Pipeline: Augie Celebrates 2013 in Comics

Tue, December 31st, 2013 at 12:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

CHRISTMAS COMICS

I landed two books for Christmas this year, and you might see a theme:

  • Walt Disney's Donald Duck: "Christmas On Bear Mountain"

  • Walt Disney's Donald Duck: "A Christmas For Shacktown"

These are two volumes in Fantagraphics current series to collect all of Carl Barks' Duck works in a series of upscale (yet affordable) hardcover books. As the line grows, the lack of volume numbers on the spine begins to rankle. Yes, I understand the reasoning for it, but I don't think it's too crazy for anyone collecting the whole series to want to be able to arrange the books chronologically on their bookshelves. Even a date on the spine would have been nice, neatly doing away with the volume numbers that turn people off who can't start at the first, while still creating an order that's easily visible for those who might want to shelve their books in that order. The volume numbers are hidden on the title page, about four pages in.

The fifth volume, "Christmas on Bear Mountain" (1947) is named after the lead story that introduced the world to Uncle Scrooge. It's an historically important work, obviously, but also a very entertaining one. The biggest flaw in the story is that this hardly seems like the Scrooge we know and love today. It's a very early version of the character, one that wasn't expected to be anything more than a one off, but who grew into something much more important.

Physically, Scrooge is a hunchback, continuously cold and wrapped up in blankets, alone in a "big lonely dump," rich beyond words and incredibly bored and miserable. The spats and the glasses are there, but the side feather ruffles off his cheeks grow instead out from under his beak, looking like an odd beard growth. (It's almost a neckbeard. Was Scrooge an early UNIX hacker?s) His well-known suit started as something closer to a tuxedo with a bow tie, and his black top hat was a Scottish tam. His glasses had stems on them, rather than just the smart sense to magically balance on the tip of his beak. It might be more logical and "realistic" to have those stems, but they look out of place and distracting. Barks did a good thing in getting ride of them quickly.

The story also reminds us that Barks drew more than just Ducks and humans with slightly animalistic heads. The bears Barks draws here have weight and mass. The baby bear is mischievous, cute and nicely animated. His poses are energetic and entertaining. The mother bear is a little more stiff, but that's just from a lack of activities to engage in; that bear is just busy being scary and stomping around, not toying with the three nephew ducks and running all over the house, stealing food, etc.

The overall story is a little slapsticky, with a classic misunderstanding forming the resolution. Donald and the books are set up in Scrooge's forested log cabin to enjoy the holidays. Unbeknownst to them, this is Scrooge's experiment to test his nephew's fear of bears. Scrooge plans on showing up in costume to complete the experiment, but instead the boys bring a bear into the house with the sad Christmas tree they chopped down in the wood. When Scrooge shows up, he sees the boys with the bears and doesn't quite get it.

His initial impression of Donald as a fearless man couldn't possibly have lasted that long, but it sure did give the nephews a chance to have the kind of Christmas they really wanted.

It's not one of those stories that people can overanalyze into finding some greater meaning for life or the human condition. It's a slapsticky sit-comy story that Carl Barks did so well. It comes in at 20 pages, but it feels much shorter. Barks is a master at setting up the story, putting his pieces into position, and then letting the action play out. It feels like a quicker read, I guess, because the baby bear doesn't talk. Those panels fall silent, and the whole story moves just a little bit faster as a result. You're not reading as much expository dialogue here as you would with an adventure tale.

It's a bit of an in-between story, too. Barks' humorous stories were generally 10 pages, not 20. This doesn't fit in the mold of an adventure story, but it's given as much space as one. It's not so concerned with providing black out gags and varieties on the same set up, so it never gets repetitious, which a longer comedy story might fall into.

At the end of 1951, Carl Barks' story "A Christmas For Shacktown" premiered. When the three nephews convince their Uncle Donald to ask Scrooge for gifts for the poor kids of the Shacktown area of Duckburg, Scrooge offers a deal: Raise the $25 needed for the toy train they want to get the children, and Scrooge will kick in for the turkey. I'm sure there's someone who's begging right now to analyze this comic with the phrase "one percenters," but I see it more as a strong study of Scrooge's character. As with the "Bear Mountain" story, Scrooge isn't above giving small bits of his own money, so long as he makes those receiving it work for it. Scrooge made his fortune by being smarter than the smarties, after all, and then challenged Donald's courage to win a prize in "Bear Mountain." In the "Shacktown" story, he's making what is effectively a matching donation. If the boys pay for the part of the goal that's less necessary (the toy), he'd throw in the money for the necessary part (the Christmas turkey). Scrooge leads a fairly ascetic lifestyle. He doesn't throw money around and he doesn't buy toys. Why should anyone else?

By this time, Uncle Scrooge had matured into the character we know today. His hair has moved to the side of his face just above the bill, and the more familiar jacket is now his staple costume choice, even if the coloring seems weird. At one scene in this story -- and also shown in later stories in the book -- it's all purple. I'm sure that hews closely to the original coloring scheme of the comic and I suppose might hint that he owns multiple copies of the same outfit only in different colors. But, still, it seems most like a coloring issue that could have been "fixed" here.

Scrooge's glasses are also no longer perched on the side of his head (where he lacks protruding ears to hold them up, after all) and he stands up a lot straighter, usually looking like he's about to spring into action at every opportunity, particularly if that's to shovel around his vast wealth of money.

Barks in 1951 was entering his most accomplished and fertile phase of his career. The art looks sharp. The lettering is classic Barks, which is to say it's the style William Van Horn later adopted for his own comics, albeit a tad bit more exaggerated. Barks played with panel arrangements in interesting ways, including diagonal panels and intersections that don't, at first glance, make any sense. They read easily and you can follow it straight through with your eyes, but it is an oddity. He also used skinny tall quiet panels with Christmas imagery in them to set the scene. All of the characters look to be in their most classic design. Gone are the gangly necks for Donald. The design for the Money Bin's riches is looking sharp, a nice mix of thin detailed line work and well spaced negative area.

"A Christmas for Shacktown" is a terrific Christmas story as well as being a good Duck tale. Read alongside "Christmas on Bear Mountain," it shows how quickly Barks was able to put together Uncle Scrooge's character.

BEST OF PIPELINE 2013

The comics craziness continued in the year 2013, but I'm not equipped here to give you a full breakdown of all the major news stories and publishing events. I'll leave that to everyone else's lists. Instead, let's look back at the last 12 months of Pipeline columns. Topics tended to break neatly down into a few categories, thankfully. I wrote a lot about digital comics in previous years. This year seems to have settled into a trio of recurring topics: Art in Comics, European Comics, and New Looks at Not So Old Comics.

ART STUDIES

I wrote a lot about the art of comics this year. In an industry where everyone assumes that comics critics and reviewers are all frustrated comic writer wannabes, I was most happy to write at length about various artistic topics this year. I broke down panels, looked at levels of depth, dissected black and white "coloring," intensely studied a page from a master, and looked at the way an artist might drag your eye through a panel.

General Artistry:

  • Directionality of movement in a panel, featuring "Li'l Santa" (02 Jan)

  • The "Scatterlands" webcomics (09 July)

  • Camera-Obsessed nit-pickery and "Danger Girl" (10 Sept)

  • Photorealism Limits and Mike Mayhew (08 Oct)

Studying Sequences:

  • Catwoman jumps on a train, from Darwyn Cooke ("Catwoman" #1) (04 June)

  • Jim Steranko's S.H.I.E.L.D. Art (03 Sept)

Coloring:

  • On the Coloring of Rob Liefeld (21 May)

  • Cliff Rathburn colors "The Walking Dead" (19 Nov)

  • Coloring MiracleMan (17 Dec)

Lettering:

  • Lettering Guillemets (25 June)

  • Some nice examples of lettering (24 Sept)

Inking:

  • Learning Inking, and Why It's Important For Me (26 Nov)

Design and Layout:

  • Learn Graphic Design From Chip Kidd (29 Oct)

  • "Savage Dragon Digest" differences (20 August)

One Writing Tip:

  • Breaking "Writer's Block" (24 Dec)
DIGITAL COMICS

There's still enough topics to write about to justify their own section here. The story of the year in digital comics is Image's move into DRM-free comics, complete with their own comics store. It's a bold move and a very forward-thinking one. It's a topic I had written about already a couple months prior, hours before Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin announced their "The Private Eye" book. (I reviewed that the next month.)

Here's everything else:

  • Marvel's free first issues break comiXology (12 Mar)

  • Jim Zubkavich offers real digital sales figures. (09 April)

  • How to Buy and Read Digital Comics (16 April)

  • The strength of digital comics is "The Mainstream" (09 July)

  • Why DRM-free books are the future (19 Mar)

  • How to make comics "Special" again? (23 Apr)

I also started a series of reviews, looking at comics that were free on the comiXology platform, whether through the sale that broke their servers, or through general offers from the publisher. It's an idea that merits more reviews, but drifted away after a few installments. If this would be something of value for you, let me know. There are plenty of free first issues out there that might be covered.

Finally, not quite digital comics-related, but an on-line thought, nonetheless: Is the future of comics conventions in the live stream?

LOOK BACK REVIEWS

One of the things I enjoyed doing the most in the last year was re-reading older series that I hadn't looked at in years to see if they still stand up. What lessons might they teach us? What's their historical importance? How goofy do they look now with 20/20 hindsight?

  • Revisiting "Ash" (18 June)

  • A more critical look at "Herobear and the Kid" (28 May)

  • "New Mutants" #97 - #100 (24 Sept)

  • "Wolverine" by Claremont and Miller (06 August)

  • Alan Davis' Excalibur (Part 3) (29 Jan)

There's supposed to be a fourth and final part to that Alan Davis "Excalibur" series. I have notes for it around here somewhere. I hope to write that column someday.

OTHER MEDIA

From television and moves:

  • "Iron Man 3" (07 May)

  • "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." pilot episode (01 Oct)

  • "The Image Comics Revolution" (10 Dec)
MARVEL EARLY NAUGHTS

A series of reviews looking at comics from the early 2000s at Marvel when Bill Jemas and company were throwing everything against the wall:

  • Gail Simone's "Gus Beezer" and Greg Rucka's "Black Widow" (16 July)

  • Steve Uy's "Eden's Trail" (Bonus: "Feather") (30 July)

  • Mike Wieringo's widescreen "Fantastic Four" #517 - #519 (13 August)

  • "Spellbinders" (20 August)

I have more of those mini-series still sitting in a shortbox near this computer. I should get back to them in 2014 for more fun.

EUROPEAN COMICS

This is a topic of growing interest for me, and something I want to continue to increase Pipeline's spotlight on. It's a treasure trove of comics people don't pay much attention to, don't know exists, or dismiss too easily.

  • Cinebook: Comics' All Too Quiet Success (24 Dec)

  • Learning French on the web via webcomics (22 Jan)

  • How the French display their comics, design covers (29 Oct)

  • "Bad Break" (27 Aug)

  • "Bluesy Lucy" (27 Auaxgust)

  • "Dance Class" v1 (29 Oct)

  • "Ernst And Rebecca" v1 (05 Nov)

  • Terry Dodson's "Muse" (19 Feb)

  • "Orbital" Volume 1-2 (22 Jan)

  • "Orbital" Volumes 3-4 (25 June)

  • "The Smurfs Anthology" v1 (20 Aug and 17 Aug )

  • "The Smurfs Anthology" v2 (19 Nov)

  • Chasing Smurfs Videos (12 Nov)

  • "Spirou and Fantasio in New York" (05 Feb)

  • "XIII: The Irish Version" (19 Feb)

I'm still looking for a video of Peyo drawing a Smurf, by the way. If you find one, please let me know.

The books reviewed above are published by Papercutz, Humanoids, and Cinebook.

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TAGS:  pipeline, carl barks, uncle scrooge

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