Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: the Land Beneath the Ground

By Carl Barks (Gladstone Comic Album #6)
ISBN: 0-944599-05-2

One of the greatest storytellers America has ever produced, Carl Barks’ early life is well-documented elsewhere if you need detail, but in brief, he started as a jobbing cartoonist, before joining Disney’s studio in 1935, toiling in-house as a animator before quitting in 1942 to work exclusively and anonymously in comic books.

Until the mid-1960s he worked in productive seclusion creating a huge canon of extremely funny adventure yarns for kids and crafting an unmistakable Duck Universe of memorable and highly bankable characters such as Gladstone Gander (1948), The Beagle Boys (1951), Gyro Gearloose (1952), and Magica De Spell (1961) to augment the cartoon screen actors of the Disney Studio. His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad Fantasticatrillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the irrepressible star of this show.

So potent were his creations that they fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for the licensing company Dell/Gold Key, and not directly for the studio. Whereas all the creators working for the publisher were of impressive quality and dedicated to their craft Barks was always head and shoulders above his peers – a fact he was entirely unaware of.

Whilst producing all that landmark innovative material Barks was just a working guy, generating covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and contributing story and art to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters, but his output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Most notably, Barks’ was a fan of wholesome action, unsolved mysteries and epics of exploration, and this led to him perfecting the art of the blockbuster tale, blending wit, history, plucky bravado and sheer wide-eyed wonder into rollicking rollercoaster romps that utterly captivated readers of every age and vintage. Without the Barks expeditions there would never have been an Indiana Jones…

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing Barks material (as well as a selection of other Disney comics strips) in the late 1980s and this album is one of most impressive and memorable of all his classic adventure tales. Printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) it reprints the lead feature from Uncle Scrooge #13 (1956): a spectacular visual feast and a brilliantly sly commentary on the pitfalls of property. The version included in this volume was also a magnificent gift even for fans already familiar with the saga.

When Barks began the tale the quarterly Uncle Scrooge comicbook was a 32 page publication with no ads or extras, but as he was completing the issue Dell informed him that due to editorial changes he had to cut the tale to 27 pages. The radical change was caused by US Post Office regulations: to obtain second class mailing status (i.e. cheaper postal rates) magazines had to carry at least two discrete features with different characters. Thus the creator had to chop out five pages from the now-finished story, and provide a back up feature… which is how Gyro Gearloose first got his own regular strip.

For this 1988 edition an extra two pages had been recovered and reconstructed from the artist’s files. Barks’ edited his own work mercilessly in the final stages, a job he simplified by crafting his stories in “modules” – every page and each scene was designed and laid out in two-panel tiers (or “banks”) so that he could take out 2, 4, 6 or even 8 frames and still reconfigure his pages around the larger splash panels. That his stories read so seamlessly is a testament to just how good a writer he was…

‘The Land Beneath the Ground’ begins as the Mallard Magnate frets about his colossal money bin. Duckburg has been plagued with earthquakes recently and he is terrified that a major temblor will crack his vault like an egg, sending his cash on a one way trip to the centre of the Earth.

So worried is he that the miser actually pays for an exploratory shaft to be excavated: this deepest hole in the world will tell him if the land beneath him is bedrock solid enough to survive the worst quake imaginable.

However once the shaft has been completed strange inexplicable occurrences begin, and soon no miner will go near the place. With no experts to examine the hole, McDuck blackmails Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie into becoming his exploration team, but before they can begin the eerie events escalate and they are all plunged into a dark and incredible world…

When this tale was written Alfred Wegener hadn’t even published his first thoughts on his groundbreaking theory of Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift, and the possible causes of earthquakes were still a hotly debated question, so the fantastic solution proffered by Barks must have taken the breath away from all his readers. Far below the world we know two amicable rival races, the Terries and the Fermies, spend all their time in sporting competition and their only game is causing Earthquakes!

Barks easily leaped from suspense to social satire – and back – in his entrancing entertainments and as the undergrounders willfully continue their games the inevitable happens and Scrooge’s impossibidillions soon erupt from his broken money-bin down into the depths! How the situation is rectified with order (and wealth) fully restored was one of the most logical yet scathingly funny resolutions in comics, and one that all money-mad-men would do well to heed…

The balance of the book is filled with another uncanny outing, albeit from a later time, (Uncle Scrooge #30, 1960) with Scrooge and his reluctant Duck brethren in the deserts of North Africa looking for a site to store the oil from his drilling business. With riches coming out of the Earth this time ‘Pipeline to Danger’ is another fast-paced parable from the glamorous glory-days of the petroleum wildcatting business, with plenty of big engineering kit suddenly, perplexingly useless as McDuck’s company tries to construct a storage silo in the bed of an ancient meteor crater.

Unknown to all, the crater is the ancient, ancestral home to a tribe of wild Bedouin Ducks, but no one has ever seen them. After all, they, their camels and flocks are only a few inches tall…

This unlikely yarn is a true delight, showing the seldom seen brave and honorable side of a character too often likened to the unsavoury face of rampant capitalism – and it’s a jolly hoot of a comedy-thriller to boot!

Even if you can’t find this particular volume (and I’m sure you will) Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets. No matter what your age or temperament if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine. The rewards are just waiting for you to dig them up…
© 1988, 1960, 1956 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.