CARL and GARÉ BARKS – Letterers

“The Victory Garden,” from WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES #31, April 1943, Western/Dell, this and all Disney comics images © Disney

Carl Barks was an artist from the Walt Disney Studios who had a long and popular run at Western/Dell comics with stories featuring Donald Duck and other Disney characters, including some he created like Uncle Scrooge. Though never credited in the comics, fans soon came to know and love his work, calling him “The Good Duck Artist.” For many years he wrote, drew and lettered his stories. Later his third wife Garé became his regular letterer. Above is the first comics story written, drawn, and lettered by Barks. His lettering was just as professional as his art, and the invention of crow language is a funny and creative idea. I also like the way Donald’s three nephews speak individually but together form a complete sentence, much as they do in the Disney cartoons. Barks always used an Esterbrook #356 pen point to ink and letter his comics, as he wrote in a 1973 letter to Scott Matheson, as quoted HERE.

Carl Barks about 1945, from Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by Michael Barrier (M. Lilien 1982)

CARL BARKS was born March 27, 1901 on a farm in Merrill, Oregon. Hearing problems in childhood made his education difficult, and he was unable to finish high school. He had many occupations to make ends meet, including farmer, woodcutter, mule driver, cowboy and printer, life experiences that would later inform his comics. Since his early childhood Carl spent his free time drawing on any material he could find. He attempted to improve his style by copying the drawings of his favorite comic strip artists from the newspapers, where he could find them.

From The Calgary Eye Opener, 1920s, image found online

Carl always enjoyed drawing, and took some mail-order lessons as a teenager, but did not have much early success selling his work until he began placing cartoons in the Minneapolis-based men’s magazine, The Calgary Eye-Opener, where he was eventually hired as an editor and writer as well as an artist in the 1920s. Most of his work there didn’t have much lettering, but the cartoon above is an exception, and the lettering looks good to me. In 1935, Barks applied as an artist-trainee at the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles and was hired. He worked his way up through the ranks to become a story idea man and storyboard artist for Donald Duck cartoons. Barks left Disney in 1942 and was soon hired by Western Publishing, whose comics came out under the Dell name, as an artist for their Disney comic books. His work impressed them so much he was offered the chance to write and draw his own stories. The one at the top of this article was the first of about 500 stories he created for the company.

From WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES #33, June 1943

Bark’s balloon lettering used loose but consistent wide letters with a slight lean to the left. The casual slightly curved approach is a good match for the art. His sound effects are lively and animated, the one on this page has added stars to emphasize the impact. I also love Donald’s circling birdies thought balloon in the bottom left panel, another animation idea.

From FOUR COLOR #29, Sept 1943

Barks’ story titles on the ten-pagers in WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES were usually simple, but on some of the longer book-length stories for FOUR COLOR, Western’s anthology comic, he did more creative titles. As a reader, I can see Barks trying to break out of the simplicity of animation-style art at times, doing more detailed and expansive work, as here. On the other hand, his newspaper headlines make no effort to look like type, and are simply larger versions of his regular lettering.

From OUR GANG COMICS #13, Sept 1944, © Loew’s Incorporated

Early in his time at Western, Carl also created a series of stories about these MGM characters. Perhaps for variety, the lettering is all slanted. I love the music lettering, and the catalog name at lower left.

From FOUR COLOR #62, Jan 1945

I find this the most creative and interesting story title by Barks, the character logo is beautifully done, and I love the way the story title extends into the water, adding depth and impact. By this time, Carl’s balloon lettering has gotten a bit wider, and emphasized words are not only bolder but a little larger. Again you can see Barks striving for more than cartoon art.

From WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES #75, Dec 1946

But in the Donald Duck ten-pagers, comedy was king, and animation style sound effects were used effectively. I like the vertically lettered caption in the fifth panel. Here I see Barks leaning into his lettering style more, his letter forms use lots of curved strokes and very few straight ones. Look at the Y, the stem is very short and the two arms form a wide curve. It all matches the curved character art and billowy balloon shapes well.

From FOUR COLOR #178, Dec 1947

In this story, Carl Barks created his best character, the irascible, wealthy miser Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s Uncle. The story title gets things off to a festive start, with a handsome wreath decoration. Scrooge’s lettering is the same as everyone else in the story, but the words give it a chill. Barks is now sometimes using larger decorative first letters in his captions.

From FOUR COLOR #275, May 1950

The longer stories in FOUR COLOR allowed Barks to take Donald and his nephews on thrilling adventures around the world, stories with drama, intriguing plots and nefarious characters like the Mad Scientist seen above, but there was always plenty of humor as well. I like the title of the book Donald’s reading.

From FOUR COLOR #300, Nov 1950

At other times, Donald gets into trouble trying out a new job, like a clown here, where the story is played for laughs, helped by Barks’ energetic sound effects. I particularly like GLOM! as the ringmaster grabs clown Donald by the neck. It’s a rarely used word from the Scots “glaum,” to grab.

From FOUR COLOR #328, May 1951

This story has a fine title. I’m not sure if Barks was drawing the character logo again every time, but it looks like it.

From FOUR COLOR #328, May 1951

In this page from the story, we see Donald and his nephews entering the world of old Spanish California, with great character name lettering by Barks in the wide panel. Most of the human-like characters by Barks had dog noses to retain just a bit of animation style, but Carl was doing more realistic art than what was usually seen in Disney comics. Readers appreciated his extra effort, and labeled him “the good duck artist” for it.

From FOUR COLOR #367, Jan 1952

This well-loved story has a fine Barks title and decorative first caption. In it, many of Carl’s characters, including Uncle Scrooge and Gladstone Gander, join in a true Christmas story where Scrooge becomes generous despite himself.

From FOUR COLOR #386, March 1952

This comic is considered the first issue of Uncle Scrooge’s own series, and Barks has fun with the character’s bin full of money. I don’t know if Carl designed the Scrooge logo, he might have. His captions are slanted, and the first letters are much larger and bolder.

From WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES #140, May 1952

This story introduced another favorite Barks character, the chicken-like inventor Gyro Gearloose. Carl’s lettering remains consistent and appealing, always retaining a cartoony bounce. Note the parentheses, which are old-style breath marks, around Gyro’s panting.

From UNCLE SCROOGE #5, March 1954

But by the time of this comic, the lettering looks different. It’s by Barks’ wife Garé, and while it follows Carl’s style in general, the lettering is more regular and less bouncy. She also makes the dots in the exclamation and question marks larger, actually a tiny circle.

Carl and Garé Barks, 1982, San Diego Comics Convention, © Jackie Estrada

Margaret (Garé) Wynnfred Williams was born December 6, 1917 in Hilo, Hawaii. After Carl Barks divorced his second wife Clara in 1951, he met Garé, an accomplished painter, and they married in 1954. By that time she had been assisting him with lettering and background inking for a year or so.

From UNCLE SCROOGE #14, June 1956

After a while, Garé’s own lettering style emerged. Her letters were smaller and narrower than Carl’s, which left more room for the art. Carl probably penciled these sound effects, and Garé inked them, but hers also have narrower strokes, and are more rounded. They work fine. She probably inked the character logo over Carl’s pencils too. Nearly all the Gyro Gearloose appearances have her lettering.

From UNCLE SCROOGE #25, March 1959

She also lettered most of the UNCLE SCROOGE issues that Barks wrote and drew. I don’t know who did the anchor behind the A in the first caption here, but it’s a nice touch. There’s no denying that the stories and art on Barks duck comics were the main attraction, but the clear, simple lettering was important in its own way.

Carl Barks retired from drawing comics stories in 1966, thereafter contributing only scripts and a few covers. He followed his wife’s example and took up painting. Once he got permission to paint his Disney characters from the company in 1971, that became a new lucrative career for him. Garé Barks died on March 10, 1993. Carl passed on August 25, 2000 at the age of 99. His influence on generations of comics readers was large, especially in Europe where his work was even more popular than in America. While his lettering was never flashy, it served him well.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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