Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Land of the Pygmy Indians"

One of the first books that I got when I was re-getting-into Disney comics was the first volume of Gemstone's Barks/Rosa Collection, and I distinctly remember the deep sense of satisfaction this comic gave me. A fondly-remembered Barks story plus a brand-new-to-me Rosa sequel? Who could ask for anything more?


We will table discussion of "War of the Wendigo" for another time, but "Land of the Pygmy Indians" is something else entirely. By the time it was published, in 1957, Scrooge's character was extremely well-established. Barks' later Scrooge stories are often great; don't get me wrong. But there's generally a feeling of "okay, we know what this character is, so there's no need to think too much about it; we can just put him through his paces and everything will be jake." I have no idea why Barks is thinking in the first-person plural in this hypothetical. I daresay he has his reasons.

Whereas in "Land of the Pygmy Indians," we see a real interrogation of an aspect of Scrooge's character which is quite unusual in stories of this vintage. And the question is: is Scrooge capable of relating to the natural world in an unmediated way? Or is he so utterly corrupted by industry that this is totally impossible for him? One must imagine that Don Rosa had this story in the back of his mind when writing this, in "King of the Klondike:" well as this, from "Prisoner of White Agony Creek:" in that sense, this may actually be a rather pivotal and influential story.

In his essay about the story (in Gladstone's Uncle Scrooge Adventures 10), Geoffrey Blum notes that it was inspired by Barks' personal experience and resulting cynicism, so it's wholly legit to see this as a story as a more general statement about humanity's relation to the environment than something about Scrooge particularly, but to me, this feels like a more character-based story than something like "Tralla La," regardless of where the initial inspiration came from. So, let's try to approach it on those terms. As we know, Barks liked to embed aspects of his own personality in his characters, so it seems like a legitimate thing to do.

Re "Shack in San Jac," let it be noted that, according to Blum, Barks had gone to the town of San Jacinto to try to get away from it all. Let's note, however, that small and isolated as it may be, San Jacinto is still a town. You're still in civilization. Barks may have contemplated, in a general way, what it would be like to escape civilization and whether it's even possible, but he didn't do what Scrooge is trying to do here. Also, let it be noted that Scrooge isn't like just any ol' regular Joe, who probably wouldn't instinctively think about the potential commercial applications of each and every bit of nature he encounters. That's the thing, innit? The question here isn't whether the wilderness can accommodate Scrooge; it's whether Scrooge can accommodate the wilderness. The difference seems crucial, and this is a big part of why I think the story is more about Scrooge personally than it is more general social commentary.

It must be admitted, though, that as much as I admire the story for breaking new ground with regard to Scrooge's character, it can be a little on the monotonous side in the actual execution. How many bits do we get like the above, in which Scrooge thinks about how some aspect of the natural world could be used to earn BIG $$$$ with this one weird trick! Environmentalists hate him! and then gets embarrassed realizing what he's done? The answer is: many such bits. I was considering doing a montage showing every single one of them, but this would have quickly become extremely monotonous. It's not like he's saying anything different with each iteration of this incident. He's just repeating himself.

And now, it is necessary for me to look deep into my heart. You may recall that on the subject of "Still the Champion," I was supportive of the editing out of the word "redskin" in Gemstone's contemporary reprint. we see it again, and the story isn't censored, and I feel like I would be offended--I'd roll my eyes in irritation, at least--if it were. Gemstone obviously feels the same way; the images in this entry come from a Gladstone reprint, but it's not censored in the aforementioned Barks/Rosa Collection either. So the question is: are we just a buncha goddamn hypocrites? Well, maybe. But my general sense is that the difference is that we think of Barks as an artist, dammit! He's creating art! You don't censor art just because it's problematic in places! What's wrong with you? Whereas, seriously, who gives a shit about "Still the Champion?" It may be a vaguely interesting curiosity, but it is absolutely not anything more than that. Why should we accept racial slurs in our random bullshit? Sure, censor that sucker, and if I contradict myself, whatever, dude--I contain multitudes.

(If I recall correctly, Boom's reprint of "Luck of the North" changed "gypped" into "hosed" at one point, which, again, just looked incredibly dumb to me. Also, let it be noted that, although it obviously is, growing up, I had absolutely no notion that "gypped"--a word I learned from Disney comics--was any sort of racial slur. The etymology did not register.)

There's also the point that the word actually feels thematically appropriate in Barks' story. Not that I think there's any chance that this was down to conscious intent, but it's easy to imagine a clueless outsider like Scrooge, bumbling around in the wilderness, employing language like this. It's not harmonious, but then, he isn't harmonious with his surroundings. Point being: it works; it makes sense. Whereas there's no way to think about the way the word is used in "Still the Champion" that doesn't just boil down to "dopey, clueless writer."

As I suppose you all know, this story is actually a remake of Barks' earlier "Mystery of the Swamp." In that story, instead of Indians, we had backwoods Deliverance-esque hillbillies called Gneezles. One of the reasons that this story is superior to its predecessor is that the Peeweegahs are much more appealing characters than the Gneelzes ever were. You can also see Barks' own ethical development. The Gneezles aren't exactly villains, but they are much more straightforwardly the ducks' antagonists than the Peeweegahs are. The notion that the ducks are invaders and maybe not wholly sympathetic doesn't really register--or at least, Barks doesn't seem to feel the question is really relevant. Whereas here, it's the whole point.

It's probably Barks' most sympathetic depiction of indigenous people (none more so is springing to mind, but if you've got one, let me know). And the fact that he has them speaking in Longfellowian trochaic tetrameter--jeez. It just goes to show what we already knew: that sophistication-wise, Barks was so far above his peers that from up there, they must've looked like so many ants scurrying around.

Still. Still still still. As much as I appreciate this, there remains an unanswerable point: Native Americans are people, like anyone else. Whereas these are...something other than people. I mean okay, sure, unlike the Gneezles, who are specifically other than human, I suppose they are technically, but, you know, for all practical purposes, they're obviously not. I'm certainly not condemning the story for this reason, but we have to recognize that it is problematic. This sort of dehumanization--even if, as here, it's done with no malign intent--is nonetheless something to be discouraged. It never leads anywhere good.

I've never understood just what the point is of kidnapping the guy, as opposed to just giving him the message and letting him go. What's the endgame here? This is probably just a relic of "Mystery of the Swamp," in which Donald has an actual motive to capture a Gneezle:

Not the smartest or most ethical motive, but at least it's comprehensible. Whereas in "Pygmy Indians?" Shrug.

There you go: "save it--and me." It's not just a matter of saving the place from industrialization; it's also--not to be overly dramatic or nothin'--a battle for Scrooge's soul. I really like his dreamy, heavy-lidded expression as he soliloquizes here. It carries the strong suggestion that this is all just a big delusion--as, of course, is his abrupt snapping back to reality ("Hey! That's a lump of pure nickel around your neck!). The story isn't through, but we have the strong suggestion that this venture of Scrooge's was doomed before it started.

Good depiction of Donald battling the fish. It truly is...odd? Interesting? I don't often Donald finds himself swallowed by marine animals. I suppose it's related to his status as embattled everyman, ever subject to ridiculous force beyond his control.

I feel that this denouement could serve as a powerful statement: Scrooge thinks he's finally come to terms with himself, and that he can live in harmony with nature...but his body literally physically rejects this idea. He's too acclimated to late capitalism to ever be part of anything else.

It could do that...but then we come to this. No, it's not anything about who he is; he's just been poisoned. Maybe the Peeweegah was justified in doing this; as I noted above, this effort to get back to nature pretty clearly seemed ultimately doomed in any case...but man, it still feels like dirty pool, and it severely muddles the story's message. Blum notes the irony--that Scrooge is "hoisted on his own petard, sabotaged by a dose of the very mineral he showed the pygmies how to mine." Yes, BUT: let's also note that without the oxide of strombolium, the ducks wouldn't have been able to solve the Peeweegahs' sturgeon problem (I feel like there's a "sturgeon general's warning" joke lurking in here somewhere), which stands out and really undermines what Barks was trying to do. I cannot help thinking that this is another instance where the story isn't helped by its relationship to a previous story, which had a similar conclusion--the Gneezles give Donald and the kids "fergettin' juice" so they won't reveal their existence. Only there, there was no real battle of principles going on, so it worked better.

Hey, I still think this is a very good story, and even if it's a li'l bit muddled, it's great to see Barks grappling with issues that his contemporaries would never have had the talent or ambition to do.



Anonymous Elaine said...

True, the depiction of the Peeweegahs is not unproblematic. And I would feel better about it if the Disney comics had a few recurring characters who were Native American and not stereotypically depicted. One can look at it this way, though: if Scrooge is going to meet a race of little people in the wilds of North America who will champion the environment, is it better for that group to be inflected with Native American identifiers or not? I think of the Peeweegahs as one of the category of "races of little people" the Ducks run into, and I think the nod to Native identity can be seen as better than erasure. Especially since they are mostly the good guys, here.

Of course, these Native identifiers are simplistic white-folks' images of Indians (or white-folks' poetic associations with Indians), but still....

I agree with you on the kidnapping, but I don't mind the final joke. I always think of it as the Peeweegahs' getting a chance to "say" to Scrooge: put that in your pipe and smoke it! You could argue, though, that that's the most problematic piece of the representation of the Peeweegahs, particularly because it's messing with a sacred symbol, and making the Peeweegah misuse it.

Is this the only place where Barks's art makes clear exactly where the Ducks' ears are? I refer to the panel where Scrooge is coughing after smoking.

March 17, 2016 at 1:15 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

That's a great point about the ears--that totally went over my head.

March 17, 2016 at 1:45 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

About the depiction of the Peeweegah as pretty much "little people"… that's what I saw it as too, and that's how the editor of our French book saw it. To him, they were "fair folk dressed up as Indians" to fit in the surrounding, natural guardians of nature who dressed up as Native Americans because that was how people dressed last time they checked on 'em humans.

Oh, and speaking of ears, noticed that the Peeweegahs have no ears ?

March 17, 2016 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Not a Barks story that comes to mind when I think about his work in general but a nice one :)

March 17, 2016 at 6:04 PM  
Blogger Debbie Anne said...

While it doesn't hold up so well now, Carl Barks' use of Native American imagery (and stereotypes) doesn't strike me as something done to dehumanize Native Americans (for that, see Land of the Totem Poles...yikes!). Contrasting Uncle Scrooge's modern capitalistic ways with those of a people who live in harmony with the land is this story's greatest strength (as well as that of Don Rosa's sequel). The story is just a product of its time (and most of Rosa's sequels are practically glorified fan fiction, following in Barks' footsteps...but GOOD fan fiction). This story would be much harder to write now, because even if done in a well-meaning way, there is something uncomfortable about the cultural appropriation in a tale like this that would distract attention away from Barks' point being made for a modern audience. Should stories like this be burried in the Disney Vault? Heck, no! But they show their age a bit more than some of his other works do.

March 18, 2016 at 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see another Barks review. Maybe at the beginning of the article you may want to add a few pictures from "Last Sled to Dawson" about how Scrooge's ability to relate to the natural world changed over the years:

March 24, 2016 at 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Jannes said...

"Is this the only place where Barks's art makes clear exactly where the Ducks' ears are?"
At least two more examples come to my mind, which lets me assume there may even be a handful more. In the first page of "Have Gun, Will Dance" one of the nephews has cornflakes (or something of that ilk) literally coming out of his ears... and in the dark ending of "Donald's Raucous Role" Don is wearing hearing aids. Still, everytime it happens it feels kinda odd.
(I don´t know why i never put the hearing aids in connection with the fact that Barks probably started to wear his around the time he produced this story (just a guess, maybe a little later?), but i just did. Hm.)

Grrrreat review as usual, they always make me want to revisit the stories immediately!
I agree with you, the story is much deeper than the "original", but at least in my memory "Mystery of the Swamp," had kind of a great horror-feel to it... and because of my fear of heights I always got sweaty hands while reading the part with the nephews climbing out auf their prison cell. Which makes me sound like an incredible whimp now that I think about it... Nah, Barks was just that good... I also may be confusing stories altogether.
Also: some great art (maybe this is when he started to get really really good at the adventure stuff?) and a great, great opening panel! (
Probably the main element that elevates the remake above the original (well, except for Barks general growth as an artist and person) was simply Scrooge. Since he is Barks own and greatest creation he often seemed to have a little more invested, personally. Don´s early adventures weren´t this much about character, as I recall. Gee, maybe I should revisit this stuff first, i may be completely off. They still got pretty deep pretty quick, that´s for sure.

April 3, 2016 at 6:34 AM  

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