Interview with Carl Barks
Sébastien Durand: This is the first time that you have traveled outside the United States. You have seen many countries. How many countries have you visited to date ?
Carl Barks: This is our number nine.
SD: And you still have many left ?
CB: Yes, I have more to visit: Holland and England.
SD: I understand that you had no passport to leave the United States.
CB: Well, I had never had any use for a passport before and at the time I was born, the records were kept in that western homestead country. People lived many miles apart and I guess that when I was born, there was word gotten to a doctor about five miles away to come out and deliver a baby at this homestead. Whether he recorded it or not There was no place to record it because the county governments were pretty flimsy in those days. So at the time I got my social security at 65, I had to establish that I was born in the United States. My brother who had had a mandatory record, being older than I, was able to prove it, because he had been accepted as an American citizen back in 1918.
When it came to passport, they did not accept that. That was not enough proof. And I can't remember how many things we had to do to finally convince them. They sent me a bunch of questions and I answered them. But anyway, they finally realized that I must have been born as an American citizen. They could not prove I wasn't, so they gave me a passport.
SD: Was your childhood in that farm in Oregon your inspiration for Grandma Duck's farm ? Have you used your experience in the farm in your work, after that ?
CB: Yes, in a way. Grandma Duck's farm had been established by the publishers in an other comic book. They had a comic book called Grandma Duck's farm friends. And they had established a pattern of an old granny lady that had a farm back in the middle west, which she grew corn in and things that were very different from the farm I had been used to. I could understand what it was all about because I knew what farmers were. And when it came time for me to write Grandma Duck's stories, I could do it very convincingly.
SD: When you read that the Disney Studio was looking for artists, what kind of artwork did you send them as an example of your work ?
CB: Well, I drew what I thought was a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I had read that they were working on a movie about Sow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Anyway, these characters were not anything like the one that Disney had created but they were interesting characters and my drawings were in Disney like style and they appealed to the people who were hiring for Disney and so they asked me to come and try out for a job.
SD: You began as an inbetweener and then were transferred to the story department. Was it a personal choice?
CB: I was trying out as an inbetweener to become an animator, just as all the people who went in there. But I was turning in jokes and gags to the comic strip and also to the story department, whenever they would send out the little questionnaire to the people in the whole studio, asking for any idea they had for some story that was in production. I was beginning to sell gags to the story department and when the little form for little Modern Inventions was sent out asking all the people of the studio to think of a story that would be suitable for Donald Duck and that would involve modern inventions and Donald reaction to those things. I came out with that barber chair gag that became the main climax of the picture. I also came out with the idea of a robot that was the door-man and the guard of the exhibit.
Walt gave me $50 for that gag and he suggested that I be put in the story department where they needed gagmen more than they needed animators and inbetweeners in the rest of the Studio.
SD: In that department, you often teamed up with Jack Hannah.
CB: That was after I had been in the story department for about three years. In fact almost four years. Jack Hannah was an animator. He was sort of tired of animation and he thought he might try and get in the story department and work over there. As it happened, my partner, Harry Reeves and I had finished a couple of stories in a row and Harry had been sort of promoted to an other job. So I was just alone in one of the units and when Jack Hannah asked to be transferred to the story department, they put him over there with me. He knew nothing about writing stories; However, he knew a lot about technique and how those stories could be put into animation. He knew about music and timing and all those things and I didn't; I could think of gags and a funny situation for Donald. But as for techniques and that sort of stuff, it went over my head. So Jack Hannah was very good put with me. The two of us together made a good team. And we produced a number of good shorts.
SD: I understand that you completed your first comic book story, Pirate Gold, before you left the Studio
CB: That was adapted from a story that had been put on the shelf. There had been a story that they had been working on for a year, that was about Mickey, Donald and Goofy going to look for a treasure. Some pirates were involved looking for where that treasure chest was hidden and they went on that treasure hunt. The story had never gone beyond the story department. It had been pretty well finished. Walt said to shelve it and maybe after the war was over they could make a movie out of it.
But it looked like very god comic book material. It so happened that a representative from Western Publishing was out there looking for something they could use for a long story plot. That was to test whether a long story involving Donald, Mickey and all those guys could make a good comic book. So the story was adapted for Donald and the three nephews that would go and look for pirates' gold.
I had nothing to do with the writing of it. It had already been written. It was adapted by Bob Carp who was a gag writer for the Donald Duck comic strip, the newspaper strip. He adapted it and made it into a script for comic book illustration. Jack Hannah took half the pages and I took half the pages and we illustrated it together, after hours. We were moonlighting (laughs).
SD: And then, when you left the Studio because of that sinuses problem to become a famous artist, have you never regretted to leave the Studio ?
CB: I never regretted it at all. Because I know that I would have been a failure around there. I never really amounted to anything. And getting out on my own, I was able to create good stuff. I think that one of the secrets of a successful writing is that a writer be alone. I can't think of Hemingway or Poe or all of those guys writing with a comity sitting around them telling them what to write and correcting their stuff. They worked alone. That's why their stuff had such charm.
SD: You are famous for all those characters you created like Uncle $crooge, like Gyro Gearloose. We know that in animation Disney was very involved. Did he ever tell you anything about all those characters you created without asking him ?
CB: I don't know if anybody ever asked him what he thought about those comic books. I never had any comment from him at all. I never had any comment from anybody at the Disney Studio, unless it came to the Western Publishing editorial offices and they relayed it to me second hand. I did not even know if anybody at Disney was reading those stories.
SD: But they read them since they copied you after that.
CB: In recent years they have been giving me credit for a lot of that stuff and treating me as if I had done a big favor to the Studio in inventing all those characters.
SD: Among all the characters that you created, Uncle $crooge is the most famous. Is he your favorite or do you have other favorite characters ?
CB: Well, of course I would say that Donald should be the favorite character and I guess he is. Because he was the means in getting to Uncle $crooge and all these others. But Uncle $crooge is a good character and I am proud that I was able to invent him and I am also proud of some other characters that I invented, for example Gyro Gearloose, the crazy inventor.
I read some of those stories now that I wrote for Gyro and I keep on laughing because I think: "How on Earth did I ever come up with such a goofy bunch of stuff.
SD: You also created some wonderful villains like The Beagle Boys or Magica de Spell. You are very interested with all these ducks, since as, apart from a few exceptions, all those characters are ducks.
CB: That was because I was assigned to draw for the Duck comics. I was not going to drag in a whole new bunch of other types of characters, because I did not want to raid the Mickey strips or the Goofy strips. They had there own comic books. Pluto himself had his own comic book and I was not going to raid those books to get characters. I just invented my own and kept them pretty well identified and Duckburg characters were all associates of Donald in some way. I did not stick to duck faces only. Gyro is a chicken, the Beagle Boys are dogs and I had fellows with pig faces. They had variety but did not came from the other comic books.
SD: When you as a writer or painter, you are the owner of your art. When you drew those comics, you knew that other people can use the same characters. How do you react to that ? How is it for you to see other people drawing Uncle $crooge or Donald Duck ?
CB: Well, I just hope that they will do a good job with them and will keep the character. I know of some instances when somebody has shown Uncle $crooge as a greedy old showoff with a magnificent car, driving around and showing off his money. I don't agree with that. I feel that $crooge is an old tightwad. He had a magnificent car once in a while but it was for some particular purpose.
SD: You have written a new story that will be published soon (Horsing Around with History). Did you choose the artist that will draw it ?
CB: Yes, I chose Bill Van Horn who lives in Vancouver to do the artwork. His drawing style is very Disney like. It looked quite a bit like my own drawing and his way of staging things is close to mine I just wrote out the script with a typewriter and had been trying to sketch it out and he got the feeling of what I was thinking of. He would read that little blurb and come up with a sketch just like I thought it in my head.
SD: When you receive his drawings, can you resist correcting a few things ?
CB: I had very few things to correct. He and I went over his pencil drawings quite thoroughly. I went over the whole way though once before I even got to thinking: "Well I have got to correct some things. " So I went back and looked at two or three small situations that required a tiny bit of changing. It could have gone through and make a successful story without my correcting at all. He was that good at interpreting what I wanted.
SD: Who are the Disney artists today that you would consider as having the same feelings as you had for the characters ? Van Horn is one of them, of course, but who are the others ?
CB: Those guys in Italy and a number of people working for Egmont. They are marvelous artists. They are doing much better drawings of the ducks and other Disney characters than I was able to do. Daan Jippes for example has been very good doing Disney style for many years. Vicar who comes from Chile is excellent and there are a number of them up there in the Nordic countries and down in Spain. Those guys are superb artists.
SD: And what do you think of an American artist like Don Rosa ?
CB: Don Rosa has a style that is a little bit different from the Disney style. I know that there is a great deal of people that like that style, which is extremely detailed. So there is room in the business for artists like Don Rosa and for others like Van Horn. They have a different style. But if they have a good story and tell it properly, then people are going to like it.
SD: For you, it is the story that is the most important part ?
CB: Oh, yes.
SD: And you wrote all your stories alone ?
CB: Once in a while I got a suggestion from somebody. I would buy somebody's idea. They would told me: "Why don't you write a story about Donald giving Gladstone a treasure map and sending Gladstone on some dangerous trip ?" Well, I bought that little suggestion from some friend of mine; All I needed were just a few words or something like that to trigger me and I would think of all the rest of the elements of the plot.
Of all the 500 stories I wrote, there was about 10 of them that started with suggestions from someone else.
SD: When you stopped written and drawing stories, you started a career as a painter. Now, you have drawn a new story. Why did it take so long to write a new story and why did you choose to write an other one after all these years ?
CB: I could not outrun these guys who were written stories any longer. They had finally caught me.
SD: What is Horsing Around with History ?
CB: It's about Uncle $crooge's search for a very rare treasure. He finds the original Trojan horse. And I mean the ORIGINAL Trojan horse, not just some corny thing. He finds it , the most valuable treasure in the world. And he carries it back to his money bin.
SD: Do you wish to write an other story ?
CB: I certainly hope that I do not have to write an other one. There is a temptation to try. People beg me to write more stories. It is difficult for me to keep turning people down. But I know that it is an awfully hard job to write those stories two. An other thing is that I know that any story I write will be examined and criticized by everybody all over the world and if that story is not of very superb quality, they are going to say: "Well here is this old hack coming back trying to make money on his reputation; He can't write and here he is getting paid for this kind of rubbish."
SD: After all these years, tell me a little secret: are you now as rich as Uncle $crooge ?
CB: Just in the last two years, I have gotten enough money to get ahead of the income tax people. I never made more money than a carpenter or a plumber. It is just in the last two or three years that I have gotten above the average level of earning and just because of those lithographs paintings I have been doing and the fact that they sell for a big price.
Didier Ghez: Can you tell us as your favorite moment as a Disney artist ?
CB: I hardly have any anecdotes because I was not around enough people to develop any. But I will tell you this about Walt who was a wonderful guy to work for and was very helpful to us on story situations. And whenever we would have him in on a story conference, he was so patient with us in our efforts to try and convince him that we had a good story. And he would let us argue story points. And in these arguments, he would always leave us the last word: "Yes, Walt!" (laughs)
SD: Among all the stories you wrote, what are your favorite ones ?
CB: I guess that among the very best was the one with the square eggs and among the funniest was a little ten page story where Donald is trying to raise chickens and there are some eggs that he stored and a lot of things happen. An other one is a ten page story of Donald where he got to complaining about everything being too noisy and he moves to a very quiet place and he was not satisfied until everything was absolutely silent around him. He went around everywhere seeing if there was any noise he could pick up. An other story I wrote that I like is called In Old California where Donald and the kids went back in history before the Gold Rush. That had a lot of sentimental, easygoing stuff in it. It was not a funny story. It was just based on pathos. An other one I like that I wrote in the '60s was the Micro Ducks from Outer Space.
SD and DG: Thank you Carl.
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