The Disney Artist Who Developed Donald Duck & Remained Anonymous for Years, Despite Being “the Most Popular and Widely Read Artist-Writer in the World”

Don­ald Duck first appeared in Dis­ney’s 1934 car­toon The Wise Lit­tle Hen (below). In his sub­se­quent roles, he quick­ly devel­oped into that still-famil­iar fig­ure the New York­er once described as “per­son­i­fied irri­tabil­i­ty.” But it would take him anoth­er decade or so to become more than an incom­pe­tent, quick-to-anger foil for Mick­ey Mouse. It would also take the mind and hand of Carl Barks, a for­mer Dis­ney artist who’d retreat­ed to the edge of the Cal­i­for­nia desert to raise chick­ens and draw a few com­ic books for extra mon­ey. That osten­si­ble side gig last­ed thir­ty years, dur­ing which Barks wrote and drew about 500 Don­ald Duck sto­ries, build­ing an entire world around him now regard­ed as one of the great­est works of Amer­i­can com­ic art.

Even as Barks’ comics became enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar, he labored on them in total anonymi­ty; fans called him “the Good Duck Artist” (which now seems more of a com­men­tary on the artis­tic stan­dards of Dis­ney comics at the time) or “the Duck Man.” As comics Youtu­ber matttt puts it in the video above, “in the ear­ly nine­teen-fifties, the Duck Man was sell­ing three mil­lion comics every sin­gle month, and yet no one knew his name,” because “Dis­ney was intent on keep­ing alive the myth that Walt Dis­ney him­self per­son­al­ly drew the comics.” Despite that, it was clear to many read­ers, young and old, that one par­tic­u­lar Don­ald Duck artist was pro­duc­ing mate­r­i­al of excep­tion­al ambi­tion and “astound­ing­ly high qual­i­ty.” It would take the espe­cial­ly ded­i­cat­ed among them years and years of repeat­ed attempts before find­ing out his name.

“The duck comics were, at their best, rip-roar­ing, edge-of-your-seat, globe-trot­ting com­ic adven­tures,” says matttt. “They feel less like Steam­boat Willie and more like Indi­ana Jones or Star Wars — or, should I say, Indi­ana Jones and Star Wars feel like the duck comics, because both George Lucas and Steven Spiel­berg grew up read­ing, and are vocal fans of, the Duck Man.” Oth­er avowed Barks enthu­si­asts include R. Crumb, Matt Groen­ing, and even Osamu Tezu­ka, the “God of Man­ga” him­self. “Even when I open man­ga from much lat­er, like Drag­on Ball or One Piece, by artists who, to my knowl­edge, have nev­er read a Don­ald Duck com­ic, I see the Duck Man’s influ­ence: in those half-page scene-set­ting splash­es, the big eyes, expres­sive faces, the sense of motion and pac­ing.”

Barks only came into the pub­lic eye after his actu­al retire­ment, and in his lat­er decades found him­self fêt­ed around the world. Gen­er­a­tions of read­ers had grown up famil­iar with not just his sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of Don­ald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, but also the city of Duck­burg he cre­at­ed and the char­ac­ters with whom he pop­u­lat­ed it: Gyro Gear­loose, the Bea­gle Boys, Mag­i­ca DeSpell, and most dis­tin­guished of all, Don­ald’s impos­si­bly wealthy uncle Scrooge McDuck. Like most mil­len­ni­als, I first encoun­tered them all through Duck­Tales, the Dis­ney TV series with a Bark­sian pen­chant for exot­ic trav­els and iron­ic end­ings; this pre­pared me to appre­ci­ate Barks’ orig­i­nal sto­ries as Glad­stone Comics sub­se­quent­ly reprint­ed them in the nineties. And like all for­mer young Barks fans, I’ve only come to appre­ci­ate them more in adult­hood.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons Are Made: 1939 Doc­u­men­tary Gives an Inside Look

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

An Ear­ly Ver­sion of Mick­ey Mouse Enters the Pub­lic Domain on Jan­u­ary 1, 2024

Watch 13 Exper­i­men­tal Short Films by Tezu­ka Osamu, the Walt Dis­ney of Japan

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Praised as the Great­est Com­ic Strip of All Time, Gets Dig­i­tized as Ear­ly Install­ments Enter the Pub­lic Domain

The Comi­clo­pe­dia: An Online Archive of 14,000 Com­ic Artists, From Stan Lee and Jack Kir­by, to Mœbius and Hergé

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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