For these features, I like to do something a little different at the midway point. This year I’m going to take a look at the classic Donald Dock comic “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” Donald Duck wasn’t just a movie star back in the day, but he also starred in his own line of comics published by Walt Disney. The author and illustrator was the renowned Carl Barks, who also would pen the Uncle Scrooge comics as well. Barks didn’t get to enjoy being celebrated for many years as anything published by Walt Disney was attributed to just one man – Walt Disney. He got to take credit for everything. I don’t necessarily think the intent was malicious or ego-driven, but a marketing one. If people thought these were coming from Disney himself then they would be more likely to buy them. This was a problem in those days across the comics world as the people with money got to take most of the credit, and royalties, away from the actual creators. It’s a problem that has thankfully largely been solved, but there’s still plenty of old wounds out there.
In terms of Donald Duck comics, “Christmas on Bear Mountain” is one of the most famous. It was first published in December 1947 by Dell Comics as part of their Four Color Comics. It’s most notable for being the first appearance of Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s wealthy uncle who would go on to star in his own line of comics as well as the DuckTales cartoons. For his debut, Scrooge is a bit more like his eventual adversary Flintheart Glomgold. He’s a bearded Scottsman with a rather lousy disposition. He claims he hates everybody and everybody hates him. He lives alone in a mansion in Duckberg with just his attendants. He appears to be a cross between Xanadu from Citizen Kane and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. There’s no hint at his adventuring past as much of what will define Scrooge is yet to come, making this version of the character feel more like a prototype Scrooge than the actual Scrooge McDuck we’ll come to know and love.
The comic opens with Donald Duck bemoaning his lack of money in front of his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He doesn’t have enough money for food, let alone presents for Christmas. He openly wishes his rich uncle Scrooge were more generous, but dismisses that possibility pretty quickly. It’s a convenient thought though as we’re whisked away to Scrooge’s mansion on the other side of town where the old man is bemoaning the oncoming holiday as well. He’s a miserable sort, but also a bit mischievous, and he decides that for Christmas he would like to test the mettle of his cowardly nephew. Scrooge admires bravery and repeatedly references his stingy ways. He never gives anything away for free, but he’s willing to bestow food and presents upon his nephew if he can have a bit of fun at his expense and test his courage. And if he passes his test, he’ll reward him further. He instructs his butler to send Donald a telegram offering the use of his cabin on Bear Mountain where Scrooge intends to spring a surprise on his nephew.
Donald and his nephews are surprised and delighted to receive the telegram from Scrooge offering the use of his cabin for the holidays. The boys set off immediately, though Donald is a little unnerved by the warning in the telegram to watch out for bears. In a bit of role reversal from a popular short like Duck Pimples, it’s Donald who is cowardly while the nephews are dismissive of the warning. They tell their uncle there are no bears around, and the thought is almost put out of Donald’s mind when they arrive at the cabin to find presents and food, lots and lots of food.
Meanwhile, Scrooge is eagerly anticipating pulling his little prank on his nephew. He plans on heading to the cabin himself, but first he must test his prank on his butler, Edgerton. When he summons the unassuming butler to his room he bursts forth in a bear costume prompting Edgerton to dive out of a window declaring he’ll take his holiday now. Scrooge is delighted with the result and immediately calls for his driver to take him to Bear Mountain.
At the cabin, night has fallen and Donald is on the look-out for bears. As the snow starts to come down the nephews declare there are no bears, but Donald is not satisfied. He peers outside through a telescope and is terrified at the sight of a creature, which turns out to be a squirrel. It’s enough to get him to jump into the chandelier and cower in fear, a frequent gag in the coming pages. Scrooge is on his way, but the snow is falling too fast. The roads are impassible, and the driver tells Scrooge they need to turn back. He’s not bothered as he’ll just pull his prank the next day, though he’s not crazy about his nephews getting to eat and sleep on his dime another night revealing he’s never provided a man a free meal in his life.
The next morning the boys have fun playing in the snow while Donald enjoys rummaging through the fridge for breakfast. When the boys request oatmeal, he tells them they’ll eat their lobster newburg and like it! Later on, Donald tries to relax by the fire but the nephews inform him they need a Christmas tree. It’s the one thing missing from Scrooge’s cabin, and given that it’s Christmas Eve, the place really needs one. Donald has no intention of going off into bear-infested woods looking for a tree, but the kids cry and complain and eventually he gives in. When they first set out, Donald thinks he sees bear tracks and runs back inside to hide under the bed while the boys point out they’re just rabbit tracks. Donald angrily grabs an axe and mutters his way through the snow. Finding only a single hollowed-out tree, the boys are forced to settle and they haul it back to the cabin.
The boys make the most of their sad tree by hanging colored soda bottles from it. Donald is more interested in finding some dessert and the kids are onboard as well. When they leave the living room it’s revealed their tree has a stow-away. A little bear cub emerges from his slumber and climbs out of the tree. He takes note of a teddy bear nearby and gives it a whack with his paw, startling the ducks in the other room. When the nephews come in they don’t notice the cub by the teddy bear, and Donald cowardly asks them to check the other rooms.
The little cub runs off undetected to the kitchen where he finds the strawberry shortcake the ducks were planning on eating, and consumes it himself. After finding no sign of bears, the others return to the kitchen and are shocked to see their cake has vanished. Donald immediately returns to the chandelier for cover, while the boys nervously tiptoe around the house. The cub though has returned to the tree for cover, and when he sees the boys leave he re-emerges. He drops out of the tree only to land on a roller skate just as Donald hops out of his hiding place. The bear goes rolling along and plows into Donald, who still doesn’t get a look at him but does notice the bear fur left behind. He then returns to his chandelier in terror.
Hearing the commotion, the boys return to the living room but again find no bears. Donald tells them his assailant fled through the door and the boys hear the sound of their roller skate on the floor. They angrily give charge only to slip on the discarded skate and crash into the wall. The bear has a look at the dazed ducklings, before he cheerfully resumes his skating. Donald asks what happened, and the boys don’t know, but they hear the skates and give charge once more. The cub hears them, and grabbing a box of chocolates, jumps back into his tree. When the boys enter the room they see no sign of the bear, but then one of them gets knocked on the head by the discarded chocolate box. They now know the bear is hiding in the tree and one of the nephews angrily yanks the cub out of his hiding place.
Just then, the mother of the cub awakens in the stump the ducks left behind and she is not happy to find her cub missing. She tracks them back to the cabin and smashes the door down. The cub though has managed to escape the ducklings, and after they failed to find him, they plead with their uncle to come out of his hiding place. Assuring him it’s just a tiny bear, Donald finally emerges to aid his nephews in their search. He confidently strides into another room expecting to find a cub, but naturally he finds the cub and his mother. He runs off and dives out the window as the bear gives chase and his nephews follow.
Night falls and the boys are forced to watch from outside as the bear and her cub enjoy the food and warmth of the cabin. After a satisfying meal, the bear lays down to sleep by the fire while the cub plays with the roller skate once more. The nephews then urge their uncle to go inside and tie the bear up while she sleeps while they’ll take care of the cub. Donald does not want to do this, but since the alternative is freezing to death, he has little choice. They slip in, and the boys start chasing the cub around. Donald, shaking uncontrollably, sneaks up to the mother bear. Before he can begin tying her up, the bear lets out a great sigh causing Donald to faint in fright right beside the bear who wraps an arm around him.
Just then, Scrooge shows up in his bear costume. He sneaks into the cabin and is immediately met by the cub who is being chased by his youngest nephews. He’s amazed at their bravery, even if it is just a cub, but not as amazed as he is when he looks into the next room. There he sees the slumbering mama bear, with Donald sleeping right beside her. He’s proud to see his nephew in so brave a state and even remarks the boy is like him and doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. The bear then lets out another sigh, terrifying Scrooge who bolts out of the cabin. He’s not too scared to be proud of his nephew though, as he shares what happened with his driver, James. He intends to host the boys for Christmas dinner the next morning and instructs James to give them the good news.
At Scrooge’s the next day, the boys enjoy a hearty meal. The youngest ducks get to consume liters of pop while Donald and Scrooge down lemonade. Scrooge is cheerful and supremely generous, all because he thinks his nephew is the bravest duck in town. To reward his bravery, Scrooge tells Donald he has a special gift for him: a bear skin rug. When Donald sees the head of the rug he shrieks and faints. Scrooge is confused, but the nephews insist he just fainted from too much turkey. Scrooge actually seems to buy the explanation, but remarks in the final panel he thought Donald might actually be scared.
Like basically every Donald Duck story I’ve ever read, “Christmas on Bear Mountain” is a charming little tale. The humor is not explosive, but will probably produce a smile for most readers. Seeing Donald in such a cowardly role is a little different, not that Donald is ever a model for bravery, but often he’s too stubborn to be truly scared. There’s no real build-up for Scrooge, but it’s fine that he’s ushered in so conveniently and quickly since the story unfolds rather briskly. It’s interesting to see this early Scrooge, which is basically a magnified version of the character that focuses on his less admirable traits while also introducing a playful side. That playful side is seldom explored, so it’s an interesting way to see the character introduced.
Also like most Donald Duck stories, the artwork of Carl Barks is expressive and detailed. I love the shape of his ducks which are more rounded than the film counterparts. The pages are consistently laid out in a 2×4 format which helps to move the story along quickly in the 20 pages present though I do wish there was a splash page or two. In particular one that revealed more of Scrooge’s mansion or that captured the presents and Christmas setting of the cabin. It’s a minor quibble though. The backgrounds are actually quite populated without appearing busy and the action shots utilize minimal effects. Just the occasional dash line or sweat drops. It gives the comic a very clean, professional, look.
If you’re interested in reading this story yourself then it’s actually rather easy these days. Fantagraphics has republished several Scrooge and Donald Duck comics in large, hardbound, full-colored trades. A lot of bonus content is included and even some panels that were rejected by Barks’ editor at the time which were preserved and restored. The trades total about 200 pages and retail with an MSRP of $28.99 but usually are sold for less. Some are even sold in two-packs with a nice, hard, box holding the books in place. I highly recommend them if you’re a fan of these classic characters. Alternatively, you could also seek out older prints or even an original comic, but that might set you back a bit more depending on the condition and rarity of the edition.
And I also must take a minute to point out that this is post number 500 for this blog. Whether you’re reading your first or if yo’ve read the other 499: Thank you. As an unabashed fan of Donald Duck, I am happy the 500th post ended up relating to him.