When I first heard about Thomas Andrae’s Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity (2006) I was pretty excited. A substantial critical book on Barks? I almost bought it on the spot but held back and now that I’ve read it am glad I did so. Andrae wasn’t trying to produce a biography of Barks and though he seems to have enough material to have done so he gets that part out of the way fairly quickly. Instead he’s more focused on critical explication (that myth of modernity in the title) and along with the biography relegates any historical information about the Disney comic book or comics in general to a supporting role. Political and social history comes in whenever he needs a support for an argument which is when we get little potted, nearly cliched stories about, say, atomic bomb malaise.
The problem is that he really doesn’t have enough critical engagement for a book of almost 400 pages. If this book had been cherry-picked for about 50 pages of the best, most apt material and then used in a study that probed the development of Barks’ art, the industrial factors that influenced it, the culture of the comic book, the funny animal genre, etc then we might have had a book of some substance. (Though perhaps needless to point out that such a broad view is probably unthinkable for most academics.) The basic theme is that Barks’ stories critique modern culture and while I think that’s true to some degree, Andrae seems to find the critique under every rock. Again and again he brings up a Barks story and then goes into detail about how it is a satire or parody (those two words and variations must appear on half the pages) of the American dream or race relations or post-War economics (no really). After a while Andrae almost becomes the boy who cried wolf – he finds such consistent and detailed attacks in Barks that you’d think Andrae was writing about Adorno. But it’s not just that repetition since Andrae also tends to stretch this past the point of plausibility.
Take one example, not chosen completely at random but certainly representative. On page 95-6 he discusses the 1953 story “Some Heir Over the Rainbow.” Scrooge has decided to determine his heir by having a competition between Donald, the nephews and Gladstone by hiding three pots of gold and then seeing what they do with the money. At the end of his analysis Andrae sums it up as “The story thus again reveals capitalism’s contradictions.” The catch, though, is that there’s nothing capitalist about this since it’s purely a contest about the distribution of wealth. Such a contest could have been held in almost any society and it’s easy to imagine the same thing done with, say, a Roman emperor, a medieval Chinese warlord, a Renaissance Pope, an African leader (not in reality perhaps but then this is a story about talking ducks). In fact the story it most strongly suggests is King Lear which came from a pre-capitalist society.
It’s not just that Andrae doesn’t understand what capitalism is (or at the least doesn’t apply it correctly to this story) but time and again his analysis feels like he’s reaching for anything that could be claimed as subversive. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his analysis is almost always on the literary/story level and rarely probes into the structural, into how a story is told and that meaning created. In some sense this is odd because he is listed as a film professor at San Francisco State University and you’d think he’d be more in tune to the visual elements but not on the evidence of this book. At one point he does bring up cinematic deep focus and though he gets that one right his application to comics isn’t entirely apt. Most comics actually already have fore and backgrounds in “focus” leaving artists to come up with alternate methods to handle this such as abstracted backgrounds or viewpoints that minimize the potential confusion. (One of the main flaws of such early 90s future-Image artists such as Jim Lee is that they didn’t grasp this fundamental principle of comics storytelling and packed their images so full of undifferentiated detail that the foreground might as well have been the back. George Perez can get away with it as a sometimes inspired hack, not a meretricious one.) I suppose this is the point where I’m supposed to bring up the author’s academic jargon but really Andrae is pretty light with that and anyway that’s just the language academics use – if you can’t handle it that’s generally your problem, not the writer’s.
And finally why is there a filmography but no bibliography at all? At the very least a page or two about where to track down reprints of much material or even further reading (Carl Barks: Conversations came out in 2003 from the same publisher).