#237 (Vol. 2 #9): DONALD THE DAD
This week I return to the book with which I launched this revival of “Comics in Context,” The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. As you might expect, many of the stories inside, like John Stanley’s Little Lulu tales, have children as their central characters and reflect their perspectives. Sheldon Mayer’s Sugar and Spike stories in this anthology go so far as to postulate that infants have their own language that adults cannot comprehend.
But look at this book’s stories by the contributor who may be the greatest creator of “children’s comics”: Carl Barks, longtime writer and artist of Donald Duck comic book tales and creator of Donald’s Uncle Scrooge. In Barks’ three stories in this collection, children appear in the persons of Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, but they are supporting characters. In two of the stories the nephews prove to be wiser than Donald and Scrooge, but in the third, surprisingly, they first appear wailing in tears like babies. Although these three stories were aimed at an audience of children, their real concerns are the foibles and misadventures of the adult characters, Donald and Scrooge. (As usual, when I do a detailed analysis of comics stories, I issue a spoiler alert. I will deal with the Uncle Scrooge story in a future column.)
The first Barks story in this anthology is “Hypno-Gun” from Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #145, and first published in 1952. Donald sees his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie aiming a strange gun at each other, each time claiming to hypnotize one of them into thinking he is a dog or a cat. Angered, Donald takes the gun away from them, declaring that hypnotizing people is dangerous. “You might do it to somebody with a gullible mind sometime, and that person would never recover!” Refusing to listen to the nephews’ protests, Donald stalks off. One of the nephews laments, “He’ll never believe that we were only pretending.” The gun is merely a toy, and the kids were playing, exercising their imaginations.
Now consider the logic of Donald, who seems to be claiming to be an authority on the dangers of gullibility. If you saw kids pretending to hypnotize each other with a weird-looking gun, you’d assume they were just playing. Why would you assume, as Donald does, that their hypnosis gun was real–or that there even is such a thing as a hypnosis gun? But it seems that Donald doesn’t look beyond surface appearances. Since the nephews claimed this was a hypnosis gun, Donald simply accepts what they say, without questioning it, or stopping to consider how absurd it is.
Since this story was originally published in the early 1950s, I wonder if Barks had a specific satirical purpose in mind. This was the period when comic books came under attack, even by a congressional committee, for allegedly corrupting the impressionable minds of children. As you can read in the recent book The Ten Cent Plague, the comics industry was in dire trouble then, and hundreds of people lost their jobs in comic books, never to return to the business. Similar arguments have been made that other media influence children in negative ways: movies, television, rock music, rap music, video games. This sort of controversy continues right into the present, with the recent accusations that James Cameron’s Avatar encourages young viewers to smoke because Sigourney Weaver’s character in the film smokes. (Really, however hot we Baby Boomers may still consider Ms. Weaver, are impressionable teenagers really going to start smoking because a woman pushing sixty when she made the film smokes on screen?) Some of these accusers would like to see “R” ratings put on any movie in which a character smokes. (What, even Casablanca and A Night at the Opera?)
Seeing his nephews using their supposed hypnosis gun, Donald never stops to consider that, as they say, they are only “pretending.” The kids are playing; they wouldn’t actually hypnotize a victim into thinking he was a dog. Similarly, just because a kid reads about a murderer in EC’s Tales from the Crypt comic book doesn’t mean he will become a murderer himself, Huey, Dewey and Louie are using their imaginations for play. They can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Donald obviously can’t. Moreover, he is so lacking in imagination (in his conscious mind, as we shall see) that it doesn’t occur to him that what seems to be a hypnosis gun is only a harmless toy. Barks may be arguing in this story that it is the adults who claim that children are corrupted by such things as toys who have the actual problems in distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
Indeed, as Donald prepares to throw the supposedly dangerous hypnosis gun off a bridge, he thinks that the gun might also affect impressionable adults. And then Barks introduces two of his recurring themes: temptation and greed. Donald gets the idea of using the gun to hypnotize his wealthy Uncle Scrooge.
It now looks as if Donald was warning his nephews against causing harm with the hypnosis gun because he subconsciously realized that’s what he’d do with the gun. Donald’s greed makes him a hypocrite: he won’t let the nephews misuse the gun, but he has no qualms about using the gun himself to rob a rich relative! And again, Donald demonstrates his own lack of imagination and the limits of his own intelligence. Since when would Scrooge McDuck, who was clever enough to amass the world’s greatest fortune, be impressionable enough to fall under the spell of a hypnosis gun–if such a thing even existed?
One of the indications of Barks’ skill as a storyteller comes when Donald barges into Scrooge’s office. Although neither Donald nor Scrooge nor the narrator mentions it, Scrooge has a black eye and bandages on his head. But why? Patience, readers: this will be explained in due course. But note that Barks is not dealing in entirely linear storytelling here, and trusts that his young readers won’t be confused. (Barks has considerably more faith in kids’ imaginations than Donald has.)
Donald aims the gun at Scrooge and declares he has hypnotized him. Scrooge just looks at Donald quietly, while Barks lets us look into Scrooge’s mind with thought balloons. (Thought balloons have fallen from favor among today’s comics professionals, but a master like Barks demonstrates how to use this tool effectively.) We see in Scrooge’s thoughts that he is not disturbed by Donald’s nonsense, but simply wonders what he’s up to, and decides to play along in order to find out.
When Donald orders Scrooge to give him a sack full of money, Scrooge looks over his shoulder at us, the readers, and thinks, “I could have guessed it.” At that point Scrooge is “breaking the fourth wall,” acknowledging not only the presence of the readers, but also acknowledging that we can read his thoughts. Thus Scrooge forges a bond with the readers. This makes Scrooge even more superior to the unimaginative Donald, who shows no sign of knowing he is being observed by us readers.
Scrooge pretends to be hypnotized, and it never occurs to Donald that Scrooge is faking–playing, in his own way, like the nephews. Scrooge gives Donald a sack of money, whereupon Donald, not truly a bad guy, uses the gun to “unhypnotize” him. Then Scrooge, acting as if he has no memory of what just happened, asks Donald if he could take a look at that odd gun. Donald, utterly gullible, hands him the gun, whereupon Scrooge aims it at him and cries, “Bing! You’re hypnotized!”
Now Scrooge thinks that this will teach Donald a lesson when Donald realizes that the gun has no effect. Scrooge even commands Donald to turn into a woodpecker. (Could this be a sly joke about a competing cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker?) Then Scrooge is shocked when Donald starts pecking at his desk. It is the adult Donald, not the kids, who proved to be so easily impressionable. Donald actually has been hypnotized! Actually, Donald has in effect hypnotized himself.
Now greed and temptation rear their heads once more, as Scrooge’s shock gives way to his considering how he can exploit his own nephew’s sad state for his financial gain. Inserting a caption, the omniscient narrator introduces a flashback to show how Scrooge got his black eye and bandages earlier that day. (Captions and narrators are also out of favor in today’s comics, but look how sparingly but skillfully Barks uses them.) Scrooge had spent time earlier that day collecting bills. Being a comic miser on the order of Jack Benny, Scrooge is too cheap to hire someone to collect bills (even as little as a dollar!) for him, although presumably Scrooge also gets pleasure out of dunning debtors for money. A bully named Rockjaw Bumrisk owes Scrooge the aforementioned dollar, and not only refused to pay this piddling sum, but threw Scrooge (a senior citizen, albeit a feisty one!) into briars and then hit him with a book, hence Scrooge’s injuries.
Back in the present, Scrooge hypnotizes Donald to become a bill collector, intending him to collect the debt from Bumrisk. If course this means that Scrooge is exposing his own nephew to the danger of being roughed up by Bumrisk. Not only does Donald accept this “hypnotic” command, but he gets a wild look in his eyes and seemingly levitates into the air, declaring, “I’m the toughest bill collector that ever lived!” It’s as if Scrooge has unleashed Donald’s inner Hulk. Although Scrooge is pleased with this result, note that he did not tell Donald to become the “toughest” bill collector alive. It appears that the hypnosis has unleashed Donald’s imagination from his subconscious, and Donald has imagined himself as being “the toughest bill collector that ever lived.”
The hypnosis has also unleashed Donald’s dark side. An evil look coming over his face, Donald boasts, “I’ll kick widows out in the cold! I’ll snatch toys from weeping children!” Scrooge approves; Donald has effectively become like Scrooge himself at his worst. Scrooge gives Donald the hypnosis gun and sends him after Bumrisk. In condoning this evil version of Donald, Scrooge has crossed a moral line. Like Donald and, as we shall see, Bumrisk, Scrooge has overreached and will pay for it.
Donald tries over and over to hypnotize Bumrisk, to no avail, and Bumrisk subjects him to all sorts of comedic violence, like sticking Donald in a trash can and rolling it downhill. This kind of slapstick in film depends on timing for its comedic impact. This sequence demonstrates Barks’ skill at staging slapstick effectively in the static medium of comics, conveying a sense of action over a succession of unmoving panels.
Exasperated at Donald’s persistence, Bumrisk uses the supposed hypnosis gun to make Donald think he is a gopher, and to his astonishment, it works.
But ultimately Bumrisk overreaches, hypnotizing Donald into thinking he is a gorilla. “At last!” thinks Donald, whereupon he overpowers Bumrisk.
Then Donald, still acting like a gorilla, menacingly advances into Scrooge’s office and slams the collected dollar down on his desk. Scrooge is frightened (”I don’t know what he thinks he is, but he looks dangerous!”) and uses the gun to release Donald from his hypnotic state. The measure of how scared Scrooge must have been lies in the fact that he gives Donald a sack of money–far more than the dollar collected from Bumrisk, and just what Donald wanted from Scrooge–as a reward. Perhaps Donald deserves it, too, not for trying to hypnotize Scrooge into giving him money, but for surviving his mental transformations and physical perils in this story.
But if Scrooge and Bumrisk recognize they have overreached, Donald does not gain an iota of self-knowledge from this story. It concludes with Donald throwing the gun off the bridge (so at least he isn’t planning to use it again), finally completing the action with which the story began, boasting of his supposed victory over Scrooge, oblivious to what actually happened, and self-righteously telling his nephews it “just goes to show what this thing will do to somebody with a gullible mind.” Indeed.
These two Donald Duck stories remind me of the Seinfeld TV series, in that the initial, minor event leads to steadily escalating consequences, and in the way that disparate storylines (Donald trying to hypnotize Scrooge, Scrooge trying to collect a debt from Bumrisk) join together in unexpected ways.
The second Donald Duck story is “Bee Bumble” from Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories # 158 from 1953. This one begins with Donald being stung by a single bee. Then two more bees show up, and then four, as if to illustrate this principle of escalating complications. In an unusual effect for Barks, Donald elongates his head, first vertically and then horizontally, as if he were Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, in his attempt to keep out of the way of the bees flying near his head. Donald ends up fleeing outside, only to collide with an artificial hive full of bees, that he had no idea was out there!
So Donald rather cleverly improvises creating a protective outfit for himself. It’s called a “sheet” in the story, but it looks more like old-fashioned long red flannel underwear that completely covers Donald’s head and body. Thus protected, Donald picks up the hive and carries it off his property.
Wearing this red protective garment, Donald is unrecognizable: he could be any duck in the city of Duckburg. In effect he has taken on a costumed secret identity. Moreover, rather than being the victim of the bees, Donald has now in effect merged with the bees as a potential threat to the people of Duckburg. In his costumed role, all of Donald’s previous fear of the bees has vanished.
In a splash-sized panel Barks shows chaos ensuing in Duckburg as people flee or climb up street lights or a wall to get away from the bees as the disguised Donald nonchalantly totes the hive along a city street. Donald seems utterly oblivious to the menace he has become. It does not even seem to occur to him that perhaps taking the bees down a main street in the midst of the city is not an appropriate course of action. Barks gets comedy out of a nervous rookie policeman’s attempts to stop Donald, who politely complies, comically unaware of his distress, but only makes the situation just as bad or worse.
After discarding the hive in the city dump, Donald realizes that “Half the people in town are mad at me! Its best that I don’t let ‘em know who I am!” and hides the red costume in the dump.
Returning home, Donald finds nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie wailing, because the hive was theirs: it was part of a project for the Junior Woodchucks, Barks’ parody of the Boy Scouts. Furious, Donald chases the nephews, wielding a stick with which he intends to spank them. Spanking was more widely accepted as a disciplinary measure back then, but it still seems to me startling to see Donald threatening violence against his nephews. It’s also a link to the Donald Duck animated cartoons, which often pit Donald against his nephews in a kind of battle. And, of course, Donald’s best known personality trait in the animated cartoons is his explosive temper.
The nephews save themselves by leading Donald to the Junior Woodchucks’ Supreme Instructor, who proves too formidable an authority figure for him to oppose. The Supreme Instructor lectures Donald that “Parents worthy of being parents want their children to learn about nature!” This does seem to strike a nerve in Donald.
The Disney Studio had actually designated Donald as Huey, Dewey and Louie’s uncle. This kept Donald single, enabling him to continue to court Daisy. But it also somewhat disguised the Oedipal essence of the conflicts between Donald and the nephews in the animated cartoons, in which the kids were trying to defeat their hot-tempered, potentially violent father figure. So it’s interesting that in this story Barks drops the Freudian fig leaf and explicitly acknowledges that Donald is, in effect, the “parent” of Huey, Dewey and Louie.
Perhaps subconsciously Huey, Dewey and Louie’s bees represent what Donald finds annoying about his nephews. Giving in to the Supreme Instructor, Donald decides he has to retrieve the bees “and learn to love them!” Donning his red long johns disguise again, Donald carries the hive back through the city. But this time the townspeople are prepared for the costumed menace, and Donald is hit from four sides by blasts of water from fire hoses.
I’m disappointed that Barks did not do more with the promising concept of Donald’s masked identity in this story, but instead Barks discards it, while telling us that it was days before Donald could return home after hiding in “the hills.”
In the meantime the nephews somehow got hold of the hive and set it up in their yard, but the bees gave continued to cause trouble (including some weird examples of genetic engineering via pollinating one plant species with pollen from another!). Angry again, Donald orders the nephews to put a screen around the hive so the bees can’t get out. It’s as if he is trying to repress the powerful id that the bees might represent, and that trick never works. And then Donald overreaches: preparing for a date with Daisy, Donald sprays himself with “attar of tiger lilies” to drown out the stench of the bees. (Popeye tried a similar trick with perfume in a Thimble Theatre strip I described in a previous column, and it backfired on him, too.) Donald passes by the hive, whereupon the bees, drawn by the tiger lily scent, lift the hive up, screen and all, and attack Donald. The story opened with Donald being stung by one bee, continued through his efforts to stave off being stung, and has built this catastrophe in which he is stung buy an entire hive.
At the start of this story Barks’ narrator said it began in summer; now, the narrator says, it is fall. The nephews have won first prize for their beehive, and go visit Donald, who is covered almost completely by bandages, lying in a hospital bed, where he has presumably been for months! But Donald is genuinely pleased that his nephews won the prize, and they offer him bread with honey from the hive, and he happily munches on it. “Ah, we parents!” Donald says, “What rich rewards we reap!”
Perhaps Donald is pleased that he has indeed proved “worthy” of being a parent, as the Supreme Instructor instructed him to be. As in the previous story, perhaps Barks is rewarding Donald for surviving all the trouble heaped upon him, even by his own doing. But Barks is also wryly commenting on the efforts that Donald makes on behalf of his nephews–and perhaps by extension on the sacrifices that parents make for their children. Huey, Dewey and Louie have succeeded, but considering all the pain that Donald must have suffered, this one slice of bread with honey seems a pitiful reward.
Both of these Donald Duck stories have supposedly happy endings, with Donald receiving a reward, whether it is the bag of money or the bread with honey. But in each case Barks has subverted Donald’s triumph, by showing how self-deluded he is, or by turning him into a living mummy, wrapped in bandages, in a hospital bed. Through his children’s stories Carl Barks was introducing his young readers to the adult perspective of irony.
-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson
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