Let me come out and say it: I can’t resist a comic with a good duck in it. It’s a bit niche, but I think everyone has something like that in comics (and believe me, it’s not always so wholesome as ducks!) Over the last year I have been exposed to some really great comic creators who’s work centered around ducks. It’s probably a coincidence, but it’s definitely quality.
Sometime back in 2016, through the mighty library system, I was able to obtain a copy of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck the Complete Collection Volume One. I knew who Howard the Duck was, of course. I liked Howard the Duck. When he was in the post credit scene of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I lost it. But I had never read any of Gerber’s run. Gerber was the man who created Howard (along with Man-Thing and Omega the Unknown, and he is pretty underrated in my book!) and his work with the Duck was just insane. I remember opening the book and within the first few pages, Howard found this really tall tower. His thought was basically “that looks like a good place to commit suicide.” He was going to climb the tower and jump off. I wasn’t ready for that! It was unlike anything I’d read from that time period, and unlike pretty much anything I’ve read from any period.
Gerber made Howard stand out because, at the end of the day, it was an existential book. It was philosophical, examining the human condition. But it was packaged in the form of what they would call a “funny animal book.” I thought that was just great juxtaposition. Here we see a duck, so we automatically think this will be something for the kids, then he’s dealing with alienation (being trapped in our world), getting locked in a psyche ward (in the 70s!) and running for president (“Get Down, America!) Gerber had a sense of humor and imagination unlike anyone else, and it helped to secure Howard as one of my favorite reads in a long time. Thus began my love for the duck in comics.
I should also mention that the other day, a friend of mine was in a comic shop and sent me a picture of a book called Destroyer Duck and asked if I wanted it. Because, you know, ducks. I thought it sounded familiar, and I said yes. I did some research and found out that it was actually written by Gerber, as a sort of parody. He was looking to make extra money while in a lawsuit against Marvel over the ownership of Howard. When I got those comics, I opened it up only to see that the art was done by none other than Jack Kirby!
I just got the books, so I haven’t read them yet. But you can expect a full report when I do!
After reading some Howard, I went further back in time. Once again thanks to the library, I was able to find some old Scrooge McDuck. We (I work at the library) had one of the Fantagraphic Library editions on our shelf and I thought, “Well, I always hear such good things, why not?” See, since I started doing the con circuit, I kept hearing a name: Carl Barks. I didn’t really know anything about him, other than he worked on the duck books. I’m sure I’ve brought some shame to myself admitting that I didn’t read Barks’ work as a kid, but better late than never, right? Right?!
Anyway, I was a little cautious. I’d heard of Barks’ merits, but these books were really old, so I was worried they would feel dated. When I opened the book, I discovered my fears were unfounded. Unlike most old comics, Barks’ work with the ducks stands the test of time. And it all comes down to the quality of the work. The art is beautiful, he was a master of the comic craft (I study every panel to see what I can learn), and the jokes still hold up. It gets me to laugh. And as much has humor has changed since those stories were written (midway through the last century), that’s impressive. And I believe Fantagraphic recolored them, so they don’t look aged. It’s remarkable because not only could Carl Barks tell any story using the ducks, but he made them fun. His stories, both long and short, gave the reader joy. They wanted to keep reading, be it Donald or Scrooge.
Barks started his work with Donald Duck. He was smart in his portrayal of Donald because he’s a normal guy, like all of us. He gets these schemes to make money, and they almost always backfire. He represents the common man, er, duck. When we read Donald, we can all see the struggles we go through (albeit exaggerated). The other nice thing about his Donald stories is that there are A LOT. So you’ll have a good amount of reading.
I’ll be honest though, it was old Scrooge McDuck that made me fall in love with Barks. I don’t know if it was memories of Duck Tales, or his money pit, or his top hat, but Scrooge has totally won my heart. And I once heard him described as “one of the greatest characters in literature.” He’s the opposite of Donald: he succeeds in whatever he’s trying, he’s rich, and he is NOT like most readers. In fact, these days they would say he’s the one percent. But luckily for everyone, he’s on our side. Although he started out as a greedy, selfish old coot, he changed over time to be a lovable rich adventurer. Like Indiana Jones with more money than anyone in the world. Fun fact: a scene from a Barks comic actually inspired the boulder chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I think you’ll find that factoid in the introduction to the collection called Seven Cities of Gold if you need proof! Scrooge just had it all. And it helps that he was in the hands of someone like Carl Barks. He truly loved what he was doing, and you could tell. He wrote so many stories, and each with such quality. And all this, too, considering the fact that for much of his career, no one knew who he was because they didn’t credit creators back then. Fans simply called him “the Good Duck Artist.” Good on you, Carl. I should also mention here that Don Rosa has an incredible body of duck work, having taken over for Barks. But I can’t really talk about him because I’m not familiar with his stuff…yet!
I could probably write an entire academic paper on Carl Barks. I’m sure it’s been done given his importance. I mean, he was called the Hans Christian Anderson of comics by Will Eisner. That’s a big deal. But I think I’ve made my point: ducks in comics have had an oddly large effect on me. So, if you’re looking for something to read, take a quack at some of these books I mentioned, won’t you?