Bizarro Back Issues: Donald Duck In ‘A Christmas For Shacktown’ (1952)
If you’re a regular ComicsAlliance reader, then you already know that I’m pretty fascinated by the weirder comics of the past, but at Christmastime, my thoughts turn to more heartwarming tales. As soon as that calendar flips over to December, ’tis the season for Santa Claus, presents, the occasional talking Christmas tree that Wonder Woman rescued from the Nazis by holding a door shut and talking about how it felt like being spanked. I mean, yeah, they’re still pretty weird, but they’ve got that Christmas spirit!
Case in point: “A Christmas For Shacktown,” the title story in the latest Fantagraphics collection of Disney Duck tales by the legendary Carl Barks. At 32 pages, it’s a sprawling epic (By Barks’ standards, anyway) that hits those beautiful Holiday themes of altruism and the spirit of giving. Although to be fair, it does get a little closer to cannibalism than most other Christmas comics.Our story begins as Donald Duck’s three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, are taking a shortcut home from school through Shacktown, the hard-luck side of Duckburg where Calisota’s poor gather together in sub-Dickensian poverty. Now, you’d think that a city built around the most successful businessman in the history of the world would be prosperous enough that even the bad neighborhoods would be doing all right, but apparently McDuck industries isn’t the proven job creator that you might expect. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably because its owner keeps three cubic acres of cash in a gigantic bin on top of a nearby hill, but I’m no economist. That’s a different Chris Sims.
Anyway, the whole thing is such a horrible sight for the Nephews that it completely wrecks Louie’s body image, but those are issues that will have to be dealt with in another time. For now, what matters is that the Junior Woodchucks see this as a challenge, and resolve right there to make things a little better in Shacktown, even if it’s just on Christmas Day.
In another time, I imagine this would’ve been accomplished by recording a novelty single bemoaning the clanging chimes of doom and wondering if they even know it’s Christmas in Shacktown after all, or maybe even going so far as to kick things up to the inexplicable involvement of Dan Aykroyd. But as the Power Ballad was still waiting to be invented back in 1952, the kids instead turn to Daisy Duck’s Ladies Club, which decides to raise the money to give Shacktown the best Christmas ever.
The problem? The club ends up making oddly specific promises before they get their budget in order, and once all the donations are collected, they’re still fifty bucks short of being able to afford dinner for everyone and a toy train set. Naturally, there’s one person who could easily afford to bankroll the whole enterprise, so Donald is sent off to see if he can put the touch on Uncle Scrooge.
And that’s when we get what might be my favorite scene-transitioning caption of all time:
Biggie was right, y’all. Biggie was right.
Now, one would think that Uncle Scrooge would be a little more open to the idea of helping people out at Christmas. Not only did he grow up as a poor kid back in Scotland — the key difference between the awesome Uncle $crooge and that wretched little plutocrat Ri¢hie Ri¢h is that Scrooge earned his money and knows the value of a dollar — but like his namesake Ebeneezer, he’s been through this before. The dude’s — uh, duck’s — first appearance is in a story called Christmas On Bear Mountain, for cryin’ out loud, and at the end of that one, he pretty much decides to become a much better person.
And yet, when Donald asks for a slim U.S. Grant, Scrooge refuses. Sort of. He agrees to foot the bill for the dinner, but only if Donald can raise the other $25 for the toy train by himself. And with that, the challenge is on.
The nephews volunteer to take the hit on Christmas morning by encouraging Donald to chip in the $5 he was going to use for their presents, and they cough up the $5 they were going to spend on his, too. To get up to fifteen, Daisy volunteers to sell her tatting — a phrase so old timey that I actually had to look it up to see what it meant, so thanks for teaching me about doileycraft, Carl Barks. That leaves Donald with only ten bucks to raise, so he sets about that classic Christmastime activity: Panhandling.
Unfortunately for Donald, the citizens of Duckburg have had a busy few years:
With begging on the street proving to be fruitless, Donald decides that he’ll just have to hit up Scrooge through subterfuge. His first attempt involves dressing like Scrooge’s own uncle and pestering him for cash. This plan has a number of flaws, chief among them being that Scrooge is like eighty at this point, and his own uncle is therefore most likely dead and not in a position to walk around in a fake beard asking for ten bucks. Second, and more crucial for the story, is that Uncle Jake actually owes Scrooge a shilling, which, after sixty years, has been compounded to $8,326. Scrooge, as you might expect, is not keen on adding to that sum. You don’t get a dollar sign added to your name by being frivolous.
Donald’s second attempt involves bilking Scrooge out of a few bucks by letting a rat loose in his money bin, and like most dishonest deeds, it works perfectly. Until Donald puts the rat in the same pocket as his fee and gets it chewed to bits, that is.
He ends up getting so dejected that he slumps on a park bench, only to have a passer-by throw a buck into his hat as Scrooge walks by and decides to try a little panhandling himself. Meanwhile, in Shacktown, those little orphans that are ten bucks shy of having Christmas — which is apparently a Kickstarter type situation that will see them lose out on everything if Donald can’t make that last ten happen — are down there getting more hopeful by the moment…
… until the adorability hits critical mass:
Bawwwwwww! They just gotta get that money! For Crippled Joey!
And they do! Donald runs into cousin Gladstone Gander — which truly makes this a Disney Duck Universe Crossover Event™ – and together, they’re able to rustle up that last ten bucks to make it work. But there’s one more wrinkle before those kids can have their train.
When Scrooge returns to the Money Bin to drop in the dime he made from panhandling, he finds it so stuffed with cash that he has to go up and drop it in through the skylight… with disastrous consquences!
Yes, the money has dropped down into a cave and sits perched on a thin layer of rock that separates it from a chasm of quicksand, which is so fragile that any attempts to get it out with machinery or ropes will shatter it and cause the McDuck fortune to be lost forever. And now nobody gets a Christmas!
Unless! Scrooge’s uncanny ability to sense money through his beak — which… okay, those are kind of new, but when Carl Barks tells you Scrooge McDuck can smell cash through a cave, you can’t really argue — leads him to a deep cave with a badger hole that leads straight to his fortune. That’s the good news. The bad news is that any attempt to widen the hole so that he can actually get the money out will cause it to drop into the quicksand.
Enter: The Junior Woodchucks, who rig up a system to get it out using the very thing Scrooge derided as useless 30 pages ago: A toy train.
Thus, the money comes out, and Scrooge is so grateful that he gives them the first carload — a stack of thousand-dollar bills — as a present. Thus, Shacktown gets an even better Christmas than they expected, and everything works out okay!
Except that the dinner Scrooge was supposed to buy with that original $25, and the dinner that all the Ducks (and weird dog-ish people) are eating as the story ends: Turkey! Ducks eating turkeys! Talking about delicious drumsticks! I told you there was cannibalism!
But considering there’s another story where Huey actually says “if only we had wings, we could fly there,” I guess it’s not the most confusing part of life as an anthropomorphic duck.