Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas for Shacktown

The thirties seen through the eyes of the fifties. Or rather, the dramatisation of a particular social phenomenon – extreme economic inequality – fashioned after the war according to the tropes and the iconography of the Depression, for reasons that are as much aesthetic as narrative.

Disney’s world of ducks had come into being in the thirties, and its archetypal character, Donald, was established early on as a pauper, in the tradition of the great characters of vaudeville and comic cinema. But it was a poverty that would have taken on a sharper contour in that ghastly decade.

Carl Barks’ ‘A Christmas for Shacktown’, first published in March of 1951, opens in the slums of Duckburg as Huey, Dewey and Louie briefly witness the daily troubles of ‘the people who are down on their luck’. People is what Aunt Daisy calls them, but it’s not terribly clear what they are. Certainly not ducks. Mostly mice, by the looks, with the odd pig thrown in.

There are faint, sinister echoes here of Art Spiegelman’s casting of the animals in Maus, decades later. But this is 1951, and Barks’ is a much lighter and less overtly allegorical parable. Nonetheless, the style of representation of the citizens of Shacktown is interesting: androginous Dickensian children dressed in rags and gray-looking, defeated mothers sweeping the dust off their rickety porches. A hopeless poverty outside of time.

The three eager, do-gooder ducklings, racked with guilt for what little they have compared to their slum-dwelling peers, decide that the children of Shacktown will get to have a proper Christmas, and start raising the necessary funds with the help of Aunt Daisy and her women’s club, while Uncle Donald is put in charge of securing the ‘last’ $50 for turkey and an electric toy train. Having all of $5 to his name, Donald has no choice but turn to his own uncle, Scrooge McDuck, whose predicament is just the opposite: he has too much money.

Scrooge was Barks’ great creation, as well as the character that went on to define him. At this time, just before achieving his own masthead, he was still somewhat in flux, not having entirely shed the cantankerous recluse persona of his debut on Bear Mountain (‘Everybody hates me, and I hate everybody’), nor having completed the slow transformation into the energetic, adventure-seeking philanthropist he would become over the years. What marked him above all in the stories from this period was an intense physical attachment to his money, and two attendant problems: how to store the money, and how to protect the money from being stolen.

Through the character of Scrooge McDuck, Barks showed us money as a thing: tangible, real – in the way of a natural resource, as opposed to a token of symbolic exchange – immune to the kind of financial transubstantiation that allows, for instance, to send funds over great distances without recourse to physical means of transportation. In simpler terms: when Scrooge needs to store his money, he does it in a building-sized armoured ‘bin’ (literally a giant safe) overlooking Duckburg; when he has to shift it, he uses convoys of trucks, as it if were gold bullion. Occasionally, attempts to solve the twin problems of storage and protection lead to cataclysmic events in which the money becomes one with the forces of nature.

The other side of this angst-ridden relationship is the libidinal attachment of the duck to his money. In ‘Only a Poor Old Man’, for instance, Scrooge is shown in his ‘money-struck’ phase, diving and swimming and frolicking in his money like a child in a paddling pool.

It is this infantile state, this regression, that marks the limited extent of Barks’ satire of ill wealth: Scrooge has a use for money that other people don’t have, but it’s entirely narcissistic and self-obsessed. Moreover, while he is willing to set aside $25 so that the children of Shacktown might have turkey, Scrooge refuses to give the $25 for the electric train, not seeing any point in child’s play when carried out by actual children, or with toys instead of money.

The story loses its focus somewhat, making you almost forget what it’s about. Donald resorts to begging, hopelessly, but seeing that someone dropped a silver dollar into his hat, Scrooge muscles in on his spot, unable to resist the lure of monetary gain. Still looking for a way to make some cash, Donald bumps into his cousin Gladstone, who thanks to his famous luck ‘finds’ him $25 and a quarter. On his way home, Donald drops the quarter into Scrooge’s otherwise empty top hat. Scrooge pockets the charity (call it his bailout money), and goes to put it in his bin, but it won’t fit through any of the bulging doors. He climbs the roof, to drop it from the skylight. Then a mighty rumble. The floor of the bin has given way, plunging all of Scrooge’s fortune through a colossal sinkhole.

This is how the rich man of a fantasy set in the Depression era might lose everything, instantly, and without safety or insurance. A man with none of the influence and connections that come with enormous wealth, and who owned no assets or shares in any business. Only the money-thing.

Scrooge is now penniless. The money cannot be retrieved with earth-digging machinery, as it sits on a thin crust above a giant deposit of quicksand. Two more plot twists, and a system is found: the electric train that the ducks had managed to gift to the children of Shacktown can be put to this use, and retrieve Scrooge’s fortune, a bundle of notes at a time.

If the story were part of a continuity, Scrooge would still be there today, unloading the train and waiting for it to make its way back through the tunnel, knowing that it would take several more centuries to regain his fortune, yet unable to leave the bedside of his ailing money, as if in some sort of Dantesque torment; while, outside, the children of Shacktown would still be partying with their small share of the toy train’s labours, never seeking to improve their station.

The thirties seen through the eyes of the fifties: a primitive capitalism without prosperity, or a social order: just immense wealth and immense poverty. Compare it to our attempts to grasp the almost unfathomable abyss of global inequality. Scrooge’s ‘five hundred triplicatillion, multipludillion quadruplicatillion, centrifgulallion dollars and sixteen cents’ don’t sound so comical when seen against those graphs about what the one percent, or the five percent, or the ten percent owns. Which is to say, everything.

Notice, too, the depiction of poverty in a comic book, along with the idea that the pursuit of wealth might be partially to blame for it. Barks was no socialist, but there are shades of Frank Capra’s brand of piety in some of the stories from this period. As for Scrooge, he would soon cease to be a villain of this mould, and turn with youthful energy to the continuing accumulation of wealth, as opposed to its anxious protection, in a manner more befitting of post-war optimism.

This strange, convoluted, brilliant story might have been the last one to draw from the source of the Scrooge story – the rich man who sees ghosts.

Carl Barks never set foot again in Shacktown.