Friday, December 21, 2018

"Grandma's Present"

"Hey! You got your Barks in my non-Barks Christmas!" Well...yes. It's true. I came upon this in a Christmas Parade and realized, WHOA, Barks Christmas story I haven't done, and it kind of seemed unavoidable, especially when I realized I'd miscounted and had an extra day open in the schedule. Anyway, this is really your fault: when I was doing the last of Barks' holiday output last year, I specifically asked you people to point out any I'd missed, but did any of you point to this one? Like fun you did! Therefore, you must suffer, by reading about a good story.

Well, maybe that's needlessly jaundiced. But I've been reading a lot of these non-Barks things and thinking about the things about them that work and (more often) don't work, and sticking a Barks story in the middle of that really underlines what we does right that other people don't. So, let's check it out!

There's just so much to like right from the start. Gyro using an ear trumpet to try to hear the silent rocket launch chained to the ground? That's a level of sophisticated absurdity that others could only dream of. And "I should be thrilled about having mastered these problems [like hairless doorknobs] that have baffled mankind for years?" Hilarious. This is the kind of stuff that Barks just casually throws out there. It's not, by his standards, a particularly notable story; it probably wouldn't be in anyone's top ten. But holy crud, it's still just so effortlessly great.

Also, look at the art here. In a way, I wonder what exactly I'm saying when I call Barks' art "better" than his contemporaries,' because it's all anthropomorphic waterfowl. None of it's "realistic," so what does "better" mean? Well, the draughtsmanship is clearly better, with characters very rarely looking unintentionally malformed or otherwise unappealing. And then there are just the extra details. Look at a lot of the previous stories we've looked at here, and you'll notice that the background are kind of barren and uninteresting. Sure, the Strobl art is okay, but there's clearly a significant difference. Just check out those machines in the above: no other duck artist would've been able to manage them, and they make the admittedly fairly trivial story a lot more interesting to look at.

This Gemstone reprint kept the year of the ship sinking, I'm glad to see. A 1987 Gladstone version said--surprise--2007. I've said this before, but it's always annoying and momentarily confusing to me when the publisher tries to pretend that stories like this are being published for the first time.

And, I mean, just the way Barks characterizes Gyro. As you know, there's a strong tendency among a lot of your more hackish sorts of writers to really just use him as an invention piñata: you need some sort of magic gizmo to move your story alone, so you take a whack at him, and BAM, instant plot device. But here...I mean, as I said, this is nothing groundbreaking or particularly amazing. But this inner conflict of him trying not to think about inventing, harkening back to his childhood, but then not being able to avoid it--it's just low-key good. They don't all need to be towering epics.

See, this idea is totally absurd, but it's not absurd in the dubious, "you have no idea what you're doing, do you?" way that we've been seeing. It's gleefully, hilariously so. A winner is Carl.

And I'm not even saying anything about the Helper portion of this story, which predominantly consists of his ongoing battle with a duck. You could easily read the whole story and miss it altogether--which, I have to admit, I've done myself. But there it is. Just being in the background and being delightful. Barks didn't have to include this stuff to get paid. He didn't even have to do it to be head and shoulders above his fellow artists. But he did it anyway, a strong indication--it any more were needed--that this was not, in fact, just a job for Barks; that, probably unique among his peers, he actually was creating l'art pour l'art, at least in part.

I wonder, with a story like this: it first appeared in 1956, in CP 8 (which was headlined by "Reindeer Roundup"). It's the only Barks in the issue. Just eight out of a hundred pages. So if you read that issue, was it glaringly obvious to you that one of the artists here was substantially better than the others? I know when I was a kid, I was much less critical: I realized on some level that the stuff appearing in Uncle Scrooge and the ten-pagers in WDC were indeed better than the rest, but I still read the rest with a fair amount of enthusiasm. But still...I feel like, if anything, Barks's work could've hurt the brand: "hey!" The Plain People of Comics Fandom might shout. "We can see what you're capable of, so why are you giving us the rest of this dross? Up your standards!" But clearly, it never happened. So much for The Magic of the Free Market.

Look at Gyro's conspiratorial look there, and imagine anyone else getting that right. Once again, Barks FTW.

So when one criticizes a story like this, it should be understood that these criticisms exist on a higher level than criticism of, like, "The Big Switcheroo" or some such shit. But: you know, stories that center around cartoon farms tend to carefully tiptoe around the question of slaughtering animals, whether by explicitly stating that that doesn't happen here, or just by never bringing it up. Because, you know, we're talking about cute cartoon animals. Thinking about killing them is just morbid. So all I'm saying is, not doing that probably would've been preferable here.

Like I said: I'm fairly sure the pigs, at least, would be okay with having nothing to do, if "something" means being slaughtered for their meat. Really now.

Aside from that, though, it's all good. Not a complicated message, and not one we'd be likely to agree with in the so-called real world, but well-executed and fun.

We can also take a moment to look at the denouement of Helper's story. Just look how smug that duck looks there! Pretty amazing, given how little detail there is.

But now, Helper is become Death, destroyer of worlds. So fun. And Gyro's rueful amusement and Grandma's acceptance of his eccentricities makes for an extremely agreeable Christmas trifle.



Blogger Achille Talon said...

I think Al Hubbard could definitely do backgrounds.

December 21, 2018 at 5:59 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

As for those musings on readers recognizing Barks for the genius he was, and potentially complaining about what hacks the rest of the artists were compared to Barks: on the first point, the whole "the Good Duck Artist" thing implies that a lot of people did recognize his talent.

On the second… maybe there were a lot of angry letters, but what could they achieve? Even if the editors had wanted to do something about it, it's not like they could get Barks to do any more Duck comoics than the already staggering amounts he was turning out, or whip up another Barks just because they wanted to.

The thing about the Magic of the Free Market is that it requires there to be several offerers, and there aren't in Disney comics, not from the reader's point of view. As you say here, the Barks story is printed in a book that's 80 percent made up of other story. If you wanted Disney comics at all, you bought what Western/Gold Key/whoever were turning out, and that would by nature come with random nuggets of Barks inside it. But there was no real way to choose Barks over another artist, because there wasn't The Barks Book here and The Del Connell Book there.

December 21, 2018 at 6:06 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Well, sure. I don't think annoyed writers could have achieved anything in terms of improving Western's quality. What would have happened if it had happened was that people would have abandoned Western, realizing that most of their output was kinda crap.

December 21, 2018 at 6:11 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

I feel like it's worth pointing out that Barks's failure to comply with the usual We Don't Talk About Slaughtering the Barnyard Animals policy is at the expense of pigs. You'll recall that real-life pigs were particularly despied by Barks (hence why Argus McSwine and the ever-bumbling Mayors of Duckburg are porcines). So it's not so surprising that he'd have a clear conscience about turning them into sausages.

December 21, 2018 at 6:11 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Also, Gyro's failure to mass-produce his food-out-of-dirt machines and end famine in the Third World forever is one of the more egregious world-changing-somethings flippantly introduced in a Duck comic which utterly fails to change the world. Of course, they are legion — but somehow this is one fo the few that bothered me even when I first read this story as a child, in a way that "nice, you got the 24-carat-Moon, the rest of the world would perhaps be interested to know there's sentient life on Venus, and want to send emissaries there" never quite hit me at the time.

December 21, 2018 at 6:16 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

Hey MAN! Last year I broth up "The Winter Wager" so I did my good deed of the years ;) It was up to others to bring up this story you forgoten... or was it some sort of a test?

December 21, 2018 at 6:50 PM  
Blogger scarecrow33 said...

The concern in this story seems more to be the automation of the farm work rather than the fact that animals are slaughtered for their meat. I don't know if it was true for other kids, but when I was growing up, I remember being told that pigs GIVE us sausages and ham similarly as hens GIVE us eggs and cows GIVE us milk. Kids who are brought up on that kind of half-truth are less likely to be squeamish about the fate of pigs. I guess we weren't considered old enough to understand HOW pigs produce the meat. Maybe it was one of those things we "weren't supposed to know."

All the same, as an adult reader, it did make me think a moment about the reference from an anthropomorphic animal regarding a non-anthropomorphic animal.

December 21, 2018 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger gl said...

Something I've just noticed - the Carlotta Quattrocolo story "Paperino e la vacanza geniale" is quite similar to this one. They both involve Gyro deciding to take a vacation from inventing, and ending up inventing things anyway. And they're both Christmas stories, too (well, the Quattrocolo story is really more of a winter-in-general story, but still...). I wonder if "La vacanza geniale" was inspired by this story.

December 21, 2018 at 8:51 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

GeoX sez: "Well, sure. I don't think annoyed writers could have achieved anything in terms of improving Western's quality. What would have happened if it had happened was that people would have abandoned Western, realizing that most of their output was kinda crap. "

Well, isn't that what happened in the '70s and '80s?

In the '60s the other stuff was still more than good enough to compete - but once US Disney comics primarily fell to Kay Wright and "overworked" Vic Lockman - or the simply dull stylings of Bob Gregory - while the rest of the world enjoyed Scarpa, Cavazzano, Vicar, and Branca… Well, you know what happened!

December 22, 2018 at 1:26 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

To what extent if any did Barks extend Western's lifespan? It's an interesting question; my guess would be very marginally, if at all, but I dunno.

Of course, it's true that foreign creators were making a mockery of our homegrown comics well before the company gave up the ghost, but that's probably neither here nor there.

December 22, 2018 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

@george greg--that story was printed over here in another Christmas Parade a few years back. There are obvious similarities, it's true, but I feel as though "Gyro can't stop inventing things" is a pretty well-worn trope. I'm not sure that any direct influence from this specific story can be inferred.

December 22, 2018 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

To what extent if any did Barks extend Western's lifespan?

Depends, how essential do you think having titles like Uncle Scrooge and Grandma Duck was to Western? I don't know if there's sales figures but the existence or nonexistence of Scrooge seems like a pretty relevant factor to me.

December 22, 2018 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Debbie Anne said...

Some of Western’s better talent was producing comics for Disney’s overseas comics program by the 1970’s, which is probably why Kay Wright, Bob Gregory, Vic Lockman and others ended up doing the lion’s share of Western’s comics (that weren’t Tony Strobl reprints, as many of the 70’s and 80’s Donald Duck issues I had seemed to be)). Disney itself had a hand in weakening Western’s Disney comics.

December 22, 2018 at 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

I personally don't think of this story as a Christmas story, since there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. No symbols of Christmas, no winter (I know, it could be California winter!). Gyro could be planning a birthday present for Grandma Duck, or just deciding to do something nice for her to thank her for putting him up on the farm.

However, I have very fond memories of this story from childhood--we had a copy of Dell's CP 8 where it first appeared. I remember it not as a Christmas story but as my favorite Helper story. I noticed and totally loved the saga of Helper vs. Nonanthropomorphic Duck. In other stories, Helper's inventiveness is shown--for instance, the one where he makes his own submarine while Gyro makes the fake-fish sub, and later rescues Gyro with it. But in this story that happened in the margins of the main story, and was never commented on by the main characters, and I found that particularly charming. Children born a generation or two later have had a similar reaction to the marginal stories drawn by Jan Brett in several of her picture books, or by Phoebe Gilman in her picture book Something from Nothing. It's the attraction of a miniature world, and a secret world that the grown-ups don't notice. Have there been any stories since which have given Helper such an extensive parallel or marginal narrative?

December 22, 2018 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

That's a good point. There are three mentions of Christmas here; take them out, and there would be no indication it was meant to be seasonal at all. Barks could easily have written this as a non-seasonal story and slightly edited it so as to fit it under the purlieu of "Christmas." I guess it's to Barks' credit that, even taking into account its general non-Christmas-y-ness, it still feels like a better Christmas story than most of the rest of this stuff.

I haven't done a study of Helper narratives. I mean, I was always aware that he was mostly there to do cool little background things, but in which stories are these the most extensive? I dunno--it could indeed well be this one.

December 22, 2018 at 11:15 PM  

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