By Carl Barks
240 pages, color
Published by Fantagraphics Books
Reading the first of Carl Barks’ Duck comic collections from Fantagraphics last year, I found myself struck by how quickly I’d fallen in love with Barks’ entertaining stories of all lengths. After the review was published, though, I had several friends sidle up to me and warn me that the best was yet to come. They were referring to Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics, which they swore up and down were even better. And now that Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man is out and I’ve had a chance to sit down and digest it? Well, sorry Donald, but I have a new favorite Duck and he’s the one with all the money.
If you’ve never read anything with Uncle Scrooge before, it’s a fairly simple concept. Scrooge McDuck is Donald Duck’s fabulously wealthy uncle, and all Scrooge wants to do in life is somehow become even wealthier. There are several long stories in this book, and while the title story "Only a Poor Old Man" does a great job of bringing that concept to life (as the Beagle Boys attempt to steal all of Scrooge’s money in increasingly crazy ways), it’s "Back to the Klondike" that deserves your attention the most. In many ways I feel like it’s got everything you need for a Scrooge McDuck story: Scrooge’s greed, clever ideas, glimpses into Scrooge’s adventuresome past, and the foursome of Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie to try and steer him in the right direction. "Back to the Klondike" goes one step further, though, by giving Scrooge a bit of a soul as we discover a long-lost love from his younger days. It’s a story that ends up simultaneously touching and frustrating; you want to shake Scrooge within an inch of his life and shake his hand at the same time. In other words, it’s just about perfect.
Of the other long stories in the volume, "The Secret of Atlantis" is the other one that feels particularly iconic. What’s great about it is that it starts with a simple idea—collecting a miniscule debt—and rolls and shifts into a story that gets so large that by the end we’ve almost lost track of how it all began. "The Secret of Atlantis" mixes real world economic ideas (like how collector’s items become valuable through rarity) and crazy ones (the fish-people living in Atlantis) into a story that has an unexpected adventure burst into play about halfway through. With each new twist and turn, Barks keeps his audience guessing and the end result is nothing short of a delight.
Unlike Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes, this first Uncle Scrooge collection mixes the short, medium, and long stories together. With hindsight being 20/20, this is a shift for the better. After reading a longer story like "Only a Poor Old Man" it’s nice to get some short pieces immediately afterwards to change things up a bit and keep things moving at a brisk pace. I also found myself convinced that these short pieces wouldn’t work as well all clustered together. Because of the nature of Uncle Scrooge’s stories, the bit ones are mostly involving him going to ridiculous lengths for a tiny amount of money. Strung back to back, it would get old quickly, but popping up throughout the volume isn’t bad at all.
Completely consistent with what I’ve seen from Barks before is the art. It’s clean, it’s crisp, it’s handsome. It’s never particularly flashy or attention grabbing, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a good progression from one panel to the next, the characters are all drawn well and easily recognizable, and the motion flows smoothly. It’s a good looking comic, and that’s exactly what I expect from Banks. Also, as with before, the recoloring of the comics from Rich Tommaso looks good; at no point did anything here feel out of place or like someone had slapped modern techniques onto vintage comics, and that’s the way it should be.
I liked Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes a great deal, but Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man is even better. The more I see of Barks’ comics, the more I kick myself for having taken this long to read them. (Although most of his Duck comics being out of print for ages is at least a somewhat reasonable excuse.) If you haven’t experienced Barks’ Duck comics yourself, I think this is a great a place as any to begin. Definitely check it out for yourself. Highly recommended.