Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dare I Disagree with Carl Barks?


After thanking Carl Barks for so much – up to and including how to spell the word “February” – in my last post (ungrateful wretch that I am), I’m going to disagree with him in this post!

Though my disagreement is a mild one, and Mr. Barks is not actually “wrong” in his assertion. However, I can speak with some authority, having been a member of the group Mr. Barks speaks of in his quote.

In the book “Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book” by Thomas Andre, published 2006 by University Press of Mississippi, Carl Barks offered his reasons for the decline in popularity of the “funny animal” comic book – the genre in which Barks made his living – in a 1962 interview with Malcom Willets:

There’s too much of it on television. You know, the kids can sit for hours and watch these cartoons – POPEYE and YOGI BEAR and even old Disney characters. They’re seeing so much of them that there’s no point in going to the newsstand and paying 12 cents to see more of it. The day of the animal characters, I believe, is past. The human characters are the coming thing.

First, I will emphasize that I do not feel that Unca Carl is entirely incorrect in his thinking. There WAS indeed a notable decline in the sales and popularity of the “funny animal” comic book circa 1962, that has not truly reversed itself to this day.

But, as a member of the “single-digit-set” in 1962, I have an alternate view…

Quite the opposite of Barks’ opinion, I feel that television PROLONGED the life of many such characters in comic books. With theatre attendance in decline (admittedly due to the growth of television), and the production of the theatrical short in sharper decline still, it was the FAMILIARITY with those characters from television that drove “us” to choose their licensed comic magazines at the newsstand!

In support of this, consider that, in the 1940s and ‘50s, there were many generic funny animal comic books competing with Dell’s licensed theatrical properties. In the 60s and beyond, there were not.

Why? Because our familiarity with Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear, and Mr. Barks’ “own” Donald Duck caused us to select them over their more generic imitators, whose magazines faded away. The 1960s Gold Key comics featuring these licensed studio stars may not have thrived as robustly as did their Dell counterparts of the ‘50s, but they would continue to entertain us for some time to come. And, in every case, these comic books outlasted the production of the animated shorts they were based upon – often by decades!

Beyond popularity and longevity, another point on which my personal experiences cause me to take exception is where Carl Barks begins to question the NEED for such for such comic magazines in the new age of television.

In the days of which he speaks, there was certainly a PRESENCE of these characters on television – but it was not an “omnipresence”! YOGI BEAR, or THE FLINTSTONES, or WOODY WOODPECKER, or TOM AND JERRY would be on TV for their half-hour per week – and then they would be GONE for the next seven days!

Seven days, let me remind you, is a LONG TIME for someone in their single-digits!

When a particular show was over… it was OVER, and it would not return for a week! The only way one of my generation could continue, prolong, or otherwise augment the experience was by purchasing and reading these very comic books! …AND I DID… QUITE AVIDLY!

If you enjoyed this stuff as much as “Li’l Joe” did in the early to mid-sixties, the very comic magazines that Carl Barks began to view as superfluous, became more important than ever – and created in me that life-long interest that remains to this day!

Since those days, we’ve seen the coming of daily syndicated reruns, VHS home tapings of our favorite shows, commercially available VHS product, cable networks largely or fully devoted to animation, the DVD revolution, You Tube, and digital downloads.

We can now see ANYTHING, anytime we wish – and pretty much have been able to do so for about a generation. The palpable “need” I described for the funny animal comic book no longer exists, and one might argue that Carl Barks was correct after all – just a decade or two ahead of his time!

One happy exception to Barks’ position remains the Disney comic book. Though it’s gone through many publishers since the days of Dell and Gold Key, it remains a constant in our lives since the days of Carl Barks. And, I daresay, it remains BECAUSE the innovations, “ground rules”, conventions, and basic structure that Carl Barks set up between the early ‘40s and the mid/late ‘60s were SO STRONG, and SO SOLID in their craftsmanship that they remain sustainable to the present day – and surely beyond!

…Say, that’s just another thing to thank Carl Barks for!
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Your thoughts?

4 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Heck, I disagree with Unca Carl about a lotta things. And I'll loudly proclaim as much! I have nothing to hide!

I think another point to be made is that you're getting a different KIND of experience from comics than you are from cartoons. The obvious example here is comic-Donald versus cartoon-Donald--the first one is a fully-realized character who can be put in complex, real-ish situations; the other is basically just angry quacking noises. I enjoy DD cartoons on occasion, but they aren't at all the same thing. I am not super-familiar with this sxities Hanna-Barbera-type stuff to which you refer, but I imagine there's a similar dynamic. Point being, cartoons won't necessarily fulfill your comics jones, and vice-versa.

Was it not around this time (early sixties) when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message?" I think that definitely applies here. The nature of a story is in large part determined by the way its being told.

Joe Torcivia said...

Geo:

That’s another good point, and one Barks either overlooked, or did not make sufficiently clear in his quote. The comics Donald Duck – that is to say, HIS Donald Duck – is a very different bird from that of animation. Perhaps both we AND the interviewer and the book’s author took that so much for granted that more was not made of it in the book.

BTW, for anyone possessing that particular book, the quote appears on Page 235. I should have cited that.

Also, one could make the more generalized argument that most of Western Publishing’s interpretations of theatrical animated short feature characters varied somewhat from the source material. Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker… and especially the Road Runner, for instance.

Oddly, Western’s handling of the Hanna-Barbera characters was the most accurate and most faithful to the source material. My guess as to why would be that back when the Western character “templates” were established, not everyone actually saw very many Donald, Bugs, or Woody cartoons. If you were a somewhat regular moviegoer, you likely saw SOME but surely not ALL of an animated character’s body of work.

Liberties could, therefore, be taken as needed.

By the time these cartoons came to TV, the comics templates for them were firmly established – for better (Donald) or for worse (Road Runner).

The H-B characters were on everyone’s TV sets, and in everyone’s homes, EVERY WEEK! For these comics to be successful, their characterizations needed to hew more closely to what everyone was seeing regularly. And, so they did.

Last word on the Donald Duck cartoons, seek out the ones by Jack King, rather than Jack Hannah. King, for whom Barks was a storyman, produced cartoons that were far more in line with “our” Donald than did Hannah. He used Daisy regularly, instead of Chip ‘n’ Dale, etc. King’s final short, “The Trial of Donald Duck” (1948) was Barksian enough to have been a WDC&S lead with only minor reworking!

Find my Blog entry on “The Chronological Donald Volume Three” DVD (early in the history of this Blog) for more detail on King’s Duck cartoons, and why they stand out from the rest!

http://tiahblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/get-it-while-or-if-you-can-dvd-review.html

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

In part, at least, I think that the "generic funny animal" comics died after the 1950s because the comics publishers that were most likely to produce such books were among the first to disappear in the wake of the "horror comics" scare. These publishers usually didn't have licensed properties to fall back on. The DC funny animal titles, which lasted a while longer than most, would be the main exception, but even those may prove your point. Given a choice between well-known theatrical characters in comics, obscure theatrical characters in comics (e.g. The Fox and The Crow), and characters created specifically for the comics medium, I can easily understand why folks might opt for the old theatrical stand-bys.

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

The way I see it, Chris, is that, in the pre-TV days it was anything goes. Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck would have been better known than The Fox and The Crow, but F&C held their own as well.

The difference was that you could still slip in an unknown “generic funny animal” title because it was similar enough to something one MIGHT have seen on the big screen to be accepted by an audience with limited entertainment options.

Once TV came along to give “legitimacy” to the major characters, the game had changed.

You knew Mickey, Donald, Bugs, Porky, Daffy, Woody, etc. It might have even buoyed The Fox and The Crow, as some of their cartoons were aired in the early sixties.

But, the recognition factor– or lack thereof – when choosing comics magazines would seem to have worked against “Run-O-The-Mill Rabbit”, “Indistinct Inchworm”, and “Generic Goat”.