Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Search for the Cuspidoria"

Big thanks to Chris Barat for donating to Japan relief. If you haven't done this yet, I highly encourage it; the media tends to create a sort of "out of sight, out of mind" mentality; if there's no single big, new, telegenic thing they can report, they'll just sort of ignore the situation, but it's an ongoing thing nonetheless. As I realized when a Dutch reader emailed with his donation (and his request will also be coming up in the near future), I've been a bit Americentric about this--it's not something I try for, but it happens, and it shouldn't, especially given that most Disney comics readers are not Americans. So if it's better for you to give to an aid organization in your own country, that will also be acceptable for my purposes here.
Chris requested the Barks story from 1955 common referred to as "Search for the Cuspidoria." I maybe shouldn't put unofficial titles like this in quotes, but I do anyway, mainly for symmetry-related reasons. As a side-note, isn't it odd how--unlike every other Barks story--the horseradish story has never received a widely-accepted unofficial title? Everyone just calls it "the horseradish story."

I like "Cuspidoria," and what I really admire about it is its efficiency. The premise could easily have been stretched out into a full-length adventure story, but Barks got it done in ten pages, creating a believable emotional arc and resolution, hitting just the right notes to delineate the characters and their feelings without wasting a single panel. It's a virtuoso exhibit of artistic control. I don't know if you've noticed this or not, but that Barks guy was pretty good at this cartooning business. I have a feeling he's going places!

First, let us note a small oddity about the story's publication history. Here is the original opening panel:

…and here it is as it appears in the 1992 Disney Comics reprint (which is the same except for coloring as Gemstone's 2008 version):

Who the heck is this Myron character, and why is he suddenly appearing in this story? Well, my assumption would be that Barks' original version included Myron but he was cut for space reasons (the older panel is definitely more squashed, and there's a lot of white space at the bottom of the page), and later editors "restored" him.

It's not just a matter of messing around with proportions, though--as you can see, the two signs are placed differently in relation to the shop window, their bottoms are at different angles, and the new version uses a different font for "Toys," with serifs. Admittedly, all the changes are for the better, but do they have anything to do with Barks himself? VERY SUSPICIOUS, I SAY. I know it seems ridiculously trivial, but when you're as obsessed with this stuff as I am, trivialities assume a great deal of untoward importance.

The basic concept is similar to that of another favorite of mine, "The Black Pearls of Tabu Yama:" Scrooge is dragging his nephews out treasure-hunting and potentially causing them to miss Christmas. The difference being that in that story, Scrooge has things planned out from the start, whereas here he changes over the course of the story--it's for that reason that this is probably technically superior to that one, even if I still prefer it for various reasons.

Hey, I'm not claiming that Scrooge's bah-humbug routine is super-original or anything, but as a story-telling element, it's very neatly-expressed here.

Another thing I like is that we see Donald as an advocate for the kids. More often, they're trying to get him out of trouble, so it's nice to see him standing up for them like this. That side of his parental role is rarely explored.

The story presents the same somewhat eccentric notion of Santa Claus that we saw in "Letter to Santa," in which his munificence an option, but not a requirement. Makes me wonder what Christmas was like in the Barks household. You'd think that HDL would remember the events of that story and trust in the powers of Santa, but…well, as you can see, not so much. It's surprising to me that the above comes from a story from as late as 1955--scenes of the nephews sobbing on the floor like that are much more characteristic of earlier stories, when the characters' personalities were a bit looser.

Now okay, granted, you could point to quite a few stories prior to this one which would seem to disprove Donald's assessment of Scrooge's character here. That's certainly an issue with the character: given the sort of person he is, he has to do the heart-grew-three-sizes-that-day thing semi-frequently, and then the reset-button has to be hit afterwards and it can get a little, I dunno, goofy from the reader's perspective. Nonetheless, as far as this story goes, it's well-put, and it makes the later inevitable conversion all the more effective.

I like that the nephews are completely un-self-interested here--just straight-up giving Scrooge a card and a blackened bagel with lettuce in it just because that's how they are.

I haven't even said anything about what they're doing here in the first place, have I? This is all it is:

Barks had to skimp on details for the purposes of the ten-pager; one might complain that this doesn't make a heckuva lot of sense: why was Scrooge's money on this ship? And if it's definitely his money, then why the necessity for beating other ships to the prize? Shouldn't it be legally his anyway? But such questions are rather beside the point; the framework may be a little flimsy, but it's just not something you pay much heed to, because it's not what the story's about.

(A "cuspidor," you will note, is a spittoon; if anyone has any ideas about the significance of the name beyond providing a bit of low-level wackiness, do speak up.)

This is typical of Scrooge when he decides to do something selfless--he just bloody well does it. You may recall him behaving similarly in "Island in the Sky." Note, alas, that we never learn the contents of Donald's "big box."

The conspiratorial behavior on his part is great. I don't think we'll ever get a straight answer as to whether or not Santa is supposed to be a real figure in Duckworld.

And they find the boat anyway, as really, how could they not, under the circumstances? A bit of a large coincidence? Sure, but again, that's missing the point; the whole thing is, after all, a big ol' morality play. Scrooge behaved selflessly, so he got the treasure. This sort of conceptualization can cause toxic thinking in little kids--the idea that renouncing something you want should always lead to getting it anyway--but it works well in stories like this. Genuinely heartwarming, and as a bonus, we get a really weird-looking straight-on view of Donald in the last panel there. For what more could you ask?



Blogger Christopher said...

I'm remembering the Ducktales episodes "Merit-time Adventure" and parts 4 and 5 of "Super Ducktales," where it's made clear that once a ship sinks, the first person to find it gets to keep whatever he can recover by right of salvage. Maybe that's why Scrooge has to rush to reclaim his money.

March 27, 2011 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Regarding “The Great Myron Mystery”… Only Bob Foster would know for certain, but I believe it dates back to the story’s reprinting in WDC&S # 568 (Cover date: February, 1992), during the Disney Comics Era.

Then editor of the tile, Bob Foster had previously created a comic titled “Myron Moose Funnies”, and I suspect the name was added either by him, or someone intending a tribute to both him and his strip. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find the partial name of a Disney executive that was somehow involved in the takeover of the comics as well – so, I suspect those involved were having a little forgivable fun.

The fact that it is not printed that way in the hardcover “Carl Barks Library” pretty much confirms that this was not something Barks intended way back when.

Oddly, on the cover, the story is referred to as “Submarine Santa” and in the Credits Section; it is called simply “Christmas Eve Story”. Go figure…


March 27, 2011 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Thanks, Joe--that sheds a lotta light on what's going on.

March 27, 2011 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 29, 2011 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 29, 2011 at 6:13 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

The SS Cuspidoria may be a reference to one of several ships named SS Astoria, some of which have been sunken. I guess it must be something along these lines.

And then there's the famous shipwreck of the SS Andrea Doria, which regrettably can't have been Barks' inspiration, since it didn't sink until 1956.

"The Andrea Doria was known to be bountifully loaded with such diverse items as a $250,000 solid silver statue of a mermaid; thousands of cases of liquor;" [etc. etc.]'D%20NEVER%20BELIEVE/yellowsub/yellowsub.html

March 29, 2011 at 6:22 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


Thanks for doing this. Disney Comics people were known to monkey with positions of things in panels on occasion -- often for reasons that were, to say the least, obscure -- but I'd not been aware that they messed with a BARKS story, much less this one.

And I agree with Christopher re the right of salvage thing, by the way.


March 29, 2011 at 7:44 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

It was my pleasure. And thanks, Thomas, for all that digging around. I'm sure you're right, and that the name is based on that of actual ships whilst adding a bit of cartoonishness with the "cuspidor" element.

March 30, 2011 at 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Whoa! I always assumed that the name Cuspidoria *was* a reference to the Andrea Doria. But as Thomas points out, the dates make this impossible. And come to think of it, if the story had been written after the Andrea Doria sank, it actually would have been a bit callous for Barks to make a humorous play on the name of a ship which had been recently wrecked with loss of life. The "Astoria" reference makes more sense.

This is my personal favorite Barks Christmas story, followed by the similar Tabu Yama and "The Lighthouse on Cape Quack," where Donald gets to be a hero. I don't know why my favorite Christmas stories are all nautical.... Though I am also exceedingly fond of the first page of "The Three Un-Ducks."

July 31, 2011 at 11:41 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Whoa! I always assumed that the name of the Cuspidoria was a play on the Andrea Doria. But as Thomas points out, the dates don’t allow for that. And come to think of it, if the Andrea Doria incident *had* occurred before the story was written, it would have been a bit callous for Barks to have made the name of his wreck a humorous play on the name of a ship that had been recently wrecked with loss of life. The Astoria reference makes more sense.

This story is my personal favorite Barks Christmas story—followed by the (as Geo points out) similar Tabu Yama, and “The Lighthouse at Cape Quack,” where Donald gets to be a hero. I don’t know why all my favorite Christmas stories are nautical…. Though I am exceedingly fond of the first page of “Three Un-Ducks.”

August 1, 2011 at 8:32 PM  

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