Saturday, December 25, 2010

"Letter to Santa"

What's the best Barks Christmas story? Well, it's kind of a toss-up between "Shacktown" and this one. It probably depends on what exactly you're looking for--"Shacktown" is comparatively sober and has a genuinely spirit-of-Christmasy feel, whereas "Letter" is more along the lines of a manic slapstick comedy.

Boy, fifty-nine cents. I believe our tree this year cost thirty-four dollars. Not that "inflation exists" is a meaningful observation, but still: INFLATION EXISTS!

The question of whether or not Santa exists is not answered in a consistent way throughout Barks' work. There's no indication that he does in "Shacktown," for instance--that would have severely undermined the story. Here, though...well, we'll see. any case, I must say, this comic is the only place I've ever seen in which he's conceived as a sort of opt-in system where you get to decide whether or not he gets you stuff.

Turns out Donald forgot to mail the kids' letter, so he's on the hook.

This is where things start getting goofy, in a good way: sure, they wanted a massive industrial earth-mover as a gift! Why the heck not?!

...and of course, Donald feels obligated to go along this dubious idea. They MUST HAVE a steam shovel! In "Shacktown," of course, he was sweating over where he was going to get a whopping five dollars for gifts, but here, what the hey!

So he goes to Scrooge for help, and that page was just too awesome for me to break up. This was Scrooge's [quick inducks check]...seventh appearance, but the first one in which we actually see him with mounds of cash. His personality hasn't quite been fully established yet, and as you can see from the utterly delightful money-fight above, there's much less of a power differential between him and Donald than there would be later. Also, upon learning it's Christmas, he's much more willing to shell out for a steam shovel than his later characterization (or common sanity) would indicate he would be.

I love the way that the manager of the yard--and, implicitly, the comic itself--acknowledges how insane the very idea of just casually pickin' up a steam shovel for the holidays is.

Scrooge is irked that the credit for the steam roller won't redound to him, so he makes the only logical choice. This leads to one of the most awesome sequences in duck comics.

STEAM SHOVEL FIGHT! In retrospect, maybe I shoulda done this one as my War-on-Christmas entry. But it's okay; after all, such things are the reason for the season! Some of Barks' Christmas stories (especially the very early ones) are very sentimental; I like that here he shows that he's not afraid to use the holiday to showcase grown men smashing the hell out of each other in construction vehicles for reasons of ego preservation.

Oh yeah. Just look how visually dynamic that is. Your non-Barks artists of the time could NOT have pulled such a thing off. Barks noted in interviews that he gave up doing big splash panels in later years because he knew Western would just chop them up--as the above indicates, that was actually a pretty significant loss.

Anyway, they destroy one another's steam shovels and have to go to court. That guard's line is awesome. Also: first appearance of the Owl Judge! He gives them a fine which Scrooge pays, but what now?

Wow! That IS a swell idea!

Naturally, Donald makes a rather maladroit Santa. HDL are more credulous and kid-like than usual here, and they only compound the problem.

Whee! They ultimately drive Donald out, so Scrooge comes to finish the job.

His self-aggrandizement here is pretty hilarious, especially in light of later comics, in which he wouldn't care even slightly about what anyone thinks of him.

Next up: Santa Fight! Granted, it's not quite as visually arresting as Snow Shovel Fight, but it's still very much in keeping with the story's tone. It's probably pretty easy to guess the story's denouement:

Yeah...Occam's Razor was not much in evidence here.

Okay, so the ending gag is a bit weak (this is oft the case in Barks stories), but that last image of Scrooge shoving Donald off the roof is certainly consonant with the rest of the story: Christmas or not, people are still people--and therefore crazy. Not exactly a True-Meaning-Of-Christmas story, this. Nonetheless, let me take the opportunity to wish you and yours the best holiday possible, and end with a probably futile but nonetheless heartfelt wish that the coming year is an improvement on this one.




Blogger Chris Barat said...


I have had considerable affection for "Letter to Santa" ever since I first read it in the Smithsonian "Comic-Book Comics" collection. It's got my favorite Barks opening splash-panel, among many other positive attributes. "A Christmas for Shacktown," admittedly, touches the heart a bit more, but "Letter to Santa" definitely captures the crazy attitudes that supposedly adult adults will employ in their efforts to appease their kids with "just the right" gift. And I love the gimmick that "explains" how the real Santa Claus can get up and down chimneys so easily. (Donald's coughing, sputtering entrance might be taken as Barks' ironic comment on how silly the traditional version of the chimney-drop truly is.)


December 26, 2010 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Mike Matei said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 31, 2010 at 5:35 AM  
Blogger Mike Matei said...

"as the above indicates, that was actually a pretty significant loss."

You bet it was. The splash panel was usually one of the most amazing things about the stories.

Anyway, the money battle page is amazing.

December 31, 2010 at 5:36 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Personally, I would include "You Can't Guess!" on the shortlist for the best Barks Christmas story– the way he reveals how people can do good things for the wrong reasons is so cynical and yet so heartwarming, it really shows the best and the worst of the Christmas season.

But oh, how I do love money fights...

January 1, 2011 at 3:55 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Yeah, "You Can't Guess" is good times. At some point during the writing of this entry, there was going to be a parenthetical aside stipulating that one at number three, but something or other happened to it. Maybe I'll cover that one next year.

January 1, 2011 at 4:43 PM  

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