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#239 (Vol. 2 #11): SCROOGE’S LOST HORIZON

scrooge-01In their Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, editors Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of course included the pinnacle of the form, writer/artist Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, but they chose a rather unusual example of the series. “Tralla La,” from Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge #6 (1954), is a typical Scrooge story in that Scrooge McDuck leads his nephew Donald and grandnephews Huey, Dewey and Louie on an adventure to a distant land. But it is highly atypical in that for once the miserly Scrooge, who famously loves his money so much that he swims around in his sea of cash, has become disillusioned with his vast wealth. For once, instead of taking his relatives on a treasure hunt, Scrooge takes them on a quest for a place where material treasures do not exist.

The story opens with Barks showing the demands that Scrooge faces due to his great wealth: dealing with foreign leaders, taxes, requests from charities, being investigated by the government, being beset by a radical agitator. Visibly, comically shaking, Scrooge believes he needs to take his “nerve medicine” or else he will “crack up.” looking exhausted, drinking his nerve medicine right out of the bottle, Scrooge looks not unlike someone taking a very different kind of drink. Scrooge thinks “Oh, how I envy that carefree squirrel” he sees sleeping on a tree branch.

Bu the next page Scrooge has indeed cracked up, shouting “I’m mad! Mad! Mad!” As if turning into the Bizarro version of himself, Scrooge declares, “I hate my money! It’s brought me nothing but work, labor, toil, and jeers!. . .Get out of my sight, you ugly stuff!” as he kicks coins out of his path. Then Scrooge seems to go over the brink into insanity: he scampers about, chattering like the squirrel he earlier admired.

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One of Scrooge’s employees summons his nephew Donald Duck, who finds the frazzled-looking Scrooge wearily sticking his head out of a hole in a tree. “You’re not a squirrel,” Donald tells him. “I know it! But I can want to be one, can’t I”?” replies Scrooge. Barks seems to be making the point that Scrooge hasn’t really gone insane (or if he had, he’s crossed back over the brink to sanity) perhaps because though Barks portrayed Scrooge’s “squirrely” behavior for laughs, true insanity wouldn’t be funny.

Donald diagnoses Scrooge as suffering from overwork. Agreeing, Scrooge asserts that ‘I want to go someplace where there is no money, and wealth means nothing!” Yes, this is certainly different from the Scrooge McDuck with whom we are familiar, whose identity is expressed through his pride in his lifelong career accumulating his seemingly limitless fortune. This story is from only the fifth issue of Scrooge’s own comic book, so perhaps Barks was still experimenting with the character.

Scrooge consults a doctor, who tells him about “a strange valley in the Himalaya mountains” that is “called Tralla La, and nobody has ever seen it, but it is said to be a place without money!” Thrilled by the idea, Scrooge immediately seems revitalized, leaps from his sickbed (in a symbolic resurrection) and declares he is heading for Tralla La.

Tralla La is an obvious reference to Shangri-La, the idyllic realm introduced in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, which was adapted into the 1937 film version directed by Frank Capra.

Hilton’s Shangri-La appears to be the template for hidden Asian paradises in popular fiction. One prominent example is K’un-L’un, the mystical realm in Marvel Comics’ Iron Fist series, which is named after the real Kunlun mountain range in which Shangri-La was supposedly located. Even Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s origin of Doctor Strange seems to owe a large debt to Lost Horizon: the hidden Himalayan land of Kamar-Taj parallels Shangri-La, the Ancient One is reminiscent of Lost Horizon’s High Lama, and Stephen Strange, with his trademark mustache, looks like Ronald Colman, the star of Capra’s film adaptation. (It’s amusing to imagine Doctor Strange uttering his spells in Colman’s distinctive voice.) The television series Lost may also owe a debt to Lost Horizon. In both Lost and Lost Horizon a collection of travelers end up in a hidden, seemingly mystical realm after their plane goes astray from its proper route. Certain denizens of the island in Lost have greatly extended life spans, like characters in Lost Horizon’s Shangri-La. Moreover (spoiler for those who haven’t started watching the final season), Jacob’s search for a “candidate” to replace him as the island’s protector in Lost echoes the High Lama’s attempt to recruit Robert Conway, the character Colman plays in the movie, as his successor. Conway leaves Shangri-La, recognizes his mistake, and attempts to return; similarly Jack and other castaways in Lost succeeded in escaping the island only to go back.

The last time that I saw the Capra film of Lost Horizon on TCM, it struck me that it was a benign isolationist fantasy. In a world that, in the story and in real life, was moving towards World War II, Shangri-La was a peaceful paradise to which one could escape, where the highest achievements of civilization (represented by Shangri-La’s extensive library and art collection) would endure as the outside world fell into chaos. Shangri-La was a place where greed and lust for power–the motives for conflict–simply did not exist. Human nature seemed to have been purified of such vices in Shangri-La’s culture. Significantly for Barks’ purposes, there is no money there.

In the film, initially the passengers on the plane that is hijacked to Shangri-La want to get back to Western civilization. But most of them come to love Shangri-La, even Henry Barnard, an American criminal, who reforms and starts his life anew there. The good influence of the community and culture of Shangri-La makes the passengers into better people. Only Conway’s brother George resists and remains intent on leaving. When Robert Conway mistakenly becomes disillusioned with Shangri-La, he joins his brother in leaving. But, significantly, George ends up dying in an avalanche, and Robert, on returning to Western civilization, realizes how gravely he erred in leaving Shangri-La and, through nearly superhuman efforts, succeeds in returning there.

Arriving at the base of the Himalayas, Scrooge questions a native who tells him he knows of no one who knows how to get to Tralla La. Here’s another curiosity in this story. Barks’s duck tales seem to take place on an alternate Earth populated by anthropomorphic dogs, birds and pigs, but he draws this tall native in a turban as a human being. In the Donald Duck story “Bee Bumble” earlier in this collection, there is a large panel showing numerous residents of Duckburg, some of whom are drawn as anthropomorphic dogs (who have black canine noses) and others as humans (who do not).

Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie have accompanied Scrooge on his expedition. Aided by their Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook, Huey, Dewey and Louie figure out the way to get to Tralla La that apparently no one else has figured out for centuries. Typically, Barks portrays Huey, Dewey and Louie as being smarter in finding solutions for various problems than the adults. Surely this is part of the appeal of Barks’s stories for children, showing them that they can perceive answers that adults cannot, and resolve problems and conflicts that the older generation cannot, as we shall see again at the end of this story.

Barks fans are familiar with the Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook, a thin tome that nonetheless apparently contains all the knowledge in the world. It strikes me that nowadays kids might carry around a laptop computer with wi-fi, with which they could Google any information they sought. Barks’ recurring gag from my childhood has become a reality! I wonder what he would have thought of this.

Barks’ narrator apparently notices how much Scrooge is acting out of his usual miserly character: “Uncle Scrooge unfreezes his purse and hires a plane! He’s that anxious to find Tralla La!” Scrooge even pays the pilot two million dollars!

Barks then provides a splash-size panel, covering half a page, for an aerial shot of the mountains and waterfalls towering over the valley of Tralla La far below. For the last two decades comic book artists have devalued the full-page and half-page panel, using them as poster shots for characters without any real storytelling purpose. But in this Barks tale, the sudden shift to a panel four times as big as one of the typical panels in the story, with this superbly drawn mountain vista, still carries dramatic force, lending an epic scope to this adventure tale.

Descending by parachute, Scrooge and his relatives first meet the people of Tralla La, whom Barks draws as ducks, most of them taller than Scrooge. The colorist for this anthology, and, I presume, for the original story, colors the ducks of Tralla La yellow: had Barks drawn these Tralla Lallians as humans, that would certainly be a politically incorrect color choice, to put it mildly.

We soon see Scrooge talking with a Tralla Lallian who is seated on a chair like a throne; he does not look ancient, but perhaps he is intended to be a counterpart of Shangri-La’s High Lama. This Tralla Lallian says that “We Tralla Lallians have never known greed!” Several pages ago Donald was greedily offering to take Scrooge’s fortune if Scrooge no longer wanted it. But, like the Western visitors to Shangri-La, Donald seems changed by the good example set by the community he sees around him. Impressed, Donald tells his nephews, “It is wonderful here! Nobody wants anything that belongs to anybody else!” A few panels later Scrooge adds, “Yessir! All we have to do is bear our share of the work. . . .” Why, it’s even beginning to sound like an idealized communist society! But don’t worry: such a society doesn’t exist in real life, and it doesn’t in this story, either. Come to think of it, you should worry about that latter point!

A Tralla Lallian farmer named Hop Sing finds something he has never seen before: a bottle cap from a bottle of Scrooge’s nerve medicine. Honest like everyone else in Tralla La, Hop Sing returns it to Scrooge, who tells him to keep it.

And now two familiar themes from Barks stories resurface: greed and temptation. Other Tralla Lallians become fascinated with Hop Sing’s bottle cap, the first one ever seen in Tralla La. Two Tralla Lallians each offer to “buy” the bottle cap, giving Hop Sing sheep in return. Hop Sing’s wife, with an evil look worthy of a Barksian version of Lady Macbeth, advises Hop Sing to hold out for even more sheep, and he then sells the bottle cap for ten sheep. Its new owner then resells the bottle cap for twenty sheep.

Barks’ narrator then informs us that “By noon the next day the bottle cap has changed hands many times. And its price has become fantastic!” I find myself suddenly thinking of the recent news report about a copy of Action Comics #1 selling for a million dollars. More ominously, I also think of the tech stocks bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000s, and the resulting Great Recession. Perhaps Barks was thinking of the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression.

“The pride of owning the only bottle cap in Tralla La is worth more to me than food!” says its most recent owner, cradling the cap in his hand like the old money-loving Scrooge with his lucky “number one” dime. But this counterpart of Scrooge is fanatical enough to prize wealth over his own life. And that reminds me of the famous gag in which a holdup man tells Jack Benny, “Your money or your life,” and the miserly Benny pauses before exclaiming “I’m thinking about it!”

Soon afterwards some Tralla Lallians discover Scrooge with a crate of nerve medicine bottles and realize he has five bottle caps, making him “the richest duck in all Tralla La!” Scrooge looks shocked. It is as if he cannot escape the identity–the world’s richest duck–that he had tried to leave behind him in the outside world.

Tralla Lallians start making extravagant offers to buy the bottle caps. One Tralla Lallian even offers to “be your servant for forty years!”; wealth is more important to him than his own freedom. When Scrooge does not immediately sell the bottle caps, the gathering crowd turns angry and potentially threatening. One of them demands that Scrooge’s taxes be raised. But presumably there weren’t any taxes in Tralla La before this! Look at how fast this once idyllic society is changing!

Scrooge had found peace of mind in Tralla La, but now the stress returns, and he finds himself his nerves are “going to pieces” again. He shoots a bottle cap at the crowd of Tralla Lallians, who begin fighting each other over it.

So thus Barks turns Hilton and Capra’s Shangri-La upside down. In Lost Horizon most of the people from the Western outside world are converted to the peaceful ways of Shangri-La, giving up greed and other vices. But in Barks’ story the ways of the West corrupt the people of Tralla La. Scrooge and his relatives inadvertently became the serpent in Tralla La’s Garden of Eden, with the bottle cap serving as the forbidden fruit, the temptation to sin, the means by which a whole society loses its innocence. Hilton and Capra’s Shangri-La was a refuge from war in the outside world. But Barks shows us the people of Tralla La fighting over bottle caps: violence, battle and hatred have come to their formerly peaceful valley.

The saga of Tralla La could be interpreted as a parable about the spread of Western civilization–perhaps specifically American capitalism–around the globe and its destructive effects on other cultures. Nowadays we could consider it a cautionary tale about the negative effects of globalization.

Huey, Dewey and Louie suggest that Donald return to the outside world to fetch enough bottle caps to satisfy everyone in Tralla La. Scrooge embraces the idea but overreaches, deciding that Donald will send back a billion bottle caps. By doing so, Scrooge thinks “This place will be perfect again!” But he has committed that American fault of meddling in a culture without fully thinking through the consequences. You could also say that Scrooge is committing an act of hubris, and that any effort to make a society “perfect” is doomed to fail.

The Tralla Lallians give up working, waiting for riches–in the form of the promised bottle caps–to “rain” down from the heavens. Keep in mind that Scrooge, in other stories, works hard to maintain and increase his wealth. But the promise of easily achieved riches warps the values of the Tralla Lallians, turning them indolent. Their idyllic society has become decadent.

A plane drops a million bottle caps into Tralla La, and the Tralla Lallians are initially overjoyed. But then they discover that now that there are so many bottle caps, they have become worthless. Barks has here cleverly satirized inflation, perhaps thinking of the incredible inflation in Europe during the 1930s in which, for example, Germany’s currency became virtually worthless.

But, without thinking it through carefully, Scrooge had ordered a billion bottle caps dropped into Tralla La by planes (and clearly Tralla La is now no longer isolated from then outside world), damaging the crops and threatening to block a whirlpool, flooding the valley. Yes, this story has become a cautionary tale about environmental damage, as well. The unceasing rain of bottle caps seems like a parody of manna from heaven, or a variation on the army of animate brooms from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia (1940).

Whereas pages earlier a Tralla Lallian asserted that his people prized “friendship” above all things, now the Tralla Lallians turn into an angry “mob” hunting Scrooge and his relatives. Before the story is finished, one Tralla Lallian will demand that Scrooge be thrown into the whirlpool. In other words, this Tralla Lallian has demanded Scrooge’s death. The earthly paradise of Tralla La thus completes its transformation into an earthly hell.

In the end Huey, Dewey and Louie come up with a solution for the problem that their elders, Scrooge and Donald, created. But it is only a partial solution. They find a way to save themselves, Scrooge and Donald, from punishment–and perhaps death–at the hands of the Tralla Lallians, and safely escape from Tralla La. Huey, Dewey and Louie also find the means to save Tralla La from the ultimate “calamity” if the flooding of the valley.

As in this anthology’s Donald Duck stories, Barks thus provides us with what is technically a happy ending. What he calls the “scare” of his experience in Tralla La has caused Scrooge to re-embrace his life as the world’s wealthiest duck. But when Huey, Dewey and Louie ask to be paid their miniscule wages (thirty cents an hour), Scrooge begins shaking with nerves again. You could say that this reaction is simply a manifestation of his usual miserly personality, unwilling to part with even tiny sums. But it also indicates that Scrooge’s quest in this story–to find peace of mind–has proven futile. This is a truly ironic ending: rather than finding resolution, Scrooge is caught in a loop. As he himself says in the story’s closing line, “Here I go again!”

The ultimate theme of this story is a surprising one for a story aimed at children, but a valuable one for them to learn. The adults who read or watch Lost Horizon dream of utopia; they want to believe that the perfect human community is possible, and that human beings can aspire to perfection. But Carl Barks tells their children this is wrong. The fable of “Tralla La” tells us that human nature is fallible and cannot be improved, and that vices like greed are inescapable in society. Utopias cannot exist. Through his fantasy of talking ducks and a faraway hidden valley, Carl Barks shows his readership what reality is like.

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

Follow me on Twitter (@PeterJSanderson) and at Facebook Comic Con.

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