This sixth volume in Fantagraphics' Carl Barks reprint project presents us with our first "split decision" cover -- by which I mean cover images taken from two stories collected herein, as opposed to just the headlined tale -- and, probably not coincidentally, the first truly questionable choice of a cover-featured story. It's not that "Trail of the Unicorn" (FOUR COLOR #263, February 1950) is a bad story; during the years 1949-50, the period from which the long and short matter in this volume are taken, Barks arguably didn't do ANY bad stories. In terms of sweep and/or storytelling prowess, however, I would have to award either "Letter to Santa" (CHRISTMAS PARADE #1, December 1949) or "Luck of the North" (FOUR COLOR #256, December 1949) the palm as the book's most distinguished effort. Since this collection wasn't published at holiday time, "Luck of the North" probably deserved the cover all to itself... and, wouldn't you know it, there's a scene from that story on the cover's upper half. I'd like to have heard the debate over how this cover came to be arranged.
** SPOILERS **
"Luck of the North," to me, is pretty much flawless. The drawing is more attractive than that seen in, for example, "Lost in the Andes," the Gladstone/Donald rivalry plot is among the better ones of its kind (including "Trail of the Unicorn," in which Gladstone actually cheats at one point to get the upper hand on his cousin), and the psychological complexity of the adventure, with Donald creating a phony treasure map to get the obnoxious Gladstone out of his hair, only to succumb to guilt and take off to the "great white North" to make amends, should be much more iconic than it arguably is. The (spoken) dialogue-less page in which Donald "cracks" and realizes the gravity of what he's done is one of Barks' most famous sequences. There are many more arresting images sprinkled throughout the story, some of almost sublime subtlety.
"Letter to Santa" is most famous for its eye-popping opening splash page and the interior no-holds-barred steam-shovel battle between Donald and Scrooge, but the story itself is quite good, featuring plenty of slapstick and an interesting early portrayal of Scrooge. At this early stage, Scrooge isn't unwilling to spend money (in this case, for HD&L's desired present of a steam shovel), provided that he gets due credit for his efforts. This bespeaks a certain level of promotional ego that would wither over time, though never die completely. The Scrooge of a story like "North of the Yukon," who would rant and rave over the idea of being featured in a magazine, might look a bit askance at a version of himself that declares, "What's the use of having eleven octillion dollars if I don't make a big noise about it?" The Scrooge of "Letter to Santa" is also a bit more Donald-like in his displays of temper and his ability to give as good as he gets in a slapstick fight scene. It is clear at this point that the sclerotic, somewhat querulous Scrooge of such earlier stories as "Christmas on Bear Mountain" and "The Old Castle's Secret" will never be coming back.
The "small works" in this collection, all of which date from just before the short period in which Barks temporarily stopped producing "ten-pagers" for WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES in order to concentrate on longer stories, feature such distinguished fare as "Super Snooper" (WDC&S #107, August 1949), Barks' swipe at the superhero genre, and "Rip Van Donald" (WDC&S #112, January 1950), with its peculiar conceit of an ether-addled Donald visualizing a "future Duckburg" of wobbly buildings and piecemeal people. And, yes, to give them their due, "Trail of the Unicorn" and its FC #256 companion story, "Land of the Totem Poles," are also first-rate, though a little lighter in heft than "Luck of the North." Impeccable production values and one of Barks' VERY best adventure stories... what could be a better selling point?