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Memoriam for Bruce Hamilton (1932-2005)

By Donald Ault

This issue is dedicated to the memory of pioneering comics historian Bruce Hamilton (1932 – 2005), without whose efforts much of comics scholarship today would not be possible.

Bruce Hamilton moved between different worlds. He was a radio announcer, a record and comic art collector; a publisher of comic books, fine art lithographs and other artifacts, a figure who persistently struggled against one of the most powerful corporate copyright holders in the world—the Walt Disney Company—to bring into public view in the United States as many works as possible of legendary but largely anonymous Disney comics artists Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks. Though not an academic by profession, he entertained a profound respect for the educational function of comics, and he created, through the original black and white Carl Barks Library, a venue through which cultural and literary analyses of comics could appear in the context of Disney comic art images, a publication arrangement that simply would otherwise have been impossible.1

Bruce was at the forefront of the generation of comics collectors and dealers in the 1970s who grasped the significance of the original drawings from which comic books were published, and he worked tirelessly to bring into the public sphere an awareness of the capital (financial and investment) value that the rare surviving artifacts of original comic book artists actually possessed. By his own accounts, his negotiations with Disney—sometimes under the threat of litigation—yielded the emergence of Another Rainbow and Gladstone Publishing—imprimaturs which gave Bruce the flexibility to publish not only fine art lithographs of Carl Barks’s work (after Barks’s unprecedented painting license had been withdrawn in 1976)2 but subsequently to fill the void in American comic book publishing that emerged by the phasing out in the early 1980s of Western Publishing Company’s comic book franchise.3

Bruce was both a visionary and a traditionalist. He conceived of a thirty volume set of hardbound books that would publish all of Barks’s Disney work in chronological order in as un-tampered-with a condition as possible, from the original black and white Photostats on file at Western Publishing.4 When he subsequently obtained the license to assume publication of the Disney material in comic magazine rather than book form, he retained the traditional material publication format using pulp paper with conventionally-produced color separations, as close to the originally-printed color schemes as was deemed expedient (though by the mid-1980s the color quality the presses could produce with financial feasibility had reduced in actual density and variety, despite the similarity of the production process). Bruce’s resistance to the emergence of the new “graphic novel” look of higher quality paper and computer generated color separations that began to be the standard in other comic books at that time continued until 1990 when the Disney Company decided it could do a better job of distribution than Bruce’s publishing house and switched to a more lavish technology. When Bruce’s company took over publication of the comics once again in 1993, after the failure of Disney Publications to produce the desired circulation results, the regularly published Gladstone comics adopted a less pulp-looking format than before they left off publication, but they did not fully embrace the graphic novel look (square-bound, glossy paper, extremely high quality computer color) until the late 1990s, when circulation had significantly dropped again.5 During these final issues, Bruce injected his own historical vision more and more directly into the comics with detailed essays on little-known facts about Disney comics and animation, usually from particular years in the past.

The other major series of comics publications that Bruce produced during the 1990s fulfilled another synthesis of his visionary and traditional drives. The color version of The Carl Barks Library once again published Barks’s stories in chronological order but this time in highly complex and vivid computer color format on high quality (but not glossy) paper in square-bound volumes that coincided in size and shape with no other comic book format. They were not comic books per se; they were not graphic novels; they were not fine art books; they were not trade paperbacks. Their sales were not a matter of public record, but it became clear that the publishing house was faltering. Bruce nevertheless saw the project through to the end at about the same time he oversaw the graphic novel formatted final issues of Gladstone’s Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories emerging from the presses. In the last years of the 1990s he—along with Steve Geppi—provided necessary financial and emotional support for Barks during his difficult conflict and litigation with “the Carl Barks Studio.”6

Bruce and I never spent much time together physically in the same place—we met only a handful of times—and yet by the end of his life I counted him among my closest friends. We spent countless hours on the phone, and my impressions of him are uniformly embedded in my memory. To me he was a man of great strength and power, a man who could make things happen, who never backed off from a battle, and never compromised his vision. And yet—to me at least—he seemed to be an infinitely gentle man and his wife Helen a perfect mate for him. He was a man of great integrity and passion. I feel that my work with him in the 1980s changed my life and, to say the least, facilitated my career as a commentator on Carl Barks’s work. His faith in me and others who pursued an academic perspective on comics studies was an inspiration and enabled us to follow our own dreams.

My gratitude toward him is unmatched.
We will not see his like again.


[1] The Disney Company had a reputation for litigating (or threatening to litigate) over the use of Disney images to illustrate intellectual analyses of comic book material, most famously in the controversy over the importation into the United States of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, trans. with an introduction by David Kunzle. (NY: International General, 1975). See the second edition of this book for an account of the outcome of the legal actions taken in this matter.
[2] In 1971 Barks had been granted a royalty-free license by Disney to paint the Duck characters—most notably his own most famous creation Uncle Scrooge McDuck—and, for the first time to sign his own name to the paintings. Though Hamilton had nothing to do with the original license (he had not yet met Barks when the license was granted), he later capitalized on this potential chink in Disney’s armor with regard to Barks and negotiated for Barks a royalty-based painting license to produce oil paintings for lithographic reproduction.
[3] Contrary to popular mythology, superhero comics were not the most widely circulated comics in the United States from before the mid-1940s to after the mid 1950s. Western Publishing Company was the largest and most profitable comic book publisher of comics during this period, and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories had the largest regular circulation of any comic in American history (usually over 3,000,000 a month; approximately 25,000,000 per month world wide).
[4] Most art produced for ALL comic book publishers was systematically destroyed by the publishers. Once it had been photographed, it had supposedly served its purpose; it was the property of the publisher and not the artist, so it couldn’t be returned; and storage of such an ever-growing number of large inked pages (usually 18 x 24 inches) was impractical and posed threats of bootleg reproduction by potential thieves who might discover vast storehouses of copyrighted artwork. Consequently, the original Photostats were generally the closest to the original artwork that survived.
[5] The reasons for declining circulation of Gladstone comics cannot be attributed primarily to Bruce’s managerial style but rather to forces in the comics market and shifts in popular taste that rendered Bruce’s vision of comics difficult to sustain in a company as small as Gladstone.
[6] The rather ugly details of this episode in Carl Barks’s life would be much too far afield from these brief meditations on Bruce’s life. Suffice it to say, Bruce was one of the heroes of this personal near-tragic fiasco.

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