Grants Pass, Oregon, 11. July 1992
HELNWEIN TALKS WITH CARL BARKS
Helnwein visits Carl Barks in Grants Pass, Oregon, July 11, 1992
Helnwein: How would you like the idea of building an actual Duckburg one day?
Barks: Who can tell what Duckburg really looks like?
Helnwein: If one studies your work carefully, there are a lot of indications. The money bin for example.
Barks: Yeah, the money bin is perhaps the outstanding building in Duckburg. But I remember one in which the opening panel was a picture of the ducks up on top of a sky-scraper, looking down onto a busy city with tall, mighty buildings, a wide river and steamboats.
Helnwein: I remember, yes.
Barks: But that wouldn't be the Duckburg that people should remember. It would have to be a smaller Duckburg, with Daisy's and Donald's house in it and a few blocks further Gladstone Gander's home; and naturally there would have to be Gyro Gearloose's workshop.
Helnwein: With all his absurd inventions, machines and robots...
Barks: And then up on the hill - the gigantic money bin...
Helnwein: On one side, the Beagle Boys would be drilling a hole into the exterior walls where the money would roll out. And inside the money bin, everything would be guarded by traps -- these old canons, for example, that suddenly pop out of the ground. I would construct them in such a way that they would actually function as you walk in.
Barks: Oh yeah, one could have a lot of fun with such a money bin.
Helnwein: Since my childhood, I have dreamed of being allowed to wallow in Uncle Scrooge's coins.
Barks: In Germany they are still printing a lot of these duck stories, aren't they?
Helnwein: Yes, I think Germany is the greatest market for Donald Duck comics worldwide. There you'll also find the most fanatical fans. Have you ever heard of the Donaldists?
Barks: The Donaldists?
Helnwein: It is an association. Or better, an order, which sees itself as the keeper of the holy grail of the pure and eternal spirit of Donald. They are conviced that Duckburg actually exists.
Barks: Oh - I remember - I believe I once saw one of their little pamphlets.
Helnwein: Do you know, by the way, that your stories were translated into German quite brilliantly by a woman named Erika Fuchs?
Barks: She must have been very good, because in my conversation with fans, I always had the impression, that the German readers best understood my humor, in contrast to the Italians, for example, where the spirit of my stories apparently was lost in the translation.
Helnwein: What was the first comic strip you ever saw in your life?
Barks: Oh, - that was a long time ago, it was in my childhood around 1906 or 1907.
Helnwein: What was it? Little Nemo?
Barks: Yes, Little Nemo was the first comic that I remember - and then came "Happy Hooligan" and others, but I most clearly remember Windsor McCay 's Little Nemo - wonderful drawings.
Helnwein: Did you imagine back then, that you would be drawing comics yourself?
Barks: I believe so. I always wanted to know how to make something like this, and I had a great desire to try it myself.
Helnwein: These stories used to appear in the Sunday newspaper in those days, didn't they?
Barks: Yes, we got the paper around Tuesday. In San Francisco the paper appeared on Saturday or Sunday, but we up in our home ranch saw it by the middle of the following week and it was always a total hit. We were living on this ranch up in eastern Oregon.
Helnwein: Which comic strip inspired you the most?
Barks: I have been asked this question many times. There were at least a dozen.
Helnwein: Popeye the Sailor?
Barks: One of them could have been Popeye the Sailor. I didn't care much for the drawings, but I loved the stories - they were very funny.
Helnwein: ...and strange.
Barks: Yes, the construction of the stories, the way the gags were phrased and the way these absurd characters would be introduced. - Fascinating (laughs). But I guess, generally, I was more influenced by drawings - I liked the art. I was more inspired by that than stories or gags. So I was quite a collector of comic strips that had good artwork in them. Like Prince Valiant.
Helnwein: By Hal Foster.
Barks: Yes, and Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond. There was no humor in their stuff and their stories were really awful, but I could just sit there and look at the drawings and be inspired. Of course I couldn't use those drawings very much in doing the duck stories later on, except for the background, or the atmosphere of the places. That helped to make those duck stories popular because they appeared to be going to real places.
Helnwein: What was the first story you wrote yourself?
Barks: This one here ... that was in spring of 1943. In those days it was ok to draw these black ducks. Today nobody would dare to do that, because it would be insulting to African Americans.
Helnwein: Well, I like those black ducks.
Barks: But look at this duck with the earrings; that would be totally impossible today.
Helnwein: Outside of Donald were there any other Disney characters you liked?
Barks: There was one I couldn't stand: it was Disney's Goofy.
Barks: Goofy was simply a half-wit. I could never understand what was supposed to be funny about a half-wit. I liked Mickey for his purposes. He was good in adventure-strips. But the thought of having to draw something like this did not appeal to me. I enjoyed working with the duck because I could knick him around, have him get hurt - I could let him fall off cliffs. It was lots of fun with Donald. With Mickey it would have been kind of dangerous, because Mickey always had to be right. With the duck I had a comedian that I could treat badly and who I could make fun of.
Helnwein: Donald was the looser type.
Barks: That's right, he was a kind of looser.
Helnwein: But one with whom one could identify and whom one could love.
Barks: There were many other characters in Disney, but I cannot remember a single one who has survived.
Helnwein: What about Pegleg Pete?
Barks: Yes, he was a great scoundrel. But they also had Jose Carioca for a while, a parrot who came out of the "Saludos Amigos" animated movie. I don't think he ever became very popular with the people, because he was such an over-baring, little snob -- such a know-it-all snob. Pluto was in a lot of their comic-strips, but he was a very artificial dog, so different from any idea one might have of a dog. I never liked him very much. He was a dumb dog, you might say.
No, when I think of all the characters Disney ever had, Donald was the best.
Helnwein: But before you took him on, he didn't have much of a personality. Only in your stories did he become a real human being.
Barks: It seems that way.
If you have a story to tell, a story that somebody is going to read over and over again, you have to put some substance into it. It takes more than just a bunch of pratfalls and bumps on the head. There had to be motivation for the different things the characters did, and revenge for their mistakes (laughs).
It took a lot to write a ten-page story. A lot of the guys didn't take the time to go into it that far and as a result there were a lot of the comic book stories that never lasted for very long.
With my stories, because I worked so hard to make the story plausible and give it a reason for having been written, people would read it over and over again. They didn't throw the comic book away. So these stories are still alive today, while many others are gone and forgotten.
Helnwein: Did you have contacts to any other comics artists?
Barks: Very few.
I remember one who was pretty successful in his work for Western Publishing.
He told me I was foolish to put so much work into my duck stories. He had just started to work for a New York publisher who was putting out some stories about a couple of crows.
And he said, "Oh, you can get twice as much per page than you're getting from Western Publishing". But I just couldn't see myself writing for those bunch of crows. I didn't like their style or their reason for being there. - They were just a couple of pushy jerks, and I saw no chance to invent stories which had substance or any kind of dramatic development for that.
"Well," I said, "I'd rather keep on like I am, on peanut wages, but getting some personal satisfaction out of the stories that I write."
Helnwein: Over the years you have fully developed Duckburg with all its different personalities.
Barks: Oh, yeah, that just evolved out of the fact that I had to keep getting some material to create new interest in each story I wrote . . . expanding little by little, making more of the city of Duckburg -- the places where these events took place and a little more about the people that Donald had to contact and do business with.
The whole family just gradually grew -- and so did Duckburg.
Helnwein: It's funny, but I and many others of my generation have learned a lot from these stories, because they always contained some real information. Seriously - I've learned more from Donald Duck than I have in all the schools I went to.
Barks: Well, I don't know exactly why I did so much research for my stories, but I had the feeling the ducks had to act in real places, otherwise the stories would look silly. I know in the other duck stories in comics they went to islands like Booga Booga or soemthing like that -- places that didn't have any relation to reality.
And they made their drawings in little squiggly backgrounds, which didn't have the right character of, for example, the South Seas. When I sent my ducks to the South Seas, I gave it a name that sounded very much like it could actually be on a map.
And I would go and look at pictures of plants and trees there, and islands and the mouintains and all the rest. I made my background look like the ducks went to just such a place.
Helnwein: At one point you became a little too realistic - do you remember the story about this chemical formula, which existed in reality, but which was a top military secret of the US?
Barks: Well, I'll tell you - I just stole that out of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
It was a big article on chemistry with all different chemical formulas, and it was written in this gibberish -- CO H and so on -- and I just looked at a whole string of those things and looked at about the middle of that. And I thought, "Well, may be it's harmless enough if I just take these bunch of chemicals and sort of jumble them up and stick them on a piece of paper.
Well, that is what I did, and it turned out that it was a powerful chemical formula.
Helnwein: You are one of the few people after whom a planet was named.
Barks: It was an asteroid.
In one of my later stories, called "Island in the Sky", sometime in the sixties, the ducks try to find a place to hide Uncle Scrooge's money, and they passed a bunch of these small asteroids on the way there.
One of the scientists at Cornell University, where they had a whole laboratory for study of the asteroids, read that comic book and thought that was quite a thing, that these ducks could run onto a bunch of peculiar asteroids on their way to the asteroid belt.
Anyway, they thought that was pretty good. My stories made the asteroids interesting, and opened up a possibility that there might even be some amongst them that would have a few vegetables growing on them. - And so they named one of their discoveries after me:
He wrote to tell me that the surface was approximately 100 hectares (approx. 250 acres) in size.
Helnwein: Well, you have a place to go when this world is destroyed.
Barks: In any case it would be big enough for a money bin.
Helnwein: Did you know Disney personally?
Barks: Oh yes, I went to story meetings with Walt.
He was the guy who'd come in at the last session, and a couple of the times he also joined the production of one of these stories.
Helnwein: How was it to work with him? There are people who claim that he was a dictator.
Barks: If you had a really good story, he was a pleasant guy to have in the room -- he would laugh and contribute more gags. But if the story wasn't good he was very critical. Well, he had to be. After all, it was his money that was paying us our wages, so if the story wasn't good he would let us know. But generally we were very careful to have the story in pretty good shape before we ever showed it to him.
Helnwein: Was he really competent?
Barks: Oh yes - he knew exactly when a gag was going to fall flat. He would tell you that it needs more work or it needs to be shortened.
Helnwein: Did he also care about the drawing or was he more interested in the gag?
Barks: He was pretty indifferent to the drawings in the story department; they only had to carry the story. If we had made sharp, detailed drawings, he would certainly have been upset.
He would have told us: "I'm paying you guys to think of ideas and stories and to get something moving."
Helnwein: You just showed me an old sketch, which you made during a union meeting.
There are different caricatures of people, who are pointing at a figure of Hitler; what does that mean?
Barks: That was after work in one of the buildings in Hollywood.
After the Disney strike we founded a union, and this was supposed to be a union meeting. But instead of talking about salaries and working conditions there were a bunch of war agitators, who advocated that America should declare war on Germany and who wanted to send our boys into battle.
Most of us didn't like it at all that America entered the war.
Why for heaven's sake? We had already been over there once and had fought the Germans in 1916-1917, and supposedly this was to bring about peace for the whole world and for all time. And now we were at it again, sending our boys to death.
For most of us at the Studio it looked like the repetition of a senseless tragedy.
Besides we were disturbed by the fact that Melvin Douglas, a notorious communist,
told us this. He said we had to go to war in order to save Russia from the Nazis who were standing at the gates of Stalingrad.
But we didn't give a damn which side won as long as we could stay out of it.
Helnwein: Was Disney present at these meetings?
Barks: No, none of the leading Disney employees were there. It was a labor union, after all.
Helnwein: Where you there when the great strike took place?
Barks: Well, I was in the story department; we didn't strike. The animators and in-betweeners were the ones on strike. We in the story department went through the picket line every morning.
Helnwein: What was your view of the strike?
Barks: I was against it. I had the feeling that something was being destroyed.
The Disney studios were a place where there were no time clocks - we were able to come to work whenever we wanted to. If you went to work, did a good job and had something to show for your efforts, you got paid damn well.
If you were shirking and complaining all the time you didn't get a raise, and it was these shirkers and complainers who had organized this strike.
Helnwein: Do you think that Disney was fair to his employees and artists?
Barks: He was fair - of course, he could have been more considerate and humane to his employees, but those were hard times. He brought a bunch of us, who, if we were lucky, could earn ten dollars a week doing whatever job - and he gave us twenty. I know many who were not grateful to him for that. They thought that if a Disney film brings in $100, 000, they should get half of it. But Walt invested the entire amount in order to make a new film.
Helnwein: Did Disney ever comment on your Donald Duck stories?
Barks: I don't even know whether or not he ever read my stories.
It was the people from the Publication Department who took care of these things and who represented Disney's interests regarding the comic books. They knew what I did and the fact that they didn't lose their jobs and were there the whole time and well paid, points to the fact that Disney must have been satisfied.
Helnwein: Did you learn about all the places you describe in your stories just from National Geographic magazines?
Barks: They were my most important sources of information regarding geography, nations, people and places.
Helnwein: Did you ever go to any of these places?
Barks: No. I was in Tijuana, Mexico and in Victoria, British Columbia, that's all.
Helnwein: Do you remember, when you drew the first duck in your life?
Barks: I think in grammar school, I scribbled one into a notebook. I drew the first Donald in 1935, when I came to Disney.
Helnwein: Was there censorship at Disney?
Helnwein: Was your work ever censored?
Barks: Not often, I already had seven years experience working in animation and I knew what they wanted and didn't want.
Helnwein: I am thinking of the espionage story with all the spies and counter-spies and counter-counter-spies, where you drew beautiful human girls: with real breasts.
Barks: That one got me into trouble. The first problem happened with my 2nd or 3rd story.
It was a ten-page story, Donald was a life-guard, and there was this sweet, well-endowed duck girl.
I had to spend several hours in the art editor's office in order to flatten all the breasts.
Helnwein: Would you have liked to write more erotic stories with attractive girls, if it had been allowed?
Barks: Oh yes, I would have liked that.
There wouldn't have to be more sex, necessarily, but I would have used attractive looking human girls. But the editors rejected this. They didn't want to let the ducks blend with real humans under any circumstances. The girls had to have duck or dog faces. About the same time when these stories were put together, Walt Disney brought out the animation film "Saludos Amigos" in which Donald acted like a real wolf.
Helnwein: Like a wolf?
Barks: Yes, he strutted and flirted and ran after all the beautiful girls like a lascivious wolf. It made me think that I might be able to get my story through.
Helnwein: When you had retired, you began to paint in oil. But you were not allowed to paint your ducks, since the copyright belonged to Disney, didn't it?
Barks: Yes, for five years I painted and drew little landscapes and sold them at exhibitions. Those were meager years, I didn't earn much. I think it was in 1971, when someone asked me if I could paint him a picture of the cover with the little old sailboat from the year 1949. Well, I said these ducks belong to Disney and I would have to ask permission. But I thought it would be a pleasant way to earn a few dollars, because I had no luck with my other pictures.
So I wrote to George Sherman, who at that point managed the Publications Department, and he simply said: "of course - go to it!" He added that the pictures would have to be good enough, so as not to cause the Disney Studios any embarrassment.
In 1976 I stopped painting, because, in the meantime, the collectors had become very pushy. When I painted a picture for someone, all the others were mad at me, because everyone thought it should have been for him. It had become impossible to keep the waiting list under control. I had no idea how to satisfy all these people, and besides, I didn't want to paint any more ducks.
Herlnwein: But later you reversed yourself.
Barks: Between 1976 and 1982 I had peace and quiet. Then I started with the lithographs and new oil paintings. But now I have reached a point, where I don't want to work any longer. I believe I'll never paint another duck.
Helnwein: You have drawn millions of them.
Barks: Yes, that many for sure.