Woody Woodpecker's finest hour
- by Dwight R. Decker



Originally published in Comics Journal #63, 1981

Just over four years ago, I came by a stack of issues of Dell’s New Funnies from the late 1940s and early 1950s. The title was the vehicle for comic book adventures of the Walter Lantz characters, including such notables as Andy Panda, Oswald the Rabbit, Homer Pigeon, and Woody Woodpecker himself. I read the comics out of a sense of duty, but now, not too many years later, I find it impossible even to remember any of the stories. They were just routine funny-animal capers, very mediocre in comparison with the brilliant work Carl Barks was doing with the Disney duck characters at the same time. Even second-echelon Disney, such as the Paul Murry Mickey Mouse serials running in the back of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories at the time, was strikingly better than anything that ever appeared in New Funnies.
  In many ways, this is unfortunate. Woody Woodpecker in particular deserved better, if only because Woody is one of the most attractive characters ever to come out of animation. All too many characters are drab-looking even when their personalities sparkle (Daffy Duck is black with a touch of orange, Bugs Bunny is grey and white, Mickey Mouse and Andy Panda are black and white, etc.). In contrast, Woody Woodpecker was designed for color, all but glowing in bright blue, white, red, and orange. His cartoons were seldom anything special, but he was a beautiful character. Woody had the potential to be far greater than his creators and owners were willing to give him credit for.
  Woody got his chance in 1978 when Interpresse, a Danish publisher with the Walter Lantz license in that part of the world, put out a 44-page Søren Spaette album written and drawn by a local talent named Freddy Milton. Freddy Milton, the Danish cartoonist responsible for Woody's hour of glory.The results were stunning: the story "Klatten Kommer" ("The Coming of the Blot") was intelligently written and beautifully drawn and written, certainly the best treatment Woody Woodpecker has ever had. A year later, Interpresse followed up with another book-length Woody adventure by Milton, "Lykkevandet" ("The Water of Happiness"), and proved that lightning can indeed strike twice in the same place.
  Why does Woody Woodpecker have to go out of town—way out of town—to get the opportunity to strut his stuff? The reasons are various, but one of the major ones is that the European market has long been accustomed to comics published in relatively expensive, high-quality editions. Also, Woody Woodpecker is known to the Danish public from a monthly American-format comic that reprints the American stories. However, the most important element has to be Freddy Milton himself.
  To quote Paul Burgdorf, writing in the German fanzine Comixene (#25 July/August, 1979) , Freddy Milton "is the most active Danish comic artist now working. He began by trying to draw realistic strips but without any great success. His admiration for Carl Barks led him to comics based more on animated cartoons. Among other things, he also publishes the fanzine Carl Barks & Co., which specializes in animation comics. He has worked for many different companies as an artist, editor, or translator. The most influence on his work seems to come from Holland’s Oberon publishing house, for which he draws Disney comics. In particular, the influence of Dutch Disney artist Daan Jippes is unmistakable."
  But Freddy Milton’s first love and primary influence is still Carl Barks. His foreword to Carl Barks & Co. #1 (1974) is virtually a passionate love letter to the man and his work. "We children didn’t have any idea WHO he was, but oh how we KNEW him and RECOGNIZED him each time we ran across a story he had done…it wasn’t just the drawings, but also the story itself, the ideas, the narrative techniques…and there were MANY stories, because Carl Barks wasn’t just creative, he was also productive…and that you have to be in a dream industry, for dreams are not well-paid—even when it pays to print them." So it isn’t surprising that the critic Burgdorf wrote that "the characters [in the second Woody Woodpecker album] come more out of the house of Disney than that of Lantz. Some pages almost could have been drawn by Carl Barks himself."
  It may well be that Milton would have rather drawn a Disney story instead of a Lantz story to begin with. Journal editor Kim Thompson tells me that Milton once produced an entire album-length Disney duck story in the Barks style, but had a disagreement with Danish Disney about the format for its publication. Milton then withdrew the story, reworked the characters as geese instead of ducks, and had it published by another company. Perhaps Woody Woodpecker was only Milton’s second choice.
  However, Woody and Donald Duck are superficially similar characters. In their comic book incarnations, both have evolved into generally unemployed bachelors with unexplained family obligations (three nephews for Donald, a nephew and a niece for Woody), living in small suburban houses. Come to think of it, quite a few funny animals went that route. To name two more, Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig. Such characters are so interchangeable that once, when Gold Key had a surplus of Donald Duck scripts (in the post-Barks era) and not enough Porky Pig stories, Ducks were converted into Pigs by the simple addition of a new character, Porky’s Uncle Hoggitall, to fill in for Donald’ Uncle Scrooge. After a certain point it no longer makes any difference who or what the character is: the important thing is what the artist and writer do with it. Remember that Donald Duck was nothing more than a quick-tempered squawker before Barks molded him into a sort of Everyman with feathers. There is nothing intrinsically magical about ducks. Or about woodpeckers, for that matter. But following the Carl Barks lead, Freddy Milton managed to take a character no one ever cared much about before and perform almost the same miracle. Even though the Barks influence is evident, Milton has devised a funny animal style enough his own that his work is more than mere imitation.

The Coming of the BlotIn "The Coming of the Blot," Woody becomes the unwilling host of a visitor from outer space, called simply Klatten (The Blot). When he first appears, the Blot looks something like a bowling ball with enormous eyes and short legs (or pseudopods), and grows much larger as time goes on. The Blot doesn’t talk, but displays a form of precognitive ability that gets Woody into trouble a few times. When Woody and his niece and nephew (Knothead and Splinter in English, Tip and Top in Danish), finally gets control of the situation and are even making a modest amount of money by selling Blot souvenirs and charging people admission to see its spaceship, enter a new complication: Hans Vig. A note in the indicia emphasizes that the character is Milton’s creation. Hans Vig is a frog who dresses like a riverboat gambler, complete with tophat, and his personality is that of a refined, elegant scoundrel. He claims that he is in telepathic communication with the Blot, which no one can dispute because it never says anything. The dandified frog literally walks in and shoves Woody aside. Vig establishes his credibility by announcing that the Blot has predicted the city bank will fail (which it does, because people hearing about the prediction rush in to withdraw their money). Then Vig runs the Blot for mayor of the town. The incumbent, incidentally, is Hvalle Hvalros—Wally Walrus. The Blot wins handily and Hans Vig proceeds to make pronouncements in its name while looting the treasury for his own benefit. The crisis is resolved only when Knothead and Splinter discover an old newspaper that has a story accusing Hans Vig of being a swindler.
  Some of the strengths of the story are in relatively minor bits. The scene of Knothead and Splinter running the Blot souvenir stand is a gentle ribbing of just about every tourist trap that ever existed. On the other hand, the scene of scientists investigating for the Blot for no other reason than to have some useless information on file comes close to Anti-Vivisection League propaganda or Richard Adam’s The Plague Dogs, but stops short of going overboard. Sometimes there’s a moment of absurdity, such as the panel in which the police take Woody’s fingerprints. The unwritten law of funny animal comics is that all characters shall wear gloves, and Woody is no exeption—but he doesn’t take his off even for fingerprinting.
  Myself, I was rather taken by a minor sequence well on in the story. Woody begins to realize that Hans Vig is a phony but has no way of proving it. He comes home from the mayor’s office and pours out his heart Knothead and Splinter, then sees them off to bed. His tiredness and frustration are effectively conveyed in dialogue and expression, giving him a depth of personality beyond anything he and most other cartoon characters have ever had. Further, there is actual affection between Woody and Knothead and Splinter, an extra dimension of warmth that Barks somehow missed in his depiction of Donald and his nephews. Finally, there is the remarkable attention to detail: Splinter, Woody’s niece, normally wears her woodpecker’s topknot in a ponytail, but the panels of her in bed show that she removed the ribbon before retiring. It’s a nice, logical, human touch marred only by the fact that she and Knothead left their gloves on.

W. accidentally manufactures 3 million bags too many of peppermint candies.

  Volume II, "The Water of Happiness," is a little different. The back cover blurb warns the reader that something is up when it says: "Once again Woody Woodpecker, Knothead and Splinter, Hans Vig, and all the rest are tangled up in an adventure, but one that also has a thing or two to say about the society we all live in…"
  Yes, Freddy Milton unfortunately fell victim to "Social Comment Disease," the downfall of all too many entertainers who start taking themselves a little too seriously. But for all that, he still turned out a highly enjoyable adventure.
W. accidentally manufactures 3 million bags too many of peppermint candies.
Woody gets a job in a candy factory and through a production error manufactures three million bags too many of peppermint candies. The factory manager hits the ceiling (literally—it’s a gag borrowed from Barks in Uncle $crooge even though the expression "hit the ceiling" isn’t used in Danish). Woody is fired, but he has to take the surplus candy with him and dump it somewhere. As it happens, Woody had once bought a piece of land on a lonely windswept hill, intending to build a summer-house there but never being able to afford it. He unloads the three million bags of candy in a decrepit old barn on the hilltop just as a storm is building up. Lightening strikes the barn, setting it on fire. The candy melts and, dissolved by the rain, soaks into the ground.

  The next day, Hans Vig arrives on the scene. The character design for the larcenous frog is slightly different on this outing: he no longer wears shoes and spats, but now goes around in his bare flippers. (The indicia this time also makes the point even stronger that "the character of Hans Vig is the creation and property of Freddy Milton). Vig is now in the company of a minor Lantz character named Gabby Gator, and the pair are sidewalk vendors who fleece the rubes by selling a worthless miracle cure. They quickly make the discovery that water from the spring on Woody’s land now has some fabulous qualities: anyone who drinks it is instantly overcome by a feeling of tremendous happiness: The lightning-struck peppermint candy has changed the groundwater in some strange way.
A particularly effective scene comes when a dour street preacher samples the water and for a moment is elevated to a state of heavenly bliss—and instantly concludes that anything that makes a person feel so happy must somehow be evil.
  Vig senses a market for the "Water of Happiness" (as Lykkevandet is literally translated—someone producing an English version of the book would have to come up with something less clumsy), and talks Woody into a partnership to sell the stuff commercially. However, Woody owns only half the hill. Before Vig can do anything to stop it, Woody’s old antagonist from the cartoons, Buzz Buzzard, buys the other half and digs a well. Now there are two competing brands of happy water on the market: Woody’s Happiness and what might be translated as Buzzard Bliss.A few sample tiers from Milton's W. W. stories. Barks's influence is evident throughout.
  Happy water is a sensation and a fortune is to be made from it, but Woody gets only more problems. Matters go from bad to worse when the city council first taxes happy water, then bans it altogether. That only leads to bootlegging and speakeasies in a succession of gags apparently based on Prohibition Era American movies. Hans Vig and Buzz Buzzard both hire gangs of thugs to force bartenders to stock one or the other brand, and hijack each other’s delivery trucks. Woody tries to get out of his partnership with Vig, but because his name is on the bottles, he is the one who gets hauled into court for bootlegging. The judges are vultures, speak with heavily outlined word balloons, and are always seen from below in forced perspective.
  The affair is clearly getting out of hand. As Gabby tells Vig, "It was a lot more fun at the beginning when we were running things, Hans, but now its almost like the happy water is running us…" With the timely help of the puritan street preacher, who is only too glad to put an end to such a threat to the morals of the community, Woody and Knothead and Splinter spoil the happy water for all time by pouring a huge barrel of concentrated well-aged cod liver oil into a hole on top of the hill. The happy water suddenly tastes so ghastly that Woody’s Happiness and Buzzard Bliss are both instantly out of business.
  "But isn’t it wrong to deprive people of something they want?" wonders Splinter.
  "Well," replies Woody, "it certainly can’t be right to exploit their desire so grossly and make exorbitant profits from it."
  Splinter’s conclusion is hopeful. "Happy water was really a poor substitute for happiness, but maybe now people will try to find the real thing."
  Meanwhile, down at the candy factory, another production error has resulted in three million bags too many of licorice. "Is this the end?" asks the final caption.
  Any heavyhandedness at the end is more than made up for by the richness of invention all through the rest of the story. My specific criticisms are few, running to minor matters like the fact that the frog looked better with shoes. More generally, however, there’s a problem in that Milton painted such a broad canvas of events, covering an entire city, that Woody Woodpecker, the nominal star of the book, sometimes gets lost sight of for pages at a time. Moreover, it occasionally seems as though Milton is paying more more attention to Hans Vig, his own character, than to Woody.
  Nonetheless, Milton’s two Woody Woodpecker albums are so well done that they deserve to be translated into English and published in the United States. Since both Walter Lantz and the people at Western Publishing, Lantz’s American licensee, are aware of the books existence, I can only conclude that they or their marketing consultants have decided publication wouldn’t be profitable.
  It’s really a pity. Woody Woodpecker has never looked better.

A few sample tiers from Milton's W. W. stories. Barks's influence is evident throughout.home