The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
GYRO GEARLOOSE'S FOOD PILL
Carl Barks, that font of endless invention as the chief illustrator for Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge in the Disney comic books, was a frustrated inventor of things. Busy with the endless need of the monthly comic grind - he wrote and drew an average of a page a day for two decades - he never found the time to work them into reality. He sublimated with a throwaway character first used in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #140 (May 1952). In the story "Gladstone's Terrible Secret," Gladstone, the world's luckiest duck, is trying to win a scavenger hunt when along comes Gyro. Gyro is using a pogo stick to churn cream into butter. Frustrated, he gives up and hands both to Gladstone. Just as luck would have it, those are two of the items on his list.
Gyro is as eccentric in appearance as any good inventor, saddled with a Buster Keatonish pork pie hat and pince nez perched on his angular beak. He wears an old-fashioned high, stiff shirt collar without a tie. His hair is a huge mop of straw. Barks would smooth out the awkwardness when he introduced 4-page Gyro stories as filler in the monthly Uncle Scrooge comic, starting in March 1956. Gyro got a vest, a haircut, a wider beak, and a little helper called Little Helper. Built out of stray capacitors and wires that could be found in a large toolbox, it had a light bulb for a head, which of course lit up whenever it had a good idea. Gyro had good ideas by the thousands. Though sometimes it took perseverance, his inventions always worked. In another wonderful twist, they caused havoc by working too well: Gyro had no limits and neither did his inventions. They never stopped. Gyro was a literary successor to Nicholas Geibel, a character in the 1893 short story collection Novel Notes from the British humorist Jerome K. Jerome. When the girls in his small German town jokingly call for a clockwork dance partner who would never tread on their toes or tear their dress, he responds with one of the first robots. His contraption is the ultimate gentleman, tireless, superhumanly strong, perfect in every way… except that he lacks an off switch, an oversight that neither his creator nor the doomed dancing partner ever considered.
If any Duckburg character is Gyro's complete opposite it's Grandma Duck, which made for a series of stories playing off their clashing temperaments. Grandma lives on a farm, and is superbly content to do everything the old-fashioned way. Even her new-fangledness is old-fashioned: she commutes to the city in a circa 1910 Detroit Electric car. Naturally, every time Gyro visits he wants to improve and update everything he sees. Grandma always wins in the end. Her old ways may not be the best for Duckburg but they're the best for her.
A fascinating, if little talked about, trait of the Disney universe is that the characters can be set in any place or any time without changing their essential selves. In 1958, Disney gave itself some self-promotion in the oddly-specific giant-size 25 cent issue #1 of Walt Disney's Donald and Mickey in Disneyland on Tom Sawyer's Island. (There was never a #2, although comics setting characters in Walt's world appeared with fair regularity.) Tom Sawyer's Island, set in an earlier version of the rural and historic Missouri that Twain wrote about, was introduced as part of Frontierland in 1956, with a gaggle of individual themed areas: Fort Wilderness, Injun Joe's Cave, Catfish Cove, Smuggler's Cove, the Tree House, and The Old Mill. Not much of the original remains today - the frontier doesn't resonate with today's youth as it did when the western was king - but it remains a kid-friendly outdoor idyll.
Each area is given a story with matching characters - Chip 'n' Dale get the tree house - so Grandma Duck get the Old Mill, when she grinds flour to sell to the soldiers at Fort Wilderness. She gets word that "A wagon train full of hungry pioneers just pulled in at the fort! They need scads of flour for baking right away!" Naturally, Gyro has ideas about how to speed up the old gearing mechanism but Grandma doesn't want to hear about them. He goes behind her back to add heavy water to the millpond so the paddles of the millwheel turn at blinding speed. This grinds the flour superquick - and also grinds the wooden gears to dust. Grandma makes him replace the gears exactly as they were, but when she gets back from the fort she's too tired to make dinner. No problem. Gyro's ahead of her again. He'll have dinner on the table before she can say Davy Crockett!
The folly of food pills, capsulized.