Disney artist Carl Barks entertained millions from Hemet, San Jacinto – San Bernardino Sun

Carl Barks, the best Disney artist in comic books (1942-1966), lived in Temecula for a long spell, as I wrote back in May, but he had a longer residency in Riverside County than I’d realized.

The Oregon native had relocated to L.A. in 1935 to work as an animator and writer for Walt Disney Studios. He quit in 1942 for two reasons: the studio’s working conditions and its air conditioning, which gave him sinus problems.

What do you do when you’re in Southern California and require dry air? In Barks’ case, he moved to Riverside County, where he stayed for four decades.

He lived in San Jacinto and Hemet and ran a chicken farm. He also wrote and drew Donald Duck stories from home for Dell Publishing’s comic books, namely Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories and Donald Duck.

As reader Lonnie Whitledge, once of Montclair, pointed out by email, Barks’ work was read by more children than any superhero title.

“His stories in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories sold 3 million copies every issue in the 1950s,” and since comics were routinely shared and traded, “6 million people worldwide were reading his stories,” Whitledge said. Not bad for a guy with a chicken ranch in the desert.

Possibly the most-read comic book creator of his time, Carl Barks did his work anonymously, by Disney practice, and while living quietly in Hemet and San Jacinto. Only later in life did he become celebrated. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Comic artists were poorly paid and Disney artists were uncredited, so Barks’ name did not become known until much later. But even young readers could see that his stories were a cut above others in the same comic. Admirers referred to him as “the good Duck artist.”

You wouldn’t think a guy producing Donald Duck stories could incorporate his own life into them, but Barks did slip in a local reference now and then or draw (so to speak) from his experiences.

Wikipedia cites a 1952 story (from Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories No. 146) “in which Donald tells the story of the chain of unfortunate events that took place when he owned a chicken farm.” Barks once said the story was among his favorites, no doubt because, as the entry points out, “it was inspired by Barks’ own experiences in the poultry business.”

“I can’t understand it! All these birds do is EAT!” Donald frets in one panel, pouring feed and once again finding no eggs.

“He occasionally featured I.E. sites in his stories,” reader and Barks fan Drew Feldmann of San Bernardino told me via email.

He elaborated: “Donald takes a bus to Hemet in one comic and in another has an auto accident at a specific intersection in San Jacinto. The most IE-based story by far is in Uncle Scrooge No. 7, reprinted many times.”

That’s one of Barks’ long adventure stories, which usually have rich miser Uncle Scrooge, Barks’ creation, hunting treasure in an exotic place with his nephew Donald and the three kids. Using history, myth and National Geographic stories as springboards, Barks transmuted them into adventure fiction.

In a panel from Uncle Scrooge No. 7 (1954), Uncle Scrooge pays a visit to a gem shop in Indio. It's one of a handful of Inland Empire references snuck into his work by Carl Barks, who lived in Hemet and San Jacinto. (Courtesy Another Rainbow Publishing)
In a panel from Uncle Scrooge No. 7 (1954), Uncle Scrooge pays a visit to a gem shop in Indio. It’s one of a handful of Inland Empire references snuck into his work by Carl Barks, who lived in Hemet and San Jacinto. (Courtesy Another Rainbow Publishing)

In the story in question, “Donald, Scrooge and the kids find some Native American artifacts in Thousand Palms and after consulting with an expert in Indio, realize they may have found the trail to the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola,” Feldmann recounted.

“In the meantime, Scrooge’s nemeses, the Beagle Boys, get literally kicked out of a nearby Riverside County welfare office for being freeloaders. They overhear the ducks’ plan and the chase is on across the Mojave.”

I’ve read the story and it’s great. Barks can make you accept that five ducks are crossing the desert on foot in search of legendary treasure.

While in Hemet and San Jacinto, Barks produced art in the 1940s and early ’50s for local clients until his comics career got into full swing. Three examples are in Michael Barrier’s 1981 book “Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book.”

Barks pushed a water-bond drive in 1952, created a stylish logo for the Hemet Chamber of Commerce that incorporated a Native American feathered drum and produced an ad for Valley Photographs in San Jacinto (“163 E. Main St., phone 436”). The latter features a silhouette of a Native American man in profile operating a camera on a tripod.

Also, Barks “was hired in 1949 or 1950 to draw several political cartoons by a former resident of Hemet,” Barrier wrote, “who was embroiled with the mayor of Palos Verdes, California, in a dispute over the legality of landing helicopters in the city.”

I don’t know what happened to the helicopter plan, but Barks’ Disney comics career took off, and that was that for political cartoons.

After retiring from comics (and chicken farming), Barks and his third wife, Garé, moved to a mobile home park in Temecula in the late 1960s. The couple exhibited their paintings at art shows in the region and, as word got out among fans, received visitors.

In 1983, they moved to Barks’ native Oregon. Garé died there in 1993 and Barks followed in 2000 at age 99. His work is in print today in hardcover, his name the selling point.

Reader Carol Scott of Upland is a fan.

“I learned to read with Disney comics, especially Uncle Scrooge and Huey, Dewey and Louie,” Scott told me via email.

She cracked up at how the nephews belonged to the Junior Woodchucks, a Scouting-type group whose guidebook contained seemingly every piece of information imaginable.

Also a delight: how Scrooge would swim through the sea of coins and currency in his money bin, exclaiming gleefully: “I love to dive around in it like a porpoise, and burrow through it like a gopher, and toss it up and let it hit me on the head.”

I can imagine Jeff Bezos doing something similar, possibly aboard his super-yacht.

As an adult, Scott collected Barks lithographs and comics reprints. She once contacted him directly.

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