The paramount

It has been argued that many an artist has produced his best work when under strenuous conditions; we have all heard tales of both starving and freezing would-be authors and painters who proceeded despite all odds, because they believed in the importance of their work. It would seem that poor conditions sharpen the ability to produce brilliance. Be that as it may, but in Barks' case it came through.
His best work - by his own admission - was made in and around 1949, the period in which he was going through a rough time with his second wife, Clara, who was an incurable alcoholic and therefore tested Barks' patience and endurance to the limit. It all ended in 1952 while he was working on FC0408 The Golden Helmet. He was like a zombie in an attempt to clear his mind from the divorce procedures that drained him of both sanity - and money. Under the circumstances there is evidence that the Golden Helmet plot was not hacked out by the same method that built most of my stories, but was at least partly 'divine inspiration'.


The studio

Barks' description of his working environment in 1962: My studio layout is simply a drawing board with a glass light panel surrounded by bookcases, paper shelves, and filing cabinets. The drawing board sits beside a window that looks out upon a lovely mountain. That mountain costs me hundreds of hours of production time.


The working procedure

I penciled my scripts in longhand on common writing paper. Nobody but me ever saw them. The plot was broken down into brief panel descriptions of action and characters. Dialogue was included in each panel. For drawing I used paper furnished by the publishers. It was formerly full sheets of two-ply Strathmore medium rough. In later years, the company imported paper from West Germany - not quite as good as the Strath, but fairly easy to ink on with a #356 Esterbrook pen.
I roughed the art directly onto the paper with a Scripto light blue pencil, inked the characters, then turned the page over to my wife, who inked the dialogue, backgrounds, and brushed in the solid blacks, Page sizes were 16x24
(40x60cm - Editor's remark). I cut the pages in half and drew the top four and bottom four panels separately. The engravers back East taped the parts together before shooting. The ink I used was black India. Brush sizes were from 000 to #3.


Walkthrough (short versions)

When I made my blue pencil drawings, I'd put up a page (that was eight panels), then alongside it another eight panels. I could put about eight pages on one of those big storyboards (Celotex boards - Editor's remark) and see whether I needed to enlarge on a sequence or cut down on it. Then, when I got it all inked, I would read it again. Oftentimes I would take a whole page and throw it away. I tried to boil those stories down to where only the necessary things were in. That's why they always appeared so tight and read so quickly. I also tried to strengthen the end of each page with a little cliffhanger. I also used to balance left and right pages to make a two-page spread. I always tried to keep my action moving toward the center of the book.

I would read the storyboard over and over again. Not only that, I would read the script probably ten or twenty times before I ever started drawing it. Then I'd go over the storyboard up on the wall probably another ten times before I ever got around to inking it. But I never set any definite rules for myself, because I found that it cramped my creativity. If I felt that I wanted to ink, I just went ahead and inked a few pages. In general, though, I think that I would spend four or five days polishing an idea, then another four or five days writing the confounded thing. Then the penciling and the inking would take another ten days - for a ten-page story. All the polishing was in self-defense. I found that if I polished it before I put all that work into it, it was much easier to make corrections.


Walkthrough (long version)


I have a bunch of things that have to go into the story, and so I just keep feeling around for the best gags that fit in. It's like sewing together pieces of a shirt.
The construction of a story always started with the inspiration of a funny situation that the ducks could get into. Then I would start thinking of gags that would apply to that situation and, oh, I would pick up a piece of paper and just start writing on it, write down all kinds of little gags that I would think of. Even at night I would wake up and grab a piece of paper and note something down that I would happen to think of during the night that would apply to that particular story.
After I had quite a few gags put together and I felt that I had enough to really make a story interesting, then I would put them all together in a sort of sequence so that I could write a synopsis, with a beginning, middle, and end. This would be, oh, two pages of just longhand, sort of an outline. Then, with that pretty well polished, I would start breaking it down into panels. That is, write in longhand what the ducks were doing in each one and write the amount of dialogue that each one would have to say, and go on from panel to panel until I had detailed the business of a whole page, and then I would start on the next page.
And, in fact, that's when the gags really begin to pop into the story - when I'm breaking it down into panels. I would just begin thinking of all kinds of different new things. Because each panel would suggest something that might happen in the panel just a little later, or a page or two later. Pretty soon I would have a running gag developed. Sometimes I would start with a story that I felt would come out 16 pages long, and I would find that it was actually going to be about 20.
Now one of the main things in the construction of a story is the planting of gags, objects that are going to be used later in the story. For instance, in one story I had the nephews have an animal whistle that would call all sorts of animals that I was going to use for some big climax later in the story
(U$19 The Mines of King Solomon - Editor's remark). I planted that whistle early in the story. The kids would be blowing the whistle, and here would come a bunch of little animals. It showed what the whistle was for, and the reader could anticipate that it was going to be used sometime later.
After I had the story laid out page by page, I would go back to the beginning and plan the drawing of each panel, and rough out with light blue pencil where the characters should go. Each panel had to be composed so that the characters were centralized in as tight a little group as I could get them, and so that whatever they were doing was very clear to the reader.
Then I would letter in the final dialogue, just in blue pencil, and once I had the whole page all constructed that way in rough, then I would go back and ink these characters. I would ink each one starting with the head usually, and going down to all the different details of the body. And then I would hand the page over to my wife, who would do the lettering and ink in all the background details
(Barks is talking about his third wife, Garé, here. His second wife, Clara, also helped to a certain degree, but she never worked with lettering and backgrounds - Editor's remark).
She'd ink in all those things. And she would put in the solid blacks in the ducks' jackets, and the eyeballs, and so on
(according to Garé herself she could never draw the ducks: I don't know why. I had a lot of difficulties with them - Editor's remark). And she would hand it back to me for whatever finishing was required, like putting the little white dashes in the ducks' eyes, the highlights that showed what direction they were looking.


The favourites


Of course, Barks was - on numerous occasions - asked which story he considered his best and when he peaked as an artist. Here is what he replied in a 1962 interview: The square eggs (FC0223 Lost in the Andes - Editor's remark), I guess. 1949. That was about the time I hit my peak in stories. I couldn't say for sure whether that was the peak in art, but I remember I felt more interested in art at that time. I mean, I tried a little harder, although some of the stuff since that time has probably been better. Let's see. The art I was doing about the time Scrooge discovered Atlantis under the sea (U$05 'Atlantis' - Editor's remark) - that was probably as good as I've gotten, art-wise. My best story, technically, is probably the square egg one.
The one I always liked best for sentimental value was In Old California
(FC0328 In Old California! - Editor's remark). I created an atmosphere and then kept that atmosphere through the whole story. Composing these stories is like writing music. You've got to have the beat and keep the whole thing going.
Among the other long stories Barks often mentioned were FC0408
The Golden Helmet, U$65 Micro Ducks from Outer Space, and FC0275 Ancient Persia.
It seems that the ten-pager Barks recalled most frequently was the story in which Donald worked as a chicken farmer (WDCS146 'Omelet') - as was Barks briefly in his early career - and everything turned out wrong to such an extent that the unfortunate town in which the story takes place was renamed Omelet. Barks would shudder when remembering the numerous eggs that had to be drawn, though.



Next opus

I think that my way - provided one has talent for both - is really the best. It always seemed to me, after I'd finished a story and sent it off, that I was in a complete vacuum and would never have another idea for a story for the rest of my life.
And then I began to think: What would I like to draw? In time, individual ideas would finally come. Why shouldn't Donald be on a sailboat, for then I could draw masts, tackle, or high waves that dash against the ship. So, I'd think to myself: How about a story that takes place on the high seas? Then I'd think again: What climax could I build to? Why not introduce the Beagle Boys, who fight with the ducks for gold on shipboard
(U$31 All at Sea - Editor's remark)?


Words of wisdom

In 1967 Barks sent these step-by-step instructions to a fan (some of the points have been shortened - Editor's remark). They sum up some of the secrets of producing a duck comic, but the most important ingredient - that Barks had in abundance - is missing: Talent...
1. Get an idea for a story gimmick...
2. Plan the locale...
3. Figure out some business for the gimmick...
4. Figure out how to involve the ducks in the business.
5. Get a plausible reason for the ducks' involvement and spring it early in the story.
6. Figure out a surprise ending. This part usually comes to mind after three or four days of writing gags for the script.
7. The foregoing should fill a page or two of longhand note jotting. Now try to think of as many gags as possibly can be related to the planned business. Fear gags, cold gags, spooky gags, stingy gags (for Uncle Scrooge), gags using Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook, etc. etc.
8. Among those gags will be several that suggest lengthy pieces of business. Start the story with the weaker ones and polish the dialogue with lots of shortening and rewriting...
9. Start drawing when a script is broken down into panels and pages. I drew direct onto the drawing paper with a Scripto light blue pencil, and inked with a 356 Esterbrook pen. My wife inked the dialogue with an A-5 or B-6 speedball, and blacked the solid areas with a #2 sable brush. I seldom made preliminary sketches on other sheets of paper, except for model drawings of a new character or prop or special costume.


Trying to break new ground

Barks was a veritable fountain of never-ending ideas. Seemingly we have 'only' witnessed some of his inventiveness: There are so many things I'd like to have that duck do - brand new, original stuff. But I was a little afraid to try it. I was afraid to write a continuity or synopsis and send it down to the office for fear they might not see it the way I saw it in my own mind. I haven't got the vocabulary to write it out.




PAINTINGS   Date 2006-03-06