Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"The Think Box Bollix"

Hi, we're going to look at a Barks story today! It's been a long time! But I was randomly rereading some Barks ten-pagers, and as often happens, I was struck by some things that I kind of wanted to say on the internet! So, here they are. This is 1952's retroactively-named "Think Box Bollix."

Behold, the second-ever appearance of Gyro Gearloose, looking a bit different from the Gyro we know'n'love. It's interesting that his first appearance a month before, in "Gladstone's Terrible Secret," was a completely incidental thing; he was just there so Gladstone's luck could pay off. More incidental than Scrooge in "Christmas on Bear Mountain," easily. From such humble beginnings sprout great legends! You will note, however, that his character here is rather different from the way he'd be portrayed later. The think boxes are a characteristically Gearloosian thing, but this whole thing with a car running on firecrackers is not: it's just an actual thing that you could kind of imagine actually working, albeit wildly impractically. It's not magic, like most of his later inventions.

Also interesting is Donald's reaction to this whole fooferaw. In later stories, characters would be more or less universally accepting of Gyro's wizardly ways, but in this instance, Donald is full of skepticism--as, all else being equal, you'd expect him to be. Still, the level of anger he's able to work up seems excessive.

I look at that top left panel, and I like to imagine that the topic of Gryo's inventor bona fides was dropped after the exchange in the woods, and that it's just now restarting with Donald just abruptly materializing in the room and shouting this stuff at HDL out of nowhere. This is amusing to me. His concern with bourgeois respectablity does seem a little contrived--I wouldn't call that a major thread of his character, though you can certainly cite the odd instance of it. If people would really tease HDL for the rest of their lives, it seems more an indictment of the unbelievably, stultifyingly boring Duckburg lifestyle than it does anything else. And anyway, it's not like they've issued a press release about the experiment or anything--how's the rest of Duckburg supposed to even find out about it?

That "harmless" there is kind of odd--if you think he's so harmless, why are you so het up about this? It's not clear to me about whether it "should" be there or not. On the one hand, it is interestingly psychologically telling; on the other, it just doesn't seem like someone worrying about what Donald's worrying about would include it. Was Barks actually thinking about these things? Not clear to me.

Donald's plan here doesn't bear much thinking about. So...the idea is that he'll pretend to be a wolf so HDL think the machine's worked; then he'll reveal that he's not and it hasn't. But, I mean, what does that have to do with anything? If it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't. It's unclear to me why the presence of a guy in a wolf suit would increase the shame factor. Also, if the essential problem is that by participating in this experiment at all HDL will be coating themselves in eternal shame, then I don't see how this scheme is supposed to help even if it would. I guess it's just that they'll abandon Gyro and thereby not have to feel any additional shame? Also, why won't I shut up about this nonsense? These are important questions.

This is a funny bit that's easy to just pass over. Another artist might've just depicted this costume-buying thing as a totally standard, utilitarian thing, but with Barks it's specifically a pint-size duck pounding on the door of a costume shop at night and making insane demands of the half-asleep owner. Fun stuff.

And then we come to this, one of the most genuinely startling moments in Barks. I find myself a bit taken aback every time I read it. The fact that the guy is initially set up as a good guy, like the hunter in Little Red Riding Hood, makes it all the more discombobulating when he reveals himself. You suddenly can't trust anything. A wolf is a duck and a dog is a wolf.

Where did the wolf get the dog costume? Difficult to say. But speaking of, there's also a bit of confusion with this "I'm not a dog! I'm a wolf!" business. One's initial impulse is to think of the guy as, well, a human, dog nose notwithstanding, and you think he's making some kind of subtle semantic point; then you realize that, apparently, dogfaces just think of themselves as "dogs" in the duckiverse.

I always wonder about this rabbit--what happens to him? He and his wife(?) are clearly completely alienated from their fellow rabbits now, what with having learned to think, and unlike the wolf they're never reverted--so what's their life going to be like now?

(The nephews are lookin' a bit glassy-eyed there in the upper right, aren't they?)

Well, apparently, the answer is "not so great." A dime for a bunch of carrots? Rabbits don't need money for food! But now their heads are all scrambled up and they're reduced to begging for money because they think they have to participate in the human economy. It's like in Watership Down where the rabbits reach Cowslip's warren where everyone is content because they have good food provided by humans and they even understand the concept of representational art but the price of this is that a few of them are regularly killed, and if this sentence makes no sense to you, goddamn, you need to read Watership Down.

I know there are potential ethical pitfalls here, but it seems like the best thing to do would be to have Gyro reverse their situation. Seems like no one's very interested in the think boxes anymore, though. Admittedly, they don't really seem to have much use other than messing up animals' lives (could the newly-thinking animals provide information about their species that would be of interest to biologists, or have they entirely lost their original instincts? Not enough to go on here to say), but still, they're an impressive achievement.   



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last time I read that story, "dog" looked like it had been re-lettered. Barks may have written "man" and it got changed by the editors. Which is better? Hard to say.

You didn't mention the bit where Donald as a wolf chases the kids, then gets chased by the wolf with near-identical dialogue. I always enjoyed that.

The wolf's clothes... perhaps the disguise-o-shop proprietor got another visitor that night?

July 18, 2017 at 4:56 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

I agree with Anonymous that Rule of Funny dictates that that Sleepy Disguise Guy had to deal with another, even more insane demand that day.

Also, on the fate of the rabbit, I do think reverting the situation would basically amount to killing the rabbit family, so no, definitely not. I can think of two things that could happen to him. In that story with the talking dogs and singing cats and things, everyone in the media seemed willing to pay huge money to show off a talking pet on TV, so maybe Mr Rabbit has a career in showbiz before him. Or, going by more recent, non-Barks stories establishing that anthropomorphic rabbits are part of the Duckburg melting pot, maybe the rabbit will just pretend to be an unusually small "normal" anthro rabbit.

July 18, 2017 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I like to think that Carl Barks came up with idea for this story before started drawing "Gladstone's Terrible Secret" and already having Gyro in mind he decided to give him an "early bird cameo" (he just didn't put his finger is he wan't to make him fat or skinny or what)

BTW ->>> Aside for cameo in "Seven cities of Cibola" did Gyro ever appeard in Barks long adventure story?

July 18, 2017 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

The wolf's clothes... perhaps the disguise-o-shop proprietor got another visitor that night?

Good point.

@Achille Talon

Also, on the fate of the rabbit, I do think reverting the situation would basically amount to killing the rabbit family


@Pan Miliuś

BTW ->>> Aside for cameo in "Seven cities of Cibola" did Gyro ever appear in Barks long adventure story?

Well, as you know, Gyro couldn't appear in the front stories of issues of Uncle $crooge 'cause he had to appear as a completely separate character in the backup stories for postal regulation reasons. But if you're willing to consider one-offs, there's "The Forbidium Money Bin," originally printed in a Dell Giant. Might could also be something else I'm forgetting.

July 18, 2017 at 7:32 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

This story just came up on Feathery Society on a thread titled "Elroy, Ellsworth, Pluto, Goofy, what's an animal and what's a person," about the levels of anthropomorphism in Disney comics. Baar Baar Jinx brought up "Think Box Bollix" on page 3 of the thread...though he didn't get all the details right. Still, he's right that this story blurs the lines delineating the levels of anthropomorphism in an unusual way for Barks' work. Not only the "I'm not a dog!" line, but the way Donald-as-wolf tells the boys he wants "roast duckling" (I thought they were boys, not ducklings!) and the enhanced wolf in turn sees Donald as potential roast duck... It's just rather strange if you think about it too long. If the wolf now wants cooked food now that he's intelligent, why does he want cooked anthropomorphic-duck and not cooked regular-old-chicken? And similarly, when he gets "unsmarted" at the end, why doesn't he just tear into Donald without waiting to cook him? Doubtless one could say something deep about how "higher" intelligence and civilization lead us to victimize and consume each other. If I am a predator who becomes "human," I will live off the lives of other humans. If I am prey who becomes "human," I will need money to eat. Pretty grim view of human intelligence.

But we already knew this was going to be weird when HDL say "The animals will be able to talk and do things like human beings"...and they and all the other human beings in the story are themselves depicted as anthropomorphized animals.

July 19, 2017 at 1:12 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

On the killing of the rabbit family: suppressing their human-level brains would be, in my opinion, the ethical equivalent of dealing them severe brain damage that destroys their consciousness. It's basically killing the intelligence beings they were.

July 19, 2017 at 4:53 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

@ Achille Talon
On one hand I'm in love with you're idea of Mr. Rabbit becoming big cellebrity...

At the same time younger me see Br'er Rabbit see part of Duck/Mouse universe (do to all the Br'er Rabbit stories that appear in Polish Disney magazine when I was a kid) so I guess talking rabbit while rare isn't enough to shock people...

Then agian it's normal for talking wolfs, bears and foxes to try eat rabbits and pigs so I can only asume they are some missing link in evolution between fully civilized animals and those who have still some animal instincts left.

Note that mouses on Grandma Duck's farm ware cloths and are tiny but from what I recall they can't communicate with humans/duck. Maybe it's like Pinochio, where some cats are normal cats, while others can walk and act civilized but didn't develope ability to talk yet, un-like foxes?


July 19, 2017 at 8:24 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

O... M.. G...
I just imagine a story where Zeke bad Wolf would travel to Duckburg and eaten (or at least etempted to eat) The Pig Mayor, after which he would retreat back to the woods, which would lead to serious political tention resulting in a war between Duckburg citizens and the forest animals...

July 19, 2017 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger Miguel Madeira said...

I think that are basically three types of animals in Disneyuniverse:

- Animals that are humans in all but name (Donald, Scrooge, Mickey, etc - most Disney character)

- Animals that are typical (with some literary freedom) animals of their kind: Tabby, Pluto, Chip and Dale (outside Rescue Rangers), etc.

- Animals that have the skills and technology of humans but tastes and preferences similar of the original specie: Zeke, Brer Rabitt, Brer Bear, Brer Fox

But there are many subtle shades - compare Tabby with Pluto (Tabby thinks, while usually Pluto has his state of mind described by an external narrator - could be simply a different narrating device, but can mean that the thoughts of Tabby are more structured). Or compare Pluto wit the dogs of the "Lady and the Tramp" universe, who could "talk" with each other (Pluto usually can't talk with other dogs) - their "talk" is perhaps "transmission of information - probably by non-verbal means, like barking and facial expressions - with a content similar to the content that humans can transmit with their talk, and that is represented as «talk» (with ballons, etc.) for the convenience of the reader (like, in most movies about the War of Troy, the ancient Greek is represented as English)", but even that is more than Pluto usually could achieve. Or the cats in the Aristocats, where Scat Cat and his gang seem more anthropomorphic than Duchess and her kittens.

July 19, 2017 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

@Pan Miluś:

I have entertained similar thoughts, though in my mind, rather than a war between the Forest and Duckburg, this resulted in anti-wolf racism (specism?) becoming widespread, and Li'l Wolf trying to fight it and show that wolves can live perfectly civilized lives.

July 19, 2017 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

On the killing of the rabbit family: suppressing their human-level brains would be, in my opinion, the ethical equivalent of dealing them severe brain damage that destroys their consciousness.

Fair enough, though in that case we surely have to also count the wolf's reversion as a killing, making this one of the rare Disney stories where someone dies.

About the rabbits, though, there seem to be further implications. First: do the two of them have kits? In that case, suddenly their children would have become more like pets, and that would just be HELLA weird. I guess Gyro could help them out by running the kids through the think box rays, but that just pushes the problem down a generation. Second, and most importantly: does the think box affect animals on a genetic level, such that any future offspring they had are also intelligent? If that's the case, then given how fast rabbits reproduce, there are gonna be a whole lot of talking ones very soon. One can only imagine the impact this would have on society at large.

July 19, 2017 at 3:31 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

...okay, so on reflection, the offspring of just one rabbit couple wouldn't in itself be enough to start a whole new strain. Not enough genetic variation, and even without the human taboo, animals are programmed not to want to mate with their siblings. So what are the young rabbits to DO? Presumably, they don't want non-intelligent mates (though given the overwhelming power horniness exerts over us animals, who knows?). Would they get Gyro to make some more of them intelligent so as to have a dating pool? That might be the only good solution. When you think about this shit harder than it was ever meant to be thought about, the implications come fast and furious.

July 19, 2017 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

All interesting digression. I salute you, my friend. On the dating problem, maybe they could simply get into sterile romances with members of some of the naturally sapient species in Duckburg. I imagine many a girl (especially in the cliché-filled world of Disney comics) would gladly take a fluffy bunny (who can also support her and have a decent conversation) for a husband.

July 19, 2017 at 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

@Miguel Madeira--the thread I spoke of on the Feathery Society forum indeed goes into the levels of anthropomorphism in Disney characters, with a couple of scales of anthropomorphism to use, plus a quotation from Don Rosa on a simple scale developed in an earlier fan discussion. On the Emslie scale of anthropomorphism, the three types you list would be level 4, levels 1-2, and level 3, in that order. Pluto is usually level 1. The dogs of "Lady and the Tramp" or "101 Dalmatians" are level 2.

@Pan--yes, the so-called "forest characters" of Disney comics are different from the fully anthropomorphized animals of Duckburg or Mouseton. They are level 3s, on the Emslie scale; Donald and Mickey and all are level 4s.

Those despicable Cinderella mice infesting Grandma Duck's farm, those definitely cross the line. They are level 3s, dressed and talking to humans but still mouse-sized, and such creatures do not belong in Duckburg. I'm OK with some level 2s--Tabby or Spitfire thinking in complete sentences, Bolivar playing checkers with Helper, eagles speaking to each other in eaglese--but not with level 3s. I allow Chip and Dale into my mental Duckburg, but in my head they do not speak to humans; humans hear their speech as chittering.

Barks normally kept to level 4 main characters and animals who were level 1 or possibly 2. While Scrooge was sometimes "the richest man" and sometimes "the richest duck," Barks very rarely treated the main characters as anything other than humans who happen to look like ducks. Exceptions include the stuffed duck joke in The Gilded Man, references to the Ducks coming from/returning to eggs, and the Thinkbox story.

Disney animation, on the other hand, often mixed anthropomorphism levels with abandon. In Dumbo, the elephants are level 2s, speaking to each other but not to humans, and still walking and acting like elephants (when they're not flying). But Timothy Mouse is a level 3, dressed and standing upright and communicating with humans.

July 19, 2017 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger F Willot said...

I think that Gyro in "Gladstone's Terrible Secret" was really meant to be a one-shot character. An implausible inventor suddenly appearing at this moment in this story to give Gladstone what he wants. This fits well in the comic story.
I'd say Barks found later on that the character (an unsuccessful inventor) could be used in another story.

July 20, 2017 at 4:33 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Li'l Wolf t is just a self-loathing Wolf. No respect for their cultural background and rich traditions his father is trying to teach him...

@Achille Talon
So if Gyro would use the reverse thinking Box rays on Donald, those that means he would start to quack and go swim in a pond?

Jinkes! That's bot funny and creepy at the same time!

@Francois Willot
"Thinking Box" was made right after "Gladstone's Terrible Secret" so It would suprise me if Barks was working on script for "Thinking Box" before "Terrible Scret" was finished.

I don't know about Barks ways, but I myself work in comic books and it's pretty normal that scripts are not only created way ahead of time but ofen scripts for few stories are created at once. Seeing how two first stories that feature Gyro where made back to back... I just my hunch but I still stand that Barks already had "Thinking Box" in mind and maybe even partly writen when he put Gyro in "Terrible Secret".

But, we'll never know...

July 20, 2017 at 6:17 AM  
Blogger F Willot said...

Yes, the dates we have in Barks' vouchers are October 18 for WDC 141 and August 23 for WDC 140.

July 21, 2017 at 7:36 AM  
Blogger TheKKM said...

Yes yes yes smart discussion about ethics and the nature of anthropomorphic representation what I want to know is: is bollix an american expression, or did Barks just do some sort of weird pun with bollocks?

July 23, 2017 at 10:48 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...


It's not Barks' word, though; it's one of those titles that was added retroactively by (I think?) Gladstone. Specifically by Geoffrey Blum, would be my guess.

July 24, 2017 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger TheKKM said...

Well, bollix apparently has the same medieval English root as bollocks, so in an indirect way, yeah, we have a Barks story titled after testicles! Thank you, Mr. Blum (maybe?)

July 25, 2017 at 12:35 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...


July 25, 2017 at 1:49 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 25, 2017 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

If Gyro would fist fight Goofy in a cage match to the death to finally resolved which is better : inteligence or stupidity who would win and how?

July 25, 2017 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Debbie Anne said...

Neither one of them would win... neither one of them would have the heart to hit the other one. Gyro would probably give Goofy a job testing his inventions to be sure that someone of Goofy's... unique mental capacities could operate them.

July 26, 2017 at 12:10 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

I presume @Debbie Anne's solution doesn't apply because some villain or other locked Goofy and Gyro in the cage and won't let either one out till the other one is dead. However, if that is the set-up, then I presume Gyro would combine his brilliance with Goofy's outside-the-box thinking to find a way to escape the cage.

July 26, 2017 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Well, can they at least team up to kill Gilbert? Okay, killing him would be extreme, but can they at least lock him in a cell where he's safely prevented from appearing in stories?

July 26, 2017 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I was just asuming Gyro would use his sharp beak to peck Goofy's eyes and use his temporary blindes to finish him of resulting in victory of inteligence over stupidity... but yhe, them teaming up to enslave slash murder forever Gilbert have my aproval.

July 26, 2017 at 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Drakeborough said...

Uh? I had written a message here yesterday, but I can't find it... I guess it wasn't sent succesfully, which is weird, since I had to pass countless CAPTCHA tests. I don't feel like rewriting everything, since it was mostly just random bits of trivia. I'll only add that a panel from this story was included, for a reason I can't remember, in the literature book I used in the second year of high school.

Also, what is all this Gilbert hate in the last messages? He may not be the best character ever, but at least he is the only "true" miniature Goofy of the Mouse universe (certainly more than Max).

July 27, 2017 at 1:53 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

For some reason (I rather liked him as a kid, myself), Gilbert is considered to be the Scrappy-Doo of Mouse comics (note that I actually kinda like Scrappy-Doo too), an annoying kid sidekick who's a miniature version of a comic relief who didn't need a sidekick to be funy.

July 27, 2017 at 2:21 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I suppose I'm really just joking around. He's an uncommon enough character that I haven't built up THAT much animus against him; certainly not enough to say I HATE him. But when I do see him, I DO find him insufferable and always have. An extremely one-note character, and that note really grates on me.

July 27, 2017 at 2:54 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Ooooh! That Gilbert! He thinks he's so smart! Why i oughta...

July 27, 2017 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Hell, Ludwig thinks he's so smart and I have no problem with him. It's mainly just smug child-prodigy characters that get on my nerves.

July 27, 2017 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

ARGH! I remember last time I've been enyoing a Disney comic book and there he is, in one panel reading a book (!) I was all like "HEY POINTDEXTER! PUT THAT STUFF DOWN EGGHEAD! THIS ISN'T A SCHOOL YOU NERDY... NEEEERD!"

I sure shown Him, huh?

July 27, 2017 at 6:15 PM  
Blogger Jeffyo said...

Though my knowledge of the Barks duck universe isn’t exhaustive, it had to be rare for real historical characters like Edison, Marconi, and Bell to be referred to by name. And it gets me wondering how these characters appear in the ducks’ minds eyes as they refer to them. Are they dog faces? Human, a la Madame X or the Itsa Faka mad scientist? Or possibly pig faces? (Just because Barks didn’t draw pigs much before the 60s, they must have existed. Right?)

August 10, 2017 at 5:13 PM  
Blogger Lorenzo said...

Wow! I really enjoyed this article, and am most relieved I wasn't drinking anything when reading it and the lively comments section, due to the number of snorts of laughter they both elicited. But man-oh-man did 'Unca Carl' unwittingly open a can of anthropomorphological (or should that be ILLogical?) worms with this wee tale, or what?! Since Barks thought of the ducks as humans, I'd say it's highly likely that the "I'm not a dog!" line would originally have been "I'm not a man!", but thanks to Western Publishing's insistence that Disney 'humans' were in fact all dogs, changing from a dog to a wolf not only ruined the gag, but sent the entire story spiralling off into the realm of the surreal. In fact, the whole thing makes my own wee 'think-box' hurt too much trying to sort it all out, so I'm just gonna carry on thinking of the ducks as humans, and the dog-faced humans as slightly MORE human than ducks (or something...). Cheers!

September 18, 2017 at 7:29 PM  

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