Make the McKenzie Connection!

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

PART TWO

On September 14, 1964, the steamship Al Kuwait was moored at the dock in Kuwait City when something terrible happened: The ship capsized and settled to the harbor floor.

This was bad enough news for the town by itself. But the real problem was, that Al Kuwait was a livestock transport freighter. It was full of sheep. Five thousand of them.

These poor animals were, of course, drowned when the hull flooded. But then the carcasses started to decompose.

This was an environmental disaster, because Kuwait City got its drinking water from that harbor, via a desalinization plant.

Ordinarily, cranes would have been brought in to try to pick the ship up. But there just wasn’t time to do that, and anyway, if the ship were to break open while on the sling, thousands of rotting carcasses would be dumped into the harbor just a few hundred feet from the water-plant intake. It couldn’t be risked.

The solution came from a Danish engineer named Karl Kroyer. Kroyer planned to rig a pipe to the ship and blast thousands and thousands of small polystyrene balls — Ping-Pong balls, basically — into the hull of the ship. Eventually, he reasoned, there would be enough balls in the ship to float it to the surface; and he could, by carefully choosing where to inject the balls, bring it back onto an even keel at the same time.

Kroyer was given the green light, and on New Year’s Day, he was ready to do the job. He turned on his Ping-Pong pumps and blasted 27 million of the balls — 65 tons in all — into the sunken ship.

It rolled upright and lay there low in the water, ready to be towed away from the water plant to safety. Success! The city was saved!

The total cost: $345,000. To save a ship worth $2 million — not to mention the drinking water supply for about 300,000 people.

Kroyer promptly filed patent applications on this ping-pong ball method. In the United Kingdom and Germany, he was duly awarded a patent.

But he ran into trouble in the Netherlands. There, his application for a patent was denied. It seemed someone in the Dutch patent office recognized Kroyer’s “new” technique … from a Donald Duck comic book, “The Sunken Yacht,” published in 1949.

In the comic, Donald and his three nephews — Huey, Dewey, and Louie — raise a sunken yacht from the ocean floor by filling it with Ping-Pong balls shoved into it through a tube.

Since patents can’t be issued on ideas that other people have previously published, the Dutch authorities denied Kroyer his patent.

The man who could have patented this idea, if he hadn’t been too busy pumping out Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books, was of course native Oregonian Carl Barks — who by 1949 was already Walt Disney’s most valuable comic-book artist.

When Carl first came aboard at Disney, though, that status was still far in his future. He was hired in 1935 as an “in-betweener,” one of the lower-level artists who drew the less-important cells “in-between” the keyframe cells that the lead artist would do. It was grueling, uncreative work, but every new animator had to pay his or her dues as an inbetweener — like every new hire at a sawmill has to pay his or her dues pulling green chain.

While he was doing this, though, Carl worked on the side developing gags. One of these got him noticed by the big guy himself, Walt Disney, and resulted in a memorable scene in the cartoon Modern Inventions (1937) in which a robotic barber chair accidentally flips Donald Duck upside down, gives his butt-feathers a “high and tight” haircut, and applies shoe polish to his beak.

After that, Carl was assigned to the story department, and for the next five years or so he was an animated cartoon artist.

But by 1942, he had developed an allergic reaction to something in the air conditioning system at Disney. So he quit, planning on moving to the dry country east of Los Angeles and starting a chicken farm.

But just before he left, he collaborated with Jack Hannah in a one-shot 64-page comic book titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, published under contract by Western Publishing.

Pirate Gold was a huge hit, and Barks asked Western if they had any more similar projects he might like to do. They immediately gave him an assignment, a synopsis for a story to draw.

As time went on, Western soon realized that Carl Barks worked best on his own. By about 1946, they were simply buying everything he did. He would develop a story, outline it, pencil it, ink it, letter it, and send it to them; if it didn’t violate any of the house “don’ts” (no sex, no cursing, no blood and gore, etc.) they would simply shoot him a check for $12.50 per page and he would be on to the next one.

Over the next two decades, Carl Barks would crank out an enormous volume of Disney duck stories. He added classic characters to the roster — the most famous one being, of course, Scrooge McDuck, but also evil sorceress Magica DeSpell, infuriatingly lucky loafer Gladstone Gander, rattlebrained inventor Gyro Gearloose, the diabolical Beagle Boys crime family, and several other minor characters, all inhabiting a town called Duckburg.

Clara, Carl’s new wife, sank deep into alcoholism. They were divorced in 1951. It seems to have been the same thing that ruined his first marriage — she wanted some of his time, and he wanted to spend all his time on art. Carl’s third wife, Margaret “Garé” Williams, was already a successful landscape artist when they met, so she understood. They were married in 1954.

Under Carl’s direction, Donald Duck became a sort of relatable everyman. Usually accompanied by his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, he traveled around the world on improbable quests, getting in and out of trouble in exotic places, getting involved in hopeful hustles, getting defeated by bad luck, rescuing and being rescued by his three nephews, and reflecting many of the changes the world was going through at the time.

One particularly interesting aspect of Carl’s panels was how he integrated gorgeous, detailed landscapes into them. He collected National Geographic magazine and used photographs from it as models for his stories when the ducks went to some exotic location for a bonkers adventure, as they frequently did.

So under his direction, the Donald Duck comics became a combination of serious art, complex storytelling, and funny-paper slapstick. With a Westerner’s disdain for snobbish distinctions, Carl regarded his art as no less valuable than the fine art displayed in galleries. He wasn’t just pumping out silly talking-animal crap to entertain children — he was fully committed to expressing himself as an artist and a storyteller in the medium he had access to.

And readers, to Disney’s probable surprise, responded accordingly. At one point Donald Duck was selling more than 3 million magazines a month, which was the second-highest circulation of any periodical (behind only Reader’s Digest). Many, if not most, of those, were being bought and read by adults, not children. Many children of the baby boom grew up with Donald Duck and never outgrew him. The stories continued to be interesting to them decades after they got bored with more traditional children’s fare like Bugs Bunny, Archie, and Ri¢hie Ri¢h the Poor Little Rich Boy.

In terms of worldview, you could think of Carl Barks as the sort of character Archie Bunker was based on. He was socially conservative and felt that America was at its best when it minded its own business stayed out of foreign affairs, and had noticeable contempt for loafers and people who wouldn’t work. He drew fairly heavily on racial stereotypes in his art, and some of it has not aged well, but he doesn’t seem to have shown any particular racism or antisemitism. His political philosophy was similar to that of Edgar Rice Burroughs, another individualistic Western ex-cowboy storyteller from the same era.

Once the comic-book world knew who he was, Carl acquired a sort of cult following in the growing world of comic conventions and fanzines. After John Spicer’s letter, Spicer and his brother came out to visit, which was nice, and other fans followed as well. But after a few years, as word got around, the hospitality duties became a bit of a chore, and his home was close enough to Disneyland that some fans took to dropping by in hopes he’d be around. So in 1983, Carl moved back to Oregon, settling in Grants Pass, and that’s where he lived when, in August of 2000, he died at the age of 99.

Today, there is an asteroid named after him — Carl’s favorite Donald Duck story was “Island in the Sky,” in which the ducks fly off to the asteroid belt to find a safe place for Uncle Scrooge to store his money. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are on record stating that not only did they get the rolling-boulder booby trap scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark from an Uncle Scrooge comic, but they also planned the visuals of the entire movie around an aesthetic developed from Carl’s Duck comics.

Osamu Tezuka, the most important seminal figure in Japanese manga and animation and the creator of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), borrowed some key insights and techniques from a stack of Donald Duck comics given to him by an American soldier friend in 1946 to create the foundation of modern manga and anime.

Not bad for a humble farm boy from a remote part of the Oregon Outback, eh?

(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 (youtube.com/@mattwith4ts) published Jan. 20, 2024, on YouTube; “The Donald Duck as Prior Art Case,” an article by Arnoud Engelfriet published in 2006 on the Ius Mentis Website, iusmentis.com.)

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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