Fantastic Arcade Itch.io Bundle
games, juegos rancheros
Monday is the first day of Fantastic Arcade talks and tourneys, but you can play this years games already, either in the Highball, in our Arcade lounge or at home, with five new experimental games that were incubated by Juegos Rancheros, the Austin indie game collective. These games are running in custom cabinets at the festival but you can get them together as a bundle from itch.io.
All proceeds from the sale of this bundle benefit the Juegos Rancheros non-profit organization (of which I am an organizer), dedicated to nurturing emerging game voices and sharing games we care about with Austin and the world.
Included in this bundle are all five games you see here, along with extras & bonus materials-
NIUM, by Moppin & Nemk
DOWNWELL creator Moppin has partnered with Nemk (one of our favorite artists working in games) to present NIUM: a post-apocalyptic action game where players will crawl through a ruined, abandoned, STALKER-esque exclusion zone inhabited only by a variety of mutated wildlife. (Windows, Mac)
ALPHABET, by Keita Takahashi & Adam Saltsman
Originally available only to select Kickstarter backers, ALPHABET is a slapstick marathon footrace for 1- to 26-players from Keita Takahashi (renowned creator of KATAMARI DAMACY & NOBY NOBY BOY) and Adam Saltsman (designer behind CANABALT & OVERLAND). Run, jump, eat, sing, poop, and sleep through silly obstacle courses! (Windows, Mac, Linux)
INSPECTOR WOOF, by Klondike
From Klondike — France’s upstart super-collective of indie game stars — INSPECTOR WOOF & THE VEGETABLE HIGH SCHOOL is a procedurally generated mystery adventure game where every student is hiding terrible secrets. Armed only with your freshly-printed hints sheet, dig deep into their guilty consciences and expose the truth! (Windows, Mac, Linux)
F2OGGY, by Nathalie Lawhead
F2OGGY (Only one survives!) is a Brute-Force Frog-Combat Simulator, by the IGF-winning creator Nathalie Lawhead, made for a growing audience of competitive frogfans. Each player is divided into a faction (a Frog-Faction), and must defeat their opponent using High-Velocity Amphibian Impact Lunges. (Windows, Mac)
LASSOS, by SOKPOP
From SOKPOP — the the Dutch collective behind indie cult classics like the low-fi sci-fi exploration game BERNBAND — comes LASSOS, a game fit for its Texas debut: throw lassos, get money! (Windows, Mac)
prosthetic knowledge — RIP Bill Etra Artist engineer who with Steve Rutt...
prosthetic knowledge — RIP Bill Etra Artist engineer who with Steve Rutt… > Artist engineer who with Steve Rutt created the pioneering Rutt/Etra video synthesizer has passed away. Here is a video of Bill demonstrating his hardware:
Peek Inside The Notebooks Of A Legendary Logo Designer
Peek Inside The Notebooks Of A Legendary Logo Designer > In 1968, graphic designer Lance Wyman designed the iconic Mexico Olympics identity, hailed today as arguably the strongest branding of any Olympic Games.
James Paterson At Eyeo 2013
Eyeo 2013 - James Paterson by Eyeo Festival // INSTINT
Join James, a weirdness engineer who moonlights as a software engineer, on a tour of The Gently Rounded Triangle: A space where the disciplines of drawing, animation, and code merge and become one.
Les Métamorphoses de Mr. Kalia
Les métamorphoses de Mr. Kalia is an interactive poetic adventure and a study of the concept of metamorphosis. This project won the DevArt contest initiated by Google and the Barbican.
edit: more photos here!
I had a lot of fun doing improvised visuals for that.party on wednesday in San Francisco. Official pics soon. Thanks to the good folks at Razer for lending us some very nice computers and ID@XBOX for sponsoring. It looks like Juegos Rancheros will be adding this to our list of annual events from now on, so I’m looking forward to next year’s party.
Public Works had an unusual setup- three projectors that were all mirroring from the same source, but skewed and slightly overlapping, probably for their own vj’s video mapping. I had to quickly think of a way to make them all feel unified using my own rig- so I mapped my canvas to prevent the projectors from overlapping, and then offset my image so that my canvas looked like this: I then put a slow horizontal framehold movement on it, so that even though it was just the same image repeating three times, it looked like they all flowed together like one moving panorama, especially when I had an eye catching image like bob the cat floating by. I was kind of ill prepared when I got to the club, but being quick on my feet with vdmx actually let me make something on site that worked rather than having to rework a bunch of stuff I might have made beforehand without knowing what I was getting into.
Bots I have known and loved
This month I accepted a position as a designer at Howdy. Howdy creates automation tools with conversational interfaces (‘Your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’), as well as an open source toolset that serves as their foundation. Our eponymous model ‘bot’ currently works inside the chat client Slack (and now Facebook, oh lord). It can be trained in-chat to perform an increasing number of tasks, and I think that it’s an example of how lots of people will be interacting with software going forward. I’m kind of uniquely qualified to work on conversational interfaces- I’ve spent over a decade working in UI design and usability, I’ve spent the last five years among game designers, done QA on games, and I’ve worked on designing my own adventure game (not to mention lots of little experiments that utilized a text parser and generated text). I also spent a good four years when I was younger in tech support jobs, which is more important to this kind of work than you might think. Finally there’s all that time I’ve weirdly spent as an actor, and various creative writing and performing experience that goes into creating voices and personalities for what behaves, in many ways, like a game NPC.
Beyond all that though, i’ve always been fascinated by our ability to project onto non-human actors and have surprising interactions with them. Over the years I’ve enjoyed the company of a lot of weird bots and I thought it might be fun to list off some of my favorites.
What do I mean by “bot”? For the purposes of this post I’m going to loosely include software that interacts with humans in some conversational way. - Software that is easy to anthropomorphize, and that responds to us as another human might. I was tempted to include lots of software auto-posting to Twitter accounts as well, but decided to just pick a couple, since it could have turned into a whole other post.
TSAR 2.0 -
Shout out to the fictional, chess-playing, creepy, temperamental AI from Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess. Listing off all my favorite fictional AI’s would be a whole other undertaking, including heavy-hitters like Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project and HAL 9000. TSAR 2.0 gets a mention because it’s the only fictional bot I’ve had the pleasure of personally working with in a movie.
My first encounter with a chatbot was the famous Eliza, created by Joseph Weizenbaum of the MIT AI research lab during the mid 60’s. Using a very minimal database of triggers and responses, Eliza ran a surprisingly effective (for the time) chat script that imitated (or maybe parodied) a working psychotherapist. In this persona the bot could generically deflect questions back at the human it was interacting with, and still come off as somewhat human itself… a lot like a therapist who keeps dozing off in the middle of a session. After my friend and I subjected Eliza to every profanity in our young vocabularies on his family’s Atari ST, I ran home and tried to make my own chatbot using BASIC on my pocket-calculator-like Timex Sinclair 1000. With a series of input and print commands I was able to make something that could respond to very precisely typed keywords, but the illusion broke down quickly when someone tried to talk freely with my little program. Eliza predated text-parser based adventure games and has been cited as an influence on some of their seminal titles. It also gave birth to scads of similar chatbots.
Robby Garner is a software developer I met during my time as part of the Fringeware bookstore and magazine in Austin in the 90’s. At the time he was working with Paco Xander Nathan on a Java implementation of his natural language chatbot FRED (called JFRED). JFRED scored well in the 1998 annual Loebner Prize Turing test, which blind-tested chatbots against human judges who guessed whether they were talking to a human or not. JFRED was a followup to another web-enabled chatbot named Barry DeFacto that Robby and Paco had collaborated on, and I had a lot of fun playing with Barry and testing what it could remember and how sturdy it was against spurious input.
This is the markov-chain generated voice of an imaginary body of text (presented as being a machine-translated creation myth) used in the performance/installation Shapes (and other Shapes) by Katie Rose Pipkin, The Octopus Project and I for The Museum of Human Achievement’s Altar series. Created by Katie Rose from a large body of actual creation myths, Alokwoim’s words were generated and printed up live in front of an audience and read by David and Nathan Zellner as narration for the show. You can still read output from Alokwoim here. You can also still call the institude devoted to studying Alokwoim at (512) 520-0499.
This beautiful visual twitterbot by Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt procedurally generates images of imaginary moth species along with their names (or accepts names from twitter replies and generates corresponding moth images). Katie Rose and Loren are two of my favorite artists that work with software. While her other bots don’t all accept input, it’s worth noting that Katie Rose has created a handful of terrific generative twitter bots in her solo work, some of my favorites being Fantasy Florist (generated botanical textbook entries for imaginary flowers), unicode art generator land/sky and the sublime CEO PYRAMID OVERLORD.
David Lublin is the creator of VDMX, a performative video tool that I use for pretty much anything I do that involves manipulating and playing video. He also tinkers endlessly and creates interesting artwork with the software he creates. After finding a way to run video from VDMX through image recognition software, he created TV Helper, a twitter bot that captions live television with a peculiar brew of generated text and word results from image recognition. The bot then screengrabs from its stream and posts to twitter.
PEEPEES FOR THE PEEPEE GOD! PEEWEES FOR THE PEEWEE DRACULA— Appropriate Tributes (@godtributes) March 22, 2016
Appropriate Tributes tirelessly listens to twitter, taking random words from your tweets out of context and then offering up to their corresponding deity.
Impressively it works in multiple languages and charactersets.
ΚΡΟΤΑΛΊΣΜΑΤΑ ΓΙΑ ΤΟ ΚΡΟΤΆΛΙΣΜΑ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΎ! CREPITATIONS ΓΙΑ ΤΟ ΘΡΌΝΟ ΤΗΣ CREPITATION— Appropriate Tributes (@godtributes) February 22, 2016
🐕 🐕 🐕 🐕 🐕 🐕 🐕 FOR THE 🐕 UNION— Appropriate Tributes (@godtributes) March 12, 2016
🐞 🐞 🐞 🐞 🐞 🐞 🐞 神のため— Appropriate Tributes (@godtributes) March 1, 2016
The reasons for my initial bot attraction may have fallen somewhere between the idea of having responsive, surprising NPC interactions in games, and the unexpected comedy (or poetry) of text that almost sounds like intentional language but falls somewhere short, into the realm of gibberish. Today (at least professionally) my interest in bots revolves around conversation-as-user-interface.
The idea of an intelligent agent as an interface for retrieving information, correcting errors, performing calculations, and other functions of traditional software is nothing new. Stuff that was exciting to talk about twenty years ago is starting to become realizable and worth revisiting (hello again, virtual reality!), because it’s tempered with what we’ve learned from actual use, not just improved by the capabilities of new technology.
We’re heading towards either a state of harmonious balance where information services let us do more than either people or software could accomplish alone (computer assisted games of advanced chess are one cool idea I encountered when working on Computer Chess) or a noisy state of option paralysis where people are overwhelmed with information that they can’t properly sort or contextualize. For a lot of tasks conversation is the best way to interface with a human. It’s an information drinking-straw instead of a firehose. Chat as interface allows access to software services in a bite-sized, digestible, need-to-know fashion that cuts down on cognitive load and noise, and reduces the need to ‘scan’ large amounts of information at once. It’s deliverable in lots of ways that don’t require focusing on one bounded context (notifications, sms, voice, Slack). Designing for conversational UI’s also brings with it the need to consider tone and language, not just as a brand consideration, but as a shifting, contextually-aware part of the interface. Which means I get a chance to think about UI as a performance, write dialog (in a way that feels a lot like game design), and build on my existing skills designing interfaces and thinking about usability. But with the various bot art experiments i’ve known in mind, I’m looking forward to using the same technology to spin off some weird artbots of my own. 🤖
The Distant Future of the Here and Now
“An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.” -Robert Bresson
Authenticity is a difficult quality to pin down. It’s a sort of patina on the surface of a thing- a texture that is in constant danger of wearing away on each new examination. In art, the authenticity of a work is rarely connected to its fidelity, but rather to a total synchronicity of parts, an internal consistency. There’s a part of our perceptual process that is always evaluating this, and it’s usually better at its job than that conscious, creative faculty we use to make representative art.
After decades of CG in film, filmmakers gradually lost the ability to make an audience think of an image as being ‘real’ (if that was ever even the intention), and at best hope only to stun them with visual complexity. It’s now a marketing point when a movie can claim expensive and complex practical effects instead of CG, not necessarily because the audience can recognize the difference, but because by believing in the reality of an image, they feel re-engaged with what they see on screen.
Even with the present lip service towards ‘real’ sets and practical effects, we have always expected a high level of artifice in the genre of science fiction. Prior to computer generated imagery in movies, matte glass painting, models, full-size sets and in-camera animation techniques achieved much of the same effects, albeit more rigidly.
One of the strengths of filmmaking as a medium is its ability to simply capture the world around us in-place and recontextualize its images. There’s been lots of movements in film that have used direct, observational methods to try to lay claim on authenticity, but here I’m going to talk about something different- films that use a high level of editorial and expositional artifice to make ‘real’ footage represent something fantastic, while retaining that inherent ‘patina’ of authenticity. Using a ‘grown’ world as opposed to one meticulously built by the artist breaks the “black box” ( as Walter Murch terms it 1. ) It cedes some control away from the artist and reintroduces complexity that can’t be otherwise fabricated.
Here are a handful of films that claim their place in the Science Fiction cannon simply by showing the world around us in a new light.
Science and technology as a negative force run amok is a common theme in genre fiction. The optimistic view of technology as a means to a utopia that was common in pulp and television science fiction in the 50’s and 60’s has felt out of place in the public imagination for a long time. It’s always been rare to find middle-ground: a work of science fiction that balances the fears-of and hopes-for technology in a moderate way. One of the handful of examples of this comes from one of science fiction’s earliest films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which repeats the slogan, “The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart!”. Artist Patricia Piccinini has her own take on the Faustian scientist trope -
“To my mind the fatal flaw that condemns Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelly’s story is not hubris. It is not that he has sought to, or even succeeded, creating life from nothing but his own desire and reason. Frankenstein’s mistake is that having done this he does not take responsibility for his creation. Having brought this creature into the world, he should also be liable for its life here. He was not a good parent. 2”
In Alphaville (1965), Jean Luc Godard shows science as a bloodless force for dehumanization, led not by scientists themselves, but by a nonhuman machine-intelligence (with a voice lent by a throat cancer survivor using an assistive device). The Alpha-60 computer has a goal of a rigid hive-society, free of the stickier emotions of mainstream humanity. The hero here is the stony faced detective “Lemmy Caution” (a character lifted completely, American expatriate actor and all, from an established noir detective series). Lemmy shoots, punches, and photographs his way through the city of Alphaville, on a mission to find (and kill) the scientist creator of the Alpha-60, “Professor Von Braun” (evoking Werner Von Braun, creator of the V2 rocket who worked for both the Third Reich and later the United States).
“Everything weird is normal in this city of whores.” - Alphaville
Photographed in stark black and white, saturated with pitiless, obscuring shadows, and punctuated by absurdly sinister orchestra hits and random violence, Godard’s roaming camera shows Paris through the contrasting lenses of both noir and SF, a stylistic mix we would eventually see echoed in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Godard amplifies each style to the extreme, until the film becomes a farce of genre conventions. Futuristic architecture in the film are on-location shots of the Hotel Sofitel Paris le Scribe and the Paris Electricity Board Building. Much of the content of the film was improvised, and Godard reportedly funded the film with money from German investors by sending them a phony Lemmy Caution script that was never shot.
In our current world science is both championed for commercial gain and decried by the same voices in nearly the same breath as they see fit. Big business decides what research has value, and to what ends technology is used, not the scientists that conceive it. In a way Godard’s vision of technocrats enslaved by their own creation may not be so outrageous.
“Nothing sorts memories from ordinary moments. They claim remembrance when they show their scars.” - La Jette
La Jette (1962) implies another degraded world, one so thoroughly ruined that it cannot even be shown beyond a few darkened underground hovels and stock photos of devastated ruins from World War II. In photo montage form, Filmmaker Chris Marker shows us his character’s flight back in time from this uninhabitable future, into the present. Eventually the protagonist becomes so mesmerized by the world we take for granted that he is lead to his own death, an inevitable event that he had already witnessed in his childhood as an onlooker. In La Jette the strange becomes familiar, the future becomes the present, the inevitable thing we fear most must come to pass, and has already defined us by its inevitability. This is a personal and philosophical film, and its use of the present day shown as new through the eyes of a time traveller is perhaps the most immediate and visceral of any Science Fiction film. It was later used as the basis for Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys.
“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” - Marshall MCLuhan
La Jette’s creator Chris Marker was an extremely private figure, working pseudonymously throughout his career. He was considerably older than Godard, having fought as a young man in the French Resistance during World War II and later joining the French Communist party. He was a prolific artist, and La Jetee is sometimes credited with establishing the form of film-essay. By subverting documentary conventions, the film essay can construct a wide range of narratives- fictional, personal, polemical, surreal.
One of the greatest innovators of the film essay form is Austrian-born director Werner Herzog. Herzog is widely quoted as dismissing Godard, “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.” The two were once photographed together in 1980, meeting famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Herzog is engaged in conversation with Kurosawa, and reportedly altered his travel plans to return the next day to deliver a book of illustrations to him. Godard is silent throughout the encounter and looks on with a bemused and distracted expression. I haven’t found records of any other interactions between the two, but Herzog is famously contemptuous of film theorizing, and was unpopular with the late 60’s Euopean left, as his film Even Dwarfs Started Small was considered by some as a lampooning of the ‘68 student riots that had swept France, coinciding with protests in other countries. Herzog dismissed political readings of his own work. He also has consistently relished tearing down assumptions of truth in Cinema Verité and documentary filmmaking. In his “Minnesota Declaration” he states, “By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”
“I am a storyteller, and I used the voice-over to place the film – and the audience – in a darkened planet somewhere in our solar system.”
In Lessons of Darkness (1997), Werner Herzog reveals an emotionally and politically charged scene, the Kuwaiti oil fires and debased victims left in the wake of the first Gulf War. However, he creates something very different from a standard documentary in his depiction of the scene. Herzog elects to present it as the unfathomable, hellish panorama of an alien world. Landscapes of oil, smoke, fire, and blackened earth are shown with the same kind of awestruck revelation that is usually only afforded to multi-million dollar effects shots. The difference here being that this alien world is incalculably more “real”.
“I think Science fiction films are wonderful because they are pure imagination and that is what cinema is about, but on the other hand, all of these films hint that what you see is artificially made in a studio with digital effects. This is the issue of truthfulness in today’s cinema. It’s not about realism or naturalism, I’m speaking of something different. Nowdays even six-year-olds know when something is a special effect and even how the shot is done 3.”
“Calling Lessons of Darkness a science fiction film is a way of explaining that the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here” relates the director, “ I am a storyteller, and I used the voice-over to place the film – and the audience – in a darkened planet somewhere in our solar system 4.”
Lessons of Darkness is the first of two of Herzog’s films to place what might have otherwise been considered documentary footage in a science fiction context. The Wild Blue Yonder uses NASA footage of working astronauts and scenes of Antarctic divers to create a story about alien visitors, narrated by a wild-eyed Brad Dourif. Dourif’s performance has the added effect of creating another layer of interpretation, where the whole story could be the ramblings of a mentally ill human with delusions of grandeur. Lessons of Darkness is texturally a very different film from The Wild Blue Yonder and reactions to the two were very different. The Wild Blue Yonder was uncontroversial, but Lessons of Darkness polarized audiences, winning Grand Prix at the Melbourne Film Festival while causing an outcry at the Berlin Film Festival. Critics accused Herzog of aestheticising the horrors of war while divorcing it from its political context. Herzog has argued that this handling of the footage gave it deeper and more disturbing impact rather than fetishizing it.
“…we have all watched so many horrific things on the news that we have become totally – and dangerously – inured to them… The stylization of the horror in Lessons of Darkness means that the images penetrate deeper than the CNN footage ever could.”
Based on Boris and Arkady Strugatsy’s novel Roadside Picnic, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) persuades us that the empty, overgrown areas around chemical facories and powerplants in Estonia are the no-man’s land surrounding a forbidden room where some cosmic collision once occurred. A year of footage from shooting in these toxic landscapes had to be discarded after the film was improperly developed by Soviet labs, and Tarkovsky essentially began the film again from scratch with a new director of photography. Several crew members, including Tarkovksy himself, died of cancers or illnesses that may have been attributable to the long periods of time spent working in these locations.
Much has been written about the parallels between Stalker’s “zone” and the “alienation zone” surrounding the center of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the landscape of the latter coupled with the themes of the former became the subject of an unlikely and imaginative videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
The British Film Institute has posted a piece with accompanying film stills about the content and production of Tarkovsky’s two science-fiction films, Stalker and Solaris. Both films are highly introspective and meditative, and did nothing to help Tarkovsky’s already difficult standing with Soviet censors, who already considered him a decadent spiritualist. They also contain some of his most enduring images. Stalker is a movie of textures- rust, foliage, dirt, flowing water, foam and flotsam. While the composition of every shot in the film is as precisely arranged as the gears in a stopwatch, the textures must all be real, and the assemblage of the fiction becomes tangible by their authenticity.
After Tarkovsky’s death in exile from lung cancer, Chris Marker made a film essay in homage to the great director.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
I have a short 4 channel video installation included Monkeytown 6, a scrappy experimental-video-dinner-theater-event that’s running for a few more weeks here in Austin.
Here’s a video featuring myself & creator Montgomery Knott. Tickets are available at monkeytown6.com
Bob Sabiston at Nerd Nite
Regardless of how you might feel about Waking Life, Bob is a super great guy who I love making stuff with. I show up at the end of this and mention a new(old) possible collaboration I’m pitching.
A New Blog
Sometime last year I discovered that the blog I previously hosted at this address had become slowly riddled with spam links due to a security flaw in a Wordpress extension. I had been dutifully posting to it since 2002, as raw html and then as a Blogger site, finally as Wordpress. The spam was insidious- nothing overt enough to gain my attention at first, years-old posts were having random words linked to spam sites. I was able to fix the security problems, but the amount of effort it would have taken to scrub the posts of the links was too much for me to consider. Also, as I was flipping through the posts, I had an impulse to flush them all out and start fresh.
The landscape of online content has been radically changed in the last twelve years by the social-media/advertising model- RSS and feedreaders were largely killed off, lots of independent blogs were abandoned. It disturbs me a lot how many layers of advertisers and gatekeepers a piece of news or a page goes through before it finally gets seen on social media. Anybody with a sore wallet and a bone to pick can make it disappear. Considering that it’s now sort of like yodeling alone on a desert island, a self-hosted blog almost needs some justification to exist, the most common being software developers posting technical articles. My reason for wanting to maintain a self-hosted blog is that I don’t like providing free content for someone else’s advertising scheme. That, and also I am an incredibly interesting person and you should drop what you are doing and hang on my every word.
These posts are being generated by a static site generator called Jekyll. Markdown documents on my iPad, phone, and computer all sync to my server via Dropbox, and are automatically build into pages by Jekyll. I’m looking into weird extra automated posting that I can do using Dropbox hooks in IFTTT and Workflow. We’ll see what I come up with.
Fantastic Arcade 2015 videos online
The Universe According to Scrooge McDuck
(Originally published on the World of Mondo blog)
Carl Barks, the artist who created Scrooge McDuck, started work at Disney in 1935 as an inbetweener, drawing innumerable piles of Disney animation frames for 20 dollars a week 1. Inbetweening is the most grueling and thankless of jobs in animation (we now farm these jobs out to Asia to be done by children wearing rags who are lorded over by shirtless dudes with bullwhips and executioner’s masks). While Barks was working as an inbetweener, he regularly submitted ideas for cartoons in development to keep from losing his mind in the brutal tedium of his work. His first joke to be accepted by Disney involved the already established character Donald Duck having his ass shaved by a robot barber (Already the sparkle of his innate genius had begun to shine through). Barks finally quit in disgust to try and start a chicken farm in the inhospitable Inland Empire area of Los Angeles, but not before contributing artwork for the first Donald Duck themed comic strip. While his chicken farm floundered and failed, Barks was forced to go back to Western Publishing, the company that had put out the licensed Donald Duck comic that he had worked on, and ask for extra work. Smelling bird on him, they put him back on Donald Duck. Barks produced an estimated 500 books for Western Publishing involving ducks, and in the process, took one apoplectic, two-dimensional duck, and invented an entire universe around him- a universe that sometimes barely needed or noticed the character that it had sprung from.
Disney works hard to present a monolithic face, and none of Barks’ comics carried his name, only “Walt Disney Presents”. However, because his work was uniquely imagined and had a un-homogenized style to it that was unduplicated anywhere else in Disney’s output, people started to notice, and referred to him as “The Good Duck artist”. The Good Duck artist lived to the age of 99, occasionally taking time to do oil paintings of ducks, to be snapped up by rabid fans for thousands of dollars. Interestingly, the story of Duckburg doesn’t stop there. In fact, like most good acts of focused and slightly unhinged creativity, Barks’ work radiates out through culture, setting off bizarre chain reactions. For a small example, Lucas and Speilberg have publicly acknowledged that the rolling boulder intro to “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) was inspired by Uncle Scrooge Comics 2 ( “The Seven Cities of Cibola” From Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge #7, September 1954). And then there’s the odd effect that Scrooge McDuck comics had when left behind by G.I.’s in Japan: “Manga developed after World War II at the hands of one designer, Osamu Tezuka. He was influenced a great deal by the work of Carl Barks - the creator of Scrooge McDuck 3. Basically, Tezuka made an American art form Japanese by mixing Disney with sophisticated stories. In the US, McCarthyism lobotomized comics, reducing them to this one genre of costumed superheroes. But in Japan, comics grew into a literary art form: You have romance comics, historical comics, golf comics, sports comics … they’re made for every market and for every taste. Now Disney is taking cues from the Japanese. The Little Mermaid is heavily influenced by the manga style, and The Lion King is basically Tezuka’s ‘Kimba the White Lion’.” - Christopher Couch -Editor-in-chief, CPM Manga 4
Beyond indirectly shaping the style of Japanese Manga, the Duckburg stories are venerated as literature in Germany and much of northern Europe and outsell all other comic books. (in this we seem to have not only defeated our Axis foes on the battlefield, but also razed their cultures with the memetic timebomb of cartoon ducks). This is primarily due to the insertion of yet another overachiever caught in the act of slumming - In this case Erika Fuchs, a German art history Ph.D. who was given the task of translating Barks’ stories in the 50’s and continued to do so until her death in 2005. In the course of translating, Fuchs was directed to enrich the content of the comics to try and assuage German parents’ fears of encroaching American pop-culture. As a result, the Fuchs-Banks hybrid ducks spout Goethe and sing Wagner.
Take, for example, the classic Duck tale “The Golden Helmet,” a story about the search for a lost Viking helmet that entitles its wearer to claim ownership of America. In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power. 5
Music from “Duck Tales Wanpaku Duck Yume Bouken”, better known as “Duck Tales, the Game” (1990 Capcom)
In 1987, Disney - a company that for most of its history existed by merchandising the character design that it owned from its animation projects, was in a post-Walt slump. Its animation had been de-emphasized in favor of live action (1981’s The Fox and the Hound, which had the then depressed and marker-sniffing Tim Burton on its animation staff 6, was the closest thing Disney had to an animated hit in the 80’s). Disney planned on making a foray into television animation in an attempt to win back some of the child mindshare that had been irrevocably lost to the funnier and more frenetic Warner Brother’s cartoons in the 1940’s.
Unfortunately, Disney’s intellectual property had always depended on pillaging fairy tales and buying characters from dead artist’s estates- there was very little in the way of a richly detailed and charactered disney franchise that would make good fodder for a serialized cartoon. Disney’s first attempts- “The Wuzzles” and their Smurf clone “The Gummi Bears” were met with lukewarm response. Finally, rediscovering the wealth of Barks’ work, Disney’s “Duck Tales” cartoon was a huge success, and may have indirectly led to the brief (and quickly squandered) renaissance of Disney feature animation in the early 90’s (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid). As it was, “Duck Tales” was reportedly the first American animated TV series to be syndicated in the former Soviet Union.
As a child, my only connection to Disney animation was the “Duck Tales” cartoon which I’d watch when I got home from school… And the fact that, when I was an infant, my mother put up Mickey Mouse drapes in my room which terrified me and lead to reoccurring nightmares about being stalked by Mickey (with his giant eyes and maniacally happy mouth). Divorced from any knowledge of what a cartoon supposed to represent, the almost abstract stylization of these characters can be disturbing to a still-forming mind. I don’t think I even realized Mickey was supposed to be a mouse, just some grinning bubbly-headed thing (I certainly have no childhood memory of ever seeing a Mickey Mouse cartoon).
In 1995, the huge demand for Scrooge comics in Germany and Northern Europe led Disney to commission new comics. Cartoonist and Barks fan, Don Rosa, used this as an opportunity to meticulously comb through every Carl Barks’ duck book and produce a series of comics (collected as “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck”- out of print due to licensing issues, but supposedly new editions are in the works). Rosa won the Eisner Award for “Best Serialized Story” for his Scrooge work, and in the process, produced some of the most exhaustive footnoting and organization of the Barks comics. (He also drew that creepy picture of Scrooge’s grave that begins this article.)
Barks is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. First, because he’s a perfect example of a man given a tiny, dreary corner in which he can be creative, and instead of going through the motions (how many people would brighten at the idea of drawing ducks for the rest of their lives?) he poured his soul into it, and channeled a rich inner life into a universe of ducks (I wonder if when he closed his eyes he saw hordes of anthropomorphic ducks, chasing him through his dreams?). At the same time, in writing this article, I came across such serious and studied devotion to Barks and his work, that I feel like he is a prime example of the flip-side of an artist pouring his heart into commercial entertainment: he’s an artist who people work feverishly to read stuff into. One of the weird aspects of the time we live in is that people would rather read between the lines of pop culture to find spiritual and emotional succor than go pick up a comparitievly medicinal work of ‘high art’ that deals with things directly. Either through nostalgia or ignorance or some other coy form of intellectual perviness, people would rather guess what someone is trying to say about life by sifting through hundreds of comics about talking ducks than read a ‘real book’. Our collective story is being codified into mass media, which as a commodity must be accessible to children under 10 (and children over 30) to survive. If it sounds like I am taking a duck-crap on “Duck Tales” and on Disney, I’m not. This harsh environment of scribbling in the margins makes some of the oddest, most layered, but still accessible art- and it gives us some of the most interesting characters to talk about. Not Scrooge McDuck, per se, but the weirdo who created him, and the weirdos who obsess over him.
This disturbing exploration into the nature of evil in both Ducks and Beagles comes from the amazing FatalFarm.
Carl Barks wikipedia page ↩
“the Duck with the Bucks- Time Magazine ↩
Check out this New Year’s card that Tezuka wrote to Barks in admiration. ↩
Wired Magazine - Ichiban (top ten Japanese influences on western culture) ↩
Why Donald Duck Is the Jerry Lewis of Germany - The Wall Street Journal Online ↩
Burton on Burton (Faber&Faber press) ↩
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