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One thing I've found in reading about Donald Duck comics online is that a whole lot of the people currently reading Donald Duck comics read a whole lot of Donald Duck comics when they were a kid. I won't pretend not to be a little bit jealous--the first time I read a Donald Duck comic was less than a decade ago, when I purchased these oversized hardcover collections from the Carl Barks Library, published by a company called Another Rainbow (or Gemstone, as it were). I bought them because any brief reading of comics criticism made it clear that Duck comics--specifically, Duck comics by Carl Barks--carried massive importance with serious comic book readers, and I believed that serious track was the one I wanted to be on.
This isn't a lead-up to some iconoclastic rabbit punch: I did not feel let down by those Carl Barks comics, I remember my only complaints about them being that they were impossible to carry around comfortably and that they were in black and white for reasons that I felt were a bit absurd. Did I come away with a greater understanding of comics as a medium for storytelling? An ability to explain the importance of Carl Barks to the uninitiated, or a way to argue into agreement a non-believer?
No, I didn't. To be honest, the experience of reading a lot of Carl Barks all at once was a bittersweet one. I found myself greatly enjoying the comics despite the obvious knowledge that they were a form of entertainment freely designed for someone much younger than me, but I also found myself wondering what it was I was missing, because honestly, they just seemed good, solid comics. The characters were well defined, the humor didn't seem a bit dated, the art was consistent and impressive...but that was about it. Just good comics.
There wasn't a moment of realization that followed, or if there was it wasn't memorable. What happened was that time just passed, and while I re-read some of those Duck books, I didn't re-read them much. What I re-read instead was other comics of the time. Plastic Man comics from the 40's, Batman comics from the 50's, an amazing collection of non-EC horror comics called Four Color Fear, and plenty of terrible things that I'm not remembering right now. During all of that time, I didn't think about those Donald Duck books once, and if you've ever seen those Another Rainbow editions, you probably think that's hard to believe: they make one of those DC Absolute collections look pretty tiny by comparison.
When the news that Fantagraphics was going to begin releasing new editions of these Barks Duck comics first was announced, I felt that initial charge of excitement--after all, I'm no stranger to that feeling of excitement amongst comics fans that gets stirred upon the news that something important is getting ready to happen. Even if my own Barks experience wasn't as revelatory as I'd expected, I certainly knew that this was a huge deal for Fantagraphics and comics readers in general, and as I'd begun working at a comics shop by this point, I knew I'd be privy to the brunt of that excitement, even if I didn't anticipate it following me home.
Then the first book arrived, and I cracked it open and saw this:
I don't know what it was about this page. If I'm being totally honest about the experience, I believe I may have even read this story in one of those Another Rainbow collections. I'm not totally sure because, at one point, I just binge-read those comics to stave off the self-loathing that had sprung up from owning (but not reading) those massive tomes. This time though, something was different. I hate to attribute it to the color, I would like to believe I'm not that shallow, and as it's been months now and I've yet to feel comfortable with any explanation, I'd rather chalk it up to a long gestation period, an unprepared comics intake system, a brain that just wasn't in the mood quite yet. Whatever it was, I adored the experience of reading "Lost In The Andes", as well as the other stories contained in this first Fantagraphics collection. I got a kick out of every joke, joined in on every smile, and I found myself pouring my attention over these pages in a way that was remarkably un-forced. I wanted to linger on Donald's silhouette in a fog, I needed to figure out which one of the nephews started the chain of laughter that eventually engulfed the entire group. I didn't care about why these comics were considered a big deal, and in the meantime, they became one all on their own: for me.
I was reminded of this experience recently, when the opportunity came up to read a copy of the next book in the Fantagraphics reprints, this one titled "Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man". This time, there was no blush or thought--I snatched the book up with the greed of the main character, happy to take it home despite the fact that I'm still a good year in to getting rid of most of the comics I own. I didn't regret the choice then, and after reading the book, I know I never will. Take a look at this:
That's from "Tralla La La", one of the "major" stories collected in this installment. It feels completely ridiculous for someone like me, whose Carl Barks knowledge doesn't exceed much past "he seems to have had a tough home life", to say that the story seems like the man at his best...and yet I don't feel like I have a choice. Everything I could want out of a comic is there--it's funny, gorgeous, and I'd make a smoke alarm wait just so I could read it in one sitting. That's the thing that happens with these books, the kind of power they contain. I'm not blind to the fact that the stories were created with the intent of engaging with children, in fact, I have to wonder how much of what I perceive to be their greatness stems from that basic restriction. As I said, I'm not blind, but truthfully, I don't care--in fact, the only time the "for kids" aspect of these comics crossed my mind was when I sat down to plug away at this article. These are comics that work, concerns about their intended audience will only get in my way if, like my old concerns about whether their historical importance would have a personal impact, I let them.
When I take a look at images like this, I feel pretty confident saying that I won't be making those mistakes anytime soon. I hope you don't have to either.
Tucker Stone's writing can be found in print from time to time. He currently blogs about comics at The Factual Opinion and Savage Critics.
This Ship Is Totally Sinking is © Tucker Stone, 2010