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Carl Barks

Carl Barks

Carl Barks was a famous Disney Studio illustrator and comic book creator, who invented Duckburg and many of its inhabitants, such as Scrooge McDuck and the Beagle Boys. The quality of his scripts and drawings earned him the nick names The Duck Man and The Good Duck Artist.

Barks was born in Merrill, Oregon to William Barks and his wife Arminta Johnson. He had an older brother named Clyde. His paternal grandfather was named David Barks and his maternal grandparents were Carl Johnson and his wife Suzanna Massey, but little else is known about his family.

Childhood

According to Carl's description of his childhood he was a rather lonely child. His parents owned one square mile of land that served as their farm. The nearest neighbor lived half a mile away but he was more an acquaintance to his parents than a friend. The closest school was about two miles away and Carl had to walk that distance every day. The rural area had few children though and Barks later remembered that his school had about eight or ten students including him.

The lessons lasted from nine o'clock in the morning to four o'clock in the afternoon and then he had to return to the farm. There he remembered not having anybody to talk to as his parents were busy and he had little in common with his brother.

In 1908 William Barks in an attempt to increase the family income moved with his family to Midland, Oregon, some miles north of Merril, to be closer to the railway lines that were new at the time. He established a new stock-breeding farm and sold his produce to the local slaughterhouses.

Nine-year-old Clyde and seven-year-old Carl worked long hours there. But Carl later remembered that the crowd which gathered at Midland's market place made a strong impression on him. This was expected as he wasn't used to crowds up until then. According to Carl his attention was mostly drawn to the cowboys that frequented the market with their revolvers, their strange nicknames for each other and their sense of humor.

By 1911 they had been successful enough to move to Santa Rosa, California where they started cultivating vegetables and set up some orchards. Unfortunately the profits were not as high as William expected and they started having financial difficulties. William's anxiety over them was probably what caused his first nervous break down.

As soon as William recovered he took the decision to move back to Merrill. The year was 1913 and Carl was already twelve years old, but due to the constant moving had not yet managed to complete gradeschool. He resumed his education at this point and finally managed to graduate in 1916.

1916 served as a turning point in Carl's life for various reasons. First Arminta, his mother, died in this year. Secondly his hearing problems which had already appeared earlier, had at the time become severe enough for him to have difficulties listening to his teachers talking. His hearing would continue to get worse later but at the point he had not yet acquired a hearing aid. Later in life he couldn't do without one. Third, the closest high school to their farm was five miles away and even if he did enlist in it, his bad hearing was likely to contribute to his learning problems. He had to decide to stop his school education, much to his disappointment. At the time he was a rather shy, melancholic, introverted and gangly teenager. He wouldn't be much different later in life.

From job to job

Barks started trying out various jobs but with little success - farmer, woodcutter, turner, mule driver, cowboy, printer. At the same time he was in contact with colleagues, fellow breadwinners who all had a very satirical disposition towards even their worst troubles. Carl later said he was sure that if not for a little humor in their troubled lives , they would certainly go insane. It was an attitude towards life that Carl would adopt. Later he would say it was natural for him to satirize the secret yearnings and desires, the pompous style and the disappointments of his characters. According to Carl this period of his life would later influence his best known fictional characters: Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck.

Donald's drifting from job to job was reportedly inspired by Carl's own experience in this thing. So was his usual lack of success in them. And even in those that he was successful enough this would be temporary, just till a mistake on his part or a chance event caused another failure, another disappointment for the frustrated duck. Carl also reported that this was another thing he was familiar with.

As for Scrooge's main difference to Donald according to Carl, it was that he too had faced the same difficulties in his past but that through intelligence, determination and hard work he was able to overcome them. Or as Scrooge himself would say to Huey, Dewey and Louie:by being "tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies". Even in the present of his stories Scrooge would work to solve his many problems, even though the stories would often point out that his constant efforts seemed futile at the end. In addition Scrooge was quite similar to his creator in appearing often to be as melancholic, introspective and secretive as he was.

Through both characters Carl would often exhibit his rather sarcastic sense of humor. It seems that this difficult period for the artist helped shape many of his later views in life that were expressed through his characters.

Professional artist

At the same time Carl had started thinking about turning a hobby that he always enjoyed into a profession: that of drawing. Since his early childhood he spent his free time by drawing on any material he could find. He had attempted to improve his style by copying the drawings of his favorite comic strip artists from the newspapers where he could find them. As he later said, he wanted to create his own facial expressions, figures and comical situations in his drawings but wanted to study the master comic artists use of the pen and their use of color and shading.

Among his early favorites were Winsor McCay (mostly known for Little Nemo) and Frederick Burr Opper (mostly known for Happy Hooligan) but he would later study any style that managed to draw his attention.

At sixteen he was mostly self-taught but at this point he decided to take some lessons through correspondence. He only followed the first four lessons and then had to stop because his working left him with little free time. But as he later said, the lessons proved very useful in improving his style.

By December, 1918 he left his father's home to attempt to find a job in San Francisco, California. He worked for a while in a small publishing house while attempting to sell his drawings to newspapers and other printed material with little success.

First marriage

While he continued drifting through various jobs he met Pearle Turner (1904 to 1987). In 1921 they married and had two children: Peggy Barks, born in 1923 and Dorothy Barks, born on 1924.

In 1923 he returned to his paternal farm in Merrill in an attempt to return to the life of a farmer, but that ended soon. He continued searching for a job while attempting to sell his drawings. He soon managed to sell some of them to Judge magazine and then started a longtime collaboration with Calgary-Eye-Opener. It lasted virtually till 1935 though he occasionally sold his works to other magazines as well. By that time he edited, scripted and drew most of the material of this humorous magazine. His salary set at 90 dollars a month was considered respectable enough for the time.

Meanwhile he had his first divorce. He and Pearle were separated in 1929 and divorced in 1930. He moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where Calgary-Eye-Opener had its offices and there he met Clara Balken who in 1938 became his second wife.

Disney

In November, 1935 when he learned that Walt Disney was asking for more artists for his Studio he decided to apply. His application was approved and he was hired with a basic salary of 20 dollars a week. The beginning of his work for Disney Studios in 1935, came more than a year after the debut of Donald Duck on June 9, 1934.

Carl had to move to Los Angeles, California. He originally did some work as an inbetweener. That had the meaning of following the instructions of the head animators in making your drawings that would then be animated. Soon in 1936 Carl was transferred to the story department where his inventiveness and experience in creating comical situations and gags was put in use.

In 1937 when Donald Duck became the star of his own series of cartoons instead of co-starring with Mickey Mouse and Goofy as previously, a new department was created to be responsible for this series. Though he originally just contributed some ideas for them in 1937 he got approval to create his own. He collaborated on such cartoons as Donald's Nephews (1938), Donald's Cousin Gus (1939), Timber (1941), The Vanishing Private (1942) and The Plastics Inventor (1944).

The Good Duck Artist

Frustrated by the working conditions at Disney (Barks was known to have a temperament not unlike that of Donald Duck, especially when his work was criticized) Barks quit in 1942. Shortly before quitting he had worked on a comic book story along with Jack Hannah. Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, a story of 64 pages based on an original scenario by Bob Karp, first Published in October, 1942. It was the first Donald Duck story originally produced for an American comic book and also the first involving Donald and his nephews in a treasure hunting expedition, in this case for the treasure of Henry Morgan. Barks would later use the treasure hunting theme in many of his stories.

After quitting the Studio, Barks found work with Western Publishing, which had published the previous story. Barks had originally hoped that he would be allowed to create his own characters but was immediately assigned to produce Donald Duck comics. He insisted, though, on handling both the scripts and the artwork of his stories. The Victory Garden, a story of 10 pages first published on April, 1943 was the first of about 500 stories he would produce for Western Publishing.

Barks produced stories for the next three decades, well into his purported retirement. He surrounded Donald Duck with a cast of eccentric and colorful characters such as Scrooge McDuck—the wealthiest duck in the world, Gladstone Gander—Donald's obscenely lucky cousin, inventor Gyro Gearloose, the persistent Beagle Boys, the sorceress Magica De Spell, and The Junior Woodchucks organization.

People who work for Disney generally do so in relative anonymity; the stories only carry Walt Disney's name and (sometimes) a short identification number. However, through the sheer quality of his work, people started realizing that a lot of the stories were written by one person, whom they started referring to as the Good Duck Artist. Later it was discovered that the Good Duck Artist went by the name of Carl Barks.

Barks' stories were humorous adventure stories with a dark, defeatist undertone. They found popularity not only among young children but adults as well. Despite the fact that Barks had done little traveling his stories took his duck characters around the globe into the most remote or magnificent of locations.

Third marriage

Meanwhile back in his personal life he and Clara divorced in 1951. It was his second and last divorce. In 1952 he met Margaret Wynnfred Williams(1917 to March 10, 1993), nicknamed Garé, a female landscape artist. She soon started helping him with his stories. They married in 1954 and their marriage lasted till her death.

Carl Barks retired in 1966 but continued to script a number of stories for Western. He began producing oil paintings of scenes from his stories. These paintings quickly became highly sought after and their price rocketed to Barks' astonishment.

Barks died at the age of 99. Though he was undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia he was, according to caregiver Serene Hunickle, funny up to the end.


Note: This profile was written in or before 2004.

Carl Barks Facts

OccupationWriter, Animator
BirthdayMarch 27, 1901
SignAries
BirthplaceMerrill, Oregon, USA
Date of deathAugust 25, 2000 (age 99)

Selected Filmography

Walt Disney and Italy: A Love Story
Walt Disney's Funny Factory With Huey, Dewey and Louie, Vol. 4
Classic Cartoon Favorites, Vol. 7
RIFF / Who Sees Words with my Eyes
Classic Cartoon Favorites, Vol. 5
RAVE / Who Hears with my Ears
The Importance of Being Donald
Classic Cartoon Favorites
The Duck Man: An Interview with Carl Banks
Walt Disney Treasures
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