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Sheriff of Bullet Valley, Four Color #199 (October 1948)

By 1948, the ray gun was a staple of science fiction magazines, movies, comic strips, and comic books. Nobody would have been very surprised to see another mention of one. Well, maybe not in a Donald Duck comic. And especially not in a Donald Duck western.


Such audacity was the peculiar genius of Carl Barks, who after more than 100 Donald Duck stories was quietly proclaiming to the rest of the industry that he had arrived at the peak of his powers, making him a strong candidate for the best artist/writer in the entire industry. He created a steady stream of 26 finished pages a month, enabling him to furnish a 10-page lead story about Donald for each monthly issue of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, with time left over to do a longer feature story about three times a year for the One Shot (AKA Four Color) series, along with the occasional appearance of Donald in other titles.


Barks' preferred leisure reading was westerns of the Zane Grey variety and he loved the western b-movies that Hollywood pumped out by the dozen. He gave them his own special, modern twist in "Sheriff of Bullet Valley," One Shot 199, October 1948.


Donald is driving his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, through the southwest when they spy a reward poster offering $2000 for the "capture of gang of cattle rustlers." Donald, with his eidetic memory for the plots of westerns like Blistering Bullets, Gunsmoke Gulch, and Gory Gap is named a deputy by the overwhelmed sheriff. Perched on the fastest horse in the Southwest - did I say fastest? I meant fattest, Donald rides into the dusty countryside where he encounters Blacksnake McQuirt. The name should have tipped him off. Somehow McQuirt's Double X brand is found on a stray calf Donald had just rescued. And the horse he rode in on. And his saddle. McQuirt confiscates them all and forces Donald to walk back to town.


Along the way, he enters the Diamond Ranch, the only one in the area that hasn't lost cattle to the rustlers. McQuirt is close behind. Somehow every one of Diamond's cattle is found to have McQuirt's Double X. The brand change is a sly trick on Barks' part, making Jim Diamond's diamond into a Double X. The original diamond is still there in the center of the two X's; but arms have been added to obfuscate it. Only the closest-reading or cleverest kid would spot that, but those who did got what we now call the easter egg.

McQuirt's gang rides off with the Double X-branded cattle, and Donald leaps to the inevitable and completely wrong-headed conclusion that Diamond is the rustler. He ties him up and helpfully informs McQuirt that Diamond has ever more cattle up in the hills. Fortunately, this is the point in the plot where the nephews come in to save the day. They untie Diamond and go after his other cattle - only to find that all of them have the Double-X brand. “That brand! How does it get there?”


With things looking bleak, they decide to sneak up to McQuirt's camp and spy "a jeep or something with big padded wheels." It looks suspicious. So they steal it. That's right. In a story whose plot is solely about bad guys stealing things, the good guys steal something from them, before they have any facts to prove that the bad guys are indeed bad. This is bizarre morality for a kid's comic, a holdover from the anything goes days of no-trick-too-underhanded theatrical cartoons that Disney would obliterate in the 1950s and Barks would turn to his advantage with moral fables that depended upon character.


In the here and now we get the mystifying behavior and an even more mystifying plot twist, because the nephews drive straight to the sheriff and announce:


The mystery's solved, sheriff! This is a ray outfit that can brand steers a mile away!


Don't ask me how they figured this out merely by driving the thing. Junior Woodchucks are just intuitive that way.

Sheriff of Bullet Valley, One Shot 199 (October 1948)  part of p. 19

The story's over, but Donald has to redeem himself. He takes off after McQuirt alone, only to take a dozen shots to the heart at point-blank range. Yep, the bad guy kills the good guy. Or would have, if not for that ridiculously large star Donald's wearing as a deputy sheriff. The badge, evidently made from adamantium instead of tin, merely gets dented by the bullets. So Donald gets up and kills the bad guy, by dumping several tons of rocks on him. Whoops, no, the rocks knock him through the roof of a cave. This Roadrunner level of cartoon violence, like the dubious morality, is something that would soon be written out of Disney comics, but 1948 was a pre-Fredric Wertham time. Anyway, Donald ends as the hero and is made the permanent sheriff in town, who'll solve any crisis - as soon as the western movie he's watching ends.


The 32-page length was a rare and awkward one, so the storyline is a bit weak, but the illustrations are beautiful and often packed with as many background jokes as any in MAD magazine. Barks shined at these lead stories, and would soon turn his talents to the character he created in 1947, Uncle Scrooge, whose worldwide financial interests gave him a better reason to place him and the rest of the Duck clan in faraway places and far-out stories. Those places included space and the post-Sputnik The Twenty-four Carat Moon, which has them in a race to claim a moon of pure gold, is among the very best of his work. I was eight when I first read it, in Uncle Scrooge 24 (December 1948) and to this day I smile at the immortal line, "Skunk cabbage! I live again!" And the moral at the end is superb.


That's Carl Barks, the anonymous genius known only as the Good Duck Artist, who should have been everybody’s introduction to comic books.


The Twenty-Four Carat Moon, Uncle Scrooge 24 (December 1958) final page
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