Inspirado: Duck Comics

Lorie and I are currently visiting my folks here in the Bitterroot, and because we’ve been staying at their place, I’ve been perusing the bookshelves of my childhood room. It’s been fun to see some of the old books that I’ve forgotten, or that I’ve remembered. It’s kind of an eclectic mix, really: interspersed among titles like My Teacher Is An Alien and Bunnicula are more sophisticated fare such as The Odyssey, or Waiting for Godot. Most of the fancier-sounding academic ones are ones that made the trip home for the summer from college– I wasn’t exactly reading The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet when I was in Jr. High.

Collegiate outliers aside, a lot of the books on the shelf are exactly what you might have expected a twelve-year old to have: there’s a couple books about dinosaurs, some sci-fi & fantasy paperbacks, and a binder full of baseball cards. My old Boy Scout handbook is on the shelf, as well as a couple books of magic tricks, and the Star Trek Encyclopedia.

And, of course, there’s a pretty good collection of comics: Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield are probably the lions‘ share of them, but there’s a couple Dennis the Menace collections on the shelf as well. Some of my favorite comics, though, aren’t actually on the bookshelves… they’re tucked away in a trunk at the foot of my bed.

That’s where I kept the comic book comics, the monthly periodicals, as opposed to the paperback compilations of newspaper strips. So what did I read a lot of? One might suppose that it would be mostly superhero comics– the usual Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman fare, but it wasn’t, actually. Those were in there, of course, but most of what I read as a kid were what one might call “talking animal” comics these days– predominantly Disney titles like Donald Duck or Uncle Scrooge, with a good dose of Micky Mouse Adventures thrown in there too.

They’ve been on my mind lately since Lorie and I returned from the Netherlands, where I noticed that the grocery stores and bookstores had digest titles of these classic Disney characters in their newsstands. It reminded me a bit of what a trip to the grocery store was like when I was a kid, when a wide-array of titles seemed to be available at any place that sold magazines. These days the only title at the grocery store seems to be Archie, which I haven’t read in some time.

I think the Disney comics comprise such a large body of my childhood collection, though, because they were something “safe” to give to a kid. I don’t know if this was a deliberate decision on the part of my parents or grandparents, but they certainly depict a world that’s a little less extreme than what might be depicted in a superhero title. The plots were a little more simple, which I think appealed to be when I was very young, and the stories tended to be a little smaller, and more self-contained, something I appreciate even today. It’s not that I mind multi-part story arcs that span a half dozen issues, but it’s nice sometimes for a story to wrap up in the same issue it started, and avoid the month-long wait to resolve a cliff-hanger ending.

I think my favorite stories tended to be the large-scale adventure stories involving Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, and the Nephews (Huey, Dewey, and Louie, of course). I’m not sure I was aware of it when I was younger, but many of the classics of this sort of story were ultimately adapted into the Ducktales afternoon cartoon, also one of my childhood favorites. These stories were literally the pulp action-tales of my childhood. Lost temples in the jungle, trips into outer space, undersea adventure, time-travel– these are all common tropes for comic book and dime-novel adventures, but for me they usually took the form of an extended family of ducks pursuing some crazy plan or another. Like their superhero title counterparts, these globe-trotting adventures might have their share of antagonists and evil schemes that needed to be disrupted or outwitted, but were decidedly less violent. The bad guys were more often undone or captured by a cleverness, rather than physical force, and many situations were resolved by compromise.

These were also the first comics that made me aware of different artists‘ writing and styles. It seems like no one (myself included) can mention the duck comics without also mentioning Carl Barks, and for good reason. Many of the characters were created by Walt Disney (or other artists/animators), but Barks essentially created the “duck adventure comic”. I’d speculate that the earliest duck tales tended to reflect the animated shorts of the time: misadventures in a primarily modern setting, i.e., Donald gets a job as a milkman, hi-jinx ensue. With the addition of Scrooge McDuck (a Barks-created character), the rich-uncle as plot device was really able to facilitate the creation of much more elaborate and adventurous stories. It would be implausible for Donald and his nephews to go diamond mining on the moon, unless, of course, they were there at the behest of their uncle, the richest duck in the world.

I just took this in stride as a kid– most of these story lines had already been written in the 50’s and 60’s, long before I was born, so I didn’t really think much of it, but I was around in the 90‘s for what one might think of as the Don Rosa renaissance, when another artist took up the mantle of the ducks and really cemented a world that had been largely sketched out by Barks. I’m not really sure what the state of duck comics is like today, unfortunately. As I mentioned earlier, I saw the comics on the news stands in the Netherlands, but since they were shrink-wrapped, I wasn’t really able to see if they were new works, or simply re-prints of classic stories.

Thinking about it now as an adult, though, I’m somewhat amazed that some of these stories had opportunity to be written at all. I think Disney has always been an image-conscious company, particularly for such keystone characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, so it seems a little funny that their portrayal in comics would be so different from the animated shorts of the time. As time went by, the depiction of both characters gradually became more sophisticated as each transitioned from being a lovable cartoon-trickster making mischief in a small town, to unraveling spy plots, foiling criminal schemes, and traveling the world in search of buried treasure. But could such comics be made today? I’m not sure Disney would even allow a gun to be depicted in a mouse/duck comic these days, even in the hands of the villain, but in a casual perusal of my comics I’ve come across both Mickey and Donald wielding firearms, which seems like it would probably get censored pretty quickly by an image-conscious brand team today! And this was even at a time when comic books were largely being blamed for “corrupting the youth”, a torch that has now been largely passed to video games.

Which is not, of course, to say that having the all-American Mickey Mouse hold a revolver is “bad” or inappropriate– it’s just a sign of some different times and changing tastes, I suppose. It feels like we rarely see either character much these days, despite knowing them so well. Mickey is the friendly face of an entertainment empire, and seems to now spend more of his time welcoming people to a theme park than investigating haunted castles. In fact, to paraphrase Floyd Norman (from a commentary in the 2011 Free Comic Book Day Mickey Mouse issue) there’s something very “suburban” about them now, and somewhat less adventurous. Which, I suppose, kind of brings them back to where they started back in the 30’s, in the everyday neighborhoods of Smalltown, U.S.A.

But, for me, the adventures of these characters (both big and small) will forever be a childhood touchstone, and the artists who have depicted them over the years will form an indelible backdrop of inspiration for me in my own drawing endeavors. Which leads me to something of an announcement, if you’ve stuck with me this far. Tomorrow, I’ll begin launching a little comic strip of my own, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, but haven’t yet presented publicly. I’ll be updating it weekly, so check back tomorrow for the world premiere! As a sneak peek, I’ll let you know that the first one features a revolver in one panel, so I’m starting off with corrupting the youth right away.

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