PRINT October 1994


IT'S AN OLD STORY: the Author rejected by high culture pops up in another part of the culture industry heretofore deemed vulgar. Just as the literary author is pronounced dead by Roland Barthes in Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, he is reincarnated as film auteur in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma. While the movies have long been the favorite stomping ground of illegitimate intellectuals (Pierre Bourdieu’s name for those without legitimizing academic credentials and careers), younger generations have discovered new authors in the most diverse areas of the culture industry (cameramen, comic-book artists, record producers). By the ’80s, when the concept of the Death of the Author was a high-culture commonplace, graphic and furniture designers were being celebrated as artists, even stars. As much accidentally as through their unpredictable independence and anarchic production relations, people who may never have imagined themselves as Authors have kept alive the old dream of a truth-seeking pop culture in the very belly of the beast, the “culture industry.”

As early as the ’50s, comic-book fans wanted to know the names of their favorite artists. Some publishers obliged—Marvel, for example, always printed the names of its contributors. But Disney guarded the identities of its artists and writers jealously. Although the first letters asking the company about its “good cartoonists” (a designation, as I’ve learned, independently adopted both in the U.S. and in the various European countries where Donald Duck stories were carefully read—the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy) arrived in the mid ’50s, it wasn’t until 1961 that a fan finally discovered that Disney hadn’t drawn all the cartoons himself and unearthed the name of the author of the best of the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, the inventor of all the characters except Donald and his nephews, including Scrooge, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, and the Beagle Boys: Carl Barks. In 1970, a German weekly catering to the educated classes, Die Zeit, opened its culture section with an article about Barks, and today, at more than 90, he is finally known to a wider audience.

Disney eventually ended its policy of concealing artists’ names, and beginning in the ’80s a series of classic reprints of Barks’ drawings appeared. Somewhat later, the Barks Library, a complete edition of his work in multiple volumes (now translated into several languages), began to be published in the U.S. When Barks left Disney in 1967, the company made an exception to its copyright policy, allowing its scandalously underpaid employee to paint portraits of the ducks in oils and to sign them with his own name. These paintings, which Barks produces to this day, consist mostly of classical motifs—from the Mona Lisa to scenes from Wagner operas, reminiscent of Peter Saul’s paintings—all, of course, populated by ducks. Only in the art world, it seems, does Barks remain virtually unknown, although academics have not proven much more attentive: nowhere is this great exception to the corporate ideal of the cultural producer mentioned in the 182 pages of the South Atlantic Quarterly (Winter 1992/93) devoted to the Disney empire, although the journal correctly points out the previous failure of cultural studies readers and anthologies to address the contributions of individual artists.

The fervor of the German Barks cult extends to an admiration for the long-time translator of all Disney artists, Erika Fuchs. (For this reason the illustration on the facing page appears in German.) In Fuchs’ translation the ducks speak a comic High German laced with literary references. Even the youthful language of Huey, Dewey, and Louie is a mixture of contemporary teenage slang, classical and internal rhyme, and artfully composed alliteration. The characters’ linguistic manners reflect their economic status: the penniless Donald, for example, who appears to be an unemployed casual laborer, or at best an adventurer, speaks in a style that is contemporary but sloppy (albeit an extremely artful form of sloppiness). Scrooge McDuck accumulates archaic bits of high-flown rhetoric like the real dollars he has withdrawn from circulation. (On account of this withdrawal, Barks, in one of his rare explanations, declared that Scrooge was not a capitalist.) Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as the avant-garde of a technologically advanced world, are always well-informed and scientifically knowledgeable.

Critical studies of Barks, which have principally confined themselves to viewing the ducks’ foreign adventures from a Latin American perspective (Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, 1984, for example), have discovered imperialist tendencies in his work. But if this ideological analysis has had to consider Barks a special case within the Disney corporation, it has often failed to grasp how his multilayered stories transcend their apparently imperialist world view. (Barks’ knowledge of other countries, incidentally, is based solely on what he read in National Geographic.) The complexity of these stories is not restricted to Barks’ much-praised vocabulary of grimaces, or to the coded construction of his images. (In our example, the opposition between successful communication represented by symmetrical compositions and failed communication represented by asymmetrical or chaotic ones is especially evident.) As with other great affirmative artists from Warhol to Tamla Motown, an exploration of the emotional composition of “official” stories and legends leads directly to a revelation of their ambiguities.

Although cold war ideology obviously shapes Barks’ point of view, it is undermined by his anarchist humor. Everyone becomes a caricature, trapped by ideology: not only the Southeast Asian rebels or the ambassador from “Brutopia”—a country whose emblem, the hammer and handcuffs, is a none-too-subtle reference to the Soviet Union—but also American military officials, policemen, space-flight engineers, scientists, and other authority figures. Barks often dwells on scenes of collapsing social order due to catastrophes and national disasters in most cases caused by Donald. The old order, which Barks here and there reconstructs by suddenly introducing legimate princes or heirs-ex-machina, is more surreal or fairy-tale-like, and much more rare, than the total chaos toward which nearly every social order in Barks’ stories moves. The justice system in Duckburg is in principal corrupt, the mayor is for sale, and public opinion is fickle and unjust. At the end of the stories, the ducks frequently escape this chaos by retreating to Grandma’s farm, the south pole, or Timbuktu. Barks’ American individualist anarchism runs deeper than the comics’ ideological, racist, or anticommunist reflexes, which are probably more to be attributed to Disney’s influence. Children are famously difficult to deceive, but Barks’ versions of poverty, the Vietnam war, unemployment, and the slums—stories exist on all these topics—seemed plausible to us.

Die Stadt der goldenen Dächer (The city of golden roofs) concerns a special instance of U.S. imperialism and capitalism. First published in the ’50s as Uncle Scrooge #20, it opens with Donald betting that Scrooge could never have amassed his fortune in the highly competitive contemporary market, where he would be shunted aside with the rest of the older generation. To resolve their argument, Scrooge foregoes his millions, and they decide to begin new lives on an equal footing as sales reps. Donald gets a job in a mini–tape recorder company; but Scrooge can’t understand what the machine represents, or even that the sounds on the sample tape are music. Donald, however; classifies this music, a bongo solo by one Bob Trott, as both rock ’n’ roll and “hot music.” Several failures later, Scrooge, through a trick, gets a job selling heaters for airplane hangers in Greenland. Both ducks are then dispatched to the upper reaches of the Gung Ho river, in an East Asian country called Koriam.

After Scrooge fails to sell his heaters to the first “aborigine” they meet, it is Donald’s turn. Before addressing his prospective client, Donald ruminates, “The main thing [is] he understands something about hot music. Perhaps he went to a mission school and was civilized a little bit.” (This ’50s German-American fantasy, perhaps ironically, identifies rock ’n’ roll with civilization, and even imagines mission schools propagating not only Christian values but also the African-American music they then considered a threat.) Donald greets the aborigine by improvising a ritual (which Scrooge interprets as a sign of sunstroke), and the aborigine responds. We learn that the ritual becomes famous throughout the world as the welcoming ceremony for Bob Trott fans. Having no money, the aborigine pays Donald with an ivory statue of Trott, an image that finally, after 15 pages, reveals the musician to be an apparently Afro-Cuban percussionist. In the end, Donald Duck from Entenhausen (Duckburg) is placed in charge of the international distribution of “aboriginal” music. In a world comprised entirely of “aboriginals,” only the duck can act as universal intermediary. In the Barks/Fuchs version of the history of popular music, two independent pop genres, rock ’n’ roll and Afro-Cuban percussion, are conflated, but the authors are correct in assuming that whatever comes to Duckburg (read the U.S.) reaches the remotest areas of the world immediately. Because of its portability, and the smoothness with which, as commodity, it flows across cultural lines (a characteristic automatically identified with civilization), the new mini–tape recorder technology plays a decisive role for both sides. This notion of mobility also corresponds to Donald’s tendency to throw himself enthusiastically into new tasks and hence into new identities (an enthusiasm that always disappoints as the foundation of identity).

The story is self-reflexive in two ways: Donald has the cultural capital of youth, with which he—temporarily—outdoes even his experienced uncle in a competitive struggle, just as the comic-book artist outdoes the more conventional literary forms. (Barks makes the period propaganda against comics and for “good books” the subject of many stories.) Second, the triumph of comics as a commodity form in third world countries parallels the international success of the minirecorder. Curiously, in Germany Fuchs’ “legitimate” experience as a certified art historian, and her status as the foremost translator of American comics since 1950, brought these stories from Entenhausen closer to a German public highly skeptical of this American medium. In this her success was complete: Germany has produced mountains of secondary literature about the ducks. Their penetration of the culture extends to museum exhibitions and even to the blackmailer of a German department-store chain who calls himself “Dagobert”—German for Scrooge—and who, as the police now know, derives from Barks’ stories the complicated rituals by which the money is transferred. When I was living in Los Angeles in 1993, for weeks I had a strange feeling of having returned “home.” Then I realized that the place I had returned to was Entenhausen—where, in the mid ’40s, in Pacific Palisades, Donald Adorno and Mickey Horkheimer invented the concept of the “culture industry.”

Diedrich Diederichsen’s most recent book is Freiheit macht arm, an essay collection published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, last year. In the same year he also edited Schwarze Kulturkritik—Pop, Medien, Feminismus, a collection of African-American cultural criticism published by Edition ID Archiv of Berlin and Amsterdam.