Don Rosa in Review – Fir-Tree Fracas (1987)

[AR-109] Fir-Tree Fracas (4 Pages, Gag)

The Story: The Universe hates Donald Duck and doesn’t want him to enjoy a Christmas tree he spent months planning to set up for his family. I wonder what Donald did to the Universe to ruin its Christmas spirit.

The Review: Carl Barks tended to work in four distinct formats. The 1-page gags, the 4-7-page gags, the 10-page gags, and the full length adventure stories. The 1-pagers were for the inside and back covers, the 10-pagers for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and the adventure titles were whatever length he needed them to be, topping out at 33 pages. The 4-7 pagers were used either because of mail code restrictions or because the adventure story didn’t fill out the page count needed to fill the full comic. They established the plot, escalated quickly, and led it all to a strong finishing gag. They weren’t so much stories as much as jokes with a big, enjoyable build-up. It really is a testament to Barks’ efficiency as a storyteller and sense of humor that he could do so much in such a short period of time, and you can point to “Somethin’ Fishy Here” as a perfect example of this format.

So now you understand the template this story was based on, and what I am forced to compare it to. “Fir-Tree Fracas” has a nice sense of escalation throughout its first three pages, but it falls apart with its climactic gag. So let’s examine the entirety of page four!

Page 4 of 4
I’m often impressed by the way Rosa uses motion and timing in his comics. Looking at this page, you can see the scene playing out between panels, and the panels he chose serve as shots that wouldn’t be out of place as storyboards in animation. Panels 2-5 are extremely well constructed, conveying Donald’s emotion with a strong opening expression that carries the tone of his voice while he remains off-panel. The sound effects sell the ruination of the tree and give it a sense of believability (though I wonder if FOOMP! is the best he could have chosen for panel five) by drawing you further in to the scene. Panel Six gives you a further sense of buildup from the perspective of the characters, which is a necessary change of pace to draw you back in to the scene. But… when you hit panel seven, the punchline falls totally flat.

You could pretty much go two ways with this punchline: The family is drawn to look outside by what became of Donald’s tree, or the tree itself is ruined in a way which is funny to the reader. Here, we have a mixture of both, with the visual focus being put on the ruined tree. Visually, this is… boring. The reaction shots of the characters aren’t particularly funny, and the minimalist tree isn’t an eye-catching visual. I need one or both to work for the joke to land. But more worryingly, I’m left wondering what the ornaments outside look like because the characters are pointing out that there is something interesting for me to look at off-panel.

For a joke like this, if you have a choice between an interesting, spectacular visual or a bland one… go for the spectacular one! It’s a very bad sign when your reader is thinking of something off-panel when you’ve just delivered the joke you spent four pages building up.

I suppose if there’s something positive to say about this story, you could consider dealing with this compressed space as a necessary experiment in his development as a storyteller. For me, I’m glad it’s an experiment he didn’t delve in to again.

Continuity: This is also Rosa’s only attempt at a Christmas story, which surprised me when I went to check my facts considering how beloved Barks’ own Christmas tales are. I suspect this has something to do with his attempt to maintain a consistent timeline within a Barksian universe. That’s not in any way possible considering the number of Christmas stories Barks wrote, but to any readers out there I present to you this challenge: I will award you, in the fine tradition of Stan Lee’s Marvel comics, the No-Prize for determining which Barks Christmas tale this could fit in to. Just post the story you think it could fit in (and your reasoning) in the comments section, and I’ll post the best responses in a separate post.

Daisy makes her first appearance here and it’s a pretty boring one. Sadly, her later appearances wouldn’t fare much better. Rosa gives his thoughts on Daisy in a video below, and not to spoil it for you, but they’re not flattering.


6 thoughts on “Don Rosa in Review – Fir-Tree Fracas (1987)”

  1. Man, you’re harder on this one that I would’ve been. There’s no denying that it’s a pretty trivial story, but I’ve always found Scrooge and Gladstone’s reaction’s in panel six, before we see the tree, quite funny, and that was always enough for me.

    Rosa DID do another Christmas story: “The Richest Duck in the World!” Even if it’s not as explicitly Christmasy as some, I should certainly think it qualifies. The whole redemption business might even make it more thematically Christmas-y than most!

    But apart from that, I tend to think that Rosa’s lack of other Christmas stories is due more to lack of motivation than any kind of conscious concern for continuity, which, let’s face it, has always been fairly elastic when it comes to specifics, as indeed it would have to be. When your stories are as intricate as Rosa’s are, I can imagine that it would be hard to bring yourself to do something you were only feeling lukewarm about.

  2. Originally I had very little to say about this comic, but this was as good a place as any to discuss formatting, the construction of a joke, and what he did wrong before he started doing everything right. The story is pretty much growing pains, but it’s fun to explore why. I do prefer verbal humor to visual humor, and agree with you on the Gladstone/Scrooge reaction being funny. But in terms of how the joke that the entire story built up to is presented, I can’t say it works, and that’s pretty much where my criticisms lie.

    I think I didn’t count Chapter 12 because it was basically an interquel to “Christmas at Bear Mountain” and thus doesn’t add ‘another’ Christmas, but yeah, I screwed up on that one hard. Rosa not wanting to do a Christmas story is probably the best guess we’re ever going to get unless he answers.

    Part of the reason I started this series is because the continuity in Rosa’s stories is, in its own way, very tightly woven, if only in hindsight. In terms of the timeframe… yehmehschmeh, that’s got its problems and I will be discussing them, but the comics bind together very tightly. There are ongoing plot threads (including two or three big huge story arcs), character arcs for Scrooge and Donald… I have no idea how much was purposeful or accidental. It’s pretty safe to say that…

    Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. But I was serious about that contest.

  3. OK, once again, I really love this story (no, I won’t always be saying this!). I love the way it makes reference to all the brittle mastery stories at the beginning. I love the excessive-to-high-silliness nature of Donald’s preparations (the Nitro cart panel, in particular). I love Helper falling in love with a Christmas tree lightbulb and running off with it. I love Donald’s line: “They’ll speak of *this* Christmas tree in hushed tones for decades to come!” The ending worked perfectly well as the punchline for me. I like Gladstone’s and Scrooge’s comments in the penultimate panel, and Donald’s expression. And then you *have* to show the tree itself and Donald’s reaction on seeing the tree; I thought the tree and his shock, and the nephews’ haloes, were all funny. But you can’t just show all the others standing there looking bemused (as Grandma and Gladstone are); that would be really boring. So he has Daisy and Scrooge commenting on the outdoor display. I liked Scrooge’s “S.O.S.” comment. That didn’t make me want to see the lawn instead of the stripped tree and Donald’s shock; for one thing, the notable thing about the lawn display is the blinking lights, which can’t be depicted in a comic book anyway. Well, there’s my defense of this story, which I find short but perfect, a mini-brittle-mastery piece.

    But here’s my question: what coloring are you showing here? Inducks and I believe this story has only been published twice in the USA, and the coloring here doesn’t match either version. Grandma’s got gray hair? Daisy’s got *eyeshadow*?!?!?! Was it published somewhere else in English?

  4. It might surprise you but I actually AGREE with pretty much everything you said! But even if I didn’t I’d still want to hear yours and others opinions. Debate and discussion is encouraged here.

    I liked the little jokes in the background (Helper especially), I liked the buildup that went through Donald’s ridiculous preparations. I just thought the last panel needed to have a bigger visual to it since the whole comic was all leading up TO that panel. Bigger reaction faces, a more screwed up tree, or a very inventive way of showing the lights outside and giving Donald a bit of a win, or… something. Not everything, but something. It stands as just a little too minimalist for me and it falls flat for me for that reason. I didn’t hate the comic, I swear! But these comments are a good indication that I need to be clearer in the future as to why I think what I think.

    I’m not sure where this coloring is from, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a professional one because it looks like absolute ass. I might actually have a better reaction if I wasn’t examining it with this coloring, I know I liked it a lot more in its most recent printing with SDL coloring. But you actually saw the best page of the version I have. *shudders*

  5. Oh, I didn’t think you hated the story. I just wanted to explain how the ending worked better for me than it did for you…and then I had to list all the other stuff I like about the story.

    OK, I’m showing my ignorance here, but where does the picture of the comic come from, if not from a scan of a comic you own? Is it somewhere on the web with this odd coloring? BTW, the two printings in the USA were: the first, M&D 1 with SDL coloring (in her “Sue Daigle” years), and the second in BOOM’s Rosa vol. 1, with European coloring. I prefer SDL’s coloring, where the glass ornaments are clear, not colored, and the lights are multi-colored. But the “Nea Aktina A. E.” coloring in the BOOM volume isn’t bad (glass ornaments and lights both multi-colored). I also have the story in a German hardcover Christmas collection, and in that version neither the lights nor the ornaments are colored! (Well, the lights are light yellow when lit.) This in spite of the fact that the dialogue does have Gyro explaining that the lights blink “Merry Christmas” in Morse Code, “und zwar in vershiedenen farben” (in different colors). (It’s true one can interpret Rosa’s dialogue–“The lights change color each time they blink”–as indicating that all the lights flash in a single color at once, but all change color for every blink. Still, in the German book they’re only light yellow when on, throughout.) Very boring visually.

    1. I do own Fir-Tree Fracas from the Boom collection, but the scan I’m using for this particular story comes from an unknown source. I thought Boom was SDL’s because of a post she made on her blog, but nope. I just plum forgot to check the credits.

      It’s bizarre how strange the coloring is for these comics. Absolutely no communication whatsoever with artists or even really with the dialogue.

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