How Disney Fans Found Carl Barks

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Once upon a time, Disney fans did not know the name of legendary comic book artist Carl Barks who, among other accomplishments, created the iconic character of Uncle Scrooge.

“Ninety-nine readers out of 100 think Walt Disney writes and draws all those movies and comic books between stints with his hammer and saw building Disneyland,” wrote Barks in a 1960 letter.

It was the policy of the Disney Studio not to give attention to individual artists who worked for the company. When they did acknowledge particular artists in the early 1930s, other studios often poached those talented craftsmen falsely thinking that they were the secret behind the Disney success. In addition, it was felt that developing a Disney brand would help position the company for greater success and so Walt Disney became the public face for everything the Disney Studio did.

The very first book written about the Disney Studio, The Art of Walt Disney by Robert Field (1942 Macmillian Company), went behind-the-scenes to detail how Disney animated cartoons were created without ever mentioning any other name than “Walt Disney” in its nearly 300 pages. While it was described what the many other artists did on particular projects, none of them were ever identified by name—not even Clarence Nash as the voice of Donald Duck.

However, despite the efforts to make the Disney characters stay “on model” in animation and in comics, artists would add their own touches, either unconsciously or intentionally, and Disney fans noticed those differences.

"Among all who read Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories during the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was one common term for the unknown artist who drew the Donald Duck stories," wrote comic fandom pioneers Don and Maggie Thompson in their well respected comic fanzine, Comic Art No. 7 (1968). "Comics readers and comics fans all over the U.S. independently applied the same term to him. To fans in Ohio, California, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, he was 'The Good Artist.' His name was never signed to his work, and his publishers—until the early ‘60s—never revealed his name to his public, though many of us wrote (unforwarded) fan letters. His name, as we finally learned, is Carl Barks. Now, after his retirement, he finally is getting some of the recognition he deserves.”

That difficult to find mimeographed fanzine (only 475 copies were printed and distributed) featured the first interview ever done with Barks (supplemented with additional correspondence by Barks to the Thompsons), a brief bibliography of Barks’ comic book work and the lengthy critical essay The Lord of Quackly Hall by Michael Barrier, the first scholarly article on Carl Barks and his comic art.

Barrier had been compiling a complete Barks bibliography and history that was shared in installments in his own animation fanzine, Funnyworld, and his research was later gathered into his first book, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book (1982). That book received poor distribution and is an expensive collectible today. It is desperately in need of updating and reprinting. Barrier was rightfully lauded for his detailed work and it was used as a primary reference in many other articles about Barks.

Barrier was one of the most prominent and eloquent writers bringing attention to Barks. Other people who might be forgotten today who were also important in revealing the genius of Barks to the general public were Donald Ault, Thomas Andrae, E.B. (Barbara) Boatner, Glenn Bray (who suggested Barks do oil paintings of the ducks), Malcolm Willits (who did the first interview with the artist), John and Bill Spicer, Edward Summer, Don and Maggie Thompson, Bruce Hamilton, Russ Cochran, Bill Blackbeard, Dana Gabbard, John Nichols, Gary Kurtz, Kim Weston, Mark Worden and a handful of others.

Barks was not disgruntled that he was “unknown” for decades. He fully realized that it was just the policy and that other Disney artists worked under those same restrictions of anonymity.

“About 1956 or ’57, we lived in San Jacinto,” Gare Barks, Carl’s wife at the time, told interviewer James Simmons in 1982. “We had a young newsboy who was 12 years old who used to deliver the paper. One day I made the mistake of inviting him in to see what Carl was doing and let him watch Carl drawing some duck pages. He was fascinated. The next day, I went out to water the front yard and there were about 15 little neighborhood kids lined up along the sidewalk outside, all buzzing and talking and pointing. I couldn’t imagine what was the matter with them. I suddenly realized it was because this was the house in which Donald Duck was drawn. By that experience, we learned to keep very quiet wherever we lived and not let the kids know what was being done in our house.”

Barks had mixed feelings when his name was first revealed to the general public. As Barks wrote to Barrier in 1962, “Your information about other artists and writers in the comic book field is gratefully received. I can understand why the information is limited. The homeside working habits of the ilk compels them to be secretive about their business. That starts with a defensive wall against the neighborhood kids and extends without conscious effort to the outside world. Recognition is fine if the rewards are high enough to repay a man for loss of privacy and freedom of expression. That last is important. The guy who is completely incognito can let a lousy piece of work go off his drawing board without worrying about what the reading public will think of him.”

So Barks was content to work in relative secrecy and the Disney Company had no desire to reveal his name nor the names of the others that produced the work for the DELL comic books featuring Disney characters.

So how did Carl Barks get discovered? Actually it was two devoted fans who were finally able to uncover the secret: Malcolm Willits and John Spicer.

Ever since he was a child in the 1940s, Willits had been a fan of Barks. However, while he could recognize the work of the distinctive artist, like every other child in the world, he had no clue as to the name of his favorite comic book storyteller. He read Barks stories in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, the Firestone giveaways and the larger Disney comic book specials. He started his collection in 1945.

Willits wrote a letter in 1950 to the publisher about Barks, but never received a reply. In 1957, Willits found himself in the Army and assigned to a post in Minneapolis where he was editing the new Army Corps newspaper. From 1950 to 1955 with two other friends, Willits had published an impressive amateur photo offset science fiction fanzine called “Destiny”.

“One issue featured a lengthy article on cartoon animation, devoting a good deal of space to Walt Disney and his efforts. Using this issue as ‘bait,’ even though our magazine had folded, I wrote the Disney studio informing them I’d like to do an article for ‘Destiny’ on their Donald Duck comic book artist,” Willits remembered.

The military letterhead must have impressed someone at the Disney Studio, and they replied with the name and address of the “Good Artist.” Unfortunately, because of increasing responsibilities, Willits was unable to make use of the information at that time.

In 1959, as a high school teacher in Washington, Willits was in contact with another fan of Disney comic books and Carl Barks named John Spicer. The comic fandom community was very small in those days, and they exchanged a few letters once they discovered their mutual interest in Disney comic books, something out-of-the-ordinary for the usual comic book fans who were more fascinated with just superheroes.

Sometime in 1959, Spicer and his brother Bill tried to find out who the “good artist” was by writing to both the Disney Studio and also the Western Publishing editorial office in Los Angeles responsible for the DELL comic books featuring Disney stories. They received the standard answer that it was company policy not to give out the names and addresses of freelancers. The Spicer brothers had collections of Barks comic books.

Finally, the two brothers collaborated on a neatly typed letter stating that one of them was a high school art teacher who was planning a class that would include a discussion of comic art, specifically Disney comic art. In particular, the “teacher” wanted to write to the artist who had been doing the Disney Duck stories for the last 15 years to ask about the technical side of writing and drawing comics.

A woman at editorial in Disney wrote back with the name and address of Carl Barks. John Spicer wrote a letter to Barks on April 11, 1960. Since it was the first real fan letter Barks had received, he was suspicious about it. Finally, Barks wrote back.

“After eying your letter with dark suspicion for several weeks, I have decided to answer it on the assumption that it could be a genuine fan letter. You see, I have a friend in Oceanside who just loves to play practical jokes and writing phony letters to his chosen victims is one of his jokes…My friend writes gags for the daily and Sunday ‘Dennis the Menace’ newspaper feature. His name is Bob Harmon, and if the name of John Spicer happened to fit one of the Dennis artists at Carmen Valley, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But, as I stated above, I’m going to write this letter on the assumption that John Spicer is a genuine, on-the-level young man with a better than average discerning eye for differences in art and writing styles. Ninety-nine readers out of a 100 think Walt Disney writes and draws all those movies and comic books between stints with his hammer and saw building Disneyland. It is a pleasure for us ghost writers and artists to meet an occasional sophisticated person who knows that he doesn’t.”

Barks proceeded to answer several specific questions about his life and stories. At the end, he wrote, “Well, it was nice getting a fan letter. The front office tells me they get many letters, but over the past 17 years, they have shown me only three. Two of which were ‘pan’ letters that left me cringing for weeks. I suppose it’s just as well I don’t get much mail. Writing and drawing these comics is a full time job seven days a week. I would have little time to answer…..I hope the stories you have read in the duck and Scrooge books have helped to give you a broader understanding of life, as well as entertainment. But I’ve tried to keep off the shop-worn cops and robbers kick that depraves so much of television and other mediums these days. If more of my readers grow up to sit in the Senate chamber than to sit in the gas chamber, I’ll have been richly rewarded for trying to turn out a good product.”

Almost immediately, John Spicer wrote another letter asking if he could arrange a visit. Arrangements were made to visit Barks in late August/early September 1960. John and Bill Spicer as well as Ron Leonard visited Barks’ San Jacinto home on a day when it was nearly 110 degrees.

“After staying several hours, talking with Carl about comics and painting, Carl gave each of us a signed original but cutting up both halves of a four-tier page into four strips—a page he said was the first version of something he had redrawn at either the editor’s request or something Carl himself was unsatisfied with and decided to re-do,” Bill Spicer said.

When John Spicer informed Willits of his success getting a reply from Carl Barks, it encouraged Willits to write to Barks himself on May 25, 1960. Once again, Barks couldn’t believe that he had fans and had no idea the widespread adulation of his work. (Barks later gave the original copies of these first two fan letters to the Disney Archives.)

“I have spent 17 years in the dark, wondering what the readers of my stuff really wanted,” wrote Barks to Willits. “It would be an enlightening experience to talk to one. In the event you phone, my wife will answer the call, my hearing aids which are okay for ordinary conversation are shuttery for telephonic jazz.”

In early June 1960, Willits was the first Disney fan to visit Barks and his wife, Gare. The Barks visited Willits in July 1961 when Willits went back to college at the University of Washington.

“Barks chose to acknowledge his two newfound fans with the June 1961 issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in a story titled Stranger Than Fiction. I had already informed him of my abiding interest in science fiction, and of how my parents refused to allow it in the house when I was young, and how much I wished he’d do more stories with this theme [of science fiction],” Willits recalled.

“In this story, Donald is enraged to find his nephews reading a science fiction book and proceeds to throw it in the trash. The book in question is Ten Seconds to Mars by Spicer Willits. Naturally, the kids have the last laugh as what Donald considers to be science fiction turns out to be fact. As with many of Carl’s stories, a moral is involved, but even if it wasn’t, John and I were delighted in being immortalized, however briefly, in one of his works,” Willits said with a smile.

In 1962 along with Steve Edrington, Willits once again visited Barks at his home, but this time took along a tape recorder and did the very first interview with the artist.

“The interview was difficult as Mr. Barks had forgotten much of his prior work, since like all great artists he thought only of his present and his future works. As the years progressed and he heard from more and more fans and underwent increasingly detailed interviews, he re-read his earlier works and became much more acquainted with them,” Willits said.

The 1962 interview was not published in full until six years later in Don and Maggie Thompson’s comic fanzine, Comic Art No. 7, in 1968. The printing of the interview was delayed because in 1963 the Disney Company not only refused the use of any artwork to illustrate it, but did not approve of the interview being published at all while Walt Disney was alive. Fearing the wrath of Disney lawyers, the Thompsons just held on to the interview. After Walt’s death, the conceit that Walt did everything including writing and drawing all the Disney comic books would have been improbable to sustain.

“Since you seem determined to produce a piece about me, and since I feel that such a piece might help to entice some of the other hacks of comicdom from their dark caves of anonymity, I’ll do my bit to push it along,” wrote Barks to the Thompsons. “Who knows? The guys who drew Sheena and Millie the Model may start thumping their chests and bellowing, ‘Hell, if a lousy duck artist is worth all that wordery, us bosom and leg men should rate a whole book!’ I hope it starts a trend toward better public relations for the unknown mystery men whose pens and typewriters changed the reading tastes of most of the world.”

Fortunately, Disney fans today can read that historic first interview (and nearly two dozen other interviews with Barks over the decades) in the outstanding book Carl Barks: Conversations by Donald Ault.

Once Carl Barks’ name was revealed, there was a flood of mainstream magazines and newspapers and fanzines that showcased him and his work. Dozens of books (many foreign publications) have been published devoted to him. He was lauded with awards including being made a Disney Legend in 1991.

None of that would have happened if not for the persistence of two Disney fans and the other early Disney enthusiasts who loved the unknown “Duck Man” of the Donald Duck comic books. Barks was 60 years old when he was discovered by Willits and Spicer. He died in August 2000 at the age of 99.

To learn more, I talked about some of the early Carl Barks fanzines in an previous article.