Show honors maker of Donald, Duckburg Comics art Exhibit in Timonium features works by Carl Barks, 95, who hatched ideas that turned Disney's Uncle Scrooge, and company into feathered friends.

March 28, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Even grouchy Donald Duck and his miser uncle, Scrooge McDuck, seemed to smile yesterday as Carl Barks looked back over the results of his 65-year career as one of America's premier comic-book artists.

It was Mr. Barks who made Donald a thinking duck instead of an angry quacker and who created Uncle Scrooge, the world's funniest miser, because they reflected humanity.

More than 100 of Mr. Barks's oil paintings, watercolors and pencil drawings -- most of them of the Duck family -- along with many of his comic books, went on display yesterday at the Diamond International Galleries, in Timonium, in a tribute to the artist on his 95th birthday.

The visit to "Duckburg," the mythical town Mr. Barks created for the characters, was a birthday present from Steve Geppi, the local boy turned comic-book tycoon who is among the artist's greatest fans. Mr. Geppi is a major collector of Mr. Barks' paintings and the comic books he did for Walt Disney between 1935 and 1966.

"I've dreamed about this, having Carl come here to see his work in a gallery like this," Mr. Geppi said. It was Mr. Barks' first visit to Baltimore and the first time he had seen so many of his works in one place.

As Mr. Geppi led him on a tour of the gallery, the tall white-haired artist stopped to peer closely at one painting after another, commenting, "I haven't seen this one since 1974;" "I remember this one," and "Oh, yes, I like this one."

Exquisite detail and brilliant colors are hallmarks of a Barks painting.

"There's lots of work in this one," he said, pointing to his 1976 Bicentennial picture, "Fourth of July in Duckburg," as among the most difficult. That's because it includes not only the ducks marching as "The Spirit of '76," but about a dozen portraits of people in the comic-book world -- dealers and fans.

Mr. Barks sold the painting in 1976 for $6,400. It is worth at least $150,000 today, Mr. Geppi said, adding that "Carl still can't believe that so many people love his pictures and want them."

"Seeing all this steams me up to go back and do some work," said Mr. Barks, who lives and still paints in Grant's Pass, Ore.

In his heyday, Mr. Barks said, he could complete a painting every 10 days to two weeks, but "now it takes me a little longer." So far this year, he said, he has finished two and has two more in progress.

Mr. Barks, an Oregon native, was hired at the Disney Studio in 1935 and did the storyboard drawings for three-dozen Donald Duck cartoons. He left Disney in 1942 to start a chicken ranch in San Jacinto, Calif., but the lure of the drawing board was too strong, and he was back within a year, as leading artist and writer of Disney comic-book stories.

Among the exhibits is Mr. Barks' 24-page "Uncle Scrooge North of the Yukon," the only complete original-drawing comic book story, Mr. Geppi said. "There are pages of others here and there, but this is the only complete one. They were just thrown away."

It was when he began drawing comics that Mr. Barks created Duckburg and its superstar inhabitants, Uncle Scrooge; Donald's nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie; Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose.

Donald Duck originated in 1934 as a movie-cartoon character, Mr. Barks said.

"He was just a noisy, quarrelsome brat in the movies. When I started doing the comics in 1943, I couldn't do enough stories with him like that, so I changed Donald's character. I put him in a role where he had to act intelligently and speak well enough to put across his thoughts. He's a lot like a lot of us, though, wanting to speak his mind."

"I get credit for practically raising Donald Duck," said Mr. Barks.

Uncle Scrooge, whose Gold Bin stuffed with gold coins and precious jewels, is a favorite with Mr. Barks, as well as with comics fans.

"He's a stingy, old, millionaire miser," Mr. Barks said, "but people love him because they see that he has as many troubles as people who don't have money."

A second career

Mr. Barks' second career, as a painter, began after he retired from the Disney Studios in 1966 with permission to paint Disney characters and sell his work, at that time for between $150 and $500. He turned out 122 pictures.

"I thought it was just a fad, that there were a few comic book fans out there who might pay maybe $500 for a painting. I never thought it would last like this," the artist said.

In 1976, however, after two out-of-control fans began selling photographs of Barks' paintings for $500 apiece, Disney withdrew its permission. For the next five years, Mr. Barks painted a series of fantasy pictures of King Cole, King Neptune and King Midas, American Indian portraits and some comic depictions of the Old West, many of them using duck characters. Some of these are included in the exhibition.

After 1976, when it became known there would be no more

Barks-Disney paintings, the value of the existing paintings soared.

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