Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Kids Are Alright: Huey, Dewey, and Louie

"The thing that I consider most important about my work is this: I told it like it is. I told my readers that the bad guys have a little of good in them, and the good guys have a lot of bad in them, and that you can't depend on anything much; nothing is always going to turn out roses." 
- Carl Barks

From the first written narrative onwards the titular character of any story has had a natural tendency to be ascribed a certain heroic virtue by its readers. Carl Barks Donald Duck saga proposes an interesting twist on this idea. Donald Duck, originally a sidekick to Walt Disney’s banner character Mickey Mouse, began his solo career in comics during 1937 as a wisecracking reiteration of himself. It wasn’t until Carl Barks entered into the Duck universe and began filling it with a supporting cast of family, friends and enemies; along with writing him into globe trotting adventures that brought him into contact with the lost tribes of the Andes and the haunted castle of the Clan McDuck that it became clear that Donald had to overcome his origins as a sidekick too become the hero of his own narrative.

This transformation is difficult though; and across Bark’s epic we continually see that Donald is not the hero of his own story, but rather a participant in it, still learning his way around. But it is who he is learning from that is the most interesting facet of this journey. Readers naturally ascribe heroic qualities with adults, and more importantly the role of teacher is almost always represented by a wise elder and the hero an individual in his mid to late twenties. Donald's only elder in the Barks saga though is Uncle Scrooge, the world's richest duck, a character that has more in common with Ebenezer Scrooge before he is visited by the three Ghosts of Christmas than after. Scrooge is a robber baron with a money pit that he regularly dives into for fun, a display of hedonism that even the Romans may even have found a bit much.

The only other character of any significant age in the narrative that could be called, in the traditional paradigm, Donald’s teacher is Gladstone Gander. If Scrooge is the world's richest duck, Gladstone is the worlds luckiest. Breezing around life with no aims or goals Gladstone is assured in his confidence that the stars above will take care of him because they seemingly always do. He is largely Donald's foil not because of Donald’s hatred of him, but because of his jealousy of him. He wants that life of leisure but will never have it because that is not Donald’s path. He has to strive for something or their is no narrative for Barks to tell.

(It should be noted though that Donald does learn from these two individuals explicitly, but they are not lessons that Barks wishes to teach the reader, but rather condemn. Scrooge’s greed and Gladstone's reliance on luck feed into all of Donald’s worst tendencies, and he is continually punished for them. They represent the weaknesses that he must overcome to become a better person, even though they seem so profitable for the two people he has learned them from.) 

No Donalds teacher(s), and the real heroes of Bark’s saga, are his three nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. 

There is a history of side characters rising to the level of the “hero” in comics, fellow Landon School of Illustration and Cartooning subscriber Roy Cranes most famous work Wash Tubbs quickly transformed from a comedic strip of one mans continuing series of misadventures into the celebrated Sunday strip Captain Easy: Soldier of Fortune, where Wash Tubbs exists solely as the sidekick to Captain Easy as he punches his way through adventure after adventure following Easy’s introduction into the series. Superhero’s comics, which follow in the footsteps of Crane, largely do not have this kind of narrative upheaval since they begin with Captain Easy and expanded outwards with Wash Tubbs. Batman, The Dark Knight, has the mostly derivative sidekick in Robin who exists almost solely for comedic relief, not as a person to learn from outside of government funded PSA’s. 

Huey, Dewey, and Louie though are unique in this history of heroic usurpation though because, unlike Captain Easy, they are not swashbuckling loners with a deathwish who always get the girl in the end, but rather merely children. But it is the very fact that they are children that allows them to exist as a mirror to be held up against the eccentricities of Donald, along with the narratives other characters, too show them all wanting. “Out of the mouths of babes” the saying goes, or since this is comics “through the eyes of babes” may be a bit more apt.


Bark’s narratives have an almost unhealthy obsession with money. A brief reading of his biography makes the reasons for this strikingly clear; like almost all of the great cartoonists of the 20th Century Barks got screwed over. A lot. But what is interesting based on his life is that his belief in hard work paying off never falters. The promise of the American Dream never disappeared for him*. And it is in this belief of hard work that we see Huey, Dewey, and Louie stand out compared to Donald and his elders.
Throughout Donald's tenure under Barks hand Donald goes through a number of careers. The common thread across all of these jobs though is Donald's attempt to do the least amount of work possible while making the most money. Barks most famous story, or at least the one Fantagraphics decided was important enough to give the first collection of their Carl Barks series over too Lost in the Andes shows Donald's, and societies, deferment towards the upper, lazy-ier, class in the face of the hard work of their subordinates.

A fact Donald supports wholeheartedly, as he waits to one day join that class. 
Lost In The Andes opens with Donald as a security guard for a local museum, he is competent, but little more than that. The stories narrative doesn’t kick off until his supervisor forces him to dust a series of stones collected from the Andes. Donald, known as a butterfinger since his debut as comedic relief, promptly drops one of the stones revealing it was an egg all along. After hearing of this discovery the museums board of directors decide to take a trip to the Andes to find the square eggs origin, in hopes of profiting off of its efficiency in packaging. (Of course with Donald and his nephews in toe)
The most telling sequence in this story involves each member of the search team, from the expedition leader down, ordering the next in command to secure his boss an egg omelet. At the end of this chain of command lies Donald, who quickly passes the job onto his nephews who, with a lack of eggs, choose to make the omelet from one of the remaining stone eggs, which without delay, makes its up the chain of command to the top researcher, even as each link in the chain takes a taste and remarks that they taste of dirt. Each member though feels their superior will appreciate the taste for a reason never stated.
That the omelet leaves everyone who tastes it sick is not telling besides illustrating that one's superiors are little more than yes men from the bottom up. But as Barks unfolds the journey you see that Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, while the lowest on that chain, are the most inventive and successful. They both find the lost civilization on their own, but also outwit that society by blowing square bubbles to stop their, and Donald's, execution. When the chickens they bring back “crow” it, in typical corporate speak, falls upon Donald and not his superiors to take the blame for the exhibitions failure.

This series of events though doesn't end at Lost in the Andes. It merely evolves.


Like a Shane Black script, Carl Barks seems single minded in setting as many of his stories within the Christmas season as possible. While one may groan at the sight of a theater marquee during December, for the glut of films centered around the holiday being shown, when one sees a wreath and snow drift in a Barks comic it is immediately meet with a feeling of warmth. This warmth isn’t because of Christmas cheer, but instead because Barks is at his best when he centers his stories around the holidays. This is because Christmas allows him to both deal with the capitalist tendencies of the holiday and the altruistic nature that underlie the day.
In “A Christmas For Shacktown”  Barks opens on Huey, Dewey, and Louie walking through a Duckburg hovel known as Shacktown, inhabited by children who don’t have a head lifted higher than necessary to see the tips of their toes and whose faces portray a kind of sadness only a cartoonist could capture. The caption overhead reads “Most everywhere kids look forward to Christmas with google-eyed glee but in Shacktown Christmas promises to be just another bare, cold, hungry day!” in the time it takes the boys to enter and leave Shacktown they are no longer talking about their Christmas plans, but rather a feeling of downtrodingness has infected them as they think of the inhabitants of Shacktown “Those poor kids in Shacktown don’t have any Christmas to worry about, and that worries me!”
Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s empathy for others is one of their hallmark characteristics, and what's more is their ability to turn that empathy into action. On there way home from Shacktown they come across Daisy (Donald’s seeming girlfriend, but not quite) after seeing how affected they are about the plight of the Shacktown residents she proposes her and her women's group, with the aid of the boys and Donald, create a fund to buy turkey dinners and a toy train set for the children of Shacktown. 

Daisy and the boys insistence on helping the children of Shacktown doesn’t so much change Donald’s way of thinking but rather shift it. Previous to their talk we were shown Donald walking in circles around his house trying to figure out a way to get enough money to buy his nephews presents so that they could have a happy Christmas. After the boys insistence that he give the money he had saved for their gifts to the effort to supply the children of Shacktown with toys (in addition to Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s donation of the funds they had saved for Donald's gift) Donald changes from worrying about raising money for his nephews to a single minded devotion to finding the remaining funds needed almost instantaneously.
That Donald continues to attempt to gather the money needed in ways that requires the least amount of work possible, primarily by scamming Uncle Scrooge, while his nephews shovel driveways and Daisy sells her furs, is decidedly characteristic of Donald. But Barks makes a point of not allowing him to get away with these easy outs. Even when one of his scams work, and he is given the money needed, it is quickly lost by the time it takes him to find the boys. It isn’t until he enlists Gladstone's help, and following Gladstone ’s returning of a lost wallet, that he secures the funds needed for Shacktown.
It isn’t that Donald lacks the empathy that his nephews bring out of him, it is that he needs them to show him when to think past his own family and look at the world as a whole. And that is a sign of how complex of a character Donald is, but why he needs Huey, Dewey, and Louie around to show him a better way.
*That Barks is still remembered today as “the good duck artist” i hope sheds some truth on this thought, even if he spent most of his unknown and died impoverished.

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