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Not the Carl Barks universe

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 2 years, 10 months ago

A page dedicated to Carl Barks


Carl Barks is one of my heroes. His finest period of comic book story creation produced some of the most uplifting artworks of which I know.


His influence on 20th Century culture is worthy of somebody's PhD some day (if it hasn't already been), but this much is already clear to me: He was part of a movement of sometimes understated, sometimes flamboyant, always tasteful humour that later included The Goons, Monty Python, Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer, and The Monkees. Was his influence on these direct or indirect? Or was he just part of a wider movement? That's the PhD question!


He was building on his fellow American humorists such as Ogden Nash and James Thurber... two more of my heroes... and that's probably another possible PhD. Did he read or even know of them? How have the links been documented, if at all? Did they inspire each other, and to what extent if so, or are they just connected by being part of the same artistic movement? Did the same people influence and inspire them?


In any case, Barks is widely respected and more popular today than ever. But there's one thing about this respect that grates on me a great deal. And that is the development of the so-called Carl Barks UniverseBecause there wasn't one. This Universe is not just a fiction. Quite frankly, it's a lie, in that it misrepresents Barks' genre in a subtle but very important way.




There are, to be precise, several parallel universes involved. Various authorities talk of the Duck Universe and the Mickey Mouse Universe for example. And these are not bad things. The problem is when the works of Carl Barks are seen as being set in this Duck Universe. They quite simply are not. The Duck Universe is firmly based on the works of Barks, but the works of Barks are not based on this universe. It came later. 


There was a setting, certainly. But not a consistent universe. That universe is particularly the work of Barks' undoubted successor, Don Rosa. And Don Rosa was also a brilliant man. But the universe he constructed is his, not Barks'. He worked in a significantly later period, and that's probably the most important difference between his work and that of Barks, who was a genius of an even higher calibre.


I don;t think that Don Rosa and others who promote his universe intend anything but respect for Barks. He is their hero too, and Don Rosa's creation is even sometimes called the Carl Barks Universe out of respect for Barks. But both Rosa and others have misunderstood and unwittingly misrepresented a very important facet of the genre of Barks' finest work. Even if they call it the Duck Universe or something similar, placing Barks' works within it is still problematical.


Barks did not work within this or any other fictional universe. That whole concept came later. 


And to promote the common and fashionable misunderstanding that Barks' work is within such a universe is in my view to at least slightly mask the absolute brilliance of these works, which I'm afraid is unintentional cultural vandalism of the first order.


Fighting words! Watch this space!


Some terminology


See some terminology relevant to the Carl Barks story lines.


Universe Shmuniverse (or What's the difference?)


There's a spectrum of approach when it comes to the setting of a series of fiction.


On one extreme, there's the completely consistent approach. Dr E E Smith's Lensman series, or Kingston's four-volume work beginning with The Three Midshipmen, are examples, as is the BBC series Yes Minister and its sequel Yes Prime Minister. These adhere to the rule that, whatever is revealed in one work, is also consistent with the rest. They are generally intended as an extended chronology, in fact it's hard to see how such consistency could be maintained without doing this. This also allows characters to develop.


On the other extreme, there are series that essentially re-boot with every episode. The Goons and The Monkees are examples. There is no attempt at continuity at all. Characters may change, but it is just change, not development.


And there are many shades in between.  


During the 20th century the fashion shifted noticeably towards the consistent approach. It has always been admired, and admired with good reason. It makes writing a far more ambitious and exacting task. But it was not insisted upon,


This changed. And several notable authors decided to make changes to their work to make the setting and development more consistent across works. Issac Asimov was notably successful in unifying his Foundation trilogy with his Robots series. Arthur Ransom was less successful; Peter Duck and Missy Lee did not really fit the more realistic style of Swallows and Amazons or even of its other sequels.


I enjoyed all of Arthur Ransom's books, they remain in a place of honour on my bookshelf. The inconsistencies and improbabilities and a few downright dangerous and irresponsible actions by the children in them did not matter. It was and is fiction, and I wasn't going to try smelting gold at home (Pigeon Post). And the books didn't need to fit each other exactly any more than they needed to fit the world exactly. In my view, in attempting to retcon them into the consistent universe that you see here, Ransom made a mistake.


Watch this space! 


See also


List of Carl Barks comics

fictional universes





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