Make the McKenzie Connection!

Lonely Oregon boy grew up to be a legendary comic-book artist


Sometime in April of 1960, a shy, retiring, hard-of-hearing comic-book artist named Carl Barks got a letter at his quiet suburban home.

When he opened it, he found that it was a letter from a stranger named John Spicer. And to his astonishment, he found that it was — a fan letter.

“Believe it or not, I have been planning this letter for about four or five years,” Spicer wrote. “I have been kept from doing so for the simple reason that I knew not your name or address. I tried several times, however, but all were in vain.”

Spicer’s letter was how Barks found out that he was, and had been for at least a decade, a legend — and the most popular comic-book artist in the world.

At first, he refused to believe it. Wary of some trick, or a prankster pretending to be a fan to humiliate him, he hesitated to engage with it. But then he decided, why not?

“After eyeing your letter with dark suspicion for several weeks, I have decided to answer it on the assumption that it could be a genuine fan letter,” he wrote back.

And that’s how the world started to learn, for the first time, who Walt Disney’s elusive, anonymous “Good Duck Artist” was.

SHORTLY AFTER THE Second World War, comic book readers started to notice that some of the comics signed by Walt Disney were better than others. The kids mostly assumed that everything came from the pen of the great man himself, but everyone who knew anything about comic art knew that couldn’t be the case. Walt had a stable of writers and illustrators, they knew. Some of these writers and illustrators were better than others.

And one particular artist stood head and shoulders above everyone else at Disney. He was the anonymous artist who wrote, designed, and inked Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics published under Disney’s license by Dell Comics, a division of Western Publishing (best known for its Little Golden Books series of children’s books).

This artist was good enough, and his style was distinctive enough, that fans and fellow artists started to recognize his work. They called him “The Good Duck Artist,” or simply “The Duck Man.”

And everyone wondered who on Earth he was!

Finally, the editor of an amateur fan magazine called Destiny published a long, flattering article about Walt Disney and his company, forwarded a copy of it to Western Publishing, and asked if they might do an interview with The Duck Man.

Someone at the company apparently found the article charming enough to respond, and revealed Barks’ name and address.

And that’s what led to that fan letter finally arriving at Carl Barks’ desk — seventeen years after he took on his role as the lead Donald Duck comic-magazine writer and artist.

As a side note, it would be another ten years before the world at large would be allowed to know about Carl Barks. That’s because of the Disney policy of pretending Walt himself created all the comics and cartoons. It wasn’t until 1968, four years after Disney’s death, that the company allowed interviews with him to be published so that folks outside the little world of comic fanzines and comic-cons could learn about him.

By that time, though, he was for the most part done — at age 67, ready for a well-deserved retirement.

CARL BARKS WAS born on March 21, 1901, on a large dryland wheat farm homesteaded by his parents, William and Arminta Barks, near Merrill, about 20 miles southeast of Klamath Falls and just north of the California border.

“We had to work all the time,” Carl recalled later, “so we had very little time to play. We went to school in a little one-room schoolhouse, and there were very few kids to play with. The school was several miles away from a town of any kind — just a little old schoolhouse sitting out there in the sagebrush.”

In the time he had, though, Carl drew comics every chance he got, imitating the styles he saw in the Sunday comics. He got no encouragement from his parents, but he kept at it.

In 1908 the family moved to Midland, about 30 highway miles away from Merrill. There, Carl’s father went into the livestock business. Carl, of course, was pressed into service building stock pens, feeding animals, and helping load them onto train cars. In his spare time, he and his brother Clyde liked to hang around with the cowboys who drifted through Midland looking for work.

As he grew up, Carl got to spend some time working as a cowboy himself, riding horses around Southern Oregon with a six-shooter on his hip. It was just one of the many experiences of working life that would inform his art, many years later.

Something else that would influence his storytelling was the experience of watching his father’s career. William Barks was from Missouri originally, and came to Merrill to try and prove up a homestead as a dryland wheat farm. Fate (as well as the weather) was kind to him for the first few years, and he successfully proved up the claim, leased it out, and expanded into the livestock business in Midland. Then he moved the family to Santa Rosa, down in California, where he bought a prune orchard for $4,000. But he’d overextended himself, and a combination of a dry year and a sharp drop in prune prices ruined him just as Arminta was diagnosed with cancer.

William lost the prune farm and the family retreated to the feedlot in Midland, which they soon lost their lease on. Then they had to move back to the farm in Merrill. All William’s optimism and striving had been for nothing, and the family was back where they had started.

It was a darker version of the “hard-working unlucky Everyman” persona that would become very familiar to Donald Duck fans in future years.

CARL ENDED HIS schooling with the eighth grade. Work desperately needed to be done around the feedlot and farm, and the nearest high school was more than five miles away — too far to walk. After that, for the next decade or so, Carl set out to build a pretty standard-issue working man’s life for himself, polishing his craft as an artist as a side hobby that he hoped might someday grow to become his life’s work. For the time being, though, life conspired to keep him very busy making a living with his muscles.

An early attempt to break into animation in San Francisco ended when his father got sick and he had to hurry home and help on the farm.

Then in 1921, Carl fell in love with a local logger’s daughter, Pearl Turner, and took a job on her father’s crew as a swamper. When the job ended, he took what jobs he could to keep the money coming in. He ended up laboring on a riveting crew in a railroad shop. By now he and Pearl had two daughters, Peggy and Dorothy.

But Carl was always working on cartoons and drawings, trying to develop a comic strip or something that he could try to get some traction with. Art consumed all his evenings and spare time. It became a sore point with Pearl, who wanted a normal social life like every other couple she knew.

Finally, the couple split up, and Carl moved back to Oregon. There he took whatever jobs he could find and continued working on getting work as a freelance cartoonist.

At last, that started to happen. A Minnesota-based risqué gag magazine called The Calgary Eye-Opener started buying his work.

Then a new owner took over the Eye-Opener, laid off the entire staff, and offered to hire Carl for $110 a month. This was in 1931.

AT THE EYE-OPENER, Carl Barks learned his job was basically to crank out as many drawings and write as many gags as he possibly could. The magazine would then buy a few freelance pieces from other artists to fill the issue.

Carl was fast enough that the magazine became almost entirely a one-man show. To disguise this, Carl signed his work with a variety of house names or pseudonyms.

It was a good job, good enough to ride out the first few grim years of the Depression at any rate; and Carl met and married a woman in Minneapolis, Clara Balken, a gorgeous telephone operator at the hotel he lived in.

Then in 1932, a new owner, Annette Fawcett, who called herself the “Henna-Haired Hurricane of Joy and Laughter,” bought the business and fired the editor. Her chaotic, ebullient management style spilled over into the finance department, and Carl and the other employees started regularly getting stiffed on their paychecks. Figuring the Eye-Opener was about to go belly-up, Carl started looking around for another job.

In 1935 he found one, through a newspaper ad for animated cartoon artists at The Walt Disney Company.

It would involve a fat pay cut — from $120 a month down to $80. Also, when the Eye-Opener learned he was planning to quit, they offered to raise his salary to $160. But it was too late. Carl Barks had just been offered his dream job, and he wasn’t going to let a pay cut stop him from grabbing it. He was already a huge fan of Disney, from the animated shorts they played between features at the movie theaters.

“I just split my sides for weeks laughing at the Big Bad Wolf,” Carl recalled later. “I really wanted to do that stuff.”

After Carl submitted his application, he was immediately invited to come out to California and join the Disney crew — on probation. It was not only a big pay cut, but a big risk as well. If someone at Disney decided he wasn’t good enough, or fast enough, or even the right fit — he’d be out on his ear with a month and a half’s meager pay in his pocket, and maybe not even enough scratch to slink back to Minneapolis.

But he didn’t hesitate. And we’ll talk about what happened after Carl Barks moved to California in Part Two of this story.

(Sources: Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book, a book by Thomas Andrae published in 2006 by University Press of Mississippi; “The Hunt for the Anonymous Cartoonist Who Transformed Pop Culture,” a video essay by Matt TT ( published Jan. 20, 2024, on YouTube; Funnybooks, a book by Michael Barrier published in 2014 by the University of California Press.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, was published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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