Doing It the Barks Way
- by Freddy Milton

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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.
 

Preliminary Script

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 later.

  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 society.
  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.
 

Layout

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.
 

Characterization

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.
 

Afterword
- 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 1981.
  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" February 1977



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