is some clumsy-ass exposition, but more than that, what strikes me is how, I dunno, simultaneously laborious and desperate it feels, what with HDL doing their faux-archaic thing and Donald finding this HILARIOUS. Any police investigator would find this behavior highly suspicious. What are they hiding? know, this practice of suddenly assigning a character an idiosyncratic trait of some sort just for the purposes of a single story is never a good sign. You should be building the story around the characters, not the other way round. In another Strobl story, we suddenly learn that Donald has a photographic memory. Huh. Not that this kind of gimmickry automatically kills a story, and not that Barks didn't indulge in it on occasion (just look at the "mastery" stories), but still--meh.

Anyway, the story is that diamonds are disappearing from Scrooge's mine, so our heroes are off to investigate. We get a few somewhat pointless pages of routine dicking around with megafauna, and this:

Say what you will: I like this panel a lot. I remember finding it very striking as a lad, and it's still pretty okay. It certainly serves to drive home the impression that this here mine is super hardcore isolated.

...I hate to spoil the fun, but I'm pretty sure that if they're actually "tried for mutiny," it's gotta be more along the lines of a written law.

At any rate, eventually they reach the mine.

Yeah, my favorite thing about this comic must surely be how goshdarned Conradian it is. A white overseer of an isolated diamond mine setting himself up as king, ruling over the native workers? I'd buy that for a dollar! Not, naturally, that the story ever addresses issues of colonialism in any explicit way. But it's still an interesting subtext, which is something you rarely see in tales such as this.

Anyway, let's pick up the pace here: for some unfathomable reason, Scrooge believes Kingie's protestations of innocence for the time being, and the story sets up the mystery of what's happening to the diamonds rather well. Turns out the elephants suck them out in their trunks and deposit them in a hidey hole in a tree (this is where the "peanuts in the hat" business comes in.

Trapped in the tree, they burn their way out; this is also set up fairly well and fairly naturally; it doesn't feel forced that Scrooge should have a magnifying lens here. Mind you, the advisability of setting your prison on fire from the inside seems debatable. Death by immolation or asphyxiation seems like a more likely outcome than escape.

But escape they do, and the king is revealed--rather hurriedly--as the villain. Artificially ruling out the obvious suspect at the start and then deciding oh no, he's really guilty after all certainly isn't the most deft bit of plotting, but it's not too inexcusable.

HEY! IS THIS MEANT TO BE AN ANTI-IMPERIALIST STORY OR A PRO-IMPERIALIST STORY?!? Well, truth be told, it's almost certainly not "meant" to be anything. Such things are rarely conscious, let alone in a disposable bit of pop art like this. Still, all things considered, it's not too bad of a story, and I would be glad to see it reprinted. It's times like this that I sorely regret that Gemstone went under--their business plan may have been wildly impractical, but they had a respect for the medium and its history that meant it wouldn't be inconceivable to see them handle things like this. Boom!--not too bloody likely. It's too bad, but it looks as though stories like this are destined to be lost in the mists of time.



Blogger ramapith said...

Fascinating analysis. At Gemstone, I did try to reprint non-Barks Western Publishing stories once in awhile, but quite a lot of them had problems like you describe.
Unfortunately, I'd say the same problems are even more serious in the same writers' Mickey stories, where fewer really seem to have a grasp on the characters' personalities.

One extra thought: you say "Barks wrote some bad stories, but even when they weren't good, they were at least thematically interesting, which is more than you can say for the works of Dick Moores or Phil DeLara..."
I'm afraid you're doing Moores and De Lara an injustice here. Like Paul Murry and Tony Strobl, they rarely wrote the stories they drew, so the quality of the plots/characterizations can't really be blamed on them. Those rare times Moores wrote his own, for example (several stories around 1952), the quality of the writing was above average.

March 9, 2010 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Thanks for the kind words.

As for the misattributions on my part--oops. Inducks mostly doesn't list the writers for these old stories (are said writers even KNOWN, or have they been lost to history?), so I made the incorrect assumption that the artists were also responsible for the writing.

March 9, 2010 at 1:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Matei said...

I gotta commend you for trying to write up an article on a non barks duck story from the classic era. I read them now and then in old issues of WDC&S, but usually a few pages in I give up because they're so bad. I always hoped I'd find a hidden gem of a story. But it hasn't happened yet. (nor do I figure it ever will).

I also gotta commend ramapith (cough, hi Dave!) for being able to stomach enough of those stories to figure out which "Moores" stories were above average..

September 26, 2010 at 8:27 AM  

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