Blum is especially known as a scholar and expert on Disney comic books, and he has written a great number of articles relating to Carl Barks. In this article - which is presented in its full original length - he pays tribute to Garé.




Remembering Garé Barks


I always knew her as Garé.

From the first time we spoke, the first time friends returned from a visit and told me about the duck man and his wife, she was Garé to me. That was the name she signed on her paintings, the bold florals and the brooding redwood forests that spawned a series of greeting cards. I had to pull down a Who’s Who to remind myself that she was born Margaret Wynnfred Williams in Hilo, Hawaii; that she had studied commercial art on three years of scholarships at Boston’s prestigious Vesper George School; and that she was nearly twice my age. I’d never really thought about that last bit. Her voice was rough from years of smoking, but it was vital and peppery. We talked on the phone far more than I visited, so it’s the voice I remember, and the laugh lurking in the rasp. She enjoyed conversation - and dogs, and people, and guava jelly, which reminded her of Hawaii. She was alarmed, as we all are, at the mess this world is in. You can see from her paintings how she loved the rugged, unspoiled realms of nature.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Garé had just turned twenty-four. “She spoke of waking up and wondering what she’d done celebrating her birthday to get such a banging in the head,” recalled one classmate. Her parents quickly relocated to the mainland. There was an aunt in Long Beach, and Garé had exhibited at a club in Hollywood as early as 1938, but the family settled further inland in Hemet. While her architect father was turning his hand to farming as a more profitable wartime endeavor, Garé scrounged about for work. Soon she heard of a local cartoonist drawing comic books for Walt Disney. Hoping that he might have something available in the way of artistic odd jobs, she trekked out to his chicken ranch to ask.

As it turned out, she was ten years early. As Barks remembered it, “She came over to see if I had any kind of work that she could do. At that time I was doing all of the lettering, everything myself. I was really just getting going on comic books, and I didn’t know that if I had someone to help me I could do more comic books than I was doing. I was satisfied with what I was doing, so I told her that I didn’t have any work for her at all, not even lettering.” Garé ended up working in Los Angeles, lettering for the drafting department of the Douglas Aircraft Company.

They reconnected at a desert art show in 1952. Barks was now free of his second wife Clara, and Garé herself was concluding a difficult divorce. The two began to date, and shortly afterward were in a car accident. With Garé laid up for several weeks, Barks suggested that she might try inking bits of his background art. In 1954 he proposed that she work at lettering the comics. A little later he proposed in earnest. They were married that year.

“One of the first stories I worked on was a Gyro Gearloose in which he caught some mammoth fish,” she recalled. “Carl left all the scales for me to put on! I was so nervous because I’d never done anything that thousands and thousands of people would look at. I kept having visions of people opening these books and looking at all these scales on the fish to see if they were in just the right places. The first few months I worked with Carl, I was almost as self-conscious as if I were up on a stage.”

One thing that Garé was not self-conscious about was her arm. She had been born with no left hand or forearm, and in photographs you’ll see her occasionally turning the empty sleeve away from the camera. Early reviewers tended to cluck, because it made her accomplishments as a painter seem more special, and several memoirs have skirted tastelessness for the sake of a catchy line like She did it all with one arm. Garé never fussed about the handicap, but it was probably a factor in her drive to achieve, and her determination to shelter herself and her husband from the world at large. Visitors to the house couldn’t help but notice her dexterity preparing meals, striking matches, serving tea - and her careful monitoring of the clock to ensure that no-one intruded too far on working hours.

People used to speak of “the woman behind the man,” applying this dubious compliment to presidents’ wives and ladies who made a good backdrop for their husbands. Garé may have drawn backdrops, but she never allowed herself to become one. When you consider how self-absorbed an artist has to be, and how solitary Barks was for the first fifty years of his life, it’s remarkable the way they took to each other. Garé must have done her share of tiptoeing around the house, but most of the time she worked, laughed, and scolded at her husband’s side. In the process she learned where her own artistic talents lay. Until the mid-1950s, Margaret Williams was known for decorative tropical subjects: night-blooming cereus, calla lilies, Hawaiian fish, occasionally a surfing scene. One day Carl went to a filing cabinet, dug out a panel clipped from Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant - one of his favorite sources - and suggested that she use it as the basis for a painting. The resulting landscape sold immediately, and Garé set to work on another. When Barks himself took up a paintbrush, she was on hand to offer gentle criticism.

She also provided support and suggestions during the creation of his comic books, and she laughed at all the jokes. “She was interested in them from the ground up, but the early years before Garé came along, I didn’t have anybody that I could call in to look at the story with me - unlike the years down at the Disney Studio. Whenever a story crew got a bunch of stuff up on the board, then they’d bring in a whole bunch of other story men to look at it. I would just be my own critic and just look at the stuff that was up there and analyze it and so on, and as time went by, and Garé came onto the scene, why, of course, then I did have somebody to look at the stories.”

Another time Barks commented: “She had a great influence on the way I did stories, and in turn the stories had a great influence on her. She might never have gotten into landscape and wildlife art without learning on those duck pages that there were personalities in the creatures and trees and skies and that an artist’s job was to bring out those personalities for viewers to see.”

For the next thirty years painter and cartoonist made the rounds of the desert art shows together, and if her landscapes sold while his gathered dust, she didn’t make him feel it. After all, Carl’s comics featured scenery that Garé could have drawn with vigor and delight, but she knew better than to poach on another’s territory. She sketched and inked as he directed, then put aside cartooning and painted her own magnificent wilderness scenes, forty-one of them published as greeting cards by the Leanin’ Tree company of Colorado. Whenever the Barkses took a road trip, he would pack his camera, she her sketchbook, and the two would return with fodder for more canvases.

All the while, Garé’s health was declining. For some time she had suffered from anemia, and eventually she was diagnosed with lupus. As the duck comics and collectibles mushroomed into an industry, she gradually withdrew from the easel and began to focus on phone calls, fan mail, ledgers, and color proofs in an attempt to buy her husband more painting time. After their move to Oregon in 1983 she laid down her brush and never voiced a regret. “She always had Carl’s best interests at heart,” Donald Ault told me. “If you or I were up there in Oregon guarding the door and answering the phone, we’d turn that circumstance to our advantage, even in subtle ways and with the best intentions. But when Garé made a decision for Carl, I knew she was thinking of him.”

“They used to call her the warden,” confided another friend. “She’d laugh and say to me, ‘They think I’m overreacting, but I know what he needs and how to protect him.’”

Toward the end it got rough. When I visited in December 1991, Garé was taking prednisone - “that hell-potion” Carl called it - and carrying an oxygen tank around the house. Instead of fussing with the teapot and sitting in on conversations, she retired to the bedroom. Barely a year later she was gone. Her funeral took place just three days afterward, on March 13, 1993.

While preparing this memoir I found a letter that I wrote to Michael Barrier, who was unable to attend the service. I transcribe it here because it contains images of Carl, of his grief and his resilience. He himself was no youngster, but he would hold out for another seven years.

"You asked about Garé’s funeral. Barring the fact that I destroyed my car driving up there (the engine overheated, and all I could do was keep going), it was a very positive experience. The first night I was a bit worried about Carl: I hadn’t seen him in more than a year, and at dinner he had that polished-ivory look which older people sometimes get, his face rather white, shiny, and stretched tight over the bone. Maybe it was a trick of the light. He certainly held up well through the service and into the evening of the following day. At one point I saw him worrying the edges of his program, but that was the only sign of nerves he gave in the funeral parlor or at the graveside. Back at the house, he chatted and joked with everybody and flashed the famous Barks smile. Bruce [Hamilton] had me at work all during the reception, interviewing relatives and Xeroxing Garé’s scrapbooks, and when the copier rebelled, Carl got down on his knees to see if he could fix it. I made ready to take his elbow and help him up, but no: the old boy jumped up spry as you please. He’s a wonder.

He did seem a bit fuzzy once, and who can blame him? I offered him a copy of my eulogy, and he took the pages from me and shuffled off toward the Xerox machine. “No, no,” I said. “This copy’s for you.” He looked a bit lost at that, then tucked it away somewhere and turned his attention to someone else. Another time, he was all chirp and chat, showing me a ceramic sculpture that Malcolm Willits had given him, and remarking how much better it looked than the duck figurines from Another Rainbow.

I haven’t talked to the Grandeys in a few weeks, but the last time I spoke to Bill, he said that Carl would occasionally walk into Garé’s room, wanting to talk to her, and find that she wasn’t there any more. Old friends from Hemet are running a bed-and-breakfast just up the street, and Jean Hemmerly, Garé’s school chum from Boston, is also in Grants Pass. These people will look in from time to time, but it’s up to Carl and the Grandeys to evolve a closer relationship that will allow him to talk over personal matters. With someone as private as Carl, that will take time, but I think he’s hale and hearty and up to it.

As for the service, it was reverent without being mushy, short without being rushed. The Pastor and Bill Grandey were both wearing Donald Duck ties; I could have done without that, but then I took some flak from Kathy for wearing an ear cuff. The organist played “Amazing Grace” and “Aloha,” and I must admit, she took the latter at a pace broad enough not to make it seem cutesy. The coffin was a deep, greenish blue; Bill said Carl chose that color because Garé had such a way with blue in her paintings. The handle mounts were engraved with a vignette of pine trees, again appropriate to Garé’s paintings. A forest scene in yellows, one of her larger canvases, hung above the coffin, and at Carl’s request, the floral arrangements were daffodils, a flower she always liked. Malcolm Willits was on hand, and Russ Myers and his wife, Bruce and Helen of course, and myself - that was the extent of the comic connection. Everyone else was a neighbor or a relative.

The minister spoke of Garé’s life and her paintings, read a long tribute from Ed Summer and a shorter one from the Grandeys, both of which were printed in the Buyer’s Guide. The eulogy that I delivered wasn’t printed, not more than a scrap of it, so I’m enclosing a copy for you. And that, by and large, was that. I say it was a positive experience because everybody seemed upbeat without plastering on false smiles or clucking over Carl, and the flurry of friends and visitors seemed to please him."

Three years later my mother passed away, and Carl sent me this note: “You will have quite a problem getting used to being an orphan. The pattern of living with an understanding mother or wife is not easy to break off. You’ll miss having someone to talk to about the little things in life.”

And I knew he was thinking of Garé.


The author's last visit with the couple in 1991

Program for Garé's funeral service (press the card for an enlargement)


This contribution as well as the leftmost photo is the property of the author. © Geoffrey Blum