Prequel Problems: The Duck Universe of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, Part 3

By Max Lindh


Modern depiction of Scrooge McDuck

But if Scrooge McDuck did not come from money, where did he come from?


The Magical Hourglass had been published in autumn of 1950, and by the time A Financial Fable was published in the spring of the next year, it was becoming clear to Barks that it wasn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the rugged individualist we see in that story that he should owe his immense fortune to a lucky charm. It really undermined Scrooge’s message about work ethics and easy money. Thus, in 1952’s Only A Poor Old Man, Barks softly retcons the origins of Uncle Scrooge’s wealth. In an early scene in the money bin when one of Huey, Dewey, and Louie asks him how he made his money, wondering if perhaps he made it in the banking business, Uncle Scrooge sneers contemptuously at the idea. To make money out of lending money is not for a man like Scrooge. “I made it on the seas, and in the mines, and in the cattle wars of the Old Frontier!” he proudly asserts, “I made it by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties! And I made it square!”


“All this money means something to me! Every coin in here has a story!” and picking coins around him at random, he can recall in precise detail where he made each and every one of them. One coin, he recalls, he made in Montana in 1882 while he was a cowboy prospecting for copper. Another coin, a silver dollar, Scrooge remembers acquiring in the Klondike in 1898: “Froze my fingers to the bone digging out of the creeks! And I brought a fortune out, instead of spending it in the honkytonks!” he says, while the reader is treated to a picture of a defiant-looking Scrooge in ragged clothes, carrying a bag of gold ore on his back, walking past shady-looking saloons and gambling dens.


Ah yes, the Klondike! Barks would grow really fond of this idea. To us moderns, the Klondike Gold Rush belongs to the distant past, a lost world which perished in World War I, but it’s worth to remember that the time that separates the late 1890s from the early 1950s is a shorter span than the one separating the early 1950s from us today. When Barks wrote Only A Poor Old Man, there were still old timers around who had been prospectors in the Yukon back in the day, and countless more Americans were still alive who might not have participated but who remembered the stories in the newspapers when it all transpired. ‘The Last Frontier’, as Alaska and Yukon once had been known, inspired in the minds of Barks’ readers not just that classic popular conception of the settling of the Old West, already just as much an American founding myth as Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, but it also came with this romantic story of the young man, who barely owned anything, and yet risked it all to travel north to the unforgiving winters and impenetrable forests and treacherous mountain ranges to work day and night, fuelled by the dream to become rich. The mythology of it all was a love letter to rugged individualism and American capitalism: of course Barks couldn’t help but to adore it! It only made sense that this was were Scrooge had made his money!


Back to the Klondike (written in 1952, published in 1953) was the next adventure that Barks sent Uncle Scrooge on. Like A Christmas for Shacktown, it is widely considered to be Barks at his finest, but it is also Barks at his most poignant, for probably more so than any other story that Barks wrote, Back to the Klondike hints at Uncle Scrooge being a far more complex character than he is willing to let on, a man with with doubts, even regrets.


The story opens with Uncle Scrooge experiencing a minor breakdown. Much to his horror, he can no longer remember the name or face of Donald Duck, and perhaps most to his consternation, he cannot even remember the precise amount of money he owns. Donald, admittedly more amused by the situation than actually worried, takes his uncle to the doctor, who informs them that Scrooge suffers from “Blinkus of the Thinkus”, a mild form of amnesia, which can only be treated by Scrooge taking a small capsule of memory-boosting medicine every twelve hours. To Scrooge, this remedy is almost worse than the disease, as the capsules cost 10 cent a piece, and so he is very reluctant to actually take the medication. Nevertheless, once he takes one the cogs in his brain starts turning again, and he begins to remember various fragmented details from his youth. Suddenly realizing something, he demands that Scrooge packs his backs and brings his nephews to meet him at the Alaska pier in Duckburg: they are going back to the Klondike!


On the trip there, Scrooge relates more of what he is beginning to remember. When a young “sourdough”, he buried a cache of gold nuggets on his old claim in White Agony Creek, “then I walked away and forgot it!” But it’s not to retrieve Uncle Scrooge’s lost gold that they are travelling north. This trip is about a woman: “Glittering Goldie, the Star of the North!” Uncle Scrooge’s eyes turn distant and melancholy as he thinks of her: “She was spangled and flashy, and her heart was as hard as the ice on the tundra… The only live [sic!] I ever knew!”


When his nephews start teasing him that they did not know that Uncle Scrooge ever felt romantic feelings for a girl, Scrooge grows angry and promptly reprimands them. This trip is about no such thing! Fifty years ago, Glittering Goldie became indebted to Scrooge for the amount of a thousand dollars, and after half a century of compiund interest, Scrooge calculates that Goldie now owes him no less than a billion dollars, and he wants his money back! That is why they are returning to the Yukon!


(Now, mathematically speaking, the figure of a billion dollars would seem to indicate that Scrooge as a general rule imposes an interest rate of just under 32% per annum, which in turn means that it probably was for the better that Scrooge did not go into the banking business, as he’d never have gotten any customers charging those kinds of fees, but again, I digress.)


Arriving in Dawson eight days later than necessary because Scrooge, wont to take his ‘expensive’ medication, forgot that he owned an airline in the area that could have flown them there for free, the backstory unfolds further. After having spent ages working the goldfields of the Klondike, Scrooge had finally struck gold, uncovering a nugget the size of a goose egg. Returning to Dawson, Scrooge had headed to the sleezy saloon called the Blackjack Ballroom, where the other prospectors had marvelled at his find. But the one to marvel the most was Glittering Goldie herself, the dazzling lead singer at the establishment, who upon seeing nugget insisted that they had coffee together. Coffee, which as Scrooge was to find out, contained more stimulants than just caffeine.


“I don’t know what Goldie put in my coffee!” he explains, “But I awoke hours later in a snowdrift six miles from town!” His poke of gold dust and the goose egg nugget taken from him, a furious Scrooge McDuck marched back to Dawson and the Blackjack Ballroom, and in a bar fight truly worthy of the name, Scrooge beat up well over a dozen men, and forced Goldie to hand back the goose egg nugget. (Well, hand back… she almost knocked him out as she threw it right at him.) Since the gold dust was yet missing, Scrooge made Goldie write him an I.O.U. for what he estimated the dust to be worth: one thousand dollars.


But Scrooge wasn’t done yet. Goldie might have returned what she had stolen, but Scrooge still felt she needed to be taught a lesson: “I took her along, screaming and clawing like a singed cat,” to his claim in wilderness of White Agony Creek, “and there at my diggings I made her work for a month”. When the time was up, having taught her “how hard a miner works for his gold”, he paid her for her efforts to the sum of fifty cents a day, money which Goldie promptly threw into his face. “I dug more gold than you did, you tightwad!” were the last words she said to him as she strode off.


Now, of course, even though Goldie literally had drugged Scrooge, stolen all his gold, and practically left him for dead in the Yukon wilderness in the middle of winter, one cannot help but to get the feeling that a modern editor would—in as diplomatic a tone as possible, of course—probably have advised Carl Barks to reconsider the decision to have Scrooge effectively, well, abduct a woman and use her for slave labour. One would at the very least hope that that is what a modern editor would do. But, I suppose, it was the 1950s, and as Barks would relate in later interviews, as long as he delivered pages of comics that they could publish and make money out of, Disney would actually exercise very little editorial control over Barks’ creative decisions.


Anyway, after talking around, the ducks discover that Goldie is nowhere to be found in Dawson, having left the town years ago and never been seen since. Angered that he will not get his one billion dollars, Scrooge resolve that they can at least make it back to his old claim in White Agony Creek to recover his forgotten cache of gold nuggets. When they finally make it there, they discover that Scrooge’s old cabin is now inhabited by an old lady armed with musket and a trained black bear, deadset on keeping any intruders out. When Donald suggests that they get the law involved, Scrooge explains that that would be impossible. He hasn’t paid taxes on the property for years, and so he has no more a legal claim on the area (and the gold on it) than she does.


Well, of course, the old lady turns out to be none other than Glittering Goldie herself. As the Gold Rush came to an end, the dance hall went bust, and poor and destitute, she had no choice but to retire to the old cabin in the wilderness, “[scratching] a living from these frozen rocks”, and she is now but a pale shadow of her former self. Once Scrooge learns this, he gleefully brings out his old I.O.U. and confidently strides up to the cabin to demand his money back.


Curiously, the moment the door opens and Scrooge sees her again—for the first time in fifty years—he grows nervous and timid, even shy, addressing Goldie gently and courteously, a complete shift from the rough and hardened badass we saw in the flashbacks, who always treated Goldie with scorn and suspicion. Still, Scrooge soon enough manages to regain his posture, and angrily demands that Goldie pay him the billion dollars she owes him. Of course, she doesn’t have the money, but with all the pride she can muster, she hands over all the valuables in the little log cabin, including all her jewelry from her glory days, declaring that all other money she had from the old times she spent helping kids left orphans by the mining disasters in the area. And with that, she strides off defiantly, once again. When Scrooge asks her where she going, she replied “To the poorhouse, naturally!”


This seems to touch on Old Scrooge’s heart strings, and so he races after her, offering her a deal. Back in the day, she claimed she had dug more gold than him during the month they spent together, so let’s settle this by means of a gold digging race. If she can find more gold than him in the next ten minutes, he will forgive her debt, and not just that, she can get to keep all the gold she finds too. With nothing to lose, Goldie accepts Scrooge’s offer with resignation. It goes without saying that, Goldie immediately finds Scrooge’s old cache of gold nuggets. Scrooge breaks down in anger and tears. Since he didn’t taken his “expensive” memory medicine earlier that morning, he had forgotten that the hill on which he set up Goldie to start digging on was actually his old hiding place. Goldie thus gets to keep the old claim to the log cabin, her debts are forgiven, and she is furthermore now financially secure for the rest of her life.


On the way back to civilization, Scrooge is beyond himself with anger and grief, “I lose a fortune—all because I wouldn’t take a ten-cent pill!” and crying bitterly into an old handkerchief. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are disgusted by this, that Uncle Scrooge would be so sad over, essentially, not having gotten to ruin and humiliate an old and frail lady. But Donald tells his nephews not to worry. Before they left, Donald counted the capsules in Scrooge’s box: he did take his medicine that morning, he knew that the place he set up Goldie to start digging on was his old hiding place, he let her win. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are left remarking that clearly there are sides to Uncle Scrooge that they do not know, and which he clearly doesn’t want them to know.


The final question is of course left unspoken, and no doubt the reader will have no trouble guessing its answer: Why, then, is Uncle Scrooge crying?


Glittering Goldie as drawn by Carl Banks

Barks would return to Klondike in 1965 with the story North of the Yukon, but alas Goldie is nowhere to be seen in it. Instead Scrooge has to deal with another character from his past, the unscrupulous money lender Soapy Slick. Back in the day of the Klondike Gold Rush, Slick made himself rich by giving loans to prospectors on their way to the gold fields, charging an astonishing rate of 100% interest per month—come to think of it, that kind of explains why he might have thought that 32% interest per annum for Goldie was a reasonable amount—and Scrooge, strapped for cash and credit, found himself forced to do business with him. Now Slick is seeking to get his hands on Scrooge’s fortune by suing him in court, claiming he never repaid the loan.


Scrooge isn’t worried though: since a recent unfavourable news article about him appeared in print, some six hundred people have brought frivolous lawsuits against him, and besides, he repaid that loan. He has even still got the receipt to prove it, a receipt he only managed to obtain after punching Soapy Slick in the guts when the latter tried to weasel his way out of filling in the final paperwork, and he is soon able to locate it in his archival warehouse where it is stored under file 90L-6F—that is, ninety feet in from the left, six feet up from the floor, in a massive pile of various papers that he has accumulated over the years.


The newspapers, that first reported with glee that Scrooge was being sued for his entire fortune now report that Scrooge is going to Alaska to show the receipt in court and have the case thrown out. When Slick reads of this, he wastes no time getting a seat on the very plane that Scrooge intends to fly on to get there. (The reader can only assume that Scrooge’s Blinkus of the Thinkus must be acting up again, seeing he decides to book his ticket with the (real) Pacific Western Airlines and the (fictional) Goldboom Air Service rather than to use the Alaskan airline that Back to the Klondike established that he owns.) Just as he is about to steal Scrooge’s bag with the receipt, he is foiled by the nephews who have been keeping an eye on this suspicious co-passanger. Scrooge immediately recognizes who he is, a fight breaks out between the two of them, and in the chaos, Scrooge’s back flies out of one of the airplane windows, landing on the rock by the (fictional) Frozenjaw River.


Since they cannot land the plane then and there, and since the weather report predicts treacherous blizzards for the next week, the only way to retrieve it is by dog sleigh out into the frozen Yukon wilderness. And so, the race is started. Soapy Slick sets out with his champion racing team of canines, and the only other team available in Goldboom for Scrooge is a rag tag team led by a husky named Old Barko. “He used to be the champion of all the North, but he’s old now and lame with rheumatism!”


Curiously, Uncle Scrooge has read about Old Barko and knows him well: Barko was one of the dogs in the (real) famous serum run to Nome. Both of them old timers whose glory days are long since past but who still yearn to show their worth, Scrooge forges a connection with Old Barko, who summons his old strength, gets the other dogs into their positions, and off they are on a final journey to retrieve Scrooge’s lost receipt.


After a few pages of slapstick, both Scrooge and Soapy Slick find their way out to the Frozenjaw River, where events conspire to place Scrooge before an impossible choice: the ice on the river breaks while Old Barko is still out there, and Scrooge can either run and grab the bag with his receipt before Slick gets to it, or he save Old Barko from the rapid streams. Old Barko having saved Scrooge’s life just before, Scrooge cannot bring himself to “welch” on his debt, and so makes the decision to forgo his countless trillions to save the old husky.


Though all seems lost, with Soapy Slick finally, triumphantly, having his hands of Scrooge’s receipt, just when he is about to tear it up, he is interrupted and karma finally kicks in.


Remember the newsmen, who earlier had gleefully been reporting on every twist and turn in the legal drama? Why, they have of course been following Slick and Scrooge out in the wilderness despite the weather, as they would never pass up on a good story, and so emerges taking photographs of Slick just as he’s holding the receipt. In fact, they are actually egging him on to tear up the receipt, because the story would be so much better if he does and the matter goes to trial, and they then get to present the photographs of him destroying the receipt as evidence in Scrooge’s favour.


“I’ve been robbed!” groans Slick bitterly, as the story ends with Scrooge getting to keep his fortune, and Old Barko is hailed in the papers as the true hero of the tale.


Despite Goldie’s absence, one cannot deny that North of the Yukon rhymes remarkably well with Back to the Klondike, while in the former it is Scrooge who is out to pressure a fortune out of someone from his past, this time it is Scrooge who is being pressured for a fortune. Both stories tell us something about what makes Scrooge tick. In the former that he cannot bring himself to do so in the end (though he would never admit it, not even to his own nephews), and in the latter, that he would rather forgo his fortune than to betray a friend, even if that friend is just a sled dog. Both stories drive home that much of Scrooge’s heart yet remains in the Klondike. Those were his true glory days.


Before we may move on, however, two more Carl Barks stories need to be mentioned that were foundational in shaping Uncle Scrooge’s backstory.


Castle McDuck as drawn by Cesar Ferioli

As Scrooge’s backstory had developed, a small inconsistency had developed. In The Old Castle’s Secret—as you’ll recall, the second story to feature Uncle Scrooge—we had been shown Castle McDuck, the vast and stately medieval fortress of the Clan McDuck, which we had further learned then was one of the oldest and noblest families in Scottish history. And yet now, it had been firmly established that Scrooge came from humble beginnings, having to work his way up from a penniless prospector in the far North. Wasn’t this a bit contradictory?


Now, as has been pointed out to me, there is of course no shortage of penniless Scottish aristocrats in real life, but even so, the tale of how the Clan McDuck went from being at the forefront of Scots high society to the state into which Scrooge was born was begging to be told. The Hound of the Whiskervilles from 1960 tells this story.


Well, partially, at least…


In this tale, Uncle Scrooge and the nephews return to Scotland after an altercation at a fancy gentleman’s club in Duckberg causes Scrooge to be thrown out on account of not being a proper aristocrat. Though Scrooge might wear a silk hat, what matters is if his grandfather also wore a silk hat, and as Scrooge declares, “My grandfather wore a miner’s cap!” Still, there was a time when the McDucks were “a great family clan in the Highlands”, and so Scrooge is heading back to the old Castle McDuck to retrieve a piece of the old McDuck tartan, the pattern of which has been lost for centuries. He believes this somehow will help prove his blue blood.


Unfortunately, the story ends up retconning much of what had been established in The Old Castle’s Secret. Whereas Castle McDuck was a stately and imposing structure in that story, well-kept from the ravages of time, now, all that remains are decrepit ruins. When Scrooge pays a visit to the nearby village, they are stunned by his presence, as no McDuck has been in the area for hundreds of years. When his nephews persist in asking what happened, Scrooge is finally forced to explain. Ages ago, the area around Castle McDuck was hounted by a demon hound: “The Hound used to stalk lonely clansmen in dusks such as this! He’d spring from the heather and scatter sheep and herdsmen with fang and claw! Legend says that the beast was as tall as a man and often ran erect like an ape!” Eventually, the mighty clan McDuck couldn’t take it any more, and were routed out of the castle, fleeing as far away as England to escape the Hound.


The story is of course a rather straightforward retelling of the old Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles with the twist at the end being that there never was a hound in the first place, just like in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original. A rival clan, the Whiskervilles, coveted the grounds on which the castle stood, and so would dress up as a giant dog to scare off the McDucks, with the role of the Hound and the disguise being passed from generation to generation down to the present day.


The final story that needs to be discussed is The Invisible Intruder from 1962. Though Carl Barks illustrated it, the writer was in fact another Duck comics artist named Vic Lockman, a curious individual who when he wasn’t working for Disney wrote comics extolling libertarian economics (with a particular contempt for central banking and the Federal Reserve), attacking evolution and anything that wasn’t in line with his brand of fundamentalist Calvinist Christianity, and of course, defending the moral righteousness of apartheid in South Africa.


But I digress…


The story is foundational in that it establishes how Scrooge earned his first dime, which had been featured in stories since 1953, but the full backstory of which had never been touched upon. The Invisible Intruder would put an end to this mystery by explaining that Scrooge earned it in his childhood working as a shoeshiner. Though most other aspects of that story would of course be forgotten—it seems to indicate that Scrooge’s main motivation that early in his life was mainly to amass enough money to buy a really comfortable bed—the aspect of the young shoeshiner would soon, for all intents and purposes become “canon”, and a year later, in the story Chairman of the Bored (written by Carl Fallberg and drawn by Tony Strobl), the plot point was reiterated, further adding colour to the event by specifying that the customer from whom Scrooge earned the dime was a ditch digger, and that it had taken Scrooge half an hour to just chip the cemented mud from off his boots.


Though Carl Barks would in many other stories have Scrooge make references to things in his past, places he had been to, events at which he had been present, they all tended to be fairly minor, and often mere throwaway gags. Indeed, Barks eventually even established a recurring joke, whenever he needed Scrooge to know a foreign language, that he had picked up the language while conducting business in the area, which tended to take the form of lines such as “Why, I picked up Arabic in my youth when I worked selling sand to Bedouin nomads!” or “Why, I picked up Mandarin in my youth when I worked selling Chinese firecrackers on the streets of Shanghai!”


As Barks’ professional career came to and end, he had thus established the backstory of Scrooge McDuck in broad strokes, and while there certainly are gaps, they nonetheless serve as anchor points, which all subsequent authors of Duck comics have come to respect and to honour. Namely, that Scrooge descends from the Clan McDuck that has a long and illustrious family history, that Scrooge made his first dime working as a poor shoeshiner, and that he made his fortune as a prospector in the Klondike.


In the next installment, we shall finally take a look at those who followed Barks, and of course, at Don Rosa himself.

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