In his youth, Barks was drawn to cartooning. He read whatever comic strips came his way through the family copy of the San Francisco Examiner-Winsor - McCay's Little Nemo was a favorite - and when he was 16, Barks enrolled in the Landon mail order course, an effort doomed to failure after only four installments due to the irregularity of the mails and the dearth of art supplies.

In December, 1918, the 17-year-old Barks left the ranch to try his luck in San Francisco. He landed a job in a printing office and worked there for a year and a half, haunting the art departments of the San Francisco Bulletin, Chronicle, and Examiner with no success beyond a few small jobs for the printing office, "very simple little things that didn't involve any lettering." [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.]

Barks worked a stint back on the home ranch, and in 1923 signed on as a swamper in a logging camp, lopping branches off newly felled trees and picking up lingo that he would later use in his duck stories. In 1921 he had married his first wife, Pearl Turner, a hometown girl from Merrill. When the logging season ended they moved down to Roseville, California, a few miles northeast of Sacramento. There Barks worked in the railroad yards, first in the car shops and later outdoors heating rivets on a piecework basis for sums up to one dollar an hour.

If anything, working on a riveting gang for six and a half years intensified Barks' desire to become a cartoonist, and there were now his two small daughters, Peggy and Dorothy, to support. "I always felt that cartooning would be an easier job than any of the things that I had worked at", he says. [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.] So he kept on submitting work to the humor magazines of the day like Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang, Judge, and College Humor, and began to sell regularly to the Minneapolis-based Calgary Eye-Opener in 1929.

About this time, Barks separated from his first wife. He returned to Oregon. After about a year more of selling cartoons to the Eye-Opener as a free-lancer, he moved to Minneapolis to join the magazine's staff. A contractor named Henry Meyer had bought the magazine from Harvey Fawcett, a member of the famous publishing family. "Henry Meyer was enough of a businessman to see things weren't being run right around there. There was too much drinking and playing around, and not enough production. So he looked over the list of gag men and decided that hell, I was a hard-working son of a gun. So he sent a telegram to me, asking if I would come back there. I had enough money to send a telegram saying I didn't have enough money to get back there. He sent me money, and I closed my affairs very rapidly and gave away the big stack of joke magazines I had. What I could carry in a valise, I carried with me." [Quoted in Barrier, page 10.] Barks is forever grateful to his in-laws who took in his two young daughters and "raised them right" at their home in Merrill. [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.]

The mildly risque Eye-Opener offered Barks security during the depression years and a warm indoor job. The security brought confidence, and he jokes, "enabled me to move from laborer to starving artist." [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.]

"I got into Minneapolis in November of 1931. I went to work there with the Eye-Opener. Ed Sumner was editor, and I was the gag man and illustrator. Eventually, the Eye-Opener changed hands; Annette Fawcett bought it from Meyer. Then she fired Ed Sumner. She wanted to put on her own type of heavy drinkers. I never did fit into it, because I just couldn't drink a hell of a lot, but I fitted into the workhorse part of it. I was there for four years, doing that work. It just got to where I was doing all of it. Toward the last there, I was practically writing the whole thing. We bought a few gags, at a dollar a gag, and two dollars a gag, and so on. Very little of that. I got a hundred dollars a month, I think." [Quoted in Barrier, page 10.] Actually, Barks' highest salary was $110 a month, and he covered all bases on the magazine, editing, drawing, and writing gags.

In November[?] 1935, Barks heard of work back in California at the Disney Studio, and he decided on the spur of the moment to apply. "I'd look at those Mickey Mouse newspaper strips and think, 'I'm already drawing like that!'" [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.] Despite offers of more money from the Eye-Opener, Barks took a salary cut and for $20 a week went to work for Walt Disney.

"I worked for the Eye-Opener until 1935, and I could see that the Depression was going to keep right on going forever, and that little magazine was just barely skinning by. I read somewhere that Disney was needing guys - it was in a newspaper column, I think - so I sent this bunch of cartoons and old page proofs to Disney's and got a letter right back, telling me to come out for the start of their November class. It was a tryout, in which you worked one month, and you went to their art class, and you looked at their animation, and you did a few in-betweens, and that sort of thing. At the end of the month, they picked out the ones that were likely to make the grade, and those that weren't were given their walking papers. Of the seven that went to work with my bunch, there were four of us that made it, I believe." [Quoted in Barrier, page 10.]

At the end of the training period, the novices began actual production animation. Their job was to make in-between drawings, fleshing out the stages of movement between two key moments, called extremes, drawn by veteran animators. "The animator would take a scene from the director which was all timed out to be so many frames for each action. Then he would draw the beginning and concluding poses of a scene, and these would be the extremes. He would hand this over to his assistant, who would figure out the number of drawings which would have to go between the extremes, in time with the action; and that would have to be done by the in-betweener." [Interview with Donald Ault on 29 May 1973.]

Barks was thirty-four years old when he was hired by the Disney studio. He was considerably older than many of the young artists who were joining the Disney staff at that time. People like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Ward Kimball - all of them at least ten years younger than Barks, and all of them to become brilliant animators - had been working at the studio for more than a year when Barks went on the payroll.

During six months, Barks animated scenes in a number of cartoons: "I did in-betweens of Mickey doing a Fred Astaire bit, dancing with a top hat [Thru the Mirror], and a scene of the Big Bad Wolf singing a parody of 'Schnitzlebank' while basting the piggies [The Three Little Wolves]. Norm Ferguson and Nick George were the animators. I also did a short bit of a shedlike building being blown apart, which may have been part of a Silly Symphony [unidentified cartoon]. And I recall animating long shots of Snow White, for practice, but I did no scenes that appeared in the film. I don't recall doing anything with Donald." [Notes written for the Carl Barks Library, 29 April 1987.]

What survives of Barks' in-betweening work is consistently good and often livelier and more charming than the extremes drawn by the seasoned animators. But Barks found animation tedious. "I was a plot man... I wanted to see movement from one situation to another rather than movement revolving endlessly within one situation." [1977 letter, quoted in Barrier, page 27.]

In hopes of being transferred out of straight animation work, Barks began submitting gags to the Donald Duck newspaper strip and to the cartoon story department. "I began turning in scripts, or gags, for the comic strip, and selling those to the comic-strip department, as a sort of a sideline. I was attracting a little attention that way. The story department would send over a little outline of a story, just an idea of a story that they were going to try to make into a seven-minute short subject, and ask the guys for gags, any little situation on these stories that we could think of, so all of us guys would turn in gags. I was beginning to turn in some pretty good gags, and finally I turned in the gag of the barber chair in Modern Inventions. Walt paid me fifty dollars for the gag. He seemed to get the idea that I should be working in the story department, rather than over in animation." [Quoted in Barrier, page 10.]

"The first thing that happened to me from animation was to go over to work with Jack King, who was a director. Jack had just been brought back to the studio from Schlesinger's [the Warner Brothers cartoon studio] at that point, and told to make Modern Inventions. So for about two months, he and I worked up the story for Modern Inventions. When that went into animation, I was put in a little room and told to think up another story [Northwest Mounted]. I wasn't getting very far very fast, so Walt, or Ted Sears, or one of the guys in the department, said, 'Barks is just wasting his time here, he'd better be put with somebody like Harry Reeves, who has had a lot of story experience, and then his wild thoughts will be directed along usable lines.' That's how I happened to be put with Harry Reeves. We worked as a team for a number of years." [Quoted in Barrier, page 17.]

At the story department, Barks pooled his talents for plotting and gag writing for the seven-minute Duck cartoons. Here Barks was part of a team of such Disney notables as Harry Reeves, Dana Coty, Roy Williams, Jack Hannah, and Clarence Nash, the film voice of Donald Duck. The group would gather to thrash out plotlines in story conferences, and Barks, with the others, would sketch out the plot sequences on 6 x 8 inch sheets and tack up the roughed-out stories on 4 x 8 foot Celotex boards for inspection. Finally, Walt Disney himself would approve or reject their efforts.

Harry Reeves had worked on Felix the Cat films, which Disney admired because they were the first to develop a distinctive cartoon personality. Teamed with a seasoned storyman, Barks could now go on to write the classic Donald cartoons of the late 1930s. Now he was able to refine his zany humor, bringing it into conformity with the requirements of Disney animation. "Harry could be said to have been my mentor," Barks has explained. "I learned much about handling story construction from him. Also, I learned much from Jack King." [Notes written for the Carl Barks Library, 13 November 1987]

The collaborative nature of animation work raises the question of how much Barks could be said to be the "author" of the Donald Duck films. "There were usually two guys in a unit. They did most of the work. But they would call in other fellows for conferences, or to help them out. Once a story was presented to the other storymen, then a whole bunch of guys would work on it. So there was never anything that went out of there a lone-man operation!" [August 4, 1975 interview with Donald Ault and Thomas Andrae.] Chuck Couch, a former animator, also worked with Reeves and Barks. Couch was regularly called in to lend a hand, and for a period of time, Nick George.

After Disney approved the story, it would pass through even more sets of hands - animators, in-betweeners, background artists, cel painters, and cameramen - before it could be born on the screen. Nevertheless, Barks and Reeves were the ones primarily responsible for the story; and because they wrote in pictures, their work influenced the film's final look.

In 1939 Harry Reeves became head of the story department and Barks was left without a partner. That same year, a young animator named Jack Hannah transferred into the department. Hannah's and Barks' path had long been fated to cross. Though Hannah had come to the Studio two years before Barks, both men had joined the crew hired to work on «Modern Inventions» and the subsequent line of Donald Duck shorts. Hannah ended up animating many of the stories Barks helped write, including «Donald's Nephews», «Donald's Cousin Gus»[?], and «Mr. Duck Steps Out»[?]. When the studio moved from its old Hyperion Avenue location to the new plant in Burbank, it was announced that Barks and Hannah would become a new story unit working exclusively for Jack King.

This changed Barks' relationship to his partner, since both were now experienced Duck men. Reeves had been Barks' mentor; Hannah became his collaborator. Hannah about Barks: "I loved working with him and learned a lot from him. He was older and more grown-up than I was. When we weren't working together on a story, I'd spend my time in the Studio commissary having a Coke and checking out the waitresses, but he'd still be back at his desk working away. Carl was a real workhorse.
He was more than just a gagman. He was interested in the overall theme and made sure that the gags helped develop the story and weren't just thrown in for an easy laugh that might have broken the story's rhythm. Frank Tashlin, with whom I worked on several stories, was completely different. He could recall every gag he ever heard and had a store of the stuff in his head. He'd write on a storyboard like mad. But everything Carl Barks came up with had to be original and had to tie into the story. He didn't rely on a stockpile of gags. This whole approach to story influenced my later directing efforts." [1977-1983 interview by Jim Korkis]

And Hannah exerted an influence on Barks. "I was the type of storyman that whipped out very rough sketches at great speed," Barks has recalled. "My forte was to get something visual up on the board to get a continuity going. Once a gag was pretty well set and accepted, Harry Reeves or Chuck Couch or Jack Hannah would do most of the cleaned-up drawings that we'd show to Walt." [Notes for the Carl Barks Library, 29 April 1987.] Hannah's habit of making finished, shaded drawings rubbed off on his partner, and Barks' storyboard work took on a more polished look, especially in key scenes; in-between action would still be whipped off quickly.

While Barks was with Hannah, Barks [sometimes?] had the title of "story director" and was technically the man in charge, but neither he nor Hannah seems to have paid any attention to such questions of rank. Barks had also been the story director for some cartoons when he was with Reeves and Couch - but the title had even less meaning then, since Reeves out-ranked him as "associate producer."

"In most Disney story units, the story director was a sort of corporal with some small amount of authority over the gagmen and sketchmen. He was also the guy who choreographed the story in presenting it before Walt. His ability to grunt, squeal, emote, and howl with laughter at his storyboard gags determined his standing in the Studio's hierarchy. In the duck unit, none of us - except possibly Harry Reeves - wanted any authority, and none of us wanted the job of explaining the crudely drawn storyboards to Walt. His attention was always twenty drawings ahead of the narrator, anyway. I got stuck with the job after Harry was moved up to roving straw boss of the whole shorts division." [April 29, 1987 notes written for the Carl Barks Library]

By 1942, Barks had achieved great proficiency as a storyman and was arguably the premiere Duck artist at the Studio. During his last days with Disney, however, he felt the need for a change and decided to leave the Studio. "The years I spent in the Disney Studio were toilsome, grinding, and unhappy," he has commented. [Notes witten for Carl Barks Library, 29 April 1987] By nature a solitary worker, and isolated further by partial deafness, he had never enjoyed the Studio's collaborative approach. Both he and Hannah found it frustrating that their art had to pass through many sets of hands before coming to life on the screen, and both were often disappointed with the unimaginative way in which their drawings were adapted.

The dismal Los Angeles air, the prehistoric Studio air conditioning, and his own faulty sinuses also bothered Barks; he had had an operation to relieve his sinuses not long before he decided to leave. His allergies were "the straw that broke the camel's back. I would have had the patience and tolerance to stay with the job and keep on plugging away year after year, but the constant thing of going into that air conditioning every day and then battling through with my nose stopped up and my breathing hard... . Besides, the war was coming! I would have been locked into that place for the duration of the war." [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.]

World War II had just begun, and the Studio was rapidly being converted into a war plant. At one point, more than ninety percent of the footage it was producing was for the military. "It was when they were starting to put badges on everybody, and we were going to have to check in at the gate every morning, and we couldn't have any gasoline to drive anywhere. You were just going to be locked in there for the duration, and I just didn't think I wanted to be locked into that place for the duration." [Quoted in Barrier, page 28.]

Barks had no appetite for the military films the studio was making. "We were working on one about medicine, and the way germs invade the body. They were getting lined up for some war picture on gun barrels, or something like that. I couldn't see myself getting tied up with that sort of thing. The war was a very unpopular subject with me, anyway. I had seen one generation of young men marched off to war - World War I - and I was stupid enough that I wanted to get into it, but I was just a little too young. And then comes this Second World War, and I had learned my lesson in the meantime. When I saw how little we had accomplished with World War I, I thought, why in the devil kill off another whole generation of young men to accomplish the same result?" [Quoted in Barrier, page 28.]

Barks left the studio on November 6, 1942. "I shut the door one Friday night and never came back." [Early 1980s interview by E. Barbara Boatner.] Barks and his second wife, Clara, moved 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles to the hot dry climate of San Jacinto, where he set up a chicken farm. Barks had sold a few magazine cartoons while he was at Disney's, and now he began selling more. He also toyed with the idea of developing his own set of human comic strip characters. Before this could happen, however, he heard that Western Publishing Company was looking for freelance artists to produce original Donald Duck material for the monthly Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, which at the time only reprinted the daily newspaper strips.

While still at the Disney Studio, Barks had worked on a story for a one-shot book, «Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold» (us/OS 9, collaborating with Jack Hannah. To earn a living, Barks decided he might occasionally do similar work from San Jacinto. "I wrote to Western Publishing, and told them that I had left the studio, and that I was available in case they had anything they wanted done." [Quoted in Barrier, page 28.] Western hired him immediately to draw Donald Duck stories, and kept him at it for the next twenty-three years - and even into his retirement. Barks never discovered whether he could create an independent comic strip.

Summarizing his years at the Disney Studio, Barks worked on the stories for about three dozen cartoons, most of them directed by Jack King, who directed virtually all of the Donald Duck cartoons made before and during World War II. Later, Jack Hannah became the premier Donald Duck director.
Besides his collaborations with Harry Reeves, Chuck Couch and Jack Hannah, Barks worked briefly with other men - Nick George, for one - whose names can be found on mimeographed outlines of stories or in the gag sketches that were passed back and forth among the story men.

Detailed information on Barks' work for cartoons and feature films, can be found in the Animation section of this site.


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