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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 ancestors.
According to Barks' description of his childhood, he was a rather lonely child. His parents owned one square mile (2.6 km) of land that served as their farm. The nearest neighbor lived half a mile (800 m) away, but he was more an acquaintance to Barks' parents than a friend. The closest school was about two miles (3 km) away and Barks had to walk that distance every day. The rural area had few children, though, and Barks later remembered that his school had only about eight or ten students including him. He had high praise for the quality of the education he received in that small school. "Schools were good in those days," he used to say. 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 Merrill, to be closer to the new railway lines. 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 was not used to crowds up until then. According to Barks, his attention was mostly drawn to the cowboys that frequented the market with their revolvers, strange nicknames for each other and sense of humor.
By 1911, they had been successful enough to move to Santa Rosa, California. There 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 made the decision to move back to Merrill. The year was 1913, and Barks was already twelve years old; but, due to the constant moving, he had not yet managed to complete grade school. He resumed his education at this point and finally managed to graduate in 1916.
1916 served as a turning point in Barks' life for various reasons. First, Arminta, his mother, died in this year. Second, 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 that 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 (8 km) 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.
From job to job
Barks started taking various jobs but had little success in such occupations as a farmer, woodcutter, turner, mule driver, cowboy and printer. From his jobs he learned, he later averred, how eccentric, stubborn and unpredictable men, animals and machines can be. At the same time he interacted with colleagues, fellow breadwinners who had satirical disposition towards even their worst troubles. Barks later declared that 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 Barks 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 Barks, this period of his life would later influence his best known fictional characters: Walt Disney's Donald Duck and his own Scrooge McDuck.
Donald's drifting from job to job was reportedly inspired by Barks' own experiences. So was his usual lack of success. And even in those that he was successful this would be temporary, just until a mistake or chance event caused another failure, another disappointment for the frustrated duck. Barks also reported that this was another thing he was familiar with.
Scrooge's main difference to Donald, according to Barks, was that he too had faced the same difficulties in his past but 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 smarter than the smarties." 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 Barks 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.
At the same time Barks 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.
While he continued drifting through various jobs, he met Pearl Turner (1904-1987). In 1921 they married and had two children:
Peggy Barks, born in 1923.
Dorothy Barks, born in 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 having success submitting to the Minneapolis-based Calgary-Eye-Opener, a racy men's magazine of the era. He was eventually hired as editor and scripted and drew most of the contents while continuing to sell occasional work to other magazines. His salary of 90 dollars a month was considered respectable enough for the time. A facsimile of one of the racy magazines he did cartoons for in this period, Coo Coo #1, was published by Hamilton Comics in 1997.
Meanwhile he had his first divorce. He and Pearl were separated in 1929 and divorced in 1930. After he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where "Calgary-Eye-Opener" had its offices he met Clara Balken who in 1938 became his second wife.
In November 1935, when he learned that Walt Disney was seeking more artists for his Studio, Barks decided to apply. He was approved for a try-out which entailed a move to Los Angeles, California. He was one of two in his class of trainees who was hired. His starting salary was 20 dollars a week. He started at Disney Studios in 1935, more than a year after the debut of Donald Duck on June 9, 1934 in the short animated film The Wise Little Hen.
Barks initially worked as an inbetweener. This involved being teamed and supervised by one of the head animators who did the key poses of character action (often known as extremes) for which the inbetweeners did the drawings between the extremes to provide smoothness to the illusion of movement. While an inbetweener, Barks submitted gag ideas for cartoon story lines being developed and showed such a knack for creating comical situations that by 1937 he was transferred to the story department. His first story sale was the climax of Modern Inventions, for a sequence where a robot barber chair gives Donald Duck a haircut on his butt.
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 unit of storymen and animators was created devoted solely to this series. Though he originally just contributed gag ideas to some duck cartoons by 1937 Barks was (principally with partner Jack Hannah) originating story ideas that were storyboarded and (if approved by Walt) put into production. He collaborated on such cartoons as Donald's Nephews (1938), Donald's Cousin Gus (1939), Mr. Duck Steps Out (1940),Timber (1941), The Vanishing Private (1942) and The Plastics Inventor (1944).
The Good Duck Artist
Omelet opening page
Unhappy at the emerging wartime working conditions at Disney plus bothered by ongoing sinus problems caused by the studio's air conditioning, Barks quit in 1942. Shortly before quitting, he moonlighted as a comic book artist, contributing half the artwork for a one-shot comic book (the other half of the art being done by story partner Jack Hannah) titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. This 64-page story was adapted by Donald Duck comic strip writer Bob Karp from an unproduced feature, and published in October 1942 in [Dell] Four Color Comics #9. 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. This actually was not his first work in comics, as earlier the same year Barks along with Hannah and fellow storyman Nick George scripted Pluto Saves the Ship, which was among the first original Disney comic book stories published in the United States.
After quitting the Studio, Barks relocated to the Hemet/San Jacinto area in the semi-desert inland empire region east of Los Angeles where he hoped to start a chicken farm.
When asked which of his stories was a favorite in several interviews Barks cited the ten-pager in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #146 (Nov. 1952) in which Donald tells the story of the chain of unfortunate events that took place when he owned a chicken farm in a town which subsequently was re-named Omelet. Likely one reason it was a favorite is that it was inspired by Barks' own experiences in the poultry business.
But to earn a living in the meantime he inquired whether Western Publishing, which had published Pirate Gold, had any need for artists for Donald Duck comic book stories. He was immediately assigned to illustrate the script for a ten-page Donald Duck story for the monthly Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. At the publisher's invitation he revised the storyline and the improvements impressed the editor sufficiently to invite Barks try his hand at contributing both the script and the artwork of his follow-up story. This set the pattern for Barks' career in that (with rare exceptions) he provided art (pencil, inking, solid blacks and lettering) and scripting for his stories.
The Victory Garden, that initial ten-page story published in April, 1943 was the first of about 500 stories featuring the Disney ducks Barks would produce for Western Publishing over the next three decades, well into his purported retirement. These can be mostly divided into two categories:
Ten-pagers, comedic Donald Duck stories that were the lead for the monthly flagship title Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, whose circulation peaked in the mid-1950s at 3 million copies sold a month.
Humorous adventure stories, usually 24-32 pages in length. In the 1940s these were one-shots in the Four Color series (issued 4-6 times a year) that starred Donald and his nephews. From the early 1950s Barks undertook the quarterly adventures of Uncle Scrooge and the duck clan in Scrooge's own title.
He surrounded Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie with a cast of eccentric and colorful characters, such as the aforementioned 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; Scrooge's rivals Flintheart Glomgold and John D. Rockerduck; Daisy's nieces April, May and June; Donald's neighbor Jones, 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 (whether humorous adventures or domestic comedies) often exhibited a wry, dark irony born of hard experience. The 10 pagers showcased Donald as everyman, struggling against the cruel bumps and bruises of everyday life with the nephews often acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding disasters Donald wrought upon himself. Yet while seemingly defeatist in tone the humanity of the characters shines through in their persistence despite the obstacles. These stories found popularity not only among young children but adults as well. Despite the fact that Barks had done little traveling his adventure stories often had the duck clan globe trotting to the most remote or spectacular of locations. This allowed Barks to indulge his penchant for elaborate backgrounds that hinted at his thwarted ambitions of doing realistic stories in the vein of Harold Foster's Prince Valiant.
As Barks blossomed creatively, his marriage to Clara deteriorated. This is the period referred to in Barks' famed quip that he could feel his creative juices flowing while the whiskey bottles hurled at him by a tipsy Clara flew by his head. They were divorced in 1951, his second and last divorce. In this period Barks dabbled in fine art, exhibiting paintings at local art shows. It was at one of these in 1952 he became acquainted with fellow exhibitor Margaret Wynnfred Williams (1917 - March 10, 1993), nicknamed Gar. She was an accomplished landscape artist, some of whose paintings are in the collection of the Leanin' Tree Museum of Western Art. During her lifetime and to this day note cards of her paintings are available from Leanin' Tree. Her nickname appears as a store name in the story "Christmas in Duckburg", featured on page 1 of Walt Disney Christmas Parade #9, published in 1958. Soon after they met she started assisting Barks, handling the solid blacks and lettering, both of which he had found onerous. They married in 1954 and the union lasted until her death.
Carl Barks visiting Finland in June, 1994.
Carl Barks retired in 1966 but was persuaded by editor Chase Craig to script stories for Western. The last new comic book story drawn by Carl Barks was a Daisy Duck tale ("The Dainty Daredevil") published in Walt Disney Comics Digest issue 5 (Nov. 1968). When bibliographer Michael Barrier asked Barks about why he drew it, Barks' vague recollection was no one was available and he was asked to do it as a favor by editor Chase Craig.
He wrote one Uncle Scrooge story, three Donald Duck stories and from 1970-1974 was the main writer for the Junior Woodchucks comic book (issues 6 through 25). The latter included environmental themes that Barks first explored in 1957 ["Land of the Pygmy Indians", Uncle Scrooge #18]. Barks also sold a few sketches to Western that were redrawn as covers. For a time the Barkses lived in Goleta, California before returning to the Inland Empire by moving to Temecula.
To make a little extra money beyond what his pension and scripting earnings brought in, Barks started doing oil paintings to sell at the local art shows he and Gar exhibited at. Subjects included humorous depictions of life on the farm and portraits of Native American princesses. These skillfully rendering paintings encouraged fan Glenn Bray to ask Barks if he could commission a painting of the ducks ("A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By", taken from the cover of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #108 by Barks). This prompted Barks to contact George Sherman at Disney's Publications Department to request permission to produce and sell oil paintings of scenes from his stories. In July 1971 Barks was granted a royalty-free license by Disney. When word spread that Barks was taking commissions from those interested in purchasing an oil of the ducks, much to his astonishment the response quickly outstripped what he reasonably could produce in the next few years.
Ode to the Disney Ducks
They ride tall ships to the far away,
and see the long ago.
They walk where fabled people trod,
and Yetis trod the snow.
They meet the folks who live on stars,
and find them much like us,
With food and love and happiness
the things they most discuss.
The world is full of clans and cults
abuzz as angry bees,
And Junior Woodchucks snapping jeers
at Littlest Chickadees.
The ducks show us that part of life
is to forgive a slight.
That black eyes given in revenge
keep hatred burning bright.
So when our walks in sun or shade
pass graveyards filled by wars,
It's nice to stop and read of ducks
whose battles leave no scars.
To read of ducks who parody
our vain attempts at glory,
They don't exist, but somehow leave
us glad we bought their story.
Carl Barks 1999
When Barks expressed dismay at coping with the backlog of orders he faced, fan/dealers Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran suggested Barks instead auction his paintings at conventions and via Cochran's catalog Graphic Gallery. By September 1974 Barks had discontinued taking commissions.
At Boston's NewCo
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