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Serious about comics

Arkansas animation/funny book scholar delves deep into Dell’s legacy by Ron Wolfe | February 22, 2015 at 2:17 a.m.
Dell Comics thanked young subscribers to yesterday’s Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories with memorabilia such as this poster image of favorite Disney characters.

Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books is Little Rock author Michael Barrier's history of mice and men.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Author Michael Barrier’s new work, Funnybooks, explores the “improbable glories of the best American comic books.” He centers on Dell Comics of the 1940s and ’50s.
Photo by Image from Funnybooks, courtesy Michael Barrier
Artist Carl Barks did not sign his name to Disney comic-book pages like this, showing Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. But young readers learned to recognize Barks’ style.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Statuettes and toys enliven Michael Barrier’s collection of books about comics and cartoonists. But the comics historian takes his subject seriously.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Michael Barrier shows a Donald Duck comic book from around 1950. The title once sold almost a million copies a month, and Barrier’s new book of comics history, Funnybooks, tells why. “They were just so good,” Barrier says.

The lawyer and former congressional aide, 74, looks back to when cowboys, jungle lords and talking animals of all sorts proclaimed, "Dell Comics are Good Comics."

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and other 10-cent Dell titles sold millions of copies a month in the 1940s and '50s. But the artists most responsible for Dell's success received little or no recognition.

Comics historian Barrier sets off like Scrooge McDuck in search of gold. He pans out the criteria of artists including Walt Kelly, John Stanley and Carl Barks, and stakes a claim for their work as deserving the same respect as classic literature.

The best of these comics "hold up as children's literature as highly as Alice in Wonderland," he says.

Barrier limits his childhood recollection to a few lines in the preface to this 407-page, illustrated history. Pogo the possum, yes, and Donald Duck spoke to him in crisp hand-lettering as they capered through their funny adventures. They made him want to be a cartoonist, too, like what boy didn't?

Memories like his are "commonplace," Barrier writes, and so "no point in devoting much attention to them." The question he poses is strictly no-nonsense.

Are these comics from 60 and 70 years ago still worth reading? Made to be thrown away, were they really that good?

Five years of research and countless comic books later, he is ready to report. In a word, "yeah," good comics -- sometimes great comics.

The best, he says, "are worth reading by my 70-year-old self as much as when I was a teenager and younger."

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman agrees in a quote regarding Barrier's book, that it offers "revelatory proof" of the value of these comics.

Dell's artists invented new personalities for the Disney gang, Mickey Mouse and Donald

Duck. Donald onscreen was a quacking storm of temper. Donald in the comics developed deep and complicated emotions that, in Barrier's view, played truer to life than Superman.

Barks was the duck man. The artist's name never appeared in a Disney comic of the time, but his strikingly superior work became its own signature. Young readers could spot the difference at a glance, even if Barks' editors couldn't see it.

Donald's Uncle Scrooge endures as the ultimate rich old duck -- the bird who won his heaps of cash by "thinking a little harder than the other guy." He loves to "toss it up and let it hit me on the head."

Scrooge loves every copper cent of his money because he earned it, the same way that Barks came to the drawing board by way of hardscrabble farming and timber work.

Barks drew for children, but he didn't sugar the pages, Barrier points out. For every dollar in Scrooge's money bin, there lurked a black-masked Beagle Boy to steal it.

Ducks in appearance, Barks' characters "were real people" in every other way, Barrier says. They acted real, and they faced "the same consequences as in the real world."

The book highlights one of Donald's dilemmas. For once, he has got the best of his insufferably lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander. He has sent Gladstone on a wild goose chase to the North Pole.

But now, Donald is awake with guilt, worried about "icebergs and polar bears. I wonder if polar bears eat people!"

He broods in his safe kitchen, unable to finish his midnight snack of celebration. His fear takes shape as a fat bear over his head, a weight that literally mashes him. He will have no choice but to go rescue Gladstone.

The cartoon duck displays "a subtlety that was rare if not unique in comic books," Barrier writes.

Readers mushed to adventure with Donald in Barks' classic tale, "Luck of the North," and Barrier intends his book to point the way to other finds.

"I'm gratified," he says, knowing the proceeds probably won't fill a money bin, "by how enthusiastic people are when they read the book."


Barrier might not take to his treasured subject entirely like Scrooge would -- "dive around in it like a porpoise" -- but he would come close.

He has been writing about comics and animated cartoons since he attended Little Rock Central High School. He decided en route to a law degree not to give up comics as kids' junk, but to take comics as seriously as law books.

The author rated his cartoon work "not terrible, but not of professional quality," which only made him want to know more about the artists he admired.

They were human beings, after all, he discovered. They were beset with the same troubles as anybody else -- hard times, hard drink, divorce, disrespect, pounding deadlines and shoddy drawing paper besides.

But they made up and shared their form of delight.

He saw in their neglected art and history a chance "to do something much more valuable than anything I could have done as a cartoonist."

Comics scholarship became a second career to his work as a Washington legislative aide, and later a senior editor of Nation's Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce magazine.

Barrier wrote the landmark Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in the Golden Age (Oxford University Press, 1999) nearly 700 pages and 25 years in the making. The Animated Man (University of California Press, 2007) is a biography of Walt Disney.

Of these and other writings, he counts Funnybooks (University of California Press, 2014) the most personal. Forty pages of notes attest to the book's academic rigors. But a man with a Disney comics circus poster on his office wall -- collections of comics on the shelf -- a stuffed toy Elmer Fudd peeking out of the bookcase -- is hardly cold to the case.

Pressed to say so he said, yes, he was the boy on the bus, headed to downtown Little Rock to make the rounds of dime stores and drug shops, once the main suppliers of comic books. And, yes, he felt blown back when Dell's cover price exploded from 10 to 15 cents, in 1961.

"A disastrous mistake," he reports -- one of many factors why young buyers finally lost interest in the spinner rack at Woolworth's.


Barrier knew Barks from having written about him in Funnyworld, the comics magazine that Barrier published in the 1970s.

"Carl would grouse about the work and how tired he got of it," Barrier says. At the same time, Barks commonly redrew pages he thought could be improved, that he could have let slide. He did this even knowing how much the original art would be valued: It was thrown away.

"He was working to please himself," Barrier says.

Former Disney artist Kelly's newspaper comic strip, Pogo, started as a comic-book feature in 1942, "Albert Takes the Cake." Albert the alligator "threatens to eat Pogo," Barrier records. The skinnier-looking possum of that early time not only survived, in 1952 he ran for president.

Stanley drew Little Lulu comics, deceptively simple-looking cartoons about the little girl in the red dress. Barrier detects in Stanley's work the mind of a social satirist.

In one such story, a "very rich little boy" on gold-plated stilts sees poor Little Lulu yearning for a cake in the bakery store window. Taking pity, he buys the bakery. He pulls the shade and locks the door so that Lulu "wouldn't have to look at things she couldn't buy."

Kelly had a reputation as "one of those guys you're better off never to meet," Barrier says. He emerges from Barrier's research like one of the characters that Kelly created, a Porky Pine.

Stanley was an intellectual who "probably thought he should have been doing something other than comic books," Barrier says. "He wouldn't allow himself the satisfaction of doing a sometimes wonderful job."

But those wonderful jobs have lasted in memory, and if Barrier has his way, will last for as long as the world needs a laugh.

Thinking of the best ones, Barrier says, "I'll find myself involuntarily smiling, it's such a pleasant memory. They were just so good."

Michael Barrier will speak about Funnybooks during the Arkansas Literary Festival, April 23-26 in Little Rock. More information is available at More information about Barrier's writing and comics criticism is at

Fantagraphics Books publishes reprints of Carl Barks' and other Disney comics and Walt Kelly's Pogo. More information is available at Dark Horse Books reprints John Stanley's Little Lulu; more information is available at

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