It’s finally happening, it seems. A solicitation via last week revealed that, beginning this fall, Gemstone will be collecting and releasing the Duck comics of Carl Barks in their entirety in the original language! On paper, this is great news for Barks fans and lovers of great comics everywhere. For my money, these are some of the best comics ever produced by anyone, anywhere. One of the great treasures of 20th Century art.

A note of caution should, however, be struck before we break out the champagne. The edition Gemstone will be releasing is going to be based on the edition published in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany over the last three years. It was put together and produced by Scandinavian publishing giant Egmont and is unfortunately a deeply flawed product.

In its basic editorial concept, this is a great package. It includes every single story Barks did, including the ones he didn’t write or draw himself. It publishes several previously censored stories in their original form for the first time since their original publication. The able Daan Jippes has been called in to restore a number of damaged stories, as well as redraw the late “King Scrooge the First,” (1967) which was originally mangled by Tony Strobl, on the basis of Barks’ original thumbnails. It includes around 1500 pages of supplementary material, including covers, sketches and illustrations by Barks as well as documentary material written by the Barks expert Geoffrey Blum. And last but not least, it presents the stories in strict chronological order of publication, allowing the reader to follow closely Barks’ development as an artist and storyteller over his almost three decades as a comic book artist.

This is all well and good, but unfortunately thoroughly undermined by the colouring of the strips, which is not only amateurishly executed but fundamentally misconceived. In contrast to the earlier complete edition, Another Rainbow’s Carl Barks Library (‘CBL,’ 1983-90), the editors of the Egmont edition decided to publish the comics in colour. On paper, this is the right choice; wonderful as it is to experience Barks’ linework in black and white, the comics were drawn for publication in colour. Unfortunately the execution is close to disastrous.

Based on that found in the near-complete Gladstone edition, Carl Barks Library in Color (‘CBLC,’ 1992-98), the colouring is synthetic, gradient-ridden and strangely bleached hackwork. The kind that was so prevalent at the dawn of computer colouring a decade and a half ago and which lamentably continues to plague publications such as the current, Gemstone-helmed reprints of the EC Archive. Only much worse.

Despite their cartoony anthropomorphism, Barks’ comics are firmly rooted in reality. They to a very large extent depend on their evocation of place, on their naturalism, for their effect. The ducks navigate the wild seas in creaking schooners and adventure lurks around the next fog-shrouded cliff at nosebleed altitudes. Everyday life takes place in the noise and bustle of the big city and in the sprawling, sunny suburbs surrounding it. In Egmont’s version, however, the ducks seemingly inhabit a world made of plastic and steel coated in corrosion-resistant autodeposits, and lit by flourescents.

When the first cassette of ten (containing volumes I, XI, and XXI of 30) was released in Denmark, it caused much consternation amongst fans for its colouring, as well as for its lettering, translation and other things mostly irrelevant to an edition in the original language. I wrote a lengthy, extensively illustrated review of it (in Danish) to which I refer readers interested in seeing examples of the vandalism wrought on the comics in these initial volumes. Protests raised by fans and customers of the books — which were sold by subscription only — made Egmont rein in their colouring strategy somewhat, toning down the use of gradients, airbrush, supplemental elements alien to the comics (such as vectorised cloud patterns), and other horrid computer effects. These changes were, however, only implemented from the third cassette onwards, meaning that six volumes out of thirty are pretty much ruined.

The little I have seen of the revised colouring clearly shows that things have improved, but the changes are still only cosmetic. Carried out as it is by the same people responsible for sullying the initial volumes, the colouring remains insensitive to the material, synthetic and without depth. A quick comparison with the colouring of the classic story “Vacation Time” (1950) in Egmont’s version, with that in the original Danish comic book, published 1954, should illustrate my point. (I unfortunately do not have access to scans of the same panels at present, so I beg your indulgence UPDATE: comparison of same half-page here).

The colouring of 1954 version is richly saturated, flat colour, supplemented by subtle use of hand-separated gradients in the sky as well as white shimmer in the waterfall. Congenial to the back-to-nature theme of the story, it succeeds in conveying the primordial character of the forest the ducks move around in. The colouring in Egmont’s version, which I understand is amongst the best found in the volumes, is desaturated, almost bleached (a problem throughout the volumes), with mechanical gradients describing not only the surface of the rushing creek in the background, but entirely flattening the cliff behind Donald and the deer, working against Barks’ textural hatching, transforming promontory into polymer. Strange that colouring carried out at a time when these comics were seen as low-grade entertainment should be so superior to work carried out for a high-profile luxury edition of work by an man who is now (in Scandinavia) regarded as a major artist of the 20th century…

What does this mean for the American edition? Though it will surely be based on Egmont’s work, Gemstone has stated that everything is still up in the air regarding the production of their version, but they don’t exactly have a stellar record on the issue: their Disney comics, already substantially based on Egmont-produced material, are marred by exactly the same approach to colour, and the new EC Archive is a sad case of interference with material that already had perfectly fine colouring in earlier reprints. Even if Gemstone chooses to use the changes to the colouring of the first six volumes apparently implemented in the Finnish edition, which started publication later than the other Scandinavian ones, the colouring remains deeply unsatisfying, and vastly inferior to the high-quality colour restoration of other classic strip reprints such as Fantagraphics’ Krazy & Ignatz and Popeye as well as Sunday Press’ Little Nemo — So Many Splendid Sundays! and Sundays with Walt & Skeezix.

Since colouring of the original comics varies wildly in quality, this is unfortunately not simply a matter of restoring the original colouring the way it has been done with those strips, however. Though adjustments, such as eliminating all but the most inobtrusive gradients and airbrush effects and endowing the colouring with more warmth and greater saturation, eliminating the bleached effect presently observable throughout, would help, the only way to fully solve this problem is to carry out a complete recolouration, faithful to the material. This would surely be a costly endeavour, possibly prohibitively so for a mid-size publisher, but one can only hope it will nevertheless be considered seriously. Even if it means charging substantially more from the customers, who — if one is to judge from the success of many of the luxury editions of classic strips being published these years — are willing to shell out for true quality. It is the only way to do justice to this singular body of work and create an edition for the ages that can — and should! — subsequently be issued in cheaper editions and find the new, young readership for which it was intended.

PS — Gemstone also seems to have a collected edition of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics in the works. Great news! In this case there is no defective Egmont prototype, fortunately, but I’m still wary. Perhaps individually contacting Gemstone, voicing these concerns, would help things turn out for the best?

The images here are from cassette 8 of Egmont’s edition and are courtesy of the Bunker’s scanmaster in Denmark.