A lot of ink has been spilled over the Duck comics, particularly about Barks and Rosa’s Scrooge epics which formed the backbone of both DuckTales series. Those stories are lauded as visionary, masterworks of the medium — and if you’ve ever had the chance to read those stories, you’ll likely find yourself agreeing with that summation.
The truth is, however, that there were dozens of other creators working on the Duck comics (and the rest of the globally best-selling Disney comics), and a good deal of them were incredible cartoonists and storytellers themselves. Fantagraphics has a beautiful line of hardcovers collecting some of the best of the best Disney strips with the Disney Masters Collection, and every volume is worth a good look.
Uncle Scrooge: Pie in the Sky collects 30 William Van Horn duck stories and strips, nearly 200 pages of work, largely from the ’80s and ’90s Gladstone Publishing era of Disney comics (as well as some European-first stories). While it was an era where Duckburg was a hot commodity (thanks to the Disney Afternoon), the Gladstone books were perhaps a little hard to come by in the States — at least when compared to the deluge of Marvel, DC, and Image books of the time. Even Archie, perhaps the better match in terms of all-ages content, was far easier to come by at the time. While Disney comics have never completely lost steam on the global stage, there are dead spots of popularity abound in North American markets.
While not as adventuresome or epic as the Barks/Rosa duck books, William Van Horn’s strips seem more packed with gags and jokes. He seems a fair master of the sort of single-page strip and staple of children’s comics new and old: setup, minor conflict, sight gag. All the multi-page stories set up a bonkers premise — pie fights in the sky, or the fact that all residents of Duckburg apparently play an instrument, so being a door-to-door trumpet salesman makes sense — and commits to the interior logic of that gag.
While the title implies that this is a Scrooge collection, it’s Donald that takes the spotlight most frequently. Donald’s got nearly twice the amount of starring stories (though Scrooge does appear in several of these), and because of this, we get to spend a lot of time with Donald’s frustration-laden leisure time (as well as a few jobs).
This seemingly simple balancing act is impressively hard to pull off, primarily because stories like this can be condescending to children. Van Horn seems to have tracked the formula of the old Donald Duck shorts, however, and transmuted it to the page. Those shorts often find Donald engaged in an infuriating series of mishaps (sometimes fighting with animals or inanimate objects, sometimes failing to succeed at a job) with kinetic, temper-driven aplomb. Comics, obviously, can’t throw themselves into the whirlwind fervor of the animation, and so Van Horn understood that it’s the frustration gimmick that needs to be turned up, not the action. He gives a couple of examples of zany situations before finding a way to resolve them with that internal logic.
The actual Scrooge stories in the book, on the other hand, mostly forgo the jet setting, lifelong-adventurer aspects of his character, opting instead for Richie Rich-style gags about his many ways of abusing tax laws or avoiding the minor inconveniences inherent in the lives of we grubby poor folk.
As a whole, Pie in the Sky isn’t all hits, but neither is it a slog to get through. It’s slice-of-life Duck Comics, spending more time with the pedestrian day-to-day of the characters than the haunted castle adventures they go on in more dramatic stories; essentially, this is Duckburg for those tired of the duckblur, smirk-ready gag strips in which Donald climbs trees and tries to make a buck.
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