Monday, May 30, 2011

"Crown of the Mayas"

Having recently been wandering amongst Mayan ruins, this story seems apropos to write about. However, if I start getting all "ho ho ho! Having visited THREE ruins, I am now an EXPERT on Mayan culture!" on you, feel free to pelt me with rotten fruit. Well…a little of that may be inevitable. But I'll try not to get carried away.
As a treasure-hunt story published in 1963--when Barks was basically through with such things in any but a highly satirical tone--this story has been characterized (by me, even!) as a throwback of sorts. Which it sort of is and sort of isn't. I do wonder whether was thinking specifically about "The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" when he decided to do another story with a mythic crown in the title. BUT…

…as you can see, the story makes explicit the point made in endless Geoffrey Blum articles: ancient treasure is seen as a thing of the past that has no place in the modern world. 'Course, the story itself seems to contradict Scrooge here, but the point remains: this is something that Barks is aware of.

("Sodom?" THERE'S a story idea for you...)

There's SOME historical grounding at the beginning here, but Barks' approach is decidedly flippant ("gifts of jewels and groceries," "the gods stayed grumpy"). It feels a bit tossed in; more than any of Barks' other treasure hunt stories, there's not much real connection to history. It's very much about a remote, dead past. Which, to be fair, is fitting inasmuch as we don't KNOW as much about the specifics of Meso-American history as we would if the Europeans hadn't been so inquisition-y. But it also goes with a different sensibility than the one behind, say, "The Seven Cities of Cibola."

This is totally accurate; that's exactly how un-unearthed Mayan ruins--of which there are a lot--look. Dunno about this here "well of sacrifice," though.

So yes: the set-up. Note that Scrooge's motivation also has a thrown-off quality; note also that it makes him out to be a bit of a prick. "Bully" them, Scrooge? Is that what you call "making it square?"

...but seriously, how sweet would it be if you had a rich relative who would just invite you along on crazy expeditions all over the world? Though Scrooge's "recruitment" often has more of the quality of a press gang than it does here, which would likely get old.

I really like the way that, even half-asleep, HDL are still able to effortlessly identify ancient ruins. In it to win it, guys!

Note that this here "archeologists' club" does not appear to consist of archeologists of the highest order, exactly, if something like this was able to fool them. Once again showing Barks with a more relaxed attitude towards history and historical understanding.

Anyway, these guys are the villains. With names like that, they were pretty much doomed from the start. Though as far as diabolical plots go, "we'll discover some ancient artifacts to join a club for archeologists!" is…modest, let's say. It's mainly their consistently diabolical facial expressions that sell them as "evil," even when they start messing with Scrooge, who, ultimately, isn't that much better than they are.

(And yeah, it's awfully conveeen-ient that they decide to head in exactly the direction that Scrooge & Co did.)

...I mean really, now, assaulting their helicopter 'cause you think they're following you on your own blatantly illegal* artifact hunt? Dick move, Scrooge.

*We were told quite clearly that you need to apply for a government grant to excavate ruins in Belize, and they don't give them out to just anyone; certainly not to opportunistic treasure hunters. Belize wasn't an independent country in 1963, but I doubt that things were unregulated, either, and I would assume that the same is true in Mexico, Guatemala, or anywhere else where Mayan ruins are found.

Gotta admit, though--that's cool, and very evocative of the area's environment.

The adventurous spirit seems to have eluded the ducks here. You can sort of imagine Donald and Scrooge having this conversation, but the kids? No way. They'd be ALL ABOUT this sort of exploration.

Here's the crown. Unlike Genghis Khan's, it's not presented as an important artifact with a rich history to it. It's just the obligatory big ol' treasure that Barks felt the need to include.

DIABOLICAL! Those fiendish fiends! Though I'm sure that if you looked, you COULD find feuds between archeologists over things much like this--I think of the Marsh/Cope dinosaur wars as a similar thing. Barks does note that Scrooge has not behave in a wholly dissimilar manner from FC and SV:

He never really DOES anything with this moral ambiguity, though.

And it's true: the caves that the Mayans used for religious purposes are indeed made out of limestone. Go Carl!

The fact that they're not murderous villains certainly puts them a step up (or down?) from the likes of Chisel McSue. The plan seems a bit questionable, though--if they're not gonna kill off the ducks, then how is it that "there's nobody about to dispute [their] claim?"

The idea that these robes and feathers would have survived is dubious enough, but I really have to draw the line at the notion that thousand(ish)-year-old corn would not have entirely decomposed, let alone remain edible.

You know, considering that Scrooge was the first one to use that "all's fair in love and archeology" line, it seems kind of meaningless to throw it back in the antagonists' faces. Note that this story is unusual in that Scrooge actually gets what he wants--the only other Barks treasure-hunt story in which that happens is "The Flying Dutchman" (yeah, he gets the wool in "The Golden Fleecing," but that turns out not to be what he wants, doesn't it?).

Very weak ending--drastically endumbifying HDL in the service of a lame joke? Not widely recommended! Interestingly conflicted story, though; Barks clearly can't quite decide what he wants the tone to be--whether or not it should be sincere or ironic; whether or not it should be ethically murky. This tension never quite coheres into something wholly satisfying, but it's always fascinating to watch the master's mind at work.



Anonymous David K. said...

Although this story isn't one of Barks' best, I was very happy to see the title on this blog! This story was the reason I got interested in Carl Barks, about ten years ago (when I was nine years old).

Because of my love for those good ole Barks adventures, I decided to make my own this year. At a point it didn't go as planned, and to get inspired again, I read this specific story to let that old inspiration boil up again.

May 31, 2011 at 6:55 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


I really like this story, despite all the loose ends and the casual tone. I would not have minded seeing it adapted into a DUCKTALES episode (though the one-shot villains would probably have been replaced by regulars).


May 31, 2011 at 12:42 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Er, "the only Barks story… blah blah… in which Scrooge gets the treasure he wanted in the end" ? But what are you doing with the Gengis Khan story ? Yes okay, in the Rosa sequel he loses it. But that's certainly not what Barks intended.

May 26, 2015 at 4:01 PM  
Blogger Jeffyo said...

Scrooge got pretty much all the treasure in the "Loony Lunar Gold Rush," didn't he? Though, granted, he actually went as a merchant -- not an actual treasure seeker. And even though he mused about getting the short end of the bargain in "The 24-Carat Moon," he still ended up with the solid-gold moon. (And come to think of it, why didn't THAT send the price of gold plummeting, as it would have done in "The Philosopher's Stone" — and actually DID in "The Prize of Pizarro?")

January 4, 2016 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Nilson said...

Great review of a, if not equally great, at least memorable Bark's yarn - so much so that that dark well gave the shivers to my then 10-year-old self almost 4 decades ago and still makes me uneasy, when just imagining being left to die in its pitch dark waters, after having the only way out kicked by them pair of crooked archaeology thugs!

Congrats from Brazil!

June 24, 2020 at 9:07 PM  

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