Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Trail of the Unicorn
By Carl Barks
Fantagraphics Books; $29.99
According to story notes provided to Ken Parille in the back of the latest volumes of Fantagraphics’ Carl Barks library, the eminent and influential cartoonist was no fan of superhero comics. Perhaps he found them too simplistic, and the drawing of fantastic, superhuman feats too simple a challenge for him. As he proves in “Super Snooper,” a ten-page story, he can draw a character leaping, flying, smashing through brick walls, and lifting impossibly heavy objects as well as any of his peers at the time could have. In that story, Donald castigates his nephews for reading comics about super-powered detective Super Snooper, only to gain the very same powers of the comic book character—temporarily—when he accidentally takes a swig of cosmic liquid isotopes, thinking they were his dyspepsia medicine.
Barks draws Donald’s sudden onset of super-powers with great aplomb, from the duck’s discovery of his super-strength during a slapstick routine in which he accidentally tears his house to pieces to his selfish joyride of them, in which we see Donald biting a mouthful out of metal girder at a construction site and refusing to yield the right of way to an eagle, to their sudden disappearance, which Donald discovers the hard way. It’s such a good story that it’s easy to find oneself wishing that Barks had tried his hand on superhero comics in 1949 and ’50, the years the 21 stories in this collection first appeared.
Not that Barks needed to diversify his portfolio any. This book contains many more examples of the sorts of stories that made him so rightly famous, including a couple of epic globe-trotting adventures, plenty of swiftly swelling domestic comedies, and two Christmas comics, which Barks seems to have specialized in.
Next to the title character and his ever-present nephews, the character that appears next most often in this book is Donald’s ridiculously lucky cousin and rival, Gladstone Gander (Uncle Scrooge appears in a pair of stories, and Daisy Duck appears in one and scores a few cameos). In fact, in addition to giving Donald grief around their hometown, Gladstone is central two of the biggest and most exciting quest stories in the volume. In the first, the title story, Uncle Scrooge offers Donald $10,000 to retrieve a wild unicorn from the Himalayas in order to complete his zoo, and Gladstone seeks to swindle Donald every step of the way. In the other, Donald decides to get rid of Gladstone by drawing a fake map for a uranium mine far away in the Arctic, but when his conscience gets the better of him, he and his nephews chase Gladstone to the ends of the earth in a vain attempt to save him/salve Donald’s guilt.
The best of the two Christmas stories is “Letter to Santa,” in which Donald and Scrooge frantically attempt to grant Huey, Dewey and Louie’s sole Christmas wish, each for his own, rather spurious reasons (Donald doesn’t want them to know he forgot to mail their letter to Santa, a rather elegant way to define his actions to do Santa’s job for Santa without spilling the beans to kids about…well, you know, while Scrooge merely wants to get credit for any act of incredible generosity involving his money). Their battle involves a money fight in Scrooge’s office, in which they smack one another about with sacks of moolah, a steam shovel fight in the middle of Duckburg, and dueling Santa Claus impersonations, and the story ends just as it should: Just as the two adults in the room are literally throttling one another, the real Santa Claus shows up to make everything alright…ish. Neither grown-up duck is actually changed by their miraculous encounter, as Barks’ final panel in the story reveals.
This volume includes an introduction by Jeff Kinney, in which the writer and artist responsible for the prose/cartoon mash-up hit Diary of a Wimpy Kid series explains that Barks’s duck comics were the only comics for him and tells a story about how his dad passed his love of those comics down to him, and he, in turn, passed it on to his own sons. It’s a nice, compelling anecdote about the timelessness of Barks’s storytelling, cartooning chops, and sense of adventure and sense of humor…even if younger readers might have to Google the occasional outdated, rarely-circulated word, like “steam calliope” or “ether” or “dyspepsia.”