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Book Review 266: "Only a Poor Old Man"

February 17, 2013 - Harry Eagar
Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: 'Only a Poor Old Man,' by Carl Barks. 240 pages. Fantagraphics

Uncle Scrooge was my favorite comic when I was 8 or 9 years old, although my favorite character was Gyro Gearloose. I never could get enough of him.

I did not know that the author-illustrator of the comic was Carl Barks – Disney was careful not to allow credit to accrue to anybody but Disney.

Barks was a westerner, born in 1901, one of the last of that great generation of free spirits that also produced Linus Pauling and Eric Hoffer. Barks's accomplishments were less ambitious but, as it has turned out, still full of ideas for later readers to mine.

This volume has commentary by a gaggle of American and, curiously, Italian scholars, mainly academics.

This volume, 12th in the Fantagraphics catalogue raisonne of Barks but first in terms of the McDuck legend, introduces the skinflinty but honest Scotch duck and explains where he accumulated his “three cubic acres” of money.

My boyhood reading came a little later in the series, and I was surprised to see how hard-edged the original Barks conception was. Scrooge, though honest, was ready to take advantage of the unwary (and was consequently often taken advantage of because of his own reluctance to pay a reasonable rate for services); and the Beagle Boys were not only vicious but cruel and murderous. Those qualities softened as the Eisenhower years rolled on.

Barks was not political; none of the monarchism that makes Disney so unpalatable ever seeped into Duckburg, but his attitude toward wealth and the getting and spending of it was complex, as befitted a child of the frontier, where great disparities of wealth were usual and where Barks himself was one of the have-nots.

Scrooge liked money for its own sake. He was not one for luxury, except the luxury of swimming in money. But he also was not the pinched and querulous miser of classic aspect – he was not like Ebenezer Scrooge. He did not hate and fear people with less money (though he feared the Beagle Boys' schemes), which distinguishes him from today's rich. Scrooge McDuck just liked money.

Much of the appeal of the great comic artists was their subversive intent. Barks's subversion centered on Huey, Dewey and Louie, young ducklings who consistently showed more common sense and foresight than any older residents of Duckburg.

As with all Fantagraphics reprints, “Only a Poor Old Man” is done in first-rate style all the way. They are not cheap, and Scrooge would be loath to buy his own book, but in the long run they are worth it.


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