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Tribute to Carl Barks
posted January 1, 2001
 

Tom Spurgeon
Writer, Bobo's Progress

An underappreciated aspect of Carl Barks' achievements in comics is how fundamentally difficult it can be to write funny animal stories. Anthropomorphic leads may allow for a certain visual appeal, or even provide a broader base for reader identification, but they strain at the far edges of fantasy in a way that engenders a whole set of potentially restrictive narrative rules. Relationships between characters must be delineated without the visual shorthand derived from everyday reality; further, the writer must create a world around them that both celebrates and grounds their unique nature.

Barks' best stories were showpieces of composure, restraint, and inherent trust in the narrative. Everything the reader needed to know about each character came from their position within panels, their body language in relation to one another, and the way each shape held their colors. Particulars of the ducks' world slipped out in a slow, story-specific accumulation of detail that never seemed forced or strained. But most importantly, everything was secondary to the stories being told – their exquisite momentum and the irresistibly clever nature of each set piece, whether comedic, thrilling, or both.

More than the characters, more than the art, Carl Barks should be remembered as one of the great natural storytellers of the medium's first 100 years. His duck comics are the half-hidden memories in generations of former readers worldwide, and their quicksilver economy can still sweep the most jaded adult reader along for a ride. In an age that values character and concept above all things, the decades-long curtain call given the once-anonymous Barks may be one of finest and most fitting tributes to the power of story.

Originally written for the Comics Journal's Tribute Issue