Prequel Problems: The Duck Universe of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, Part 2

By Max Lindh

Interior artwork from Four Color #386, Art by Carl Barks.

While Christmas on Bear Mountain had established that Scrooge McDuck was rich, it didn’t specify the extent of his wealth. We learn that Scrooge owns a “huge mansion”, a cabin in the mountains, an expensive-looking car, and is well off enough to keep both a butler and a personal driver in his employ, but there is nothing really to suggest that Scrooge’s riches stand out by millionaires’ standards, let alone billionaires’. Indeed, on the very first page of The Old Castle’s Secret, Scrooge even says that “the McDuck fortune is in bad shape”, this being what prompts the trip to Scotland to find the lost treasure of Sir Quackly McDuck, as Scrooge “must raise several million dollars immediately!”

Any fiscal difficulties Scrooge may have been experiencing by the time of his second appearance seem to have evaporated by the time of his third, for in Foxy Relations (November 1948), Donald himself mentions that his Uncle Scrooge is “the richest old coot in the world!” This is however only mentioned in passing, as an aside, and you may well assume that Donald is speaking in jest. Scrooge’s appearance in this story is little more than a cameo, him only popping in to provide an excuse for Donald to spend the rest of the ten pager trying his hands at fox hunting (red coat and all), a sport which, for the record, we learn that Scrooge hates with a deep passion, rather curious for a superbly wealthy British aristocrat of ancient pedigree.

Nevertheless, the claim is repeated by Donald—with gusto—in the fourth story to feature Uncle Scrooge, Race to the South Seas! (1949), and from thence on, Scrooge’s place at the top of the Fortune 500 is set in stone, the full extent of Scrooge’s wealth soon enough going from the ridiculous to the insanely ridiculous. Though we are given sneak peaks of Scrooge’s “vault” in the Pixilated Parrot from July 1950—a room stacked to the brim with coin and greenbacks—the true precursor of the famous money bin first appears in March of 1951’s A Financial Fable. The story in question sees Donald and the nephews working on Uncle Scrooge’s farm, where they are being driven like dogs by the latter, who himself takes part in the hard labour. Now, you might be wondering why the richest man in the world, who a previous story has established as owning no less than 8 billion sheep in Australia alone, would take such a personal interest in the management of a single medium-sized farm, but just roll with it. Anyway, on this farm, Uncle Scrooge has constructed a massive crib where he keeps his vast fortune—“three cubic acres of money”—all in cash of course. The idea, he explains in a thought bubble, is that “everybody thinks it’s full of corn, so thieves never bother to look inside!”

The story then unfolds with Donald persuading his supernaturally lucky cousin Gladstone to wish for a million dollars for them both, and a great cyclone at once emerges, sweeps down over the area, gobbles up all of Uncle Scrooge’s fortune with surgical precision, and proceeds to spew it out all over Duckburg, making everyone millionaires in an instant. Curiously, when the nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie go to check on Uncle Scrooge, they find him to be in good spirits, entirely unperturbed by what has just happened. He is confident that if he just stays on his farm and “tend to his beans and pumpkins”, he’ll have his money back soon enough.

And indeed, with everyone in Duckburg suddenly a millionaire, people retire en masse to live lives of leisure, bringing production of even the most basic commodities to a stand-still. The only ones who are still working are Scrooge and the nephews, and so, since the Duckburgian millionaires still need to eat, they are forced to go to Uncle Scrooge’s farm to buy basic foodstuff, which Scrooge of course charges exuberant prices for—two million dollars for a head of cabbage, one billion dollars for a ham, etc. As expected, on the tenth page, he is once more the richest man in the world, merrily diving around in vast piles of cash, much to the disgust of Donald who ends the story in the same pitiable financial state as where he started it.

Barks was very pleased with finally having come up with a way to showcase Scrooge’s wealth that was both, in his words, “simple and dramatic”, and only a few months later, he took the concept to its full fruition with the publication of the ten pager, The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill. As the title suggest, the corn crib in the countryside has now been replaced by a bin, a large cubic structure, located in central Duckburg, and not just has the setting changed, so too has Scrooge’s attitude towards protecting his property. The corn crib was wooden, roofless (!), and relied solely on misdirection to keep would-be robbers away. The bin is made of reinforced concrete ten feet thick, and as Donald explains, Scrooge has removed no less than twenty blocks of houses surrounding it, just so that he can get a clear view from a far distance of anyone who approaches it. To get to it, you first need to climb a hill covered by a minefield, then cross a moat of sulphuric acid, and even once you’re in, you’re not out of the danger zone yet. In fact, that’s when you first enter the danger zone proper. Canons aimed at you and bear traps are everywhere, as are alarms and watchdogs and pins pointing upward, and at the very centre of this devilish maze, you’ll find Scrooge McDuck himself, armed with a musket.

A scan of the Beagle Boys from the Carl Barks story "The Mysterious Stone Ray".

Ironically, this very first story to feature the famous money bin also sees it getting destroyed. When the Beagle Boys are seen digging in the grounds far on the other side of minefield, Uncle Scrooge panics. (The Beagle Boys, a gang of jailbirds—well, jail beagles—always plotting some new scheme to get their hands on Uncle Scrooge’s money, had been introduced to the world in a ten pager just the month before.) He tries to run out of the bin to get a hold of them, but soon discovers that the bin is so well-fortified that now he cannot even get out. Convinced that the Beagle Boys are up to no good, he figures that they must be plotting to dig a tunnel under the bin, to then drain the money through a hole. To foil them, Donald gives him the idea to flood the entire bin (still with the cash in it) with water, so that once the Beagle Boys reach it, they are in for a wet surprise. Of course, during the night Duckburg endures the coldest night in its history, the water in the bin freezes, causing the walls of the bin to crumble, bringing down the whole edifice. As morning comes, the Beagle Boys are happily at work, chipping out the coins and greenbacks from a massive ice cube with pick axes, their whole plan seemingly having been that if they just behaved suspiciously from afar, Uncle Scrooge’s paranoia would do the rest to bring down the bastion. Still, the money bin would be rebuilt just in time for the next Uncle Scrooge story published a month later, A Christmas for Shacktown—more on that in a bit—a story that would see the money bin getting destroyed for a second time, and by no means the last.

As Scrooge’s wealth had grown, so too had his personality started to develop. In his first appearance, his character had been very much in keeping with his namesake, “an old tightwad”, as Barks described him, but as we have already noted, this started to change already with the second Uncle Scrooge story. As time went on, not just did Scrooge’s sideburns get trimmed down, his cane more of an accessory than a means of support, his general bearing less frail and more energetic, there also started to emerge a philosophy surrounding how Scrooge lived and conducted himself. While the first few Uncle Scrooge stories had presented the gazillionaire as living in a luxurious mansion, attended by butlers, being driven around in fancy cars, and wearing expensive suits, this started to change for a far more Spartan lifestyle. Though he kept his tophat, Scrooge dropped the expensive suits, opting instead for a more simpler coat (red or blue, depending on the colourist), and rather than to employ a chef, Scrooge would be seen cooking his own meals. Though there was of course the element of the joke that despite his vast fortune, Scrooge is still pathologically frugal, there was more to it than that, which is well illustrated by the aforementioned story A Financial Fable.

As mentioned, the work Scrooge is performing here isn’t in selling and buying stocks or bonds, it is manual farm labour. And even though in later stories Scrooge would of course never have been perfectly unfazed by the loss of his entire fortune to a single natural catastrophe, the fact that he does in this story is very much in keeping with the spirit of later stories, and can well be seen as establishing that very spirit in the first place. To Scrooge—at least in this story—his love for his wealth is not a love for a money in and of itself, but for it as a symbol of his own labour in having acquired it. Without the labour he has poured into it, the money would just be, as Scrooge himself muses in that story, mere pieces of metal and paper.

Similarly, another early Uncle Scrooge story, The Trouble With Dimes (July 1951) sees the character voice his contempt for coin collectors, on the grounds that their love for their coins is predicated upon the coins in question being rare. (The story goes on to humorously establish that the only reason why rare coins are rare is because Uncle Scrooge has amassed so many coins as to keep certain vintages out of circulation, and were he to actually put them back out into the system, it would cause the entire rare coin market to collapse.)

“Some work that they may live, but Uncle Scrooge lives that he may work,” so to say, and tying Scrooge to the Protestant work ethic was very much in line with Carl Barks’ own personal sentiments. Despite, or perhaps because of, his impoverished childhood and having spent the twenties and the Great Depression working menial odd jobs, Barks had grown to embrace rugged individualism and a fundamentally very conservative world view. He once quipped that in his opinion, the last time that America had had a “good year” had been in 1912, and with A Financial Fable, he had set out to write a moralizing tale about easy money that he fancied would land him “in a cell in a Siberian gulag someday.”

In the years to come Barks would more and more let Uncle Scrooge become his mouthpiece for airing his individualist capitalist views, but this early on, he would also at times let the character revert to his miser origins, even exhibiting the traits of an old-fashioned robber baron and colonial exploiter. In Voodoo Hoodoo (August 1949), Uncle Scrooge gleefully tells the tale of how back in his youth, when a newly minted billionaire, he had come across some land in Africa that he wanted to turn into a rubber plantation. Since the inhabitants considered it sacred, they refused to sell. “So I hired a mob of thugs and chased the tribe into the jungle!” Scrooge explains with a satisfied grin.

Well, at least he didn’t cut their hands off, I suppose.

Most memorable among these stories is the aforementioned A Christmas for Shacktown (written in 1951, published in 1952), widely considered to be one of Barks’ best stories. The premise is that Daisey and the nephews, along with the upper middle-class women’s organization that Daisey is a member of, decide to organize a Christmas party for the inhabitants of Shacktown and Donald is assigned to get Uncle Scrooge to donate $50 for the event. Shacktown is, as its name implies, a shanty town in a rundown part of Duckburg where the poor and destitute of the city lives. One of the nephews even remark that it’s impossible to walk through it without feeling like a “fat pig”. Most of the story is then taken up by Donald attempting a variety of increasingly creative schemes and ploys to cajole or trick his rich uncle into supplying the money, which Scrooge, now Ebenezer in full, adamantly refuses to do, angrily protesting that he cannot afford it, as he is simultaneously struggling with that his money bin is now so on the brink of overflowing with cash that he cannot even close the vault door. Finally, dejected, Donald sits down on a bench outside of Scrooge’s office, where a passer-by mistakes him for a beggar and tosses him a silver dollar. Donald decides that it might be profitable to remain seated for a little longer.

Having finally been able to close the vault door, a satisfied Scrooge heads home, only to find Donald on the bench. He first lashes out at Donald for this shameless panhandling, but once Donald points out that he has already made a silver dollar, Scrooge, in what is probably his pettiest moment, shoves Donald out of the bench to do some panhandling of his own: the richest Duck in the world resorting to begging in public, just so that he may just become a little richer. Fortunately for Donald, he catches a break pretty soon, when he runs into Gladstone Ganders, who agrees to help him, and soon, they have the $50 they needed for the feast. As he passes Uncle Scrooge on the way back, Donald mockingly tosses him a dime. At the end of the day, that dime remains the only money that Uncle Scrooge has made from his venture into panhandling, and bitter, Scrooge heads back to the money bin to add it to the rest of his wealth. In an act of karmic justice, the moment the dime lands with the other coins, the floor collapses, and all of Scrooge’s fortune falls down into an almost bottomless pit. Though the nephews eventually devise a way for Scrooge to get it back out of there (in the process tricking him into giving them $1,000 which they donate to the Christmas party), we are informed that it is going to take “two hundred and seventy two years, eleven months, three weeks, and four days” before he has it all back again. (The reader needs not worry though: in the very next Uncle Scrooge story, the money bin is back intact and full of money.)

Still other stories would show Scrooge having a more complicated relationship to his wealth. Only A Poor Old Man (March, 1952) sees Scrooge and his nephews engage in some rather elaborate infrastructure projects (including hiding all of Scrooge’s money in a natural reserve) to keep it from the hands of the Beagle Boys. Throughout the story Uncle Scrooge has been trying to inspire Donald to try to make his own fortune, telling him of how wonderful it is to be rich. At the end, when he is about to go on again of the wonders of being rich and how he wishes that Donald too would aspire to take after him, Donald has had enough. After the events of the past thirty pages, Donald has concluded that a vast fortune is not worth the trouble inherent in keeping it away from people such as the Beagle Boys. “You may not know it, Uncle Scrooge, but your billions are a pain in the neck!” he says, adding “You’re only a poor old man!” as he walks away, momentarily leaving Uncle Scrooge stunned and dismayed, his face conveying a fear that there might be some truth to what Donald has to say. Tralla-La (June, 1954), actually even has Uncle Scrooge suffer a nervous breakdown brought about by the stress of being an international businessman, and resolving to seek and take refuge in the mythical land of Tralla-La in the remotest corner of the Himalayas (a play on Shangri-La), a place where it is said that money doesn’t exist. (Alas in travelling there, he inadvertently introduces the Tralla-Laians to the concept of a currency—in the form of bottle caps—thus becoming the snake in the very paradise he so yearned for by bringing all his old problems with him.)

Notably, Barks also started to explore Scrooge’s backstory, and how he became the duck that he was today. The first foray into this subgenre came in 1950’s The Magical Hourglass. At the start of the story, Scrooge is cooking his breakfast, using an old hourglass to time the boiling of his eggs. Scrooge muses over how he came upon the hourglass at a thieves' market in Morocco, back when he was “only a poor cabin boy on a cattle boat”, and how he has brought it with him ever since. When the eggs turns out not to have boiled properly after the appointed time, Scrooge annoyingly concludes that the hourglass must have been worn out, and determined to “keep nothing that is not worth something”, he gives away the hourglass as a gift to Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and, to kill to two flies with one stone, in the process gifts Donald a leaky, rusty fishing boat fittingly named “Junk II”. When Donald brings the nephews down to the harbour to inspect his new vessel (and learn that not just is the boat already half underwater, Scrooge hasn’t paid the dock fees for the past two years, and so now he must himself cough up the money), Huey, Dewey, and Louie stumble upon a junk dealer who by pure coincidence can read Arabic. He informs them that at the bottom of the hourglass it is written that if you fill it with red sand from the Oasis of No Issa, then its owners will grow “richer hour by hour”. Thus, Donald and the nephews embark upon a journey to the Sahara in search of the red sand.

Meanwhile, business is going terrible for old Scrooge, who is losing a billion dollars by the minute, despairing that at this rate, he will be broke in 600 years. (For anyone who is keeping track, this would seem to indicate that Scrooge’s fortune cannot be more than $3,388,915,478,868,049,400 when adjusted for inflation, making Scrooge just under 18 million times richer than Jeff Bezos, but then again, that matter is academic.) It doesn’t take him long to figure out that everything started going bad for him just after he handed the nephews his hourglass. Realizing that it must be magical and is the secret to his long-running luck in business, Scrooge immediately sets out after them. What follows is a chase story across Northern Africa. Though in the end of course, Donald and the nephews let Scrooge keep the magical hourglass, they will not do so before he has learned the valuable lesson that in the middle of the Sahara, a single glass of water can be worth more than a literal sea of diamonds.

The magical hourglass in question would never again be featured in a future story, nor would any particular detail in the story be referenced. To some extent, aspects of The Magical Hourglass would later be retconned by future Carl Barks stories and when Don Rosa finally set out to write his The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck—whom we’ll hopefully get to in the next instalment—he opted to consider the story to be non-canonical. Well, perhaps not all of The Magical Hourglass would be retconned, for the story did for the first time establish one crucial aspect of Scrooge McDuck that would become a constant in all his subsequent appearances. Namely that he did not come from money, that he hadn’t always been rich.

That in fact, there had been a time when Scrooge McDuck owned next to nothing

Discuss this Article

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square