Monday, March 28, 2011

"The Beauty Business"

Thanks to reader N.N., who gave money for Japan and asked me to write about--I kid you not--"the most post-modern duck comic [I] know." Obviously, this dovetails with my interests. Several questions emerge, however: first, what do we mean by "postmodern?" Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what the word means--or even whether it connotes something that actually exists--so trying to synthesize all this stuff to find one story that stands out from the pack isn't too easy. I suppose if I had to subjectively pinpoint a single one (for the purposes of this, we're sticking with Barks), it would be "Have Gun, Will Dance," which I've already written about. Other good candidates that I've already done: "Oddball Odyssey," "The Loony Lunar Gold Rush," "Queen of the Wild Dog Pack," The Doom Diamond." All late stories, naturally. But then it hit me like a .44: Barks' second-to-last ten-pager, "The Beauty Business." I might not call it his most postmodern, but it certainly fits very comfortably in that category. As a bonus, it is also surely the most cynical thing that the man ever wrote. I mean, admittedly, there are a few of his stories of which I have not yet had the pleasure, but it's difficult to imagine how any story could possibly be more jaundiced than this one.

I think I remember reading somewhere that "The Beauty Business" was the result of Western asking Barks to give Daisy a makeover so as to increase the comics' appeal to a female audience. The fact that the story is labeled as "Donald and Daisy" does lend credence to the idea that someone was trying to up her market share, and Barks did use her new look (or something very like it) in two further stories; his last ten-pager, "The Not-So-Ancient Mariner;" and his antepenultimate adventure story (not counting script-only efforts, of course), "Hall of the Mermaid Queen." At any rate, if this is in fact the case, then it looks to me like a pretty emphatic "fuck you" to Western on Barks' part.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. To start, let us note that the keyword in this story is "artifice."

Look, you all know that Donald becomes a beautician. No suspense there, surely. And you know that Daisy objects to this. But what I want to point out here is that, while you might think that her objections stem from a stubborn refusal to give in to postmodernity--an insistence on hanging on to what is "real" and tangible--that isn't at all the case. For "actors," it's obvious: people who are pretending to be other people, or rather mythic tropes that only really represent our dehistoricized ideas of other people--but it's also the case with astronauts. Sure, "astronaut" is an actual, real, cool line of work, you might say, that interfaces with the world in a straightforward way, but as you can see, that is not Daisy's concern: the keyword is "glamorous;" the signifier "astronaut" has become entirely disconnected from what it traditionally signifies--ie, a guy going into space--and now all it does is indicate "glamor" in a hollow sort of way. Point being: Daisy isn't exactly an outsider here. Which is not to say that she isn't in some important way different from everyone else around her, or that she isn't, in a sense, a tragic figure in this story (or would be, if we were able to maintain any sense of such things).

I think it's at least somewhat meaningful that the beauty salon used to be a sausage shop--ie, something that produced something real. Then again, I'm one of those insufferable vegetarians, so I can't help thinking that, regardless of the broader implications, this is actually a net gain.

This woman would look like one of Van Horn's "loonies," but she's a bit too realistically grotesque for that. Barks really goes for broke here in making this beautifying business as unpleasant-looking as possible.

See. I hardly think I need to point out the irony of "at last I look like myself!"

…but if it somehow wasn't clear it sure oughta be now: her new face is an absolute façade with no relation to her actual self.

Daisy feels self-conscious, but of course, she's the only normal-looking person there--everyone else looking like outlandish Dr. Seuss characters. In a less cynical story than this one, the arc would lead to her learning that she's fine just the way she is and that she just needs to learn to accept herself, but this is not that story., here her vicious little hellion nieces encourage her in her self-loathing. "So far below par?" Jeez that's cruel--and hey, if she's "below par," what does that say about you three?

(On a sidenote, I do like the fact that old coloring jobs generally give April May and June different colors--there's a tendency for them to all be exactly identical in modern stories, which strikes me as wrong.)

We get a full three pages of the nieces' sabotaging Donald's work, on the basis that only they can properly tart up Daisy, and that she needs to be thoroughly broken down before she can be rebuilt. It's the same principle behind cults and armies.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and Barks makes us look at images like this over and over and over. It's pretty awful, albeit intentionally so.

Yes, having destroyed her, we will now build a simulacrum of a creature that resembles a conception of "Daisy" that only exists in our minds. If there's a better example of the potentially ruinous effects of postmodernity, I don't know what it is.

I did a serious double-take the first time I saw these results. Barks drew the most vulgar, garish version of Daisy he possibly could. This was allegedly meant to draw in female readers, remember--but could it possibly be any more horrifying? Is it possible that, even at the time ("the time" being 1966; not exactly the dim recesses of history), anybody could have found the supposed "triumph" here anything other than completely toxic? Gah! I'm not blaming Barks; I'm quite certain that he knew exactly what he was doing: crafting a brutal satire of the kind of culture that his editors wanted him to be embracing. But that doesn't mean it's not hard to read. Dammit, Daisy has never been the most interesting character in duck comics, and she's never received the best treatment, but it's hard not to feel bad for her here, even if she evinces sufficient lack of self-awareness to whole-heartedly embrace this frightening values system.



Blogger Eleleth ר ק D said...

Daisy clearly plays the role of Donald's anima; thus her role as a projection of Donald's unconscious. Donald, like Paris in Homeric myth, becomes a "beautician," i.e., a lover of beauty only in its visible sense. When this occurs, the anima will inevitably assert itself in protest over its neglect. "Daisy ... needs to be thoroughly broken down before she can be rebuilt": Donald does no work of himself; the psychic transformation is accomplished by the transcendent function of April, May, and June, the supernal Triad, who demonstrate the necessity of decomposition (Nigredo) prior to reintegration of the Self in a new synthesis.

Similarly, "The Not-So-Ancient Mariner" repeats the motifs of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime," with Donald in the role of Modern Man who, in his eternal wanderings, cannot grasp the transcendent ideal of truth and beauty represented by Daisy without first going through a time of trial and torment.

March 29, 2011 at 9:47 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Wow--where have YOU been all my life?

March 29, 2011 at 10:59 PM  
Blogger Eleleth ר ק D said...

Your observations about simulacra are apt; Donald, as the Demiurgic creator (Deus est Homo), is able to mold raw matter into a simulacrum of the ideal world. Here, too, we must pause to consider why Donald's beauty parlor has been built from a sausage shop. Clearly, a castration is implied: though Donald creates, it is of a lesser order than that which he would create when reunited with the Virgin Sophia, and hence corruptible. Osiris' phallus has been replaced with a wooden simulacrum.

Daisy's conundrum is, ultimately, that Donald as been seduced by the artifice. The ending is suggestive: has Donald, having "died" to the lower life, at last realized the ideal beauty represented by Daisy? The Virgin thus conceives, and the breach between spirit and matter is healed. Daisy has become the harlequin; the scarlet whore who has at last opened her holy kteis to everything that lives--recall the final line of Ulysses: "yes I said yes I will Yes." This is spoken by Molly "Bloom," the "Flower of the mountain," which again entrains with "Daisy".

As far as the 20th century's literary greats, Joyce has nothing on Barks; we both know this, even if the rest of the world remains ignorant. See, also, "The Magic Hourglass" for important aspect of Barks' work, the Grail Mythos.

March 30, 2011 at 1:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came across this book (DONALD & DAISY #1) for sale actually, and had to do some research in to whether it was worth buying or not. The fact that it's the only issue that Carl Barks worked on intrigued me, and had me questioning its value. Now after reading your breakdown, it's no wonder he only did the 1 story!

I'm sure glad I decided to do some research! This article is great.

April 27, 2011 at 12:02 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...


This story was originally written for WDC, actually; the printing in the Daisy & Donald book is a reprint. "The Not-So-Ancient Mariner" was also credited as a "Donald & Daisy" story; I'm surprised it wasn't also reprinted in that line.

April 27, 2011 at 12:14 AM  
Blogger Lorenzo said...

A very astute article about one of Barks' most twisted 10-pagers. Also, Eleleth's observation that the Beauty Parlour's conversion from a sausage shop implies a castration struck me as very true, & therefore must rank as one of Barks' most adult "gags" (inverted commas as the joke's a bit mean, mind). Cheers!

September 18, 2017 at 5:36 PM  

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