I’ll bet I know what you’re thinking: “Donald Duck? This is kid stuff! What possible interest could I, a sophisticated comics reader, have in a talking duck who wears a sailor outfit?” I’m familiar with this kind of reasoning because I had similar thoughts when I borrowed the “Lost in the Andes” and “Trail of the Unicorn” Donald Duck box set from a friend of mine. My friend assured me that these stories are excellent. But he likes DC so there’s no accounting for his taste in comics (just kidding, DC fans).
How wrong I was to take this ageist approach to Carl Barks‘s work. These aren’t only the best Donald Duck stories I’ve ever seen. Barks’s deft artwork and mastery of pacing make these some of the most entertaining stories I’ve read.
Donald Duck: This Box Set
This box set contains 32-page long-format stories, like “Lost in the Andes” and “Trail of the Unicorn,” shorter 10-page adventures, and single-page gags. It’s hard to say whether the long-format stories or the one-page gags are more impressive.
The long stories give Barks’s characters a chance to travel to many distant parts of the world. The gags, though, show off Barks’s succinctness. And, they often allow his characters a surprising level of emotional development over their nine or so panels. No wonder Barks was one of three original inductees to The Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1987, alongside Jack Kirby and Will Eisner.
A complete analysis of this box set would take several articles. So, I’ll focus only on “Lost in the Andes” here, and leave another author the pleasure of covering the others.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – Characterizations
The most important thing to remember when reading these stories is that Donald and his nephews are people who look like animals, not talking animals. It might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but the layered personalities of Barks’s characters have more depth than a run-of-the-mill funny animal strip. In line with Floyd Gottfredson‘s work on Mickey Mouse, Barks’s Donald Duck has more of the working class in him than he does the barnyard. In fact, in “Trail of the Unicorn” two of Donald’s identical nephews remark, “You can’t lock Unca’ Donald in your old zoo! And, besides, he isn’t an animal!”
And, speaking of Donald Duck’s famous nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, their characterizations in Barks’s stories are much different from their usual roles as mischievous foils for their angry uncle. Although they do pester him from time to time, in Barks’s stories Donald Duck’s nephews generally act as willing, and often more clear-headed, accomplices to their uncle.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – Cameos
Although “Lost in the Andes” doesn’t feature any cameos by familiar Disney characters, “Trail of the Unicorn” features a walk-on by Donald Duck’s uncle Scrooge McDuck, “the richest man [again, not duck] in the world”. And, for die-hard Donald Duck fans, there are a few stories that feature Donald’s infuriatingly lucky cousin Gladstone Gander, who can’t help but win at nearly everything he tries.
And, because several of the stories in this box set revolve around Christmas (obviously one of Barks’s favourite holidays), readers are treated to more than one appearance of the man in red himself, Santa Claus.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – The Plot
Working as a museum “janitor,” one of the many jobs he’ll have over the years, Donald Duck accidentally breaks an Incan artifact while dusting it. Upon breaking it, though, what appears to be nothing more than a cuboid rock turns out to actually be a centuries-old cuboid egg. This startling discovery sets Duckburg abuzz, and a scientific expedition to Peru is undertaken. Of course, Donald Duck and his ever-present nephews, continually chewing bubble-gum in this adventure, join the South American egg hunt as third, fourth, fifth, and sixth assistants to the leader of the expedition.
When the expedition finally arrives in the Andes, Donald and his nephews are the only members able to leave their bunks. Their superiors are busy recovering from having eaten omelets made from the centuries-old cuboid eggs, prepared by Huey, Dewey, and Louie of course.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – Plain Awful
After a few interactions with some Andean locals, Donald and his nephews wander aimlessly through a dense mist until they come upon a hidden city made entirely of cuboid structures. During a tense search of the lost city, Donald and his nephews hear someone singing an unmistakably American song, “I Wish I Was in Dixie”. The singer reveals himself as he turns a corner, and his features are as cuboid as the city he inhabits.
Once Donald reveals that he and his nephews are from USA, the cuboid man rejoices. He invites the ducky quartet to dine with the city’s “president”. The president reveals to them that they took up their southern dialect after a visiting professor, Prof. Rhutt Betlah, came to their city.
The ducks confirm their suspicions that this lost city, which the president reports Professor Butlah named “Plain Awful,” is the source of the cuboid eggs when the Plain-Awfulians serve them several square egg dishes during the ducks’ state dinner. Not content to head back to Duckburg with just a bunch of eggs, Donald demands to know where the Plain-Awfulians keep their chickens. All the Plain-Awfulians know, though, is that the “aigs” are found in “Aig Valley”.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – Square Chickens
Huey, after sticking one of his bubble-gum bubbles on what appears to be a large rock in Aig Valley, finds that the rock is actually a cuboid chicken. The elusive chickens found, the president of Plain Awful names the ducks Secretaries of Agriculture. The honour is short-lived, though. When Donald’s nephews demonstrate how they found the chickens, the Plain-Awfulians cry sacrilege. Anything round, even bubble-gum bubbles, are strictly taboo in Plain Awful.
The president demands that Donald’s nephews atone for their sins by blowing cuboid bubbles. Luckily the young ducks outsmart the cuboid culture by putting small cuboid chickens in their mouths and having them blow the bubbles. Absolved of their sins, all the ducks are free to go. Before they do, though, they take two cuboid chickens to bring back to Duckburg.
Unfortunately, when they finally get home, it turns out that Donald and his nephews have brought back two cuboid roosters rather than hens. The whole adventure has been for naught. Humiliated, Donald and his nephews seek succour at a diner. But (as a final gag) the ornery duck loses his temper when the cook offers he and his nephews egg and chicken dishes.
Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” – The Art
Carl Barks’s art is amazing. In terms of landscapes, of particular note in this story is his dramatic reveal of Plain Awful. Of course, this isn’t to say that Barks does bad subject drawings. Barks’s depictions of a wide-eyed Donald seen through the Andean mists show a surprising level of emotion even though the drawings are purposefully indistinct and crafted entirely with horizontal lines. Sure, these are cartoons but Barks drew them expertly.
Next Time …
For the impatient Marvelites out there, don’t fear! I haven’t hung up my Timely Comics Watchamacallit hat yet. I’ll be back with another Golden Age retcon next week. Given his unexpected box office appeal, I’ll cover one of my favourite looks back at the early days of comics. Try to contain your excitement: next week I’ll cover the Merc with a Mouth’s very own Deadpool: Pulp.