||Originally published in Comics Journal
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 Sřren Spaette album written and drawn
by a local talent named Freddy Milton.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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