Freddy Milton Interview
Originally published in Amazing Heroes 129, 1987.
While anthropomorphic comics—including the seemingly immortal Disney
line—died a lingering death in the U.S. during the ‘70s, they thrived in Europe.
In fact, they thrived to such an extent that European publishers had to
commission new licenses work from local artists to keep up with the immense
demand. Thus, while American funny-animal cartoonists had virtually nowhere to
go in the comics field, dozens of Europan cartoonists were paying their rent
with page after page of ducks, geese, and woodpeckers.
AMAZING HEROES: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
MILTON: I was born on April 1948 in Viborg, Jutland, Denmark, where I spent my childhood and youth. I attended grammar school and high school there and got my degree as a public school teacher in the neighboring town Skive.
AH: When did you start drawing your own comics?
MILTON: Like most adolescents, I was very critical toward my own drawing for a period, but I guess I turned to comics making when I was about 17 and by the age of 20 I made up my mind to try seriously to make a career out of it—but not with funny-animals from the start. I drew realistically, or semi-realistically until I met with Daan [Jippes] in 1975. Later I have used realistically drawn characters, but the public prefers my funny-animal style.
AH: Did you or your parents originally plan a different career for yourself? And did you attend an art school?
MILTON: No, my parents believed that my only brother Ingo and I should be free to choose our careers. While Ingo attended an art school, I never did. I guess a kind of urge toward "security" made me attend a construction school for a year when I was 20, but that mistake was rapidly put behind me. At least the education as a public school teacher had something to do with kids. But as I said, I never got to use it. In the run for the degree I of course specialized in art, and there I got the highest grades.
AH: At what point did you become aware of Barks’s stories and art as being different or better than other Disney comics?
MILTON: When I read the issue that featured the waterhose-concertina gag cover, with the cabbage-growing/giant kite-flying disaster story! From the start I had a weakness for the epic scale. Later I went through a period of fondness for the Paul Murry adventure stories with Mickey Mouse—especially his railroad stories, which led me to construct a model train in the cellar with all the facilities of his stories designed to be just as "cartoony" as in his Mickey train stories—all the way down to the bulging red and purple caps! Also, I had a genuine fondness for the Carl Buettner Li’l Bad Wolf stories.
AH: How did you start up your fanzine Carl Barks & Co.?
MILTON: Carl Barks & Co. Was inspired by my reading the article "Vacation in Duckburg" in the early issues of Funnyworld, plus an article by Malcolm Willitz and Don and Maggie Thompson. Also, I was in contact with Glenn Bray and Thomas Gibson. I ruthlessly stole the Barks index wherever I first saw it and printed the corresponding Scandinavian version alongside some articles. It became an instant hit, as there was the same kind of interest in knowing about "the good artist" over here as in the USA. A former editor at Gutenberghus [the Danish Disney comics publisher], Curt Smed, even used it in ordering missing proofs from Burbank, so in the mid-‘70s we saw late "premieres" of Barks in the Scandinavian Disney magazines. Oddly enough they now display his name even on covers, but the names of other artists and writers are still hush-hush at Gutenberghus. An internal memo from Disneys to all licensees some years back stated that Disney was no longer against crediting artists, so Gutenberghus is now carrying out that policy purely on its own.
AH: How did you enter the field of comic books?
MILTON: I had contacted a Swede, Janne Lundstrom, who was working as a
freelancer for the big publishing house Semic in Stockholm, doing scripts for
The Phantom. He had seen some samples of Zenit, a daily adventure strip that I
had done for the large Jutlandish newspaper Jyllands-Posten during 1972 and
1973. It was a point of some pride to me that thepaper had cancelled the
Goodwin-Williamson Secret Agent Corrigan for my strip. But then again, I got
only what they paid the syndicate for the strip: 25 danish crowns. It was only
about an hour’s pay back then, and I could barely draw two strips a day, since I
was using the same large scale as Alex Raymond did on his early Rip Kirby!
Anyway, through Janne I got an open invitation from the management to come up to
their publishing house and work in their studio, which I then did from 1974 to
1976. The job, however, merely consisted in rearranging and retouching newspaper
strips that were being recycled in comic books.
AH: What was it like working with Daan Jippes through the mail?
MILTON: The correspondence with Daan has always been great fun. We
exchange ideas and opinions and gossip, as much as commenting on the actual work
we have had going between us. I have learned enormously from Daan, as much as I
have from Barks. His whole process of "polishing" things as he does to
perfection—although I will never match his exuberance.
AH: In the case of, for example, "The Artful Dodgers" [Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories #521], in what form did it come to you from Oberon?
MILTON: The script, in this case written by Jan Kruse, are presented as visual breakdowns, which I elaborate on. I also make some changes. On "Artful Dodgers" I had Donald being blown through the roof and back into the museum again by the cannon. I also re-used my old villains Joris and Kloris (whom I’d used earlier in "The Rewarding Formula" and "The Right man in the Wrong Place") as burglars, rather than the usual Beagle Boys as suggested by the script. An exception to this was "Adventure Holidays." That was an old script lying around from the days of Volker Reiche.
AH: Have you ever worked directly for Gutenberghus, or only through Oberon?
MILTON: For a very brief period in the early ‘70s I did three to five short duck stories for Gutenberghus, but I regard them as not up to par, so I prefer to let them be forgotten. Working for Oberon you are allowed to work as much as you want (or as little—though they would like more now). With Gutenberghus, aside from the silly anonymity, I would have to do a fixed number of pages allowing me to do nothing else—to become a company man. Very soon I would be tierd out, worn out—and thus end up doing dreary work. I need variation, so I can restore my various creative nerves by doing a different job. So I feel very much at ease doing things the way I do them now. I would like to illustrate my own duck stories, though, and maybe it can be arranged through Gladstone some day.
AH: You once mentioned that you’d lived in the country for many years. When did you move into the city?
MILTON: My girlfriend Bodil and I bought a house in Allerød, a small village 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Copenhagen in 1982. (Actually, I was at a convention in Rome by invitation of Luca Boschi when she saw the ad, and I barely made it home in time for us to sign up for it.) We married in 1984 and had a daughter, Ida, in May 1986. I have no car, but the local train is fast. So that it is only half an hour to the studio in central Copenhagen, Gimle, that I share with twelve other comics artists. Actually, it’s the only professional cartoonist studio of its kind in Scandinavia. It was founded in 1981 and of course I was one of the founders. I usually spend half of my working days at Gimle, the other half at home. Things like scripting and translation work are better done when you’re alone.
AH: When did the Gnuffs start? Where were they first published?
MILTON: From 1973 to 1978 I published a "zine" with comics by myself
and other young Scandinavian artists, as well as stories by foreign artists—and
I’m proud to say that it meant the first publication of stories by several
artists who were later published more "officially" over here. The zine was
called Sejd (old nordic word for wizards brew—pronounced "side"): the 12th
issue, from 1974, featured my first attempt at "Gnuff".
AH: Dragons are an unusual choice for comic book heroes, yet you created the "Gnuff" family and also included a dragon in "The Big Sneeze." What made you think of using these creatures?
MILTON: Dragons are outcasts, a kind of minority. People look on them
with scepticism: are they trustworthy? They are fearsome at times: they have
scales and leathery wings, can even breath fire (which I only used in the first
story, however). They live for centuries (making it possible for me to do the
"For the Love of Gnellie" story without worrying about the "time" factor). I’m
planing on doing a story on Gnicky’s 100th birtday someday—he has been 98 for
AH: How did you and Fantagraphics get together?
MILTON: On a trip to Europe a number of years ago Kim Thompson and Dwight Decker visited Gimle. At that time I was already working on "Gnuff" and was contributing to the Scandinavian Woody Woodpecker comics with both Woody and Gnuff stories. Later on, when Kim was planning out Critters, he contacted me.
AH: Are there differences between your approach to Gnuff and Woody Woodpecker?
MILTON: "Woody" is, folowing American comic-book tradition, centered around one star character, with whom the reader identifies and through whom everything is perceived. The "Gnuff" series is designed to be wider and deals with a series of social mechanisms, of which the Gnuffs are not always the center. Besides, the reader is supposed to identify with the hole group, not just one person. In fact, the name of the series over here is "The Gnuff Family," indicating that the focus is not on one character, but on several.
AH: You tried yo weave together Gnuff’s world and Woody’s world, didn’t you?
At one point I was alternating between Gnuff stories and Woody stories, doing
one of each every month. So it was tempting to maintain a common theme during a
period. When you read the serial currently appearing in critters, the one that
begins with "The Living Past" in #19, there actually exists an equally long (46
pages), parallel Woody continuity, with Woody playing a "Jack and the Beanstalk"
role. One of the giant trees grows up under Woody’s house and shoves it up into
the air—a literal tree-house. I though this was very appropriate for a
woodpecker, since they actually do live in trees—but Woody didn’t enjoy it at
AH: Wouldn’t it be interesting to see your Woody stories appearing in the U.S. at the same time as "Gnuff," if they’re complementary?
MILTON: Yes, it would, and Fantagraphics thinks so too, but they haven’t been able to dig the rights out from among the contractual package. It may be complicated by the fact that Lantz has sold his rights to a large conglomerate (Universal), which isn’t particularly interested in Woody per se. On top of that, the matter may be further complicated by the fact that I also have certain rights to the work which have to be observed, because I haven’t sold all of them.
AH: I assume this rights situation is what enabled you to take a story like "The Big Sneeze," which you originally did as a duck story, then redrew to feature your own goose characters, then redrew as a Woody Woodpecker story. How is it that "The Big Sneeze" was finally printed in Holland—as a Donald Duck album?
MILTON: Simple: they had it lying around. By mistake they had paid me twice for a 10-page duck story. Instead of asking me for the money back—or having me do the next story without pay—they printed that story instead and considered the earlier payment to cover that (although "Sneeze" was in fact 31 pages). In return I then asked them not to let it be reprinted again, and later managed to haul in some money on the Woody Woodpecker version—which I’d expanded to 46 pages. This version also explains something about one of my own characters, the aforementioned Phineas J. Phrogg—and features Gargantua, whom I later used in Gnuff. So I reworked it yet again, this time into a "Gnuff" story which should be appearing in Critters in the summer of 1988.
AH: You certainly got a lot of mileage out of that one. How many Gnuff album-length stories are there—and Woody too, while we’re at it?
MILTON: Let’s see…There are 11 albums’ worth of "Gnuff" material completed. I’m working on a twelfth, and have numbers 13 through 15 written. As for Woody, there are five album-length stories, and a sixth albums’ worth of short stories.
AH: In what order do the "Gnuff" stories take place?
MILTON: Chronologically, the first story to appear in Critters [#2-5], "The Gnuffs Move In," is in fact the first. Then there’s a two-part story, "trouble on George Street"/"The Great technocrack," which was actually the first to be completed and appeared in Scandinavia as Gnuff albums 1 and 2. "Gnicky Superstar," which begins in this year’s Christmas issue of Critters, is next, followed by "Gnuffs on Vacation" and the double-length "Battle for Picus Tower" (neither of which has been published in the U.S.). The next three, all of which has been serialized in Critters, are the ones with the giant threes I mentioned earlier (which we haven’t figured out an "umbrella" title for yet), then "Animal Graffiti" [Critters #7, 9-11], which is also Scandinavian Gnuff album 3, and "For the Love of Gnellie" [Critters #13, 15-16]—although, obviously, the "flashback" portions of this one take place well before anything else in the series!
AH: That was certainly a unique story. How did you come up with the idea of setting it over a century ago?
MILTON: "For the Love of Gnellie" (the version as it was printed) was actually done especially for the American market; it has yet to be scheduled over here. The script originally starred Grandma Duck, and was her love story from her youth—with the Ganders as the lucky counterparts.
AH: Ah…the "lucky O’Gators."
MILTON: Exactly. Gutenberghus approached me when they were conducting serveys on a possible album series with the ducks, and Grandma’s love story was my suggestion—a series telling the past of the characters. The person that approached me was transferred to a different job in the firm, and when the project eventually surfaced, it had become the Scrooge adventure album series, with scripts by the manager of the German division Kabatek, and illustrations from a Spanish studio.
AH: Thanks for straightening all that out…I think. What artists besides Barks have inspired you?
MILTON: No one right now. But in the early stages I have been keen on Uderzo, Al Williamson, Jippes’s caricatural style, and Franquin.
AH: Do you think of yourself more as a writer or an artist, or are the two inseparable?
MILTON: I always prefer doing as much as possible myself, avoiding any
assembly-line methods. These methods tend to "level" everything. Try to imagine
Barks’s stories inked consistently by others. Something would be missing, right?
Even Barks’s imperfection in spots adds to his personality, artwise. Part of the
Barks secret actually lies in his occasionally "casual" inking (modeling too,
for that matter)—and imperfection cannot be successfully copied. I recall Daan
and me dreaming up some odd perspectives en some panels, though we as artists
knew better. But Barks would have done it simpler and with faults in
perspective—so we just had to dream up some proper faults!
AH: What are your preferences as far as coloring?
MILTON: It depends on the quality of the printing. If it’s bad, you’re better off with robust mechanical colors. If the quality is high, however, laserscanned coloring is preferable, because you can use an unlimited range of hues, as well as more pastel background colors with graduated tones, which I have in my Scandinavian Gnuff albums. I sent copies to Carl Barks, since I’d dedicated one of the albums to him, and his comment was that he was impressed with the quality of the coloring, and wished that his strips had received that kind of painstaking treatment when he was doing Donald Duck. When I lay a gray tone onto a black-and-white edition, it’s to buttress the graphic aspect of a line original that is designed for color.
AH: What are your ambitions for future projects?
MILTON: These days I’m also doing book illustrations and advertising jobs from time to time to add to my income. Our national toy company LEGO is producing comics albums now, and I am on that venture myself.
AH: Is there anything more you wish for?
MILTON: In general, I have been very lucky in working out my ambitions and getting the opportunities and the response that I might wish for. I have had varied job offers, a happy family, good colleagues, fine correspondents, living in a relatively unpolluted area, good health, no running conflicts—I would be a heel to ask for more! If only thing could continue the way they are right now…
(1) Freddy is here referring to the 10-page story that appeared in Walt Disney’s
Comics & Stories #68. The cover in question is from Comics and
Stories #41. Cover and story were originally printed in Denmark in
the March, 1953 issue of the Danish Disney comic Anders And &
Co, when Freddy was just a month shy of five years old.