Doing It the Barks Way
Carl Barks has influenced many cartoonists, some of whom went on to
build their own careers with Disney, but none has captured the look and
feeling of the classic duck ten-pager as successfully as Freddy Milton
and Daan Jippes. Like all fans who grew up on a diet of duck comics, these
men found they could return to the stories they had loved as children
and draw new inspiration from the master's themes and techniques. Working
together in the 1970s for the Dutch publisher Oberon, they produced a
series of tales that is unrivaled for its Barksian flavor. Here Milton
explains how they did it.
I have always regarded Carl Barks as a pioneer breaking ground where other
writers and artists could follow, using his characters and plots as a
vehicle for their own skills. The duck stories that Daan Jippes and I
produced together for the Dutch market represent an attempt to keep a
storytelling tradition alive. During the six years and nearly three hundred
pages of our collaboration, we returned frequently to the classic Donald
Duck ten-pagers. By studying these stories and using Barks' methods, we
hoped to capture his style.
Our joint work on "A Clean Case of Competence"
illustrates this approach. The central events of the story were inspired
by the 1937 cartoon Clock Cleaners,
in which Mickey, Donald, and Goofy get entangled in the machinery of a
clock tower. The prospect of one small duck being dwarfed by such a giant
mechanism had both humorous potential and moral possibilities. But we
built the plot itself on a pattern that Barks established in the 1950s
in a series of tales featuring Donald as a master at various professions.
Taking our cue from the catastrophes that typically
conclude those stories, we decided that Donald could do no less that spoil
the entire clock tower. The disaster would be even bigger if the clock
were an antique prized by the citizens of Duckburg. At first it seemed
to follow that we should cast Donald as an horologist. But building a
whole story on problems of watch repair might become repetitious. Then,
too, it would be illogical to show Donald repairing watches successfully
for the first half of the story and suddenly losing his touch when confronted
by a larger clock. We chose to keep the clock-cleaner motif but to work
toward it by emphasizing cleaning rather than clocks.
After settling on the general subject for our story, we began blocking
out the script. Because a comic book should flow visually with as little
dialogue as possible, we conceived it in pictures, constructing the action
panel by panel. A ten-page tale requires about eighty panels: eight to
a page. Each should move the plot forward or develop the personalities
involved. A balance between these two elements is essential, and the best
stories will develop character and plot at the same time.
On finishing a first script, we would often find
that the frames did not quite fit onto ten pages. Then we would look for
items that could be cut, gags that were introduced for the pure fun of
it without carrying the plot forward. Sometimes we would discover ideas
that needed foreshadowing, so that we had to add material at an earlier
point in the tale. We also strove to place a gag or small cliff-hanger
at the bottom of each page to propel the reader forward. All these are
changes that have to be made in tightening a story.
Polishing the Script
Jippes and I decided that the Barks stories of the late 1940s offered
the best model for our own tale. Donald should be self-assured and egocentric,
reacting angrily to pressures from the world around him. Pride would cause
him to make a fatal error, leading to the disastrous conclusion of the
story. The nephews would take the part of a Greek chorus, commenting on
the action as it unfolded and showing a skeptical, resigned attitude toward
the ways and byways of fate.
As this moral aspect of the story grew in our minds,
it became less and less appropriate for Donald just to spoil some silly
antique clockwork. It would be much more significant if his mistake sent
all Duckburg into chaos. We decided to raise the clock to the status of
Big Ben, a ticker believed to be punctuality itself. If Donald could make
each of its four dials show a different time, the four parts of Duckburg
watching could fall into some very comic confusion. This situation would
also give us the opportunity for an extra moral: that one should never
trust technical devices blindly.
Four separate instances of confusion could become
repetitious, however. It would be more dramatic to join them into one
disaster by using the city’s transport system. The ensuing wreck would
provide a stronger climax for the story than the simple malfunction of
the tower clock. This also would enforce the principles of classical tragedy.
But we had to keep the action funny. We decided to use two trains: one
carrying confetti, the other loaded with molasses. This
was changed to tar and feathers in the American edition printed ten years
To make room for setting up this complex accident,
we cut a gag from the beginning of the story: the sequence in which Donald
saves Banker Brokeman's garden party by gluing all the leaves back on
his trees. Evaluating it, we realized that it did not add to our sense
of Donald's expertise. The restoration of the magenta stamp was enough
to show that he could handle impossible cleaning problems.
To vary the tone that Barks had set in his mastery
stories, we decided to give Donald artistic ambitions. Contrasting his
genius with the dull routine of cleaning jobs would provide a further
source of humor, and it would add to the laughs to show him treating valuable
objects contemptuously because they offered no challenge to his artistry.
The scene with the rare stamp had to be convincing, however. In the rest
of the story, Donald is a bit of a clown, but here he gets to demonstrate
real talent. By pushing his abilities to the limit on this one cleaning
job, we created respect and sympathy for him.
At the same time, Donald's artistic temperament is
what causes his final failure. Because of his reluctance to take on a
mundane job, he approaches the clockwork with a casual attitude that gets
him into trouble. Ignoring the nephews' good advice and the schedules
of Duckburg at large, he adheres to his own values and sense of timing.
Thus the collision of trains is caused by a collision of rhythms—between
the individual human being and the machines that rule our technological
Barks often concluded Donald's failures by letting
him run away from Duckburg in the last panel. We felt that was too easy
a solution. It would make a stronger moral point if Donald were forced
to clean up the mess himself. At the same time, this punishment could
be presented in several lights. If we showed Donald grumbling as he scrubbed
the streets, it might mean he had learned nothing by his mistake. We decided
to omit Donald's comments and let the reader draw his own conclusions.
In the final panel, the master cleaner wears an expression that could
be either weariness or resignation.
With the script ready, we began laying out the pictorial elements of
our story. Each page had to be a unified composition, and every panel
needed to convey its action clearly and economically. We tried to position
the characters in logical relation to each other, but in such a way that
their expressions were readily visible. Dialogue balloons could not dominate,
yet they had to be placed where they could be read in the right order.
Barks generally hung his balloons from the top edge or corner of a panel,
so that the picture below seemed smaller than the panel itself. To create
a greater feeling of space in several panels, we floated the balloons
lower, leaving parts of the drawing showing around them.
We invoked silhouettes both for visual variety and
create specific moods. Seen in black against the setting sun, the figures
of the nephews lend an air of melancholy to the conversation about Donald's
inability to find challenging jobs. Similarly, the heavy black form of
the factory train speeding down the track to Goosetown creates an ominous
feeling, anticipating the catastrophe one page later.
The interior of Donald's workshop created problems
because we wanted him to use ordinary tools. The humor of each cleaning
job lies in the discrepancy between the roughness of Donald's methods
and the delicacy of the object he cleans. A typewriter stuck in concrete
is chiseled free with one blow, an antique vase gets a shoeshine, and
a priceless stamp is smeared with glue and run through a wringer. To increase
the humor of the third job, we gave Donald extra-large pieces of cardboard
and a giant wringer in contrast to the tiny square of paper he restores.
Even the expert's worktable is too large for him, so he has to stand on
a stool to reach it.
When we came to draw the clocktower, it was very
tempting to fill it with cogwheels and levers. But the Barks tradition
demanded economy. There should never be more than is needed to convey
the message of any one panel. For this reason, we showed intricate machinery
only in the first interior shot, just enough to set the mood. Thereafter
we kept the wheels, bells, and mainspring large and simple.
The spring in Clock Cleaners
had been horizontal. We made ours vertical to give Donald trouble in recovering
his beret. His climb to reach the hat adds visual excitement, while the
spring's upright position increases the likelihood that it will fly apart
what attacked with a broom. The toylike key in the center of the mainspring
is an added bit of humor, again playing on the discrepancy between large
and small objects.
The last job was to draw the characters, giving the right twist of expression
to their faces and movement to their bodies. As Barks himself found, it
is impossible to follow a model sheet exactly. New expressions are constantly
needed to fit the events of a story. Refining these can take as much time
as the other work combined.
Daan Jippes has a sensitivity for characterization.
Though I did most of the layout and inking, he gave the ducks their livenyness
and expressiveness. In the case of the more difficult poses, this required
three or four preliminary drawings. Jippes would work on separate pieces
of tracing paper, starting with a rough sketch and them refining it. When
a pose satisfied us, we transferred it to the actual drawing paper. There
it was cleaned up with a hard pencil before the final inking.
We probably put more time into the production of
the ten-page story than Barks ever did. After all, the style was his and
came naturally to him. We had to exert ourselves to achieve a script and
art consistent with the tradition he established.
by Daan Jippes
In the winter of 1977 I visited Freddy Milton at his home in Viborg,
Denmark. There we conceived the idea of making Donald an expert in some
trade, in the tradition of Barks' tales from the 1950s. Sitting together
at a table, we plotted the story scene by scene, then set to work on the
art. In fourteen days, we had completed "A Clean Case of Competence."
I did most of the pencil work, and Milton did most of the inking.
This was our third joint effort and our closest,
for we normally worked through the mail. Our collaboration began in the
fall of 1975, when I was an art-consultant with Oberon in Holland. Milton
sent me a ten-page story he had written, requesting my opinion and suggestions
for improving it. I responded, and from there it grew into a habit—one
to which we surrendered for five years, until I moved to California in
Every story we wrote and drew involved several runs
through the mail, so our total output was not large. As a rule, I would
give Milton's first typewritten script close scrutiny. After analyzing
the plot and gags, I responded with a more focused premise for him to
flesh out in a new script. This does not mean that there was anything
wrong with Milton's original ideas. It was just that our talents were
geared differently. Coming at the same story from two different angles,
we had to pass ideas back and forth for a while before settling on something
that satisfied us both.
Milton's second typescript would start me visualizing
sequences with thumbnail sketches, staging the action and laying out the
backgrounds. I would also indicate positions for the dialogue balloons
on the rough art. After another two-way run through the mail, I would
find a larger envelope in my postbox, containing the ten-page story pencilled
full-size on drawing paper.
My contribution next was largely cosmetic. I would
adjust expressions and poses, clarify perspective, balance dark and light
areas in the art, and try to unify each page as a composition. These alterations
I would do on overlaying tissue paper. After that, my involvement in the
story had run its course. The drawing paper with tissues went back to
Milton, who transferred the alterations to the drawing paper before inking.
And before he was through, we would already be into the first draft of
a new tale.
Interview with Daan Jippes
made during the working session on "A Clean case of Competence"